Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Appearances of the Risen Christ (5 of 5); Luke; 2010


Related posts in this series on Resurrection Faith may be found in the column to the left of this page under The Christian Calendar Series. This essay originally appeared here in May, 2009 and has been edited for 2010.

Introduction to this Final Post in this Series

When we complete this look at Luke's account we will have studied is some detail all three of the accounts of the resurrection appearances in the synoptic Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. Synoptic means that they can be "viewed together." This is because both Matthew and Luke use Mark's earlier written Gospel as the foundation of their Gospels.

An Overview of Luke's Gospel Account

Like Matthew, Luke relies partly on Mark's account, but not as much as does Matthew. While Matthew basically expanded upon Mark's resurrection story, Luke shortens some of Mark's details, probably to make room for more of his own. Luke has stories that appear only in his Gospel and stories that appear in his Gospel and in Matthew's, but not in Mark..

Luke includes the story of the empty tomb, but modifies it substantially. He also adds an appearance by Jesus to the assembled disciples, along with some very tangible testimony that Jesus is indeed alive. But, unlike Matthew, he includes no appearance to the women near the tomb. Like Matthew, Luke includes a commissioning of the disciples for mission, but not so specific a one as in Matthew; and he completes his story with the ascension of Jesus into heaven, something we find only in Luke.

We also find, only in Luke, an enchanting and theologically significant encounter between the Lord and two dejected disciples on the road to Emmaus. This beautiful little novella is full of insight and heavily freighted with meaning, adding a dimension to the meaning of the "breaking of the bread" that has profound implications for the meaning of the Eucharist (Holy Communion).

Luke also does something else that is unique to his Gospel. All of the appearances, and even the Ascension, take place in and around Jerusalem, and nothing happens in Galilee. For Luke, Galilee was where Jesus began His work, but Jerusalem is where he finished it.

Since for Luke everything significant in the story of Jesus centers in Jerusalem, it is not surprising that, in the end, we find the disciples together, in Jerusalem, praying in the Temple continually and awaiting the coming of the Holy Spirit whom Jesus has promised to send to them.

One final note on what you are going to read from now on. Luke is the most Christocentric (centered on Jesus) and theologically demanding of the three synoptic Gospels. Therefore there will be more discussion about how Luke's Gospel speaks to Christians. I will be talking about what Christians need to know and do once they understand what Luke is saying. In sum, I will be speaking more as a Christian theologian in this essay.

Luke's Account in Some Detail

With that background, let's look at Luke's account in a little more detail. Like the others, Luke begins at the empty tomb. Christian hope always begins at the empty tomb. Not that it "proves" anything of and by itself. After all, Matthew sought mightily to prove that there was no hoax and that the body was not stolen.

But the empty tomb was what the first witnesses saw. And what they saw they would later realize was the result of the resurrection. They saw that the tomb was empty, and they did not know why. The angels told them why, and Christian hope began right there, at the empty tomb; began as a simple hope that said, "Could it be true? O God, let it be true!"

And so, in Luke we see the women hurrying to the tomb on the third day, a larger group of women than reported in Mark and Matthew, but with the same principal woman, Mary Magdalene. And it is here, at the very beginning of Luke's account, that we see that the details among the Gospels continue to differ.

Luke says that the stone was already rolled away and that they actually go into the tomb, but do not find the body. It is only then, after they make this discovery for themselves, that the angels - yes, two angels, not one - appear and explain to them what happened.

And their explanation is different as well. The angels ask the women why they are looking for the living among the dead, and then state bluntly, "He is not here, He is risen." Then, rather than telling them to tell the disciples to go to Galilee as do the other Gospels, the angels say that they are to remember what Jesus told them while in Galilee: That he was to be handed over, be crucified, and on the third day to rise again.

Although they were terrified, this instruction to "remember" is followed, and they do remember. And, while unstated in the text, it is in the remembering of Jesus' promise that they gain self control and return to tell the disciples, and "all the rest."

The Reaction of the Other Followers to
the Report of the Women

Luke reports a larger group of followers; followers who are gathered, not scattered, after the crucifixion. These are followers who have remained in Jerusalem, and who will remain in Jerusalem throughout the initial post-resurrection period, well beyond the Ascension. This is markedly different than in either Mark or Matthew.

Also of interest is that the gathered followers did not believe the women. They thought the women's testimony to be "an idle tale." But Peter must have heard some truth in their witness, for Luke tells us that Peter, alone, ran back to the tomb, stooped and looked in, seeing only the clothes.

It does not lead Peter to immediate faith, but it does lead him to amazement. Later we hear that the Lord appeared personally to Peter; no doubt dispelling any doubt he had; and still later we have to assume that Peter was once again with the large assembled group to which the Lord appeared, but only after Christ appeared to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Thus Peter likely saw the Risen Lord on at least two separate occasions.

Think about Peter for a moment. He goes from faithful disciple to denial, to guilt and sorrow, to doubt, to hope, to believing witness, all in a matter of days. His faith journey is a microcosm of that of many of us.

The Story of the Two Disciples on the Road to Emmaus

Luke then moves from the empty tomb to the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Most of you already know this story. It is one of the most beloved Christian Bible stories.

You will notice first that the two dejected disciples do not recognize Jesus right away. We are often like that. Jesus comes to us in many guises, but we do not often recognize him. We don't expect him and so we don't see him. I encourage Christians to open your eyes to the possibility that he is actually among you in your daily lives.

Second, Jesus tells them that they are foolish; not because they grieve his loss, or because they are slow to believe that he is risen, for they have little evidence of that at this point in the story. But he says that they are foolish for not believing what the prophets have already declared. In other words there was already all the information they needed in the Bible to understand Jesus' fate, had they only chosen to believe it.

Later, after Jesus removed himself from their midst, the Emmaus disciples realized the importance of what he had done in revealing the Scriptures to them. They said to one another, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us."

Do we Christians burn with passion when we hear the Scriptures revealed? Or do we need signs and wonders? Perhaps we would do better by getting back to basics and learning what has lain in front of us for thousands of years: the word of God, his promises to us as laid out in the Bible. That issue is implicit in what Jesus says to these two dejected disciples. If a Christian would quench his or her thirst for faith, then each must spend time at the well. Yet most of us don't bother; and then we wonder why our faith fails us in times of trial.

So, what exactly did Jesus do with these two of small faith? He took them back to the basics, back to the source of truth. Listen: "Then, beginning with Moses and the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures." So too with Christians today. We need to hear the truth about Christ in the Scriptures if we have any hope of really understanding God's message to us.

How the story of Emmaus ties directly into
the liturgy of Holy Communion

Luke tells us that the identity of Jesus was finally realized by them in the breaking of the bread. "When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him."

While this scene is not as dramatic as the Last Supper in the Upper Room, it clearly has deep Eucharistic overtones and speaks directly to what can happen to Christians when we take Holy Communion together.

What Luke does with this story is to build a bridge between the command to "remember" Jesus in the bread and the wine of the Last Supper, and the possibility for us to "see" the Risen Christ in the breaking of the bread.

In other words, when Christians participate with open hearts in Holy Communion we have the opportunity to witness the Risen Christ in our midst; to be witnesses to him as the Son of the Living God without our having been one of the original witnesses to his appearances.

After Jesus leaves them, they return in excitement to Jerusalem and tell the others their extraordinary story, only to learn that the Lord had also appeared to Peter. And this beautiful little novella of faith ends on the note: "Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread."

The Risen Christ Appears to a Much Larger Group of Disciples

As the larger group is discussing these things, Jesus appears among them, saying "Peace be with you." Not surprisingly, they are startled and terrified, thinking he is a ghost. He asks them bluntly why are they frightened and why are they doubting! And then, with compassion on their doubting hearts, he tells them to look at his wounds, and even to touch him. And he reminds them that it is he himself and not a ghost.

Their reaction is one of joy and yet still of doubt; of disbelief and yet of wonder. Jesus recognizes their befuddlement and does yet another remarkable thing: He asks for something to eat! They give him a piece of fish and he eats it while they watch.

All of this detail is only in Luke's Gospel. These things are intended as Luke's testimony to both the witness of those original followers and to us, that Jesus was real, alive and resurrected. Apparently it worked for those original followers, because he now has their attention. And, as with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, Jesus goes back to the basics, reminding them of what he told them before he died: that the Biblical prophecies about him had to be fulfilled.

Then, like on the road to Emmaus, He "opened their minds" and taught them, saying: "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem."

And then he gave them the commission to do exactly that, telling them that they are witnesses to these things. In other words, their job is to testify to the truth that he is the Messiah, and to preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins. The mandate here in Luke is slightly different than the Great Commission in Matthew. Yet it covers much of the same ground. The point of both scenes is that Jesus appears to His followers and gives them a purpose, commissioning them to proclaim the Good News to the world!

He then instructs them to remain in Jerusalem and await the anointing of the Holy Spirit which He will send to them. Then, having completed His instructions to them, He leads them out to Bethany and blesses them. And, while He is blessing them, He is ascends into heaven. Luke is the only Gospel writer to describe the Ascension.

Concluding Thoughts on the Resurrection Appearances

And so we complete our look at the resurrection appearances in Mark, Matthew and Luke. While there are details that are different, there are more important similarities.

In all of the narratives someone is present who is described in very personal language as the Risen Christ, and that person is clearly the same Jesus of Nazareth who died on the Cross.

Further, that person is never described as a vision or as a dream, as something happening internal to the witness. Rather, the Risen Christ is always described as a being external to the witness; as an objective external reality, never as a subjective internal feeling.

In some cases the Risen Christ is not immediately identifiable to the witnesses. The Risen Christ is more than merely human, and clearly has powers far beyond those of mere mortals. Yet, the Risen Christ is always correctly identified as Jesus; is called "Lord;" and is worshiped.

And finally, the Risen Christ always issues a commission to discipleship and mission. And that mission is always universal in scope and clear in mission: to call people to faith.

The Abuse of the Christian Mission

The abuse of the commission to call people to faith in his name has caused much trouble through the centuries, when zealots have used that call to bludgeon those who did not answer that call. Christianity has much to account for and to ask forgiveness for, when the name of Christ has been used as an excuse for evil.

But there is nothing in the words of Christ or in the Bible describing a Christ that tells his followers to use his name to commit evil upon others. That his name has been used as an excuse for inflicting pain and death on others cannot and should not be denied. But that Jesus always spoke first of peace, brotherhood, hope, love, charity and sacrifice as the correct call for his disciples cannot be denied either.

Nor should we deny that throughout history there have been Christians who have spoken the truth to those who have abused Christ's name and his commandments, both within and without the Church. Many of those good Christians paid the highest price for that speaking of the truth to assembled Christian power.

And those of us who believe that Christ abhors the abuse of his name and speak out against such abuse now and in the future may well have to pay for speaking out. But the Gospel flame will forever burn in the hearts of those who know that Jesus intended his followers to witness to his love.

For, most of all, in all of the Gospels the Risen Lord always offers a promise of hope and love to others far removed from the original disciples and witnesses. That is the very essence of the witness that his followers are to share with others, even to the ends of the earth and to the end of the age.

May God bless you all.


Original post: 1145 page views 2010 01 18