Thursday, May 9, 2013

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

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

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.

Luke also does something else that is unique to his Gospel.  In Luke 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.

Luke is the most Christocentric (centered on Jesus) and theologically demanding of the three synoptic Gospels.  Therefore I will be talking about what we Christians need to know and do once we understand what Luke is saying.

With that background, let's look at Luke's account in 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, to 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."  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. This 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.

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.

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 no 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 was made known to them, and then 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 to read and study the Bible; yet we still 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.

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."

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.

And so we complete our look at the resurrection appearances in the synoptic Gospels.  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.

And finally, 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.  Monte

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Appearances of the Risen Christ: Matthew’s Gospel (Part 4 of 5)

Appearances of the Risen Christ: Matthew’s Gospel (4 of 5)

In Part 3 we discussed the fact that Mark’s original Gospel says nothing about specific resurrection appearances.  Instead, he essentially repeats the kerygma, the proclamation, of the earliest Church, as first recorded by St. Paul in First Corinthians 15: 1-11.  In Mark a proclamation of resurrection faith is stated within the empty tomb by an angel who says that Jesus is not in the tomb; that he has been raised, and is going ahead of Peter and the disciples to Galilee where they will see him. Mark wants each individual reader to make his or her own decision about who Jesus is, including that he is the one who has been raised, without the comfort of human testimony.  Mark demands that we have faith based on the word of Jesus, and that of an angel after he had risen.

Matthew's account differs greatly from Mark's. Matthew, who wrote decades after Mark, is the Gospel writer who adheres closest to Mark's story, building his entire narrative on Mark's Gospel. But Matthew expanded it greatly and added a lot of other material that Mark did not include. 

Mark wrote primarily for a gentile audience. Matthew, on the other hand, is the most "Jewish" of the Gospel writers and his small church was a Jewish sect within a Jewish world. As such, Matthew knew first hand the harsh accusations of the Jewish leadership and the condemnations of orthodox Jews against the upstart Christian sect within Judaism. The hardest accusation of all was that the resurrection was faked by the disciples.  Thus Matthew is interested in telling details of the story that Mark chose not to tell; or, perhaps, did not even know.  

In any case, Matthew reports two separate appearances by the Risen Lord, the first immediately outside of the tomb in Jerusalem and then a second appearance on the mountain in Galilee, where the disciples worship him, yet even then, “some doubt.”

It is there on that mountain in Galilee where the Risen Christ gives them what we know as "The Great Commission."  We'll come back to these two scenes in a moment, but first, let's look at something else that Matthew reports of which that Mark says nothing.

Matthew tells the story of what happened at the tomb quite differently than does Mark.  Matthew weaves into the story of the death of Jesus the undoubtedly true idea that the Jewish leaders were afraid that Jesus' followers would fake his resurrection. Thus in Matthew we learn that the Chief Priests and the Pharisees go to Pilot and tell of an alleged plot by the Christians to steal the body and to claim that Jesus was raised. Pilate, in turn, tells them to place guards at the tomb to keep that from happening and to "secure" the tomb. They do; and we are told that the guards "seal" the tomb.

This extra caution is to no avail, and Matthew describes a far more dramatic scene at the time of the resurrection than Mark reported.  Matthew tells us that the two Marys go to the tomb at dawn on Sunday - and everything goes crazy!  There is an earthquake; an angel descends from heaven and rolls away the stone and sits on it!  The guards shake in fear and then go catatonic.  And, in typical angelic fashion the angel tells the women not to be afraid! Then the angel proceeds to tell them exactly what the angel in Mark told them. And, the women do not run away in terror while telling no one, although this scene is far more terrifying than that depicted by Mark, but leave in both fear and "great joy", running to tell the disciples!

To say the least, that is different than Mark's report.  But wait! There’s more! Jesus suddenly appears before them, saying simply, "Greetings!"  Matthew tells us that they are not afraid of him having appeared to them; but rather, that they come to him; fall at his feet, worshiping him.  
He, like the angel, tells them not to be afraid, but to go tell the brothers to meet him in Galilee.  Thus, in Matthew, we see not only that Jesus will meet the disciples in Galilee, as he promised, but that he first meets the women in Jerusalem, reassuring them of the truth of what the angel had spoken.

Why does Matthew Expand on Mark and add such amazing new material? In the first place Matthew's community has entirely different stories that have been handed down within it than the stories told in Mark's community. In addition, Matthew is determined to undermine any idea that the followers of Jesus had stolen the body.

Matthew highlights God's heavenly power: the earthquake, the angel, the angelic rolling away of the sealed stone from the tomb, and the trance placed on the guards. All of these actions are to indicate that Jesus being gone from the tomb has nothing whatsoever to do with human mischief, and everything to do with God's divine intervention. And, to top it off, in case there are any who still think that the dead Jesus has been carried off; we see a very alive Jesus who is actually called "Jesus" not "Lord."  In other words Matthew makes it clear that this is the same Jesus who was dead that we now see speaking calmly to the women.  

Whatever lapses Matthew found in Mark's account which he thought would allow the claim of the Jewish leadership that the body was stolen, are completely covered here by Matthew's detailed defense of what happened. Matthew is trying to turn the tables on the accusers: arguing, in effect, that the hoax is not the resurrection, but rather the real hoax is the attempt by the Jewish leadership to cover up the resurrection!
So Matthew reports that the guards awakened from their catatonic state and went to the chief priests and told them what happened. Not content to let the truth prevail, the priests then bribed the guards with a large sum of money and told them to lie about what really happened!  Listen: "You must say, 'His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.'"  Matthew says that the guards took the money;  and that "to this day" -- meaning when Matthew was writing his Gospel decades later -- this lie still was circulating among the Jewish leadership.  
Thus we see Matthew taking head-on the argument against the truth of the resurrection.  Matthew becomes then the first great Gospel apologist (defender) of the Good News of Christ.

Matthew ends his Gospel on a much more positive note.  The eleven remaining disciples, less Judas, go to the mountain in Galilee to which Jesus directed them. Matthew is unclear here as he never says when Jesus told them to go to a mountain, rather than just to go to Galilee. In any case they go there and see him and they worship him.  

Yet, interestingly, Matthew admits that "some doubted." This is undoubtedly reported correctly because Matthew would be very reluctant to put that in had it not been a key part of the testimony passed forward to him.

Our text implies that some of Jesus' own disciples doubted, even after seeing him, since there is no indication that anyone other than the eleven disciples was on the mountain top, although "disciples" can include many followers other than the original twelve, and we know that Jesus had a large group of followers when he entered Jerusalem. This idea was so repugnant to later redactors that some translations say that "others" doubted, implying that those who doubted were not followers. Which may be true, but the text does not support it. The harder translation to swallow, that even after seeing him some of his own disciples doubted, is more likely correct.  
Both Mark's and Matthew's Gospels are full of times when the disciples did not understand, and often doubted, both what Jesus was doing and what he said, including that he must die and be raised, so this should not shock us. 

While we might wish that all of us were of one convinced mind on all important matters of the faith, the truth is that we are not. We are all individuals and are at different places in our own faith journeys. And each of us go through personal periods of doubt.  I am comfortable with that as you know. I believe that doubt is a normal experience of faith development. But many people are not comfortable with any doubt, including their own.  You will have to make up your own minds. What is clear is that when you read differing accounts of things that happened long ago, the logical thing to do is to accept as most likely true the account that would be the hardest for the writer to accept, but could not leave out since it was part of the story as handed down.

What is far more important, however, than the question of who doubted that the Risen Lord was indeed risen was the instruction he gave them.  We now call that instruction "The Great Commission." The Great Commission is the basis for the mission of the Church, and is literally Christ's own instruction about what his disciples are to be doing with our lives. The fact that Christians often do not do what he instructs us to do can be disheartening to those of us who like to think that we all should be trying to live as Christ would have us live.  Regardless of how we respond to it, this message is clear and unequivocal.  

Jesus' last words before his ascension are:
"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."

Christ is clear. And it is equally clear that his resurrection was for the purpose of reestablishing relationship with us, and, through Christian ministry, with all humankind. After he was risen Jesus said very little to us that is recorded in the Bible. This is by far the clearest message that the Risen Christ sends to those who call themselves Christians.

Sadly, too few lay people in the Church pay much attention to me when I tell them that the Great Commission is what we should be doing with our lives. It is, they tell me, what we hire pastors and missionaries to do.  But that is only partly true. The truth is that there is nothing any Christian can do in his or her day to day life that is more important than trying to fulfill the Great Commission.

Next we'll look at Luke's story of the resurrection appearances.  

God bless you.

2013 redaction of Appearances of the Risen Christ: Mark’s Gospel (Part 3 of 5)

Let’s start with a brief summary of where we are to date in this series. I have told you that I believe that the appearances of the Risen Lord after the resurrection are the easiest way to understand the truth of the resurrection of Jesus. Yet, we are told in the Gospel according to St. Matthew that even when the Risen Lord appeared to many of them on the mountain before he gave them the Great Commission, "some doubted."  And I believe that would be true for some if Christ bodily appeared today.

These Gospel narratives containing stories of the Resurrection Appearances are explanations of the truth of the faith proclaimed first by St. Paul and accepted by the earliest Christian communities.  They provide for us, and for all later generations of Christians, testimony that we use to help support our own belief in the truth of the resurrection. But we should be clear that no testimony by any witness from 2000 years ago is likely going to be considered "true" unless we first have faith and are willing to believe that the stories in the Bible are true.  

Some Biblical truth is clearly not intended to be universal dogma for all time.  But looking at the basic proclamation in First Corinthians 15 1-11, it is the clear intention of St. Paul that the resurrection be taken as literal truth. There are not many "essentials" of the faith but that passage certainly is, as are the two ancient creeds of the Church, the Apostle's and Nicene Creeds which rely heavily on St. Paul's testimony. Both creeds assume the literal truth of the Resurrection. So I assume that the Resurrection is true. That assumption comes from first having faith and then studying this event within the Biblical witness of the Church. This way of study is orthodox and follows in the footsteps of Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, and hundreds of other theologians throughout the centuries.

Let us turn now to the Gospel according to St. Mark. Interestingly, there are no resurrection appearances in the original manuscript of Mark, the first Gospel written. The Gospel as written by the original "Mark" ends with chapter 16, verse 8, as follows:
Mark 16: 1 ‘When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2  And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3  They had been saying to one another, "Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?" 4  When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5  As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6  But he said to them, "Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7  But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you." 8  So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.’

Later writers added first a shorter ending and then a later longer ending which does have resurrection appearances. Both added endings appear in most modern Bibles, with appropriate footnotes indicating that they were not part of the original manuscript of Mark. These later writers likely did this because it is obvious that eventually the women had to have told someone or else Mark would have not been able to write about what they heard and did. Some scholars argue that the original ending of Mark was lost. Most others, including me, argue that Mark's Gospel simply ended at verse 8.

If Mark has no resurrection appearances, bothering with this Gospel in this series may seem strange.  But it is one of those cases where the "null curriculum" can tell us much about Mark's intention. In other words, what can we learn from what Mark chose NOT to write? We shall see that NOT writing about the appearances of the Risen Christ is wholly consistent with what Mark has insisted that we understand about faith in Jesus from the beginning of his Gospel.

Mark's Gospel dealing with the resurrection is little more than a repetition of the earliest kerygma, proclamation, that Jesus was raised. And thus, Mark's story ends with the empty tomb. 
The proclamation of the angel, that Jesus is not in the tomb, that he has been raised, and is going ahead of Peter and the disciples to Galilee, where they will see him, is, of course, a divine explanation of the meaning of the empty tomb.  

And, for many, that is "proof" enough. Many church leaders to this day rely on the empty tomb as sufficient "evidence" that Jesus was raised. Others, like myself, find that to be less that compelling. Obviously, for the women to whom the angel spoke it was enough to terrify them, for Mark tells us that they did not obey the angel, but rather fled from the tomb in terror and amazement, and told no one!  And, interestingly, on that strange note, Mark ends his Gospel!  

But the empty tomb "proves" nothing, other than that the body was missing. And that is why the later Gospel writers recognized the weakness of the empty tomb argument, and sought to strengthen it by including testimonial evidence of the appearances.

But Mark's original ending is not so strange when we think about it.  We need to focus on what the purpose of Mark's entire Gospel was, and how he repeatedly, urgently and consistently pushed this one purpose throughout the entire book. Mark, much more than any of the other Gospel writers, from the very beginning of his Gospel, insisted on the need for each individual person to make his or her own decision about who Jesus is.  And that decision is to be a decision of faith, not of fact.  

The very heart of the Gospel of Mark is found in the question Jesus asks the disciples, exactly in the middle of his Gospel, in the eighth chapter, "But you, who do you say that I am?"  If you recall, Peter gets it right for a brief moment, only to immediately misunderstand Jesus' statement that he must suffer and die, and, after three days, rise again.  

And, recalling Mark's Gospel as a whole, we must remember that all of the disciples desert him in his darkest hour.  The key question for US from Mark is, "Who do you say that I am?" In other words, Mark asks us, "Will you have faith without evidence?"  Or will we, as constantly pointed out by Mark, be like Jesus' own disciples, demanding signs which might help us to believe? Will we believe through faith alone, or will we insist on "proof"?  Mark's Gospel is not for the reader who demands proof in order to have faith.  

He would have us look at the information that he provides in his Gospel and decide without even the comfort of human eye witness testimony about seeing the Risen Christ. Even at the very end of his Gospel, Mark demands that we have faith based on the word of Jesus before he was crucified and that of an angel after he was raised. If you think about it, that should be enough, provided we already believe that Jesus is who he has said he is. 

Ironically, Mark’s insistence in a strong faith based strictly of Jesus’ own actions and words, inevitably laid the groundwork, via the statement of the angel in the empty tomb, for the later narratives of the other three Gospel writers, which will include specific descriptions of and by eye witnesses to the appearances of the Risen Lord. The angel did, after all say “7  But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you." 

Those later Gospel writers knew that faith without proof would satisfy some, but many others, would be more likely to believe if they included the stories of the appearances of the Risen Christ in their accounts. And so they tell us "what happened" after Mark's gospel ends, with the intention to quell arguments claiming that the empty tomb was an inadequate proof, and to share the stories of the eye witnesses to the Risen Christ which had been told in their communities.

And, without those later accounts of the appearances, I think that people may have had a much harder time coming to belief, to making that "leap of faith" necessary to believe that Christ was actually raised. Yes, Christianity would have arisen anyway because Paul had planted many churches with only the proclamation of faith which he lays out in First Corinthians, which includes no details at all. But we know that even within the church in Corinth there were believers who were having second thoughts, which is why Paul felt he had to write what is now Chapter 15 of his first letter.

This is why I always come back to my original contention, that the appearances of the Risen Lord after the resurrection are the easiest way to understand the truth of the resurrection of Jesus. 
Strange as some of the appearance narratives may be to our modern eyes and ears, they provide solid testimony that Christ did appear to many, and do not require what Mark insists on: what we would today call "blind faith." Even today, for many blind faith is enough; but for many others it is not. And that brings us full circle back to the essence of faith: trust in things unseen, which is the point Mark makes in his Gospel by what he does NOT say, rather than what he does say.

Mark's test of faith is not for the faint at heart. Nor was Jesus' test. His most troubling question for the believer today remains "But you; who do you say that I am?" Ultimately, with or without the aid of the stories of the Resurrection Appearances, that question lies at the heart of Christian faith. 

When we return to this series we will look at the resurrection appearances in the Gospel according to St. Matthew. 

In the meantime, I encourage each of you to contemplate the essence of your own faith.  If you were living in Mark's community and had available to you only the statements of Jesus while he was ministering among us on this earth, the proclamation of St. Paul in First Corinthians, and the statement of the angel in the empty tomb, what would you believe about the resurrection? 

May God bless each of you.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Appearances of the Risen Christ (Part 2 of 5)

 Appearances of the Risen Christ (Part 2 of 5) For delivery 2013 04 28

I believe that looking at the appearances of the Risen Christ after the resurrection is the best way to understand the truth of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  Today we continue that overview.

When Thomas was confronted by the Risen Lord, who showed Thomas his wounds, Thomas finally believed that Jesus was raised, calling Jesus, "My Lord and my God!". It was actually seeing the Risen Christ followed by the Lord’s offer to allow Thomas to touch him and prove that he was Jesus that convinced Thomas that the one standing before him was Jesus. But Jesus' reaction to Thomas is more important that Thomas’ belief, for while He clearly wanted Thomas to believe, Jesus states, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."  This is a teaching moment, meant for later disciples like us. He is saying that there is something especially blessed about those who believe without having direct proof. Clearly that will, through the ages, become the overwhelming majority of all Christians who ever believe.   

But, clearly, Jesus knows that those who did not see him after the Resurrection will need a purer type of faith to believe. And, while he does not say it here, he is laying to foundation that he, operating through the Holy Spirit, will provide that faith to those who truly want to believe. Each of us must walk our own spiritual path. For some, like me, that path will be difficult. And there will be stumbles along the way. For others it will be smooth. And of course, as in the time of Jesus, many will not believe at all.

We are told of at least one in the Bible who needed no help to believe, who believed before any appearance by the Risen Lord.  According to St. John, when the "beloved disciple", who outraced Peter to the tomb, went into the empty tomb, and saw the linen wrappings that the body had been in, he believed. And, at the other extreme, we are told by St. Matthew that, even after the appearances, and even as the Risen Lord was being seen and worshiped by many on the mountain before he gave them the Great Commission, "some doubted."

Times have not changed. I think that would be true today, were he to appear right now.  Some already believe that he is here, with us in Spirit; and yet others neither feel his presence nor would they believe it if he were to bodily manifest himself to us. They would think it a hoax.

Today there are, in fact, some who can believe because, for example, the angel in the tomb said he was raised; or who believe because the tomb was empty and the linens discarded, like the beloved disciple. But it is likely that more of us are like Thomas than are like that disciple. It is clear that God knew about people like us, and therefore there were numerous appearances by the Risen Lord to many people between the time he was raised and the time he ascended into heaven. These numerous eyewitnesses provide evidence for those who struggle.   

Jesus appeared to them for many reasons, three of which are clear from the Bible. In addition, first, to providing eyewitness accounts, he also appeared to them, second, to re-establish relationships with them, relationships that had been severed at his death; to prove that, after death, relationships can and will be reestablished between God and man. And, third, he appeared to them to put them to work: that is what the Great Commission in Mathew 28 is all about: establishing the Church and giving it a mission, a job, to do.  

But regardless of the motives of Jesus when he appeared, those appearances to this day provide a foundation on which many people anchor their belief. They do not provide scientific proof, but they do provide the testimony of trustworthy eye witnesses, which is proof enough for a great many, like myself, who see through the eyes of faith.

If you read all of the stories of the resurrection appearances carefully you will very soon discover that these accounts differ widely one from the other.  But since it is reported that he appeared to many different people in many different places and at many different times it should not seem strange that there are many different stories about his appearances. Few of the appearance stories tell about precisely the same event.

We will be better served if we focus less on what is different about these stories and more on what their similarities tell us. There are far more important and overriding similarities than there are differences. It is these similarities that provide the clues to us of the importance of these events in how we Christians live our lives.

We begin with St. Paul.  We may not realize it, but we first learn that there were appearances by the Risen Lord from Paul.  Writing years before the Gospel accounts were assembled, Paul, in First Corinthians 15, tells us the basic kerygma, or proclamation, of the faith. You have heard this passage discussed by me several times because it is so important.  Paul writes:

15:1  Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, 2  through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you--unless you have come to believe in vain. 3  For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4  and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5  and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6  Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.  7  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8  Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me....11b.... so we proclaim and so you have come to believe. (NRSV)

Although no specifics of the resurrection appearances are given here, this proclamation is significant. It was written in Christ's own generation and shows clearly that the belief in Jesus’ resurrection was based on verbal stories, not yet written down. And the basic proclamation is authenticated by still living eye-witnesses to the appearances. For the earliest church then, what was accepted as true was the eye-witness testimony about the appearances after the resurrection, which was passed on verbally, from one local church to another.  

Notice how Paul summarizes this witness: "[This] we proclaim, and so you have come to believe."  Paul is reminding them that they have heard the proclamation, and that their belief is based not upon their personal knowledge, but on their trust that the proclamation is true. It is based on testimony that is proclaimed to be true. In the church those two ways of communication are called witnessing and preaching.
Later in the life of the early church, as claims and counter-claims about the truth of the resurrection continued to spring up, and as the eye witnesses began to age and die, these oral testimonies were written down, along with all of the other stories and parables that we have come to know as the Gospels.  As each gospel was written, and as more time passed, we see a trend of moving from the simple narrative of Mark to the more complex and at times defensive gospel of Matthew, then to the attempt to clarify the stories of Jesus by Luke, and finally, to the unabashedly apologetic gospel according to John. Apologetic here means "DEFENDING the faith" not "apologizing" for it.

The gospels are much more than the simple statement of the faith that Paul gave to the Corinthians, although the Gospels do contain clear statements of that faith. But, after Mark’s first Gospel, the rest of the writers particularly seek to defend the truths upon which the faith is built against attacks from both within the church and from outside of it. Even the Mark’s first and shortest gospel has far more explanation in it than does the proclamation in First Corinthians. By the time we reach the gospel of John, the explanations that defend the proclamation of faith, including God's raising of Jesus by resurrection, are much longer than the proclamation itself. Thus those explanations in John serve both apologetic and theological purposes far more complex than simply believing that the appearances happened. But just because they serve multiple purposes should not be to suggest that they are false. They are not.

Not counting the much later appearance to Paul on the road to Damascus, the stories of the appearances are in the Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John. I do not include Mark because Mark does not include resurrection appearances in his original manuscript. In fact, the Gospel of Mark has no clear ending; but two were supplied much later. And, the so called  "longer ending" of Mark does include appearances. But that ending clearly was not written by Mark.

We will discuss the Gospel according to Mark in the next sermon in this series so we can understand why he did not include the appearances.  Some have found that to be a strange and mysterious thing, but there is actually an elegant and simple explanation.   –– God bless you all.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Appearances of the Resurrected Christ, Part One: The Basic Facts and Christian Beliefs about the Resurrection of Jesus

2013 redaction: Appearances of the Resurrected Christ, Part One:
The Basic Facts and Christian Beliefs about the Resurrection of Jesus

Last Sunday we looked at the “Why” of the Resurrection and discussed five truths associated with the singular importance of the Resurrection, all building on one essential truth of Christian faith : If, at some point in a Christian's life he or she cannot believe that the Resurrection of Jesus is true, then that person's faith is dangerously incomplete.  With St. Paul I believe that if Christ be not raised, then Christians are fools, because a key distinction of Christianity from all other religions is belief in the truth of this event: the raising by God of Jesus of Nazareth from the grave.

I know something about trying to avoid the centrality of this issue.  I, at the time steeped in scientific rationalism, was, at best, agnostic to the idea that a Resurrection happened. And, wanting desperately to believe that Jesus’ resurrection was true, I tried to study my way to that belief; but I couldn't get there that way. Finally, after much anguish and prayer, God gave me the faith to believe. I could NEVER have gotten to that point on my own. And I found the most amazing thing: having that new found faith, I was able then to study and to better understand my belief that the Resurrection is true. I want to share that understanding with you in this series.

For me the appearances of the Risen Lord after the Resurrection provide the key to my belief that it actually happened. Here are my conclusions, based on decades of study. They may seem painfully obvious to some of you, but each of point has been heatedly attacked by scholars, often by so called “Christian” scholars, and so I must clearly state the obvious to be absolutely clear the nature of orthodox Christian belief.
– One: that the Risen Lord attested to in the Bible is the same Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified, dead and buried.  In other words, that the Risen Lord is not some abstraction, some hope, some ghost, some result of group hysteria, or a vision or a dream; but is, in fact, the person, Jesus of Nazareth.
– Two: that there can be no Resurrection without death. That is, that Jesus of Nazareth really died, that nothing was faked, that this was not some resuscitation of a person who was in a deep sleep, or other such subterfuge.
– Three: that death is the total and complete sundering of human relationships. That is, that Jesus' death was not different than our own, and that it was a complete, absolute, final ending to Jesus' earthly life.
– Four: that Resurrection is a pure gift from God, a pure grace, which overcomes the finality of death. And beyond having faith, nothing, absolutely nothing, that anyone does, modifies that grace in any way.
– Five: that death has absolutely nothing to do with the freeing of an immortal soul from a finite and evil body; the concept that the soul is immortal is a Greek idea and is foreign to the Biblical idea of Resurrection.
– Six: that Resurrection has to do with the raising of the entire being of one who has died.  That is, body and spirit, or "soul," are integrally united in what we call today, the "self" or the "person."  In other words, that an individual, identifiable, discreet, conscious person is raised, not an abstract, ethereal wisp, a mere shade or shadow of the whole person. – Seven: that the Resurrection of Jesus cannot be understood by a Christian apart from the Cross. That is, that the Resurrection apart from the death of Jesus and his sacrificial (agape) love for us is at best a one-time-only curiosity which holds no useful insight for us.
– Eight: that the resurrected body is not our "human" body as we know it, but rather is, as St. Paul attests, in a way we cannot perceive, "glorified," all the while maintaining the same personal identity it had before death.
– Nine: that Resurrection in the abstract is meaningless to Christians.  It is meaningful only as it relates to the specific purposes of God.  Christ's Resurrection would be meaningless to us without the purposes of witnessing to the glory of God and instructing the faithful, through the statements of the resurrected Lord, on the intentions of God for the lives of the faithful.
– Ten: that the primary effect of Resurrection is to reestablish relationships: between God and humankind and between humans whose relationships were severed by death.  
–Eleven: that relationship with God is meaningful for Christians primarily in the context of the faith community which the Risen Lord established, the Church, and specifically within the context of His instruction to that community to share the Word of God to the entire world.
   Twelve: and while this is the most important of all, it is also the most difficult to understand - that the Resurrection occurred at the intersection of time, or history, as we experience it and eternity, of which prior to our own Resurrection we have no knowledge. Let me repeat that slowly, because this final conclusion is the hardest to understand, but is also is the one that makes it possible for us to really grasp something of how it could happen.  (repeat)

In essence, I believe that the Resurrection was so unlikely that it literally occurred at the intersection of what we now know about how the universe works and what we may have theories about but have not proven. Both the Bible and science are clear that time, space, energy, and matter as we know them are temporary phenomena. For example, most people now agree that there was an event we call the “Big Bang” at which the universe as we know if came into being. Call it the “Big Bang” or call it “Creation.”  But it happened. We can and do argue whether there was a prime mover of that event called “God;” but science and religion do agree that there was a point when what we know as the universe was not; and then it simply “was.” I will let you chew on that a bit and move into more traditional talk about how Christianity has always viewed these kinds of phenomena.

As an event occurring at the cusp of time, space and eternity the Resurrection falls within a group of events that the Church calls "eschatological events;" meaning that it is an event pointing to the "last days."  The Church says that we are living in a period between the beginning of the last days, signified by the coming of God in Christ, and the culmination of the last days at the second coming of Christ. We live in this "in-between" time; the time of "already" - meaning the breaking in of the Kingdom of God with the coming of Jesus - and "not yet" - meaning the final triumph of the Kingdom of God when Christ comes again.
Just as Jesus left eternity and entered the time and space of creation at his conception, so too, after his Resurrection and his appearances he left time and space as we know it and returned to eternity. That is the main reason we can't "prove" the Resurrection.  It was an event that moved from something observable as part of history, to something not observable and beyond history.  Yet, at this cusp in time certain aspects surrounding the Resurrection have been made available to our consciousness by God, in particular the appearances of the Risen Lord. Those we will look at carefully.

I will focus the rest of this series on the appearances of the Risen Christ to the disciples and others. The gospels, Acts and First Corinthians all attest to these appearances, and they form the basic fabric from which the belief in the truth of the Resurrection is constructed.

It is these eye witness accounts recorded in the Bible that most clearly explain the basis of the faith of the original Christian communities. And it is the trust that current communities of faith place in these witnesses that allows us to believe their stories. In other words, when the Gospel writers write what they do about the appearances, we trust that they, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are writing truth, not lies or fabrications. By the same token, when  Paul tells me that the Risen Lord appeared to Him on the road to Damascus, and when Luke, in Acts, confirms that event, I trust both Paul and Luke to tell me the truth, and not to lie about it.

And that trust is bolstered by another fundamental Christian belief: that the Bible is the inspired witness to the Word of God, Jesus Christ.  In other words, Christians believe that the Bible is the primary revelation of God in Jesus Christ. The revelation of God in Christ in the Bible is the “normative” revelation of God to Christians; meaning that we judge all other claims of religious truth by how well they conform to the truths revealed in the Bible. Upon its words Christians make decisions about the nature of God and of God's relationship to us.  

A brief note about the remaining four sermons in this series:  Rushing through complicated theological issues will likely result in very little light being shed, so we will instead walk together in this series through an overview of the appearances of the Risen Lord, and see if we can discern the fundamental aspects of these appearances.

However, because of earned vacation time which I must take, and the way some holidays fall this year, we will have to interrupt this series more than once. When that happens, I assure you that I will begin each sermon with enough background information that you will easily be able to pick up where we left off.

God bless you all.

– Monte

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Death of the Messiah, Part 7: End of Series

2013 03 24 The Death of the Messiah, Part 7: Luke; Concluding Thoughts

Before our look at Luke’s description of the Death of the Messiah, resuming as Jesus is taken for trial before Pilate, let me summarize how we got to this final sermon in this series. At the beginning I pointed out that while we may think there is only one story of the death of the Messiah, repeated four times, in fact there are four very different versions of the story of Jesus' death, both in the details and in the portrait of Jesus presented. These Gospel stories were divinely inspired and God is mindful of the inconsistencies but wants us to be able to see Jesus from four unique vantage points.
Therefore, we do not improve on the Gospel accounts by trying to harmonize them.  Ultimately, all attempts at harmonizing the Gospels fail and never give a true picture of those sacred texts. This fact, however, gives ulcers to those who insist on viewing the Gospels as history, which they are not.  They are theology told in stories, and are kerygma, proclamation of the Good News of Jesus the Christ.
Then, as we studied examples of the differences in three of the Gospel accounts of the Death of the Messiah, we explored the idea that having four different writers of the stories allows us to see that Jesus is a far more complex person than we might otherwise think he is. We then looked in some detail at Mark's Gospel portrayal of the events leading up to Jesus’ Crucifixion.  Mark, the earliest Gospel written, portrays a scene of stark human abandonment of Jesus.  Mark portrays a very human, very vulnerable Jesus. In the end, Mark shows that we all, even Jesus, have no choice but to depend on God.
We moved then to a look at Luke’s portrayal of a very caring, compassionate and concerned Jesus, one who is also absolutely confident that what he is doing is right and is God’s will. We are wrapping up that review, beginning with the trial before Pilate.
Luke gives us many more details of the trial before Pilate than do Mark and Matthew. The chief priests and scribes make more numerous religious and political accusations against Jesus than in the other Gospels. And, as Luke describes in Acts, Paul will later encounter an almost identical sequence of actors, issues and events in his trials.  Thus, an important point is made in Luke: the tone for the bearing of later Christian crosses by faithful disciples is set by Jesus here.
Pilate comes off well in Luke, even if he is ultimately weak, finally giving in to the demands of the crowd, led here by the chief priests and other Jewish leaders.  Initially, having heard their complaints, Pilate tells them that he has examined the charges against Jesus and that he finds Jesus guilty of none of them. Then, on hearing that Jesus is a Galilean, he sends Jesus off to Herod, Tetrarch of Galilee, who is in town for the Passover.  Herod finds, as did Pilate, nothing against Jesus and so returns him to Pilate.

Once again Pilate examines the charges against Jesus, and, once again, tells the Jewish leaders that he does not find Jesus guilty of any of the charges.  Pilate tells them that "Indeed, he has done nothing to deserve death."  Pilate then proposes to have Jesus flogged and released. But all of the accusers, not just the crowd as in Mark, but the chief priests, other Jewish leaders and the people, shout to do away with Jesus and to release Barabbas. Luke tells us that Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, addresses them a second and third time, telling them Jesus is not guilty.
However, Luke then tells us that Pilate caves in to the accusers, and "their voices prevailed."
Because Luke contains no scene in Pilate's courtyard of Roman soldiers beating and mocking Jesus, the implication is that Pilate handed over Jesus to the Jewish leaders who take him to Calvary and crucify him. But later we read of soldiers, presumably Roman, who were present at his death, so there is ambiguity as to who was involved in getting Jesus to the Cross, and who was actually involved in nailing him to it and watching him after he was crucified.
What is clearly different than Mark and Matthew, is that the people who followed Jesus to his crucifixion included a great many who were not hostile to him, particularly women,
who were lamenting what was happening to him by beating their breasts and wailing over his fate. To these Jesus shows great compassion, warning these "daughters of Jerusalem" of the coming trials, telling them not to weep for him, but for themselves.

And through it all Jesus remains calm and concerned for others.  Unlike in Mark, the first words uttered by Jesus from the cross are not of his feared abandonment, but rather, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." The implication is that the Jewish leaders acted out of ignorance, not with deliberate evil and viciousness, as in the other Gospels. This is a far more humane treatment of the Jewish leaders than in the other Gospels, and is a clear directive to later Christians to be gracious toward, and forgiving of, our worst enemies. Thousands of Christian martyrs will go to their death finding courage in these words from the Cross.
In another major departure from Mark and Matthew, both criminals do not mock him from their crosses.  Rather, one of the two thieves acknowledges his own guilt and confesses the innocence of Jesus. This "good thief" as we often call him, asks to be remembered by Jesus when he comes into his kingdom.  And, still filled with compassion, Jesus does him far better than that, promising him that he will be with Jesus in Paradise yet that day.
In the last, dark, hours of Jesus’ life he does not lose confidence.  He does not, as in Mark and Matthew, feel abandoned by the Father.  Rather he is calm and at peace, secure in his knowledge of the goodness and justice of the Father. There is no agony recorded, only the confident giving of his life over to the Father, even as he has given his life to others throughout his ministry.  Jesus dies saying, "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit."

Just as the words of forgiveness have given many a martyr courage in their own deaths, so to have these words of confident trust in God given hope to many ordinary Christians at the time of their death.
And, if the innocence of Jesus has not been clear enough for all who read Luke, at the foot of the cross the Roman Centurion says that Jesus was "innocent." Even the crowds who watched share the feeling of Jesus' innocence , returning to their homes in great distress, beating their breasts. In Luke’s version it is not necessary for the Centurion to say the Jesus is the Son of God because in Luke's Gospel we have long been aware that Jesus is God’s Son.
Standing at a distance are not only the women, but all of Jesus friends who had followed him from Galilee, including, of course, the disciples, who have not had the courage to go to the foot of the cross, but who clearly have not totally abandoned him as they do in Mark's rendition. Likewise, Luke clarifies the role of Joseph of Aramathea, saying that he had not agreed to the Sanhedrin's plans. Joseph takes the body and lays it in a fresh tomb.  And Luke tells us that the women went home to prepare spices and ointments for his body.

After the Sabbath Luke tells us that they came to the tomb with their preparations, only to find the tomb empty. Later, Peter, who, in Luke’s version, has not gone to ground in Galilee, but has stayed in Jerusalem, will run to the empty tomb. Still later, Luke tells us that the Risen Lord appears to Peter, thus confirming Luke's message:  Jesus will be with and watch over all of his disciples, even those, who, like Peter, deny him in periods of weakness.
There should be much consolation in that fact for us, because most of us falter in periods of weakness and doubt.  But Christ is there for us and will watch over us. He will never abandon us regardless of the strength of our faith at any given moment.
Summary of this Series of Lenten Reflections
And so ends this exploration of The Death of the Messiah. It is my hope that this series has been a help to those who truly want to understand the Christ and his Passion by looking at the event through the writings of four disciples, all who wrote under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
I particularly hope that this series has put to rest some of the nonsense about harmonizing the Gospels, and particularly the Passion, which may seem appealing but which totally misses the point of having four Gospels in the first place. God did not send his Spirit to guide the writers of the four Gospel accounts of Jesus by accident.
And please remember that the Gospels do not pretend to be history books.  Writing history as we know it today was not practiced at the time the Gospels were written.  To apply today's historical research methods to the Gospels is at best a silly exercise. Those who fruitlessly search for the "true Historical Jesus" will forever sell their books to those who insist that only one portrait of Jesus can be "the right one.”
This is the same mind set that stunts understanding of the four Gospel accounts by insisting on treating the Gospels as if they were simply data sources for the "one" "real" story of Jesus. But the Gospels simply cannot yield anything approaching an "true" history of Jesus simply because they were never history.  They were always theology, theology told in story form.  They are now, always have been, and always will be kerygma, proclamation, of the Gospel, the Good News, of  Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, the Christ. As such they form and inform our faith today, even as they did almost 2000 years ago for the members of the early Church.
I pray that each of you will have a keener awareness of, and a better understanding of, Christ’s Passion. Within those painful yet glorious hours we are shown the love of God for us in the person of His Son, Jesus, the Christ.
Because the Church has chosen to preserve all four original Gospels, each divinely inspired by God, we have the privilege to find within them a portrayal of our Lord that will meet our own needs when we turn to Jesus in times of trouble, a portrait of our Savior that gives us strength, hope, and ultimately, peace. And that is truly a blessing of incomparable worth.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Death of the Messiah, Part 6: Luke's Gospel

2013 03 17 The Death of the Messiah, Part 6: Luke's Gospel

Today we begin our look at the very different portrayal of the Passion in the Gospel according to Luke. Luke wants us to see a Jesus who is aware of his approaching death, but also who clearly worries about others far more than he worries about his own fate.  Luke's Jesus is "Caring, Compassionate and Concerned" about others. But he is equally confident that he knows why God sent him, and confident that he knows what God expects him to do.

Luke clearly relies heavily on Mark, but many of his details are different. If addition to Mark’s Gospel,  Luke shares another common written source with Matthew, called simply "Q,"  Luke also clearly has his own sources of information which have been handed down by eyewitnesses over the decades since the crucifixion.  These sources are unknown to either Mark or Matthew, and many Gospel stories appear only in Luke.

Molding several sources into a coherent Gospel is clearly a task of great importance to Luke.  He tells us in the opening of his Gospel that he desires to "write an orderly account" of the events of Jesus' life, that we might know the truth. Luke makes it clear at the beginning that he is writing theology, not history. And it is clear that Luke has a different theological agenda than any of the other three.

Luke wants us to see a Christ who is at once aware of his approaching death, but also a Christ who clearly worries about others far more than he worries about his own fate.

In order to understand Luke's portrait of Jesus' death it is necessary for us to remember that Luke is a careful and consistent writer. Nothing about Luke's reporting of the Death of the Messiah is inconsistent with what he, earlier in his Gospel, has told us about Jesus, his disciples, his mission and his actions.

Thus, the Jesus who is accused by the Jewish leaders of "perverting our nation" is the same Jesus whose upbringing, Luke tells us, was in total fidelity to the Law of Moses. The Jesus who is accused of "forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar" is the same Jesus who has declared the opposite, to "render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's". These, and other incidents, highlight a major theme of Luke: that Jesus is totally misunderstood by all authorities, is innocent and is unjustly accused and killed.

Likewise, the Jesus who shows such great concern and compassion for others during his Passion is the same Jesus who is already compassionate; showing concern for the widow of Nain and praising the mercy shown by the father to the prodigal son and to the man beset by thieves on the way to Jericho. Thus, we should not be surprised by the Jesus who shows forgiveness toward those who crucified him.

When we are told by Luke that, after the Temptation, Satan leaves Jesus, "until an opportune time," we should not be surprised that Luke finds that Satan has returned to inhabit Judas, his betrayer at the end of Jesus' life. In Luke it is much more than personal greed and sin that motivates Judas, it is the work of the Devil himself. Luke is so clear about this that one could argue that Judas was innocent, because, literally, "the devil made him do it.”

Unlike Mark, who emphasizes the dullness and failures of the disciples, Luke finds them attentive and trying to learn.  Luke, for example, never mentions that the disciples fled at the time of trial.  In fact, while not at the cross itself, Luke places them, with the women, waiting and watching in the distance. Nor will they flee after his death and head for home in Galilee as in the other Gospels, but they will all await his return in Jerusalem, where Jesus will appear. And later, these same apostles will appear as major Christian leaders in the Book of Acts.

Even the way Jesus behaves during his passion will set the example for how others will behave in the future, as first Stephen, and later Paul, endure the same adversaries and will respond in the same way when their time comes to bear their crosses.

Therefore, there is a smooth consistency in doing the will of God from the Law of Moses through Jesus' life, death and resurrection, and, ultimately, to the early Church.  This consistency in achieving God's purposes, first through Jesus and then through the Church, is a major theme in Luke's work.

Looking at the Passion itself we see that the scene of prayer and arrest at Gesthemene as described in Luke is far less dramatic and suspenseful than Mark’s.  No words of rebuke are spoken to the disciples. In fact, just the opposite, for at the Last Supper Jesus has already told them, "You are those who continued with me in my trials."  And Jesus has already assured them of a leadership place in Heaven, including responsibilities for judgment of the twelve tribes of Israel.  Therefore, we can not imagine that the disciples will fall away at this late date; and they do not.

Even at Gesthemene he does not separate Himself far from them, going only "a stone's throw away" to pray. Luke describes them as sleeping while Jesus prays, but not falling asleep three times after being admonished to stay awake.  Rather they sleep but once, and then only "out of sorrow."  And, when Jesus finds them sleeping he does not rebuke them but shows his concern for them, telling them to get up and pray that they may not come into their own time of trial.  Thus, the drama of the scene focuses not on disloyal or cowardly disciples but on the compassionate actions of Jesus, which is startingly different than those described in Mark.

Unlike in Mark, this Jesus is not one whose soul is sorrowful unto death.  Rather, on his knees he prays in subordination to the will of the Father.  And, in Luke, that prayer does not go unanswered, for the Father sends an angel to give him strength. And, so, when he prays he feels "agony" or "anguish," with great drops of sweat like blood falling from him.  But for centuries Christians have greatly misinterpreted the meaning of  the Greek word, "agonia." It means the great preparatory tension of an athlete warming up for a great contest.  It does not mean fear or pain, as it is often misinterpreted.  The angel has given him strength, not weakness.

And, at the arrest, Jesus is very calm; a calmness that bespeaks a foreknowledge on the part of Jesus of what is going to happen.  He is in no way surprised to find Judas sitting beside him at the Last Supper –  betraying him. When the slave's ear is cut off by one of the disciples, Jesus, again showing compassion, heals him, and tells the disciples, "No more of this!"  As he has shown compassion to his enemies throughout his ministry, so he shows compassion here.

Jesus knows exactly what is happening and, having been strengthened by the angel, is intent on carrying out what he knows to be the will of the Father.  No underlings come alone to arrest him as in Mark, but rather the chief priests and elders themselves lead the Temple police. Jesus knows the evil in this, telling them that this is "their" hour, a time of the power of darkness.  Yet he also knows that he will overcome it.

As in Mark they arrest Jesus at night.  But they take him not to the Chambers of the Sanhedrin but to the High Priest's house. Nor is there any Sanhedrin trial that night as in Mark, but rather they hold him there, beating him and mocking him, but not asking him any significant questions.

For Luke the highlight of the evening focuses on Peter who has followed him; and, as in Mark, denies him three times.  Unlike Mark, however, Luke adds a poignant note: "The Lord turned and looked at Peter."  And it was then that Peter remembered Jesus' prediction. This dramatic look is found only in Luke, and is symbolic of Jesus' continuing care for Peter, as he promised the disciples at the Last Supper.  They may deny him but he will always be there for them, and he will not even turn away from them, even in their moment of deepest betrayal.

When it is day they lead him to the Sanhedrin Council Chambers and question him. Unlike in Mark, Jesus answers ambiguously. Also, unlike in Mark and Matthew, there is no formal Sanhedrin trial; it is simply an interrogation. There are no witnesses called, false or otherwise, and there are no condemnations issued by the Sanhedrin.  Ultimately, all they say is that they have heard enough to take him to Pilate. Here the Sanhedrin acts as prosecutor and inquisitor, not as judge.

In Luke there is but one trial and that is before Pilate. Through it all Jesus is calm and self-composed.  He exhibits the serenity of one secure in the knowledge that God is in charge, and he is content in the knowledge that he is wholly innocent. Yet he is prepared to go to his death, if necessary, secure in the knowledge of his unbreakable union with the Father. This is quite a different Jesus than the Jesus we have met in Mark.


We have to stop here for today. We will finish examining Luke’s dramatically different portrayal of the Death of the Messiah next week, when we wrap up this series of reflections. Next Sunday, which is now called Palm/Passion Sunday, we will honor both halves of that name. After we honor Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem during the early part of the service, we will wrap up Luke’s story of the Passion during the sermon time, when I also will share a few concluding observations on this Series on the “Death of the Messiah.”

God bless.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Death of the Messiah: Mark’s Gospel: Conclusion

2013 03 10 Death of the Messiah, Part 5,
Mark’s Gospel: Conclusion

Continuing with Mark’s description of the Passion, we find ourselves at the foot of the Cross. The title, "King of the Jews" is mockingly nailed to the Cross; but Mark does not see it as an ironic symbol, but rather calls it "a charge against him."  Mark knows Jesus made no such claim.

For the first three hours no human being shows Jesus the slightest sympathy, not the soldiers, nor the crowd, nor the passers-by, nor the chief priests and scribes who came to watch the spectacle. All mocked him, telling him to save Himself and come down from the cross, if he be the Messiah. Even both of the bandits crucified with him taunted him. Mark knows of no repentant thief.  And, more importantly, not one of his disciples came to the cross to be with him in his last hours.

Mark, who often aligns things in threes, divides the time on the cross into three periods.  They crucify him at 9 in the morning, darkness overcomes the land at noon, and at 3 in the afternoon Jesus dies.  So, for three hours he is subject to human insult and derision. And then even nature seemed to abandon him, as the sun was overcome by darkness for the next three hours.  And in the darkness Jesus hung there alone, abandoned by all who ever claimed to love him.  And through it all there was the exquisite, unbearable pain of crucifixion.

Finally, mercifully, it is over, as, at 3 o'clock, Jesus cries out with a loud voice the only words Mark reports:  "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"  These words are not new to Jesus.  They are the anguished opening words to Psalm 22. We should not try to soften these words, as hard as it might be for us to believe that Jesus could possibly feel abandoned by his own Father.  The words are there; God wants us to hear them.  Shortly thereafter Jesus lets out a loud cry, not of words, just of agony, and dies.  Jesus dies, alone, abandoned by his friends, seemingly abandoned by God.  Mark is quite clear that Jesus thought God had forsaken him.

This made the later Gospel writers very nervous, even as it might make some of us nervous now.  To the other Gospel writers for Jesus to feel forsaken and alone was a sign of human weakness, and they feared that humanity in Jesus. They would rather that the Son of God appear to be strong and in control, and, certainly, in complete contact with the Father at all times. And so they changed the final scene considerably from what Mark reports.

Their fear is understandable. Writing later than Mark they were being bombarded by accusations that Jesus was only a man, and not the Son of God; that he had simply died and his body stolen by his followers, not resurrected by God to heavenly glory. In other words, they were being accused of perpetrating a hoax.

But our job now is not to change or ignore the words in the Bible because they make us uncomfortable. The Church did not try to soften Mark’s portrayal of Jesus on the Cross. It did not argue that a Jesus who showed human frailty was not the Son of God. Rather, the Church argued what it had always argued: that the Christ was both God and man, divine and human. The Church has always contended that God could only understand us if he were to become one of us and live among us, feel what we feel and thereby know what we go through.

Our job is to hear Mark’s words and to ponder them; not to try to rewrite the Bible or to try to justify them, saying that Jesus didn’t say them, or didn't mean them; or coming up with some other such nonsense to correct Mark.  Our job is to try to understand the depths of despair that Jesus felt; this very brave, very faithful, very human Jesus we see here hanging on that tree.

And what we clearly see, is that God never for one moment actually abandoned Jesus. We know this because God's reply to Jesus' death is immediate, abrupt: the moment Jesus dies the curtain of the temple is split in two, from top to bottom, a violent rending, symbolic of Jesus' claim that he would tear down that Temple "made with hands."

This huge, dense “curtain” was actually a mammoth drapery, over a foot thick and 40 feet high, and was to keep everyone except the High Priest from going into the inner sanctum said to be where God dwelt. Here Mark, not with words, but with the mental picture of the Temple Curtain ripped asunder, has created a significant theological picture. Rending that Curtain in two symbolizes that no more will access to God be restricted to a chosen few allowed to enter the "Holy of Holies."

From that time forward people will come to a new temple, one "not made with hands," but rather one build upon the sacrifice of Jesus. God is saying that Jesus is the new Temple, built to receive those who show faith in the One who died to save us from ourselves, and from the sin within us.

Scholars do not often see Mark are much of a theologian. And he was certainly not one to write long theological explanations or include speeches by Jesus to explain why Jesus did what he did, or said what he said. John, writing a half century later, would be the one to do that. But, unlike John, Mark seldom speaks in theological terms. Rather he lets the theology be found in the mental pictures his writing evokes.

Thus in his story of the crucifixion he moves quickly to another great theological truth that he lets someone else speak. Startlingly, an outsider comes immediately into the picture of the Crucifixion, not a disciple, not a Jew, not in any way an "insider," but of all people, a Gentile, a Roman centurion. This centurion stands at the foot of the cross and says what no man, disciple or priest, had ever before figured out in the entire telling of Mark's Gospel:  "Truly, this man was the Son of God."

In a single moment God has vindicated Jesus; replacing the Temple as the center of worship and offering in its place Gods' own Son, who is confessed as the Son of God by a Gentile who had no agenda and no prior motive to think that, let alone say it.

And, as irony piles on irony, we are told that while the disciples, who were all men, all fled in cowardly retreat, standing in the distance are three women, Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James and Joses, and Salome; three who had followed him in Galilee and had provided for him when he was going about his ministry. In that time and place it was not acceptable for women to play a prominent role, and so they toiled in the background on his behalf. But, unlike the core group of male disciples, these three female disciples, and some other women, while not coming to the Cross to share his agony with Jesus, at least looked on, waited and watched.  They did not provide comfort to Jesus, perhaps would not have been allowed to, but they did not flee as did the men.

And there was one other, Joseph of Arimathea, who showed courage, which only Mark sees that way.  Indeed, it must have been courage and perhaps remorse, because Mark has told us that ALL of the Sanhedrin, of which Joseph was a member, had found Jesus deserving of death. But Mark tells us now that Joseph went "boldly" to Pilate to ask for Jesus' body.  Only in Mark does Pilate question whether Jesus is really dead; and, assured by the centurion that he is dead, he granted the body to Joseph for burial.

Joseph took the body down, wrapped it in linen, and laid it in a rock hewn tomb.  Then he rolled a stone in front of the tomb’s entrance.  Preparing us for the resurrection, Mark tells us that the two Marys followed and saw where the body was laid. On Sunday morning they will return to the tomb and find it empty.  For Mark, the story of Jesus' death can not end with his burial, but with his resurrection. To Mark his death and resurrection were one event, each part of which was of no use to us without the other.

Mark, more than any of the other Gospel writers, emphasizes the importance of the Passion.  The Roman centurion's words dramatize the singularly Marcan idea that people cannot truly know who Jesus is until the death of the Messiah and the related resurrection. As reported by Mark, people may think they know him; and they can guess at who he is, but, until the death of Jesus, no one really knows who he is.

Mark clearly implies that one can become a true disciple, a faithful and brave disciple, only through understanding the suffering symbolized by a Cross which strips away all human support systems and makes one totally dependent upon God.  To Mark, to keep the faith requires this recognition of our total dependence on God. For Mark, salvation comes not from "coming down from the cross" as Jesus was taunted to do; but from acceptance of the cross and all that it entails.

Mark's community was one suffering from great persecution.  As Dr. Brown says, "the… 'Good News' for them was that this trial and suffering was not a defeat but a salvific example of taking up the cross and following Jesus." In other words, when we suffer for Christ we are doing no more than, and probably much less than, what he has already done for us. And thus, we can do no less than to accept whatever Crosses we are asked to bear for our faith.

We do not live in suffering and persecuted communities.  So perhaps an additional question for us is whether we can, accustomed as we are to great material pleasure, and not being used to suffering for the sake of Christ, find in Mark's description of the Passion a passion of our own for taking up our cross and carrying it in his name.  While we may not know such suffering ourselves, there are millions yet today who do suffer from the burdens of their own unjust crosses imposed upon them who would deny them to worship as Christians.  Doing something about that can be a way we can begin to know what it means to others who, though innocent, to this day bear crosses not of their own making.

Deitrich Bonhoeffer said that Jesus calls us to "come die with me."

That is a very Marcan idea. We are far removed from such drastic action in our lives.  But there are many who do die without help or hope..  "Take up you cross and follow me" is still the word to us from the Christ. And it is Mark’s very human Jesus who shows us the way.

God bless.