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.