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.