Thursday, March 31, 2005

Luke 24:36b–48

With this greeting Jesus culminates the resurrection appearances in Luke. The story as Luke has told it is as follows. Early on Sunday the women came to the tomb, see an angel, but not Jesus, and return to “report everything to the eleven and all the others.” The story “appeared to them as nonsense, and they would not believe them.”

Then as we had yesterday, the Emmaus story, which is thus the first actual resurrection appearance in Luke. The two unnamed disciples tell Jesus about the vision of angels and the missing body, and at supper they realize they have been with Jesus all along on the road.

And now, back in Jerusalem, they find that Jesus has appeared to Simon in the meanwhile: “It is true: the Lord has risen; he has appeared to Simon.” And they share their story.

Now amidst the excitement, “there he was, standing among them.” Once again, the suggestion is of a recognition, as if he were there all along and they didn’t know it. They are frightened, and think they have seen a ghost, but he invites them to touch him, and he eats some food to prove that he is real. And then, just as with the Emmaus incident, he shows how “the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms” foretold what has happened.

Once more, there is a sending out. The women at the tomb were sent to the eleven. The two in Emmaus were sent back to Jerusalem to rejoin the community. And now, the whole community is sent out “to all nations beginning from Jerusalem.” It is this sending and this telling which is so crucial to Luke, at every stage. It isn’t nearly as pronounced in Matthew; in Mark it doesn’t even get obeyed; in John the focus is entirely different.

But for Luke, the whole nature of the resurrection is to be proclaimed, sent out, published abroad. Jesus leaves them once more, for good this time, or so it seems, in his ascension. Luke’s gospel ends with that. But no, wait, it doesn’t. It ends with this: “And they returned to Jerusalem full of joy, and spent all their time in the temple praising God.” Jesus hasn’t left them, but the need for these resurrection appearances has been completed. Each of them was designed to bring the community together and to urge it on its way of proclamation.

Now they have learned to see Jesus in each other, in the breaking of the bread, and in their distribution of this message to the four corners of the world.

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Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Luke 24:13–35

How does one recognize Jesus? The resurrection appearances, as I have been noting, frequently seem to include this component of non-recognition. Here we have two unnamed disciples, leaving town after the death of Jesus, not knowing what’s up, and he joins them on the road. But they don’t know who he is.

Notice that they begin telling their companion who Jesus was and what had happened to him. They even repeat the resurrection story as they have heard it from others. Jesus chides them for their foolishness. But why are they foolish? Because all the evidence they need is right there even before they recognize him. And so he explains to them, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets,” that none of this should have been a surprise, but rather should have shown them who Jesus was and given them hope and courage.

And while he does this, their hearts were burning within them. Something was being kindled, that had not been kindled yet. But still, they are not aware of who this is.

Then, in a eucharistic moment, “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.” This is extremely curious language. We have the blindness theme, so common in the gospels and especially so important in Luke and Acts. They have been blind, and now they see. But they do not only see who this is that has been with them on the road; they see who Jesus was all along. Remember how he called them foolish? Their blindness concerned not only this fellow-traveler on the road; they were also blind to who Jesus was before his passion.

Now that they can see, he vanishes from their sight. He is no longer seen, because they have seen. What is the meaning of this? Once more, as I noted yesterday, the point is to send them back to the community from which they came. Instead of leaving Jerusalem for Emmaus, giving up hope, they are to return. Jesus did not appear to them and manifest himself to them in order to give them a pep-talk; he did so to reverse their blindness and to send them back to Jerusalem. Once their blindness had been reversed, they reversed their steps as well.

And so they rejoin the community in Jerusalem, which is by now abuzz with the news of resurrection, and they add their own story to the rest.

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Tuesday, March 29, 2005

John 20:11–18

After yesterday’s more ugly reading, full of deceit and conspiracy and fraud, today’s, from John, is more internal, personal, and poignant. Mary had been cured of seven demons, she owed her whole new life to Jesus. It is only through him that she found wholeness, and all that was dashed when he was killed.

And now, as a final indignity, she isn’t even allowed to care for his body. Not understanding, she sees the angels--she does not know they are angels--and is weeping. She is weeping because Jesus is dead, and she is weeping because even his body is denied her. Then, seeing Jesus, still not understanding--she does not know he is Jesus--she is still weeping. And he asks her, just as the angels did, why she is weeping.

The angels and Jesus both know, and in her desperation, she asks Jesus for the body. Note the reversal here: Jesus has given himself to her, and gives his body to us, and this is exactly what she is looking for: the body of Jesus, the body of Christ. And it is what she finds. But Jesus says not to hold on to him, not to hold on to his body.

How did the encounter with Mary end? We are not told. The resurrection appearances of Christ are filled with stories of encounter and recognition, but not so much of parting. We only get stories of parting when Luke and Matthew describe the ascension. So here she is, overjoyed at the recognition, given Jesus’ body yet not given Jesus’ body, and what does she do? She returns to the disciples.

The body of Jesus, the body she was not allowed to hold on to, was his physical body. The old is gone; gone are the days of Jesus walking around and teaching and eating with his disciples. Even though after his resurrection he does do these things, it is not in the same way, it is strange and mysterious, and always ends not with further eating and teaching and walking around, but instead with the people who have seen the risen Christ being sent to go and announce to others what has happened to them.

During his earthly life, Jesus’ body was most importantly that of an ordinary human being. Now, after his resurrection, it is most importantly found in the community of the disciples. Mary is not to stay in the garden and hold on to his physical body; she is to go to the disciples: to the Church, to the Body of Christ, and tell them what Jesus has said and done for her.

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Tuesday, March 8, 2005

Matthew 28:9–15

The tale here is a particularly ugly one today, but stay with it. It’s the Gospel for Easter Monday.

One figures that the back-story is something like this. First, the Christian proclamation involved an empty tomb. There are two explanations immediately available for why the tomb was found to be empty. As Christians say, Jesus rose from the dead. Or, alternatively, the body was taken away from the tomb. We see the latter thought in John 20:11-15 where Mary Magdalene sees the tomb empty, but assumes that the body has been stolen.

Unlike Luke and John, Mark makes mention that the stone in front of the tomb was quite heavy. And Matthew amplifies this in two ways, to short-circuit the “stolen body” explanation. One supposes that some people around in the days of the early church agreed that the tomb was empty, but claimed that this was no proof of resurrection, but only that the body has been stolen.

So Matthew places this concern back when Jesus is buried, and has the only discussion of this point. He presents the Pharisees coming to Pilate and saying that the tomb must be made secure, and Pilate grants them a guard of soldiers to make the tomb secure. (Matthew 27:62-66). Then, after Sunday, the priests and elders bribe the guards to lie and say that the body has been stolen. And indeed, Matthew’s claim that this story is “still told among the Jews to this day” is borne out, with many ancient Jewish commentators giving the stolen body explanation as the correct explanation for the empty tomb.

Note that Matthew does not say that those who were repeating the story “to this day” were in on the fraud. The villains are those who are perpetrating the fraud, and not those who have been deceived by it. Nothing here licenses anti-semitism or anything of the sort.

But two oddities are present here, and they are also quite unique to Matthew. Note that the leaders who are committing the fraud know the tomb is empty and know that the body has not been stolen. We see a similar situation in Matthew’s account of the ascension (Matthew 28:16-20) where we are told: “When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.”

It is this possibility which Matthew is highlighting, and what is most distinctive about Matthew’s description of the resurrection appearances. In Luke, the risen Jesus is recognized together with recognizing him as Lord and trusting him in faith. In John, the same is true. In Mark, we don’t even get a resurrection appearance at all. This is not to say that these others are wrong, merely that the other evangelists each have their own distinct and quite important things to say about the risen Jesus.

What Matthew says, quite singularly, is that it is possible to know that Jesus has been raised, to see him, to be present, to have all the right experiences, and still to be an unbeliever, to be without faith. Whether it’s the dishonest leaders who are perpetrating the fraud in today’s gospel, or those on the mountain who doubted at his ascension, Matthew wants us to know that there is something more than just an intellectual assent, or a particular experience, which is crucial.

What is this something more? It is the decision to worship, to trust, to believe.

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