Thursday, April 16, 2009

Sunday Reflections for April 19, 2009: "What happened to Jesus?"

(Note to CCBlog users: For some reason you are being directed here, when my most recent post is actually here. Sorry for the inconvenience.)

As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 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. 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." 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. (Mark 16, Gospel for Easter Day B)

“Hey! Where’s Jesus?” Alone among the gospels, Mark’s account of Easter has no appearance of Jesus. Instead, women come to the tomb and find it empty, except for an angel who scares the daylights out of them. Where’s Jesus? “He is not here.” But he will appear to his disciples in Galilee, the women are told. And with that they flee in terror.

How can you have Easter without an appearance of the risen Jesus? In the ecumenical three-year lectionary, Mark provides the Gospel texts most of the time in Year B (the current year). There is an option on Easter Day, however, to choose John’s Easter story instead, thus avoiding the awkwardness of a Jesus-less Easter. Another option—chosen by the ancient church—has has been rejected by the modern church, and that is to add a new ending to Mark in which Jesus does appear. There are multiple alternative endings to Mark but most scholars agree none of them are original to Mark’s gospel. It seems pretty clear that there was some unhappiness in the early church about Mark’s version of Easter, hence the attempts to “improve” his story.

In the interest of historical honesty, most recent versions of the Bible now end Mark as we see it here (perhaps putting one or more of the alternative endings in a footnote). But the main reason Mark’s Easter story carries weight (and thus ought to be chosen over the John alternate) is that New Testament scholarship is nearly unanimous in believing Mark was the first of the Bible’s gospels to be written. In fact, it’s pretty obvious that the authors of both Matthew and Luke used Mark as the basis of their own gospels (the author of John may also have had Mark in front of him but that’s less clear). Thus they both added appearances of Jesus to the Easter story they found in Mark.

So why does Jesus not appear in Mark’s Easter story? It’s hard to imagine Mark’s author left out such a detail if he knew of it. And therefore, as surprising as it might be, it seems likely that he was unaware of traditions or stories about Jesus walking around and talking to people on Easter. Nor was Paul, who wrote perhaps twenty years before Mark and who never mentions it in his letters. Thus it was not until the writing of Matthew and Luke, a half century after Jesus’ death, that there were written accounts of Jesus appearing to his followers on Easter.

How could that be? One clue is in Paul’s letters. Paul insists that, like the other apostles, he too has seen Jesus, and he implies there is no difference between his experience and theirs. The word he uses repeatedly in talking of all the apostles’ experiences of the risen Jesus is “appear” (“last of all…he appeared also to me”). The Greek word translated here is the one used in talking of what happens in a vision or a dream (a relatively common subject in ancient writing). Paul never describes his experience of Jesus though he does speak of being “caught up” into heaven, again obviously in some kind of visionary experience. Also, the stories in Acts about Paul’s conversion (but not written by him) describe his experience as being a vision of Jesus.

As a consequence, many scholars have concluded that the experiences which launched the church after Jesus’ death were visions of him raised and in heaven. Very likely the first to have such a vision was Simon Peter. (Interestingly, while this is said in multiple places to have happened, there are no New Testament stories describing Jesus appearance to Peter.) Other visionary experiences then followed, perhaps even with groups. The appearance to Paul apparently was one of the last of these. His need to assert it indicates, however, that some in the church may have questioned its authenticity.

So what do we make of the stories in the other gospels of Jesus’ Easter appearances? They are certainly more vivid, dramatic, and, we might say, “tangible”. Yet this is what has made these stories difficult for many people to swallow, especially in recent years. The physicality of the risen Jesus does raise all sorts of questions and problems. This bothers some people and not others. In any case, appreciation of Mark’s Easter story and the experience of Paul show there is more than one way to faithfully understand the resurrection of Jesus.

Many conservative Christians today insist on the literal truth of everything in the Bible. Surprisingly (perhaps), this was not the case in the pre-modern ancient and medieval church. In commentaries and preaching from those periods, metaphorical and symbolic interpretations of scripture were both popular and often considered of more value. Reading these today, they often strike us as farfetched and even bizarre. Yet they actually simply continued a tradition that long preceded them. Our concern for separating “fact from fiction” and for determining what really happened is a relatively new development and would have struck our nonscientific ancestors as odd and rather pointless.

Personally, I certainly appreciate the Easter stories where Jesus actually shows up (Luke’s “road to Emmaus” is one of my favorites). Historically, however, I do find the idea of visionary experiences of Jesus a more plausible explanation for how the “Jesus movement” got its start. What is important to realize, though, is that Christianity is not based on beliefs about what did or didn’t happen in ancient history. Faith is not based on belief in anyone else’s experience, whether it’s someone we know personally or someone who lived centuries ago. Faith can only be based on our own experience.

Paul, again, is of help here. Never does he use his experience of the risen Jesus as a reason for others to have faith (he does use it to insist on his credentials to be an apostle). Rather, “faith comes by hearing” the words of scripture and the words of preaching and witness. Or as Luther says, faith happens “in our ears” and is itself a miracle and gift of grace. And what faith does is awaken us to the presence of the risen Christ within us, rather than one wandering around a garden in ancient Palestine. “Christ in you, the hope of glory” is what is important, Paul declares.

Did God raise Jesus from the dead? Is Christ alive? As Mark implies and as Paul says, this is not a question of history. Rather, it is an existential question that we can only answer for ourselves, and for our world, today. Whether Jesus lives here and now—however you understand that—is the only question about him that really matters. “He is not here” in this tomb, the angel says. He’s gone on ahead.

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