Saturday, May 23, 2015

Reading the Gospels Together

Some Conclusion – Part 3

As we begin to think of the creation of the gospels as taking place in some fashion like I have described above we can come to another important conclusion. While the gospels all reflect upon real historical events surrounding the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the storyline of each gospel is the creation of that author and does not reflect the order in which all of those historical events actually happened – and in fact, at times the gospel writers have taken liberty with those historical events shaping them to fit their needs. For example, I think Mark, Matthew, and Luke reflect the historical fact that Jesus celebrated Passover on the night in which he was betrayed. John probably knew that too, but he took liberty with the story because he decided it was more powerful to tell his readers that Jesus was slaughtered with the Passover lambs since he was the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. When we begin to think that each gospel writer is responsible for creating their own storyline a whole world of possibilities opens for us to hear their message more clearly. And we are less likely to get hung up on all the differences we encounter. And we are less likely to be bothered by the fact that John’s storyline is vastly different from the storylines of the three synoptic gospels. None were reflecting the order in which the historical events really happened! And even when we look at the three synoptic gospels we see changes. To be sure, because they chose to make Mark the backbone of their own gospels, Matthew and Luke were in some ways bound by Mark’s storyline. But each did not hesitate to make changes at times. And each were did not hesitate to add new things into Mark’s storyline.

And, if we are able to accept the thought that each gospel writer is the one who is really responsible for their own storyline which does not necessarily reflect the actual order in which things happened we are then able to ponder how that very storyline becomes a tool for each gospel writer to tell their particular story. They did not organize things haphazardly but with great intention. And it is fascinating to discover why they did what they did. For example it is fascinating to track Mark’s creation of the part of his gospel where Jesus is attempting to teach his disciples that it was necessary for him to go to Jerusalem, be handed over by the religious leaders and be killed and on the third day rise. Mark begins with a strange story of a blind man who needs to be healed twice, tipping his hand that the disciples who see partially need to see further. Then he constructs a series of three predictions by Jesus of his coming betrayal, death, and resurrection – all of which are misunderstood by his disciples. And finally Mark finishes with the story of anther blind man, Bartimeaus, who sees and follows. All of that is purely the construction of Mark, the brilliant storyteller and gospel proclaimer! There are many other examples like that and it is indeed fascinating to attempt to follow the logic of each gospel writer as they spin forth their storyline. But that discovery is only possible if we accept the conclusion that they are the ones who created the storyline in the first place.

And once we begin to realize that each gospel writer is the creator of their own storyline a further conclusion becomes available – especially as we begin to read all four gospels together. Of course it is also in reading all four gospels together that we run into the differences which have been the focus of this study. Sometimes when we run into these differences we may be able to get a clearer picture on the historical reality that finally evades us. As I have said above we will never be able to get back to “what really happened.” But, especially when we listen to John and the synoptic gospels together we might be able to see a bit clearer. For example, Mark tells his readers that Jesus came to Jerusalem once at the end of his ministry and spent one day or at most two arguing with the religious leaders before he was arrested, crucified, and rose from the dead. Matthew and Luke, because they have been following Mark’s storyline tell their readers essentially the same thing – though they both seem a bit uneasy about it, especially Luke. And in fact in the arrest scene Mark even lets slip the words from Jesus, “Day after day I have been with you in the Temple teaching.” Something begins to not add up. And then we hear John tell his readers that Jesus arrived in Jerusalem in the fall of the year for the Feast of Booths and never really left the confines of Jerusalem until Passover five months later when he was crucified and rose from the dead. During that time in John’s gospel there is a continual argument between Jesus and the religious leaders that builds to the arrest. Perhaps this time John reflects actual reality better than Mark. We can’t say that for sure but reading the gospels together does hint at that possibility. And we begin to wonder if Mark has not invested something in bringing Jesus to Jerusalem for one powerful week to highlight the death of the Crucified Messiah. And thinking in this way only adds to the power of Mark’s story!

There is one more important question that needs to be addressed. If we begin to think of the gospels in the way we have been speaking of them in this study, how are we to think of them as the Word of God? And how are we to understand the inspiration of scripture? Those are huge questions that deserve more reflection than I can provide here. But let me attempt to address them. How are the gospels the Word of God if they contain irreconcilable differences and do not all say the same thing? I would say that are the Word of God because of what they do to us as their readers. God is happy to embrace the creative skills of their writers even if those skills lead them to say different things. The gospels are not God’s Word because of their consistency but because God speaks through them. And that’s what God’s Word always does. The whole of the Bible is like that. Mark created his gospel and did it rather brilliantly in my opinion – but it is God who speaks through Mark’s creation to create and sustain faith. What then about inspiration? Certainly any serious reading of the four gospels leads to the honesty that God did not dictate to each writer what they have written – the inspiration of scripture cannot be that given what we read in the Bible. On the other hand each gospel writer writes as a believer. And if we believe their story that God’s Spirit is present in the world then we can also rejoice that God has inspired them to write – to use the creative skills God has given them to proclaim God’s message. God puts great faith in their ability! God is a part of their lives and God moves them to proclaim. I think that’s what the inspiration of scripture is really about – God working in the lives of people to proclaim God’s Word and yet God trusting in their efforts. And the inspiration of scripture does not stop back then – it continues as God’s Spirit lives within us. God is still working in and through the writings of those first gospel writers. God speaks through them to create and sustain faith within us. Thanks be to God!

Friday, May 22, 2015

Reading the Gospels Together

Some Conclusion – Part 2

So where do we go from there? I think there are some positive conclusions we might arrive at from our experience of reading the gospels together. One of those positive conclusions is to be forced to think deeper about these gospels and why their authors wrote them in the first place. If it is impossible for us to know “what really happened” the truth is that it was also impossible for them to know “what really happened” too. That’s the way things unfold for all human beings. In actuality every event that happens in any of our lives, once it has happened, it disappears and is no longer fully available to us. What we have is only a memory of it and our response to it. Sometimes our memory might be quite vivid and even accurate but it is not the actual event. And the further we move in time from any event the less vivid it becomes. Our memories can even trick us. We can never fully retrieve the event – “what really happened.” That does not mean that the events of our life are not real or that they do not have impact on our lives but simply that they are not available to us for examination in a strictly objective way. In a very real way “what really happened” is not nearly as important as the impact of what happened has on our life anyway. Some things have little lasting impact and others have huge impact. The historic events surrounding Jesus were all real events that really happened but we can no longer get at them objectively and neither could the gospel writers. What lasts is the impact of those events. So as we attempt to think deeper about the gospels the first thing we need to realize is that our hope that somehow we, or anyone else, can finally get at “what really happened” is not available to us. It was not available to the gospel writers either. And perhaps the greater truth is that getting at “what really happened” was not the reason the gospel writers wrote their gospels anyway. They were not seeking to be historians or biographers or news reporters or court recorders – none of whom, by the way, are able to be totally objective anyway. There is no recording of “what really happened” that is not already an interpretation by the one writing it.

So, if the gospel writers were not attempting to tell us “what really happened” what were they attempting to do and how did they go about their work? What if the gospel writer’s real attempt was to bear witness to a powerful event that happened through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that changed their lives and motivated them to proclaim the good news they encountered in this experience? What if they came to believe that God encountered them in this event of Jesus? What if they came to believe that in the proclamation of the death and resurrection of Jesus God spoke to them? What if they were living in a community that shared stories of Jesus – stories of healings and teaching and most importantly the story of Jesus betrayed by human hands and crucified, of Jesus being really dead, and of God raising him from the dead, and of Jesus appearing in bodily form to his disciples? What if they heard stories of how shocking it was for those first witnesses to believe but that they did believe and risked their lives to tell the story?

And what if you were Mark? You know many of the stories but they come to you in a random sort of order. Of course you know that Jesus was baptized at the beginning of his ministry and that he died at the end but most of the rest of the stories are just random bits and pieces. And what if you were living in a community where life had grown dark and bleak. The Jewish people have seemed to have lost their minds and their way rebelling against the mighty Roman Empire. And now the city of Jerusalem is in ruins. The Temple has been destroyed. The mighty fist of Rome has prevailed and people were wondering if perhaps God has forsaken his people. Even Christian people are perplexed and wondering if the world is coming to an end – or perhaps Jesus is coming soon – but it has been a long time since his death and resurrection and some are losing heart. Many are losing their courage to follow Jesus. So you gather up the stories and you arrange them to proclaim the message you think the people in your community need to hear. You have no idea what the “right” order should be for most of the stories – but you do know the message you want to deliver. So you arrange the stories to reflect your own community’s needs and to convey the message you feel compelled to proclaim. You think of the best way you can begin this story you are arranging. Maybe you know something about the birth stories of Jesus and maybe you don’t. But you settle on the story of Jesus’ baptism and you tell the story as powerfully as you are able. And you move on from there arranging the story to proclaim the message. You want those who are living in discouragement and despair to know that it was like that for the first followers too. You want those who are feeling threatened to deny, betray, and even abandon Jesus in this dark and troubled time to realize that those same threats plagued the first followers. And so you construct your message out of the stories and you shape that message to lead to the darkness of the cross. You want your readers to focus all their attention on Jesus, the Crucified Messiah. If you and your readers are living in a dark time then you need to know that Jesus walked that road too and that ultimately he was abandoned by everyone who should have stood up for him. And so you bring your readers to the cross on a dark afternoon. You dangle a bit of hope before them in the women who watch and then you decide on the most powerful way that you might grab their attention and compel them, once again, to follow this Jesus. You draw them right into your story by letting even the women fail. Of course you know that they know that leaving these frightened women at the tomb saying nothing is not what really happened – they and you are Christians after all. You know and you know they know that these women found courage and became witnesses. And you hope that your readers will do the same – in fact you have persuaded them to do just that! And what we have come to call a gospel has been born. And in their own ways Matthew, Luke, and John have also constructed their gospels much as Mark did. They have had their own communities and their own circumstances in mind. And they have shaped their own stories to speak to those circumstances. And each gave birth to a gospel of their own. All four gospels reflect the same historical events of Jesus ministry, death, and resurrection. But all four gospels shape that reflection in different ways and tell their readers different things in order to speak to the needs of their readers. And we can be thankful for that. Our needs are not always the same either. Sometimes one gospel might speak to us better than another. And taken all together they speak to us in remarkably helpful ways. So, the first positive conclusion we might come to is to realize that the intent of all four gospel writers was to speak to their community and to the needs of that community to proclaim the gospel to their hearers. They are preachers of the good news!

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Reading the Gospels Together
Some Conclusion – Part 1
Now that we have reached the end of our study what are some conclusions that we might make? I want to begin with two conclusions that I would describe as limiting conclusion. Reading the gospels for what they say – taking them literally and seriously – leads me to these two limiting conclusions.
First, as we read the gospels together, it seems clear to me that any attempt to “harmonize” these four gospels is futile. By harmonizing I mean attempting to find a way to say that they are all saying the same things and that what may appear to be a contradictory statement somehow really isn’t. If we are going to be proclaimers of the Bible it is important that we are truthful about what the Bible says and we need to be truthful that these four gospel writers do not always agree with one another about “what really happened” and about theological issues. We might wish that the picture that emerges when we read the gospels together was not like it is. But honesty must prevail. Harmonizing the gospels is futile.
Secondly, we need to realize that the gospel writers and their stories do not lend themselves to finally being able to arrive at “what really happened” – we are simply not able to construct the “history of Jesus” or the “life of Jesus.” This is really a corollary of the first limiting conclusion above. We simply do not and cannot know the exact and detailed story of “what really happened.” This is not to say that the events of Jesus’ life that are reflected in all four gospel stories did not happen. This is not a fictitious story made up by these authors. They are all reflecting upon the same historical reality. But it is to say that the order of the events and even some of the content of the events have “slipped into the sands of time” and are lost forever. We might think that is a bad thing. Perhaps it is, but, again honesty in reading the gospels together leads us to no other conclusion. To lift up one example – Jesus cannot have died both on the day following the eating of Passover with his disciples (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) and on the Day of Preparation when the lambs were slaughtered in preparation for the Passover that evening (John) – a Passover Jesus never lived to see. The gospels as we have them simply do not lend themselves to arriving at “what really happened.”

Reading the Gospels Together

How do you end a Gospel? – Part 4

As we turn to John’s gospel we make the discovery that John’s gospel really has two endings. John’s gospel comes to a fitting end following the story of Thomas and his powerful confession that Jesus is Lord and God. But after this ending we discover that the story continues with one more story and then a final ending. We might wonder why this has happened. John’s gospel is a complicated gospel. We have noted that there are other “seams” that stick out in the story. When we read John’s gospel we can’t help but notice that sometimes we move from narrative to theology. This reality has led most scholars to the conclusion that John’s gospel is really a gospel that has passed through a series of editing. John’s gospel has spoken of a beloved disciple, an eye-witness, who is somehow at the foundation of this gospel. But as we read the gospel we also discover that the final form of the gospel likely was not written by this beloved disciple who was at the core of the community that produced John’s gospel. The final verses of the gospel speak of his death and certainly the beloved disciple could not have written those verses. So we likely have two endings in John’s gospel because some time after the gospel had ended following the Thomas story, someone added the final chapter and with it a second purpose statement. It is important for us here to listen to both endings.

The first ending following the Thomas story states the purpose for the writing of John’s gospel. John tells his readers that he has selected from among the many stories and signs he might tell them and given them this particular collection so that they might come to believe, or continue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that believing they might come to have life in his name, or continue to have life in his name. There is some dispute about whether John’s gospel is meant to be an evangelistic proclamation that brings his readers to belief and thus written for “outsiders” or if the gospel is really meant for “insiders” in the hope of helping them to continue in the belief they already have. Luckily we don’t need to choose. John’s gospel functions in both ways! By telling us this John has clearly told his readers that his intent in not to write the history of Jesus or the biography of Jesus – he has skipped some things and selected others. We have been noticing all along that all of the gospel writers are really not much interested in “what really happened” for its own sake. They are indeed evangelists and not reporters. It is helpful that John has made that clearer in his purpose statement. If we think just of this first ending, John has ended his gospel in a very successful way. The story of Thomas provides his readers with the most powerful witness to Jesus in the NT – “My Lord, and my God!” That’s a good place to end, especially when Jesus remarks that some are blessed because the see and believe but more blessed are those who do not see and yet believe. John has his readers in mind – and that includes us. We are “in the story” too. So if John’s gospel had ended at chapter 20 the ending would have been appropriate – a successful ending.

But, at a later date, someone added to what had once ended at chapter 20. Did they spoil the ending? I don’t think so. Chapter 21 is added for a couple of important reasons. We have already seen how chapter 21 is a story about the redemption of Peter – and through Peter all of Jesus’ followers, us included. Adding the story of Peter and the great catch of fish and Peter, who denied three times, three times being called to love and finally to follow is important. We can be thankful that the story is included. But there is one more reason why an addition was made. We have noted the presence of the beloved disciple in John’s gospel as an eye-witness. Though it is very unlikely that he is the author of the earlier gospel which ended at chapter 20, he likely stands in the background of the community that created John’s gospel. But now the beloved disciple has died. Apparently there was a rumor that Jesus had said that the beloved disciple would not die before Jesus’ return. The second ending of John’s gospel is meant to dispel that rumor – and thus it is a necessary ending. We can be quite certain that it is the same community that produced the earlier gospel which ended at chapter 20 that produced this further ending. The stories belong together. In the last verses of this second ending the first ending is recapped. And the book stands together as a whole.

All four gospel writers needed to choose how to end their gospel. Their endings are all different but all an appropriate to the gospel they have written. All four gospels are masterful creations of their authors. All four proclaim God’s Word to their readers. We can be thankful we have these four gospels even though we may sometimes struggle to understand them. As we read them together we hear a more complete Word from God.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Reading the Gospels Together

How do you end a Gospel? – Part 3

We have also noticed that Luke has built his gospel on the foundation he inherited from Mark’s gospel. But we have noted that Luke is much freer in his use of Mark. In many ways Luke has re-written Mark’s gospel and in the process he has changed the tone of what is said. Luke has not always agreed with Mark. Luke has a much more favorable regard for Jewish people – there are many in his gospel beginning with Elizabeth and Zechariah and ending with Joseph of Arimathea who have been waiting expectantly for the visitation of God to his people. These faithful Jewish people have been sprinkled throughout Luke’s gospel. Of course Luke is also aware of Jewish people, particularly religious leaders, who have opposed Jesus. But, for Luke, they are not the true picture of Judaism – those who welcome the visitation of God to his people are. Luke has also provided his readers with a far more positive regard for the Temple in Jerusalem, and for Jerusalem as a city. It is clear in Mark’s gospel that he thinks that the Temple must be destroyed and that Jerusalem is the city of rejection and death. Luke does not share Mark’s skepticism regarding the Temple and Jerusalem. And Luke does not share Mark’s dark and foreboding story of the whole world being plunged into darkness. Mark has told a story in which everyone has failed – even the women at the tomb. Jesus dies alone and abandoned – and Mark’s readers are left to wonder if even God has abandoned Jesus. Luke is aware of the weakness of the followers of Jesus and the struggle of being a disciple. But, the disciples do not abandon Jesus in the end – they are present at the crucifixion even if it is from a distance. And Jesus does not cry out in abandonment as he dies. Instead Jesus dies with the assurance that he commends his spirit to God. Jesus dies as the innocent one. Luke does not hesitate to provide his readers with a “happy ending” to the story. Jesus is raised and appears bodily to his disciples. Jesus helps them, and us, to recognize that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and die and be raised from the dead to fulfill the scripture. And in the end the disciples are in Jerusalem and in the Temple rejoicing and praising God. They are the true expression of Judaism. Luke would not have thought of Christianity as a new religion but the true expression of Judaism.

We might ask ourselves why Luke has made all these changes to Mark’s story. Likely it is because Luke has had in mind the second volume he will write – the book of Acts. In the book of Acts the Jewish people do receive the Messiah. The followers of Jesus are centered in Jerusalem and in the Temple. They are to begin from this center moving from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria and finally to the ends of the earth. The story in the book of Acts demands a story that sees another picture of Jerusalem, the Temple, and the disciples.

In a way Luke’s gospel doesn’t really end – it moves right into the book of Acts as one continual story. Luke ends his gospel, then, by preparing for the book of Acts. The disciples remain in Jerusalem waiting to receive power from on high. Luke previews his second volume by telling of the ascension which will be the first major story in Acts. In the first five verses of Acts Luke recaps his gospel. Like Matthew, Luke is concerned about how to speak of the presence of Jesus once bodily resurrection appearances have come to an end. Luke solves this issue in a different way from Matthew. Matthew ended by telling his readers that Jesus remains “down here” with them always. Luke tells his readers that the risen Jesus ascends “up there” at the right hand of God, the place of power, and then returns in the form of the Holy Spirit in the story of Pentecost.

Was Luke successful in the ending of his gospel? Without the book of Acts we might say that Luke’s gospel is unfinished too. When we realize that his ending paves the way for the book of Acts it is a fitting ending. Luke and Acts belong together and Luke’s ending clearly makes that connection.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Reading the Gospels Together

How do you end a Gospel? – Part 2

We have noticed how Matthew has built his gospel on the foundation that Mark has provided him. Matthew has added material to Mark’s gospel not so much that Mark’s gospel is inadequate but that Matthew’s community needed to hear a new word in their time. Matthew chooses not to end his gospel in the same way that Mark did. You can only “pull the rug out” from under readers once. So Matthew tells his readers what Mark’s gospel leaves wide open and only implies. Though the women leave the empty tomb in fear they also leave in great joy and, even though Matthew does not actually tell that part of the story, the women tell the news and the disciples go to Galilee where they see Jesus, just as he had said.

Matthew ends his gospel by telling that story of the disciples seeing Jesus in Galilee. We have noticed in Matthew’s telling of the story he has often softened Mark’s harsh view of the disciples. The disciples are teachable and capable. In Matthew’s story of the disciples seeing Jesus in Galilee he pictures Jesus, the teacher greater than Moses, taking his disciples up the mountain and there Jesus commissions them to go and make disciples of all nations. Matthew is concerned about the witness of this story to everyone. That witness will move out from these first followers who have participated in the events surrounding the ministry of Jesus and his death and resurrection. But Matthew is also concerned about how these first witnesses will be sustained in the world. And so Matthew ends his gospel with the comforting words that Jesus will remain with them here on earth to the end of the age. Matthew does not explain how that will happened but readers can be assured that Jesus will keep his promises. We had noticed that Mark had set up his readers by providing them several predictions of Jesus all of which come true. The only prediction in Mark’s gospel that Mark leaves unfulfilled is the promise of Jesus that after Jesus has been raised from the dead he will go ahead of his disciples to Galilee and there they will see him. We can be sure that Mark knows that did happen. Matthew has repeated all of those predictions and their fulfilment in his gospel too. And now Matthew tells of the fulfilment of the last promise left dangling in Mark. Jesus appears to his disciples in Galilee after the resurrection just as he promised! And then Jesus makes one more prediction or promise – that he will be with his disciples to the end of the age. We can be sure that Jesus will keep that promise too because what Jesus says will happen always does!

Was Matthew successful in the way he has ended his gospel? Matthew’s last words of Jesus have been a comfort to many. Too often we think of God “up there” and even that the goal of being a Christian is to get “up there” where God is. We need Matthew’s witness that Jesus in not “up there” but “down here” with us in the world. Of course we likely need more than just Matthew’s clear voice to sustain us but we also need his clear voice to help us stay grounded in the world that God has made. So Jesus is with us and because he is with us we can be God’s people in the world. Matthew has accomplished his purpose in his gospel.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Reading the Gospels Together

How do you end a Gospel? – Part 1

Just as each gospel writer needed to make a decision about how to begin their gospel they also needed to make a decision about how to end their gospel. We have already come to the end of each gospel so our reading this week will be to review Mark 16:1-8; Matthew 28:16-20; Luke 24:50-53 and Acts 1:1-5; and John 20:30-32 and John 21:20-25.

We have already spent a good deal of time thinking about how Mark chose to end his gospel so we will not need to spend much time here. Mark creatively ends his gospel by “pulling the rug out” from under his readers feet. His “surprise ending” is meant to draw Mark’s readers into his story and challenge them to be a witness for Jesus. We have noticed that Mark as not told us what actually happened – at least not all that happened. Was Mark successful in choosing to end in this way? I think he was – in fact his ending is the most powerful ending of any gospel. Yet, Mark has left himself open to misunderstanding – the alternate endings to Mark’s gospel are evidence of that. All those who attempt to “fix” Mark’s ending likely have not really got Mark’s point. This “surprise ending” is really a mark of Mark’s brilliance and we need to give him credit for it.

There is one more thing that we should notice about Mark’s ending. Mark’s ending drives his readers back to the beginning of his gospel. Readers of Mark’s gospel are told that when Jesus died the curtain of the Temple was torn in two which alerts his readers to the way in which Mark began his gospel with the heavens be torn open at the time of Jesus’ baptism. Mark wants us to make this connection – and likely as we are stunned by his “surprise ending” we are driven back to read the story again. And when we start reading Mark’s gospel again we hear the words, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” and it may dawn on us that everything that Mark has written is only the beginning. The gospel continues far beyond Mark’s gospel which is only the beginning. Mark is depending on his readers to carry his gospel forward into the world – to finish his gospel.

Mark has written a wonderful gospel. It is a powerful expression of God’s action in and through Jesus, the Crucified Messiah. Mark has given us all we need. His gospel is a treasure for us to cherish and share with one another. It is God’s Word proclaimed to us to create and sustain faith. What is most important about Mark’s gospel is what it does to us!

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Reading the Gospels Together

The Resurrection – Part 7

We have just noted that John’s gospel has ended – but there is one more chapter to deal with. There were alternate endings to Mark’s gospel and I dispensed them as not being authentic or helpful. Is the same true about John’s “second ending?” Certainly not! Mark’s alternate endings were clearly produced by someone other than Mark and were poor attempts to “fix” Mark’s gospel. The “second ending” of John’s gospel is clearly written by the same John who last edited the whole gospel. The “second ending” belongs to the gospel! So we will treat this ending as we have the whole gospel.

John provides his readers with a fourth bodily resurrection appearance of Jesus. Like Luke, all of John’s appearance stories so far have been in Jerusalem. Restricting these appearances to Jerusalem and nearby was crucial for Luke who has centered his gospel on Jerusalem and the Temple and will move out from there in the book of Acts. The urgency of remaining in Jerusalem is not important to John – his resurrection appearance stories happen there simply because they are connected so closely with the time of the crucifixion and resurrection. This fourth appearance story happens in Galilee and apparently some time has passed. We will recall that Mark, who provides no resurrection appearance stories for his readers, had recorded Jesus words to his disciples predicting that they would see him in Galilee. Matthew who faithfully follows Mark throughout most of the Passion Narrative had also recorded Jesus prediction that the disciples would see the resurrected Jesus in Galilee. After providing a brief appearance story in Jerusalem at the tomb, Matthew provides his readers with the appearance story of the resurrected Jesus in Galilee Jesus had predicted. Luke had removed Mark’s reference to the disciples seeing the resurrected Jesus in Galilee so he has no need to tell that story – in fact he has likely suppressed information in order to preserve his storyline centering on Jerusalem. John shares none of these concerns or problems. One might ask why John has told this story. As we enter into it we find an answer. This story in John is important mostly because it is about the redemption of Peter.

John’s story begins with seven disciples of Jesus gathering at the Sea of Tiberius (Sea of Galilee). John identifies three disciples by name – Simon Peter, Thomas, and Nathaniel of Cana – and mentions four others who are unnamed – the sons of Zebedee and two others. This is the first and only time John mentions the sons of Zebedee in his gospel. We have met Nathaniel before in John’s gospel and need to note that he is not one of the named Twelve in the synoptic gospels. In a short time we will learn the identity of one of the unnamed disciples – though he will remain unnamed since he is the “beloved disciple.” This is one of the places where some have wanted to equate the beloved disciple with John the son of Zebedee but we have already discounted that for plenty of other reasons earlier. It is likely that John understood the beloved disciple as one of the other two unnamed in this story.

We soon discover that the disciples have returned to fishing as Peter tells them his plans and they join him. Are readers of John’s gospel supposed to think that the disciples have become disillusioned and have abandoned following Jesus? That is certainly a possibility although John does not say that specifically – the scene in ambiguous so we are probably better off not jumping to that conclusion. So the disciples engage in a fishing expedition and readers soon realize that we have heard a version of this story before. Luke had told a story of Peter and his friends fishing on the Sea of Galilee and having no success. Jesus tells them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat and their nets are filled with fish. Peter’s response is to fall at Jesus’ feet and tell Jesus to leave him since he is a sinful man. Instead Jesus lifts Peter to his feet and calls him to become a disciple. We remember Luke’s story of the call of Peter. Clearly this is the same story – although John will use it in a very different way. In John’s story Peter and his friends are equally unsuccessful in their fishing expedition. Jesus is on the shore and tells them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat. They do and there is a great catch of fish. At this point John introduces his readers to the beloved disciple who recognizes that it is the resurrected Jesus. When he tells Peter, Peter plunges into the sea and comes to Jesus. Jesus has prepared breakfast for his disciples and welcomes them to come and eat. John tells his readers that they all know this is the resurrected Jesus but none dares to ask him.

The story continues as Jesus confronts Peter. Readers are reminded of the three times Peter denied Jesus around the charcoal fire in the court of the high priest. Peter probably remembers too – especially as his encounter with Jesus unfolds. There is a charcoal fire in this story too. Three times Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. Three times Peter responds that he does. Three times Jesus tells Peter to feed his sheep. This is a skillful story woven by John to tell his readers of the redemption of Peter. Mark had left Peter weeping at the end of his denial. John has not provided his readers with that information and we should not comingle Mark and John here but the result of John’s story is to say to Peter and to every other follower who has failed Jesus that redemption is possible and sought by Jesus for his followers. After the three exchanges between Jesus and Peter John tells his readers that Jesus tells Peter that his life will end when he has grown old and someone else will stretch out his arms and take Peter where he does not want to go. Most readers of John’s gospel have understood this as a reference to Peter’s own death which tradition outside the Bible recalls to have been by crucifixion in Rome. John is ambiguous about that but his description makes the connection plausible. Jesus’ last words to Peter are “Follow me” – they are the words of Jesus to all who believe in him. And with this story John wraps up his gospel for a second time. John will provide his readers with one more piece of information that is connected with the appearance story regarding the fate of the beloved disciple. We will save that story for our discussion regarding “How do you end a gospel?”

We have now heard the resurrection stories of all four gospel writer. We have noted many similarities among them. All place at least one woman, Mary Magdalene, at the tomb on the first day of the week. All four tell their readers the empty tomb story. Mark stops there in order to spring his trap on his readers. Likely Mark knows much more but chooses not to tell his readers. The remaining three gospel writers tell their readers a variety of bodily resurrection appearance stories. Most of these stories diverge from one another – although Luke and John tell the same story of Jesus and his disciples in a room in Jerusalem on the evening of the day of resurrection. We might ask ourselves what was the main point each gospel writer wanted to convey to their readers. Matthew seems intent on doing two things. First he is aware of false rumors that Jesus had not really been raised at all and that his disciples had stolen his body. Matthew’s story of the guards is his way of defending his readers from the false and sinister accusation of non-believing Jews who lived nearby. Matthew’s gospel reveals a dangerous and bitter rivalry between Jews and Jewish Christians of his community that we need to handle with care lest anti-Semitism raise its ugly head. And Matthew’s second purpose is to provide his readers with the story of the resurrected Jesus meeting his disciples in Galilee just as he had said he would. That story then evolves into Matthew’s concern about how the followers of Jesus should think about the presence of the unseen Jesus once bodily resurrection appearances had ceased. Matthew concludes his gospel by telling his readers that Jesus is with them down on earth till the end of the age. Luke also has at least two things in mind. First Luke is intent on telling his readers that the resurrected Jesus they now encounter is the same Jesus who lived bodily among them before his crucifixion and still exists bodily among them though Jesus’ resurrected body is not quite of the same nature as before. He can be unrecognizable and pass through closed door appearing and disappearing suddenly – yet his resurrected body can still be touched and can eat – it is still a real body. Luke is also concerned about moving his story into his second volume which is the book of Acts. Luke also knows about the challenge of speaking of the presence of the resurrected Jesus as time goes forward. He ends his gospel by bridging it into his book of Acts where he will speak of ascension and the story of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit empowers the follower of Jesus. John shares much of the same concern as Luke. He has already begun to address the absence of the “seeable” Jesus earlier in his gospel. His resurrection appearance stories continue that concern ending with his statement of purpose that those who hear might believe or continue to believe.

Before we leave these resurrection stories it is important that we take a brief look at what Paul wrote to the Corinthians. There Paul tells the Corinthians these words: “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, 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. 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, and that he was buried, and that he was raised to life on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. Then he appeared to more than 500 brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared to me also.” What is the testimony of Paul? Jesus died. Jesus was buried. Jesus was raised from the dead. Jesus appeared. Many have noticed that this is the Passion Narrative in miniature. None of the details are provided. None are needed. But it is important that Paul bears witness that this claim – Jesus died, was buried, was raised, and appeared – is at the center of the Christian proclamation and has been so from the very earliest time. Regardless of what else we might think about the story of Jesus this essential proclamation remains. All four gospel writers come together to proclaim exactly what Paul has said so briefly. All four believe that this is exactly what happened. To be sure it remains a matter of faith and not proof. But we are called to believe with them that Jesus was crucified and died, that he was buried, that he was raised from the dead, and that he appeared. Nothing else matters.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Reading the Gospels Together

The Resurrection – Part 6

As we turn to John’s gospel we find many similarities to the synoptic gospels and some differences. Like the synoptic gospels John tells his readers that it is a woman who is the first witness to the resurrection of Jesus and the first evangelist to proclaim the good news. All four gospel writers tell their readers that it is Mary Magdalene who is that first witness. She is the only woman John names. Mark, Matthew and Luke said other women were with her. The witness of a woman was not dependable at the time when the gospels were written. But the gospel writers nonetheless tell us that the first witness(s) were women. We should not doubt that this was historically true – no thinking author would have made such a thing up! That at least Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and found it empty is virtually indisputable.

Having noted this important similarity we do need to recognize that John’s story is significantly different from the synoptic writer’s story. Since in John’s gospel Jesus did receive a proper burial by Joseph or Arimathea and Nicodemus, Mary Magdalene did not come to the tomb with spices and her purpose was not to anoint the dead body of Jesus (Mark and Luke) but likely to grieve (Matthew). John does not tell his readers how the stone was rolled away – in fact John had not even mentioned a stone during the burial. Only Matthew tells the story of the earthquake and the angel coming to remove the stone. So, John joins Mark and Luke in reporting that the stone was already removed by the time Mary Magdalene arrives. John does not tell us that Mary Magdalene entered the tomb or that she encounters anyone when she first arrived but it is clear that she believes the tomb is empty. Her immediate reaction is to think that someone has stolen the dead body of Jesus. In her sorrow Mary Magdalene runs to tell Peter and the others what she has discovered. Peter and the beloved disciple run immediately to the tomb to verify Mary’s testimony. The beloved disciple has become an important character in John’s gospel and so John tells the story of how that disciple outran Peter and arrived first but he defers to Peter to enter the tomb first. As they enter the tomb they see only the linen wrappings lying where the body had been placed and that the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head was rolled up in a place by itself. John first indicates that the beloved disciple saw this and believed but then he undermines that report by saying that they did not understand the scripture, that Jesus must rise from the dead. The implication is that Peter does not yet believe. Peter and the beloved disciple return to their homes. Luke had reported that when the women came to report their finding to the disciples Peter had ran to the tomb and found that it was in fact empty but they he is only amazed and not believing. In John’s gospel Mary Magdalene is left alone at the tomb. She decides to look inside and discovers that now there are two angels in white sitting inside. They ask her why she is weeping. Mary either does not realize they are angels or is not impressed by them. She replies by repeating her assumption that someone has stolen the body of Jesus and then turns apparently to leave. She encounters Jesus but does not recognize him – much like the Emmaus travelers do not recognize Jesus at first. Jesus asks her why she is weeping and asks her who she is looking for. Readers of John’s gospel may remember Jesus’ very first words in John’s gospel when he asks the disciples of John what they are looking for. For the third time Mary repeats her assumption that someone has stolen the body and asks Jesus if he has taken the body and if he has to return it to her. Then Jesus speaks her name and Mary Magdalene realizes that this is Jesus! John provides his readers with a rather ambiguous and confusing bit of information at this point. Jesus tells Mary not to hold on to him because he has not yet ascended to the Father. What this means escapes most interpreters. Jesus will appear soon to the disciples and there is no mention of this at that time – in fact a week later Thomas will be invited to touch Jesus hands and feet. John’s first empty tomb/bodily resurrection appearance concludes with Mary going to the disciples and announcing to them that she has seen the Lord. John does not record their reaction. We may recall that Matthew had also told his readers that the women encounter the risen Jesus as they leave the tomb. Matthew and John agree about that.

John now tells his readers a second bodily resurrection appearance of Jesus – it is a story John shares with Luke so we have heard Luke’s version of it already. It is evening on the first day of the week after Jesus’ resurrection. John tells his readers that the disciples are gathered behind locked doors for fear of the Jews. Just as in Luke’s version of this story Jesus suddenly appears in their midst – the locked doors serves both to identify the disciples’ fear and to let the reader know of Jesus’ ability to pass through locked doors – his resurrected body has a quality that ordinary bodies do not possess. Luke and John agree on this. Inside the room, John does not tell the story in the same way that Luke had. There is no mention of seeing a ghost or of the need for Jesus to invite them to touch his hands and feet or to give him fish to eat. Instead Jesus offers a word of peace to his disciples and bestows on them the Holy Spirit. Jesus does this by breathing on them which likely alludes to God breathing the breath of life into Adam in the Genesis story. Luke also tells his readers of the coming Holy Spirit but his story is very different from John’s. We have seen how all of the gospels deal with the absence and yet continuing presence of the risen Jesus in the time following the resurrection.

Readers of John’s gospel soon discover that a problem has arisen following the resurrection appearance of Jesus on the evening of the first day of the week. One of the disciples, Thomas, was not present. Even though the other disciples tell him that they have seen the Lord, Thomas does not believe. Their witness fails. We have seen how the witness of the women in Luke’s gospel also ends in failure. Witnessing is challenging and believing is not easy! How true that remains for us, too. So John tells his readers a third resurrection appearance story. A week has passed and once again the disciples are gathered together in a room where the door is shut. This time Thomas is with them. And John tells his readers that once again Jesus suddenly appears in their midst. John has not mentioned that the doors were locked so this time the mention of the doors being shut is meant to indicate the unusualness of Jesus ability to appear in their midst without passing through an open door. Like Luke, John understands the nature of the resurrected body of Jesus to be like the body of Jesus before his death yet different – it is the same body yet a resurrected body. Once again Jesus offers his disciples the gift of peace and then invites Thomas to place his finger in the nail prints and his hand in Jesus’ side. Jesus also invites Thomas to believe. Thomas does not touch Jesus. Without touching Jesus he makes the most powerful confession in the NT – “My Lord and my God!” A question often arises about whether or not the early Christians understood Jesus to somehow be God. At this point John certainly does – in fact we have seen from the beginning that John has thought of Jesus as the God-man. The early Christians likely did not have all the nuances that have entered into later theology evolving into the Christian idea of the Trinity. But it does seem clear from passages like this and from some of the words of Paul and the other gospel writers that they did understand Jesus to be something greater than human. They only came to that understanding after the resurrection. They were driven to such thinking as they reflected on their experience of what had happened. Thomas is reminded that he believed only after seeing. Jesus speaks a word to all those who believe in the intervening years since the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection praising them as those who have not seen and yet believe. We are numbered with those believers.

Incidentally, it is likely significant that John places these two resurrection appearance stories on consecutive Sundays. Already at John’s time it is likely that Christians were moving to worship on the first day of the week – Sunday – instead of the Sabbath.

At this point John’s gospel comes to an end. Just as Luke had provided his readers with a statement of his purpose in writing at the very beginning of his gospel, John provides his readers with the purpose of his gospel at that end. John tells us some significant things in these two short verses. First of all he tells us that he has not told us everything he knows – there are many other signs that Jesus did. John tells us that he has selected the ones he has told us with the hope that we might come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing we might have life in his name. Actually there is another way to hear what John is saying at this point. It is equally correct to understand that John is telling his readers that he has written his gospel so that they might continue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah and that by continuing to believe they might have life. Understanding the sentence in the first way implies that John wants to bring unbelievers to belief. Understanding the sentence in the second way implies that John is writing to people who already believe and that his purpose is to help and encourage them to keep on believing. Both are true and worthy purposes for John’s gospel. An important thing to hear in this statement of John is that the gospel writers like him are not much interested in providing factual information about Jesus – of acting like a court reporter providing the facts. What they are interested in is engaging their readers in such a way that faith is formed. It’s not just knowing about Jesus or even having the story straight but it is about believing in Jesus and trusting in him. All of the gospel writers share this motive and thus that arrange and present their gospels not to record history or biography but to proclaim – to evangelize. We do them all a disservice when we judge them with historical accuracy. The truth likely is that no one knows what “really happened” and that is not very important after all. The proclamation is.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Reading the Gospels Together

The Resurrection – Part 5

Luke proceeds to tell his readers of a third resurrection appearance story. This is a resurrection appearance story that Luke shares with John although the details of these two stories differ between the two writers. As Luke tells the story it is during that very evening when the Emmaus travelers have returned to Jerusalem in great joy that Jesus suddenly appears among those gathered. We had noted how Jesus had been unrecognizable to the Emmaus travelers at first and that following his revealing of himself in the breaking of the bread he had suddenly disappeared. His appearance now is also sudden. Luke tells his readers that those gathered in the room were terrified thinking they were seeing a ghost. Jesus addresses them inviting them to touch his body, to see the nail prints in his hands and feet, and finally to give him a piece of fish to eat. Luke’s point it to tell his readers that Jesus has a real body – though now it is a resurrected body. This is not just a “spiritual” Jesus but the same Jesus who was crucified and died but is now existing in a resurrected body. And the stories that Luke has told reflect that – one can see the body of the resurrected Jesus and not recognize him, Jesus disappears, something bodies do not do ordinarily, and Jesus appears suddenly without walking into the room. John will reflect this same idea in his resurrection appearance stories. Though Luke insists this is a real bodily Jesus who is among them in his resurrected body, this body is also different from what was the case prior to his crucifixion and death. In the fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians Paul also struggles with this idea as he talks about our own resurrected bodies – he calls the resurrected body a “spiritual body.” All of this is difficult for any of us to understand – it is beyond our point of reference in this world. But Luke’s point is clear – the disciples are to realize that the Jesus who lived among them in bodily form is the same Jesus who appears to them in the same body though now it is a resurrected body. It is not an allusion or a figment of the imagination but a real presence – a continuation of the existence of Jesus – from life in a body in this world through death and into new life in the same body beyond this world though now it is a resurrected body. Once this has been established Luke goes on to tell his readers that, just as Jesus had taught the Emmaus travelers, he now instructs his disciples about everything written about him in the OT – the Law of Moses, the prophets, and the Psalms. Jesus opens their heart to understand that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day. As we read all of the gospel stories we recognize how all four reach back into the OT to help them tell the story of Jesus – what happened to Jesus is interpreted through the lens of the OT. And thus, the OT also shades how the story is told. There are some who would argue that the gospel writers simply took OT passages and created the story of Jesus from them. That is surely not the case. They had the raw data about what had happened to Jesus and found OT passages that helped to understand that raw data – and in the process, at times, the story was influenced by the OT. Jesus begins that process for them. And having put them on that road Jesus re-commissions his disciples to be witnesses to all the nations beginning from Jerusalem. We have already seen how Jerusalem and the Temple have remained important to Luke throughout his gospel. He has not agreed with Mark in this case. We have also seen how Luke has mitigated and softened Mark’s appraisal of the disciples – they are neither failures nor dense. They are capable of fulfilling their mission once they have been clothed with power from on high. Luke is preparing his readers for his second volume – the book of Acts.

Luke is nearing the end of his gospel – but it is not really an ending because Luke is already moving forward into the book of Acts where he intends to tell the story of what unfolds for the followers of Jesus. In the beginning of the book of Acts, Luke will tell his readers the story of the ascension of Jesus. He previews it in the final verses of his gospel. Jesus leads his disciples out as far as Bethany which readers remember was at the summit of the Mount of Olives. There Jesus blesses his disciples and withdraws being carried into heaven – much like Elijah was carried into heaven in the OT. Luke tells his readers that the followers of Jesus now worship him and then return to the city of Jerusalem with great joy and are continually in the Temple blessing and praising God. Luke’s gospel comes to an end – but it is an end that leads immediately into the book of Acts. Without the book of Acts Luke’s gospel remains unfinished. We have noted how Mark leaves his gospel unfinished too but in a very different way. Readers are not frustrated with Luke’s ending – though they are likely anticipating the book of Acts. Luke had begun his story in Jerusalem in the Temple and that is where he ends it. And it is in Jerusalem that Luke will begin his second volume. We need to look just briefly at that beginning to wrap up Luke’s story.

As the book of Acts begins Luke tells his readers that Jesus presented himself alive to his followers by “many convincing proofs” appearing to them during the forty days following his resurrection. During that time Jesus teaches his followers more about the kingdom of God and commands them once again not to leave the city of Jerusalem until they have been baptized with the Holy Spirit. There is a hint of misunderstanding in Luke’s beginning of his second volume – the disciples wonder if this is the time when Jesus will “restore the kingdom to Israel.” Jesus tells them that it is not for the followers of Jesus to know such things but rather he reminds them again that they must receive power from God and once they do they will be witnesses to the ends of the earth beginning in Jerusalem. What were they thinking when they ask if this is the time for the restoration of the kingdom to Israel? Luke does not tell us. Was their view too narrow? Were they still thinking of a political kingdom where Israel would reign supreme? Were they thinking that the great and terrible day of the Lord was immanent and that the close of this age was about to happen? They and we are left without an answer – but, in the meantime, they and we have a commission and that commission is to bear witness to the entire world. And having commissioned his disciples once again, Luke retells the story of Jesus being taken up into heaven – the story with which he had closed his gospel. Jesus is taken up into heaven and two men suddenly appear with the disciples asking them why they are gazing up toward heaven. The two men remind them that Jesus will come in the same way they have seen him go into heaven. Is the mention of these two men reminiscent of the two men at the empty tomb? Perhaps. Luke provides no further information for his readers and moves forward into his story of the church.

All four gospel writers had to deal with what happened to Jesus after the death and resurrection – or at least three of them did since Mark just leaves everything “up in the air.” Matthew, Luke, and John all deal with this in different ways. We have heard Matthew tell his readers that the final promise of Jesus is that he will remain with them until the end of the age. There is no ascension in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus remains with his disciples down here on earth. Just how that happens is something Matthew does not address – but readers of Matthew’s gospel are lead to think of Jesus as being here on earth in some fashion with his disciples. John does not tell his readers an ascension story either. John tells his readers that in his first resurrection appearance Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into his followers thus commissioning them to bear witness in the world. Actually, John has been concerned about how the disciples would be able to go forward after the death and resurrection of Jesus much earlier in his gospel. In John’s long discourse during the meal scene Jesus addresses how his followers are to go forward once he has returned to the Father. Jesus promised them then that he would send another Advocate to be with them – in fact Jesus had promised them that he would not leave them as orphans and that he would remain with them. Exactly how this was to happen is something John leaves as open-ended as Matthew does. It has been clear from the very beginning of John’s gospel that Jesus has come from the Father and is returning to the Father – Jesus is from above and those who are his followers must be born from above. As John’s gospel comes to a close it closes only with the promise that those who believe in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, will have life in his name. Of course all four gospel writers are aware that Jesus is no longer physically present. Luke addresses that reality more fully than any of the others. Luke speaks of a point in time when the resurrected Jesus ascended to heaven to reign at the right hand of God. In the short period of time between his resurrection and ascension Luke tells his readers that Jesus appeared bodily in his resurrected body. Once Jesus has ascended the Holy Spirit would come upon the followers. It is only Luke who tells his readers the story of Pentecost – the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. But that is part of Luke’s second book. There remains something mysterious about the presence of the risen Jesus in all of the gospels. We still have difficulty understanding and talking about the presence of Jesus in our lives. But Luke has given us a hint about how we might think of this. It is by word and sacrament that Jesus makes himself present. The Emmaus story and the upper room story hinge on the disciples recognizing Jesus in the breaking of the bread – Holy Communion – and in Jesus teaching how Jesus fulfils the OT – Word. Both Word and Sacraments are mysterious in their working. They have been from the earliest time and continue today.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Reading the Gospels Together

The Resurrection – Part 4

As we turn to Luke’s gospel we need to recall that Luke has been freely re-writing Mark’s gospel in his own style and not following Mark closely throughout the Passion Narrative. That continues as Luke tells his readers of the resurrection of Jesus, however, it is interesting that Luke is closer to Mark than Matthew was in a number of ways. Mark had mentioned the women bringing spices to the tomb which suggests that the motive for coming to the tomb was to provide a more proper burial for Jesus since he had hastily been wrapped in a linen cloth by Joseph and placed in the tomb. So does Luke. Mark tells his readers that the women find the tomb already open when they arrive. So does Luke but he does not mention the women’s consternation regarding how the stone would be rolled away. Mark says that the women enter the open tomb and find the “young man” sitting inside. So does Luke although he adds the touch that the women see that the tomb is empty and are perplexed by this and then encounter two men. Why Luke mentions two men is not clear although there will also be two men at the side of the disciples when Jesus is taken up into heaven in the book of Acts. Of course Luke has not mentioned the young man fleeing naked at the time of the arrest and perhaps he wants to dispel any thought of that for his readers. Both Mark and Luke speak of the messenger(s) inside the tomb in ordinary human terms and not necessarily as angel(s). They are both ambiguous about that. Both Mark and Luke tell their readers that the women are terrified by the experience – and then each goes in their own way. Up to this point Luke has essentially been telling the same story Mark has told. At this point Luke diverges from Mark. The message of the men inside the tomb is different. Mark told his readers that the message was that Jesus was risen and that the disciples of Jesus would see him in Galilee. Luke reminds his readers of the passion predictions of Jesus which happened in Galilee as the women are told “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Luke tells his readers that the women do indeed remember and leave the tomb of their own volition and go to tell the eleven and all the rest. In Luke’s gospel no command to go and tell is given. The women see the empty tomb, are reminded of Jesus’ words, and leave to tell. It is at this point that Luke first identifies who the women are.

Earlier he had left them nameless as they watched the crucifixion from a distance, as they saw where the dead body Jesus was buried, and as they bought spices before they rested on the Sabbath. Luke pictures a larger group of witnesses, including male disciples, at least witnessing the crucifixion; and then limits the witness of the burial and now of the resurrection to an unspecified number of women, three of whom he names – Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James. We will recall that Mark (and also Matthew) had named three women witnesses – Mary Magdalene (both), Mary the mother of James and Joses (Mark) or Joseph (Matthew), and Salome (Mark) or the mother of the sons of Zebedee (Matthew). The two names in common among all three are Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James. We have already discussed the possibility that Mary the mother of James is Jesus’ mother. If that is true all three synoptic writers agree that Mary Magdalene and Jesus’ mother were among these women. John had spoken likely of four women – Jesus’ mother, who John never names in his gospel, Jesus’ mother’s sister who is also unnamed, another Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene being at the foot of the cross. John will place only Mary Magdalene at the tomb as the sole first witness of the resurrection. The one name in common among the four gospel writers in all these events is Mary Magdalene.

As we return to Luke’s gospel, Luke tells his readers that these women see, hear, and remember and then return to tell the others – in particular the male disciples. They all think the report of the women is an idle tale and they do not believe them. The first witnesses are unsuccessful! Luke does tell his readers that Peter leaves and runs to the tomb and looks inside seeing only the linen cloth and that the tomb is indeed empty but Peter can return home only amazed – he still does not believe! We will hear that John also tells of Peter and the beloved disciple running to the tomb when Mary Magdalene announces to them that the tomb is empty. They go and check it out finding the tomb to be indeed empty but John is ambiguous about whether or not they believe Jesus was raised from the dead. It is only after Peter and the beloved disciple have left in John’s gospel that Mary Magdalene encounters the angels and the risen Jesus and comes to believe that Jesus is the risen Lord. This shared bit of information between Luke and John is interesting. Was one or the other really aware of the other’s gospel? More likely they shared a common piece of tradition that was passed along orally before any of the gospels were written. Luke’s point seems to be that the women are faithful witnesses but their witness is not believed by the male disciples. More will be needed for them to believe.

Like Mark before him, Luke has provided his readers with an empty tomb story of the resurrection which turns out to be unconvincing at least to some. Luke will now go on to tell his readers two stories of bodily resurrection appearances of Jesus – the other type of resurrection story. The first story is delightfully told by Luke. Two followers of Jesus who have become discouraged because Jesus was crucified are travelling home. A stranger comes and walks with them. Luke tells his readers that it is Jesus but that they do not recognize him – in fact they are prevented from recognizing him. Luke does not tell his readers why they are prevented from recognizing Jesus. One could only wish Luke had said more – we still are caught by the mystery of why they would be prevented from recognizing Jesus except that if they had recognized him the story would have been a lot shorter and Luke would not have been able to weave his delightful story. Luke’s story is filled with humor and irony. Jesus asks them what they are discussing and they reply in surprise how it might be that Jesus is unaware of what has just happened in Jerusalem – is Jesus the only uninformed person? Ironically, of course, the stranger they are telling these things to is Jesus who was at the center of it all! They tell Jesus that they had hoped that the Jesus they had witnessed being crucified was the one to redeem Israel. Ironically, Jesus, the stranger they are talking with is the redeemer. They tell Jesus that to top it all off some women had been to the tomb and found it empty and had told a tale of seeing a vision of angels but when Peter, a man, went to the tomb he found it empty just as the women had said but he didn’t see Jesus. They dismiss the witness of silly women. Ironically the women were telling the truth. At this point the stranger begins to speak telling his fellow travelers how foolish they are and how slow to believe the all that the prophets had declared. And then this stranger gives them a Bible lesson – beginning with the books of Moses he interprets for them the things about himself. When they arrive at the home of these two travelers Jesus intends to go further but they persuade him to stay with them for the night. Inside the house Jesus takes the bread, breaks it, gives thanks and gives it to them – the Holy Communion liturgy! And suddenly those who were prevented from seeing see. The sacrament leads to faith! And Jesus disappears. This resurrection appearance story is cloaked in mystery but it does lead these two travelers to come to believe. And they race back to Jerusalem to tell the other – only to find that they already know! Jesus has appeared to Simon – certainly this Simon is Peter and he too now believes that Jesus is raised from the dead. Luke does not tell the story of the resurrection appearance to Peter. The Emmaus travelers tell the others how the resurrected Jesus had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread – another pointer to the power of the sacrament!

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Reading the Gospels Together

The Resurrection – Part 3

We have noticed how throughout the Passion Narrative Matthew has been following Mark quite closely. There are only a few minor differences between the two. All of this changes in Matthew’s story of the resurrection. One can see that Mark’s story rests in the background of Matthew’s gospel but Matthew has made some significant adjustments. Matthew had mention three women who witnessed the crucifixion and burial. That number has now been reduced to two – Mary Magdalene and the other Mary. In itself that is a minor difference. But Matthew has also left out the bringing of spices and the consternation of the women regarding who will roll away the stone. Matthew’s readers get the impression that the women are not really planning on entering the tomb but rather are going there to “see the tomb” – most likely to grieve. Matthew gives the impression that the women are already there when an earthquake occurs and an angel, whose appearance is like lightning and whose clothing is a white as snow, comes and rolls back the stone and sits upon it. This is very different from Mark’s portrait of a young man – not necessarily an angel but perhaps we are to understand the young man in this way – sitting inside the tomb. Matthew loves the dramatic and this is far more dramatic than Mark – remember Matthew also spoke of an earthquake at the time of Jesus’ death which was another dramatic scene. Only Matthew had mentioned guards at the tomb and now his attention turns to them. They are so shaken they appear as dead men. They will have a role shortly. Turning his attention back to the women, Matthew tells his readers that the angel tells them that he knows they are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not in the tomb and the women are invited to see the place where he once laid. The women are commanded to go and tell the disciples that Jesus has been raised and that he is going ahead of them to Galilee where they will see him. The message to the women is essentially the same as the message to the women in Mark’s gospel. Matthew tells his readers that the women leave the tomb quickly with fear and great joy and intend to go to tell the disciples as they have been told. Matthew radically changes Mark’s story! The women never make it to the disciples in Matthew’s story. Instead they are met by the risen Jesus who appears to them bodily. They fall at his feet in worship and Jesus gives them the same command the angel did. Matthew clearly implies that they in fact do go and tell the disciples the message. The only type of resurrection story Mark told his readers was the “empty tomb” type. Matthew combines an “empty tomb” resurrection story with a “resurrected bodily appearance” story. Not only do the women witness an empty tomb, they also see the resurrected Jesus in his resurrected body. Apparently the women are convinced first by the sight of the empty tomb and then by the appearance of Jesus. Only Matthew spares the followers of Jesus from doubting the resurrection. For all intents and purposes Mark had told a story of disbelief and never moves on to speak of believing – we have already talked about Mark’s reasons for doing this. Luke will tell his readers that when the women come and report the empty tomb the disciples first think they are hearing an idle tale – though they will later believe when the see the resurrected Jesus. John tells his readers his famous story of Thomas who will not believe unless he sees – and it is likely we are to understand that the other male disciples do not believe Mary Magdalene either until Jesus comes and stands among them. Matthew is different. The women believe and so must the disciples since they in fact make their way to Galilee where they also see Jesus.

Matthew had mentioned the guards at the moment the angel came and opened the tomb. Now he returns to them. There is darkness in Matthew’s story. The guards had witnessed the same thing as the women – and remember this was a dramatic scene for Matthew, a scene that can’t be missed or mistaken. The guards go and tell the religious authorities everything that had happened. The opportunity to now believe is available and the evidence ought to have led the religious authorities to believe. It does not. They devise a plan to give the guards a large amount of money to keep quiet about what they had witnessed and instead to spread the rumor that the disciples of Jesus had come in the dead of night and stolen his dead body while the guards slept. The guards take the money and do as they are told. And Matthew turns to his readers, living at the time he is writing his gospel, and reminds them that this very story is still being told in their day. Matthew is intent on countering a false story which has a life among his own community and perhaps was threatening to lead some away from following Jesus. This is not the first time we have witnessed Matthew countering false rumors among the community in which he is writing. In the birth story Matthew addresses the unusual nature of the women in the genealogy of Jesus and the false accusation that Jesus, too, was born out of wedlock to Mary. Matthew obviously has the people in his own community and their Jewish opponents who surround them in his thoughts as he writes his gospel. All of this leads to Matthew’s negative view of the Jews who he paints in the darkest colors he can – darker than any other gospel writer. Luke is far more favorable to the Jewish people. The true nature of things likely can be found somewhere in between.

Matthew tells his readers one more story – the meeting between Jesus and his disciples in Galilee. This meeting had been predicted by Jesus in both Mark and Matthew. Readers of both gospels expect it to happen. Matthew tells us that it did – another prediction fulfilled. As we have seen Mark does not tell this story but that does not mean he does not know it happened. As we have seen Mark has his reasons for doing what he did. Likely Matthew actually reflects what actually happened more closely – though we will need to deal with Luke’s limiting the resurrection appearances of Jesus to the area near Jerusalem. In this final story in Matthew Jesus appears to his disciples in Galilee and leads them up a mountain – mountains have been important for Matthew since they are reminiscent of Moses. The women have delivered their message and the disciples have listened. Just as the women experienced both fear and joy, the disciples simultaneously experience joy and doubt – it’s simply a bad translation to say the “some” doubted since both emotions are present in all. And that’s the way it continues for followers of Jesus – we know both joy and doubt in our faith journey. On the mountain Jesus commissions his disciples to go to all nations and proclaim the good news making disciples baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit teaching them everything Jesus has commanded. Earlier in his gospel Matthew’s Jesus had limited the mission to the lost sheep of the house of Israel – now the good news is available to all.

Matthew ends his gospel with the promise that Jesus will remain with his disciples always to the end of this age. Just how Jesus will remain with them is something Matthew does not tell his readers – likely because the presence of Jesus is filled with mystery for all of us. Jesus does not leave but remains. Luke will have a different way of dealing with all of this.

In conclusion we have seen how Matthew moves far away from Mark in his telling of the resurrection of Jesus. Was that because Matthew did not like Mark’s ending? Perhaps – most people are at least somewhat disturbed with Mark’s ending. But, perhaps Matthew was not as disappointed with Mark’s ending as he was intent on providing a different message. We have already seen how Mark likely has not told the “exact story” anyway and that Mark knows there is more to tell. Matthew tells that more. He has provided his readers with the witness of an “empty tomb” and the witness of the “bodily appearance” of the resurrected Jesus. That is his witness to his readers – Jesus is risen. And in the end the church stands or falls on the truth of this witness. We will look a bit more at Matthew’s ending in the next section which I am calling, “How do you end a gospel?”

Monday, May 11, 2015

Reading the Gospels Together

The Resurrection – Part 2

Mark has told his readers a story that has plunged into the depths of darkness. Jesus has been abandoned by all of his followers – or at least the male followers – and we are left with a few women who have watched from a distance. Mark has not told us if they will remain faithful but we are left with a glimmer of hope. Mark has told his readers that Jesus has been crucified and that the experience has plunged even Jesus into the utter darkness. He dies alone and abandoned. There is no question that he is dead. Mark has told us that the dead body of Jesus was placed in a rock-hewn tomb, hastily wrapped in a linen cloth. He has told us that a few women saw where he was buried. But the Sabbath came at nightfall on that Friday – a Sabbath that would last until evening the next day. The women observe the Sabbath. Mark tells his readers that very early on the next day following the Sabbath Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought some spices. Mark had not mentioned the use of spices in the burial that Joseph of Arimathea had provide for Jesus so readers of Mark’s gospel are led to believe that the women are intent on providing Jesus with a more proper burial. But the women are aware of a problem. A stone had been rolled over the doorway of the tomb. They wonder who will move the stone for them likely aware that they would not be able to move it. When they arrive at the tomb and look up to their surprise they see that the “very large” stone has been rolled back. The tomb is open. They proceed inside to complete their task and are greeted by a “young man” dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side. Readers of Mark’s gospel are perhaps reminded of the “young man” dressed only in a linen cloth who fled at the scene of the arrest. Of course the women are alarmed to find the young man inside the tomb. The young man speaks to them knowing that they have come looking for Jesus of Nazareth – the crucified Jesus whose dead body had been placed in this tomb. He invites them to look at the place where they had laid his dead body – something the women had witnessed only a short time ago. The body is not there. The young man tells them that Jesus has been raised from the dead and he is not here. The tomb is empty. Readers of Mark’s gospel are reminded of the many times when people were told to be silent and not tell about Jesus. Here the young man commands the women to go and tell Jesus’ disciples – even Peter – Jesus is going ahead of them to Galilee where they will see him just as he had told them. Readers of Mark’s gospel are reminded of Jesus words to his followers when he predicted that they would all flee from him that he would go ahead of them to Galilee and there they would see him. Mark has set this all up by telling episode after episode of Jesus predicting something and then having it always happen. The disciples find the colt. The disciples find the room for the Passover. The disciples flee. Peter denies Jesus three times before the cock crows. Jesus never misses with his predictions. Jesus said he would go before them to Galilee and there they will see him. Readers of Mark’s gospel are primed for a “happy ending” after all! And then with one verse Mark pulls the rug out from under everyone. He tells his readers that the women left the tomb in terror and amazement and said nothing to anyone for they were afraid!

Perhaps the best thing for all of us to do at this point is to sit silently for a few minutes and let the story that Mark has told us wash over us.

Mark has told us of a story of a man named Jesus who God has declared to be the Son of God. At his baptism the heavens were ripped open and God’s Spirit came upon him. He has told us a story of this Jesus who has healed those who were sick and freed others from the evil spirits that have bound them. He has taught with authority and in the process has angered the religious establishment of Judaism. He has welcomed the outcasts and sinners. And he has called others to follow him. But Mark has also told us a story of religious leaders who attack Jesus and eventually put him to death. He has told us a story of how Jesus’ own family comes to think that he is “out of his mind” and seek to take him home. And he has told us of how Jesus was nearly killed in his own hometown where he was rejected by his kin. He has told us of some, mostly unnamed people, who pass in an out of Mark’s story as examples of faithfulness. But he has also told us a story of those Jesus called who have not understood and eventually all abandoned him. Mark has told us of some others for whom the cares of this world have been too much and they too have turned away from Jesus. In fact, Mark has told us a sad tale of everyone eventually abandoning Jesus and leaving him utterly alone. Even when Jesus cries out from the cross God is silent. This is a dark story that Mark has woven for his readers. And right near the end of the story Mark has told us of three courageous women who were brave enough to watch from a distance as Jesus was crucified and died. They were brave enough to watch as the dead body of Jesus was laid in a rock-hewn tomb and a large stone was rolled to block the door. They have been brave enough to come back to that tomb and there they were told the good news that Jesus was raised from the dead just as he had said. They saw the empty tomb. But at the last minute Mark tells us that even these women fail. They flee in fear. They are silent. And the important question we need to ask ourselves is “What does Mark’s story do to us as a reader?” Suddenly we discover that Mark has not been very interested in just telling us what actually happened but rather Mark has been cleverly and brilliantly setting us up and has written a story with the purpose of forcing a reaction from us. You can’t read Mark’s gospel without reacting to the story! And the reaction of most readers of Mark’s gospel is to protest, “This can’t be the end of the story! There must be more! You can’t end a gospel like this!” But Mark does. And in the process, one way or another, Mark forces his readers to finish the story. Jesus’ family has failed. All of the male disciples have failed. And now the women have failed. Is there anyone else who might carry this story to a better ending? And suddenly every reader realizes that the only one left is the reader themselves. Mark has brilliantly pulled every caring and interested reader right into his story – and that is exactly where Mark’s wants us to be! The ball is in our court. What will we do with it? Mark hopes, of course, that we will tell the story – that we will find our courage and be a witness for Jesus – that we will lose our life for Jesus in order that we might find it. Mark has given us all we need. And Mark has written a story that propels us back to the beginning to read it again and again and finally to finish the story.

Once we realize what Mark has been up to something really important likely dawns on us. Mark has not been functioning like a court reporter giving us “the facts” but rather like a persuasive artist spinning a story that will finally have the possibility of creating faith within us and motivate us to become a witness. Every single verse in Mark’s gospel has served his purpose of pulling us into the story and propelling us forth as a witness. That means, of course, that Mark has often suspended “the facts” and fashioned them to fulfil his purpose. This last story about the women at the tomb provides us with a good opportunity to see how that works. Mark has told us that the women came to the tomb and found it empty and were told by the young man that Jesus was raised from the dead and that they are to go and tell the good news. But at the last minute they are overcome with terror and tell no one. But we know that someone did tell – we are reading Mark’s gospel after all! What really happened that morning actually isn’t the story that Mark tells us – at least not the whole story. To be sure the women likely were overcome with terror, but finally it is not true that they fled and told no one. Mark knows that better than any of us. But he tells his story in the way he does because that is the only way he can finally grab his readers and pull them in. And if we think back over the whole gospel Mark has likely not been telling us all “the facts” all along. Did the disciples really end in complete failure as Mark portrays and leaves them? Were they really so dense? That’s what Mark leads us to believe because that’s again how he can finally grab hold of us. Likely it was a great struggle for the first followers of Jesus to become the faithful followers we discover later in the church, but it is not true that they ended in failure as Mark would lead us to believe. Mark knows that better than any of us too. So, rather than getting hung up on “the facts” we can begin to see Mark’s gospel as the creative proclamation it really is. No matter that Matthew, Luke, and John often tell the story differently – they were also writing with a purpose. The reality is that none of the gospel writers were that concerned about “the facts” since likely “the facts” have ultimately slipped into the sands of time anyway. But the truth of the witness prevails – Jesus is indeed the Son of God, the Crucified Messiah, who died and was raised from the dead calling us into his Kingdom. That is the only fact that matters.

Before we leave Mark’s gospel we need to return again to the reality that Mark’s gospel forces a reaction from his readers and the most common reaction is to protest that this can’t be the end of the story – there must be more – Mark’s gospel can’t end like this. Likely from the very beginning there have been those who want to “fix” Mark’s gospel. That’s why there are at least three different endings that have been attached to Mark’s gospel. None of those ending have an ounce of credibility to them – none are found in the oldest and most reliable manuscripts of Mark’s gospel. As one reads them it doesn’t take long to realize that they have been cobbled together from the other gospels in an attempt to provide a more acceptable ending to Mark’s gospel. But, the truth is that Mark’s ending does not need fixing! It is perfect as is. In fact most of the alternate endings do damage to the gospel that Mark has written. Throughout history there have been attempts by interpreters of Mark’s gospel to “fix” his ending in other ways too. Some have guessed that Mark had actually written more but the last page of the scroll has been torn off and lost. Others have guessed that Mark intended to write more but was prevented from doing so. Neither of these guesses is helpful – or needed. Mark’s gospel is just fine as it stands! In actuality, all of this fuss about Mark’s ending is the strongest witness that Mark really intended his gospel to end in the way he did. And it is a brilliant ending! We can only marvel at Mark’s genius. His ending is the most powerful of all the gospels.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Reading the Gospels Together

The Resurrection – Part 1

We have seen how all four gospel writers share the common facts that Jesus was crucified at Golgotha between two others, that he died as any other human being dies, and that his dead body was buried in a rock-hewn tomb. There is no hint in any of the gospels that this might have been an illusion or that somehow Jesus might have survived through the ordeal. His death was no different than anyone else’s death. Of that we can be sure. It is the testimony of all four gospel writers. All four gospel writers also proclaim to their readers that Jesus was raised from the dead. Readers of each of the gospels are not surprised by this since each author has told them that it would happen. On the other hand, it seems clear that the resurrection came as a huge surprise to the followers of Jesus – it was the last thing they expected to happen. Even though the gospel writers claim that Jesus had predicted that he would rise again, apparently his followers did not believe him or did not comprehend what he said. There is not a hint in any of the four gospels that any of the followers of Jesus anticipated or expected the resurrection. We will need to think about why this is the case and what that might mean.

As with the crucifixion we might expect that the gospel writers would all agree with one another about the resurrection. Once again that is not the case. They all tell different stories. I have mentioned in the past how the tension in all of these stories with their differences was a serious faith struggle for me personally. I wondered if any of the stories were believable if these witnesses couldn’t get this story straight. If they couldn’t agree about this crucial story how could I trust any of what they had to say? Thinking our way through all of these differences is a challenge for us. But, as we have learned along the way, we can be led to the right questions and grow from hearing these four witnesses. So we move ahead to hear their distinctive story and ask the most important question, “Why did they tell the story as they did?” In this section we will need to consider Mark 16:1-8, (We will not look at the alternate endings of Mark’s gospel except to comment briefly on them); Matthew 28:1-20; Luke 24:1-53, Acts 1:1-11; John 20:1-21:25 and 1 Corinthians 15:3-11 (which of course is not one of the gospels but provides an important reference from Paul regarding the resurrection).

Before we proceed it is important that we notice that there are two types of resurrection stories – stories of the empty tomb and stories of bodily resurrection appearances of Jesus. All four gospel writers provide their readers with the first type – the empty tomb. Mark provides his readers with only an empty tomb story. Matthew, Luke, and John all provide their readers with both types.

It is important for us to consider as well what readers of the gospels might have been thinking about with respect to what “resurrection” meant to them. This is a very difficult thing for us to do since we are so far removed from their time and we have our own concepts to deal with. But we need to make an attempt. First of all, if we think about the non-Jewish world, there is no evidence that anyone in that world of ideas believed in a bodily resurrection. No one had ever come back from the dead. In the mythology of that world people did imagine that there was a “place of the dead” which was usually called Hades, but that place was an underworld where one’s existence was sometimes thought of as being in limbo or sometimes being in some kind of paradise. It was certainly a place that no one would return from. There were some who believed in the concept of an immortal soul that continued on after the death of the body. But that soul would never return to its previous body. Perhaps it would migrate to re-unite with god. Perhaps it may even migrate into another body. Or, one might somehow become “one of the gods” as the emperors sometimes claimed for their predecessors and even for themselves. What that existence might have been like no one knows but certainly it was not a new existence in the same body as one had in this life. Bodily resurrection was not something any non-Jewish person believed. At least in the early years of Judaism a similar concept prevailed. The Israelites called it Sheol – the place of the dead. For most Jews this was a murky place where one’s existence was unknown and you did not return from Sheol. In the hundred years or so prior to the coming of Jesus Jews began to believe that there would be a resurrection at the end of this age when God established God’s kingdom. One of the main factors driving this belief was the Maccabean revolt 165 years before the birth of Jesus. Many righteous people lost their lives in the slaughter of Antiochus Epiphanes and people began to believe that it was not just that they were robbed of their life prematurely. God must be just and so God will provide a way for those righteous ones who died to enjoy God’s kingdom in a resurrected body. By the time of Jesus most Jews believed in this resurrection. It was a resurrection that would happen in the culmination of time when God established God’s kingdom. It was not an automatic continued existence but a life that God would give. Some thought God would only give resurrection to the just who, by God’s goodness, would have a chance to enjoy the life they were deprived. Others began to believe that God would raise all people at the last day and that the just would receive the good life in God’s kingdom and the unjust would be sent to eternal punishment. None of the Jewish people believed in the immortality of the soul – they did not separate soul from body. The idea that the soul of a person would automatically live on after death was a foreign concept for Jewish people. No Jewish person would have believed in the bodily resurrection of a person before the great and terrible day of the Lord when God would establish God’s kingdom. We see this idea in the response of Martha to Jesus regarding Lazarus. Martha has no trouble believing the Lazarus will be raised on the last day. She cannot comprehend that Jesus will raise him on that very day – it simply was not in her thoughts. The point here is that the concept of resurrection was a part of the majority of Jewish people’s belief system at the time of Jesus but it was a resurrection that would be delayed to the end of time and it was something only God could grant. That Jesus should have been raised after three days was something they did not expect and so they were taken by complete surprise. That Jesus had died and that Jesus was raised bodily is the testimony of the four gospel writers and of the first Christians. It was the one distinctive thing about their belief and the crux of the matter. So we are dealing with a very crucial idea in these stories – it was an unexpected event, a new event, and a life-changing event. The resurrection of Jesus is what gave birth to the Christian church. So with that in mind we proceed to listen to the gospel writer’s stories.