The Appearance of Resurrection

Week of Sunday April 26
Bible: Luke 24:36b-48
We have included the preceding resurrection appearance in Luke, verses 13-36. You may wish to compare and contrast these two stories with similar stories told in the Gospel of John, and included in the lectionary for last Sunday.

13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?' They stood still, looking sad. 18Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?' 19He asked them, ‘What things?' They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.'

25Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?' 27Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.' So he went in to stay with them. 30When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.

32They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?' 33That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!' 35Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

36 While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.' 37They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38He said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.' 40And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?' 42They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43and he took it and ate in their presence. 44 Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you-that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.' 45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things.

This week we have stories of resurrection appearances from Luke; last week was John. The immediate similarity is the appearance of Jesus to the gathered community. This follows the famous text of Emmaus, where a similar appearance occurs. We meet the risen Lord when we are gathered together.

While the resurrected Jesus in John appears to be physical, Luke makes this unmistakably explicit, including having Jesus ask to eat fish as a kind of proof when some of the disciples "doubted."

39Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.'

In the second ending of John, we have the implied eating of fish by Jesus at breakfast on the sea shore. Again, it is not made explicit; in Luke there is an insistence on the physical nature of this resurrection. Clearly he is refunting the notion of a "ghostly Christ," an insisiting on the reality of the resurrection.Resurrection is a contentious issue. For we whose world view is strongly influenced by scientific, material thought, it seems an impossibility. It is impossible for a person to die, for the brain to begin to decay, and then for consciousness and life to return. Life as we know it, is dependent on a functioning body and brain. It does not stop and start. (For a summary of critical thought see Resurrection Research from 1975 to the Present: What are Critical Scholars Saying? )

Let us be clear what the Christian tradition has said; he died. There is no room for "swooning." There is no room for near death, as when a person survives 25 minutes under water in freezing temperatures, or lies in a coma, or is revived after prolonged CPR; these events are not death.

Christianity talks about resurrection, not resuscitation. Lazarus was resuscitated. The apostle Paul was very clear about the difference between resuscitation and resurrection. In 1 Corinthians 15 he says,

35 But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?' 36Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. 38But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body..

This passage, read alongside Luke, shows the internal tensions about resurrection even within early Christianity. What kind of different physical body is still eating food? How do you recognize "the body to be" which is so different from the bare seed... and yet which carries the scars?

I make this point not to argue for a particular understanding of the nature of resurrection, or decry another, but to point out that it has always been a bewildering and difficult concept for the church; Mark says nothing of post resurrection appearances at all! The church has an extraordinary life changing experience of the Jesus it first thought was dead, which is very hard to describe in formal language. Perhaps Mark's approach of simply issuing the existential challenge to return to Galilee was the best approach.

Ultimately we are dealing here with Mystery.

I will not, and cannot, explain the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The Resurrection cannot be explained because it is a mystery in the strict sense of the word. A mystery is an experience of reality that can be apprehended, appreciated, even loved, but cannot be comprehended or understood. Mystery in this sense is an experience that can be realized, not a problem that can be solved. It is not something we do not yet understand, but something that we cannot understand. (See Gerald May's discussion of "Mystery" in Will and Spirit (New York: HarperCollins, 1982), pp. 28-32.)  John Kirkley

There is a point beyond which understanding of resurrection cannot proceed. It can only be experienced. Seeking scientific proof of resurrection, or a model that explains "what happened" in physical terms is an example of "trying too far." It fails liike a light from the visible spectrum seeking something which can only be seen with UV. It is a category mistake.

So perhaps we can ignore the problem?

Whilst it may be easier for those of us who preach and teach the tradition, to skirt around these difficult issues, it is a rare group of Christians who have not been asking the questions among themselves. We can only ignore an elephant in the room, as they say, for a little while. Eventually someone will be trampled, or something precious will be buried under a great load of ... . Even simply demonstrating that discussion of these issues does not destroy faith, or make God disappear, is a valuable act of ministry. If the elephant is predisposed to be nasty, whistling in the dark, or worse, denying its presence, will not make it a nicer elephant! We have to deal with it.

The resurrection stories after Mark's gospel have a context. An article by R. C. Symes outlines the issue well.

Moreover, in the last two decades of the first century when these gospels were written, there were growing religious disputes among those in the Jesus movement. Chief among the cults was Gnosticism that preached individual spiritual revelation and knowledge of God rather than faith was the means of salvation; Docetism that believed that matter was inherently evil, therefore Jesus was really a phantasm that only seemed to have a physical body, and being perfect, could not suffer and did not really die on the cross; and Ebionism whose adherents believed Jesus was human but not divine. The gospel writers sought to address these "heresies" as well as to counter arguments from skeptics that the disciples only saw hallucinations of the risen Jesus. There was also polemic from other Jews that Jesus' body was stolen by his disciples. To counter these attacks, the later gospel authors developed resurrection stories with more detail and realism than Paul and Mark did. To aid in this endeavor the authors drew on the books of Daniel - chapter 6 for the lion's den (i.e. tomb); chapters 7 and 10 for the radiant heavenly being (i.e. angel); and Jonah for the rising on the third day (Jonah 1:17 - 2:10), as well as Hosea 6:2.

In their response to their experience of the Divine, the gospel authors, including Luke, told stories that addressed their situation. When we read their responsive story, our task the issue is not to justify the literal, factual correctness, of their story. Our task is to ask what their story is saying about their experience. How might their experience inform our experience of God today?

What the opponents of resurrection were doing in Luke's time was denying the reality of resurrection, and minimising its significance. We can be agnostic about what actually happened, and admit ignorance to much of what resurrection actually means, and yet still take the lesson that it happened, it happened, it happened. He was dead, we had given up in despair, and then we found that death does not have the last word...

In the lectionary from Luke, death's not having the last word, is perhaps the least of the issue.

Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you-that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.' 45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things.

Luke is saying that the whole of scripture-- the law, the prophets and the psalms-- bears witness to Jesus. As Messiah, he is the central point of God's dealing with us. What's more, he turns our understanding of life and society, on its head. "The Messiah is to suffer..." This is an heretical statement in the faith of the day.

This is an utterly shocking statement, because ... these two concepts - "the Messiah" and "is to suffer" -- don't belong together. The Messiah was envisioned by all Jews (the Jerusalem clergy aristocracy and priesthood as well as the peasants and farmers) to be the figure of a conquering hero - one who would drive the hated Gentile rulers out of Israel and restore the land to Jewish hegemony. He wasn't going to suffer... The Son of Man or the Servant of Isaiah 40-66 would suffer. But not the Messiah!

But Jesus is here telling the disciples that, if they ... read the Hebrew Bible discerningly, they will see that "the Messiah is to suffer" and die! ... His suffering and death was what the Bible teaches us all along is what the Messiah is to be about - because only in that way could humanity be redeemed. Status does not come by domination, controlling society or lording it over others (even lording it over the Romans) - which was the popular but unbiblical understanding of the Messiah. Rather, it was by "taking on the form of a servant and humbling himself, becoming obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross" (Phil. 2:7-8).

But life doesn't end in a grave, Jesus contends. Messiah is also "to rise from the dead on the third day". Messiah's apparently tragic death ends with the triumphant cry, "The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed!" Jesus is alive, the resurrected One proclaims. He is not a dead body, lying in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. Nor is he a ghost, phantasmically moving around the earth but unable to impact it. Neither is he a resuscitated cadaver. Jesus is - well, Jesus! Jesus still! Jesus alive! Jesus working through his Church to bring to reality God's intentions for humanity. And thus, it is this resurrected Jesus who empowers his people to carry on the work he began, multiplying him throughout the world in a way he could never accomplish by himself. He is risen, indeed! [Partners in Urban Transformation]

What Luke says to me is that resurrection appearances are the least of what is happening! Those appearances are only a beginning. The fullness and completion of life which comes through selflessness modelled upon Jesus' example, has been the great design and reality of the universe from the beginning. In the continuing presence of Jesus, God is once more, and even more fully, getting this point across.

This resurrection appearance in Luke has a purpose. it is to tell us there is a proclamation to begin. There is good news to tell the world. Luke does not ask us if we believe in, that is, subscribe to, some particular argument about what happened to Jesus' body. He is asking us if we believe in, that is will live out, the reality of God's love and healing, by proclaiming what we have experienced, so that others may find it.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!




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