Note: Here are some additional thoughts on the significance of the death of Jesus. They come from the book What You Don’t Have To Believe To Be A Christian. It is a book written by George Riker, a retired United Methodist pastor from Texas. The blood of Jesus represents his suffering, not just on the cross but all the sufferings in his lifetime…. When we read such texts [Biblical passages about the blood of Jesus] and sing some of the hymns of the Church that extol the power of the blood, we must transvaluate the language and see the meaning behind the words. Jesus’ blood is Jesus’ life. Christians are united by this life, a life poured out for humanity, a life of involvement in humanity, which means entering the sufferings of our day. We cannot really help another unless we enter the other’s life. One who suffers is not helped by aloofness. On the other hand, to be involved in a life of loneliness, despair, sickness, and pain is to risk experiencing the discomfort in our own hearts and even losing some of our peace of mind. Jesus entered the sufferings of his time. His followers are called to do the same. (63, 64)
Matthew 28:1-10: Two women, both named Mary go to the tomb site on the day after the Sabbath to continue their vigil. That the first witnesses to the resurrection were women is surprising given the first century view of women. There is an earthquake, and an angel. The angel frightens the guards, but assures the women with the words, “Do not be afraid.” The angel tells them that Jesus who had been crucified is not there, but has been raised from the dead, just as promised. They are told to go and share this amazingly good news with the disciples. They are told that Jesus is going ahead of them to Galilee and there they will see him. As they leave with fear and great joy, Jesus himself appears to them. He does not wait to meet them in Galilee. He tells them to share the good news with the disciples. He tells them to tell the disciples to go to Galilee where they will meet Jesus.
Matthew 28:11-15: The women become witnesses to the resurrection. The guards, whose experience was similar in some ways, are bribed to tell a different story. The empire must be kept safe. The status quo must be insured. The way Matthew places these stories side-by-side is meant to illustrate a stark contrast between a faithful response to what God does in Jesus (though afraid, joy predominates and the women share good news) and an unfaithful response (fear and fear again, concerns with wealth and status getting in the way). This entire story is unique to Matthew and the line in verse 15 about the story continuing to be told among the Jews needs to be read in the context of the on-going tensions between Matthew’s Jesus Community and others in the Jewish community.
Matthew 28:16-20: This is Jesus only appearance to the disciples in Matthew’s gospel. It takes place on a mountain in Galilee, thus echoing his earlier teaching ministry and bringing to mind God’s communication to Moses on Sinai. That the disciples have gathered here indicates that they trusted the testimony of the women who shared with them the good news that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Nevertheless, Matthew notes, “some doubted.” Doubt need not be contrary to a faithful response to Jesus. How often in our lives is there some mixture of faith and doubt, faith and questioning. Sometimes faith is even enhanced when we are willing to ask questions. To this faith-filled yet doubting group, Jesus offers “the great commission.” He has authority to do so – he is the authoritative one, not the emperor and his representatives, nor the religious leaders who sought to end Jesus ministry. Here are some comments from The New Interpreters Study Bible. “Various scenes exist in Rome’s literature in which gods commission Rome to worldwide domination and military superiority. Matthew’s community is given a similar goal, not by Jupiter and the gods, but by Jesus. And its means are very different. Instead of military power, it employs compassionate power, healing, mercy, an inclusive community and life-giving words to proclaim and enact God’s empire.” Here is Eugene Peterson’s rendering of part of the great commission. Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you. I’ll be with you as you do this, day after day, right up to the end of the age.
Notes on the resurrection: Many Christians will admit, even if only to themselves in the quiet of their own minds, that they struggle some with the story of the resurrection of Jesus. This situation is not helped terribly much by other Christians who assert boldly that unless you believe very specific things about the resurrection (that it was a literal bodily event that might have been captured on video were the technology available) you are not a faithful Christian. What is really essential about the resurrection of Jesus? I would like to offer some thoughts.
The People’s New Testament Commentary notes that “the resurrection of Jesus, i.e., God’s act in raising up Jesus, is central to the Christian faith.” I would agree – but what does that mean? The commentary goes on to say that resurrection is God’s action and that it is “to be distinguished from resuscitation, i.e., the restoration of a dead person to this-worldly life…. Jesus was raised to a new order of being beyond this life.” Resurrection in first century Judaism was a concept that was meant to say something about the ultimate justice of God. In the end, God’s justice would prevail – thus resurrection is an “eschatological” concept and it was sign of the kingdom of God. Another way of saying this is that in the resurrection the Christian community affirms that just as God’s kingdom, God’s dream for the world was breaking into the world in Jesus teaching, healing and feeding, so it continues to break into the world through Jesus even though Jesus was crucified. “The resurrection faith of the earliest Christians was expressed and communicated in several forms: songs, creeds, sermons, and stories.” “The Gospel stories of the resurrection are thus not to be harmonized. They differ on such items as who went to the tomb and when, the nature of the resurrection body of Jesus, and the location and chronology of Jesus’ appearances.” To my mind the very variety in these stories indicates that we may be dealing with something more than an easily identifiable historical event.
Here are some comments from John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, from their book, The Last Week. So Easter is utterly central. But what was it?... When we think about Easter, we must consider several foundational questions. What kind of stories are the Easter stories? What kind of language are they told in, and how is that language being used? Are they intended as historical reports and thus to be understood as history remembered (whether correctly or incorrectly)? Or do they use the language of parable and metaphor to express truths that are much more than factual? Or some combination of the two? (190) We are convinced that an emphasis on the historical factuality of the Easter stories, as if they were reporting events that could have been photographed, gets in the way of understanding them…. Seeing the Easter stories as parable does not involve a denial of their factuality. It’s quite happy leaving the question open. What it does insist upon is that the importance of these stories lies in their meanings. (191, 193) Two themes run through these stories that sum up the central meanings of Easter. Jesus lives. He continues to be experienced after his death, though in a radically new way…. God has vindicated Jesus. God has said “yes” to Jesus and “no” to the powers who executed him. In the words of the earliest and most widespread post-Easter affirmation about Jesus in the New Testament, ‘Jesus is Lord.” And if Jesus is Lord, the lords of this world are not. (204, 205, 206)
Marcus Borg, in his own work Jesus builds on some of the themes already presented in his work with Crossan. While Matthew is the first writing we have in the New Testament, Paul’s letters are earlier. Paul provides the earliest witness to the resurrection, and in his writings (as we shall see) he bundles together his own experience of the risen Christ with those of others who experienced him. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that Paul thought of the appearances of the risen Jesus to others as also visions…. Some Christians are uncomfortable with the thought that the experiences of the risen Jesus were visions…. But not all visions are hallucinations…. Paul’s experience of the risen Jesus changed his life. (277-278) Borg goes on discuss other aspects of the resurrection. But I am aware that a historical question can still be asked: what happened? What I am confident of is this. The followers of Jesus had experiences of him after his death that convinced them that he continued to be a figure of the present. Almost certainly some of these experiences were visions; it would be surprising if there weren’t any…. I think there were nonvisionary experiences of the risen Jesus…. I think his followers felt the continuing presence of Jesus with them, recognized the same Spirit that they had known in him during his historical life continuing to be present, and knew the power they had known in Jesus continuing to operate – the power of healing, the power to change lives, the power to create new forms of community. And I think these kinds of experiences have continued among Christians ever since…. For me, the truth of the claim “God raised Jesus” is gounded in these kind of experiences…. And there is one more thing to say about the experiences that lie at the heart of Easter. They carried with them the conviction that God had vindicated Jesus…. There is a continuity between the post-Easter conviction that God has vindicated Jesus and the message of the pre-Easter Jesus. “Jesus is Lord” is the post-Easter equivalent of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God. (287, 288, 289) What did Easter mean to the first followers of Jesus?... First, the followers of Jesus continued to experience him after his death. They continued to know him as a figure of the present, and not simply as a figure from the past…. Second, Easter meant that God had vindicated Jesus…. To put these two meanings as concisely as possible, Easter meant “Jesus lives,” and “Jesus is Lord.” (276)
Finally, before I add a few more words of my own, a few words from George Ricker (What You Don’t Have To Believe To Be A Christian). “Christians do not agree theologically, and they never have. The essence of Christianity is not in the literal truth of the story language of the faith. In all of this I am pleading that Christians not be divided over opinions about which obvious differences exist. Christians are united in the love of God revealed by Jesus, whom we call Christ, and not by our opinions.” (69-70) Ricker imagine what an experience of the risen Christ might have been like for the first disciples of Jesus. He pictures them together sharing a meal and in the midst of that sharing they experience Jesus as present. “By the inspiration of God, the intrusion of the Spirit, they suddenly realize that it was not all over. The Lord was with them…. Jesus is dead. Jesus has a new body. They tried to kill the Christ, the activity of God, they could not. The Christ is raised in a new body.” (72-73)
What am I trying to say with all these extended quotes? Am I trying to convince you that your view of the resurrection of Jesus is wrong if you disagree with Crossan or Borg or Ricker? No. With Ricker, I am asking that we give each other permission to ask questions about this important part of our Christian faith. I am asking that we allow that people of deep and genuine Christian faith can disagree about the exact nature of the experiences of the disciples as they proclaimed that God raised him from the dead. I do think that Borg and Crossan are right when they say that the meaning of the resurrection, whatever its precise nature, is to be found in the statements “Jesus lives” and “Jesus is Lord.” How do we now live our lives in light of this?
Transition: With this we come to the end of the Gospel of Matthew. The commentary here has been longer than I anticipate it being with the other gospels because I have tried to address significant issues we will find again and again along the way – the nature of miracle stories, the significance of Jesus’ death, the resurrection. I don’t intend to repeat all these for each gospel – perhaps just remind us of some of what has been said. We turn next to the Gospel of Mark, written earlier than Matthew and for a different audience. While Mark will tell some of the same stories Matthew does (Matthew borrowed a great deal from Mark) he will tell some of them differently. Each gospel paints a slightly different portrait of Jesus, and it is a part of the genius of the New Testament that four gospels were included. Each gospel writer was putting together a picture of Jesus that they thought would be relevant for their own emerging Christian community, whatever its make up and whatever its issues, and perhaps also for a wider audience in the community in which the church existed. I think this is important to remember. We need to share the Jesus story in a way that connects with people in our world today. The other side of the coin is that we also need to be careful we don’t make Jesus so comfortable in our world that we lose all that might challenge us in his story. Jesus, and the God of Jesus. want to connect with our lives. But part of that connection involves changing those parts of our lives that hinder our growth in love and get in the way of our working more fully for God’s dream for the world. How to make Jesus both relevant and challenging was a task undertaken by the gospel writers. It is no less our task today.