Luke 24:1-12: This is the first part of the Easter story according to Luke. Temporarily unnamed women, followers of Jesus from Galilee, come to the place where Jesus has been buried. There is little amazement that the stone is rolled away, but they are amazed not to find the body. In their perplexity, two men in dazzling white ask, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” What a beautiful question. They are asked to remember the words of Jesus and they do. They share their experience with the eleven, who are at first incredulous – “these words seemed to them an idle tale.” Peter is open to new possibilities, however, and he goes to the tomb and leaves amazed.
Luke 24:13-35: But Luke is not done telling the Easter story, the resurrection story. He shares a story unique to his gospel and uniquely powerful. Two of the disciples (it would seem two of the eleven, but this is left vague – it may be two other of the followers of Jesus) are walking to Emmaus when they are joined by a stranger (who we, the reader, know to be Jesus). They share the events of the past days with this stranger, who in turn shares with them a new view of the Scriptures of their faith. Even with that, they do not recognize Jesus, not until he shared bread with them. Then they could recognize their own experience of burning hearts. Even though it was late, they returned to Jerusalem. This is a beautifully rich story, which shines both with Luke’s literary artistry and with a profound faith.
Luke 24:36-53: Easter day is not yet over for Jesus (or for Luke). The disciples (the twelve apostles plus?) are talking about the day when Jesus himself appears in their midst. “Peace be with you.” They are frightened, and aren’t we all sometimes as we try to live our faith, but Jesus invites them beyond fear and doubt. They get part way – joy and doubt together – another experience with which we are familiar. It is to just these disciples, however, that the risen Jesus will offer a word from their Scriptures and send them out to proclaim “repentance and forgiveness of sins” from Jerusalem into all the world. They will be given the power to do this from God. As he blesses them, Jesus is taken away into the heavens. This chronology does not even fit with what this same author will write later in his work Acts. The disciples stay in Jerusalem, worshipping Jesus, blessing God and filled with great joy. Luke ends his gospel on a note of joy, hope and expectation. You are ready to read another work, a sequel – and we will in due time.
Notes on the resurrection (once again): 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 Jesus 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?