The Last Week: Chapter 8, Easter Sunday

Mark 16:1-8

Easter is utterly central. But what was it? What are the Easter stories about? On one level, the answer is obvious: God raised Jesus. Yes. And what does this mean? Is it about the most spectacular miracle there’s ever been? Is it about the promise of an afterlife? Is it about God proving that Jesus was indeed his Son? (page 144)

Those of us who grew up Christian have a “preunderstanding” of Easter, just as we do of Good Friday and Christmas, that shapes our hearing of these stories.

This widespread preunderstanding emphasizes the historical factuality of the stories, in harder or softer forms.

So central is the historical factuality of the Easter stories for many Christians that, if they didn’t happen this way, the foundation and truth of Christianity disappear. (page 145)

“But 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.”

“When treated as if they are primarily about an utterly unique spectacular event, we often do not get beyond the question, ‘Did they happen or not?’ to the question, ‘What do they mean?’

History or Parable?

  • What kind of narratives are these?
  • When these stories are seen as history, their purpose is to report publicly observable events that could have been witnessed by anybody who was there. (page 146)
  • When we see these stories as parable, the “model” for this understanding is the parables of Jesus.
  • The truth of a parable — of a parabolic narrative — is not dependent on its factuality.
  • “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.” (page 146)
  • One should not think of history as “true” and parable as “fiction.” (page 147)
  • Both biblical literalists and people who reject the Bible completely do this: the former insist that the truth of the Bible depends on its literal factuality, and the latter see that the Bible cannot be literally and factually true and therefore don’t think it is true at all.

Mark’s Story of Easter

  • Mark provides us with the first story, the first narrative, of Easter.
    • It is very brief, only eight verses.
    • Mark does not report an appearance of the risen Jesus.
    • Mark’s Easter story ends very abruptly.
  • Matthew adds to details to Mark’s story in 16:3-4:
    • He explains how the stone got moved: there is an earthquake
    • He narrates the presence of guards at the tomb
  • The ending is not only abrupt, but puzzling. According to Mark, the women don’t tell anybody. End of gospel. Full stop. The ending was deemed unsatisfactory as early as the second century, when a longer ending was added to Mark (16:9-20)
    • Matthew reports that the women did tell the disciples. (28:8)
    • So does Luke (24:9)
  • In Mark (and in Matthew), the women are to tell the disciples to go to Galilee, where they will see the risen Jesus. But in Luke, the risen Jesus appears in and around Jerusalem; Luke has no Easter stories set in Galilee.

Mark’s Story As Parable

  • Perhaps, as some scholars have suggested, the command to “go to Galilee” means, “Go back to where the story began, to the beginning of the gospel.” And what does one hear at the beginning of Mark’s gospel? It is about the way and the kingdom.

Appearance Stories In The Other Gospels

  • These stories are the product of the experience and reflection of Jesus’s followers in the days, months, years, and decades after his death. Strikingly none is found in more than one gospel — striking because in the pre-Easter part of the gospels, the same story is often found in two more more gospels. (page 150)
  • Matthew has two appearance stories:
    • Matthew 28:9-20
    • Matthew 28:16-17
    • In the rest of the story (Matthew 28:18-20), the risen Jesus speaks what has come to be known as the Great Commission:
      • To the risen Jesus, God has given “all authority in heaven and on earth.” The implicit but obvious contrast is to the authorities who crucified him.
      • Jesus’s followers are to make “disciples” of “all nations.” Now the commission is beyond Israel. A disciple is not simply a believer, but one who follows the way of Jesus.
      • They are to teach them “to obey everything I have commanded you.” What is required is obedience, not belief.
      • “I am with you always.” The words echo a theme announced in the story of Jesus’s birth in Matthew, where he identifies Jesus with “Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.”
  • Luke also has two appearance stories that are considerably larger than Matthew’s. Both are set in Jerusalem, not in Galilee.
    • The first is the Emmaus road story, the longest Easter narrative (24:13-35)
    • “If we were to use but one story to make the case that Easter stories are parabolic narratives, this is the one. It is difficult to imagine that this story is speaking about events that could have been videotaped.” (page 151)
    • “This story is the metaphoric condensation of several years of early Christian thought into one parabolic afternoon. Whether the story happened or not, Emmaus always happens. Emmaus happens again and again — this is its truth as parabolic narrative.” (page 152)
    • Luke’s second appearance story (24:36-49) is set on the evening of the same day, so it is still Easter Sunday.
  • John has four appearance stories spread over two chapters.
    • John 20-21
    • After the first three appearances, the gospel of John seems to come to an end. (20:30-31) But then another chapter begins, reporting John’s fourth appearance story (21:1-23)

The Gospel Easter Stories Together

  • Two themes run through these stories that sum up the central meaning of Easter. The first, in a concise phrase, is Jesus lives. (page 154)
  • Together, the appearance stories in the gospels make explicit what is promised in Mark: “You will see him.” They underline the parabolic meaning of Mark’s story of the empty tomb: Jesus is not among the dead, but among the living. (page 155)
  • The truth of the affirmation “Jesus lives” is grounded in the experience of Christians throughout the centuries.
  • To state the second affirmation of the Easter stories in an equally concise phrase: God has vindicated Jesus. God has said “yes” to Jesus and “no” to the powers who executed him. (page 155)
  • The stories underline this in different ways. In Luke and John, the risen Jesus continues to bear the wounds of the empire that executed him. In Matthew, the risen Jesus has been given authority over all the authorities of this world.
  • Mark, writing most concisely among the authors of the gospels says simply, “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified; he has been raised.”
  • Easter affirms that the domination systems of this world are not of God and that they do not have the final word.

Paul And The Resurrection of Jesus

  • The central themes of the gospel stories — Jesus lives and Jesus is Lord — are equally central to Paul’s experience, conviction, and theology. To these, he adds a third.
  • How did Paul experience the risen Jesus?
  • Those traveling with Paul did not share the experience; indicating that it was a private and not public experience. In short, it was what is commonly called a vision.
  • It is possible, perhaps even likely, that Paul thought of the appearances of the risen Jesus to Jesus’s other followers also as visions.
  • Some Christians are uncomfortable with this thought, as if there were “only” visions.
  • Paul came to believe Jesus is Lord because of his experience of the risen Jesus changed his life.
  • His experience had a crucial corollary. It generated the conviction not only that “Jesus lives,” but that God had vindicated Jesus, said “yes” to the one who had been executed by the authorities and whose movement Paul was persecuting. (page 157)
  • Paul’s third Easter theme makes explicit what is implicit in the gospel stories of Easter. Namely, within the world of Jewish thought that shaped Jesus, Paul, and the authors of the New Testament, resurrection was associated with eschatology.
  • Jesus, Paul, and earliest Christianity claimed that God’s transfiguration of this earth had already started, that they also claimed that the general resurrection had begun with Jesus. That, of course, is why Paul must argue in 1 Corinthians that if there is no general resurrection, there is no Jesus resurrection, and if there is no Jesus resurrection, there is no general resurrection. (15:12-16)
  • If, therefore, the kingdom of God has begun on this earth or the general bodily resurrection has begun on this earth, the claim is also being made that all are here and now called to participate in what is now a collaborative eschatology. Or, in the magnificent aphorism of St. Augustine: “We without God cannot, and God without us will not.” (page 158)

Easter And Christian Life Today: Personal and Political Transformation

  • Easter completes the archetypal pattern at the center of the Christian life: death and resurrection, crucifixion and vindication. (page 158)
  • Easter is about God even as it is about Jesus. Easter discloses the character of God. Easter means God’s Great Cleanup of the world has begun — but it will not happen without us.
  • As the climax of Holy Week and the story of Jesus, Good Friday and Easter address the fundamental human question, What ails us? Most of us feel the force of this question — something is not right. So what ails us? Very compactly, egoism and injustice. And the two go together. (page 159)
  • Egoism means being centered in the self and its anxieties and preoccupations, what is sometimes called the “small self.” Egoism is centering in the anxious and fearful self and its concerns and desires.
  • The issue is the kind of self that I am, that you are, that we are.
  • Good Friday and Easter, death and resurrection together, are a central image in the New Testament for the path to a transformed self.
  • Johns’ incarnational theology, the death and resurrection of Jesus incarnates the way of transformation.
  • We are invited to the journey that leads through death to resurrection and rebirth. But when only the personal meaning is emphasized, we betray the passion for which Jesus was willing to risk his life. (page 160)
  • The political meaning of Good Friday and Easter sees the human problem as injustice, and the solution is God’s justice.
  • Jesus’s passion got him killed. But God has vindicated Jesus. This is the political meaning of Good Friday and Easter.
  • The anti-imperal meaning of Good Friday and Easter is particularly important and challenging for American Christians.
  • Empire is (also) about the use of military and economic power to shape the world in one’s perceived interest.
  • Christians in the United States are deeply divided about this country’s imperial role.
  • Just as there is a dangerous distortion when only the personal meaning of Good Friday and Easter is emphasized, so also when only the political meaning is emphasized. (page 162)
  • “Jesus is Lord,” the most widespread post-Easter affirmation in the New Testament, is thus both personal and political. It involves a deep centering in God, a deep centering in God that includes radical trust in God, the same trust that we see in Jesus. It produces freedom — “For freedom, Christ has set us free”; compassion — the greatest of the spiritual gifts is love; and courage — “Fear not, do not be afraid.”
  • Love is the soul of justice, and justice is the body, the flesh, of love. All of this is what Easter, the ultimate climax of Holy Week is about.
  • Holy Week and the journey of Lent are about an alternative procession and an alternative journey. (page 163)
  • Alternative procession is what we see on Palm Sunday, an anti-imperial and nonviolent procession.
  • “Now and then, the alternative journey is the path of personal transformation that leads to journeying with the risen Jesus, just as it did for his followers on the road to Emmaus. Holy Week as they annual remembrance of Jesus’s last week presents us with the always relevant questions: Which journey are we on? Which procession are we in?” (page 163)
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