The Politics of Passion Week—More Afterthoughts about the Resurrection
March 29, 2016 § 3 Comments
Jesus appeared to his friends and followers ten different times after his death, if you count all the accounts in all four gospels and then adjust for duplicates (both Mark and Luke recount an appearance to two men walking on the road; both Mark and John recount an appearance to Mary Magdalene alone at the tomb). Mark 16:14, Luke 24:36, and John 20:19-23 might all be the same event, as well, since Jesus appears to the disciples in each story while they are eating and they all include references to doubting the resurrection; but I’m treating them as separate events. All of the accounts in Mark are somewhat suspect because the original gospel breaks off abruptly before any of the resurrection accounts; all of chapter 16 was added later and most manuscripts don’t have verses nine to the end, which includes all the appearances.
In fact, doubt, ambivalence, and ambiguity color most of the stories of resurrection appearances.
In three of the ten, the people to whom Jesus appears do not recognize him until something happens to open their eyes. These include appearances to the two men on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:13-32); to the disciples, right after being told by these same fellows from Emmaus about their encounter (and these two are apparently actually there in the room; Lk 24:36-49); and to several disciples while fishing on the Sea of Galilee (Jn 21:1-14).
One of the appearances—to Mary Magdalene at the tomb—receives conflicting accounts. In Mark (16:9), Mary recognizes Jesus. In John (20:14), she doesn’t, at least not right away.
Four of the accounts include some reference to a problem with recognizing Jesus or believing in his resurrection. In Matthew 28:16ff, Jesus appears to the Eleven on a mountain in Galilee, “but some doubted.” In Mark 16:14, Jesus appears to the Eleven and rebukes them “for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe.” In the two appearances to the disciples with and without doubting Thomas in John 20:19-29, the people present at the moment do not doubt, but the stories are all about the doubter Thomas. Also, weirdly, seven of these men, including Simon and Thomas, fail to recognize Jesus again in the story of the appearance to the fishermen on the Sea of Galilee, in a passage that follows directly after the story of Thomas feeling Jesus’ wounds and believing. So they doubt—or at least Thomas doubts; then they are convinced; but then sometime later, they have lost their belief again, including Thomas. That’s a lot of pretty persistent doubt.
In only two of the accounts do Jesus’ followers recognize him right away, with no reservations or complications, when he appears to them: the account of the women at the tomb in Matthew 28:1-10, and the account of the appearance to Simon, in a very brief, offhand notice with no elaboration, in Luke 24:34.
The point is that Jesus’ followers needed to be coaxed into believing that he was still alive in some form, still a force in their lives in some way, however ambiguous that relationship seemed to be. To believe that the vision Jesus had given them of a reign of God that would transform their outer and inner lives was still alive and viable, they needed some time. They needed repetition. And they needed teaching.
Even people who were intimates of Jesus when he was in the flesh had to be coached—they had to be taught, all over again, over and over again, what the kingdom of God meant, now that the Teacher was no longer with them in the flesh.
The story of the two men on the road to Emmaus is instructive in this regard. After hours of conversation with their teacher, in which they discuss the very events that led to his death, they only recognize Jesus after he has broken bread with them. That is, after they have shared the common meal that the Last Supper epitomized and perhaps inaugurated, and which was apparently the central daily-bread event in Jesus’ movement.
The teaching dimension of this meal comes clear in its description in Acts (2:42-47):
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
When gathered together for the daily common meal, the apostles taught; they distributed food and money to the poor; they ate; and they prayed. Food and teaching and religious experience and radical economics were all almost literally the same thing.
The disciples ate together, they studied together, they shared all they had, and they had profound religious experiences, all of which were so attractive that more and more people joined them. And this teaching/preaching/sharing all involved eating—as in the Last Supper.
Give us this day our daily bread. Feed my sheep. You shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? How much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him? This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.
I believe that the Sermon on the Mount and the feeding of the 5000 on the mountain were the same event; in fact, the miraculous feeding may have been the miraculous teaching—to share.
At some point in the future, I want to start a series on spiritual food—on the way Christian scripture conflates feeding and teaching, eating and learning, sharing and understanding. For now, I close this series on the Politics of Passion Week with this conclusion about the politics of resurrection:
When Jesus’ followers were finally convinced that he continued to live and work among them and within them (and it took some time and some teaching), his presence inspired them to continue the radical remake the social and economic structures of their community along egalitarian and communitarian lines. This took discipline. It took study, practice, repetition, example. Folks would lose the message, and then be brought brought back again. This is what all that doubting signifies—how hard the work of believing in the kingdom was when its prophet had been murdered. But all that praying and teaching and feeding paid off. It filled them with such awe and joy that other people flocked to their message.