Sunday, March 29, 2015

Sunday 5 April 2015 - Easter Day

Theme: New life in Christ / Christ is Risen: He is Risen Indeed / Death overcome

Sentence: 'You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.' (Mark 16:6)


Jesus Christ our Saviour,
you have delivered us
from death and sin.
You have brought with the dawn
a new beginning and an empty tomb;
grant us strength and humility
to enter into the new life granted us by the Father
through the same power of the Spirit to raise you from the dead.


Acts 10:34-43 (=Old Testament reading), 
1 Corinthians 15:1-11, 
Mark 16:1-8


Acts 10:34-43 (=Old Testament reading) 

This is a masterly summary of the gospel which repays careful study beyond the specific attention it gives to the resurrection. Here we might be especially interested in verse 40, which makes a distinction between God raising Jesus from the dead and allowing him to appear. 

But verse 41 is also important as it nails an often observed fact about the appearances, that they were appearances to those who already knew Jesus (a famous exception being Saul/Paul) and not to the unbelieving public at large.

The distinction in verse 40 means that the act of raising Jesus from the dead is a specific action by God, a consequence of which are appearances of the risen Jesus. Contrary to some ways of explaining the resurrection, the resurrection of Christ did not consist of a set of appearances to people, a not unknown occurrence after death in which grieving people experience the presence of a loved one. 

Rather, the resurrection was first an action by God. Jesus died and was buried but "on the third day" something happened to his body which can described only in terms of being "raised." The four gospels unitedly attest to the logical consequence of being raised from the dead: the tomb was emptied of Jesus' body. The theme of a bodily raising of Jesus continues in the second part of verse 40 as Peter describes eating and drinking with Jesus "after he rose from the dead."

It is important to note the word used in verse 41 to describe the people to whom Jesus appeared: "witnesses." Jesus did not appear, so to speak, to comfort distraught followers, or as a kind of divine party trick. He appeared so that those who experienced him as their risen Lord and Saviour might testify to him. So Peter continues in verse 42, "He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead." This comment is reprised from last year.

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

These verses capture a number of aspects of our celebration on Palm Sunday: giving thanks (1), Jesus entering Jerusalem through one of the gates in its walls (19-20), the shouts of acclamation the crowd made on that day (26) and the use of 'branches' in the 'festal procession' on that day (27b).

But note also that this psalm mentions a keynote image for all early Christian understanding of Jesus Christ: the rejected stone who becomes the chief cornerstone (22). Additional comment for Easter Day: on the cross Israel (and the wider world created by God through the Son) rejects Jesus the Christ but three days later the rejected stone becomes the cornerstone of God's new people, those called into being (ekklesia) by Jesus the risen Lord and Saviour.

Then there is the greeting which forms part of our NZPB liturgy: 'This is the day that the Lord has made ...' (24). This comment is reprised from last week, with small addition relevant to Easter, when the reading from this psalm extended to verse 29.

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

No other account of the resurrection gives so many details of resurrection appearances. 

Paul begins this passage by saying that he wishes to remind his readers of the 'good news' (1-3). For Paul the good news is telling the news which is good, the news that (a) Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures (3); (b) that he was buried and he was raised again on the third day (4); (c) that he appeared to multiple witnesses to the resurrection (5-12).

Whereas Mark (see below) emphasises the emptiness of the tomb, Paul omits mention of the empty tomb* and makes much of the many witnesses to the appearances of the risen Jesus, not least because he is concerned with the (sometimes disrespectful) Corinthians that they note that he too is one of these important witnesses. *Some critics makes a lot of this omission, alleging that Paul contradicts the gospels on this point. But it is a big step to move from the absence of mention to the absence of event: the sequence 'buried ... raised' is completely consistent with the tomb being empty since 'raised' in Jewish understanding was the raising of the body of the deceased.

The extent and variation in the witnesses is important, including the reference to an appearance of the risen Jesus to 500 witnesses at one time: this suggests that we are NOT talking about grief stricken individuals having post-death impressions of encounters with their deceased loved ones (a relatively common phenomenon).
Mark 16:1-8

Let's be honest with ourselves as the Christian community as we read this resurrection narrative. It has several difficulties, especially in comparison to the other narratives.

1. Theses verses do not actually tell us of an encounter with the risen Jesus. They predict an encounter to come, and that in Galilee, despite each of the other gospels clearly relaying to their readers that Jesus was encountered in Jerusalem (with Matthew and John but not Luke telling us of Galilean appearances).

2. Most Bibles print a set of verses, 9-20 for this chapter with notes which make clear that these extra verses are likely a later addition to Mark's original manuscript. In turn that highlights the abrupt ending of Mark if it ends at verse 8. (In Greek the abruptness is underlined by the last word being 'gar' = 'for'. In the flow of the narrative the abruptness is experienced as we are left with the women experiencing fear and trembling and no joy). 

3. Much speculation and debate has ensued between scholars as to whether verse 8 is the original ending of the gospel or is the result of some misfortune to the original manuscript (such as a last piece being torn off). For instance scholars labour to tell us how 16:1-8 is a plausible ending to the gospel and a credible account of the resurrection while others see this ending as inadequate and unsatisfying and propose that the original was longer. Incidentally, to return to 16:9-20, the very least we can say about these additional verses is that they represent a very ancient dissatisfaction with the ending of the gospel at 16:8.

4. The last part of verse 8 seems quite odd: 'and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.' They must have said something to someone because we know their story!

But the verses are the verses we have. What can we say about them that makes sense of them?

First, we can favourably compare what we are told with what other gospels say: the tomb was discovered to be empty of Jesus and an angel or angel-like witness(es) were present to inform the women what had happened.

Secondly, Mark attests to the resurrection of Jesus in no uncertain terms: 'He has been raised; he is not here' (6).

Thirdly, the 'terror and amazement' which 'seize' the women (8) is in keeping with a theme in Mark, that the wonderful deeds done by Jesus inspire awe and fear among the disciples and crowds which follow him. Mark's ending may be abrupt and unexpected but it is not odd on his own narrative terms.

Fourthly, Mark beautifully captures the shock of the occasion by telling us something which he knew was only true for a short time: that the women were shocked into silence (8). But Mark knows and his first readers know that this was a momentary silence. Their tongues were soon loosened ... otherwise there would be no gospel to write! Indeed, Mark expects that they will talk because they are told to do so in verse 7!

What I am about to say is arguable (and scholars do argue about these matters). But Mark the story-teller is stronger in these verses than Mark the historian. As a story-teller he wants to tell us that the story ends where it began (Galilee, 7), that Peter is forgiven by Jesus for denying him (this is the implication of the reference to Peter in v. 7), and that the primary evidence of the resurrection was the concrete, physical emptiness of the tomb (1-8). Appearances for Mark (7) are secondary signs of the resurrection (so he postpones them, by implication, to a future point in Galilee). 

Mark the historian (I suggest) would offer something more in keeping with 1 Corinthians 15:1-11. Alternatively, the compiler(s) of the so-called longer ending of Mark (16:9-20) suggest that Mark the historian would have/should have offered something which merges aspects of Luke's and John's accounts together.

What is our 'take home' message from these enigmatic and controversial verses?

1. Jesus was raised from the dead. His tomb was and remains empty of his body.

2. The magnitude of the resurrection as an event of God acting in power to intervene in the world should lead to awe, the kind of awe we have when we are shocked into silence.

3. The importance of the resurrection as a wonderful event displaying the awesome power of God should lead to telling others about it.

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