by Pastor Doug Kings
(Here is one more from the Reflections series I wrote a few years ago on the challenges of making sense of the Holy Week and Easter stories in the gospels.)
Jesus said, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. Luke 24
This excerpt from this Sunday’s Gospel is another example of the problem with reading the gospels’ Holy Week and Easter stories as historical events. In this case we have the perplexing question: was the risen Jesus a resuscitated corpse?
The earliest New Testament writings are by Paul and, as I wrote earlier, his understanding of the “Easter experience” is that that the resurrected Jesus “appeared” to his disciples at various times, and ultimately to Paul himself. The use of the word “appear” here and elsewhere is the experience of a vision or a dream. For ancients, such experiences were real but also different than normal everyday living.
In Mark, the earliest gospel, there is no Easter appearance of Jesus. In the Easter stories of Matthew, Luke, and John Jesus does appear in tangible form. These later gospels were written at least 50-70 years after the events they are recounting. We are all familiar with the notion that a story grows in its telling and that seems to be the case with the gospels. But rather than thinking of this as exaggeration or even lying, it’s more helpful to see each of them trying to address needs and questions in their various church communities.
In this story from Luke, the resurrected Jesus has skin and bones which he invites the disciples to touch. He even eats a snack. Taken literally this story raises almost comical questions and impossibilities. From a modern perspective it is absurd.
But Luke is not a modern person and is not writing for a modern audience. Luke tells us his concern: the risen Jesus was not a ghost. The appearance of ghosts, the spirits of dead people, was a commonly accepted phenomenon in the ancient world. Apparently this is how some were interpreting, and probably dismissing, the stories of Jesus’ resurrection appearances: Jesus was seen after he died? No big deal; people see ghosts all the time.
Luke feels the need to refute this interpretation and does so in the only way he can: by making the risen Jesus a physical reality. He was not just a ghost; he has been raised. For modern people, however, and I suspect even some people in his own day, Luke only digs the hole deeper. Now that Jesus has a body, what will happen to it? Where is it now? Our minds spin trying to make sense of this new conundrum.
Unless, of course, we understand this text for what it was: a story, very likely created by Luke himself. The problem for us is that we separate fact and fiction into hard categories without overlap: fact = true and fiction = untrue. In practice, however, the division has never been so clean, even today.
Before modern times, history was almost always told through what we would now call “historical fiction.” Detailed factual history was simply impossible to write because the information was unavailable. The interest in telling about people or events of the past was how they could help living in the present. From the courtroom and the laboratory we have developed a laudable appreciation for demonstrable facts and data. Our modern world would be impossible without them. We make a mistake, however, in assuming ancients had those same standards or judging them by them.
In today’s gospel, Luke is interpreting one story (the empty tomb) by telling another story (of a resuscitated corpse). What’s essential for us to appreciate them is realizing they are both stories. It is entirely possible that Mark created the first account of an empty tomb. Paul never mentions it and it’s hard to imagine that he wouldn’t have known it if it existed, or that he wouldn’t have talked about it if he did know it.
Having told the story of Jesus’ life and death, Mark wanted to conclude his gospel in a way that pointed to the future. The women, representing Jesus’ followers, are turned away from adoration of Jesus’ body and told instead to go to Galilee, which for Mark is the center of the new church’s life. “There you will see him.”
In the ancient world, stories took on a reality all their own. The gospel writers that followed Mark each interpreted his work in their own unique way. One result is that their subsequent Easter accounts differ significantly from each other in nearly all their details. This is a problem if we imagine them as accounts of historical events. It’s not a problem if we understand them as theological stories built on the foundation of earlier stories, guiding and inspiring faith.
So today we can hear a story of the risen Jesus eating a piece of fish, or cooking fish on the beach as in John, and smile. I suspect at least some ancient people did as well. The essential message of all these stories is that the Spirit of the crucified Jesus yet lives. The question is whether we have our own stories to tell of that Spirit alive today in our world, and in our lives.
Blessings in your life and ministry.