Where Jesus Appears: Interpreting the Post-Resurrection Narratives

Resurrection. Rising from the dead? Empowerment? Continuing presence? Mythology? I’ve grown rather bored as of late with the historical quests for who Jesus really was. It’s tiring, really. One scholar says this, the other says that-next thing you know, Jesus hasn’t been deconstructed but shattered. Of course, that is somewhat exaggerated. I’ve definitely gained some valuable insights into who Jesus was and what he stood for. What I want to do now is move away from the historical criticism dimension and towards the metaphorical/literary approach. I would like to study the texts not for historical truth but for the value beyond the reductionists’ snare. As a start, I want to return to the Resurrection, not in terms of whether or not it was bodily, but what it tells us about the meaning of Jesus.

Jesus’ death should have ended his movement. That’s what happened, that’s what happens. Revolutionaries from the marginalized realms of society almost always contain the lifeblood of the movement. They are the standard, the incarnation of hope, the essence of the resistance. Yet in decapitating the head of the Jesus movement, Roman authorities unleashed a hydra that spread and grew in strength. Something was amiss. This is both a theological and historical question: Why did Jesus’ followers continue and grow, in contrast to the many other marginalized groups who have clashed with authority in the history of the world? I don’t intend to deal with this question directly in this post. Instead, I will focus on how Jesus’ life and message was internalized by his followers. Perhaps this will clarify future examinations of that question.

dawnLet’s now turn to the post-Resurrection narratives, starting with Matthew. Matthew is quite terse.

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:16-20).

I find this anecdote to be the most illuminating in Matthew’s recounting. Think in a Jewish context of the imagery of the mountain. Moses spoke with God on top of the mountain.

Then Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites…” Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after” (Exodus 19:3-6, 9).

I emphasize the Moses connection because from the start of Matthew’s Gospel, he compares Jesus to Moses. Take, for example, the accounts the Israelites’ flight from Egypt and Jesus’ flight from Herod. In the former, the Israelites escape the Pharaoh in Egypt and go to Canaan. In the latter, Joseph and Mary take Jesus to Egypt to avoid tyranny in Palestine. Jesus, then, is to be a liberator. But there’s a problem. Unlike Moses, Jesus wasn’t able to lead the Israelites on a long journey into the wilderness, away from bondage. Instead, he is killed. Matthew, then, is not so much concerned with the Resurrection as a triumph over death as he is with developing a profound truth: Moses never left. The Jews are always waiting for either divine or prophetic intervention but then don’t recognize it. They have a defeatist attitude, a sense of saying “no” to life. The Pharisees and Sadducees don’t deconstruct the system that oppresses them, but long for a future day when some powerful figure will. Those are the doubters mention in Matthew’s verse above-not doubters in his Resurrection (in the ancient world, the realms of earth and death were intimately connected), but in whether they have the ability. Matthew is turning this on its head. Jesus was the spark, but now is followers realize they have the ability to tend the flame of this new kingdom of freedom and community. And just as God does when speaking with Moses, he reminds them that he is always there, to the “end of the age,” the end of the age of oppression, when a new type of world will come forth.

Luke’s account uses a different angle. His narrative of the road to Emmaus is, for me, the most profound account of Jesus after the Resurrection. It is an account of communal mourning and compassion, breaking bread even in sorrow. According to Luke, the two disciples encounter a stranger whom they are unable to recognize in their despair. They allude to prior hopes that he was the redeemer-notice how the onus is on Jesus just as traditional Jewish thought placed the responsibility on some great intervening person or force. They discuss some other matters as the day progresses.

“As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.  They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:28-35).

These verses reveals how Jesus’ followers saw him, how he continued to be among them. Jesus is found in hospitality and welcoming the stranger. But, even more important, it is the breaking of bread, the sharing of the meal where Jesus is most pronounced. In the meal, life is nourished and friendship may be cultivated. The meal is about community, loving your neighbor, participating in something more than oneself. The focus should not be on the figure of the stranger as Jesus rather, Jesus is to be found in the act itself. That is where the realization occurs.

The cross leaves us, as it did with the original disciples, with a feeling of loss. It is a moment of total deconstruction. Everything that gives comfort appears to fall away. Yet the Resurrection tells a different story. It reveals how the evils that Jesus stood against are the ones that crumble. For in the crucifixion, we are left with uncertainty and anxiety, but also new freedom. The Resurrection is our encounter with this freedom, showing us how we can turn what we thought was lost into a call for action, a call to dismantle that which stands against love, courage, and freedom. It is not about beating death, but embracing life.

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