The Fifth Gospel?

Feeling driven to write my own gospel of Jesus, I’m irritated to recall that the gospel of Mark is already taken. Gospel of Browning doesn’t quite have the proper ring. I’ll keep thinking.

The reason I’m considering additional gospels is that I have been writing a lesson on Luke 24 and the “Road to Emmaus” passage. Only Luke clearly records the “road to Emmaus” story among the four gospels. (Mark has a brief note that might refer to the same event.)

Take a look at Luke’s “Easter” chapter, number 24, on the page, paying attention to where most Bibles place section headings, we notice something intriguing. He devotes 12 verses to the women and then Peter discovering the empty tomb. Then come the 23 verses of the Emmaus story. After the Emmaus portion, we have 14 verses relating an encounter with Jesus back in Jerusalem. Finally, the chapter and gospel conclude with four verses regarding the ascension.

What’s the point of all this counting? Luke dedicates 43% of his “Easter coverage” to Emmaus. That’s far more than he gives to any of the other segments. Why?

Clearly, this peculiar story in which Jesus spends a good part of that first Easter Sunday walking along with one obscure (Cleopas) and one unnamed disciple, is a major event in Luke’s Easter, but why? Looking more closely at it, we might discover ourselves in that unnamed disciple.

Let’s consider for a moment an alternative gospel account. What if, on Easter Sunday, the disciples had discovered the empty tomb and known with certainty that Jesus had indeed risen. But let’s assume that this risen Jesus did not appear to the eleven, did not cook breakfast by the Sea of Galilee, did not make a point of showing himself to Thomas, and did not walk down that road to Emmaus. What if he had always been mysterious and silent and just far enough away not to be really present with the followers? What if he had simply waved at the group and then ascended? Wouldn’t that be a less meaningful Jesus?

But that gospel account is not nearly as good of news. In reality, Jesus walked along that road to Emmaus with two unknowns who really didn’t get it. He patiently explained things to them, spending hours on the greatest day in history. And that’s the reason, I think, that Luke gave this story such prominence.

God came into the world as a man. That was a game changer, but when that man came back from death and interacted with his people, even for just 40 days, it changed even more. And when, after departing the earth in body, He gave the Holy Spirit to walk patiently along dusty roads with every nobody who might need Him, He made the news good indeed.

 

A Serene View of Easter

The president of the prestigious (and very liberal) Union Theological Seminary in New York, Dr. Serene Jones, was recently interviewed by Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times. One of her first statements, one about the resurrection, caught my attention:

When you look in the Gospels, the stories are all over the place. There’s no resurrection story in Mark, just an empty tomb. Those who claim to know whether or not it happened are kidding themselves. But that empty tomb symbolizes that the ultimate love in our lives cannot be crucified and killed.

Is that really true, Dr. Jones? I realize that you are probably drawing on some super-technical metric for Biblical narratives to determine when a series of stories is “all over the place.” I’m not privy to that specialized knowledge, so forgive me for not seeing what you see.

The four gospels, to any reasonable and honest reader, are clearly not “all over the place” in how they present the events of the resurrection. Yes, these four correspondents include different details and describe things in slightly different manners, but it does not take a huge leap of textual gymnastics to reconcile the accounts. Let’s just take one fact. When did the women go to the tomb on Easter Sunday?

  • Matthew 28:1: After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to view the tomb.
  • Mark 16:2: Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, they went to the tomb at sunrise.
  • Luke 24:1: On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came to the tomb, bringing the spices they had prepared.
  • John 20:1: On the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark.

Wow! Talk about “all over the place”! They all four agree that it was on the first day of the week, but what about the time of day? Was it as the day “was dawning,” or “very early in the morning,” or “while it was still dark”? Make up your mind, gospel writers! Of course, these don’t contradict at all. We’d all agree that the day is “dawning” early in the morning, and since dawn doesn’t happen all at once, it could be still dark. Even if this were a slight contradiction, which it isn’t, it hardly qualifies as “all over the place.”

But more importantly, Dr. Jones tells a patent falsehood when she says “There’s no resurrection story in Mark.” Keep in mind that she rejects everything after Mark 16:8 as a later addition, but we can play along. Her assertion is simply dishonest. Let’s read:

When they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side; they were alarmed. “Don’t be alarmed,” he told them. “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they put him.–Mark 16:5-6

So what is that if not a “resurrection story”? Who does she think the guy in white was? What else would “He has risen!” mean? If Jesus only rose in spirit or the followers simply realized that “the ultimate love in our lives cannot be crucified and killed,” then shouldn’t his body have still been there?

Dr. Jones is free to believe or disbelieve as she will, but it is beneath a supposedly educated person and beneath the supposed newspaper of record to present material that is just patently false.

He is risen, regardless of what these people say.

 

The Easter Warranty

Woohoo! It’s Easter (or at least it was). We all got dressed up in our new clothes and headed off to church in high spirits. “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!” We sang and smiled and sang some more. The preacher brought his word and people who never amen uttered an amen. And did I mention that it was Easter! Yes!

So how long does that Easter high last? It’s Friday. Is He still risen? Of course Jesus is still risen, but does your life show it? Are you still feeling that Easter thrill like you did a short five days ago?

Let me put this another way. What is the shelf life for your mountain-top experiences with God? For me, this Sunday, for all its power, had pretty well faded behind the chaos and confusion of the remainder of the day. I think it was around 2:00 p.m. when I realized that my mailbox had fallen over and needed to be re-set before Monday that my Easter warranty expired.

Part of me wants to ask how to make the mountain-top experience last longer, but another part wonders if we should expect them to endure. Think about big-mouth Peter on the mountain of transfiguration:

Peter and those with him were in a deep sleep, and when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men who were standing with him. As the two men were departing from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it’s good for us to be here. Let us set up three shelters: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he was saying.–Luke 9:32-33

In short, Peter was saying, “Lord, this is really cool. Let’s stay here forever!” And of course they couldn’t. They had to go down the mountain and deal with hunger and sickness, sore feet and hard beds. How long did Peter’s literal mountain-top experience last? We know that it didn’t keep him from denying Jesus not terribly far in the future.

Should I feel bad that my Easter thrill dwindled so quickly? I don’t know that I should. I am, after all, a ball of sinful flesh with an indwelling Holy Spirit. That arrangement cannot simply stay on the mountain, although we can hope to make the visits more frequent.

A day will come when we will dwell forever in that mountain-top realm. That experience will make Easter 2019 seem kind of anemic, and it will endure. But until that day comes, we need to treasure the mountain peaks knowing that the valleys and the tedious plains will inevitably come.

Rather than feeling bad about the speed with which the glow faded out of Easter this week, perhaps we should focus on getting back to the mountain more than once a year. Easter 2020, by the way, will be on April 12.

 

Easter Zombies

You never thought you’d hear those two words together, did you? I determined to put that sentence down as my lead, and then thought it might be fun to do a Google search for that phrase. And it turns out that “easter zombies” has appeared in several guises including on an anti-religious “deist” site, which mocks Matthew 27:52-53:

The tombs were also opened and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. And they came out of the tombs after his resurrection, entered the holy city, and appeared to many.

In fairness, that is a surprising pair of verses, and I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard a preacher take that as his central text. We shouldn’t be surprised that a skeptic, someone leaning wholly on human reason, would fasten on this as a problem point in the gospels.

But those are not the “zombies” I’m talking about. In popular culture, zombies are the bodies of dead people that are reanimated, somehow, inexplicably, and that wander around the countryside attempting to eat people who are still living. In many versions, these zombies are obsessed with eating brains.

These aren’t my Easter zombies either. The Easter zombies are those people staggering into the church on that one spring morning, more out of a sense of habit or compulsion than from any true devotion to God. Maybe going to church is the price they pay to enjoy peacefully a family dinner and Easter-egg hunt during the afternoon.

The problem with these people is that, like the zombies on TV, they’re dead. Maybe they’re truly spiritually dead, or maybe they have that spark of Christian life within but they’re so wrapped up in dead works that they might as well, from an outward appearance, be still lost in their sins.

Two times in Hebrews we read about people who are dealing with dead works, and in Hebrews 9:14, the writer urges us to “cleanse our consciences from dead works so that we can serve the living God.”

The Easter zombies don’t serve the living God. They’ll think more of jelly beans than Jesus, more of Peeps than God’s people.

While some of them are, as noted before, spiritually dead, some of them are technically believers but the sort who Paul describes, in 1 Corinthians 3:12, as building on Christ’s foundation with “wood, hay, or straw.” But then don’t we all do that now and again? Sure I might build with precious materials, I might serve the living God 90% of the time, but what of the other 10%. Should I look at your 80%/20% split or the bona fide Easter zombie’s 5%/95% split and boast? Aren’t we all really zombies to one degree or another?

I will walk into my church service this morning with a grateful and joyful heart because I am, like every other person wrapped up in this body of death, a little bit zombie. It is not for me to judge those who are more zombie, more far gone than me. It is for me, for us, beloved, to pray for them and to love them. It’s our place to believe in the truth that these bones can live again.

You will know that I am the Lord, my people, when I open your graves and bring you up from them.–Ezekiel 37:13

He is risen! And He can make the dead alive again. Praise the Lord of the Easter zombies.

Mission Accomplished (Hebrews 1:3b)

After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. (Hebrews 1:3b)

In 2003, the more recent President Bush appeared aboard the aircraft character U.S.S. Lincoln, commending combat troops returning from Iraq beneath a banner reading “Mission Accomplished.” Had he known then that the most deadly days of American involvement in Iraq lay ahead and that the hostilities would drag on for years, providing a ready point of focus for his critics, I’m sure Mr. Bush would have opted for a different, less triumphant message. Perhaps he should have read E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, in which an older English man, when presented with the idea of calling in the army to set straight native unrest, comments that “The army sets one thing straight and leaves five things crooked.” As much as I appreciate the dedication of military persons, I recognize that military solutions, like all human solutions, are imperfect, impermanent, and imprecise.

Not so with the Son of God! Just a few days ago, Christians around the world celebrated Resurrection Sunday. It’s on that matter that I would like to dwell for a moment. The Resurrection or Easter represents the high point of the Christian calendar. But Good Friday actually represents the most important work done to provide purification for our sins. Had Jesus simply died of a disease, like Lazarus, then his renewal of life would have meant very little. Had he simply been crucified and then remained in the grave, then his sacrifice would have meant very little.

That’s not how it worked. A t the risk of trivializing Jesus providing purification for our sins, I’d like to compare it with the use of a credit card. If you attempt to purchase a new BMW using a credit card, you’re likely to be disappointed. Most of us do not have that sort of available credit. If I were to stroll by and mention that I had a $50,000 limit on my American Express, you might be intrigued, but you wouldn’t start pulling on your racing gloves. First of all, I would have to lay that card on the counter. That’s what Jesus did when he allowed himself to be arrested, tried, and executed. But even if I did lay the card down, you wouldn’t be ready to drive off. You’d wait to be sure that the transaction went through, that my card could actually buy that automobile. Easter morning provided that confirmation, it proved that Jesus had been not only willing to provide purification but that he’d been able to do so.

With that work done, Jesus tidied up a few things and then ascended back to the Father, seating himself at the right hand of God. The sins of all who have trusted in him, past, present, and future, had been purged. That’s a mission well accomplished.