Behind Locked Doors

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This page is part of the Lectionary project: especially Easter2B

Beyond Locked Doors

The GJohn presents a distinctive account of Easter. Unlike Mark and Matthew, there is no immediate trip to Galilee for the first sightings of the risen Jesus. (How do the literalists rationalize the discrepancy between the angels' clear instructions and the very different versions in Luke and John?) John has more in common with Luke, whose entire relocation of the Easter appearances from Galilee to Jerusalem may have been inspired by John's compromise with the major appearances taking place in Jerusalem and a secondary set of appearances -- relegated to an appendix -- happening in Galilee.

The appearance tradition within the four NT Gospels can be mapped as follows:

Discovery of the Empty Tomb

  • Mark: Women find an empty tomb and are told by an angel to pass on a message that the disciples are to meet with Jesus in Galilee.
  • Matthew: Women find an empty tomb and are told by an angel to pass on a message that the disciples are to meet with Jesus in Galilee.
  • John: Mary Magdalene finds the tomb empty and reports it to Peter and the beloved disciple. The male disciples verify her report but receive no angelic messages nor any encounter with Jesus.
  • Luke: The women find an empty tomb but Luke's two angels cannot pass on the instruction for the disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee, since that is not to happen in Luke-Acts. Instead, the angelic pair remind the women of what Jesus said to them while he was still in Galilee, and the women are left to share this reminder of the biblical texts that spoke of the Messiah's sufferings and his resurrection "on the third day."

Response to the Discovery

  • Mark: The women leave in fright and say nothing to anyone.
  • Matthew: The women meet Jesus on their way to tell the disciples. He repeats the instruction that the disciples meet him in Galilee.
  • John: Mary Magdalene (alone) meets Jesus in the garden and is given a message to share with the other disciples: "I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God."
  • Luke: Luke tells the story of two disciples (not members of the Twelve, but the otherwise unknown Cleopas and his partner) who have a surprise encounter with Jesus while walking home to Emmaus, a village just a few miles from Jerusalem. As they travel their unrecognized companion upbraids them for not understanding the Scriptures that had predicted the suffering, death and resurrection of the Messiah. After agreeing to stay the night with them, the Stranger's identity is revealed as he breaks the bread at the start of the meal -- and then he vanishes.

Easter Day Appearances

  • Mark: There are no appearance narratives in Mark, but the suggestion is that they took place in Galilee.
  • Matthew: The Eleven (No women! Not even Mary, the mother of Jesus, or Mary Magdalene?) go to a specified mountain in Galilee (a detail not previously given) and there Jesus appears to them (out of the sky?). The disciples worship him, despite some having doubts. Jesus then claims universal authority. He commissions them to share his message and make disciples from all nations, before assuring them of his continuing presence.
  • John: At evening that same day Jesus appears to the disciples in their secure meeting place. He commissions them for their work, and delegates his own authority to bind and to loose. Thomas is absent.
  • Luke: After the Emmaus couple have rushed back to Jerusalem to share their news with "the eleven and their companions," Jesus himself appears in their midst. He relieves their alarm by eating a small portion of food, before giving them a master class on the correct interpretation of all that was written about him in the Scriptures. The disciples are commissioned as witnesses, and told to wait in Jerusalem until they are clothed with power from on high.

Jerusalem Appearances After Easter Day

  • Mark: not recounted
  • Matthew: not recounted
  • John: A week later (and with seemingly no appearances in the mean time) Jesus again appears to the disciples, this time including Thomas. There is no purpose for this second appearance other than to meet Thomas' need for a direct experience of the risen Lord.
  • Luke: Jesus then leads them to Bethany on the far side of the Mount of Olives, from where he made his ascension into heaven.

Galilee Appearance Tradition

  • Mark: not recounted
  • Matthew: the commissioning of the disciples (28:16-20) occurs on a mountain in Galilee
  • John: In an appendix to the Gospel (ch 21), we have the story of an appearance by Jesus by the Sea of Tiberius in Galilee. After a fruitless night of fishing, the disciples are given a miraculous catch of fish by a Stranger on the beach. When they reach land, they find the Stranger is Jesus and he already has fish cooking on a fire for them. Jesus then has a private conversation with Peter, in which Peter's love for Jesus is affirmed and Peter is commissioned to feed the sheep. Jesus refuses to entertain Peter's questions about what will happen to the Beloved Disciple.
  • Luke: All appearances occur in Jerusalem

It seems reasonable to conclude that the appearance traditions within the NT Gospels are in three distinctive streams:

  • Mark/Matthew speak of Galilee as the place where the risen One was encountered, and as the birthplace of the continuing Jesus movement after Easter.
  • John has the major events happening in Jerusalem, with appearances to Mary Magdalene, the Ten (plus others?) and to the Eleven (including Thomas, and perhaps others). The lakeside appearance is not part of the original design of the Gospel, but its inclusion in the appendix extends the distinctive Johannine focus on individuals as well as honoring the older tradition of appearances in the Galilee.
  • Luke allows no appearances in the Galilee, and each of his scenes includes explicit reference to the theme of prophetic fulfillment. While there is a mention of an otherwise unreported appearance to Peter (Luke 24:34), Luke chooses to avoid any appearances to significant individuals. Jesus appears only to gatherings of disciples: the twosome heading home to Emmaus, and those gathered in the Jerusalem safe house.

The point of the appearances never seems to be to establish the resurrection of Jesus.

Rather, in all three traditions the appearances serve as occasions for the disciples to be commissioned for their future roles within the Christian community.

This is especially clear in John 20, where ...

  • the risen Lord tells the disciples that they are now being sent by him, just as he had been previously sent by the Father.
  • Jesus gives them a special endowment of the Holy Spirit
  • the Eleven are given the power to bind or loose

The central issue seems to be not "What happened to Jesus?" but rather "How are we to order our life together as the continuing community of Christ?"