Easter Sunday Sermon (2011)
Today I’m going to talk about transformation. The story of Easter Sunday is for me one of the ultimate stories of transformation. And while Jesus is clearly central to the story, the resurrection is a topic that continues to be controversial. I intend to take a look at a few different interpretations of the resurrection later on, but my focus will be on the transformation within the lives of the disciples – a transformation that is independent of the interpretation one has of Jesus’ resurrection.
But first some context. As I explored on Friday, the crucifixion and death of Jesus on the cross had left the disciples shattered. Their expectations of following Jesus as he liberated Israel as a new king in the line of David, as the messiah foretold from long ago, were dashed to the floor. They were grief stricken, afraid, confused and above all, seriously questioning their sense of purpose – was the last three years of learning from Jesus all to come to this?
And then somehow, between the crucifixion and Pentecost, the disciples are transformed from this naturally depressed state into a band of the most confident, inspirational and energetic people the world has ever known. What I’d like to do this morning, is first take a look at what the disciples ended up doing and then return to the events of these seven weeks between Easter and Pentecost, to explore further the transformative experiences that drove their lives from that point onwards.
I should say that almost all of these details about the actions of the disciples are contested – much of what I will present here is based on a combination of tradition and written historical evidence.
Matthew was a central figure in the church in Jerusalem, where he continued to be involved in Jewish affairs. Later he traveled around modern day Greece, Turkey and Iran preaching as he went. There are a number of books, in addition to the Gospel of Matthew itself, that are attributed to Matthew but are not included in the canon. These give insight into the life, thinking and spiritual practice of the Nazarenes, the Jewish-Christian group to which Matthew belonged.
John was a key leader in the early church, attributed with the authorship of a number of canonical and extra-canonical books. He stayed in Judea for a few years and then seems to have moved to Ephesus in western Turkey, taking Mary the mother of Jesus with him according to tradition. Later it seems he was banished off the coast to the island of Patmos, but played a key role in training Polycarp, a significant leader and bishop of Smyrna, also in western Turkey. Interestingly, members of the church of Latter day saints believe that it was John who returned in 1830 to restore the priesthood…
Peter seems to have gone on from his leading role at Pentecost, making the great speech to the crowd there to lead certain segments of the early church both at Antioch and then later at Rome. Authorship of several books both in the biblical canon and outside of it is attributed to Peter. Along with Paul, he is viewed amongst some Christian groups as the greatest of the disciples – perhaps because of his role in the founding of the Church in Rome, which came to dominate the politics of faith over the centuries.
Andrew, Peter’s brother, ranged more widely. Founding the church in Byzantium, which became Constantinople and is now Istanbul, he preached throughout modern Turkey and the Caucasus as far as Kiev. In particular his focus around the Black Sea has led to his being considered the founder and patron saint of the churches in Georgia, Ukraine and Romania. Links to Scotland, ie the St Andrews Cross and the university town of St Andrews are related to medieval relics being brought to Scotland from Constantinople.
Very little is known about James son of Alpheus, or Jude, otherwise known as Thaddeus. Tradition asserts James was martyred in Egypt while preaching there, while Jude is venerated as a founder of the Armenian church. He also appears to have visited Libya.
So, here we have the heavyweights. If we add Paul’s three journeys around the Mediterranean, also ending in Rome, we have the picture most of us entertain about the spread of the gospel. These are the threads (with the exception of St Andrew) that mattered for the church in Rome. I was fascinated to find an even more restricted diagram in my NIV Bible entitled “The spread of the gospel” which related only to the journeys of Peter and Paul, as though they were all that needed to be remembered.
James son of Zebedee seems to have briefly preached in Spain, before returning to Judea where he was killed by Herod Agrippa. His remains were apparently returned to Spain for burial at the place now named after him: Santiago de Compostela, and several colourful stories accompany this journey. Alternatively, perhaps he stayed in Judea and it was just his remains that ended up there, sparking the tradition off (although if this is so, its unclear to me why Christians in Spain would be so interested…)
Philip traveled with Bartholomew and his sister Mariamne through Syria, Western Turkey and Greece, preaching as he went. There is an Islamic tradition that he traveled and preached in modern Tunisia, both to the great Roman city of Carthage and the smaller city of Kairouan, which is today a key holy city for North African Muslims.
Bartholomew, or Nathanael seems to have traveled for a while with Philip, but tradition has him traveling extremely widely. He seems to have gone to India, leaving a copy of the Gospel of Matthew there. Other traditions have him in Ethiopia, as well as modern day Iran and Iraq. He is considered the founder of the church in Armenia and is that church’s patron saint.
Thomas, characterized as the doubter in the Bible, seems to have been infused with the most zeal of all the apostles for traveling and spreading the word. He sailed for southern India and spent many years working in various parts of India, including parts of the north. Those trained by him appear to have continued his efforts, founding churches across northwest and western coastal India, through modern Pakistan and into Afghanistan and even northern Iran. Less well established are traditions that hold he visited China via Malacca and then returned to his ministry in India.
Very little is known with confidence about Simon the Zealot. Various traditions place him all over the place – from Egypt, to Armenia, to Spain and even Britain – Glastonbury of all spots. Interestingly Muslim tradition holds that he was sent to North Africa, explicitly to preach to the Berber ethnic group, who are a non-Arab people who have maintained some Christian cultural practices right up to today, resisting the Islamic faith so dominant in that part of the world.
SO… apart from being an interesting potted history, what is the point of detailing these actions? It seems to me that these apostles must have had some serious fire in their bellies. These journeys were long and arduous. They would have been going into places well and truly out of their comfort zone. They must have had deep convictions about the purpose for which Jesus had trained them. Almost all of them were killed for their efforts by local authorities who saw them as subversive, sometimes in the most gruesome ways, if tradition is to be believed. And yet communities of faith were established and others were trained and inspired and Jesus’ message about the kingdom of God continued to be spread.
What a transformation from the state they were in after Jesus’ death, when they stayed locked in a room for at least a week, in fear and trembling, confused and grief stricken.
So what caused this transformation?
I’ll now turn to the controversial bit. Much has been written about Jesus’ resurrection, and no doubt much will continue to be written. I am by no means an expert and am really just sharing where my thinking has gotten to on this stuff.
I want to cover three interpretations of the resurrection, hopefully exploring the basis for these interpretations in scripture. In each case, there is a clear sense in which the resurrection was central in inspiring the disciples and motivating them for their impressive endeavours.
Angel sends Mary x 2 to tell disciples about empty tomb
Young man tells Mary x 2 + Salome to tell disciples to go to Galilee
2 shining men tell Mary x 2 + others about Jesus rising
Mary Magdalene discovers empty tomb
Appeared to Mary Magdalene & ‘other Mary’
Great Commission on the mountain
(Appeared to Mary Magdalene)
(Appeared to two while walking in the country)
(Appeared to the 11)
(Ascension into heaven)
Peter wonders about empty tomb
Road to Emmaus
Appeared to the 11
Many occasions over 40 days
Ascension into heaven
Peter & John wonder about empty tomb
Appeared to Mary Magdalene
Appeared to the 11
Appeared to the 11 a week later (Thomas)
Did many other things
This table is an attempt at summarizing the appearances of Jesus that are recorded in the Gospels and Acts. There are further references to this elsewhere, for example Paul writes about the resurrection at length, but these are the main recorded sources we have from the Gospels themselves.
A few explanatory notes. The points in brackets in the Mark column are all from chapter 16: 9-20. These verses were not part of the earliest reliable manuscripts. Without this section, Mark’s account ends with Mary Magdalene and her companions heading off to tell the disciples to go to Galilee to meet with Jesus, as he promised. The coloured text in the Luke/Acts column relates to whether the reference occurs only in Luke (in black), only in Acts (in red) or in both Luke and Acts (in green). I have included Luke and Acts together for most scholars agree they are companion volumes, both authored by Luke.
The interpretation that many of us will be familiar with is that Jesus was resurrected in bodily form, interacted with the disciples, demonstrating his bodily reality by doing ordinary things like eating and having the disciples touch his body, and then ascended to heaven having commissioned the disciples to head out and preach, once they waited for His Spirit to empower them – which we understand happened a few weeks later at Pentecost.
This interpretation is strongly associated with the doctrine of atonement through the death of Jesus – ie that Jesus, uniquely sinless, died as a sacrifice for our sins, was restored to life miraculously, and after encouraging the disciples to stick with the plan by demonstrating his vanquishing of death, rose to be with God. The Holy Spirit then came at Pentecost and empowered the disciples for the amazing works they undoubtedly carried on to do.
Part of the reason for this, is that this interpretation is also strongly associated with the account of events provided by Luke, both in his Gospel and in the book of Acts. It is this account, which Paul emphasises throughout much of his writings, and which has become traditional amongst much of the church, which makes sense given Paul’s influence in founding the church at Rome and that stream of the church’s dominance in shaping the nature of Christian faith down through the ages.
It is striking to me that (if you discount the add-on portion in Mark), this is the only account that includes Jesus ascension into heaven, and this is the only account which does not feature Mary Magdalene as the first of the disciples to encounter the risen Jesus. Much has been written about these two features of the account in Luke and its centrality in what has become traditional doctrine. My point today does not rest on a particular interpretation of the resurrection, so I will leave that discussion to others…though it is very interesting in and of itself.
A second interpretation of the resurrection that I came across relatively recently has Jesus dying on the cross, and then mysteriously appearing to the disciples in a form that was not the same as our normal human bodies. Some theologians speak of these appearances as spiritual visitations of one sort or another, while others construct them more as metaphorical occasions, stories which tell us how real Jesus felt to the disciples after his death. This interpretation makes much of the mysterious way in which Jesus seemed to appear and disappear, or be recognized only at some meaningful point in the conversation. Jesus ascension into heaven is treated as another of these mysterious disappearances under this interpretation.
The word heaven itself has been explored by some scholars and is argued to mean something closer to the very air around us. We retain some sense of this in English with phrases such as “the heavens opened” which are about the sky, the atmosphere above and around us. Other languages retain it more closely, where the same word is ordinarily used for both the religious concept of heaven and the physical concept of the air or atmosphere. This etymology of the word ‘heaven’ has applications to a re-interpretation of what the kingdom of heaven refers to – ie rather than God’s kingdom being a place somewhere else in the universe where people go to be with god after they die, God’s kingdom is here and now, and is all around us – it is simply the space infused by God and God’s influence, working through us. Under this understanding, then, Jesus disappearance into ‘heaven’, can be rendered a disappearance into ‘thin air’, which is strikingly similar to his other appearances after crucifixion.
This more mysterious interpretation of the resurrection seems to have been popular amongst a number of the early Christian groups, notably the Nazarenes and other more Jewish oriented groups. Clearly it is most congruent with Matthew’s account, and possibly Mark’s – and relating back to the use of the word heaven, its interesting that Jesus’ phrase “Kingdom of heaven” is distinctive of Matthew – in Luke Jesus more often says “Kingdom of God.”
In terms of the effect on the disciples, these more mysterious appearances can be viewed as having a similar motivating effect, perhaps even more so – their experience of this mysterious post-crucifixion Jesus was clearly supernatural and his call to carry out the tasks they had been prepared for was therefore a purpose worth dying for.
As an aside, this interpretation can be naturally expanded to account for the transformation of Saul on the Damascus road – who after encountering the risen Jesus in a clearly very powerful, yet mysterious way, abruptly stopped persecuting Christians and instead became a, if not the, central pillar of the early church. I find this consistency appealing – Jesus’ appearance to Saul is more difficult to comprehend as a bodily visitation given its occurrence well after the events of the Easter story. Whereas if his encounter with the risen Jesus was similar to that experienced by the disciples, then you would expect a similar effect – which is what we observe.
A third interpretation that I recently came across is associated with John’s gospel, although not inconsistent with Matthew’s account (or Mark if you exclude the add-on). According to this third interpretation, Jesus survived the crucifixion, or was somehow revived and carried on living in Judea until he died in obscurity, the mantle of leadership having passed on to Peter and Paul. The sense of it is that Jesus was pretty sure he was the Messiah (in the political sense I discussed on Friday), he had convinced both his disciples and himself of this (we have a record of his internal struggles as he figures out his destiny in other parts of scripture) so he went along with his trial and crucifixion, thinking that somehow events would transpire differently, providing him with the opportunity to re-establish a politically independent Israel – which unfortunately for him, did not eventuate. And Peter was initially shocked at Jesus failure, but realized that if he took over the leadership of the Way, all might not yet be lost.
This interpretation draws on several aspects of John’s account of things. Firstly, in John’s account it is unclear what happened to Jesus after the several instances of his interactions with the disciples, leaving open the possibility that he continued to be around in Judea for quite some time. In common with the account in Acts, Jesus is said to have done many other things beyond the events detailed. Jesus ordinary existence is explicitly affirmed with the remarkable story of the catching of the precisely 153 fish. And Thomas’ explicit confirmation of Jesus flesh and blood status only occurs in John. Significantly for the positioning of Peter as leader of the Way, replacing Jesus, only in John do we have the ritualistic reinstatement of Peter as leader of the church.
There is some appeal in this interpretation for the rationalist, as it doesn’t involve any supernatural or miraculous occurrences. And it does seem strange that Jesus got back into fishing with the disciples again after all that had occurred… But I find this account unconvincing. While there are other reasons, my main difficulty with it is that I cannot see how this turn of events would have inspired the disciples to head on out and do the frankly astonishing things that we know they did. People don’t head out around the world into hardship and martyrdom for a message as fundamentally undermined as Jesus message would have been had this third interpretation been the case. If the Jesus revolution was really about consolidating political power in Palestine, why head off in all directions across the known and unknown world?
SO… where does this all leave us? I mentioned earlier that my point today does not rest on a particular interpretation of the resurrection. I am content to let the detail be a little murky, to allow the particular means and mechanisms of resurrection to remain somewhat of a mystery. For me, what is clear is that whatever occurred, the disciples were transformed and empowered, inspired to undertake a life of hardship and of commitment to the message they had received from Jesus, the good news itself. And it is this inspiration and empowering that we can also partake in.
The word inspire contains the key point I want to make. In-spire, In-spiration – to have the Spirit in you – to be filled with spirit – to be filled with The Spirit – to be spirited, full of energy and purpose. This is was what the risen Jesus imparted to the disciples, and perhaps even more explicitly, this is what occurred at Pentecost, where Joel’s ancient prophecy was proclaimed by Peter, saying
“In the last days, God says I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams”.
Visions and dreams, dreams and visions. These are words we still use to describe having purpose, having meaning. To have a dream, like Martin Luther King, is to have clear, inspired purpose. And it is the Easter story which tells of the great inspiration, or the great In-Spirit-ing that the disciples experienced and which propelled them off on lives full of meaning and purpose. May we be so inspired in our daily lives here and now.