Christ is risen! Truly he is risen!
Here are some powerful, mysterious Resurrection stories, most of which are not heard by Orthodox people in church. (See Part 1.) Since they are rarely preached on, I’ll add a bit of commentary.
Here is Luke’s account: That evening two disciples, Cleopas (husband of Joanna, one of the Myrrhbearers) and Luke himself were walking to the village of Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, discussing the events of the past days, when a man they did not recognize came and walked with them. (Why did they not recognize this Man whom they knew well? We’re not told.) He asked what they were talking about. They told him. Then he opened the meaning of the Old Testament prophecies to them, explaining how it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer, die and rise again. When he appeared to be going on (!), they invited him to stay. At supper he took bread and blessed it. Suddenly “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him, and he vanished out of their sight”. They ran into Jerusalem to tell the other disciples how he had been “known to them in the breaking of the bread” (a figure of the Holy Eucharist), only to be told that they already knew: “The Lord is risen. He has appeared to Simon Peter.” Apparently this was a private visit earlier in the day. Why are we not told what Jesus said to Peter? Perhaps Peter didn’t want to talk about it? Only two days before, he had thrice denied that he even knew his Lord.
Suddenly, though the doors were shut, Jesus stood in their midst saying, “Peace to you” – “Shalom” in Hebrew, which means not just lack of turmoil but fullness of life, all good things. This to the Apostles who would face so much trouble, be expelled from Judaism, be imprisoned. Most would lose their livelihood and their homeland and spend their lives “on the road”. All except John would be martyred. But they would now have a different, deeper kind of peace. They were terrified thinking they were seeing a ghost. Jesus said, “Why are you troubled? Why do you doubt? See my hands and my feet. Touch me.” Still, Luke says, they “disbelieved for joy”. It seemed too good to be true. Jesus then asked, so casually, “What do you have here to eat?” and he ate some broiled fish and a honeycomb. They believed. He was no spirit. The Lord had risen.
Then he taught them: “This is what I told you while I was still with you…” (In what way was he, standing there with them, now not “with them”? We’re not told.) Again he explained the passages referring to himself in the Law, the Prophets, the Psalms. This became the basis of the first Christian preaching. Read the early chapters of the book of Acts. “You are witnesses to these things… Behold I send the promise of my Father upon you. Remain in Jerusalem till you are given power from on high” – Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit. Then he (and the food he had eaten!) were gone. (“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Hamlet, Act 1)
This is a performance by a Christian “flash mob” at Beirut’s largest shopping mall in 2011, singing in Arabic and Greek. It won first prize from the Christian European Visual Media Association in 2012. I notice that the Orthodox Christian Network also just put this online, as have many others. Good! Watch it many times!
John gives a similar account. Jesus appeared saying, “Peace be with you”, and then he breathed on them – breath, wind, spirit are one word in Hebrew (ruach), Greek (pneuma) and Latin (spiritus) – and said “Receive the Holy Spirit”. He added, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” – literally “I apostle you”. He added,”Those whose sins you forgive are forgiven. Those whose sins you do not forgive are not forgiven.” This does not mean individual clergy have power to remit or not remit the “legal penalty of sin”. In the Greek and the (most used) Antiochian form of Confession, the priest says “I, humble and a sinner, do not have power to forgive sins, but God alone”. “Sin” (amartia, αηαρτία in New Testament Greek) means “miss the mark”. The “mark” is unity with God, love of God, love of neighbor. The Greek word for “forgive” here, ἀφῆτε, means to “send away”. He gives the Apostles their mission to “send away” people’s “missing the mark”. Put it positively: to get people back on the mark – or not, for if they don’t do it, it won’t be done, can’t be done. Only they have been witnesses to Christ’s life-giving, world-changing Passion, Death and Resurrection. The sacrament of Confession is, of course, part of this apostolic mission to the world.
John adds the story of Thomas who was absent on Pascha night and refused to believe unless he touched the Lord’s wounds for himself. The next Sunday night Thomas was there when Jesus appeared to them. Again the point is made that the Lord was risen bodily. “Touch my hands and my side.” Thomas cried “My Lord and my God”. He should be nicknamed not Doubting Thomas but Believing Thomas, for he was first to confess plainly the divinity of Christ. In one of our hymns we sing “Blessed is the unbelief of Thomas”. He is the Apostle to the skeptics! to those who seek the truth. This passage concludes with my least favorite line in the Bible: “Jesus did many more signs in the presence of his disciples which are not written in this book.” How I wish we knew them! I hope in heaven we will hear them.
Resurrection Appearances in Galilee
Then John gives us a sweet Resurrection story. Since the previous story seems to conclude his Gospel, did he add this later (“Oh, I can’t omit this one!”)? or maybe someone who had heard it from John?
The disciples are back in Galilee fishing at night but had caught nothing. At dawn a man on the shore called out, “Children, have you any fish?” (Why did they not recognize his voice? Again, we’re not told.) They answered, “No”. The man said “‘Cast the net on the other side and you will find some.’ They did so and were not able to draw the net in because of the number of fish”. John mentions there were 153 fish and the net was not torn. Some say it was believed there were 153 nations in the world and this symbolized their unbreakable Apostolic mission. Peter cried “It is the Lord”. Remember how he had first met Jesus three years before? (Luke 5) That time too they had caught nothing, and Jesus had told Peter to try again. Peter thought that was crazy but he did it, and there were so many fish they had to get an extra boat to haul them in. Now Peter immediately understands: Jesus is giving me a new beginning! a second chance! He grabs his clothes, impulsively jumps into the water and swims to shore. There on the beach as the sun rose, the risen God Incarnate fixed a picnic breakfast for them, and he said, “Come and eat”. He took some bread and gave it to them (again a shadowing of the Eucharist) and also the fish. This part of the story concludes with the odd line, “None of them dared ask him, ‘Who are you?’, for they knew it was the Lord” – again suggesting there was something about him now that was different, not easy to recognize. What was it? Perhaps it couldn’t be put into words.
After breakfast Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of Jonah, do you love me more than these?” On Thursday night Peter had said, “They may all desert you, but I never will”, and then before dawn… Peter answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you”. Jesus said “Feed my lambs”. A second time: “Simon son of Jonah, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” “Tend my sheep.” Peter could feel it coming for the third time. It must have cut like a knife. “Simon son of Jonah, do you love me?” “Lord you know everything”, he cried.”You know that I love you.” “Feed my sheep.” You failed, Peter. Now you know how weak you are – something we all need to learn, brothers and sisters – and you are forgiven. Now get on with it. Lead my Church. Every time we hear this passage at Sunday Matins I get teary eyed.
Jesus continued, speaking still to Peter: “When you were young you girded yourself and walked where you wished, but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and take you where you do not want to go ” The text explains that the Lord said this to tell Peter by what death he would die. Thirty years later in Rome Peter would be crucified, “girded” with a cross. Tradition says he asked to be crucified upside down, since he was not worthy to die as his Lord had. Then Jesus said to him, “Follow me”. Peter, as usual unable to restrain his tongue, pointed to John and asked, “Lord, what about this man?” How will he die? Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain till I return, what is that to you?” None of your business, Peter! “Follow me.”
Matthew’s Gospel has a different ending. Like the last stories in John, it takes place in Galilee. Jesus had directed the Myrrhbearing Women to tell the Apostles to go to Galilee to the mountain where the Lord would meet them. Matthew says there they met him and “worshiped him, but some doubted”. We are not told who doubted. There Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me”. (Can you imagine those words being taken seriously from the mouth of anyone else who has ever lived?) He then gave them what is sometimes called the Great Commission, similar to the Pascha night story in John: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all I have commanded. And behold, I am with you always even to the end of the age.”
Finally, there is another Resurrection story in the New Testament, probably the first to be written down. In I Corinthians 15 Saint Paul writes, “I told you that which I received [that is, from those who had been there, as Paul was not] that Christ was buried and rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he was seen by Cephas [Peter], then by the Twelve. After that he was seen by over 500 brethren at once of whom most remain alive today. [Is this the appearance we just heard about in Matthew?] After that he was seen by James [the only mention we have of his appearance to his “step brother” who would become first Bishop in Jerusalem], then by all the Apostles”, and last, Paul says, “by me” – his Damascus Road vision.
Mark’s account seems to be a summary of the other stories. He adds that Christ’s followers will “cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will take up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing it will not hurt them…” – which seem to be references to early Church events – and the Apostles went out into all the world, “the Lord working with them”, as he still does with us.
Luke also sums it up in the book of Acts: “Jesus presented himself alive after his suffering by many infallible proofs, being seen by them during forty days and speaking of the things regarding the kingdom of God. Then while they were in Jerusalem, he led them out towards Bethany [tradition says it was on the Mount of Olives], lifted up his hands and blessed them”. A cloud came over the mountain, “and he was parted from them and carried up into heaven”. Then two men in white stood beside them saying, “Why are you looking up into heaven? He will come again in the same way as you saw him go into heaven”. And “they returned to Jerusalem praising and blessing God for all they had heard and seen”, and waited for the day of Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit.
There has been more power in these Resurrection stories than in all the armies that have ever marched on earth. Good news: There is hope for the world, hope for all. Even death can’t destroy this. Christ our God has conquered death, trampling down death by death. And as he commanded, by the Apostles and by the Church this Gospel has been proclaimed to all the world beginning from Jerusalem, bringing peace and joy, and giving us power to arise, generation after generation, till the end of this age and unto ages of ages. For…. Christ is risen! Truly he is risen!
Next Week: “From the sublime to…” a return to My Travels: 2004 – Did Saint Nektarios do it again? and some thoughts on religion on TV, radio and the internet