The Biblical People of Easter

March 26th, 2013

Jesus Is Risen!

Alleluia! Jesus Christ is risen! Christians everywhere declare this truth that is the foundation of our faith. This Sunday we hear again the story of those who discovered the empty tomb and who encountered the risen Christ.

Each of the Gospels gives us an account of the Resurrection events and the people who witnessed them. In each account, Jesus’ followers move through an array of feelings and actions that ultimately lead to belief and commitment that changed the world. By looking carefully at the followers of Jesus in the stories, we can deepen our understanding of what it means for us to live as Easter people.

The Women

All of the Gospels tell us that there were women who watched the Crucifixion and stayed until the end. Joseph of Arimathea is given permission by Pilate to take Jesus’ body and bury it in a new tomb (Matthew 27:57-60; Mark 15:43-46; Luke 23:50-54; John 19:38- 42). Three Gospels tell us that the women watch as Jesus is buried (Matthew 27:55-61; Mark 15:40-47; Luke 23:49-56). We can only imagine their sense of grief and loss that the man they had followed, believed, and loved for three years was now dead.

On the morning after the Sabbath, the women return to the tomb. Mark 16:1-3 and Luke 23:55–24:1 say that the purpose of the visit is to anoint the body with spices, a task traditionally assigned to women. They witness the burial, but they worry about the large rock rolled across the entrance to the tomb. Jewish burial practices varied. Some followed the tradition of other Near Eastern peoples and buried their dead in a hole in the ground. Others followed the practice we find at Qumran of burying the dead in a shallow grave marked by a rock pile. Wealthy families often dug into the soft limestone rock to make shelves to hold stone coffins. Many of these caves were closed by heavy stone wheels that could be rolled back and forth in a groove.

The wording of all four Gospel accounts suggests this is the kind of tomb in which they placed Jesus’ body. Matthew reports that the women return to “look at the tomb” (Matthew 28:1). It is not hard to imagine that the women wanted to be close to Jesus in their grief. John reports that Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb and sees that the stone has been removed (John 20:1). In all four Gospels, the women are the first to discover the stone has been removed and the tomb is empty.

How do they respond? Matthew describes their fear and great joy as they run to tell the others (Matthew 28:8). Mark reports that they are alarmed when they see the empty tomb and a man dressed in white. They are “overcome with terror and dread” and flee. They say nothing to anyone because of their fear (Mark 16:8). Luke reports that they are perplexed and do not know what to think about the empty tomb. They are frightened by two men in glowing clothes who appear and announce that Jesus has been raised (Luke 24:1-10). John writes that Mary sees that the stone was rolled away at the tomb and runs to Peter and “the other disciple” to tell them that Jesus’ body is missing. She is overcome with grief and weeps beside the empty tomb. After her encounter with Jesus, she announces to the others that she has seen the Lord (John 20:1-2, 11-18). Emotional responses of the women run the gamut from confusion and alarm to fear and grief to great joy, extremes that are not unusual to anyone who loves others deeply. They believe and become the first witnesses of the Resurrection.

The Disciples

During the events of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion, the 12 disciples–– those closest to Jesus during the three years of his ministry—do not act with much courage or loyalty. Judas betrays Jesus for 30 pieces of silver; disciples fall asleep in the garden while Jesus prays; Peter denies that he knows Jesus. Except for the presence of John, the disciple whom Jesus loved (John 19:25-27), there is no mention of the disciples at the cross. The women were there and followed the body to the tomb, but nowhere does it say any of the other disciples were present at the burial. We must wonder what happened to them.

Only John and Luke report that any of the disciples come to the empty tomb. Luke tells us the disciples don’t believe the women when they report that Jesus is risen. However, Peter runs to the tomb, stoops and looks inside, sees the linen cloths, then returns home amazed at what he has seen (Luke 24:11-12). In the Book of John, both Peter and another disciple run to the grave. They look inside and see the folded burial cloths. When the other disciple sees the folded cloths, he believes the women’s report; but they still do not understand that Jesus has risen from the dead (John 20:3-10). In both accounts, running to the tomb indicates urgency, a need to know that must emerge from their love for and commitment to the one they have apparently lost. At this point, their response to the empty tomb is amazement. They want to know what has happened. How can they make sense of this? It is a question we often ask as contemporary followers of Jesus.

Post-Resurrection Appearances

In the midst of grief, confusion, terror, amazement, bewilderment, belief, disbelief, and joy, the risen Jesus appears to his followers. In Matthew 28:9-10, he greets Mary Magdalene and the other Mary and gives them instructions for the other disciples. He gives the disciples the Great Commission before his ascension (28:16-20).

Mark 16:9-20 describes Jesus’ appearances to Mary Magdalene, two disciples, and then all the disciples. After upbraiding the disciples for their disbelief, he commissions them to proclaim the good news to all creation (verses 14-15).

Luke 24:13-35 records Jesus’ appearance to Cleopas and his friend as they walk along the road to Emmaus. Jesus explains the Scriptures and then eats dinner with them. It was not until he breaks the bread that the two men recognize Jesus, who immediately disappears. They respond, “Weren’t our hearts on fire when he spoke to us along the road and when he explained the scriptures for us?” (verse 32). They go to Jerusalem, find the eleven disciples and their friends, and tell them what has happened. Luke 24:36-49 tells us that Jesus appears to the disciples as they are meeting together. Initially, they are terrified and think he is a ghost. Jesus shows them his hands and feet, eats fish with them, and explains the Scriptures to them. Luke ends with the ascension of Jesus and with the disciples joyfully worshiping the risen Christ and praising God.

John 20 describes Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene and several appearances to the disciples. In the first appearance to the disciples in a closed room, Jesus shows them his wounds and breathes the Holy Spirit on them (verses 19-23). Thomas, who was not with them at the time, needs proof. He says, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe” (verse 25). Jesus appears to them again when Thomas is present and invites Thomas to touch him. Thomas recognizes Jesus and moves from doubt to belief: “My Lord and My God!” (verses 26-28). After another encounter with the disciples at the Sea of Tiberius, John 21:15-18 tells about a poignant moment with Peter. Three times the risen Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. Peter, hurt by Jesus’ questions, responds, “You know I love you.” Ironically, during the trial of Jesus, Peter had denied knowing Jesus three times (John 18:15-25).

What Can We Learn?

All of those who visited the empty tomb or encountered the risen Christ in the days after Easter had one thing in common: They were witnesses to the fact that Jesus was not dead but had risen. Like the firstcentury followers of Jesus, we are witnesses to the Resurrection and the promise of new life in Jesus Christ. Jesus himself, the key person in the stories, provides the guidance and direction for his early followers and for us in two of his post-resurrection appearances. In Matthew 28:16-20, Jesus meets his disciples on a mountaintop and commands them to go, tell, baptize, and make disciples. In the final encounter with Peter in John 21, Jesus tells him to feed his lambs, care for his sheep, and feed his sheep (verses 15-17).

As we reflect on their responses to the risen Christ, we can also reflect on our own responses. How do we encounter the risen Christ day to day? How can we be witnesses to new life? How do the Scriptures enliven our faith? How does the risen Christ cause our hearts to burn within us? How can we feed Jesus’ sheep? We don’t respond to these questions without help. Jesus says, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20, NRSV).

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

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