More snippets from The Jesus I Never Knew by Yancey – #9

A conspiracy also would have tidied up the first witnesses’ stories. Were there two white-clad figures or just one? Why did Mary Magdalene mistake Jesus for a gardener? Was she alone or with Salome and another Mary? Accounts of the discovery of the empty tomb sound breathless and fragmentary. The women were “afraid yet filled with joy,” says Matthew; “trembling and bewildered,”  says Mark. Jesus makes no dramatic, well-orchestrated entrance to quell all doubts; the early reports seem wispy, mysterious, confused. Surely conspirators could have done a neater job of depicting what they would later claim to be the hinge event of history.

In short, the Gospels do not present the resurrection of Jesus in the manner of apologetics, with arguments arranged to prove each main point, but rather as a shocking intrusion that no one was expecting, least of all Jesus’ timorous disciples. The first witnesses reacted as any of us would react— as I would react if I answered the doorbell and suddenly saw my friend Bob standing on my front porch: with fear and great joy. Fear is the reflexive human response to an encounter with the supernatural.

There actually was a conspiracy, of course, one set in motion not by Jesus’ disciples but by the authorities who had to deal with the embarrassing fact of the empty tomb. They could have put a stop to all the wild rumors about a resurrection merely by pointing to a sealed tomb or producing a body. But the seal was broken and the body missing, hence the need for an official plot. Even as the women ran to report their discovery, soldiers were rehearsing an alibi, their role in the scheme of damage-control.

Soldiers standing guard outside Jesus’ tomb were the only eyewitnesses of the greatest miracle in history. Matthew says that when the earth quaked and an angel appeared, bright as lightning, they shook and became like dead men.* But here is an astounding fact: later that afternoon the soldiers who had seen proof of the resurrection with their own eyes changed their story to a lie, parroting the priests’ line that “His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.”

Author Frederick Buechner is struck by the unglamorous quality of Jesus’ appearances after resurrection Sunday. There were no angels in the sky singing choruses, no kings from afar bearing gifts. Jesus showed up in the most ordinary circumstances: a private dinner, two men walking along a road, a woman weeping in a garden, some fishermen working a lake.

I see in the appearances a whimsical quality, as if Jesus is enjoying the bird-like freedom of his resurrection body. Luke, for example, gives a touching account of Jesus’ sudden arrival alongside two forlorn followers on a road to Emmaus. They know about the women’s discovery of the empty tomb, and Peter’s eyewitness confirmation. But who can believe such rumors? Is not death by definition irreversible? “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel,” one of them says with obvious disappointment.

A short time later, at mealtime, the stranger makes a riveting gesture, breaking bread, and a link snaps into pace. It is Jesus who has been walking beside them and now sits at their table! Most strangely, the instant they recognize their guest, he disappears.

When the two rush back to Jerusalem, they find the Eleven meeting behind locked doors. They spill out their incredible story, which corroborates what Peter has already learned: Jesus is out there somewhere, alive. Without warning, even as the doubters argue the point, Jesus himself shows up in their midst. I am no ghost, he declares. Touch my scars. It is I myself! Even then the doubts persist, until Jesus volunteers to eat a piece of broiled fish. Ghosts don’t eat fish; a mirage cannot cause food to disappear.

The appearances, approximately a dozen, show a definite pattern: Jesus visited small groups of people in a remote area or closeted indoors. Although these private rendezvous bolstered the faith of those who already believed in Jesus, as far as we know not a single unbeliever saw Jesus after his death.

In the six-week interlude between Resurrection and Ascension, Jesus, if one may use such language, “broke his own rules” about faith. He made his identity so obvious that no disciple could ever deny him again (and none did). In a word, Jesus overwhelmed the witnesses’ faith: anyone who saw the resurrected Jesus lost the freedom of choice to believe or disbelieve. Jesus was now irrefutable. Even Jesus’ brother James, always a holdout, capitulated after one of the appearances— enough so that he became a leader of the church in Jerusalem and, according to Josephus, died as one of the early Christian martyrs.

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