Examining the Meaning of the Resurrection, Part V: The “How” Question — What Was the Context in Which Easter Dawned?
We come now to our fourth and final question in search of the meaning of Easter. Then with clues, hopefully well established, I will seek to draw some conclusions in the final column in this series. We have thus far identified Simon Peter as the person who stood in the center of the resurrection experience and, if hints present in the gospel accounts themselves direct us properly, he was the one who opened the eyes of others to see what he had seen. Perhaps that is what lies behind words attributed to Jesus and recorded only by Luke where Peter is admonished: “When you are converted, strengthen the brethren” (22:32). We then suggested that if Peter was believed to be the “first witness” then every Peter story in the New Testament might be read as a resurrection story and thus mined for additional clues that are there.
Then, to answer the “where” question, we looked at the biblical records to try to determine the place or the location in which “resurrection” dawned first in Peter and then in the disciples. All of the evidence points to a Galilean setting as primary with Jerusalem being quite secondary. Then we noted that all of the exaggerated resurrection symbols, the stone, the tomb, the guard, the earthquake, the apparitions and the physical body of the resurrected Jesus are connected with that secondary Jerusalem tradition. So authenticity pointed us to Galilee. Once that was clear, we began to read other Galilean stories like Jesus walking on the water and the account of the Transfiguration in search of additional resurrection clues that are there.
Next, in response to the “when” question, we examined the time references in the Easter stories. Was the time between crucifixion and resurrection three days? Or was the phrase “three days” meant to be understood as a symbol for whatever time passed between Good Friday and Easter. To gain insight into that, if indeed it was a symbol, we looked at all the places in the gospels themselves that seem to indicate a greater separation of time between Good Friday and Easter than most of us have ever imagined to be possible. My conclusion was and is that the followers of Jesus collapsed what was originally somewhere between six months and one year into “three days” and they did it primarily for liturgical purposes. If Friday is observed liturgically as the day of the crucifixion, then Sunday had to be observed as the day of resurrection. That is what the gospels suggested happened even while hinting at vastly longer periods of time between the two.
Now today, we come to look at the context in which the Easter experience was first encountered. This is the “how” question. Are there echoes of how “resurrection” dawned in the gospel story? I think there are. So into the resurrection narratives of the gospels we now plunge anew in search of answers or at least hints.
St. Paul gives us no help other than to note that within a single generation, the followers of Jesus clearly began to gather on the first day of the week for the breaking of bread and they called that day “The Lord’s Day.” When this custom actually began is hard to pinpoint, but it had to be quite early.
The first two gospels to be written, Mark and Matthew, give us no direct help either, at least not in the narratives that deal specifically with the Easter story. In the earlier parts of these gospels, however, we may find some hints, but we are not able to discern them until we have a better idea of what the original context of the resurrection experience was.
It is a late clue, coming first in Luke, but since it is all we have, we will pursue it. Luke is the only gospel to record the narrative that has come to be called the Emmaus Road story. That story seems to reflect the experience of the followers of Jesus in the days, weeks and even months that followed the crucifixion. Cleopas and his traveling companion were portrayed as living in inner turmoil. They had hoped that Jesus was messiah but now he was dead. In their minds there was no concept of messiah as victim. Jesus, therefore, as an executed one, could no longer make a messianic claim in their minds. Unable, however, to deny their transformative experiences with him, they began to search the scriptures trying to find clues that might give them a new understanding of his death. This is represented in this Emmaus Road story as Cleopas and his companion having the scriptures opened to them by this as yet unrecognized stranger. Finally, with the light of day fading, the Emmaus travelers invited their still unrecognized interpreter of the scriptures to turn aside with them and to share their evening meal. He did so, but in a twist in proper protocol, Jesus, the guest, became the one who presided over that evening meal and when he gave the ceremonial blessing he took bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to them. That was the moment, according to Luke, when “their eyes were opened and he vanished out of their sight.” Returning to Jerusalem, these travelers related their experience to the disciples using this revealing phrase, “He was known to us in the breaking of the bread.” That is the first biblical reference that suggests that it was within the context of reenacting the “supper of the Lord,” in which the bread was identified with the broken body of Jesus and the wine was identified with his shed blood, that their minds were opened and they saw that he revealed himself in his death as triumphant over death.
Holding that reference for a moment, we begin to look for other clues that might connect the experience of the resurrection with obeying the commandment that was supposedly given by Jesus at the last supper. “Whenever you gather together in my name, do this (break bread and share wine) in remembrance of me.”
When the resurrected Jesus first appears to the disciples in Luke, we are told that he asked for food and they gave him a piece of fish to eat. When Jesus appears to the disciples for the first time in John’s gospel, the narrative is set, “when it was evening” that is 6:00 pm, which is the time of the evening meal. When the second appearance to the disciples occurs in this last gospel, this time with Thomas present, John tells us that it was a week later (literally after eight days), but once again meant to coincide with the time of the evening meal.
When we turn to the epilogue of John (chapter 21), not believed by most scholars to be part of the original gospel, we find nonetheless a primitive Galilean story of the disciples recognizing Jesus as they ate together beside the Sea of Galilee. The familiar dialogue that Jesus has with Peter in this episode turns on the verb “to feed.” “Peter, you must feed my sheep, feed my lambs, feed my sheep.”
In the book of Revelation, the verb used by this author to describe the continuing presence of the risen Christ is the verb to eat or to dine. Jesus is represented as saying, “I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in and eat with you and you with me.” (Rev. 3:20).
In the memory of Jesus’ followers there appears to be a connection between seeing the risen Christ and sharing the common meal with its symbols of broken bread and poured out wine. That is the way they brought together their growing conviction that he was the promised messiah with the reality that he had been crucified. Ultimately they appear to have found in the image of the servant from II Isaiah (40-55) and of the shepherd king of Israel who was betrayed for thirty pieces of silver by those who bought and sold animals in the Temple (II Zechariah (9-14), scriptural references to salvation coming through pain and death. So it was, I believe, that it was the Eucharist that opened the eyes of Jesus’ followers to see beyond the limits of their humanity to an image of messiah revealed through death but alive as part of who God is.
With that insight, we now return to the gospel narratives and look at every text that refers to a feeding story. They are then suddenly revealed as interpretive Eucharists. In Mark there are two feedings of the multitude stories, one on the Jewish side of the lake in which 5,000 are fed with five loaves and afterwards twelve baskets of fragments are gathered up, enough to feed the twelve tribes of Israel. Then Mark moves Jesus to the Gentile side of the lake where the act is repeated but this time 4,000 are fed with seven loaves and afterwards seven baskets of fragments are gathered up, enough to feed the seven great Gentile empires under which the Jews had lived, the Romans, the Syrians, the Macedonians, the Persians, the Babylonians, the Assyrians and the Egyptians. Clearly these feeding of the multitude stories are Eucharistic accounts masquerading as miracle stories. In all of them, the gospel writers each employ the four Eucharistic verbs. “He took, he blessed (or gave thanks), he broke, he gave.” In the fourth gospel, the author locates all of his Eucharistic thinking in the story of the feeding of the 5,000 (see John 6) and then omits any further account of the last supper, a clear sign that he saw it as symbol.
Next, we look at all the parables that focus on “banquets.” Why did a banquet become the symbol of the kingdom of God breaking into human history? Why was it said that when that kingdom arrives people will come from the North, South, East and West to sit at Abraham’s table? Why was Jesus called by the Fourth Gospel the “bread of life?” So, our search for the context in which resurrection was first experienced, takes us to the Eucharistic meal.
So, when resurrection dawns in human history, we conclude that Peter was in the center of that experience. He was in Galilee. It was some time after the crucifixion, perhaps many months. Finally, the interpretive context was the reenactment of the common meal at which Peter opened the eyes of the others to understand. Now, given these clues, my task is to try to put them all together in a meaningful narrative that may come close to enabling us to enter the experience of the first Easter. I will attempt to do that next week when this series concludes.
~John Shelby Spong