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Stories of Jesus and the Character of God

Chapter 4: The Stories


Two who had been disciples of Jesus are walking down the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. One is named Cleopas, a man ; the other is unnamed. Some think it’s probably a woman, maybe Mrs. Cleopas. But Luke may be telling a story, in which case he might be leaving the second name out deliberately—so his readers can put themselves in.


The two are joined by a third, who appears to be new to the area. At any rate he’s ignorant about what has recently transpired in Jerusalem—the crucifixion of a certain Jesus of Nazareth on a charge of insurrection against Rome. As in many such executions, the charge is false, but not entirely without cause in this case. At least there were those who had been hoping that this Jesus would turn out to be the Messiah, the one who would free the land of Israel from Rome, the last of a series of occupying empires stretching back for most of 600 years. He was “a prophet mighty in deed and word.… But we were hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel,” the two continue their sad story. Moreover, they inform the stranger, some women utterly confounded them with a tale of finding that Jesus’ body was missing from the tomb. Instead they saw an angel who told them Jesus was alive.


Far from being disturbed, perplexed, or even surprised at the news, the stranger speaks as if the suffering and death of a messiah were exactly what one would expect. “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what referred to [the Messiah] in all the scriptures.”


As the disciples were to find out later, the stranger is Jesus. At this point in the story, if you’re like me, you want to be told a little more about what Jesus said, which passages in Jewish scripture he referred to, and how Jesus thought he fulfilled those anticipations; but Luke disappoints us. Perhaps his audience would have had that information already. At any rate, we’re left to make our own surmises, and that’s what part of this essay will do. Especially when we get to the end of Jesus’ life, which disturbed and confused and terrified those early disciples, we’ll look for guidance in stories from what Christians today call, not quite appropriately, the Old Testament – “old” as if it were out of date. For the disciples, far from being out of date, those Jewish Scriptures were an important clue to their understanding of Jesus.


As the disciples reach their destination and the stranger makes to go on farther, they persuade him to stay and have a meal with them. In the course of the meal the stranger takes bread, says a blessing and breaks it, and gives it to them. Suddenly their eyes are opened (as the story has it) and they see that it is Jesus himself. But he disappears almost immediately. Then they say to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures for us.” (Luke 24:13-35)


Did this actually happen? It’s one of many stories about encounters with Jesus after he died. The stories are inconsistent with each other. How many women saw the empty tomb, and who were they? Was there one angel or two, or did they see Jesus himself? Did Jesus say to wait for him in Jerusalem, or did an angel tell them to go to Galilee, where Jesus would meet them? Did an “other disciple” outrun Peter to the empty tomb, or did Peter go by himself? Did the women actually report what the angel said, or did they keep quiet out of confusion and fear? Did Jesus ascend into heaven on that first Easter Sunday or 40 days later? A lot of things were written down, and they can’t be fit together into one coherent story. Not all of these details can be factual, and that raises the question whether any of them are. And a second question: Can we get behind the stories to the actual event or events that came between Good Friday, with a demoralized group of Jesus’ followers too scared to follow him to the end, and the “descent of the Spirit,” after which the same group publicly and courageously proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah?


Christians commonly suppose that only something as dramatic as a resurrection could have turned this band around. Indeed something dramatic must have happened; that is about as historically certain as anything. For a couple reasons I doubt that the resurrection stories in the Gospels tell it “like it was.” For one thing if Jesus really did walk with Cleopas and partner on the way to Emmaus, pass through closed doors, and show Thomas his hands and his side, that leaves very little room for faith; and it privileges those early disciples in a way that seems unfair to would-be followers 2000 years later. And this passage in Matthew becomes really curious:


The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them. When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted [or: some doubted].” (Matthew 28:16-17)


How could they have had any more doubts? Edward Schillebeeckx sees here an indication that for a while after the crucifixion there must have been debate among the disciples about experiences that were more ambiguous than the stories as we have them in the Bible. (Jesus: An Experiment in Christology, e.g., pp. 389-390)


A second reason I don’t take the resurrection stories as accurate history is that they don’t tell enough. They seem to be proof that Jesus was God or that God was with Jesus in some way. But when Christians celebrate Easter, they’re celebrating more than proof, more even than the hope of their own rising with Jesus after they die. They celebrate a conviction that the world itself has acquired a new meaning with Jesus’ resurrection. Easter is the biggest feast of the Christian year because resurrection is more than a reward for the important work Jesus did on Good Friday. Resurrection is how Jesus’ work continues. The Easter experiences of those first Christians must have been more than finding an empty tomb, more than what we read in the stories of the appearances.


The first Christians must have experienced salvation in those days and weeks after Jesus’ crucifixion in a way they couldn’t have known it before. They were a band of men tormented by guilt as well as fear. (The women followers of Jesus appear to be not nearly as scared or guilty as the men.) If you read only Mark’s Gospel, the apostles sound much worse than they probably were. Matthew and Luke tone down their stupidity and fearfulness, and that may be more realistic. But it cannot be denied that, when the going got rough, the apostles scattered. Looking back, they learned something that Jesus could never have taught them—that they, like the rest of humankind, were sinners. And yet there they were together with their common memories of Jesus and experiencing healing. Thus they learned one other unteachable fact: They were forgiven. Their experience was the tense combination of being forgiven and knowing that they sorely needed to be forgiven, neither of which they could hold on to apart from the other and neither of which could be simply told by Jesus, even a resurrected Jesus. They had to be experienced.


The apostles had to learn one other unteachable thing. They had to learn what they were guilty of and forgiven for. It wasn’t just the cowardly acts of denying Jesus and running away. The guilt was more serious than cowardice, the forgiveness more amazing, and the new life more radical than getting up some courage. It was a change of mind as well as a change of heart, a revision in the sense of re-visioning the world, themselves, Jesus, and God--a conversion.


I said at the beginning that I could not start with a human Jesus and reason to his divinity, but starting with the Christian faith in Jesus as God incarnate I could reasonably expect to see, as I think the apostles did, my ideas change as I learned about Jesus.


Text Box: There are supposed to be about 200 Older Testament predictions that Jesus fulfilled, such as: that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem of a virgin, that he would be rejected, beaten, his clothes divided or gambled for but not cut, pierced but no bones broken and so on. Supposedly God knew how it was going to go and revealed it beforehand. It would be pretty convincing—if that’s the way it was. But Jesus was not into proving things and modern scholarship is skeptical about those so-called predictions and fulfillments.So what passages of Jewish Scripture did Luke think Jesus might be talking about in his story of the journey to Emmaus. The Scriptures Luke had in mind must have something to do with radical change in outlook, or conversion; and we can search the Scriptures for ourselves and perhaps find our own conversion, or rethinking, experience. We can do for ourselves what the apostles did first, without necessarily following their same path. There may have been many paths already for that early group, and maybe we get to find our own.


In my search through the Older Testament, I didn’t look for “proof” passages, or what some have imagined as proofs but really weren’t. I looked for other parts of Hebrew Scriptures that would serve not as proofs for what we already knew or wanted to believe about Jesus but as ways to think about who Jesus really was, insights that just might change what we were absolutely sure of before—and lead to a conversion, a new way of thinking.


The way I imagine the apostles’ situation is that, as long as Jesus was alive, they went with the flow, enthusiastically. They had Jesus and that was enough for them. But then Jesus died. They were completely unprepared, thrown into confusion, and scattered. Schillebeeckx guesses that it was Peter who made the first move to gather the group, minus Judas, together. (Jesus, p. 391) Suddenly he was their leader, without the slightest idea where he was going to lead them. When the dispirited group did experience some vision, some energy, some hope, it had to be coming from somewhere or someone other than themselves. Then the stories came: An empty tomb, appearances of the risen Jesus.  These put credit for what was happening where it belonged—with Jesus and with God who “raised him up.”


I should note that we can’t be sure whether there was or wasn’t a discovery of an empty tomb and whether any or none of the appearances happened more or less as reported. The empty tomb story especially has some things going for it, including the fact that the gospel authors all credit women for the discovery. If they were making it up, why would they have women, whose testimony in the ancient world was not considered reliable, be the first and, in some versions of the story, the only witnesses?


Another important note is that the risen Jesus in these stories was not at all like a corpse being revived to its previous way of living such as had been featured in previous Jewish literature. Elisha and Elijah were said to have accomplished that. This was more like what some Jews had begun to expect at a glorious future End Time, when God would rule and all the just would be raised. But it wasn’t the End Time yet, and Jesus alone was raised to glory. God’s future broke in on a present world that was nowhere near ready for it. It’s hard to imagine a first-century Jew (and the first Christians were Jews) making that up. A fairly safe conclusion is that something remarkable happened. Maybe women were the first to realize it.


Something was different, but what? I’m thinking that the process of figuring it out took those first Christians through their memories of Jesus’ life; and, when they came to the final, incomprehensible episode of the cross, they had to turn to their Sacred Scriptures, the way Jesus does in the Emmaus story. That’s the path that the following “Stories of Jesus” will take. I’ll take a scattering of stories of Jesus’ life from the Gospels; that will be Part 1. When it comes to the end, I’ll switch to “stories of Jesus” in the Older Testament, that is, stories where you could find Jesus if you looked for him—Part 2. Here I supply my version of what Luke left out of the story of the disciples on the way to Emmaus—the Scriptures that when “opened” refer to Jesus. The essay concludes with the story of three Persons in one God (the Trinity) and the world.

Guiding the whole work will be one main point: It’s to go through Jesus to God, not to prove that God exists but to try to discover what to think about God after knowing Jesus.

On to Jesus, Not the Superhero Type