Commentary: The Easter Commission



e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service
      
 

Commentary: The Easter Commission

An e-Review commentary by Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker | April 6, 2010 {1160}

NOTE: A headshot of Whitaker is available at http://www.flumc.info/photo_gallery2.shtml.
   
During the period of time when the disciples experienced encounters with the risen Jesus in a unique mysterious mode called “appearances,” they were transformed. Understanding their transformation is crucial to understanding the identity of the church and the Christian life. We may approach the full content of their personal transformation according to several layers of meaning.

The most basic level of meaning of their experience of the appearances of the risen Lord is their awareness that Jesus lives. They knew he was dead. Jesus’ death was shocking. It had occurred suddenly and violently. It not only overwhelmed them with inconsolable grief, but also with fear that the authorities who had killed Jesus would come after them (see John 20:19). Yet Jesus’ coming to them following his death eventually convinced them of the reality of his resurrection from the dead. This convincing was not instantaneous, at least for some of them. The reports described how there was doubt. Of course, who wouldn’t fail to doubt that his/her experience of the presence of someone who was dead, or had surely been dead, could be real? So then, at first, “some doubted” (Matthew 28:17). Probably Luke captured their complex emotions most accurately when he wrote that “while in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering.” (24:41). Because of this inevitable initial psychological response of amazed joy intermingled with stubborn doubt (probably amounting to the sense that this cannot really be happening), it was necessary for Jesus to appear to them over a period of time. Nevertheless, eventually they became convinced that what was impossible had occurred in nature, history and their own experience: “he has been raised.” (Mark 16:6).

Jesus appears to disciples en route to Emmaus. By Eugene Girardet. Source: Christian Theological Seminary.
On another level, their experience of encountering the risen Lord produced in them a conversion. The paradigm of an appearance of the risen Jesus causing a personal experience of conversion is the 21st Chapter of the Gospel of John. Some scholars believe this story, which is an appendix to John, is the only narrative in the four Gospels that provides an account for the apostolic tradition that “he appeared to Cephas” (I Corinthians 15:5). This is the story of the conversion of Peter, who had denied Jesus three times (see Luke 22:34 and following), being asked to affirm his “love” for Jesus three times. The denial by Peter that he had a relationship with Jesus was dramatic, but it was typical of Jesus’ disciples. Matthew is blunt in his report about the disciples when Jesus was arrested. “Then all the disciples deserted him and fled” (26:56). Thus the appearances of the risen Jesus to his disciples were invitations to them to repent of their cowardice, disloyalty and desertion and be converted to a new love of their master.

Still, we do not yet grasp the full meaning of the disciples’ experience of the presence of the risen Jesus if we think of it merely at the levels of being convinced of the reality of Jesus’ resurrection or personal conversion. The primary purpose of the appearances of the risen Jesus was to commission the disciples to be his apostles. The theme of commissioning is the substance of the disciples’ experience. This is obvious in Matthew’s conclusion of his Gospel in Matthew 28:16-20, which is usually described as “the Great Commission” to make disciples of all nations, to baptize and to teach. But the theme of commissioning belongs to the other reports of appearances also. Luke concludes his Gospel with the report of Jesus appearing to his disciples in Luke 24:36-52 in order to summon them to be his “witnesses” (24:48). In John’s account of Jesus’ appearance to his disciples in John 20:19-23, Jesus tells them, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (20:21).

What lies behind the purpose of Jesus commissioning his disciples to be apostles is the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection as the demonstration by the Creator and God of Israel that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah of Israel; as Peter proclaimed on the Day of Pentecost, “let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36).

Solomon dedicates the temple at Jerusalem. By J. James Tissot. Source: Christian Theological Seminary.

The whole event of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is the climax of the story of Israel. The Creator is the God who enacted a particular plan of salvation to be known and obeyed by all the nations of the world through a people known as Israel. When Jesus arrived on the scene of history, the divine plan was obstructed by Israel’s failure. Not only had Israel broken its relationship (the “covenant”) with the God of Israel again and again, but it also had bottled up its mission to be a “light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6) by its identification with ethnic Jewish nationalism and its cult of the Temple in Jerusalem as the confined place to which anyone must go to seek atonement for sins in a system of animal sacrifices. By the time Jesus arrived on the scene, there was indeed an expectation that somehow God would liberate or “redeem” Israel from its exile from its mission. This expectation was focused on hope for the coming of a Messiah, or a descendent of King David whom God would anoint (Messiah means “anointed one”) to rescue Israel. Yet Israel had so focused its life on ethnic nationalism and the Temple that its hope for a Messiah was distorted because the people could imagine only a Messiah who would restore Israel as a free state with its cultic center in Jerusalem. Jesus did fulfill the historical expectation for a Messiah, but in the most surprising way.

When Jesus began his ministry, he made it clear that he intended to restore Israel. He sought the baptism of John, which signaled a national repentance and new beginning for Israel. Immediately following his baptism he went into the wilderness for 40 days to recapitulate Israel’s wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. He summoned 12 disciples to represent the 12 tribes of Israel. He announced the coming of the kingdom promised by the prophets, “the kingdom of God.” He taught with authority and presented himself as a new Moses, indeed someone greater than Moses, since he dared to reinterpret Moses’ own commandments in his Sermon on the Mount. He performed mighty acts like the great prophet Elijah. He directly challenged the cult of the Temple. His program of the renewal of Israel was such an affront to the prerogatives of the chief priests and scribes, who were wed to the agenda of ethnic nationalism and the cult of the Temple, that they plotted to turn him over to the pagan Roman authority to be killed.

After Jesus was rejected and killed, his disciples encountered him as the Messiah of Israel and Lord of the world raised by the Creator. During the period of Jesus’ appearances, they learned (by the illumination of God’s Spirit) to read the story of Israel with new eyes and to understand how his death and resurrection was the climax of Israel’s story. Luke 24:13-35 is an account of an appearance of the risen Jesus to some disciples, which describes how this period of appearances was a time of “opening the scriptures,” that is reading the story of Israel, in a new way. It was a time of realizing, “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”

In other words, the disciples came to realize that the vocation of the Messiah, who is Israel in the sense of being the “remnant” of Israel reduced to the only one who actually keeps the covenant with God, was to suffer vicariously on behalf of the people so that all may be forgiven of their failure to keep the covenant; as Isaiah said, “he was wounded for our transgressions” (Isaiah 53:5). The Messiah had been anointed by God to fulfill the vocation of becoming the “sacrifice” through which the mystery of divine love, which forgives sin, is revealed. By the death of the Messiah, the story of Israel up till now is brought to completion in divine forgiveness of Israel’s failure to keep the covenant and to execute its mission to be a light to the nations. At the same time, this “sacrifice” completes and replaces the sacrificial system centered in the Temple in Jerusalem. Now “atonement” for sins, once tied down to the Temple, is made mobile; for, from now on, “repentance and forgiveness of sins” (Luke 24-47) will be available anywhere the apostolic message is proclaimed “to all nations.”

Jesus is resurrected. By Carl Bloch. Source: Christian Theological Seminary.

Moreover, the resurrection of the Messiah, who is Israel, is the resurrection of the people of Israel to accomplish the mission to be a light to the nations. The Messiah does not exist without the Messianic Community. That is why the risen Messiah commissions his disciples to become his apostles (meaning “those who are sent”) to constitute a community called the church to carry out the mission of Israel to the whole world.

God’s action in the death and resurrection of the Messiah overcame the obstacles of ethnic nationalism and the cult of the Temple.

Now, can’t we understand why the disciples’ experience of the appearances of the risen Jesus had to be primarily an experience of receiving a commission? Don’t we also see how the message of Easter is a call for the church to be a missionary community? Don’t we see how our own belief in Jesus Christ and baptism are our inclusion into this missionary community so that each of us has his or her own role in contributing to this mission?

There is, of course much more that should be said. Most importantly, we cannot forget the intrinsic connection between the mission of the church and the coming of the kingdom of God. Luke reports that when the risen Jesus came to his disciples, he came “speaking about the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). I will forego commenting further except to say that the church’s mission is to make disciples who “obey everything” Jesus had commanded in his teaching (Matthew 28:20). That is, we are called to witness to the kingdom of God in word and deed. This kingdom is no paltry thing, but nothing less than a vision of personal and social transformation, which is the coming of peace, justice and righteousness by the reign of God.

Finally, I must conclude with a comment regarding how Christians should relate to the Jews. To affirm that Jesus is the Messiah of Israel and that the church of Jesus Christ is “the Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16) seems to deny the identity of Jews as the people of Israel. Yet we cannot do that. The identity of the Jews from the Christians’ perspective was a perplexity from the beginning. It caused the apostle Paul to agonize over it in Romans 9-11. Especially in light of the brutal reality of Christians’ persecution of the Jews in history, we must remember the apostles’ point that, “By no means!” has God rejected the Jews (Romans 11:1).

Paul’s own thought in Romans is exceedingly complex, and its interpretation is a matter of controversy. Even if we think that Paul’s own view was that the Jews whom God has not rejected constitute a remnant of Jews who are also Christians, we must remember that he still hopes that in God’s own plan “all Israel will be saved” (11:26). There does not seem to be a satisfactory theological resolution of this issue. To say that there is only one covenant that is fulfilled in Jesus seems to deny the Jews their status as part of Israel, which would deny God’s own promises to the Jews. To say that there are two covenants — one for Gentile Christians and one for Jews — creates a dualism, which would deny God’s purpose for the church to contain both Jews and Gentiles and thus refuse some Jews the right to believe in Jesus. In the end, this problem is a knot that has to be left to God to untie. In the meantime, we must learn to respect and love the Jewish people as if Jesus is to the Jews like Joseph was to his brothers who had rejected him (Genesis 45:4ff.) and as if God the Father is like the father in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son who says to the older son, as if the older son were the Jews, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (Luke 15:31). Still, this problem of Christians’ relationship with the Jews must not obscure the main purpose of God in sending Jesus Christ to create the church for fulfilling the mission of Israel to be a light to all the Gentile nations. Of the Gentile nations the God of Israel says, as the father in the parable says to the older brother about his younger brother, “But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
 
News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011, tparham@flumc.org, Orlando

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Whitaker is bishop of the Florida Conference.




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