The resurrection narratives in the gospels speak to the churches for which they are written which explains partially why they differ one from the other.
Matthew’s resurrection account, for example, obviously speaks to a Jewish Christian church confronted by a resurgent Judaism under Pharisaic leadership. The story of the Jewish guards at the tomb, an important part of Matthew’s resurrection narrative, was surely part of an attack on the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. His messianic origins, his parents and the leaders he had chosen to follow him were also being questioned.
Matthew insists that Jesus really died, he tasted death in all its harsh reality. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he cries out after a long silence on Calvary. He was buried, then he rose again.
An earthquake announces his resurrection and an angel clothed like lightening sits triumphantly on the stone rolled away from an empty tomb. Death has been conquered. Jesus appears to his disciples, however, not here at the tomb, but on a mountain in Galilee, according to Matthew’s gospel. From there, he sends his disciples into the whole world to preach the gospel, baptizing in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
The Christians of Galilee about 90 AD, when Matthew’s gospel was written, were struggling with Pharisaic Judaism for dominance in that part of Palestine; they may well have been losing the battle. In the centuries that followed, there is evidence that Christianity hardly survived in the land where Jesus began his ministry.
According to Matthew, the Risen Christ comes to urge his followers to a global mission. He does not dwell in the past;he is present where his followers are, leading them on. At his command they are to leave Galilee which, instead of a place where the Christian movement ends, becomes a place of hope and new beginnings. Matthew doesn’t forget that the Risen Christ emerged from the tomb in Jerusalem, but he is intent on presenting him bringing new life and direction to his struggling church. Jesus constantly calls it to a wider mission.
The focus of the resurrection narrative of Luke is the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Like Matthew, Luke begins with the women at the tomb, but he also directs us beyond the tomb to a road where two downcast disciples sunk in disappointment are abandoning their hopes for God’s kingdom. He appears gradually to the two disciples. Slow to understand and to recognize Jesus, they see him finally in the breaking of the bread. They remember afterwards his words on the road.
Luke’s account of the Risen Jesus with the two disciples who have lost hope and are trying to find their way is a key to understanding the journey of the church the evangelist outlines in his gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles. It will be a journey from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, Rome. But it is not a triumphant journey; it’s the road taken by the two disciples. Luke’s narrative is a wonderful corrective to a triumphalist view of the church and a perfectionist view of our personal journey of faith.
The Gospel of John, with its lengthy series of resurrection stories, begins in Jerusalem with Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene as she goes to the tomb in the darkness of Sunday morning and finds it empty. In John’s church the eye-witnesses to what Jesus said and did are long gone. John emphasizes the incredulity of the original eye-witnesses. Mary, first of all , is convinced that the body of Jesus has been stolen. She and Peter are not at all ready to believe. Like the Emmaus disciples who do not see him at first, Mary does not recognize the mysterious stranger.She thinks he is a gardener and only recognizes him after he calls her name. The Emmaus disciples find him “in the breaking of the bread,” Mary recognizes him as he speaks her name.
Their stories remind us that the eucharist and the word of God help us recognize the Risen Lord. “My sheep hear my voice, Jesus says.
Mark’s gospel describes Mary in his resurrection account as the one from whom Jesus cast out seven devils and that’s the way John’s gospel presents her. She is not a romantic interest as some modern sensationalists would like her to be. She is a symbol of every individual whom the Risen Lord comes to save; she represents the weakest of humanity that Jesus will bring to the Father.
As he rises from death Jesus has been changed, John’s gospel indicates. The lack of recognition of him by his disciples tells us that. Yet he is the same. “Life is changed, not ended,” we say in our prayers. He has a mission beyond this world to prepare a place for us. So Mary is not to cling to him. He will come again to take her and all of us to himself.
Like Mary Magdalen, who represents the weakness of us all. Thomas the apostle, on the other hand, represents institutional doubt, the doubt of the church and all humanity before the mystery of the resurrection. Thomas is not unique.
The locked doors of the Upper Room are more than a defense against the Jewish leaders. The Risen Jesus must come to his church with his gift of peace and forgiveness to renew it in its mission. He comes to be present and to show us the wounds in his hands and his side, which remain in his risen body. When we see them in him and in also others, we will recognize him.
In John’s gospel Jerusalem is where Jesus meets his followers first. He meets them as individuals, like Mary. He meets them together as they gather on the first day of the week and on the Lord’s Day. He meets them in sacraments and signs. He empowers them with the Holy Spirit, the Creator Spirit.
After recalling his appearances in Jerusalem, John recalls the appearances of Jesus in Galilee, continuing the tradition of the two places where the early church saw the Risen One appear.
The gospel accounts of the resurrection offer a wonderful picture of how the Risen Christ comes to us as individuals, as a church and as the world.