By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
Here’s a question most of you should have no trouble answering: Where were the disciples when they first saw the risen Lord? If you said, “Jerusalem,” give yourself a pat on the back. You’re exactly right.
According to John, Jesus first appeared to Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb in the early hours of Sunday morning. She didn’t recognize him at first. She thought he was the gardener. Then he called her by name and her eyes were opened and she beheld the risen Lord. That night he appeared to his disciples in the Upper Room. John says,
“When therefore it was evening,
on that day, the first day of the week,
and when the doors were locked where the disciples were assembled,
for fear of the Jews,
Jesus came and stood in the middle,
and said to them, ‘Peace be to you.’
When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side.
The disciples therefore were glad when they saw the Lord.”
Luke’s account is slightly different. According to Luke, Mary Magdalene and the other women came to the tomb and found the stone had been rolled away, but they didn’t actually see Jesus. They looked inside and saw two men – angels – who told them that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Then they rushed back to tell the others. (Luke 24:1-9)
That afternoon Jesus met two men on the road to Emmaus. They invited him to their home for supper, and, as he broke bread with them, their eyes were opened and they recognized him. They rushed back to Jerusalem to tell the others. As they were talking, Jesus came through the door and stood among them. He asked for something to eat, and they gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he ate it in front of them. (Luke 24:36-43)
Whether you prefer John’s account or Luke’s, there are no two ways about it: Jesus first appeared to his disciples in Jerusalem.
But wait. According to Mark, Mary Magdalene and the other women went into the empty tomb and saw an angel, who told them,
“He has risen. He is not here.
Behold, the place where they laid him!
But go, tell his disciples and Peter,
‘He goes before you into Galilee.
There you will see him, as he said to you.’”
Matthew agrees. In the gospel lesson this morning, the women left the tomb and met Jesus on the road. He told them,
“Don’t be afraid.
Go tell my brothers that they should go into Galilee,
and there they will see me.”
(Matthew 28:10)Just so you know, Galilee is a good ninety miles north of Jerusalem. It’s not like it was just around the corner. So, where were the disciples supposed to meet Jesus, crucified and risen, Jerusalem or Galilee?
The answer is: Both. Jesus first appeared to his disciples in Jerusalem … and in Galilee!
What we have here are two different traditions. Luke and John give us their accounts. Matthew and Mark give us theirs. If that bothers you, rest assured there are lots of multiple accounts of events in the Bible.
For example, there are two different versions of the creation story in the Book of Genesis. One starts with the creation of the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1); the other, with the creation of Adam. (Genesis 2:7) There are also two different accounts of Jesus’ birth. One begins,
“Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar August
that all the world should be enrolled …”
The other begins,
“Now the birth of Jesus Christ was like this:
After his mother, Mary, was engaged to Joseph,
before they came together, she was found pregnant by the Holy Spirit.
The Bible is full of dual – and, often, conflicting accounts – and that can be a problem for us. In our culture, we expect things to be logical, analytical and consistent. Eastern culture is different.
We got a taste of this one year on a tour of the Holy Land. On our first day out we read the Beatitudes at a chapel overlooking the Sea of Galilee. According to Matthew this where Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount and taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer. (Matthew 6:9-13)
A few days later we were in Jerusalem. We went to a small grotto near the Church of the Pater Noster on the Mount of Olives. According to Luke this is where Jesus met with his disciples and – are you ready for this? – taught them the Lord’s Prayer! (Luke 11:1-4)
It had never occurred to me until that day that Matthew and Luke place the setting of the Lord’s Prayer at opposite ends of the country. “How can this be?” I asked the guide. I’ll never forget what he said. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “So? We pay homage in Galilee and here, outside Bethany. There’s no problem.”
Spoken like a true Semitic. The details may vary, but the message is the same: Jesus taught his disciples to pray. End of story. The time and place are of little consequence.
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In the big picture, God created the heavens and the earth; then, in the fullness of time, God sent Jesus into the world to redeem us from our sinful nature and reconcile us to himself. The rest is incidental.
Now, let’s get back to the resurrection of Jesus. How can we benefit from Matthew, who places the appearance of Jesus in Galilee, rather than Jerusalem? How does this speak to us today?
For one thing, it speaks of time. If the disciples were to meet Jesus in Galilee, they first had to get there; and, if you’ve done much walking, you know it takes a while to get somewhere by foot. Yes, the disciples would get to see the risen Christ … but not right away.
How long did they have to wait? That’s hard to say. I’m guessing it took them a week to get from Jerusalem to Galilee, maybe more. And, while that doesn’t sound like much, in a moment of urgency, it can seem like forever.
When I was living in Bryan, Texas we got word that one of the A&M students was missing. She’d gone on a routine errand and hadn’t returned to the dorm. Her father rushed to College Station and put together a search team. Volunteers poured in from all over. I was asked to be their chaplain. We met in a hotel banquet room and prayed for God to help us find the missing student. The volunteers scoured the countryside. Seconds ticked away like hours, then, miracle of miracles, she was found. She was disoriented, but safe. The crisis was over.
We were lucky. Some wait weeks and months to hear from loved ones. Some never hear from them at all. Waiting is the hard part – to keep faith and not lose hope.
Truth to tell, we don’t know how long the disciples had to wait. The way Luke tells the story, the resurrection appearances happened quickly. They began on the first day of the week and continued for forty days. Then Jesus ascended into heaven, and that was that.
But that’s Luke talking. This is Matthew. Whatever happened in Galilee happened sometime later. Point being: If you want to meet the risen Christ and experience the power of his resurrection, it may take a while. Rest assured, he’ll come to you, if you’re willing to wait.
When the moment arrived, here’s what happened. Matthew writes,
“But the eleven disciples went into Galilee,
to the mountain where Jesus had sent them.
When they saw him, they bowed down to him, but some doubted.”
The disciples met the risen Lord in Galilee, I’m guessing up on Mount Herman, where he had been transfigured in the presence of Moses and Elijah. (Matthew 17:1-8) Some believed right away that he had been raised from the dead; others were skeptical. Let’s not be too hard on them. After all, the resurrection of Jesus was – and is – the miracle of all miracles. Even now, it’s hard for many to believe.
Besides, faith is a relative term. I don’t know many people who are a hundred percent sure of anything they can’t prove beyond doubt. And that’s O.K. Doubt goes along with being honest and it can be altogether healthy, as long as you don’t give it the upper hand.
What’s interesting is that Jesus made no distinction between those who believed and those who doubted – between those who fell at his feet and those who kept their distance. He embraced them both and said, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth.” (28:18)
The message was clear: The sting of the cross was overcome. God’s power triumphs over the forces of evil. The promise holds true for us today and for all those who put their trust in Jesus Christ. As Paul said: “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13) Remember that the next time the circumstances of life seem overwhelming to you.
Jesus embraced his disciples, then he gave them the Great Commission:
“Go and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son
and of the Holy Spirit,
teaching them to observe all things that I commanded you.”
Jesus’ authority was not to be put on a shelf, but to be used to make disciples. That continues to be our mission today – to lead others to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, that they may know the peace, love and joy of new life in his name.
Here’s the problem: Only disciples can make disciples. If you don’t know Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, how are you going to share the Good News of his love with others?
I’m guessing that most of you made a decision long ago to accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. Well, I can’t think of a better time than now to reaffirm that decision. Let this moment be your opportunity to renew your relationship to Jesus Christ. Let this moment be a time of rededicating your life to him. Then resolve to go out and help others know him, as well.
• Be willing to say to someone you love, “He not only died for the sins of the world, he died for you.”
• Talk about how he’s given you the freedom to love those you don’t necessarily like – even to love those who don’t love you at all.
• By all means, describe the peace that comes from knowing that your life is in God’s hands, that God is watching over you and will protect you and provide for you and direct your steps along the path of eternal life.
Just don’t think it’s going to be easy. As a rule, Presbyterians are uncomfortable talking about their relationship to Jesus Christ. “It’s personal,” we say. Plus, we don’t like to impose our beliefs on others. “Live and let live” – that’s our mantra.
It’s hard to make disciples when you’re uncomfortable talking about it. What’s worse, the world we live in is largely hostile to expressions of faith. We saw this played out recently in the movie, God’s Not Dead.
• A college freshman is pressured by his philosophy professor, his classmates, his girlfriend and his parents to sign a little paper saying, “God is Dead,” in order to be assured of getting a passing grade in the class.
• A Chinese student’s father advises him not to waste his time on religious matters.
• An Islamic student’s father throws her out of the home because she has converted to Christianity.
The bottom line is it’s easier to blend in with the world around you than to live out your faith openly and intentionally, putting Christ first and letting others know, “What he’s done for others, he’ll do for you.”
But if you’re willing to give it your best shot, there’s a promise: You’re not alone. Jesus said, “Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20) He will help you know what to say and how to say it with grace and love.
So, what are you going to take home with you today? Three things:
1. It may have taken a while for the disciples to meet the risen Lord up in Galilee and experience the power of his resurrection from the dead. It may take you a while, as well.
2. When they did meet him, some believed right away, others doubted. That’s O.K. Ask all the questions you want. You don’t have to park your brain at the door.
3. Just know this: Jesus is calling you to trust him and share the Good News of his love with others.
So, go and make disciples to the glory of his name. Don’t be ashamed to tell everyone who’ll listen …
“I serve a risen Savior, he’s in the world today,
I know that he is living, whatever men may say;
I see his hand of mercy, I hear his voice of cheer,
and just the time I need him, he’s always near.
“He lives! He lives! Christ Jesus lives today.
He walks with me and talks with me along life’s narrow way.
He lives! He lives! Salvation to impart.
You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart!”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.