I find it interesting that Easter Sunday is one of the more difficult Sundays to preach on…. And I think the reason for that is that for me, when one speaks of the resurrection of Jesus, one speaks of something of a mystery. It is clear that something profound happened to awaken the disciples to some new sense of purpose and mission, but the Gospel stories don’t all neatly line up.
I invite you to listen carefully with me as I outline each of the Gospels account of the Resurrection of Jesus.
Mark’s is the earliest and simplest version.
A group of women go to the tomb early in the morning. They find the tomb empty. They see a young man dressed in white who tells them “He is not here he is risen”. He then tells them to tell the disciples that they will see him in Galilee. They leave terrified, too afraid to tell anyone. That’s where the earliest and most reliable manuscripts of Mark’s Gospel end.
Matthew’s version written about 20 years later, embellishes on Marks’s version and adds to the ending.
The women go to the tomb early. When they get to the tomb, this time an angel appears with what feels like and earthquake. The stone rolls away, the angel sits on it. His clothing is snow white and his face is dazzling. (remember Mark only speaks of a young man dressed in white). Those who were guarding the tomb frozen as if dead (Only Matthew’s version makes reference to men guarding the tomb). Again the women are told, “He is not here, he is risen”, and that the disciples will see him in Galilee.
This time in Matthew’s version has the women run off with joy and excitement to tell the disciples. On their way, suddenly, they are met by the risen Christ who repeats the instructions that the disciples are to go to Galilee where they will meet him.
The closing scene of Matthew is the Risen Christ meeting the disciples on a mountain in Galilee where he gives final instructions and assures them he will be with them until the end of time.
Luke’s version starts in a similar way to Mark and Matthew but doesn’t end in Galilee, rather the action all takes place in and around Jerusalem. All happening on the day of Resurrection. Again early in the morning the women go to the tomb. There is no earthquake. The tomb is already open. There is no mention of an angel like Matthew. In Luke, it is not one, but two men in brilliant clothes. Their message to the women is a little different from Mark and Matthew. No instruction for the disciples to go to Galilee where they will meet the Risen Christ.
The women return to tell the eleven, but unlike Matthew, they do not meet Jesus on the way. The eleven think they’re talking nonsense about the empty tomb, but this time, unlike Matthew, Peter runs to the tomb to investigate.
Next, on the same day in Luke, two lesser disciple meet a stranger as they walk downcast from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Their hearts burn as he opens the scripture to them and at the end of the journey, as they share a meal with him, they recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread and he mysteriously disappears.
They run to tell the 11, and while they are doing so, the Risen Jesus appears to them all, shows them his hands and his side, invites them to touch him and eats a piece of fish to prove he is not a ghost, (which is interesting, because Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:50 says that the resurrection body is not a physical body but a spiritual body).
Lastly in Luke, Jesus leads them out to Bethany where he gives final instructions to remain in Jerusalem until they are clothed with power from on high. Then he ascends into heaven. All of this takes place on the day of Resurrection. Which is also interesting because the book of Acts tells us the story of the ascension only takes place 40 days after the Resurrection during which time Jesus appeared on numerous other occasions.
Lastly, John’s Gospel gives another different account. Like all three other gospels, the story begins early in the morning, but this time it is not a group of women who go to the tomb, but only Mary Magdalene. There is no young man dressed in white, no angel who rolls the stone away, no men in dazzling clothing, no guards guarding the tomb. No earthquake.
She sees that the stone has been rolled away. She runs to tell Simon Peter who then runs to the tomb not by himself this time (as in Luke), but with another unnamed disciple.
Once Peter and the other disciple have gone home perplexed, Mary who has also returned to the tomb, stands at the tomb alone. Here she meets someone she thinks is a gardener who she realises is Jesus when he speaks her name. But in Matthew, Mark and Luke the women were told “he is not here”.
Mary Magdalene then returns alone to tell the disciples she has met the risen Lord.
Next, in John’s Gospel, on the evening of the same day, Jesus appears to 10 disciples (not 11 as in Luke). It is only a week later, in John’s Gospel that Jesus appears to all 11, when this time the doubting Thomas is present.
Lastly in John’s Gospel, a further appearance happens in Galilee at the sea of Tiberias at an unspecified time later. The disciples are fishing but catching nothing. Jesus appears on the shore, tells them to cast their nets to the other side (which is very similar to a story Luke tells near the beginning of his Gospel). As they drag the enormous catch to shore, Jesus prepares a fish barbecue on the shore. After they have eaten, Jesus draws Peter aside and three times asks, Do you love me, and three times instructs Peter, Feed my sheep.
And so the Resurrection stories of Jesus, as recorded across the four Gospels, and as it spills over into the book of acts and the writings of St Paul, are something of a mystery. The details (or the facts) don’t all align. There are discrepancies. One could even say, there are contradictions in both chronology and geography, as well in terms of personnel.
And yet, despite all these discrepancies and contradictions, there is a power in these stories that captures not just our imaginations, but which also captures out hearts. Who can remain unmoved when Mary’s grief is broken through when she hears the Risen Jesus call her by name, or when the two lesser disciples (as I have called them) find their hearts burning on the road as a stranger opens the scriptures to them, and then when they recognise him in the breaking of bread. Or when the doubting Thomas is brought to his knees when he encounters the Risen Christ in front of him and then is invited to place his finger in the nail marks and his hand in Jesus side. Or finally, when Jesus restores the fallen Peter and commissions him with the words “feed my sheep”, “feed my lambs” “feed my sheep”.
There is a power in these stories… a transforming power. A power that fills one with a sense of hope and optimism. A power that opens us to the deep sense that that which was deepest and most essential to Jesus, is still Alive, Present and at work in the world and available to each one of us today. These stories are filled with a power that fills us with a sense that this life is not all there is… there is a ‘more’, beyond this life of flesh and blood physical things, that whispers to the deepest longings of our hearts, the whisper of the Eternal, in the midst of time, the Call of the Infinite, in the midst of the ordinariness of life. The deep sense that this world’s story of violence, oppression and crucifixion, are not the last word. But rather God’s final word to us is Life, Eternal and Transcendent, a Life that not even death cannot overcome.
The stories don’t all line up… but for all their discrepancies, they point beyond themselves to the fact that something powerful happened after the crucifixion of Jesus, something that transformed a bunch of scared and defeated disciples, into a group that was transformed with a sense of mission based on the conviction that the crucifixion of Jesus was not the end of the story...
I end with the opening words of Luke 24: “On the first day of the week, at the first sign of dawn, they went to the tomb with the spices they had prepared. They found that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb, but on entering they could not find the body of the Lord Jesus…”
I’m no longer an early riser like I was when I was a child. But when I do wake up early, and feel the stillness at the first sign of dawn, and the hush of expectation before the day begins, I find a sense of Presence, of Life, and of Hope that we seek to capture when as Christians we say on Easter Sunday: Christ is Risen, He is Risen Indeed.