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Why Resurrection Cover-ups Failed

Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalene, ‘Noli me tangere’ , Rembrandt (1651) Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum, Germany

Cover-ups have a bad historical track record for one reason:  people talk!  While that might be disastrous to a conspiracy being hatched, it was ideal for Christianity.  Isn’t that one of many reasons 2.2 billion Christians continue to celebrate an event that rocked the world 21 centuries ago?  And there are more.

Check out Paul’s account in I Corinthians 15.  The letter was written sometime in the mid-50’s, about 15 years after Jesus’ resurrection but before a Gospel account recorded it.

…That he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.  Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died (I Cor. 15:4-6, NRSV).

Those 1st century Jews who believed in resurrection, having poured over Daniel 12, knew it wasn’t some amorphous event but “the literal reanimation of a dead corpse”, as the New Living Translation explains.  But huge effort was made to disguise its actuality when it happened to Jesus.  The arguments ranged from: ‘he never really died but was just unconscious’, to ‘the disciples only dreamed it’.

But my favorite ‘it never really happened’ explanation was the one Matthew’s Gospel records in chapter 28.  Matthew gives us the back story of the Jewish religious leaders asking Pilate to order soldiers to guard the tomb so Jesus’ followers wouldn’t steal the body.   When the guards found it empty on the third day, they told the priests who called an emergency meeting then bribed the guards with this response:

  You must say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So they took the money and did as they were directed (Matt. 28:13,14). 

So with all the efforts of an attempted cover-up that makes Watergate pale by comparison, how did the truth emerge?  Here are six reasons and would love to hear others you think made a difference.

  1. The simplest:  the tomb was empty. Something happened to the body that had been placed there.
  2. Women were witnesses. Why would anyone conceive such a bizarre account and then use women to confirm it when it was culturally assumed they would be less reliable?!
  3. The consistency of the several accounts of those who saw him: the disciples in the upper room; then when Thomas joined them and Jesus appeared again in the same place; the witness of Cleopas and his friend from Emmaus; the morning meal prepared for the disciples by the risen Jesus Christ;
  4. The significant shift in the disciples – from fearful followers to bold apostles.
  5. Jesus’ followers’ ability to prevail over the disgrace and dishonor embedded in Deut.21:23 (anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse). Similar to having women as eyewitnesses, why would you conceive of a Jewish leader with such a resume?!
  6. The healing ability of his followers, accounts which fill the book of Acts, indicating what he did was not confined to him personally but could be replicated by those who followed his teachings.

It leaves us with the question for today:  how do people know by my life that ‘He is risen’?  Only you can answer that one!  Happy post-Easter everyone.

If you’re interested in learning more about “The Week that Changed the World”, listen to a free video talk given by me on Good Friday (3/30/18) for Third Church of Christ, Scientist, New York  (thirdchurchnyc.org) and download the free handout.

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Gethsemane: Holy Place of Prayer

Gethsemane– a word almost universally recognized and filled with meaning like few others—is the subject of the February video and blog.

Although mentioned only once each in Mark (14:32) and Matthew (26:36), Christians know it well as the place of Jesus’ difficult prayer prior to Judas’ betrayal and the Master’s arrest.

        They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray (Mark 14:32).

Its 1st century use as an olive orchard located on the Mount of Olives gave the garden its name and meaning, gath shemane being Hebrew for ‘oil press’.  While Luke’s Gospel certainly recounts this momentous night of prayer, he refers to the larger area, the Mount of Olives.

Luke also gives us a hint of how often Jesus must have gone to this peaceful garden, so close to Jerusalem yet with the Kidron Valley between to provide some distance from the urban clamor.

        He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him (Luke 22:39).

In fact, the frequency of Jesus’ retreats there to pray are why scholars believe Judas knew where to tell the Jewish authorities to find him later that night.

One can’t help but wonder if Jesus, on this night or previous ones of prayer, thought also of David’s experience on the Mount of Olives.  Knowing the Hebrew Scriptures and identified as the prophesied Messiah and ‘Son of David’, Jesus must have been familiar with the story of David fleeing to this sacred place as he was forced to escape Jerusalem. Absalom was out to kill David and take the throne, so with family and loyal friends around him, the Bible relates David also paused here at a critical moment:

            David walked up the road to the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went. His head was covered and his feet were bare as a sign of mourning. And the people who were with him covered their heads and wept as they climbed the hill (II Sam 15:30).

The Gospels reveal Gethsemane as the lowest point of Jesus’ earthly career, evidenced by what Matthew relates he told his disciples:

            My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me (Matt 26:38).

Yet Gethsemane also represents that consummate moment of self-surrender that shines as a model for all who want to yield to God’s will for their lives:

            My Father! If this cup cannot be taken away–unless I drink it, your will be done (Matt 26:42-43).

More than any place in Israel I’ve traveled, Gethsemane is ‘holy ground’.  A wall surrounding these ancient olive trees, still bearing fruit,  helps Christian pilgrims pray quietly where the Master prayed, look across the Valley to Jerusalem, and hope that their lives provide even a fraction of the healing oil of his.

 

 

 

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Why Jesus’ baptism is told differently

The Baptism Site on the Jordan side of the Jordan River is one of the most important recent discoveries in biblical archaeology. Excavations only began here in 1996, following Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel in 1994, but have already uncovered more than 20 churches, caves and baptismal pools dating from the Roman and Byzantine periods. (Picture from Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic)

The fact that our New Testament contains four Gospels by four writers with four viewpoints can sometimes be tricky to navigate when some events of Jesus’ life are told differently.  Yet there are substantial blessings in having these four accounts for Bible students twenty centuries later:  we gain a fuller picture and understanding of Christ Jesus’ life and ministry.

The Master’s baptism is one of a number of examples where there is diversity in the four accounts.  This video blog tells the story of two versions of the baptism, one from Matthew and the other from Luke, that will perhaps shed light on some discrepancies you’ve no doubt noted.

Before reading further (spoiler alert!), you might want to reread Matthew 3:13-17, Mark 1:4-8, Luke 3:21-22 and John 1:29-34, the four evangelists’ versions of the baptism of Jesus.

The video below was taken on a recent trip to Israel, standing at the traditional site of the Jordan River where historians believe this pivotal event of Christianity took place. (The picture above is from the Jordanian side of the river where new excavations are occurring.)  Christian tourists travel from every continent to be baptized as was the Master Christian.  Here are the hopes of a lifetime to experience the purification that this 2000-year-old immersion in water symbolizes for believers.

Since Mark is believed to have been the first Gospel written, we see how significant the baptism is to the early Christians as Mark chooses to open the story of Jesus not with his birth, but his baptism.

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved with you I am well pleased (Mark 1:9-11).”

John baptizes Jesus as he has so many others but this time a sense of God’s presence is so vivid that John hears a voice claiming Jesus as God’s son and identify Jesus.

But in the Luke version, John is not even at the baptism.  He is miles away imprisoned in one of Herod’s fortresses, just before his death.  Again, by rereading the Luke version below, you’ll see the writer is telling us John is well off the scene so that Jesus is known to be unmistakably the Son of God.  There would be no confusion, in Luke’s relating of the story, which figure was the son of God.

20 “…he shut John up in prison.  When all the people were baptized, it came to pass that Jesus also was baptized; and while He prayed, the heaven was opened”  (Luke 3:21,22).

One baptism.  Two versions.  Each writer had his own reasons…thus the beauty of four distinct gospels.

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How the Beatitudes come alive on a Galilean Hill

There are few places in Israel more ‘ground zero’ to Christianity than the Mt. of Beatitudes on the shores of the Galilean Sea, the subject of this month’s video blog. It is in this beauty-filled place that historians think Christ Jesus gave a sermon that included the core teachings of what it is to be part of the community of believers, of Christ’s Church.

The heart of this teaching, called “The Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5-7), are the Beatitudes.  These eight verses, unified by their common beginning of  ‘blessed’ (makarios in Greek), address an objective–not subjective–state of happiness.   Moving far beyond an emotional state of happiness, Jesus pointed his followers to an objective reality of being spiritually enriched because of one’s citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Christians have made pilgrimages to this sacred site since the 4th century, the first thought to be an Italian woman, Egeria.  Visiting in 380, she wrote to her Christian community back home, “Near there on a mountain is the cave to which the Savior climbed and spoke the Beatitudes.”  A 4th-century Byzantine church was built to commemorate the site, featuring an unusual octagonal floor, in honor of the eight Beatitudes.  The modern Catholic church (in this photo and the video blog) was built in 1936, near the 4th-century Byzantine ruins.

We hope this month’s two-minute video blog gives you, too, the feeling of peace and serenity felt on a recent visit.

Regardless of whether this is the exact spot where Jesus Christ delivered this Sermon on the Mount, or one nearby, the sense of elevation over the sea, the shady trees and the tranquility all make it likely that here was first heard the Sermon to stand through the ages.  And now we get on with trying to live it more.

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Christ Jesus’ home at Capernaum

Welcome to another video blog from a recent trip to Israel.

“He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea…”.

So writes Matthew in 4:13, introducing the reader to this central location of Christ Jesus’ ministry in the Galilee. Capernaum is located on the northwest shore of the Galilean Sea, a beautiful site in calm weather and a treacherous one when rough seas churn.  Although only about 1500 people and 13 acres in size in the first century, Capernaum has found its way into the Christian’s vocabulary as a center for the healing ministry of Jesus Christ — from Peter’s mother in law, to the man with evil spirits, to the centurion’s servant.  Enjoy this brief journey to the heart of the Master’s Galilean ministry.

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