Brian Tucknott reflects on the impact of Easter.
Each year we remember the significant events in the life of Jesus, as recorded in the New Testament, through our liturgies. At the major church festivals key parts of those events are acted out in many places – in the street, in schools and in churches, to name a few – presented as factual stories that form the basis of Christian faith.
The question we have to ask ourselves is “Was that actually Jesus’ intention or did he expect his followers to do things in a different way? Did Jesus see his death as the end of his mission so that the stories are the important thing or are we to read something more into all the confusion that seems to be presented in the stories we have at the end gospels?”
The way those events were presented in each of the gospels is, to my mind, a reflection of the purpose of each author. Scholars tell us that, of the gospels, Mark’s was the first to be written. It only records the brief period when Jesus was actively engaged in his mission pf teaching and showing, by his life and death, his understanding of a God whose wish for creation was expressed in the relationship Jesus had with the people amongst whom he. Mark has no birth story and, in the oldest manuscript, no resurrection story (most versions of the Bible include a simple resurrection story that was added later). Mark would appear to be concerned to present his story in a straightforward way that, for me, allows his readers to decide for themselves the meaning and significance of the man Jesus. There are most certainly incidents recorded that give us clues to who Mark thought Jesus was, what his purpose was and what he thought was Jesus’ relationship with the God of their faith. Read the story, Mark invites, and decide for yourselves the significance of the man.
Matthew and Luke, on the other hand, are each addressing specific, but different, readers. Matthew makes his record of particular significance for the Jews who were expecting a king who would defeat their Roman occupiers and Luke’s is aimed at the Gentiles whose expectation was for a God who measured up to Greek and Roman gods. Matthew and Luke both include birth and resurrection stories – the birth stories completely different and the resurrection stories with some similarities but also some exclusive material. Matthew and Luke, seem to me, to be making more specific claims for Jesus and use their material in an attempt to persuade the reader of what they believe.
John’s gospel was the last to be written and reflects a more sophisticated thinking and a more developed theology. It has no birth story but takes, as its starting point, the beginning of time, creation, and boldly declares that the Word (Jesus) existed before time. Much of the mission activities and teachings of Jesus are presented as a long discourse by Jesus to his followers at the Passover meal. John’s resurrection stories are, to my mind, more complex and challenging.
So, what are we to make of the stories we have? If Jesus’ death was the end of his mission would a group of men and women have been inspired to continue living in a way that reflected his teaching? I’m inclined to think not. Much more likely that they would have gone back to the lives they were living before meeting Jesus. Indeed, one gospel suggests that they had done that but that they found that life no longer satisfied. It is difficult to say with any certainty what it was that changed those lives.
Some believe in a literal physical resurrection which inspires faith in the living Christ, whilst others see the stories as an attempt to explain the sense all the disciples felt that, in some way, Jesus was continuing to inspire the way they should live. For both groups, the mission he had started was theirs to continue.
Today, however we explain those events, the movement that began as the followers of Jesus rying to follow his example is still a force for good in the world, still actively continuing his mission. The life of love that he lived remains the basis for Christian living today, however inadequate that living is in all of us, his followers.
In the sense that his life and death inspired, and continues to inspire, his followers to go on in his way, his life’s mission was most certainly fulfilled. In the sense that, throughout the centuries, his followers have failed to fully live up to his example and the world remains full of challenges to that way of love, his mission has not been fulfilled and is ongoing.
How best can his followers today go forward with that mission. Is it best served by re-enacting each year the events of two thousand years ago or are we missing the central thrust of Jesus’ purpose for us.
A hymn has it as “Love is the fulfilling…”