Historical Cultural Context
This appearance of the risen Jesus to the Christian community follows the story of his appearances to the two disciples at Emmaus. The complete unit (Lk 24:36-53) can be divided into three scenes: (1) the appearance (Lk 24:36-43); (2) instruction and a final commission (Lk 24:44-49); (3) the ascension (Lk 24:50-53).
If we explore this appearance story in terms of alternate reality, some of its elements make fresh sense. First, the disciples exhibit multiple reactions: they are terrified and startled (Lk 24:37), alarmed and skeptical (Lk 24:38), overjoyed yet wondering (Lk 24:40), and they think they see a “ghost” (Greek: “spirit,” Lk 24:34), which suggests that they recognize a new kind of experience.
They know Jesus died and was buried, but now they see him quite alive. Instead of a “ghost” they see a flesh and bone person in alternate reality (Lk 24:39). Jesus eats fish in their presence (Lk 24:43) not only to prove his “reality” but to reestablish table fellowship with his followers! Clearly this is a new kind of experience of alternate reality.
As the disciples at Emmaus so too does this community gain a new understanding of the risen Jesus they are experiencing, rooted in the Scripture. Jesus personally “opened their minds” to the fuller meaning of the words he spoke in his lifetime and offered a deeper understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures. No specific passages from the Old Testament are cited. Indeed, scholars are unable to find any passages that relate to Luke’s global interpretation that “the Messiah shall suffer and rise from the dead on the third day.”
Experiences of alternate reality opened the minds of prophets and others in the Old Testament to understanding the will of God with greater clarity and precision; the experience of the risen Jesus accomplishes the same result for those who see him.
What then is the function of this specific experience of alternate reality? In today’s passage, the risen Jesus commissions “the Eleven and their companions” (Lk 24:33) to preach “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” to all nations and to be “witnesses” (Lk 24:47-48).
Preaching forgiveness of sins is a familiar theme in Luke, but the theme of testimony is a new one that will be highlighted repeatedly throughout Acts. These eyewitness followers now bear witness and testimony to the end of the earth concerning the suffering Messiah who was raised (e.g., Acts 4:4, 29, 31, etc.).
Ordinarily, the experience of alternate reality itself suffices to convince, motivate, and empower the recipient to act upon the experience. But Jesus advises his followers to “remain here in the city until you are invested with power from on high” (Lk 24:49).
This is a crucial notion in Luke’s Gospel, unfortunately omitted in the selection assigned for today’s liturgy. It was with the “power of the Lord” that Jesus healed people (Lk 5:17). Indeed, the “power that went forth from him” (Lk 6:19) is the very same power with which God will invest these disciples (Lk 24:49; Acts 1:5).
The fact that it is impossible to harmonize the diverse resurrection stories into a continuous narrative should give the modem believer pause. One transforming experience of the risen Jesus and its narration in a single story sufficed for our ancestors in the faith. The experience and/or the story was enlightening and empowering.
Through centuries of Christian tradition, this experience has been stylized in ritual and relived in sacrament. The Western tendency toward rationalization has often robbed liturgy, ritual, and sacrament of their potential experiential impact. Can today’s reflections help restore the power?
John J. Pilch
**From Saint Louis University