Finding a fifth Gospel

Text: John 20:19-31 (Jesus appears twice)

What day is this? Perhaps it’s Easter? We just heard a reading set on the first Easter Sunday in which Jesus appears to the disciples who are scared and hiding in a locked room. Easter was two weeks ago on April 5. But at our service on that day, we sang “Every morning is Easter morning from now on.” The song implies that Easter can always be a correct answer to the question, “What day is this?”

Or perhaps today is Ascension Day. On Thursday at choir practice, Patricia reminded us that May 14, the date when we will gather at the Arts Barn to see the comedy thriller “Becoming Sharp” by Edmonton playwright David Belke, is also The Feast of the Ascension.

Ascension refers to Jesus rising bodily into the clouds. Based upon a story from the first chapter of the book of Acts, Jesus’ Ascension occurs 40 days after Easter Sunday. This year, 40 days after April 5 will be Thursday May 14.

But didn’t we hear about the Ascension last Sunday in the last few verses of the Gospel of Luke? In that version, Jesus’ Ascension seemed to occur on Easter Sunday evening and not 40 days later. Why does the Bible contain differing accounts of the same event, I wonder?

Or perhaps today is Pentecost. In today’s Gospel reading, which is the last 13 verses of the Gospel of John, Jesus breathes on his friends in order to give them the Holy Spirit. That’s Pentecost, isn’t it — the coming of the Holy Spirit?

And yet, we won’t celebrate Pentecost until May 24 — 50 days after Easter Sunday 2015. We wait 50 days because in Luke’s account of Pentecost in Acts 2, the Holy Spirit descends on the disciples as a mighty wind 50 days after the first Easter Sunday and 10 days after Jesus’ ascension into heaven.

Easter Day, Ascension Day, and Pentecost. Based upon the Gospel readings of the last few weeks, these all seem like possible answers to my question, “What day is this?” Confusing, isn’t it?

This is the third Sunday of the Season of Easter 2015, and on each of these Sundays, we have heard the concluding verses of a different Gospel. Two weeks ago, on April 5, we heard the last eight verses of Mark. Last Sunday on April 12, we heard the last 18 verses of Luke. Now today we have heard the last 13 verses of John – well, those 13 are the last ones if you discount John’s disputed 21st chapter.

Each of these three endings is different from the other two and from the ending of a fourth Gospel, Matthew, which we heard last spring. So what gives?

To complicate matters even further, I now bring in a fifth Gospel. I don’t mean the new novel by Ian Caldwell called “The Fifth Gospel.” It is a thriller about the Vatican and The Shroud of Turin, which was published in March. I read a review of it in “The Edmonton Journal” on Friday.

For me, the Fifth Gospel is C.S. Lewis’ classic tale, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” which was published 66 years ago and which I read when I was seven years old. Like Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Lewis tells the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ . . . except in Lewis’ version, Jesus is a talking lion called Aslan who lives in a world called Narnia.

When I was seven, I didn’t realize that Aslan was modeled on Jesus. I just knew that I loved the stories of the magic land Narnia into which four English school children stumble through an old wardrobe. Like the four gospels in the Bible, the stories of Narnia are about sin and redemption; and death and resurrection.

When I hear of the Risen Christ breathing on his disciples on the first Easter evening in today’s reading from John, I think back to my childhood and the tale of how Aslan, the Christ-like lion, breathed life back into animals who had been turned into stone statues by an evil White Witch.

Earlier in the story, Aslan gave up his life to atone for the sin of one of the four children, Edmund. Like Jesus, Aslan then rises to new life, and with his breath he offers new life to those who had been petrified by the Witch.

I love the novel, but as with the gospel accounts in the Bible, I wonder if I should trust the resurrection stories of Aslan and Narnia.

In the second part of today’s Gospel reading, we encounter the story of Thomas, the disciple who for some reason was not with the others on Easter Sunday evening and who doubts his friends when they say that Jesus had appeared to them. One week later, Jesus lays Thomas’ doubts to rest when he appears a final time and asks Thomas to touch his wounded hands and feet.

Personally, I don’t have any doubts about the contradictory resurrection accounts in the four Gospels. I believe every single one found in the Gospel of Mark – which is a trick statement because there are none in Mark. And I am confident that none of the stories told in the other three gospels are based on historical reality.

I have the same confidence that they didn’t happen as I have in the non-reality of miracles in the stories of other faith traditions. Was the Buddha born speaking in complete sentences? Of course not. Did Muhammad ride on a flying horse with the Angel Gabriel from Mecca to Jerusalem in the year 621 and then ascend to heaven? Of course not. Did the Hindu God Krishna have blue skin and lead his people into battle on a sacred chariot 5,000 years ago? Of course not.

But I don’t raise the differences between the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection or my skepticism about them to sow doubt. I do so to suggest that the details don’t matter. For me, the power and truth of the gospel accounts of resurrection do not depend on their historical reality.

I prefer Mark because his lack of resurrection appearances give his Gospel a circular character, which fits the rhythms of life. The lack of resurrection appearances also makes it easier for me to connect Mark’s stories of Jesus to the death of the dream of a new king for Israel under its tribal God YHWH and the rebirth of sovereignty and divinity within all people.

But I also love the accounts of resurrection in Matthew, Luke and John regardless of their contradictions and the unfortunate ease with which they can be literalized.

Luke’s Road to Emmaus story reminds us that each time we break bread with friends, we can glimpse the Love of God in Christ. John’s story of Mary Magdalene mistaking the Risen Christ for a gardener on Easter morning reminds us of how being called by name can open us to the Grace of God. Matthew’s story of Jesus giving the disciples a commission to preach the good news to all nations shows us the scope of our ministry.

And in the Narnia books — my fifth Gospel — the story of Aslan breathing new life to creatures entombed in stone reminds me that God can help us wake up to life and love despite the evil and pain we encounter in our lives.

Put side by side, the various accounts of resurrection in Mathew, Mark, Luke and John might seem like a contradictory jumble. To this jumble, I add a fifth Gospel, the Narnia books of C.S. Lewis. Other people will have their own fifth gospels since there is no end of stories about death and resurrection. Gladly, I find that when one has experienced openings to new life enough times, all the jumbled stories start to sing together.

For me, resurrection is not a mundane historical event. It is a spiritual reality into which we can stumble in any moment of pain or joy. Jesus didn’t just rise from the dead one quiet Sunday nearly 2,000 years ago. He continues to rise in our hearts and in our relationships all the time.

New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan put it this way when writing about Luke’s account of the Risen Christ walking to Emmaus with two of his followers on Easter Sunday: “Emmaus never happened. Emmaus is always happening.”

In a similar way, I think we can say, “Easter is always happening. Ascension is always happening. Pentecost is always happening.”

When we open our hearts to our loved ones, sometimes the Risen Christ appears. When we comfort a friend who is suffering from a broken heart, sometimes God’s Spirit breathes in us again. When we mourn and give thanks for the life of a departed loved one, Jesus ascends to heaven with them again.

So my prayer today is that we will accept God’s Grace and feel free to say to each other on this as on any day:

“Happy Feast of the Ascension! Happy Pentecost! Happy Easter!”

Amen.

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