“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” (Luke 24:25b)
When you compare the stories from each of the four gospels about that first Easter morning, you discover that they’re wildly different. In Mark, the earliest of the four gospels, the women arrive at the tomb ready to anoint Jesus’ body with spices and find the tomb open, the body missing, and a young man dressed in white who tells them not to be alarmed, “he has been raised, he is not here,” and they leave filled with terror and amazement.
In Matthew the two Marys go to the tomb after the Sabbath, which is being monitored by guards, and as they arrive there is an earthquake and an angel descends from heaven and rolls away the stone blocking the entrance to the tomb! In this account it is the angel who tells the women, “he is not here, for he has been raised.” Again they flee, with “fear and great joy” and on the way they run into Jesus himself who later instructs them to make disciples of all nations.
In Luke the women arrive and the stone has been rolled away. They are greeted by two men in dazzling clothes who ask, “why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” The women leave and tell the other disciples who, with the exception of Peter, do not believe them. Jesus appears to two other disciples on the road to Emmaus, then to the disciples as they hide, then he blesses them and visibly ascends into heaven.
John, the latest of the four gospels, has the longest post-resurrection section. Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb alone and when she finds it open she leaves to fetch Peter, who comes running with the beloved disciple. Peter and the other disciple verify that Jesus is gone and return to their homes, but Mary stays behind and encounters the risen Jesus – who is not immediately recognizable to Mary. He tells her not to cling to him, but to go tell the others what she has seen. Jesus then appears to the disciples without and then with Thomas, and then again to the disciples as they are back at their nets fishing.
The further away in time the gospels are from the crucifixion and death of Jesus, the more elaborate their accounts of the resurrection are. How do we account for this? How do we understand the variances in the stories the early church told about the risen Lord? Personally, I understand each of these stories as instances of what John affirms at the end of the fourth gospel, “there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” Each of us is an instance, an occasion, of the things that Jesus is doing. Each of us is discovering the empty tomb. Each of us is being asked, “why do you look for the living among the dead?” Each of us is being sent into the world to tell the amazing story of the Lord of Life. The more pressing question for me is: when people ask you to explain your faith, what story do you tell?