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Peter: the turning point

No matter how bad it looks, the bad guys don't win.
No matter how bad it looks, the bad guys don't win.

Everyone who followed Jesus to Jerusalem must have known that he died there. Many of them were eyewitnesses, either present or "from a distance," as Scripture says. We can hardly imagine the shock and horror of witnessing one of our friends tortured to death.

Scripture is confused from gospel to gospel recounting the events that occurred after the horrendous event. In one story, the remaining Apostles regrouped in Bethany and were there on the third day, when the empty tomb was reported.

But when we fast-forward to St. Peter being such a firebrand, preaching and doing miracles, baptizing thousands of people in one day, we wonder where the story of him seeing the risen Lord in Galilee comes in. It isn't just me--scholars have sifted evidence for centuries and the differing scenarios simply do not agree.

Many of the tough-minded scholars doubt that Jesus was even buried at all, but rather thrown into a pit in the field called Gehenna beside and on top of the other victims. His body would have been covered over with quicklime to hasten decomposition. This scenario is so harrowing that few Christians even want to contemplate it.

But there are several things that suggest that Jesus really did have a burial. Oddly, one of them is the existence of the Shroud of Turin. Many people doubt its authenticity on the basis that it is a piece of fabric that was most likely to have been produced by Romans. That is due to its size and weave. So how did Jesus get wrapped in a Roman shroud?

But we can come up with a pretty good reason: Pontius Pilate and his wife, who were sympathetic to Jesus to a degree that we can't determine. But out of common humanity, it is entirely possible that Pilate or his wife retrieved Jesus' body through orders or bribes, and secretly returned it to his family for burial. This is not an outlandish idea, based on Pilate's behavior and the reported comments of his wife.

Then the body disappeared from the tomb, and it may have been left to the brokenhearted followers to try to figure out what happened. Jesus may not have been out among them after three days. They may have been left to puzzle it out, or return to their distant homes. As they walked, mourned and thought the events over, we can only guess what went through their minds.

There is another idea that weaves the events together: a different time sequence. What if Jesus' appearances were not days, but weeks after his death? What if the Apostles thought they were accepting the inevitable, and returned to their homes, where they were when the Resurrection appearances began? Like Cleopas in last week's Scripture reading, they would have rushed back to Jerusalem and begun the movement that resulted in the emergence of a new religion from its Jewish roots.

There is a dramatic story that tells of Peter and his closest friends resuming their lives in Galilee, mourning and trying to make sense of what had happened. Their belief in God was strong enough to stop them and make them think that it was unbearable that he would have said no to Jesus' life and death.

Then one morning, as they fished in the predawn light, Peter had a vision. A stranger told them to put their nets down on the other side of the boat, and as they broke bread Peter saw through time and space. He knew that Jesus was alive and present in some way that no one understands.

That seems to be the defining event that propelled the Galilean Apostles back to Jerusalem, bearing the Good News. Probably as they reunited with other followers, they heard the stories of Jesus' appearance there. But that was not the central event.

The central event of the Resurrection is, we may say seriously, the Meaning of Life. What does life mean, if you can do your best and be a good person, only to be crushed? What gave the Apostles the courage to face that possibility, once they had seen Jesus hung up on a "tree" to die in public, so that no one would ever dream that there was any possibility he could survive? The soldiers even ran a spear into his heart to make sure that he could not be alive; he did not react, which convinced them that he had died.

This is the message of Christianity: that the bad guys do not win in the end, no matter how much it seems that they have. There is more to life and death than the physical world. What happened to the Apostles after Jesus died was so overwhelming that a new religion emerged from Judaism, a faith that endured persecution both in Jerusalem (where the followers of Jesus were expelled from Judaism proper), and in the Roman Empire generally. They simply had no doubts. They were ready to face anything, and they did.

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