There are fifty days from Easter to Pentecost (Deuteronomy 16:9). The Church has traditionally divided this period into two parts. Forty days end with Ascension Day (Acts 1:3), and that is followed by ten days waiting for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 1:8).
I like to divide the period into seven weeks marked off by eight Sundays. Admittedly I can't prove this is how the eye-witnesses saw it, but for me the events fit nicely into an elegant model.
Three of the eight Sundays are clearly identified. Jesus appeared bodily on Easter Sunday and the next Sunday, and the Day of Pentecost was also a Sunday. What of the other five Sundays? Is there any hint that they might also have been significant?
From the beginning it seems that the Lord's Day was the day Christians expected to meet with the Lord (Acts 20:7; Revelation 1:10; see John 20:19). Luke tells us that Jesus "presented himself alive to the apostles by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God" (Acts 1:3). But one Gospel tells us that the risen Lord did not appear continuously every day, but rather after certain intervals (John 21:14).
That is why I like to imagine the Messiah revealed himself visibly
on six successive Sundays. And then he was with them by his ascended presence
on the other two Sundays. So I frame the forty days from Easter to Pentecost
around eight Sundays like this:
|EASTER SUNDAY||Matthew 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-43; John 20:1-23|
|DOUBTERS' SUNDAY||John 20:26-29|
|FISHING SUNDAY||John 21:1-25|
|NATIONS SUNDAY||Matthew 28:16-20|
|CONVENTION SUNDAY||1 Corinthians 15:6|
|FAMILY SUNDAY||1 Corinthians 15:7|
|APOSTLES SUNDAY||Acts 1:15-26|
|HOLY SPIRIT SUNDAY||Acts 2:1-41|
On Easter Sunday there were three bodily appearances of the risen Messiah. Early in the morning Mary Magdalene announced the tomb was empty, and when she came back she saw Jesus, at first thinking he was the gardener (John 20:1- 2,11-16). In the afternoon Jesus walked with two disciples to the village of Emmaus, and they recognized him when he broke bread with them (Luke 24:13-31). In the evening Jesus came through locked doors, showed his hands and his feet, and ate fish with them (Luke 24:36-43; John 20:19).
Thomas found it unreasonable to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead and had appeared to the others the previous Sunday. But when the apostles gathered again on the second Sunday Thomas was convinced by Jesus calling him forward to check his hands and his side. Doubters' Sunday reminds us that doubters are welcome to our gatherings.
After a month away it was now time for the apostles to go back to their home in Galilee. Jesus had told them he would meet them there (Matthew 26:32; Mark 14:28). If they set out early on Monday, and spent four nights at inns on the way, they would get to Capernaum before the sabbath began on Friday evening. But apparently on the journey Jesus was nowhere to be seen (John 21:14).
They had perhaps planned to announce the resurrection in their synagogue, but by sundown on Saturday what had happened in Jerusalem seemed like a dream. So Peter, joined by six other apostles, decided to go back to fishing (John 21:2-3). The seven of them did not catch a single fish all that night. Then early on Fishing Sunday morning the Lord appeared on the shore, told them to cast their net, and the catch of one hundred and fifty-three large fish was so big that they had to drag the net on to the shore.
There Jesus had a charcoal fire burning with some fish and bread for breakfast. He also cooked some of the fish they had just caught (John 20:9-13). Then he took the bread and the fish and probably gave thanks (as he had done when he fed the crowd, Matthew 14:19). We might guess that Jesus ate with them on this occasion as he had done the previous Sunday (Luke 24:41-43).
John adds that "This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead" (John 21:14). Since the two previous occasions were on a Sunday, our model suggests that John wanted us to know that this breakfast by the Sea of Galilee was on the third Sunday morning.
He then recommissioned Peter to lead the apostles in their proper business of good news fishing (John 21:4-17).
All that week they would have told the story to relatives and friends in Galilee. And on Saturday they must have announced the astonishing events in their synagogue.
Jesus had told them to meet with him on the mountain he had indicated (Matthew 28:18, referring back to 5:1). If he has already met with them on three successive Sundays, they might assume it would again be on a Sunday. There the Messiah outlined his plan for making disciples among all nations.
The apostles were to baptize those who wanted to learn, as he himself had baptized them (John 4:1). The apostles were then to teach the new learners everything they had learned from him (Matthew 28:18-20). They began doing this with large numbers five weeks later (Acts 2:41, 47).
The next two resurrection appearances were in Jerusalem. After his conversion Paul heard from those who were there that the Lord "appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters (the Greek "brethren" probably included women) at one time" (1 Corinthians 15:6). If my guess about Sunday appearances is correct, I can imagine the apostles hastening back the five days to Jerusalem.
On the Saturday and Sunday morning they called for the gathering of five hundred that Sunday evening. That would be an obvious time for them to gather, which is why we have named it Convention Sunday. Jesus was physically present with them, and this was perhaps the occasion when he "opened their minds to understand the scriptures" (Luke 24:45). Soon Christians would begin gathering for such conventions all over the world.
The fifth occasion we have named Family Sunday. So far Jesus' brothers had not believed in him (John 7:5), but now James the Lord's brother (1 Corinthians 15:7) also meets Jesus alive from the dead, and he joins the circle of disciples. He later became the presiding elder of the Jerusalem Christian synagogue (Acts 12:17; 15:13; 21:18). Within a few days Jesus' others brothers have come to faith (Acts 1:14). This reminds us that church growth takes place easily through family members and friends.
During that week Jesus had a special gathering of his apostles. This was not on a Sunday since it was the fortieth day after Easter (Acts 1:3). That momentous Thursday marks a transition from forty days of bodily resurrection appearances to the Messiah's coronation (Acts 2:33, 36, 1 Corinthians 15:25; Ephesians 4:8).
On Ascension Day he walked out with them from the city of Jerusalem to Bethany on the east slope of the Mount of Olives (Luke 24:50). Perhaps he wanted to greet Martha, Mary, and Lazarus (Luke 10:38-42; John 11:17-18; 12:1-3). I have a feeling he patted the donkey that had carried him into Jerusalem. Then he blessed them and was taken up into a cloud (Acts 1:9). This must have reminded them of the Transfiguration when a voice from the cloud said "This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased" (Matthew 17:5; Mark 9:7; Luke 9:34).
If our outline is correct, the successive personal bodily appearances in different situations had now proved without any possible doubt that Jesus had risen from the dead. His eating with them, cooking breakfast, and walking and meeting with them in various places proved that he was very much alive. It also established the world-wide Church's faith in the resurrection of the body (Apostles' Creed), and the certainty that our resurrection bodies would not be resting doing nothing but totally freed to enjoy all that we have only begun to enjoy in this life.
The first evidence of this faith was the beginning of prayer meetings that week with "certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus" (Acts 1:14; see Acts 2:42; 4:24; 12:5, 12). On Apostles' Sunday there was the first business meeting of the new movement. An item on the agenda was a replacement for Judas (Acts 1:23). But it is important to note that Jesus' brother James was not even on the short list because he did not meet the qualifications of Acts 1:21. Evidently Jesus' family did not start a dynasty or have special places in the kingdom.
The qualifications required to replace Judas required no evidence of scholarship or even piety. What was required was a man who had been with Jesus from the time when John baptized him right through the three years of ministry to the ascension three days before (Acts 1:21).
Among the Jews of that day it was only men who could count as witnesses, and at least two were required to prove a case. So the early Christians made sure by having twelve accredited witnesses of the resurrection, which was six times as many as were required. The status of these witnesses is mentioned again and again (Acts 1:21-22; 2:32; 3:15; 4:33; 5:32; 10:39). Every Lord's Day this apostolic witness to the resurrection is announced in our services, and based on it we expect the Lord to be present to come and eat with us (Revelation 3:20).
The eighth Sunday of the fifty days is the Sunday of the Holy Spirit. It inaugurated with splendid fanfare the continuing presence of the Lord by the Spirit among his churches (as promised in John 14:17-18, 25; 15:26; 16:7, 13).
Although this framework of eight Sundays fits rather well, it is certainly not a proof. But if God the Father arranged the timing of the resurrection appearances we should not expect them to be less elegant than the model we have guessed at. And if the Holy Spirit raised Jesus from the dead (Romans 8:11) and then moved the witnesses to remember how they experienced the events, we should not be surprised if their accounts have a certain logic.
For the apostles the reality must have been far more astonishing
and totally convincing than our little attempt at a liturgical arrangement
for Sunday services from Easter to Pentecost.