Second Sunday of Easter – Series B
The second Sunday of Easter is always given over to the resurrection appearance in which Jesus appears to the so-called “doubting Thomas.” Actually the adjective is not doubt as much as it is “disbelieving” or “faithless.” The resurrection is the very heart and core of the Christian faith, its sits at the very center of our being and today we hear Jesus call us blessed, better off than Thomas anyway, because we have not seen and therefore our faith is of a different character than his. Jesus even seems to say that it is preferable.
A generation ago the historical fact of the resurrection was more of a burning question for a lot of people. In the face of modernity, it seemed that much of the Christian church was simply running on the accumulated inertia of generations prior who had actually believed this miraculous tale. There was a serious and earnest movement to pull the props out from under the old system and let the institutional church collapse. One key to that effort (and there were many fronts in which it was waged) was undermining the veracity of the Resurrection. This was not just a movement outside the Church, indeed, its strongest proponents were inside the church. Episcopalian Bishop Shelby Spong made headlines when he admitted that Jesus did not rise from the dead in the 1970’s or 80’s I believe.
Today Shelby, the Jesus Seminar, Bart Ehrman, and various other individuals and groups are still out there. But for the most part they are striving for the same media attention which they so enjoyed in those halcyon days of the 60’s and 70’s. Then being a wild heretic meant religion editors of major papers and network news broadcasts could count on you to sell copy and some air time with some titillating headline. They occasionally still make some bizarre comment and the editors will put it out there, almost to test the waters, but for the most part people just ignore this. Even Richard Dawkins’ “God Delusion” has not really stirred up that much of a fuss. I don’t think that this is because the underpinning of Christianity has been kicked out from under the institution. Americans have remained stubbornly Christian and the numbers of people who confess a resurrection has not significantly changed, it seems.
The relationship they have with denominations has changed dramatically, and I think that the fact they are ignoring the theological wingnuts and no longer loyal to any denominational label is in fact connected. The history questions are no longer compelling for us. We do not doubt in quite the same way that our parents did. Our doubt is still there, mind you. If anything, we may have a greater faith question, but it is not so much focused on the historicity of the resurrection. This is some of what it means to be postmodern. The questions, which agitated us a little while ago, are not as important. Today we want to know what it means. It is not that whether it happened is not important, but it is not the only important thing. 2
The preacher in today’s pulpit will want to be careful that he is asking the questions which reflect the resurrection issues which are churning in the heads and hearts of our folks. If we don’t we will be preaching to folks who are not there, or more likely to an ever shrinking group of parishioners who do show up and still care about the questions of yesterday. The Gospel has to be translated into the vocabulary, the needs, and the idiom of this generation.
That means that a lot of the commentaries and preaching aids of a generation ago are not terribly useful for us. What I find interesting is that the sermons and the commentaries of 1500 years ago often seem far more appropriate. Augustine as he watched the Roman Empire collapsing around him often has insightful things to say to people who are engaged in an ever changing world of technology growth, economic instability, and political uncertainty.
If you want to access the sermons of Augustine, I highly recommend the translations which are being put out in the last decade by New City Press out of NY. The problem is that they are not cheap. You can find much of Augustine’s work online, but the translations are often turgid and they don’t let this master of preaching really speak to us.
Collect of the Day
Almighty God, grant that we who have celebrated the Lord’s resurrection may by Your grace confess in our life and conversation that Jesus is Lord and God; through the same Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever
This is one of those prayers where the littlest words make the biggest difference. Jesus is Lord and God, not “was” or “will be” but “is.” That means his lordship and rule, his life is a present reality, a now thing, not a past thing, not a future thing, although it is those as well. It is first and foremost, a now thing. That is the difference between Easter and Lent, while Lent will focus us on the horrors of our past and the terrors of our future, Easter directs our attention to the blessings of our now, the reality that we are the Children of God.
There were ancient dioceses that insisted that people were not allowed to kneel when they prayed in Easter, they had to stand, as befitted the children of God. To kneel was to deny what God had done for them. We often think that standing is a sign of respect. In church it is not, despite the command to stand in a court room when a judge enters. The Christian movement was born in a time when respect was shown by kneeling, and the higher the person before you the lower you knelt. You still can get a sense of this by watching Moslems at prayer. The face to floor kneeling is what respect for God looked like in the ancient world. That Christians stand in prayer or worship is an acknowledgement that Jesus has made us the very children of God. We may stand in his presence because of Christ’s good work for us. To stand is to own the resurrection.
We pray in this prayer that our life and conversation may confess that Jesus is God and Lord. Of course, we do that when we stand in church, don’t we? But outside that simple act, how do you think our life and conversation make that confession? How would someone hear our speech or 3
watch our deeds and see that Jesus is Lord? Some time ago, the head Librarian at Concordia where I teach made some students angry with him because he insisted on shutting down the library on the weekend of Easter, no matter how many papers were due on Monday. He said that his staff should get a chance to celebrate Easter. Get your paper done more than 24 hours before it is due! At the same time, some years ago Concordia scheduled a track meet for Good Friday, preventing its student athletes from attending services. That was probably not the right message to send. The shot-putter and devout Roman Catholic in my Wednesday afternoon class at least did not think it was the right message for an ostensibly Lutheran school.
Do we ever tell someone that we cannot be somewhere or attend something because it conflicts with our prayers, with our worship? Do we ask our schools and soccer associations to keep Sunday free from soccer games and the like, or do we just go along with the flow and try not to make our kids look odd or strange because they have faith?
But again, I would remind you of the little words in here. The foregoing two paragraphs ask good and necessary questions, but we cannot forget the word which precedes this line in the text. The confession in word and deed is a gift of God, an act of His grace. The courage to tell our own children that we are different, yes even odd, will not come from within me, not by the exercise of my own will. It will come from my God. The confession of Christ’s place in our lives which we make by coming to Church the Sunday after Easter, when the candy is grown stale and the Easter eggs have been consumed, or at least they should have been, and the leftovers from the Easter breakfast are making their way to a landfill somewhere, that confession speaks eloquently that Jesus is our Lord and he is our God. That is a gift from Him.
Every year, the Easter season has us replace an Old Testament reading with a reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Now, I love the book of Acts, but I am not sure that I like this practice too much. It leaves us tending toward Marcionism, an ancient heresy that still shows up when folks say that the Old Testament is the Law and the New Testament is the Gospel. But we have the practice in the lectionary and need to make the best of it. We will want to focus on these readings as records of the earliest days of the Resurrection of movement which is Christianity. We will also want to exercise some restraint here. These passages have caused much mischief in Christian circles, especially American circles as many have mistaken description of the ancient church for a prescription of the way it is supposed to be today. (The members of the Winebrenian Restoration Movement, for instance, believed that the Lord’s Supper could only be properly consumed sitting down after dark, because that was the way Jesus did it.)
Acts 4:32-35 4
32 Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. 33 And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold 35 and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. 36 Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, 37 sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.
Of course, this is one of those passages which have caused significant mischief. I always tell my classes that as soon as someone declares themselves to be an apostle or prophet, one should probably put your hand firmly on your wallet, because that is where they are headed. This passage is a handy tool for these charlatans who try to make what is a description of what happened long ago into a prescription for what should happen today.
It appears that the first generation of Christians was convinced that the end of the world was eminent and that the resurrection, forgiveness, and fellowship of believers would usher in a totally new world order. So, they started a commune. But like all communes, this one did not take seriously the reality of sin. The whole Ananias and Sapphira incident a couple chapters later should have permanently disabused Christians from these sorts of movements, but the handful of Shakers stubbornly clinging to their commune in Sabbath Lake, Maine, bear an odd testimony to the reality that these ideas are hard to break.
The commune in Jerusalem would have some bitter consequences. It appears that it left the Christians there particularly vulnerable to a famine which would happen a few years later. It was to relieve this famine that Paul went on his third missionary journey raising funds from the Corinthians and others to bring relief to the starving Christians of Jerusalem. It was upon his return that he was arrested and his plans for a mission to Spain were put on temporary if not permanent hold.
The extension of this text also introduces us to Paul’s traveling companion on the first missionary journey, Barnabas who was known as a reconciler.
Perhaps most importantly, however, is the motive for all this and the preacher who is thinking of this text wants to focus there, I would think. The Christians in Jerusalem were of one heart and soul. This moved them to radical behaviors with their property and their lives. While we might want to take a cue from the failures they encountered along the way, what we don’t want to do is stifle that impulse. In fact, that impulse to the good positively expressed in the way I dispose of money and time and things is absolutely essential to the health of the person. It is the spiritual worship of which Paul speaks in his letter to the Romans. It need not take this expression in 5
form, but the offerings we put in the plate, the hours spent in service to others, the prayers we speak, the forgiveness we share, the commitment to one another through structures like a congregation are all ways that this is expressed. We tend to see much of this negatively, but in fact, these are occasions for the confession of Christ’s lordship and divinity.
N. T. Wright argues passionately that the Christians of today have so privatized Jesus and faith that they have forgotten than the early Church heard Jesus make radical claims upon their whole lives. They were not just privately Christians, but their faith affected the way they lived every facet of their lives, including financial, political, and relational.
You may find it interesting to read the story which Luke tells us right before this. The Christians experienced persecution and prayed for boldness. They received boldness from the Spirit of God and they were bold, daring people who did things which the rest of the world thought strange. Would anyone in the secular world observe us and see anything strange or out of step with the culture in which we are called to live? Should they? What if they do? What if they don’t?
Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD from the heavens; praise him in the heights! 2 Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his hosts!
3 Praise him, sun and moon, praise him, all you shining stars! 4 Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens!
5 Let them praise the name of the LORD! For he commanded and they were created. 6 And he established them forever and ever; he gave a decree, and it shall not pass away.
7 Praise the LORD from the earth, you great sea creatures and all deeps, 8 fire and hail, snow and mist, stormy wind fulfilling his word!
9 Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars! 10 Beasts and all livestock, creeping things and flying birds! 6
11 Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth! 12 Young men and maidens together, old men and children!
13 Let them praise the name of the LORD, for his name alone is exalted; his majesty is above earth and heaven. 14 He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his saints, for the people of Israel who are near to him. Praise the LORD!
The Apostle Paul says in Colossians that in Christ God was reconciling the whole creation to himself. Notice how everything gets in the praise act here.
Also notice the occasion for the praise. God has made a decree, a promise, set in the stone of his Word. He has raised up a horn for his people. A horn was a symbol of strength. Christ has conquered, our foe is defeated. Hallelujah.
Epistle Readings in Easter:
For the balance of the Easter season we will read the first letter of John in a series. This little book is profound and most appropriate for this generation of Christianity. Theologically and stylistically it closely resembles the Gospel of John, in fact some thoughtful readers have reached the conclusion that it functions as a clarification of the Gospel for a community that misunderstood the Gospel account. In any event, a reading of John’s Gospel often proves fruitful for understanding the letter. The letter is not a true letter, lacking the formula of greetings and conclusion, most likely it was meant to be heard as a sermon. The author clearly has someone in mind. II and III John seem to have been cover letters sent to the congregation and a leader in the congregation to which the sermon was addressed.
Themes: The letter has two basic themes – The first of them is incarnational. The faith which we confess must take some shape in our lives. We cannot live as if we did not believe and claim to believe. The second emphasis is on sound teaching and how to recognize it. Throughout both sections there is a strong anti-gnostic message. Jesus has come in the flesh and anyone who denies that is not only wrong, they are “anti-Christ.”
This is especially appropriate for our age as increasingly religion is compartmentalized to the private and personal life, and excluded from the public sphere as something dangerous and uncomfortable. John will not allow for that compartmentalization. What is more, as Post-modernism asserts that there is an equal validity to every belief system, John will remind us that there is still error out there. There are something that are just plain wrong and that this error is 7
not a matter of indifference. The arguments between the competing ideas are necessary. The peace achieved by not having that argument amounts to acquiescing to the evil of darkness.
|I John 1:1-2:2 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— 2 the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— 3 that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4 And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. 5 This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. 6 If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. 2 He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. This reading is really two readings. The first four verses are the prologue to the whole book. The second part is really the beginning of the first section of the book The prologue establishes a couple of very important things for the whole text. First of all that the author, John, is relating things of which he knows. He has seen, heard, and touched. In light of the Gospel lesson, that is really significant as Thomas needs to touch. Jesus, the resurrected Jesus, was no ghost, but a touchable, huggable, fish-eating human being. This is contra the ideas that some were promoting at the time that no respectable divine being would so sully himself with physical human flesh as to be truly incarnate. In this line of argument it only seemed that he was a human; that was a concession made to our frail human ability to understand. This idea was and still is called “docetic” from the Greek word for seem “dokeo.” John is sure that this was no hologram, but a real person. He smelled him. The second and equally important argument is that this Word of Life was made known to John. If you are not in fellowship with John, you have the problem, he doesn’t, because he is in fellowship with God. You cannot claim to be in fellowship with God and not have fellowship with John. That is a pretty brazen claim which our American context finds very uncomfortable. We are so used to the divisions of denominations that we no longer take any offense at the idea|