SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty and eternal God, the strength of those who believe and the hope of those who doubt, may we, who have not seen, have faith in you and receive the fullness of Christ’s blessing, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
I am 99.99 per cent convinced that the Loch Ness monster does not exist. I am not an expert on that topic by any means. Still, from all that I have ever read about Lake Loch Ness and the extensive measures taken to confirm the beast’s existence, it seems highly unlikely to me that an animal of Nessie’s reputed size could evade detection in a land locked body of water for so many centuries. Nonetheless, there remains that .01 percent between my belief in Nessie’s nonexistence and absolute certainty that we call “doubt.” Doubt will always be present in most cases like this because it is nearly impossible to prove a negative. That is why so many whacky conspiracy theories continue to thrive despite their lack of supportive evidence. They survive in that narrow .01 zone of doubt. No one will ever demonstrate absolutely that there are not and never have been bodies of alien beings at Area 51 or that the real Elvis Presley is not still walking the streets of Toledo or that the genuine Kenyan birth certificate of Barak Obama is not hidden away in some dusty government filing cabinet.
I sometimes wonder whether doubt is not really a species of faith. It seems to me that you cannot doubt something you don’t believe or at least suspect might be so, however unlikely. No matter how convinced I may be that the Loch Ness monster does not exist, my conviction falls short of absolute certainty. I cannot state categorically that Nessie is not lurking somewhere down in the depths of Loch Ness where nobody ever thought to look. So I must keep my mind open-at least .01 percent. To that extent, I suppose you could say I am a believer, albeit a reluctant one.
What if I am wrong about Nessie’s nonexistence? Suppose the Loch Ness monster is finally located? Would that change my life or the way I think to any real degree? As guy who spent much of his childhood mucking around in swamps and turning over rocks on the beach in search of interesting little creatures, dreaming all the time of becoming a biologist, I am sure I would find such a discovery fascinating. I would want to read up on all the research and learn all I could about this interesting new creature. But in the grand scheme of things, my life and my outlook on the world would be unaffected. That is because I do not need the Loch Ness monster to convince me that the universe is filled with wonders, unsolved riddles and marvelous secrets waiting to be discovered. The discovery of Nessie would be just one more of many such phenomena.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is quite another matter. The Novelist Flannery O’Connor once wrote a short story about a vacationing Georgia family that encounters a psychopathic killer known as the Misfit. The Misfit and his gang hold the family hostage. Then the Misfit gets into a conversation with the family’s grandmother. The Misfit tells the old woman all about his troubled childhood and she, for her part, urges him to pray and assures him that he is not yet beyond redemption. The conversation finally boils down to Jesus. “Jesus” says the Misfit. “Jesus was the only one that ever raised the dead…and He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can—by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness.”
I am not convinced that doubt about the reality of Jesus’ resurrection is the greatest stumbling block to faith. I think the greater problem is that, whether it happened or not, Jesus’ resurrection seems not to have made much difference. If we don’t disbelieve the resurrection it is likely because, from the standpoint of our daily lives, it doesn’t seem to matter much one way or the other. I believe that a lot of us live our lives as practical atheists most of the time “holding the form of religion but denying the power of it.” II Timothy 3:5. Whether Jesus rose from death is of no more consequence than whether there is a monster lurking in the depths of Loch Ness. Either way, life goes on.
Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit got one thing right: He understood that it makes a difference whether Jesus did what the gospels tell us he did. Thomas understood that much also. I suspect that is why he remained with the disciples notwithstanding his doubts about their testimony to Jesus’ resurrection. As improbable as the resurrection might seem, the stakes are astronomically high. The destiny of the cosmos hangs in the balance. Eventual collapse and non-existence is the fate of the universe; or it is destined for re-creation. Jesus is either the first fruits of the new age or just another casualty of the old. If there is even a .01 percent chance that the disciples really saw what they say they saw and heard what they claim to have heard and touched what they maintain was in front of them, it is well worth investigating further. What better place to begin than where Jesus was said to have appeared the last time? That is, among his gathered disciples? In fact, that was where Thomas finally found him.
Our challenge as Christians of the 21st Century is not to convince a secular world that the resurrection might have happened. Rather, the challenge is to convince the world that it matters.
Our reading for Sunday is taken from Peter’s Pentecost sermon. In Luke-Acts, Pentecost marks the transition from the “time of Jesus” to the “time of the church.” Juel, Donald, Luke Acts: The Promise of History, (c. 1983 by John Knox Press) p. 57. While this reading might seem misplaced from the standpoint of our liturgical calendar, it fits in very nicely with the gospel lesson from John. John’s Pentecost occurs on the evening of Easter Sunday when Jesus appeared to the disciples and “breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” John 20:22.
In the lesson from Acts Peter, emboldened by the Holy Spirit, addresses a diverse group of Jewish pilgrims visiting Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost. His text is Joel 2:28-32. Little is known about the prophet Joel. It is believed that he prophesied to the people of Judah during the Persian period of Jewish history between 539 B.C.E.-331 B.C.E. This group, you will recall, returned from exile in Babylon following the conquest of that empire by the Persians under Cyrus the Great. The exiles had high hopes of rebuilding Jerusalem, constructing a new temple and restoring the land. Contrary to their expectations, however, restoration was difficult, frustrating and slow. Many of the people became discouraged and abandoned the project altogether.
During his ministry the prophet Joel witnessed a devastating plague of locusts which he understood to be a judgment of God designed to call his people to repentance and faith. Such locust swarms, that are still experienced in the Middle East today, can consume an entire field of crops in a matter of hours. Their numbers are so great and their hoards so dense that they can eclipse the sun and moon much like a dark cloud. According to the prophet Joel, this plague was a portent and a sign of the “Day of the Lord” when the light of sun and moon would be dimmed in earnest.
The Apostle Peter quotes this text, but for him the “Day of the Lord” is not a future event. It has already taken place as shown by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the disciples enabling them to speak the gospel in languages of all nations. The apocalyptic sign of the end, the darkening of the heavens, occurred during the crucifixion of Jesus when “there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed…” Luke 23:44-45. Peter therefore declares to the crowd gathered before him that the Day of the Lord has arrived and the new age has come. I should add that many scholars, perhaps the majority, hold that Peter’s use of this text from Joel is to highlight the anticipated “second coming of Christ” rather than the crucifixion. E.g., Flanagan, Neal M., O.S.M., The Acts of the Apostles (c. 1964 by the Order of St. Benedict, pub. The Liturgical Press) p. 29.) I respectfully take the minority view.
It should be borne in mind that this audience probably knows Jesus or knows about him. What the people know is summarized by Peter in verses 22-23. Jesus was a worker of signs and wonders done in their midst. He was delivered up to “lawless men,” that is, the gentile rulers of Rome and crucified. That much is common knowledge. What the people do not know is that all of this took place “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (vs. 23) and that “God raised [Jesus] up.” Vs. 24. What the people assume to have been the cruel death of a tragically misguided prophet, perhaps a prophet with messianic delusions, was in reality the working out of God’s mission of salvation for all people.
Peter continues his sermon by citing to a section of our Psalm for today, Psalm 16:8-11. In this psalm, traditionally attributed to David, the psalmist declares that God will not allow him to see the “Pit” or be abandoned to “Sheol.” Vs. 10. Peter argues that David cannot be speaking of himself because he has, in fact, died and the place of his burial is well known. Consequently, David must have been speaking about one of his descendants as God promised David that his line would endure forever. Thus far, Peter is interpreting the psalm in much the same way as it was widely understood in the 1st Century by many strands of Jewish tradition. The belief that God would raise up a descendent of David to restore Israel was a deeply held hope. But now Peter delivers the knockout punch: “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses.” Vs. 32. The crucified and rejected Jesus is the promised descendant of David raised up for Israel’s salvation.
Care must be taken in speaking of the “foreknowledge and plan” of God in the suffering and death of Jesus. If this language is forced into the theory of “substitutionary atonement,” we come out with a perverse understanding of God the Father whose treatment of his Son can only be described as child abuse. Jesus’ suffering and death was not “necessary” to appease the thirst of an angry God for vengeance. The crucifixion was not required to enable God to forgive. God does not need the death of Jesus to forgive sins. Jesus’ suffering and death was necessary or inevitable because living a life that is truly human and obedient to the will of God in a sinful and inhumane world can have but one consequence. That consequence of rejection, suffering and death God was prepared to embrace in the person of his Son in order to embrace us with human arms and love us with a human heart. The cross is the price of God’s covenant faithfulness to all of creation-a price God was willing to pay.
Commentators are divided over the time of composition for this psalm. The majority place it in the post exilic period (shortly after 540 B.C.E.). Weiser, Artur, The Psalms: A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 172. Although perhaps edited and recomposed for use in worship at the second temple rebuilt by the exiles returning from Babylon, this psalm contains elements reflecting a very early stage in Israel’s history possibly dating back to the time of the Judges. As Israel began to settle into the land of Canaan, she struggled to remain faithful to her God even as she was surrounded by cults of Canaanite origin. The urgent dependence upon rain that goes with agriculture in semi-arid regions made the Canaanite fertility religions tempting alternatives to faith in the God of Israel whose actions seemed so far in the past. The prophets were constantly calling Israel away from the worship of these Canaanite deities and urging her to trust her own God to provide for her agricultural needs. The existence of “other gods” is not specifically denied in this psalm and that also suggests an early period in Israel’s development. The psalmist makes clear, however, that these “other gods” have no power or inclination to act in the merciful and redemptive way that Israel’s God acts.
That said, an argument can be made for the claim that this psalm was composed among a group known as the “Hasidim” (godly ones) that was active shortly before the New Testament period. Ibid. Some of the pagan rites alluded to therein have affinities with sects and mystery cults known to exist during this time period. Ibid. Dating the final composition at this time is not necessarily inconsistent with our recognition of very ancient material within the body of the psalm utilized here to address a new and different context.
The psalmist opens his/her prayer with a plea for God to preserve him or her, but goes on to express unlimited confidence in God’s saving power and merciful intent. S/he has experienced the salvation and protection of God throughout life and is therefore confident that God’s comforting presence will not be lost even in death.
As we have seen, the Apostle Peter cites this text (assuming Davidic authorship) to demonstrate Jesus’ messiahship. By virtue of his resurrection, Jesus was spared from “Sheol” and the “Pit”. Vs. 10. It is important to note that this psalm does not speculate about any “after life.” Peter does not use the text in this manner either. His emphasis is not resurrection as such, but on Jesus’ resurrection as vindication of his faithful life and proof that God’s purpose has been worked out through that life. The notion of post death existence was not a part of Hebrew thought until much later in the development of Israel’s faith. Yet one cannot help but sense a confidence on the part of the psalmist that not even death can finally overcome the saving power of God. It is therefore possible to say that the hope of the resurrection is present if only in embryonic form.
These brief verses are taken from the salutation given to the churches of northern Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) by the author of I Peter. These churches lived at the frontier of the Roman Empire where national security required greater internal government scrutiny. Societies such as the church that met regularly in private homes aroused suspicion. The refusal of Jesus’ disciples to take part in civil ceremonies acclaiming the deity of the Roman emperor seemed to confirm the government’s fear that the church might be a seditious movement dangerous to Roman society. As a result, members of the church experienced persecution ranging from social ostracism to outright violence.
This salutation sets the tone for the rest of the letter. Peter reminds these believers that they have been “born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…” vs. 3. This hope is an inheritance that cannot be taken away; thus, believers can rejoice even though their faithfulness to Jesus occasions suffering in the short run. Such rejoicing, as Stanley Hauerwas observes, is unintelligible apart from this community’s firm belief in Jesus’ resurrection. See Post for April 20th. That resurrection represents not merely the destiny of the church, but of all creation. Consequently, belief in the resurrection means shaping one’s life to fit the contours of the new creation soon to be born rather than to those of the old creation that is dying. Birth does not occur without pain and the shedding of blood. Martyrdom is the church’s ultimate testimony to the reality of God’s kingdom. The persecution of the saints constitutes the death throes of the old order just as surely as it does the birth pangs of the new.
It seems to me that John’s account of Jesus’ resurrection differs from those of Matthew, Mark and Luke in this respect: Whereas for the first three gospels Jesus’ ministry and crucifixion are interpreted through the shock of his resurrection; for John, Jesus’ laying down his life interprets his resurrection appearances. Or as one commentator puts it:
“…when we consider the nature of St. John’s gospel, in which the Lord during his ministry has revealed Himself as the resurrection and the life, and the cross, as interpreted by St. John, marks not only the last stage of His ‘descent’ but also His glorification, it should not surprise us that the evangelist is not concerned in ch. 20 to dwell upon the Lord’s resurrection as forming primarily a reversal of the passion. He expects his readers to have learned by this time the secret which he has gradually unfolded to them in the first nineteen chapters of his gospel, the secret, namely, that the Lord at the moment and in the fact of his laying down of His life has revealed the glory of the Father, and therefore His own oneness with the Father, to the fullest possible degree. If one moment of His revelation of the Father in the days of His flesh is to be distinguished from another, then at the moment of His death, more than at any other, He has glorified the Father, and His return to the Father has at least begun (cf. 6:62).” Lightfoot, R., St. John’s Gospel: A Commentary, (c. 1956 Clarendon Press, pub. Oxford University Press) pp. 329-330.
In narrating the resurrection appearances, John takes care to emphasize the physicality of the resurrected Christ. Jesus must tell Mary to cease clinging to him before he can go on his way. John 20:17. He appears to the disciples with the wounds of the cross on his body. Vss. John 20:20. He even invites Thomas to place his hands in those wounds. John 20:27. John makes clear that the incarnation is irrevocable. The flesh of Jesus was not merely a clever disguise. God became human and God remains human. “No one has ever seen God,” says John. But “the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.” John 1:18. God is known and knowable only through one’s abiding in the fully human Jesus. Nothing makes that point quite as emphatically as Thomas’ confession: “My Lord and My God.” Vs. 28.
“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Vs. 23. Exactly what does this mean? In my own tradition (Lutheran), this verse has always been associated with the “office of the keys,” the peculiar power of the church “to forgive the sins of penitent sinners, but to retain the sins of the impenitent as long as they do not repent.” Luther’s Small Catechism, Part V. But is that really what John had in mind here? In my view, the context makes that interpretation extremely doubtful. The focus is not upon the internal workings of the community of disciples but upon the disciples’ mission to the world. Undoubtedly, the two are related in this gospel. It is through the disciples’ love for one another that they will be identified as followers of Jesus. John 13:35. But the principal emphasis is on the disciples’ witness to the world, not to their relationship with one another. So what can it mean to “retain” sins?
I believe that John is emphasizing the importance of the commission that Jesus has just given to his disciples. It is through them that the life giving Word of forgiveness is to be made known to the world. It is “in” them that the Spirit now resides. If the disciples of Jesus do not make known God’s forgiveness of sin, the world will remain in the grip of sin. Those sins will be retained. But if the Word is spoken, it will be accompanied by the Spirit of God that inspires faith and breaks the bondage of sin. I believe that is what commentator Raymond Brown is saying in the following quote:
“In summary, we doubt that there is sufficient evidence to confirm the power of forgiving and holding of sin, granted in John 20:23 to a specific exercise of power in the Christian community, whether that be admission to Baptism or forgiveness in Penance. These are but partial manifestations of a much larger power, namely, the power to isolate, repel, and negate evil and sin, a power given to Jesus in his mission by the Father and given in turn by Jesus through the Spirit to those whom he commissions. It is an effective, not merely declaratory, power against sin, a power that touches new and old followers of Christ, a power that challenges those who refuse to believe. John does not tell us how or by whom this power was exercised in the community for whom he wrote, but the very fact that he mentions it shows that it was exercised.” The Gospel According to John, XIII-XX1, Raymond E. Brown, The Anchor Bible, Vol. 29a, (Doubleday, c. 1970) p. 1044.
Thomas comes in for a good deal of criticism for doubting Jesus’ resurrection, though to be fair, he was not asking for anything more in the way of proof than the disciples had already experienced. It is worth noting that, however doubtful Thomas may have been, he remained in the company of his fellow disciples. That is to say, he remained in the church. That is the best possible advice I can give to people who have difficulty believing. Faith cannot be argued into anyone, nor can it be manufactured. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit that must be given. Still, we know where the Holy Spirit hangs out. The Spirit accompanies the preaching of the Word; the Spirit is poured out upon the bread and wine at the altar; the Spirit is present where two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name. If you want to believe, that is where you need to be. Of course, if you don’t want to believe, I can’t help you with that.