SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER
Prayer of the Day: O God of life, you reach out to us amid our fears with the wounded hands of your risen Son. By your Spirit’s breath revive our faith in your mercy, and strengthen us to be the body of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Sometimes a single word, act or decision comes to define us. Benedict Arnold’s act of betrayal rendered his name synonymous with treason. So, too, the once noble name of Judas has been forever tainted by its owner’s single act of treachery. Thomas’ name did not fare quite so poorly, though it cannot seem to shake the prefix “doubting” in common parlance. That is unfortunate because Thomas was not a doubter. He was not sitting on the fence with respect to the resurrection. He was an unbeliever. He flat out rejected the testimony of the rest of the disciples. “Not buying it,” he says. “Not until I see it myself.”
I have heard more sermons than I can count misinterpreting poor Thomas as well as Jesus’ response to him. We tend to project into this story our own 21st Century difficulties of reconciling Jesus’ resurrection with modern biological science. We assume that Thomas shared the same incredulity we do when we hear that Jesus died and was raised from death. How could such a thing happen? That, however, was not Thomas’ problem. Few people in the 1st Century doubted that God or the gods could raise a person from death. The question for Thomas was not “How?” but “Why?” In ancient myths, legends and religious lore immortality was earned through acts of heroism or works of power. For example, the emperor Augustus Caesar was said to have been taken up into heaven and deified upon his death. And why not? He was responsible for establishing Rome’s rule over the Mediterranean world, the pax romana. But why would the God of Israel-or any god for that matter-raise Jesus? After Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, things rapidly went south. He alienated the religious leadership, failed to liberate Jerusalem from oppression or even establish a sustainable movement. His life ended in a shameful and humiliating execution. His followers, who never more than half understood him, fled and left him to his fate. Jesus’ life was, by any reasonable measure, a failure.
Thomas’ unbelief arises not from his inability to entertain the possibility of a miracle, but from his failure to comprehend the depth of the Father’s love for the Son and the Son’s love for the world. Very tellingly, Thomas insists that he must see the very wounds of the cross on Jesus’ Body. More tellingly still, Jesus invites Thomas to touch these very wounds. Therein lies the key to understanding this encounter. Thomas is confronted by a God with a Body-a Body that suffers, bleeds and feels pain. Though risen and glorified, Jesus nevertheless bears the wounds of the world. God is very much in, with and under our creaturely existence experiencing at every level of creation its death and passing away. The Incarnation was not a temporary state. God’s becoming human, the Word’s becoming flesh was a decisive one way transaction. God is and always will remain human. God’s voice will forever be heard in the cries of the oppressed, the hunger of the poor and the loneliness of the outcast. God’s grief-and joy-will forever be found in the fragile bursts of life on this planet that flare up, burn brightly for an instant and fade.
The miracle that is Jesus’ resurrection does not consist chiefly in the fact that God raised Jesus from death. It consists rather in the fact that God raised Jesus from death, the man who lived obediently to God, passionately loving to the end the world God sent him to save. God raised not the warrior, but the one who would not invoke God’s power to defeat his enemies or allow his friends to raise the sword in his defense. God raised the one who trusted God, even when it seemed to all the world and even to him that God had abandoned him. This is the one Thomas finally acknowledges as “My Lord and my God.”
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter much whether there is a God or whether God is able to raise the dead if that God resides somewhere beyond the blue managing the universe by remote control. Only a God so invested in the world he made that he suffers with it, bleeds into it and dies for it can make a difference. Only a God whose love throbs in every molecule, holding the world together against the destructive forces that threaten to rip it apart can save us. Here is a poem by Pattiann Rogers that seems to know something of this God Thomas discovered in Jesus.
where god’s grief appears
in the bobbing of the waterthrush, in the trotting
of the wild boar, in the stiff-legged jogging
of the nine-banded armadillo, the sideways
darting of the desert cottontail
and the drumming
hind feet of kangaroo rats, in flight
of the blue throat across the Bering Sea,
the floating of the purples sea snail in its raft
of mucous bubbles, the pouncing of coyote, the springing
leap of springbok and springtail,
the green gangly ascending of treefrog, the burrowing
of the two-gilled bloodworm and the scrambling of the flightless
tiger beetle, present in the scarlet blooming forth
of claret cup cacti,
in the creeping morning glory and the winding
of kinnickinnick, present
in the gripping of coon oysters to sea whips and to each other,
in the wind drifting the seed of cotton grass, carrying
the keys of white ash, the rolling
of tumbleweed, the sailing of white-tailed kite,
the gliding of crystal spider on its glassy strand, found
in the falling of golden persimmons,
the dropping of butternuts, pecans, the rooting
of the fragrant roseroot, in the changing colors of the luring
sargassum fish, the balancing upside down
of the trumpet fish among sea feathers, in the water-skating
of the stilt spider, the soaring of flying fish,
in the climbing, the tumbling, the swinging,
the pirouetting, the vaulting…in light in living
motion everywhere it appears, as offering, as evidence,
Source: generations by Pattian Rogers (c. 2004 by Pattian Rogers, pub. by Penguin Books). Pattiann Rogers was born in Joplin, Missouri. She attended the University of Missouri and earned her master’s degree from the University of Houston. She has been awarded two National Endowment for the Arts grants, a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Lannan Poetry Fellowship. She also won Poetry’s Tietjens and Bess Hokin Prizes, the Roethke Prize from Poetry Northwest and the Strousse Award. You can read more of Pattiann Rogers’ poems at the Poetry Foundation website.
Peter and his fellow apostles are in trouble again. At their last hearing, they were warned not to teach, preach or heal in the name of Jesus. Note well that the prohibition is not against teaching, preaching or healing generally. Some years ago a colleague of mine told me about how the churches in her city were hosting a statewide breakfast program for low income children. To qualify for participation in the program, churches were compelled to cover up or remove all religious images such as icons, crosses and statues. This was necessary, she explained, to avoid running afoul of the First Amendment prohibition against government establishment of religion. My colleague did not seem to have any problem with the conditions for her church’s involvement in the program. From her perspective, the important thing was that the kids were getting breakfast. If covering or removing images of Jesus was the price to be paid for cooperation in a venture that was surely in the spirit of Jesus, it was well worth the cost.
Is that really the case? Were the apostles being stubborn and pig headed? Why not continue the good work of teaching, healing and caring for the poor without bringing up Jesus? Does it matter whether the church is publically associated with Jesus in its work? Is the public proclamation of Jesus indispensable to doing God’s will in the world? Can you do works in Jesus’ name without mentioning that name? As long as you are doing what Jesus requires, why does it matter whose name is on the final product?
At the risk of sounding ruthlessly sectarian, I believe that the name of Jesus is indispensible to the church’s mission. Thus, were I in the place of my colleague, I would with great sorrow let the breakfast hosting opportunity go. To those who would fault me for my seeming lack of concern for hungry children, I would reply that children do not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Words and actions are not as easily separable as we moderns imagine. In fact, if you take the Gospel of John at all seriously, Word and action are entirely inseparable. That is the reason why Peter and John could say last week that “we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” Acts 4:20. The proclamation of Jesus simply was not negotiable. The apostles’ actions were grounded in the Word they were preaching. We call that Incarnation.
As an attorney, I understand and respect the legitimate concern of the government to avoid entanglement between state services and the promotion of religion. I also understand that the circumstances in which my colleague found herself were vastly different from those of the apostles. In her case, she was working with a friendly government to achieve a common humanitarian objective. The apostles were struggling to be faithful under the weight of persecution by a hostile government. Yet whether the state employs threats of violence, entices us with promises or appeals to us on the basis of the common good to abandon Jesus, the net effect is the same. As church, we are not motivated by some vague notion of the common good (which is always less “common” and frequently less “good” than is claimed). The church lives and acts out of its relationship to Jesus and its call to bear witness to God’s salvation in his name. Apart from that relationship, we are no longer the church.
The psalm for this week is a continuation of the same one used for Easter Sunday. I therefore refer you to my comments from my post of Sunday, March 27, 2016.
These verses serve as an introduction to a series of messages addressed to the “seven churches that are in Asia.” The reference here is actually to Asia Minor, what is now modern day Turkey. The seven churches are later identified as those of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. The number of “seven” is symbolic of completeness or perfection and therefore may be a literary device. Thus, it could well be that the letters were meant for general circulation as a group throughout Asia Minor rather than individually addressed to the seven specific churches mentioned and that the matters discussed with these congregations were actually issues common to most or all of the churches in the area.
Much speculation has been given to what the “seven spirits” of God represent. Again, the symbolic meaning suggested by use of the number “seven” implies that John is simply referring to the manifold energies of the one Spirit of God. It is also possible that the “spirits” are simply another designation of the “angels” of each of the seven churches referenced throughout the balance of chapter 1 and chapter 2 of Revelation. Some ancient commentators have identified the seven spirits with the seven aspects of the Spirit to be conferred upon the “shoot from the stump of Jesse” referenced in Isaiah 11:2. Frankly, I think this latter interpretation is a bit of a stretch.
The reference to the Son of Man coming in the clouds echoes Jesus’ testimony before the Sanhedrin. Mark 14:62; Matthew 26:64 and Luke 22:69. These passages, in turn, point back to Daniel 7:13. Also referenced in this verse is Zechariah 12:10. The alpha and omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet respectively; hence, the Lord God is the beginning and end of all things, “the one who is, who was and who is to come.” Vs. 4.
This introduction sets the stage for John of Patmos to deliver the message of his widely misunderstood and woefully misinterpreted book of Revelation. He seeks to impress upon the churches of Asia Minor that their struggles to live faithfully are of cosmic importance and eternal significance. He accomplishes this objective by projecting those struggles upon the screen of apocalyptic drama in which good and evil engage each other as fantastic beasts, angels and spirits. These characters are pregnant with symbolic meanings, many of which are now lost to us. Still, the rich poetry of Revelation has always been and continues to be a rich fountain for inspired and hopeful preaching. The refrain of this book, sounded in so many different keys, is the promise that God’s gentle reign will be implemented not through the violent ways of human empire, but through the patient and persistent love of God manifest in the crucified Lamb of God.
Something is different about Jesus after his resurrection. He appears, disappears, and is able come into a room that has been locked up tight without breaking down the door. Yet he is no mere spirit. You can touch him. He still bears the wounds of the cross and this is important. As noted in my introductory comments, incarnation is irreversible. Jesus became human and remains so. God, having become flesh, will never shed his humanity. The body of Jesus was not just a clever disguise. Jesus’ body is Jesus. The resurrected Christ is still wounded and bleeding, still suffers the pain of a broken humanity and continues to struggle toward the promised reign of God. Now, however, it is clear that not even death can extinguish God’s incarnate love.
John’s Pentecost occurs on the day of resurrection. Jesus breathes on his disciples the Holy Spirit and commissions them to go forth even as he was sent forth from the Father. The life of the disciples is to be a continuation of Jesus’ ministry. As Jesus embodied the Word of God, so they are to embody that same Word now through the power of the Holy Spirit. What Jesus prayed for in Chapter 17 is now being implemented. Jesus will be in his disciples just as he is in the Father. By the agency of the Holy Spirit they will be made one and by their love for one another the love of God will be made known to the world.
“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? 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.” LSC, 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.
Poor Thomas gets a regular drubbing whenever this lesson comes up. I say it is time to give Thomas a break. For the last two millennia he has had to live with the shameful moniker “Doubting Thomas” even though he sought nothing more in the way of proof for the resurrection than the other disciples had already received. I think that too much emphasis has been placed on Thomas’ faith or the lack thereof and too little upon the wounds in the Body of Christ that demonstrate God’s continued suffering love for a rebellious world. This will likely be the focus of my sermon if I wind up preaching on this text.