SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty God, with joy we celebrate the day of our Lord’s resurrection. By the grace of Christ among us, enable us to show the power of the resurrection in all that we say and do, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—” I John 1:1-1.
The scandal of our faith is simply this: that God has a body. More specifically, a human body. Let us be clear: the miracle of the Incarnation was not a disguise. The Word not only became flesh but remains so. The resurrected Christ can be seen, touched and held. He does not discard his suffering humanity in ascending to the right hand of the Father, but carries with him the wounds of the cross which the world continues to inflict upon him. That accounts for why Jesus was so insistent that Thomas pace his finger into the wounds in his hands and side. It explains why Saint John says so emphatically that the word that is God’s self is tangible and open to our physical senses. It also explains the communal behavior of the early believers described in the Book of Acts. Because the word has assumed human flesh, all human flesh is sacred. Just as no healthy body deprives any of its parts hydration, nourishment and oxygen, it is unthinkable that anyone in the church should be without what s/he needs.
According to John the Evangelist, the church is the place where the humanity of God is showcased to the end that the world may come to know the divine intent for all creation to be permeated by the same love that is the glue holding together the Trinity. For that reason, there is no churchless Christianity. God has a bodily existence. The only God there is, we confess, is the weak God that must be fed, sheltered, comforted and cared for. This “weakness” and vulnerability of God, Paul tells us, is God’s strength. God’s power lies in God’s resisting the temptation to employ coercive force which we typically confuse with genuine power. God does not ordain and justify nation states, but stands in solidarity with the victims of such nation states. Jesus, the Word made flesh, is the antithesis of everything we thought we knew about God. This is the good news of Jesus Christ. It cannot be lived or communicated to the world apart from embodiment visible community of faith.
All of this high sounding theological freight boils down to a very mundane point. You need to be church on Sunday morning. And no, that was not a typo. I did not mean to say that you need to be “in” church on Sunday. I said very intentionally that you need to be church. Church is more a verb than it is a noun. The Greek word employed by the New Testament “Ekklesia, means “a coming together” or “assembly.” Church isn’t a place we go, but something we become together. When we are brought together by the preaching of the gospel and joined at the Lord’s Table, we become more than any one of us individually. All of us, I suppose, find that hard to believe at least some of the time. That is precisely why our worship consists of hearing, speaking, touching and tasting. It is why we gather, not in online chat rooms or as part of a television audience, but in sanctuaries where children squirm and fuss, old men sneeze and the choir is sometimes off key. Sometimes, you need to see and touch something real before you can believe. You need to shake a hand, you need to dip your finger into some plain old water, you need to take hold of a piece of bread or swallow a little wine. Church might be boring, irrelevant and downright unattractive at times. But whatever else it might be, church is real. It is the wounded Body of the God who is irrevocably committed to uniting all things, not through conquest but through patient and persistent love. Do church and you’ll touch Jesus. That’s a promise.
Here is a poem by Marya Zaturenska about the manifestation of the risen Christ in the worship of a faith community.
A Russian Easter
In the great cathedral with blue windows,
In the great cathedral of Moscow,
They will kneel before the ikcons.
The mother is dressed in blue and gold,
And the child’s eyes are of blue jewels;
And golden and blue are the robes of the high priest.
Nataska will be there in a scarlet cloak,
And Irena’s gown will be embroidered in crimson.
Sergi will be there, and Igor
Will gaze with mystic Slav-eyes at the golden altar.
They will weep before the altar for their sins;
They will beat their breasts and pray for pardon;
They will arise shrived and forgiven!
When the priest unlooses the tiny white doves-
They will weep for joy.
All will arise and embrace one another,
Crying, “Hail brother, Hail!”-
Crying, “Hail sister, Hail!”
Christ is arisen, Christ is arisen! Christ
Is arisen from his grave!
Source: Poetry Magazine, April, 1920. Marya Zaturenska (1902-1922) was born in Kiev. She emigrated to the United States with her family around the turn of the century and settled in New York. Like many immigrant children, she worked days in a clothing factory and attended night courses. Zaturenska earned a scholarship to Valparaiso University in Indiana, but ultimately transferred to the University of Wisconsin where she earned a bachelors degree in library science. She wrote eight volumes of poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Cold Morning Sky. You can find out more about Marya Zaturenska and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
For once I have to commend the lectionary people for including this reading in the Easter pericopies. I have gotten into the habit of asking myself after completing my sermon for Sunday: “OK. So what?” Nowhere is that question more pertinent than during the season of Easter when we celebrate and proclaim Jesus’ resurrection. What does life look like for a people that have put death behind them? How do you live when you know that the one God raised from death is neither Caesar, General Patten nor the American sniper, but the crucified friend of sinners? What does one see looking at a community governed by Jesus’ “new” commandment to love? Luke answers these questions by showing us a community “of one heart and soul;” a community in which “no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common.” Vs. 32.
We mainline protestants, committed as we are to the creed of capitalism, find this passage extraordinarily problematic. For the most part, we dismiss the text as Luke’s effort to portray an “idealized” picture of the early church that had little or no basis in reality. This convenient use of historical-critical exegesis excuses us from interpreting the text “literally” (read “seriously”) and permits us to write it off as literary license or as an early but failed experiment in communal living that the church left behind as it matured. To be sure, it is highly anachronistic to read the Book of Acts (or any other biblical book) as “history” in the modern sense. But it is equally improper to employ modern historical-critical analysis to such texts in order to extract from them interpretations more palatable to our 21st Century sensibilities (and prejudices). As noted earlier, Luke challenges our modern notions of property ownership, wealth, consumption and individual rights. It is disingenuous at best to employ clever (not wise or competent) scholarship to dismiss him.
What does it mean to be “of one heart and soul”? It cannot mean that everyone always gets along. The subsequent chapters of Acts demonstrate that there was in the early church plenty of disagreement, debate, misunderstanding and need for compromise. Yet for all of that, the church managed to hold together. One might argue that Luke’s portrayal is not entirely historically accurate and that the life of the early church was in fact a good deal messier. But again, modern notions of historicity are not a proper tool of measurement when it comes to reading biblical texts. Luke’s story is a testimony to his belief that the Holy Spirit was at work in the midst of the church’s messiness forging a community of faith bearing witness to Jesus. It is much the same as when we confess in our creeds that we believe in “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.” From a purely historical perspective, one can argue persuasively that the church is not any of those things and never has been. Yet history can neither verify nor disprove the presence of the Holy Spirit at work in the diverse and often seemingly adverse communities claiming to be church, forming a unity that transcends our divisions. That is an assertion of faith.
That said, we get fleeting glimpses of the unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity of the church every so often. The explosive growth of the church in Asia and Sub Saharan Africa across barriers of tribal and national hostility is surely a testimony to the vitality of the Spirit’s unifying power. As I have observed before, intentional communities such as Church of the Sojourners, Reba Place Fellowship and Koinonia Farm point to new and exciting ways of being a “holy” community. A day does not go by in the life of my own congregation where I do not witness acts of compassion born of the sharing of heart and soul. None of this “proves” anything. Nevertheless, it testifies to the difference Jesus’ resurrection is making in the lives of people who believe it.
The literary formula “Behold, how good and pleasant it is” has parallels in Egyptian literature of the “wisdom” genre. Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 783. Professor Walter Brueggemann treats this psalm as one of “orientation,” expressing “a confident, serene, settlement of faith issues.” Brueggemann, Walter The Message of the Psalms, Augsburg Old Testament Studies (c. 1984 Augsburg Publishing Co.) pp. 25, 47. It celebrates the blessedness of family, tribal and national unity using two metaphors. The first is that of anointing with oil. In addition to the cultic function of such anointing, the practice was also an expression of honor and hospitality, “a measure of extravagance and well being.” Ibid. 48. See Amos 6:6; Mark 14:3-9; Luke 7:46. The second metaphor employed by the psalmist is “dew.” In the often parched landscape of Palestine, the appearance of dew was a rare and welcome weather phenomenon. The poem, says Brueggeman, anticipates the solidarity and harmony of all humanity as it lives without defensiveness in a creation benevolent enough to care for all.” Ibid.
The declaration of the goodness of unity in the psalm complements the practice of that unity to which Luke testifies in our lesson from Acts. Though far from a universal reality, such unity is not merely a utopian ideal. It was experienced at times among the patriarchs and matriarchs, by Israel, by the church in the New Testament and throughout the church’s subsequent history in the monastic movement and through various other intentional Christian communities. These manifestations of life lived among a people of “one heart and soul” give us fleeting glimpses of God’s reign.
Though traditionally ascribed to John, the disciple of Jesus, this letter and the two short epistles following it do not purport to come from anyone by that name. I John does not even appear to be a letter. It lacks both an opening salutation and a closing benediction common to other New Testament epistles. It resembles more a theological treatise or sermon. Though the First Letter of John has close theological and linguistic similarities to John’s gospel, most New Testament scholars believe that the letter was composed by a different author at some point after the gospel was composed. It is possible that I John was composed by “the elder” identified as the author of John 2 and John 3, though this too is disputed. However the authorship question might be resolved, it is evident that the Gospel of John and the three letters of John share a common perspective suggesting that they originated from the same early Christian community.
One cannot help but be impressed with the intense physicality of these opening sentences of John’s letter. What is proclaimed is that which has been “seen,” “looked upon” and “touched.” Vss. 1-3. There is a strong emphasis on the connection of the proclamation to the person of Jesus. This letter is addressed, in part, to counter claims of some persons who “went out from us” and who are evidently denying that Jesus is the messiah. I John 2:18-25. We can only speculate concerning exactly what members of this schismatic group might actually have believed. According to the author of this letter, these folks deny that Jesus has come as messiah “in the flesh” and fail to practice the “new” commandment of love for fellow disciples. I John 4:2-3; I John 3:11-24. For John, orthopraxy goes hand in hand with orthodoxy. Failure to exercise Jesus’ commandment to love fellow members of the church renders one an “antichrist” just as surely as does the denial of Jesus as Christ come in the flesh.
John urges his fellow believers to “walk in the light.” Vs. 7. Again, believing in Jesus is not mere passive reflection or assent to correct teaching. It involves not merely seeing the light, but “walking” in it. Recognition of one’s own sin is a byproduct of walking in the light. To continue justifying, rationalizing or denying sin means only that one remains in the dark about the truth. Vs. 8. The light exposes us as we truly are, compelling us to confess our sinfulness and need for forgiveness. But that is only half the story and not even the better half. The light also exposes God as “faithful and just,” eager to “forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Vs. 9. This is reminiscent of the text from John’s gospel where Jesus declares: “this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men preferred darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” John 3:19. But Jesus goes on to say that “he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God.” John 3:21. The light is essential both for seeing ourselves for what we are and for recognizing God for who God is.
For my more specific comments on this gospel text, I refer you to my post for April 7, 2014. This year I was struck most by the physicality of the resurrected Christ portrayed in John’s gospel. In that respect, my reading is probably influenced by our lesson from I John just discussed. Jesus can be touched and handled. Moreover, he still bears the wounds of the crucifixion on his resurrected body. I think it is incredibly important to recognize that Jesus’ resurrection is not a “happily ever after” ending. The cross reflects Jesus’ determination to “go the distance” for creation. The resurrection is God’s eternal “yes’ to that commitment. Thus, I was more than a little dismayed to discover when the Lutheran Book of Worship came out in print that a critical line to one of my favorite hymns had been sabotaged. The original went:
In every insult, rift, and war
Where color, scorn, or wealth divide
Christ suffers still yet loves the more,
And lives though ever crucified.
The new improved version goes:
In every insult, rift, and war
Where color, scorn, or wealth divide
Christ suffers still yet loves the more,
And lives wherever hope has died.
See ELW # 389. The former version is the stronger and, in my opinion, to be preferred. While Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection are a one time, unrepeatable event that fundamentally changed everything, that change is God’s eternal and unalterable identification with humanity. You might call it the seal on the miracle of the Incarnation. God became flesh, remained flesh to the point of death on the cross and now lives eternally in the flesh for us. That is why we see in child refugees coming across our border, victims of genocide in the Middle East and persons caught in the grip of poverty the face of Jesus. That is why the resurrection makes a difference. We cannot engage in behavior that harms our neighbor, directly or indirectly, without wounding Jesus. Jesus remains human, vulnerable and subject to the terrible consequences of our evil. Yet, as even the “new improved” version of the hymn affirms, “he loves the more.”
The witness of Thomas is interesting. Though he did not believe the testimony of his fellow disciples to Jesus’ resurrection, we nevertheless find him in the company of those disciples eight days later. Vs. 26. It appears that Thomas wants to believe even if he can’t quite manage it yet. So he does what any person should do in that circumstance. He hangs out with the folks who do believe, that is, the church. There he finally has the faith producing encounter with Jesus he was looking for. In a sense, then, he believed even before he saw Jesus. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he had the desire to believe. Does that “count” as faith of some kind? If so, it would give an entirely different twist to Jesus’ word to Thomas, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” Vs. 29. Could it be that we have been reading this verse all wrong? Could it be that Jesus is not chiding “doubting” Thomas for his lack of faith, but was actually commending Thomas for the faith required to stick with the disciples even though he had not seen the resurrected Christ as they had? I must confess that I have never seen any commentator interpret the text in that way. Nonetheless, I think it is a plausible reading.
Finally, I cannot resist talking a little about verses 30-31 in which John informs us that the whole point of his gospel is “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” vs. 31. I don’t think it is carrying things too far to say that the same could be said of the entire Bible at least as far as disciples of Jesus are concerned. Whatever else the Bible might be, for disciples it is the portal into the heart of our Master. Its purpose is to draw us closer to Jesus, not provide ammunition for culture warriors seeking to keep guns in the hands of true believers and pizza out of the hands of gay and lesbian people.