Second Sunday of Easter: April 15, 2007.
Psalm 118:14-29 or Psalm 150
An introductory comment is in order, as the Easter feast continues for a "week of weeks." The six sets of readings for the Second through the Seventh Sundays of Easter are taken from the same three books. The First and Second Readings follow a lectio continua format from Acts and Revelation, respectively. The Gospel readings are all from John, with the latter half taken from Jesus' "farewell discourses" on Maundy Thursday.
Given the format of the First and Second Readings, it is to be expected that there may not be as close a coherence among the three readings as is present in the lectionary for other festival days. Nevertheless, a certain centeredness may be detected. The two series made up of the first two readings may be imagined as the concentric circles emanating (and finally overlapping) from two stones dropped in a pool: the first, a set of ripples spreading out from the historical Easter; the second, a set expanding from the Telos, the great and final Easter. For its part, the Gospel according to John, by both canonical position and content, offers an ultimate "What does this mean?" to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This interpretive ultimacy is most appropriate for the Sundays of Easter (not merely in, as with Advent and Lent, or after, as with Christmas, Epiphany, and Pentecost).
The Gospel for the Second Sunday of Easter, John 20:19-31, is the same for all three years of the lectionary. It is not hard to figure out why: Verses 26-29 (the "doubting Thomas" account) are explicitly (and uniquely, among the gospels) dated to one week after Easter. The reading includes three distinct, though hardly separate, parts: vv. 19-23, Jesus' gifts of the Holy Spirit and of the "office of the keys" to the disciples; vv. 24-29, Thomas's skepticism and later faith; and v. 30f., the evangelist's explicit statement of the purpose of the book (and, likely enough, its original terminus).
The red thread that runs through all is "coming to believe." In the preceding, Easter, account (20:1-18) we are told of two cases where "the light went on and the penny dropped": the beloved disciple, upon seeing the empty grave wrappings (but before understanding the testimony of the Scriptures), in v. 8f.; and Mary Magdalene, upon hearing the Lord call her name, in vv. 16-18. We know that the other disciples have heard the witness of Mary (v. 18), but as of that evening, at the beginning of today's reading, they evidently haven't bought it (v. 19). Only when Jesus appears, greets them, and shows them his stigmata do they believe (v. 19f.). Given this context, it hardly seems fair that it is Thomas who has been saddled with the sobriquet "doubting." Like them, he refuses to take others' word for it. Like us scientific moderns (and postmoderns), he wants empirical proof. This Jesus explicitly provides, item by item, as demanded.
Thomas's response is arguably the climax of the Gospel, as he finally articulates what the evangelist has been saying about Jesus since the prologue in chapter 1: "My Lord and my God!" (v. 28). But the evangelist still has more fish to fry (no reference intended to the Gospel for Easter 3 in the following chapter). In what we shall see is a repeated dynamic within John's Gospel (e.g., see Easter 7), the text explicitly reaches out beyond its own time and place to embrace and appeal to future readers, who are not literally witnesses to the risen Christ. First, the evangelist does so indirectly, by reference: "Have you believed because you have seen me?" says Jesus. "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe" (v. 29). Then those same future readers are addressed directly, in the second person: "Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name" (v. 30f.). It is perhaps especially those of us who have been trained to see the vast temporal and cultural gulf between ourselves and the biblical world, and maybe even more those of us scholars whose vocation it is to deal with the text as an object of study, who need to recognize here that the text itself intends to cross time and space and objectivity that we might "come to believe." Nor is John alone among the Scriptures in this regard: as in Exodus (12:27) and Deuteronomy (5:2-5), it is not a matter of theological maneuver but the stated intent of the text to incorporate the later reader (and preacher) personally into the story.
The reading from Acts begins the aforementioned ripples outward from the Easter event. If one accepts the tradition that identifies "the beloved disciple" of John's Gospel with John, son of Zebedee, it is the same two apostles who once raced to the empty tomb (John 20:2-10) who now stand before the Sanhedrin and testify to the risen Christ (v. 30). In any event, the passage is the testimony of two "witnesses (Gk. martur) to these things" (v. 31) who once were not so sure. Their proclamation is not simply to the fact of the resurrection but also to its import--that is, the "ripples": "God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins" (v. 31). The titles are significant. "Leader" (archegos) appears twice in Peter's speeches in Acts, the other referring to Jesus' status as "Author of life" (3:15), thereby linking Jesus with God the Creator. Otherwise, the same title is used frequently in the Septuagint (LXX) to translate terms like "prince" and "chief"--the highest titles available short of "king," which, in the view of one significant point of view in the Old Testament, belongs to God alone. "Savior" (soter) in the LXX always renders forms related to the same Hebrew root as Jesus' name (ysh'), while both occurrences in Luke's Gospel (1:47; 2:11) appear in the context of the lowly being delivered (cf. also Acts 13:23 for the deliverance of all Israel). Taken together, the two titles form a capsule summary of the One by whom God has broken into history and commenced a new era in which the claims of others to be "leader" (cf. German Fuhrer) or "savior" (like Hellenistic and Roman rulers; cf. BDAG, p. 800f.) pale before God's designee.
The key distinction is the goal of this elevation. It is not personal aggrandizement or national prestige but rather "repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins" (v. 31). Given the horrendous history of Christian-Jewish relations, it is worth noting in particular that the text expresses no interest in God's judgment of those who were involved in the historical particulars of Jesus' death (here, the Sanhedrin), to say nothing of their descendants. At most, statements like "whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree" (v. 30) appear in the spirit of Joseph of old, addressing the brothers who had betrayed him: "Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good" (Gen 50:20). Peter's point is all gospel. Jesus is triumphant, but no triumphalist.
The triumphant Christ is front and center in the passage from Revelation. As in the Acts reading, there is reference to all three persons of what Tertullian would label the "Trinity" a century later (understanding "the seven spirits who are before his throne" as at least an allusion to the whole Holy Spirit, in keeping with the common usage of the number seven in the book as a cipher for completeness). The passage is replete with recollections of the book of Exodus, from the Divine Name, YHWH ("who is and who was and who is to come"; cf. Exod 3:14 LXX ho on), to the "job description" of the redeemed Israel as "a priestly kingdom and a holy nation" (Exod 19:6). These references to the Bible's second book anticipate Revelation's depiction of Christ as the [Passover] Lamb, beginning in chapter 5, and the abiding theme throughout of God's miraculous deliverance of God's people from oppression. Further Old Testament references link Jesus Christ with the messianic "one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven" of Daniel's apocalyptic vision (Dan 7:13) and with Zechariah's "one [Heb. 'me'] whom they have pierced" (Zech 12:10; cf. John 19:37, the only other NT occurrence of ekkenteo, "pierce"). Finally, after the Lord God identifies himself as exilic Isaiah's YHWH, who is both "beginning" and "end" (Isa 44:6; 48:12), form follows content, and the passage ends as it began, "who is and who was and who is to come."
Actually, there is one final equation added thereafter: God as Pantokrator ("Almighty"), the first of nine occurrences of the term in Revelation (otherwise seen in the NT only in 2 Cor 6:18 and literally a term of art in Eastern Orthodox depictions of Christ regnant).
It is a brave preacher who takes on a text from the canon's final book. One recalls both Luther's disdain for it--he grouped it at the end of his translation with the likes of Hebrews and James--and the absence of a commentary on the book by the otherwise prolific and comprehensive Calvin. Yet there is grist here for the homiletical mill.
As church historian Justo Gonzalez puts it well, reading the book of Revelation is like reading a whodunit from the back forward: one can then understand all that precedes as having happened "because the butler did it." Revelation begins with the end of all things as a settled issue. In the light of that outcome, we can grasp the significance of Christ's redemptive work and our place in the great "meantime" (which, as the book goes on to say, can truly be a mean time for the faithful). Today's text leads off the book by assuring its readers that anything that Christ asks of us as "a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father" (v. 6) he himself has already experienced: he is "witness" (Gk. ho martur; cf. Acts 5:31, above), "faithful one," and "firstborn of the dead" (v. 5). We know from the first that we have nothing to fear from any persecutory power, because he is finally "ruler of the kings of the earth" (Gk. ho archon ton basileon tes ges; cf. archegos in Acts 5:31). And we know where we stand with him. He "loves" us (present participle) and "freed" us (aorist participle--it's a done deal) from our sins by his blood. The perduring question of the Scriptures (above all, in exilic Isaiah) is thereby answered: Does God have both the power and the will to deliver us? From the first, and to the last, Revelation answers with an unequivocal "Yes!" GCH
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|Title Annotation:||Preaching Helps|
|Author:||Heider, George C.|
|Publication:||Currents in Theology and Mission|
|Date:||Feb 1, 2007|
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