Lectionary Reflections for Sunday, April 7, 2013
Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 150; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31
Low Sunday – the Sunday following Easter – can be a spiritual high. We can breathe the energy of creation’s praises and feel Jesus giving us spiritual CPR for the journey. Only spiritual dualists and heaven/hell Christians believe that Easter solves everything. Christ is risen! Shout Hallelujah! Yes! But, we must still confront global climate change, the gap of the wealthy and poor, child slavery and sex trafficking, unjust economics, political gridlock, and our own personal imperfections and mortality. We need to breathe in the Easter spirit – we have been waiting to exhale too long and now need spiritual refreshment as Jesus breathes in and on us. Easter opens the doors, unblocks the tombs, and lets fresh air fill our spirits.
The heart of today’s passage is the interplay of Jesus’ encounter with the disciples on Easter night and later with the missing disciple Thomas. Jesus’ resurrection message is peace and empowerment. He calms their anxious hearts with his loving presence. They are not alone, death has not triumphed, and new life bursts forth in surprising and unexpected ways. And, then, Jesus breathes on them…and they are spiritually revived. God still breathes through us, giving us life, insight, and energy. We are part of a profound divine energy that empowers us to make wise decisions and then act courageously upon them. In Jesus’ breath, we find the origins of a Pentecostal progressivism – a lively, open-spirited theology, manifested in open and affirming hospitality, and open-hearted and lively spirituality and worship.
Today, with our Pentecostal brothers and sisters, we progressive and moderate Christians can affirm God’s living breath as we sing the gospel tune:
Let it breathe on me
Let it breathe on me
Let the breath of God
Now breathe on me.
Thomas is often maligned as the doubter and shown even in this scripture as inferior in faith to the other disciples. In fact, Thomas is truly a Pentecostal progressive. He is away on Easter night. He misses the resurrection. He’s left out of the celebration. But, he stays close by, trying to figure out what happened and why everything has changed among Jesus’ female and male followers. But, when Thomas encounters the Risen Christ, he too can exhale and breathe in life everlasting and love unlimited.
Thomas’ encounter with Jesus joins right and left brain, judging and perceiving, and sensate and intuition, as the neuroscientists and Jungians affirm. Frankly, we need more Thomases, people who don’t settle for half-baked doctrines, knee jerk theological positions, dangerous doctrines, and unexamined spiritual claims. There are too many Christian spokespersons, peddling best sellers, filled with half-baked, inch deep, and superficial theological nostrums. We need to test the spirits to discover the Spirit.
Thomas’ agnosticism is a pious agnosticism. He is open to resurrection, but he needs to join mind as well as heart, and rationality as well as mysticism, in his embrace of God’s new thing. When he encounters Jesus, his rational quest becomes transrational and mystical. He is set free to share good news not just in Galilee but in Persia and India, where only a rational mystic could gain the respect needed to share the story of Jesus Christ, healer and savior, the Risen One.
Breath is central to Psalm 150. The Psalmist invites us to experience an enchanted universe in which all living things reflect divine wisdom, not as an external template but an inner energy. “Let everything that breathes praise God!” This is the vision of a lively, God-filled universe, and a call to cherish the Earth and all its creatures. The Psalmist’s words evoke images from Isaiah’s mystical experience in the Temple (See Isaiah 6:1-8): “the whole Earth is filled with God’s glory.” (For more on a creation affirming theology, see Bruce Epperly, Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed and Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church; Jay McDaniel, Of God and Pelicans and Living from the Center.)
Today is a day for breathing good news! The sermon should contain a vision but also a spiritual practice, breath prayer. During the “time for children,” an astute preacher will invite the children to explore quiet prayer, breathing inward and outward, centering themselves in relationship to the ambient movements of grace. A generous time of silent breath prayer can – and should – accompany the pastoral prayer as well. Let everything that breathes praise God!
God is as near as our breathing. Wake up, breathe! Or, as Welsh poet Goronwy (Waldo Williams) writes,
You are our breath. You are the flight
Of our longing to the depths of heaven.
The readings from Acts and Revelation are at the margins of today’s lectionary, but they still have a word to say. Threatened by the religious leaders for continuing to preach and heal, Peter and the other apostles assert that they must obey God rather than human authorities. Here we see the roots of spiritually-motivated civil disobedience: the belief that the authority of religious and government leaders is always penultimate and subject to our allegiance to God as God’s wisdom is revealed to us. While we must always be prepared to change our positions in light of new information or inspiration, our calling is to follow our conscience as it reflects a wisdom and perspective larger than our own.
The Acts passage connects receiving the Spirit with obedience to God. While I believe that everyone is touched by God’s spirit, the nature of God’s inspiration and guidance, and power to transform, is related to and shaped by the quality of our faithfulness. The universal God, seeking wholeness for all, responds to the concreteness of our commitments not to an abstract, one size fits all human situation.
Since the time of Rudolf Bultmann few preachers have believed Jesus would come down from the clouds. Moreover, in light of the incarnational universalism of Philippians 2:5-11, the judgmental orientation of Revelation 1 is hard to affirm theologically. The author of Revelation suggests that there may be more bad news than good upon Christ’s return. He sees a small circle of salvation, not a broad expanse of grace. While we may experience self-judgment as we encounter the living Christ in our daily affairs, our “wailing” will be shaped by a pervasive sense of God’s love. Perhaps, John’s revelatory experience evolved such that by the time he penned the words of Revelation 21, he experienced Jesus’ coming in terms of grace, not judgment: “The home of God is with mortals. God will dwell with them; they will be God’s peoples and God will be with them; God will wipe every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more.” (Revelation 21:3-4)
Every breath reveals divine intentionality. We can only experience divine energy from our – and our community’s perspective – even though we are constantly receiving new wisdom from other traditions and from the unfolding of divine revelation in our lives and in the world. God’s presence in Christ is world-changing but it can never be fully comprehended by humankind, including by people of faith. As if to caution early Christians in terms of claiming too clear a knowledge of Jesus’ message, the gospel writer proclaims: “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.” (John 20:30) Jesus is more alive than any book or doctrine, and Jesus’ impact is never contained by our institutions. God gives us breathing space to imagine Jesus’ ministry in new and creative ways, and to accept a variety of interpretations and practices as faithful to Jesus’ – and our – mission of healing the world.