The Second Sunday of Easter – April 23, 2017
Bruce G. Epperly
Acts 2:14a, 22-32
I Peter 1:3-9
Breathe! Think! Expand! These are some of the themes from this week’s lectionary readings. Though considered a “low” Sunday, the Second Sunday of Easter is a “high” Sunday in terms of homiletic possibilities. In fact, it is so chockful with possibilities, that the scriptures for this Sunday will make up the next two weeks of my preaching at South Congregational on Cape Cod. On April 23, I will focus on John 20:19-22, with an emphasis on breathing and centering, and on April 30, I will focus on doubt, faith, and science, with a focus on John 20:24-31. These passages are miraculous in their openness to divine power, arising in a variety of ways, joining the natural and dramatic, and ordinary and exception.
Easter Sunday’s resurrection stories don’t exhaust the possibilities for resurrection in our lives. We can experience resurrection power in miraculous ways emerging out of our everyday experiences. We can experience divine resuscitations, breathing with Jesus, restoring spirits and communities in ways we never would have expected and we can experience God first hand, touching and being touched by God’s Spirit.
I believe that mainline and progressive spiritual leaders and theologians need to reclaim words like “miracle” in new and creative ways, emphasizing “naturalistic” understandings transformation, energy, new life, and physical, spiritual, and emotional recovery congruent with the vision of an adventurous God moving in the lively interdependent realm of cause and effect. We need to be theologically and spiritually bold, expecting great things from God and great things from ourselves. The world is full of wonders and we can embrace wonder without affirming supernatural violations of the laws of nature or the existence of a God who operates outside of time and space, showing up only to dramatically change our world.
In the Acts reading, Peter proclaims the power of God revealed in the resurrection of Jesus. Death in all its forms, physical, emotional, existential, and communal, cannot defeat Christ or us. Ezekiel’s vision is spot on: these dry bones can live! Divine power is life-giving power. While Peter’s concepts of divine planning and foreknowledge can be problematic for those of us who see the future as open-ended and relational, we can affirm that God has an unfolding vision that is intimate and immediate, and global and long term. God’s calling through the gift of possibilities and the energy to embody them need not be coercive but can be liberating. Moreover, divine election can be all-embracing rather than exclusive. God’s presence is not homogenous or impersonal, but may be more evident, by God’s choice, in some places than others. Some moments can be Christomorphic, as result of the energetic confluence of divine lure, environmental factors, and personal decisions, and can accordingly reveal energy and creativity that is astounding and life-changing, transforming cells and souls alike. We can be little Christs, “shamans of the spirit,” mediating transformative power to heal our world.
Peter’s words open the door to survival after death, another challenging theological pathway for progressive Christians. Despite our need for theological and soteriological humility, the most significant historical and biblical meaning of resurrection involves Jesus’ transcending the power of death and living on as agent and subject on earth and in heaven. Progressive and process theologians have often been far too humble in reflections on the afterlife; indeed, some have made agnosticism and unbelief in survival after death an article of faith! Given the plethora of best-selling texts of near death experiences, offering glimpses of heaven, we need to both humble and hopeful in our preaching and speculation on the afterlife. We are rightfully worried about the temptation of being so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good. But, progressive and process theology’s affirmation of the interdependence of life and creaturely creativity enables us to imagine a relational, evolving, and creative afterlife, in which new energies of love and artistry, forgiveness and reconciliation, healing and transformation will be available to us beyond the grave. In claiming the complex interdependence of life and imagining continuity of personal identity in the afterlife, we can articulate an ethics of immortality, affirming that our life choices today, personally and politically, shape peoples’ experiences now and beyond the grave. Though we must recognize that we see in a mirror dimly, we can be both heavenly minded and earthly good. (For more on survival after death, please see Bruce Epperly, “From Here to Eternity: Preparing for the Next Adventure” and “Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed.”)
I Peter proclaims new birth, new life, new hope, and personal and communal rejoicing as a result of our faith in God’s ever-living love and fidelity. We can rejoice in our personal and communal trials, knowing God has a glorious future planned for us. The present struggle does not exhaust nor will it deter God’s vision for our lives. This future comes moment by moment, and over the long-haul as companions in God’s ever-faithful, resurrection love.
On Easter night, the disciples experience another kind of resurrection. Jesus appears out of nowhere, able as a result of his resurrection body – perhaps a highly-charged energetic body – to go beyond the limitations of normal human bodies. Jesus encounters his disciples as embodied and still bearing his wounds. He breathes on his disciples, giving them a form of spiritual resuscitation, enlivening them by his power and energizing them for mission. In an interdependent universe, could we breathing Jesus’ Easter night breath? Can we today inhale divine energy and wisdom with every breath? It is clear that our churches need spiritual resuscitation to expand their mission to seekers, pilgrims, unaffiliated persons as well as to the vulnerable in our community.
John 20 concludes with a portrait of the heroic Thomas, who misses the excitement of Jesus’ resurrection, but stays with the disciples, faithfully opening to what may come. He is rightfully agnostic, and so should we, given the many wild and unsubstantiated claims by spiritual leaders today and throughout history. His faithfulness is found in his willingness to participate in the resurrection community, despite his missing the community’s mystical encounter with the Risen Christ. Surely, he felt left out, and yearned for a resurrection experience. But, Thomas did not sacrifice his questioning mind for the sake of going along with the crowd. His agnosticism is an openness to experience, not a closed mind. He willingly opens to resurrection when he encounters the Living Christ. Thomas exemplifies the faith of the scientist, questioning and yet following the evidence wherever it leads. In this time of war against science, promulgated by conservative Christians, we need to connect the resurrection’s affirmation of embodiment with the scientific adventure.
John concludes with an invitation to imagine the many textures of Jesus’ life. The fullness of Christ cannot be contained by any text, including our Bible. We cannot think small about Jesus; there is more to Jesus than we imagine or contain in the written word. Resurrection expands our minds and inspires unexpected compassion. John’s gospel invites us to be part of the resurrection story and become living witnesses to new life in our worlds. We are writing the resurrection story in our time by our faithful opening to divine resuscitation and willingness to go forth with good news of life-transforming love.