Seeing and Believing: The Lectionary for the Second Sunday of Easter

Seeing and Believing: The Lectionary for the Second Sunday of Easter March 28, 2016
Thomas and Jesus, Eglise du Saints Sauveur. Image in the public domain, taken from Wikipedia.
Thomas and Jesus, Eglise du Saints Sauveur. Image in the public domain, taken from Wikipedia.

Acts 5:27-32

What It’s About: Of the four gospels in the New Testament canon, only Luke gives us something of the life of the Jesus movement beyond the resurrection and the ascension. Luke’s second volume, The Acts of the Apostles, is just that–a record of the deeds and doings of the apostles. The first part of the book concerns the Jerusalem church in the aftermath of the crucifixion, and the second half concerns Paul and his ministry. This scene from chapter 5, then, is set in Jerusalem, in the aftermath of Jesus’ death and resurrection–which is why we are reading it the Sunday after Easter. Not much has changed, in terms of setting, from the end of Luke, except that Jesus is no longer there.

What It’s Really About: This part of Acts is wonderful, because it paints a picture (accurate or not) of an idyllic, pure Christian community, living together in harmony and common purpose. (But not completely; just before this passage is the story of the church’s first financial scandal). This story of Peter and others of the community being brought before the council in Jerusalem, to answer for their teaching about Jesus. It’s interesting to note the differences in this semi-trial and the trial of Jesus; Peter is emboldened where Jesus was elusive, and Peter is proclaiming where Jesus was content to let things play out. The circumstances were really different, of course, but the tone of Acts is one in which the apostles seem emboldened with regard to the civil authorities. In the gospels, the authorities held all the power; here, Peter is feeling his oats and ready to test the limits. The rest of the book of Acts is about how successful that strategy was.

What It’s Not About: It’s not about Pilate. The major shift between the gospel stories of Jesus’ trial and execution and this story is the absence of Pontius Pilate. I often tell my students: the fact that Jesus was crucified, and not stoned, suggests that it was the Romans, and not the Jewish authorities, who were ultimately responsible for his death. He was executed as a public threat, not as a blasphemer. This trial, such as it is, is more like what a blasphemy trial might have looked like. The council is worried about enforcing the boundaries of orthodoxy, but there isn’t too much they can do about it without Rome giving its consent. With Pilate withdrawn back to his spot outside the city, the stakes get a lot lower.

Maybe You Should Think About: It’s election season…and with it, we have our semi-regular debate about the intersection of religion and politics. Peter’s recourse here is that he owes loyalty to God and not to temporal authority. How can we translate that to a democratic society? How can our religion inform our politics, and vice versa? And how can we survive this coming election?

 

Revelation 1:4-8

What It’s About: Revelation is a strange and many-faceted book, and one of its conceits is a series of letters to churches in Asia Minor (what is now western Turkey). These letters were commentaries on each of the churches, and many people see them as “types” of churches and church behavior today. This part of Revelation 1 is an early reference to those letters, which will come later in the text.

What It’s Really About: This is almost a proto-creed…an early statement of belief about Jesus and his importance. Verses 5-7 are a tidy synopsis of the Jesus story: he is a faithful witness, firstborn of the dead, ruler of earth. He loves us, he freed us from sin through his blood, he is coming in triumphant return. This is an early kerygmatic utterance! It’s pretty cool to think about it that way; we don’t often give Revelation credit for being understandable or having traditionally-formulated theology, but this certainly looks like it.

What It’s Not About: In this proto-creed, the crucifixion plays a surprisingly small role. It’s alluded to in the “blood” of Jesus, but the specifics are omitted. Perhaps this is because the entire text is set in the context of continued persecution, and explicit crucifixion imagery would have been too jarring. Or perhaps it was just left out. It’s hard to say.

Maybe You Should Think About: What about this ancient statement of belief has changed over time? What has stayed the same? Does this still function as a good synopsis of Christian faith? Why or why not?

 

John 20:19-31

What It’s About: There is a lot going on in this passage. There is the reference to the “fear of the Jews,” which demands explanation, lest it be wrongly interpreted as a cause for anti-semitism today. There is the imparting of the Holy Spirit, and with it the power to forgive sin. And there is the story of Thomas–“Doubting Thomas,” as he has come to be known–and his insistence on seeing and knowing the fullest way he knew. There is Jesus’ response to that insistence, which causes Thomas to believe, even though he does not ever get the proof he was after. It’s a complex and varied passage, with multiple opportunities to take a verse or a fragment of a verse and pry it open for more examination.

What It’s Really About: This is one of several post-resurrection appearances of Jesus in the gospels. Many of them share a theme of people not recognizing Jesus, but that isn’t in play here. Instead, the disbelief is shifted onto Thomas, who had the misfortune to be out of the room when Jesus showed up. Thomas’ demand for proof is actually not all that surprising, if you think about it. Today, after 2000 years of Christian cogitation on the resurrection, we can say “oh, yes, of course Jesus was raised from the dead.” But the notion obviously would have  been quite jarring to the first people who heard it. Thomas rightly wanted proof. “I want to see this for myself,” he said. Which is reasonable! And he got what he wanted, seeing for himself, and he didn’t even have to touch the wounds; note that in the text he never does so. He simply sees Jesus, like the others, and believes.

What It’s Not About: The author of John would have been appalled at us calling Thomas “Doubting Thomas,” I think. I don’t think we are meant to take this story as a cautionary tale about lacking faith. It is not a call to “blind faith” or uncritical acceptance of unacceptable things. This is a story about the power of encountering the risen Jesus, and it is that power, not the weakness of doubt, that ought to be the center of any interpretation. John doesn’t include this story to chide us into believing things we don’t know or understand. He includes this story to show how the remarkable nature of Jesus’ resurrection overcame our very natural hesitation to it.

Maybe You Should Think About: The second half of verse 29 has a particular audience, I think. The composition of the Gospel of John has been the subject of some dispute over the years, but I’m one who thinks that it was probably composed in phases (Raymond Brown is influential for me in this regard). I bet that this section was composed late, so that Jesus saying this has particular meaning to those in the community who came along after Jesus had died, appeared after the resurrection, and then gone again. It’s meant as an encouragement for later Jesus-followers, not as an indictment of Thomas. We can take it as encouragement today, not as a threat to those “doubters” who have trouble believing unbelievable things.

 

 

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  • Mark

    Interesting thoughts on the Revelation passage. It’s never looked at it that way. And in light of the sermon I listened to yesterday (all about the cross, punishment, and death – because for the speaker that is the most important element of his gospel understanding) your pointing out that there is very little about the shed blood, even in this opening section of Revelation, is refreshing.