2nd Sunday of Easter

April 7, 2002
See Also: 
Reading 2: 
Psalm 16
Reading 3: 
1 Peter 1:3-9 or Acts 2:14a, 22-32
Reading 4: 
John 20:19-31
By Ronald Farmer

Preaching about the resurrection has never been an easy task. We see this in today’s readings from Acts and John, and we experience it personally each Easter season. In order to be taken seriously, preachers must address all sorts of legitimate doubts on the part of their audiences.

Contemporary preachers are well aware of one type of doubt. As Ronald P. Byars observed, "We still live in the afterglow of the Enlightenment. Though the old Newtonian physics is dead, it still casts its shadow over most in our society. ‘True believer’ and skeptic alike are in the habit of thinking that there is only one kind of truth, and that is the kind you can prove or disprove by rational demonstration. That kind of mindset is not hospitable to a proclamation that affirms as true an act of God for which Newtonian physics allows no room" (Biblical Preaching Journal 12/2 [1999]: 6). And as the "Doubting Thomas Story" honestly portrays, the Easter message encountered the same skepticism in the ancient world. Dead men, even the most holy, are expected to stay in their graves.

A second type of doubt the first Christian preachers had to address rarely enters the mind of today’s audience, for two thousand years of Christian history have transformed the symbolism of the cross. But the first audiences would have immediately asked, How could a crucified man possibly be the Messiah, the long awaited descendent of David? The Messiah was expected to overthrow the Romans, not be crucified by them. And equally problematic, Deut 21:22-23 clearly states that a person hung on a tree has been cursed by God. How, then, could the disciples proclaim Jesus as the Messiah, God’s Anointed One?

Acts 2: 14a, 22-32; Psalm 16
The reading for the Second Sunday of Easter is taken from the middle portion of Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost, one of several summaries of early Christian preaching scattered throughout the book of Acts. The first portion of his sermon (2:14-21) focused on the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, as predicted by the prophet Joel. In today’s portion, Peter presented the basic outline of the kerygma: (1) Jesus’ ministry was attested to by God through signs, wonders, and deeds of power (v. 22). (2) Jesus was crucified by the Romans, having been handed over to them by the religious authorities (v. 23). (3) Jesus was raised from the dead by the power of God, and the disciples were witnesses (vv. 24, 32).

But how could a crucified man be the Messiah? Peter’s response was that the crucifixion was actually part of a divine plan. Obviously, he had considerable explaining to do!

Peter cited Psalm 16:8-11, which he attributed to David, to support his conviction that God had resurrection in mind for the Messiah all along. Readers today have difficulty following Peter’s use of this psalm. The psalmist expressed confidence that God will preserve him from death (Sheol and the Pit refer to the abode of the dead). Doubtless, this psalm was frequently read to bring comfort to those who were gravely ill or seriously injured. Peter, however, understood the psalm differently. He pointed to the obvious fact that David had died; indeed, his tomb was a well-known monument in Jerusalem. From this he concluded that David must have been speaking prophetically of his descendent, the Messiah. The subtle changes in the Septuagint version (which Peter quoted) make his case stronger: "or let your Holy One experience corruption." The second time he quoted this line he rendered it, "nor did his flesh experience corruption," making it even more relevant to his point.

Understood on its own terms and in its original historical context, Psalm 16 does not predict the resurrection of the Messiah. But for Christians living in a post-Easter setting, the typological significance of the psalm was obvious. Distinguishing between prophecy and typology can be helpful for today’s reader. Whereas prophecy is forward looking in its orientation, typology operates only in hindsight. Thus, typology foreshadows rather than predicts. It assumes that there is continuity to the way in which God works.

Regardless of how convincing Peter’s proof text may be, one thing is crystal clear. The religious leaders who handed Jesus over to the Romans had meant no good by their action. Likewise, the Romans who crucified him had meant no good. But as Peter personally testified (v. 32), God creatively transformed their evil deeds in a most surprising way. The resurrection of Jesus is a vivid demonstration of and glowing testimony to God’s ongoing creative transformation of the world.

1 Peter 1: 3-9
Typical of New Testament letters, a prayer of thanksgiving immediately follows 1 Peter’s salutation. Today’s epistolary lesson is the first half of that prayer. The obvious link to the Easter season is the statement in v. 3 that believers have been given "a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead."

In language echoing the Gospel of John, believers are described has having experienced a "new birth" into a "living hope." Throughout the biblical witness hope is a strong term, not mere wishful thinking but confident assurance. Here, it is further modified by the word living. Thus, hope is the energizing principle of the believer’s new life.

In this new life, believers are heirs with a heavenly inheritance—which implies that the greatest blessings of this new life are yet to come. In contrast to earthly inheritances, such as wealth or land, this inheritance is "imperishable, undefiled, and unfading" because it is "kept" (reserved, guarded, set aside) in heaven. The perfect passive participle strengthens the sense of security and implies that it is God who does the keeping. Not only is the inheritance kept by God; so too is the believer. Through faith, the believer is "being protected [a military term] by the power of God . . . for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time."

With v. 6, the focus changes from the glorious, future inheritance to the harsh, present reality: "for a little while you have had to suffer various trials." Suffering is a dominant theme in 1 Peter, but each time the topic arises we find our perspective on suffering creatively transformed by what we read. Here we see suffering transformed into a crucible wherein faith is refined in the manner of precious ores. Faith emerging from the crucible of suffering is more precious than refined gold; indeed, its genuineness will result in "praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed." With this new perspective, a believer can rejoice even in the midst of suffering.

Today’s lesson closes with an affirmation that "historical and geographical proximity" (Carl R. Holladay, Preaching Through the Christian Year: Year A [Philadelphia: Trinity Press, 1992] 257) to the Risen Christ are not necessary for a believer to love him, to have faith in him, and to experience the "indescribable and glorious joy" of salvation.

John 20: 19-31
Today’s Gospel reading, like last week’s, is a double story: the Risen Christ’s appearance to ten of the disciples (vv. 19-23), and his appearance a week later to Thomas (vv. 14-19). After this double story we encounter what was probably the original ending of the Gospel (vv. 30-31); most scholars agree that Chapter 21 was added to an earlier version of the Gospel.

In addition to creating faith, the Easter evening appearance to the disciples serves several other functions as well. First, Jesus conveyed peace to those who, in spite of Mary’s Easter message earlier that day, still hid behind closed doors for fear of the religious authorities (vv. 19, 21). Second, this story serves as the Johannine version of Acts’ Pentecost story and Matthew’s Great Commission. In anticipation of their mission of extending the forgiveness of sins, Jesus breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit," an action echoing the imparting of life in Gen 2:7 (vv. 21-23). The logic of the paragraph is apparent: before being able to undertake their mission, the disciples’ fear must be transformed into peace by the presence of the indwelling Holy Spirit, the promised paraclete of John 14-16.

Given the long and tragic history of anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish sentiments, preachers today are obligated to explain to their audiences the historical context of the Johannine expression "the Jews" (v. 19). The Jewishness of Jesus and his disciples should be stressed. The Johannine expression grew out of the conflict between the Johannine community and the Jewish religious authorities who eventually expelled them from the synagogues because of conflicting beliefs and practices. Even though many in the Johannine community were Jewish, the expression became a sort of short hand to refer to the authorities with whom they argued. (See Raymond E. Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple for an excellent reconstruction of this struggle.)

"Doubting Thomas" has become a common title ascribed to someone who, in the eyes of the accuser, does not have sufficient faith. This is unfortunate on two counts. First, it assumes that doubt has no part in the life of faith; yet even a cursory reading of the Bible reveals that many of the heroes of faith wrestled with their doubts. God honors sincere doubts. Second, this title paints an unfair portrait of Thomas. In earlier chapters the Fourth Gospel describes him as a man of courage (11:16) and theological inquiry (14:5). In truth, he simply wanted the same evidence that the other disciples had been given. They had not believed the report of Mary when she returned from her encounter with the Risen Lord, so why should he believe their testimony?

It is interesting to note that a week later the disciples were still hiding behind locked doors. Apparently their "belief" in the Risen One had not manifested itself in a transformed character. They were still fearful, and once again the Risen Christ greeted them with, "Peace be with you." When Thomas encountered the Risen Christ (the text does not say that Thomas touched him), he voiced the loftiest confession of faith in the Gospel of John: "My Lord and my God" (v. 28).

Although Thomas is not condemned for demanding the same evidence the other disciples had received, characteristic of the Johannine Jesus is a general distain for sign seekers (4:48). In words later echoed in today’s reading from 1 Peter, Jesus pronounces as blessed "those who have not seen and yet have come to believe" (v. 29). Clearly this statement is aimed at the readers of the Fourth Gospel rather than Thomas!

The presence of this story bears witness to the fact that the first Christians were not gullible people. They, no less than present-day people, expected the dead to stay in their graves. What can be said to those today for whom the disciples’ testimony is not sufficient to evoke faith? Does process theology have anything distinctive to offer? I conclude with a lengthy quotation from my article entitled "Jesus in Process Christology" in Jesus Then & Now: Images of Jesus in History and Christology, ed. Marvin Meyer and Charles Hughes [Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press, 2001] 211-13). Although the discussion encompasses more than the resurrection, all of the comments are pertinent to the general discussion.

"A process-informed interpreter would not reject a priori the miraculous dimension of the gospels. Actually, a process theologian would not use the word "miracle" for that is a term presupposing the modern worldview. For that matter, miracle is not a biblical concept either—or as I like to tell students, "the Bible doesn’t believe in miracles." (That arrests their attention!) The New Testament writers did use words such as "mighty deeds," "wonders," and "signs" to describe certain deeds attributed to Jesus, but they did not use the word miracle. Such a concept was foreign to their worldview.

The word miracle presupposes the natural-supernatural split of the modern worldview. In the early modern period, people thought that the natural world follows "natural laws" established by God. God seldom intervenes in the natural word, but on those rare occasions when God does, a supernatural event called a miracle occurs. Over the years, problems inherent in this natural-supernatural model of reality became so great that scholars increasingly abandoned belief in a supernatural realm. In the late modern period reality has come to be conceived purely in terms of a natural world following natural laws (a curious expression because it implies a lawgiver!).

"Developing against this background, biblical scholarship increasingly came to reject a priori those aspects of the gospels that were perceived as miraculous. At first, this meant a rejection of certain events and deeds such as the virgin birth, healings, walking on water, and the resurrection. Increasingly, however, the notion of the miraculous or supernatural came to include the whole notion of human religious experience. This later development assumed a variety of forms, on a spectrum ranging from Bultmann’s existential theology in which "theology" is understood to be "anthropology" (although Bultmann did not deny the existence of God), to atheistic naturalism’s explanation of religious experience entirely in terms of psychology or sociology.

"If one subscribes to the modern worldview, this is not only logical but also inescapable if one strives to be consistent with modernity’s presuppositions. But what if one subscribes to the constructive postmodern worldview known as process thought? How would an interpreter understand these unusual Jesus stories? And to view the matter from a more inclusive perspective, how would one understand the phenomenon of religious experience? Let me begin with the general and move to the specific.

"The process worldview rejects the dualistic natural-supernatural understanding of reality associated with the modern worldview. For process thinkers, no aspect of reality is devoid of the activity of God. Indeed, each event arises from the gift of the initial aim. To distinguish it from both the "supernaturalistic theism" that characterized early modernism and the "atheistic naturalism" that characterizes later modernism, David Griffin refers to the process world view as "naturalistic theism" or "theistic naturalism" (David Ray Griffin, God & Religion in the Postmodern World [Albany: SUNY Press, 1989] 3). Religious experience does not imply a supernatural incursion into the otherwise natural affairs of the world and human experience, nor is it reducible to psychological or sociological analysis. On the contrary, metaphysically speaking, human religious experience is no different from any other creaturely experience, for God’s initial aim is present to every actual occasion. All that distinguishes religious experience from other creaturely experience is a heightened awareness—i.e., a raising to the level of human consciousness—of the activity of God in the experience. And sometimes these experiences are "wondrous" indeed, like that set of experiences we refer to as the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Numerous secular news accounts underscored the religious component of this contemporary "mighty deed." Process theologians are not perplexed when the unexpected occurs, because for them natural law does not denote a set of fixed physical laws governing the world. Rather, natural law is conceived of as the latest description of the way things normally happen. But because process thinkers understand God and the world in terms of change rather than permanence, of creativity rather than status quo, of becoming rather than being, they expect the unexpected to emerge in the creative advance of the world. Because of the evocative lure of God, that which today is a mighty deed, a wonder, might tomorrow be commonplace.

"But is such God-talk legitimate? Indeed, deconstructionists move beyond existential theology and deny the referential dimension of language altogether: words only refer to other words in endless play! Obviously, a discussion of a Whiteheadian understanding of language is beyond the scope of this paper; for that I refer you to chapter four of [my book] Beyond the Impasse. Let me summarize that discussion by simply saying that we are not locked in a linguistic universe; there is a referential dimension to language. Contrary to the assertion of the deconstructionists, one can speak truly, though not exhaustively or without error, about concrete experience in the "real world." And this means that, contrary to Bultmann, one can speak truly, though not exhaustively or without error, about religious experience. Theology has the potential of actually being theology as well as anthropology.

In light of the preceding discussion, it is obvious that a process-informed interpreter would not reject a priori the so-called "miraculous" dimension of the gospels. This does not mean, however, that a process-informed interpreter is predisposed to accept such stories as historically accurate. On the contrary, precisely because they are unusual rather than common, the burden of proof lies with those who interpret these aspects of the Jesus tradition as historical. Such stories may well be mythical rather than historical, intended to convey some spiritual teaching rather than to portray an historical event (e.g., stories of the miraculous conception). And should a story have an historical kernel, discerning it beneath layers of embellishment (so common in ancient stories) is a difficult task, indeed (e.g., the post-resurrection appearance stories). Nevertheless, by refusing to excise such stories a priori a process-informed interpreter may experience "creative transformation" through the very act of grappling with what is foreign to his or her immediate experience and sensibilities."

In conclusion, process theology opens one to the genuine possibility of wondrous happenings, such as the resurrection. Acknowledging that wondrous things can occur, one would then examine the evidence, including the testimony of the disciples recounted in the Gospels.