2nd Sunday of Easter

April 3, 2005
See Also: 
Reading 2: 
Psalm 16
Reading 3: 
I Peter 1:3-9 or Acts 2:14a, 22-33
Reading 4: 
John 20:19-30
By Bruce G. Epperly

Scripture is a living document, raising as many questions as answers, for both the preacher and her or his congregation. Fidelity to the scriptural witness is reflected in the seriousness with which we respond to its message, whether with doubt, affirmation, or repentance and transformation. In a world in which many see biblical faith as static and absolute, process and progressive Christians are challenged to reclaim the lively dialogue that was at the heart of the Hebraic and early Christian encounters with scripture. As a lively reflection of the divine-human adventure, the spiritual canon of scripture is never closed, but always revealing something new and surprising in our study, embodiment, and preaching.

Divine Plan or Holy Adventure?

As process thinkers, we are tempted to dispense with the reading from Acts. It raises too many questions for a twenty minute sermon. But, we may choose to enter the storm precisely because the waters are troubled. The problem is early in the text: “this man [Jesus], handed over to you [the Jewish religious leaders and Roman governmental leaders] according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed…” This statement parts the waters between process thinkers and many of their Christian companions. Put simply, “was Jesus born to die? Did God plan the cross from eternity to remedy the consequences of human sin?” Put another way, “was Jesus’ sole purpose in life to die for our sins? Was his teaching and healing ministry just an after thought?”

Progressive and process Christians see our planet’s history as part of a holy adventure in which God and creation are constantly responding to one another. Through every event in life, God is seeking healing, wholeness, and justice. Though the concrete embodiment of God’s quest differs from age to age, place to place, and moment to moment, still God seeks abundant life in every situation. As the Apostle Paul would proclaim, “in all things God works for good.” (Romans 8:28)

In light of these affirmations, we can affirm that while God may have envisaged the possibility that Jesus’ teaching, healing, and radical hospitality might lead to persecution and death, there was always a possibility that humankind might take another path or Jesus make another choice. Still, even when the religious and political leaders arrested and tried Jesus, God was at work in Jesus’ life as well as in the community’s faith to bring good out of that hideous situation.

I believe that Jesus, like ourselves, had choices. This seems to be the biblical approach as well. Jesus as a whole person fully in relationship with God contemplated alternative paths and prayed that he might escape the pain of the cross. But, fidelity to his mission called him to face arrest and crucifixion. In our time, Martin Luther King spoke of the possibility of his own death, but rather than retreating to the safety and longevity of a northern seminary, he travels to Memphis where he is assassinated. Our faith and commitments have consequences. These, like our decisions, are not preordained, but are guided and used by God on the pathway to spiritual transformation and mending the world.

A predestined Jesus provides little inspiration for our lives and raises issues of divine violence and child abuse. We find hope in one who, like ourselves, is confronted by difficult decisions,  but maintains his fidelity to God’s calling in his life. A Christ with choices opens the door for reclaiming the Orthodox image of “divinization” - by living through all the stages of life from birth to death, Jesus Christ makes every moment of life holy, even those where God seems most hidden. Further, when we understand the cross as part of God’s holy adventure, rather than a predestined event, we are inspired to encounter God in our own moments of darkness and pain. God is present in the suffering of the cross and the transformation of Easter – in the first century and in our time.

Strength in Trial

Written, we suspect, in a time of persecution, the words of I Peter are intended to provide consolation and encouragement in light of the resurrection.   While we must avoid any suggestion that trials are deliberately and directly sent by God to refine our spiritual lives, we can affirm that life is often difficult. Although we may not at the moment be persecuted for our faith, we do face events that challenge our trust in the God of creative transformation. It is difficult to see God’s aim toward beauty and wholeness when we directly face our mortality, experience the after effects of chemotherapy, raise children as a single parent following a messy divorce, or visit our parents suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. In such moments, can we take consolation and find growth in light of God’s ever-present passion for wholeness, beauty, and creative transformation? Sometimes, as Peter notes, we have to believe that God is working in our lives even when we are unable to discern God’s healing presence.

While we do not see God’s presence in terms of a refining fire, the divine aim or passion for wholeness may be experienced as a challenge to our present values and way of life. The best for the impasse may be painful rather than consoling. It may call us to muster all of our courage and strength simply to face the next step in our holy adventure.

In avoiding the image of an over-functioning or punishing God, process and progressive thinkers often neglect the role of divine challenge in shaping our spiritual lives. While God may not, as some mystics suggest, plunge us into “dark night of the soul” as a means of testing our faith,  the multi-factorial nature of the universe, including God, may challenge our faith or call us beyond the familiar. I recall teaching my son how to ride a bicycle many years ago. At first, he was frightened at the possibility of falling and, then, angry when I persisted in challenging him to ride. But, then, a miracle occurred, he peddled and off he went. Without some challenge and struggle, he would never have enjoyed the wonder of bike-riding. (Of course, I ran beside him as he tried to balance himself. Even in pushing him beyond his self-imposed limits, I was beside him to minimize both fear and injury.)

God does not cause cancer, job loss, tsunami, or divorce, but God is urging us forward to become persons of grace and stature through every event of our lives. Sometimes, we must admit that we grow most through facing the shadow side, making tough moral decisions, confronting injustice, or choosing to grow despite the temptation to rest. Surely, God is there urging us forward, but never abandoning us. God is there, luring us forward with the resurrection hope that we can be born anew, transformed, and triumphant over evil.

Breath and Doubt

The reading from John 20 provides a number of opportunities for the preacher. John 20:19-23 can be described as John’s Pentecost. Jesus breathes on his followers and proclaims, “receive the Holy Spirit.” He gives them the power to continue his ministry of challenge and forgiveness.

Here we discover the power of holy breath to transform our lives.

Many Christians have learned Hindu and Buddhist as well as Christian breath prayers. We recognize that mindful breathing can transform our lives. Through breathing in God’s healing spirit gently and calmly, we may experience as a sense of wholeness, experience peace and centeredness in difficult situations, and gain perspective on our lives. God’s breath renews and restores, and opens the door to each moment’s rebirth and resurrection.

As a teaching example, the preacher might lead the congregation in a breath prayer, inviting the congregation to experience the fullness of divine silence and holiness of divine breath. In the quiet of holy breathing, we may discern and identify God’s aim for our lives in the holy moment in which we live. The pastor might lead the congregation in a simple breath prayer such as”

“I breathe the spirit deeply in
And blow it gently out again.”

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Another path takes us through the resurrection experience of Thomas. If we fixate on the editorial comments that criticize Thomas’ unbelief, we may miss the deeper meaning of this scripture. While we may admit with many scholars that these comments were meant to subvert Thomas’ leadership in the early church, they also point to the struggles experienced by a faithful follower of Jesus in his quest to embrace the resurrection.

Over thirty years ago, I discovered that I could be a Christian when I read Paul Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith. Tillich asserted that authentic faith included doubt as well as affirmation. Questions were not a sign of faithlessness, but a willingness to take our faith seriously. In this regard, Thomas is a hero of faith. Though he does not experience resurrection day, Thomas stays with the other disciples. No doubt the week was quite painful to him as he heard their wild stories of the Risen Jesus, and could feel nothing of their excitement. He could have left for home and abandoned the teaching altogether, but he stayed!  And, that is the point! He believed with all his doubts. He stayed in the community in spite of his theological uncertainty and spiritual dryness. His patience was rewarded by his own encounter with the Risen Jesus.

Our congregations are filled with Thomases. Perhaps, the preacher is a Thomas as he or she simply tries to hold on to the passion of ministry week after week with only modest successes in the congregation. Perhaps, the preacher no longer affirms the literal meanings of the creeds recited each Sunday. No doubt she or he is not alone. But, Thomas’ faith reminds us that living in community in spite of our doubts is the only way we can find the truth that will sustain us. In such moments, we may lean on the faith of others, knowing that God’s love does not depend on our orthodoxy or certainty.

According to legend, “doubting Thomas” eventually traveled to India , sharing the good news in a very different religious environment. To this day, a group of Indian Christians refer to themselves as “Thomas Christians.” Truly, doubt gives birth to transformation and courage when we faithfully wait for the right moment, when God’s truth awakens us to a new vision of reality. Doubts will always remain and emerge from time to time, but we will know that doubt is itself a doorway to experiencing God’s presence in our life. Doubt may even be the space that makes room for resurrection faith.  In our faithful doubt, we will make room for the seekers in our community and the seeker in ourselves.

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God, written with Kate Epperly, and selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. He can be contacted for conversation, lectures, seminars, workshops, and preaching engagements.