3rd Sunday of Easter

May 7, 2000
See Also: 
Reading 2: 
Psalm 4
Reading 3: 
Acts 3:12-19 or 1 John 3:1-7
Reading 4: 
Luke 24:36b-48
By Bruce G. Epperly

Easter Weeks 3-6
In this lectionary guide, I have focused on an interpretation of the lectionary readings in light of the inclusive, dynamic, and relational theology and spirituality characteristic of process thought. For the most part, I have focused on the meaning of the text for our time and left the historical-critical analysis to the homilist’s own personal study. There are many fine scriptural commentaries available, including the New Interpreters Bible. I have sought not only to weave together the themes of each week, but to note the common thread which runs through the May readings. (Editor's note: You may wish to read through all three of Dr. Epperly's May commentaries and the concluding "Pulling it all together" and "Final reflections" paragraphs on the May 28, 2000 page).

As you reflect on these scriptures in your own spiritual formation and for the spiritual formation of others, may you and your congregation be filled with the spirit of Christ’s resurrection.

In the spirit of creative transformation, I have expanded today’s epistle reading to include Acts 3:1-11 as well as the assigned readings for the third Sunday in Easter. Acts 3:12-19 is theologically and homiletically incomplete apart from the larger context of the healing story. While the lectionary committee may see the primary theme as one of repentance in light of the cross and resurrection, the narrative of the healing of a man lame from birth artfully illuminates the resurrection account from Luke 24 and addresses the current interest in the intersection of spirituality and health among Christians and non-Christians alike.

In its focus on the importance of faith in physical and spiritual transformation, the Acts reading can be set alongside a number of the healings of Jesus. In the power of faith to focus and transform our lives, this account is reminiscent Jesus’ healing of the paralyzed man at the pool of Bethzatha. It also reminds the reader of the healing of woman with a hemorrhage, whose sole focus on Jesus - her faith in his power to heal her of a chronic gynecological ailment - enables her to experience wholeness in mind, body, spirit, and relationships.

The Acts reading raises a number of questions in light of the current interest in spirituality and health. Physicians are speaking of the faith factor, the placebo effect, and significance of religious commitment in overall well-being and quality of life. Intercessory prayer has been found to make a significant difference (roughly 10% fewer complications) in the recovery of cardiac patients. While these studies raise as many questions as answers and must be understood in light of a multifactorial understanding of causation, it is clear that our spiritual lives can make a significant difference in health and illness. [For an extended discussion of the role of spirituality and health, I refer you to my own work in this area: Spirituality and Health, Health and Spirituality (Twenty-Third, 1997), Crystal and Cross: Christians and the New Age in Creative Dialogue (Twenty-Third, 1996), and At the Edges of Life (Chalice, 1992), as well as my upcoming The Touch of God: The Healings of Jesus for the Twenty-First Century (Westminster/John Knox, expected publication date, December 2000.) I also commend Morton Kelsey’s Healing and Christianity as well.]

Put simply the healing narrative includes: 1) a description of the ailment, 2) the methodology of healing, 3) the man’s joyful response, 4) the crowd’s response, 4) the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection, 5) the explanation of the healing, and 6) the call to repentance. As inspirational as this story may be, a healing such as this raises many questions. As children of the Enlightenment, many of us are wary of supernatural explanations. The notion of divine intervention threatens our linear and predictable understanding of reality. We are also hesitant to suggest that God intervenes in one place, but remains passive or absent in other equally significant areas of need. Further, many of us have been influenced by the work of John Dominic Crossan, whose suspicion of arbitrary and supernatural explanations has led him to deny that Jesus and his followers enacted any physical cures. Healing, for Crossan, involves a change in social status, that is, an invitation of outcasts and ritually unclean persons to become part of the community of healing and wholeness rather than a physical transformation. While Crossan’s observations are astute, they fail to do justice either to the scriptural narratives and the faith of the early church , to the growing body of evidence indicating the reality of healing (especially in new age, mainline Christian, and Pentecostal circles), or the intricate interweaving of mind, body, and spirit.

The first question the homilist might raise is "does the name of Jesus truly carry with it some form of power? can the invocation of Jesus’ name really transform body, mind, spirit, and relationships?" While many persons invoke Jesus’ name in ways that bound on the manipulative and magical, I believe that certain names, including the name of Jesus, carry with them the historical power and presence of their source. The belief in the power of a name to reflect or transform reality was essential to Hebraic and early Christian theological reflection. Today, we know the negative power of words as evident in words that limit, judge, or define persons in life-debilitating ways. We also know how words of acceptance and love can heal the wounds of the past and awaken us to new possibilities. Words as symbols of a deeper reality participate, to use Tillich’s language, in the reality toward which they point. In my own pastoral work, I often counsel persons to invoke Jesus’ name as a means of assuring them that they will have the resources and protection to respond to a personal or relational crisis. I invite them to experience themselves as part of a divine circle of love, which may not always deliver them from crisis situations, but which will insure that they will be able to trust that "in all things, we are more than conquerors....for nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." The name of Jesus can be the mantra whose power drives away evil and fear.

Second, we must ask "can such healings occur in our own lives today?" While we must avoid the linear and supernatural explanations offered by many televangelists and conservative faith healers, we must affirm that in a world constantly incarnating the divine aims at wholeness, there is always a possibility of dramatic transformation. Certain situations may involve a confluence of personal openness, environmental support through touch, prayer, and acceptance, and the divine initiative in such a way that dramatic changes of body, mind, spirit, and relationships occur. Just as we can experience a dramatic change of mind, we can also experience a spontaneous remission or physical healing within the matrix of certain positive causal influences. Those who deny the possibility that spiritual transformations can in physical wellness are going against the testimonies of countless persons who have experienced physical healings in liturgical contexts as well as the growing scientific evidence of the mind-body connection.

Here, however, I must give a few words of caution. First, a truly holistic understanding of healing includes medical care as well as spiritual activity. As one of my medical colleagues proclaims, "prayer and prozac!" Wherever healing occurs, be it gentle and gradual or dramatic and spontaneous in nature, God is present as its ultimate source. Second, passages that connect faith with healing can lead to feelings of hopelessness and guilt if interpreted in a literal and legalistic fashion by the homilist. Following a lecture spirituality and healing, a man came up to me in profound sorrow. He related the story of the his daughter’s death from cancer and then angrily recounted the advice of one pious Christian who explained to him that if he only prayed more his daughter would have survived! Passages that understand faith and healing in a linear way (especially those that deal with chronic illness and paralysis) can be especially problematic for persons with disabilities. The homilist needs to remember the multifactorial nature of causation, on the one hand, as well as the reality that authentic healing must ultimately address the spirit as well as the body. Faith can transform our lives, but the transformation may not always change our bodies. With the Apostle Paul, we may discover a deeper healing amid chronic or terminal illness, the reality that God’s grace is sufficient.

Essential to this man’s healing is his willingness to look beyond his illness and claim God’s aim at wholeness. "Look at us!" urges Peter. Transformation and transcendence occur, even when a cure may not be found, when we place our illness in the larger divine perspective, that is, when we look at God rather than illness as our primary reality. The transformation of the mind nurtured by faith enables us to experience illness and grief as but one reality and not the only reality in our lives. Had this man refused to turn his attention to God, he would not have been healed. This is surely the message of the cure of the woman with the hemorrhage. Her healing occurred as result of the divine-human partnership. Without her faith, she would have not have been healed. But, equally, without the power flowing from Jesus, her faith would not have led to a cure.

Peter and John proclaim that spiritual transformation is even possible for those who crucified Jesus. God can break down any barrier that stands in the way of wholeness. Peter calls his listeners to repent, that is, turn around and change their lives. The divine aim is luring us toward openness toward God in every aspect of our lives. We must ask, as Jesus did in his interplay of healing and forgiveness, which is really most difficult to accomplish: the transformation of the mind - the healing of memories, the overcoming of hatred, grief, and hopelessness, the transformation of alienation into community - or the curing of a physical ailment. God will provide the resources for the transformation we need if we open ourselves to God’s lively, dynamic, and transformative aims.

I John
The Epistle reading focuses on spiritual transformation. "What we will yet be has not been revealed." The presence of Christ is growing within us, powerfully and yet quietly. In the spirit of Jesus image of "vines and branches," those who abide in Christ bear much fruit because the divine wisdom and power which brings healing, growth, reconciliation, and stature flow through our lives without obstruction. Attentive to God through spiritual centeredness, the world becomes an icon constantly revealing God’s aims for our lives and the world. Conversely, when we are uncentered by sin and lawlessness, we are blinded to the divine center present everywhere. Divine energy is stifled or misdirected.

Similar to the Acts reading, the passage from the Epistle of John focuses on the power of sight. We become like the objects of our attention. The homilist who focuses on this passage might reflect on the importance of spiritual disciplines, such as centering prayer, Sabbath time, or walking prayer, in the life of faith. Amid the multiplicity from which each moment of our experience arises , we can catch a glimpse of the moment-by-moment guidance of God’s aim - the "still, small voice" that speaks in "sighs too deep for words" - by intentional moments of quiet centering on the presence of God’s voice speaking through the many voices of life. As an illustration of the Epistle reading, the preacher might invite the congregation to an extended time of silence during the pastoral prayer/prayers of the faithful or convene a church school class whose focus is centering prayer. [Centering prayer is a traditional form of Christian contemplation grounded in the gentle focus on a meaningful prayer word such as "love," "peace," "Christ," "light."]

In the Gospel reading, an encounter of the resurrected Lord with his disciples is remembered. While it is important to listen to the scholarly analyses of the resurrection narratives written by persons such as John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, and members of the Jesus Seminar, it is equally important to remember that apart from the credibility of the resurrection stories to first century Christians, the life and teachings of Jesus would have been consigned to a footnote in the adventures of the Jewish people. While many literalists err in claiming too much knowledge of the resurrection of Jesus, many modern biblical scholars err in the opposite extreme, that is, under the spell of Enlightenment rationalism, philosophical dualism, and deistic theology, they claim far too little knowledge in terms of the resurrection of Jesus. Locked in the prison of what they deny about the resurrection, they affirm virtually nothing significant and transformative about the post-resurrection experiences. A process perspective offers a creative alternative to these polar positions. The dynamic and personal God, who is constantly present, calling forth new life and challenging the status quo, can be dramatically present in certain historical events. Healings and paranormal experiences reflect what the Scots referred to as "thin places" where the divine manifests itself more directly and decisively in human experience. In a process-relational world, surprising and unexpected events are always possible, not as violations of the patterns of causation but as exemplifications of the deeper divine energies operative within the universe.

While the preacher need not discourse on the mechanics of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, a topic that is left unresolved by the resurrection accounts in the gospels and I Corinthians 15, he or she might focus on the significance of embodiment in the process of salvation or wholeness. This passage is not so much about whether Jesus enjoyed a post-resurrection meal as it is about the power of God to transform the whole of our lives, including our bodies. Contrary to Gnostics of the first and twenty-first centuries, the early Christians saw human life embracing body, spirit, mind, emotions, relationships, and the social order. Resurrection experiences transform every aspect of our lives, including our bodies.

In this passage, peace comes from "touching Jesus." Once more, the issue is one of focus: of centering on Jesus in the context of our doubt, fear, anxiety, and grief. Christian faith is not a denial of life’s complexity - of the destructive powers of injustice, alienation, sickness, and death. Rather, Christian faith is about the transformation of what appears to be negativity and destruction into new creation through the constantly lively and undaunted movements of God in our lives. "Touch me and see" is the heart of Christian faith, whether we face a divorce, job transition, aging, disappointment, or death of ourselves or another. Still, as we touch Jesus, God is also touching us with the inspiration of the divine aim at beauty and the healing power of God’s universal energy.

This passage invites the preacher once more to adventures in congregational spirituality. In church school or a time of quiet meditation in the service, the preacher may invite persons to enter an imaginative prayer or creative visualization exercise (in the spirit of The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola) in which they experience themselves as disciples touching Jesus and being touched in return by the power of God. Such imaginative exercises invite us, as Ron Farmer suggests in his book of the same title, to go "beyond the impasse" of sterile biblical scholarship and unbelievable biblical literalism.

Putting it all Together:
The readings are joined together by the themes of transformation, centering, and wholeness. Focusing on Christ, we can experience the new life and repentance which transform our lives in every way. As we focus on Christ, we are delivered from the imprisonment of our limitations and problems. While God is always working within our lives, we embody this divine aim at wholeness most fully when we attend to God’s presence in times of contemplative and body prayer, liturgical healing, and group spiritual exercises.

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.