2nd Sunday of Easter

April 22, 2001
See Also: 
Reading 2: 
Psalm 118:14-29 or Psalm 150
Reading 3: 
Acts 5:27-32 and Revelation 1:4-8
Reading 4: 
John 20:19-31
By Barry A. Woodbridge

For the second through the sixth Sundays in Easter, or the complete cycle of Eastertide, the epistle lesson is taken from the book of Revelation. One of our Process and Faith board members and an active member of the process hermeneutics working group is New Testament scholar, Dr. Ronald L. Farmer. Ron is completing work on The Revelation to John: A Commentary for Today, forthcoming in the Chalice Press commentary series. [Editor's note: now available from Flux books.] We will be using his pre-publication manuscript to bring a process perspective on preaching these texts, since the book of Revelation probably does not receive that much attention from our pulpits. We deserve to hear that book opened again and not just left to fear-based interpretation of the apocalypticists.

Psalm 150 concludes the book of Psalms with an inclusive and universal invitation, "Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!" Naming everything that has breath takes us back to creation (Gen 2:7) and links us with the gospel lesson today when John’s Jesus breathes on the gathered community (notice that there is no explicit reference to eleven disciples, so "the disciples" may be the more general and inclusive "gathered community of followers"): "When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’" (John 20:22)

Thus the risen Lord brings a new, second creation to those whose animating spirit has been blocked, thwarted, or disillusioned, as was the case with the early followers.

This new life brings about clarity of purpose in the new community. In Acts when Peter is preaching in Jerusalem and is charged with trying to bring "this man’s blood upon us [the Sanhedrin] (Acts 5:28), he and the followers engage in civil disobedience because they have been empowered and emboldened to "obey God rather than any human authority" (5:29).

The situation in Revelation 1:4-6 is quite different. In his prophetic introduction to an apocalyptic message, John delivers an inclusive salutation in the form one might give in an epistle: Grace to you and peace, from him who is and who was and who is to come…" (v. 4b)

The tenses are significant in these three verbs to be. God is not the static God of the past, nor only of the present, but literally "the one coming," or as the NRSV renders it, the one who is to come. This God is here and now, and yet is to become even more in our presence. This biblical witness to the nature of God is taken up in process thought’s central contribution to theology, namely that God is best understood in Charles Hartshorne’s famous expression, "the self-surpassing surpasser." God is perfectly related to all that now is, and will come into greater and extended new relatednesses as creation breaks through such impasses as the finality of death over Jesus’ mission to bring about a new understanding of human existence.

Verse 5, continuing the divine origins of this greeting, links the source of the greeting also to Easter: " and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth."

So, the God who is to come is known to be faithful through the witness (marturian) of Jesus Christ the first born or prototype of the dead (prototokos ton nekron). The word "prototokos" is different from the word Paul used in the Easter Sunday epistle declaration in 1 Cor. 15:20 ("But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits [haparche] from the dead.) Both texts use a slightly different term to suggest how God remembers Jesus in his death, and by divine aim initiates an archetype (Paul) or a prototype (Revelation) of a life which, as a totally new creation, re-presences Jesus' faithful witness in the gathered community.

This somewhat unique term "prototokos" is also used in Col. 1:15 "He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation…" In dealing with this term, the Arndt Gingrich Lexicon notes "of Christ, as the first-born of a new humanity which is to be glorified, as its exalted Lord is glorified. This expression . . . is admirably suited to describe Jesus as the one coming forth fr. God to found the new community of saints…"1 The concept of a prototype conveys the proper sense that this divine initiative begins as a proposition in the mind of God which is offered as lure for feelings in the human community stunned by the death of Jesus. The resultant newly experienced proposal gives cause for glorification, as we shall see in John’s doxology to follow in verse 5.

Thus the three titles ascribed to the living, transforming Christ in verse 5, each point to a dimension of the Easter season's proclamation. Christ is "faithful witness" even unto death, an encouragement for those original hearers facing martyrdom. They are being asked to do nothing their "sponsor" Jesus had not already done himself. Christ is "firstborn of the dead" as the prototype of new existence for all and as the sign death cannot be the final act in creation. Christ is "ruler of the kings of the earth," an ascription the writer uses from Ps. 89:7 to show this firstborn's power exceeds that of civil authority. Hence, the connection here with Peter's confession in today’s reading in Acts 5:29 ("We must obey God rather than any human authority.") John uses this ascription also to encourage his readers when they must chose between two understandings of power he will be proposing to them throughout this book. He will be contrasting the power of Caesar with the type of power God uses.

In his commentary, Ron Farmer observes that offering the greeting (‘Grace to you and peace" v. 4b) with the triple ascription to the Christ risen from the dead in verse 5a causes John to burst out in a doxology, a doxology uncommonly addressed to Christ, not to God:

"To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and forever. Amen " (vs. 5b-6)

The present tense of "he loves us" implies resurrection, that he is still alive. "Freed us from our sins by his blood" confirms his redemptive suffering. "Made us to be a kingdom, priests to his God " reminds us Christians are to recognize God’s activity in our world, even when circumstances may challenge or contradict that. "Priests" suggests that all members of the community are to offer God’s suffering sacrifice to the world, challenging the world’s understanding of power with a new proposition about God’s power, the power of persuasive long suffering.

As joyous doxology marks the response to the John’s proclamation of the God who is to come in the prototypical event of Christ’s resurrection from death, we too are challenged to find ways to give our congregations permission to respond to our proclamation. John’s "to him be glory forever and forever. Amen." is one way. Proclaiming this possibility deserves and requires some response involving body, voice, and action. Be creative in finding a natural, perhaps awe-ful way of freeing congregations to respond.

One of Ron Farmer’s own adult study students, hearing his process interpretation of Revelation unfold week by week in his Sunday Bible study, gave a natural, faithful witness this past Easter Sunday: "I’m no longer afraid to read that book of the Bible. He made me want to read it again." So be it for all of us.

1. William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1957), 734.