2nd Sunday of Easter

April 18, 2004
See Also: 
Reading 2: 
Psalm 118:14-29
Reading 3: 
Acts 5:27-32 and Revelation 1:4-8
Reading 4: 
John 20:19-31
By Paul S. Nancarrow

Acts 5:27-32
The Acts lesson for this day addresses the early conflict between the young Jesus movement and the established Temple Council leadership. We must take the story with a historical grain of salt, of course; Luke is writing some decades after the fact, and is most likely retrojecting the tension between synagogue and church after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. into this earlier scene. Luke is also setting the stage for the dramatic conversion of Paul we will read next week: by establishing a court order from the Council to cease and desist preaching in the name of Jesus here in chapter 5, Luke is providing the rationale for Paul being given authority by the Council to round up Christians in Damascus in chapter 9. The brief speech of Peter before the Council also highlights Luke’s constant theme of the reversal of the gospel: Jesus whom the Council condemned to death has been raised by God; this is of course connected to “the stone which the builders rejected” in the psalm. Of particular interest in a process-relational reading is the apostles’ claim, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” On the positive side, this faith stance relativizes all human power structures, and means that no human authority can claim to be the final expression of God’s will. But the saying has a negative potential as well. We in our time have learned too well the dangers of extremists, fanatics, and cultists who claim to be obeying God while rejecting human authority in ways that can be quite destructive, ways that do not at all reflect God’s overarching will for justice and peace, right relationships of mutual well-being. We are aware of the need to subject any claim that one is obeying God to criticism and discernment. Human authority thus has a constructive role to play, relativized though it must be, in any discernment of a call from God. Peter and the apostles will discover this for themselves, when Peter must face the council of the apostles and explain his call to allow Gentiles to join the church without becoming Jews first (a passage assigned to be read on the Fifth Sunday of Easter). Obeying God is a matter of neither individual interpretation nor human authority alone, but both must held together in discernment within a context of right relationships.

Psalm 118:14-29
The psalm appointed today is another selection from Psalm 118, also used on Easter morning, with the same reference to “the stone which the builders rejected” becoming “the chief cornerstone.” Today this sense of reversal, this sense of new possibility being opened up from “mere wreckage” might be applied to Thomas in the gospel.

Revelation 1:4-8
Today’s passage begins a whole course of readings from Revelation that will take us all the way through the Easter season. This section is from the opening greeting of seven “letters” addressed to seven church communities in Asia Minor. Twice in these five verses John the Seer refers to God as “the one who is, and who was, and who is to come.” This formula is often taken to assert changelessness as an attribute of God, and therefore as a witness against any idea of process or openness or self-surpassingness in God. In this context, however, it seems more likely that John is stressing the faithfulness and steadfastness of God, as distinct from sheer immutability. Much of John’s book will be taken up with visions of the future, visions of great stress and pain for the Christian community; here, at the outset of the book, John begins with a reminder that all change and conflict and growth and decay are gathered up into God, whose overarching purposes and intentions are not deflected or incapacitated by earthly change. Christians themselves can therefore be steadfast and faithful through the entire process. Because Jesus was “the faithful witness” to God’s purposes, and because Jesus’ witness is vindicated by his being “the firstborn from the dead,” therefore Christians who face contemporary conflict and upheaval may trust in God’s unwavering purpose to bring justice and peace in the end. In that trust, the faithful community may act in the world accordingly.

John 20:19-31
The gospel passage is the centerpiece of the lectionary selections for this day. Of all the resurrection appearance stories, this is the only one that is specifically identified as taking place one week after Easter, and so it is traditionally assigned to be read on the second Sunday of the Easter season. Much has been written on the character of Thomas in the story, his doubt and his subsequent faith; Thomas has been held up as an example of how not to be, an example of a weak faith that cannot believe without material proof; Thomas has been held up as an example of how we all should be, an example of a faith that knows the difference between credibility and gullibility and is not willing to stake important matters on mere hearsay.

From a process-relational point of view, however, what I find more interesting in the Thomas story is the way it illustrates the importance of experience-in-relationship to the formation of faith. The good news of new life cannot be fully real to Thomas until he experiences it in some measure in himself, until he experiences the Risen Jesus as a real presence in real relation to his own real life. For Thomas, the other disciples’ report that they have seen Jesus alive is an interesting piece of news, perhaps even a startling development; but it makes no substantive difference to Thomas’s expectations or possibilities for living until he himself has seen the Risen Jesus in some similar way. When Jesus does appear to Thomas, when Thomas does experience resurrection as a possibility really relevant to his own life, then Thomas’ faith is without question: “My lord and my God!” he says to Jesus, the first of all the disciples in John’s gospel to acknowledge Jesus as divine.

To this extent, Thomas’s story is representative of all believers—all of us—who come after Easter. Jesus’ response to Thomas—“Have you believed because you have seen me? How blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”—indicates that the story is pointed beyond the first generation of Christians to all who come to believe without having been eyewitnesses to Jesus. Thomas is for us a sign of our own need for concrete experience of new life in Christ before the abstract concept of resurrection can have much real claim on our belief. “Jesus is risen” is a proposition, a lure for feeling, that can only mean something to us when the feeling of “risenness” is available to us in the experience of some actual relationship to Jesus. And such experience of actual relationship to Jesus comes to us in the context of the community of disciples. That Thomas is with the disciples on the first day of the week, measured from the day of Jesus’ resurrection, is a hint—not, certainly, a direct reference, but a significant hint—of the Christian community gathered for Sunday worship. It is in that context of community that Jesus comes, it is within that community life that the life of Jesus is made available to experience. The life of the discipled community provides the environment in which the ideals and values, the forms of definiteness, that characterized Jesus’ life can be re-presented and experienced anew as formative factors in the lives of the community’s members. As the justice and peace and love and life in God that defined Jesus are re-presented in community, so the members of the community can come to experience Jesus, not simply as a historical figure, but as a living presence among them. The proposition “Jesus is risen” has something to “hook into” in believers’ lives, because of their own experience of the present reality of Jesus in the life of the community. What gives the story of Thomas its power as a process-relational parable is its presentation of new possibilities opened up by the experience of the New Life of Jesus present in the lives of disciples.

Paul S. Nancarrow is the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Staunton, Virginia, where he makes use of process ideas in preaching, worship, pastoral care, and leadership. He is a co-author of the book, The Call of the Spirit: Process Spirituality in the Contemporary World. and writes a regular column on liturgy for Creative Transformation.