2nd Sunday of Easter

April 11, 2010
See Also: 
Reading 2: 
Psalm 150
Reading 3: 
Acts 5:27-32 & Revelation 1:4-8
Reading 4: 
John 20:19-31
By Bruce G. Epperly

This week’s lectionary readings focus on the vital, life-transforming breath of God. God’s Spirit breathes in and through us and all things, inspiring and transforming us and all humankind. God’s resurrection mercies are “new every morning.” The lectionary invites preachers and congregants to breathe in God’s creative and life-giving spirit and to explore spiritual practices such as breath prayer, the simple focus on your breath as a way of opening to the Holy Spirit. This week’s scriptures afford an excellent opportunity to plan a half hour centering prayer or breath prayer workshop.

The Holy Spirit, as God’s life-transforming presence moving in our lives, gives us courage to face the challenges of our time. The ones who abandoned Jesus at the Cross are now willing to face death to proclaim resurrection faith. In the spirit of the prophets and justice-seekers throughout the centuries, Peter proclaims that “we must obey God rather than human authority.” In contemporary internet language, at Jerusalem following Pentecost, the resurrection event that spiritually revived a handful of Jesus’ disciples has gone “viral,” now embracing the whole earth. Nothing, not even the Roman Empire or the Jewish religious establishment, can hinder the good news of resurrection love.

Resurrection is universal as well as intimate. Long before Easter and Pentecost, God’s Spirit moved in creation. The Psalmist shouts the words, “Let everything that breathes praise God!” This is spiritual direction at its best. Each morning as I wait for my internet connection, I breathe in deeply the Spirit of God. Whenever I become anxious or stressed, I take a moment to breathe in God’s Spirit of Shalom and Transformation. Today, the pastor can challenge his congregation to breathe, that is, to become consciously aware of God’s presence with every breath. What if the pastor invited the congregation to stop for a moment after the scripture readings to take time for silent breathing, and then invited the congregants to incorporate breath prayer into their daily activities? This is not just metaphor, but opening to God’s real presence in every breath.

The Revelation passage is difficult and, if the preacher is not prepared to challenge or interpret certain aspects of the passage, he or she might as well omit it from the readings of the day. The good news from the passage is that God’s saving activity is everlasting and universal. God is at work resurrecting our lives “yesterday, today, and tomorrow.” God is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and end, of human and cosmic evolution and the love present in Jesus is the dynamic force that moves the emerging galaxies and our own planetary evolution.

How shall we deal with the statement that “all the tribes of the earth shall wail?” One interpretation might involve the confession that we have all turned away from God’s resurrection love. There is no threat implied, but rather regret that we did not awaken to God’s love earlier. Resurrection occurs in the context of Good Friday and Holy Saturday, the times when we abandon God’s shalom and lose hope in God’s life-transforming presence. With the coming of God’s resurrection in our lives, we experience those moments when we “missed the mark” and added ugliness to the world and to God’s own experience. If our lives are our intended to be our gifts to God, then we recognize that we have often committed “sins” of omission and commission. When we experience the fullness of God’s love, our own failure to love becomes obvious, our excuses unconvincing, and the only response is confession and transformation.

The passage from John 20 presents a plethora of possibilities to the preacher. Three potential sermon foci might emerge: 1) John’s Pentecost and Jesus’ breathing of the Holy Spirit; 2) the persistence of Thomas; and 3) the unwritten stories of Jesus.

In line with Psalm 150, John 20 proclaims that Jesus breathed on the disciples and proclaimed, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Jesus breathes in and with the first disciples, and Jesus breathes in and through us, reviving and inspiring us. Although he is known by his wounds, Jesus’ broken body gives life to his followers and to us. Our ability to forgive sins and challenge unfaithfulness does not come from our limited egos but from Christ within us, still breathing and giving life to us. We can challenge others’ behavior because we have let go of defensiveness and are motivated by our commitment to God’s reign of Shalom and not our self-interest or need to be right.

Christ is alive in us and inspires us with every breath. Again, the preacher can invite his or her congregants to visualize themselves breathing with Christ, letting Christ fill them from head to toe. This could occur in worship as a silent prelude to the “prayers of the faithful” and also as we listen to the scripture readings.

Thomas is the “Rodney Dangerfield” of the Gospels. He has been given the title “doubting Thomas” and has been seen as an inferior apostle despite the fact that he persisted in remaining open to the resurrection despite the fact that he alone was an “outsider” in the faith. Everyone “gets it” but Thomas, but still he stays around. While it must have been excruciating for Thomas, he persevered in faith, despite the absence of evidence. In the spirit of Paul Tillich, Thomas’ faith embraces his doubt. He stays near the disciples, hoping to experience resurrection. His doubt and questioning are essential to faith: while faith always requires a leap, healthy faith also involves the willingness to question and subject our theological positions to self-criticism. Whatever we cannot question becomes an idol. Accordingly, while Thomas is open to new insights and new experiences, his initial questioning of the resurrection is a model for faithful living and the best antidote to high-pressure and cult-like religion.
The moment Thomas experiences the Risen Jesus, he embraces this new resurrection reality. According to legend, Thomas the so-called doubter brings Christ’s message to India. Thomas the philosopher, the questioner, has the stature to dialogue with the sophisticated faith traditions of India. Today, the impact of this doubter is still alive among thousands of Indian Christians.

The lectionary reading ends with a cryptic passage, “now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples which are not written in this book.” Jesus’ spiritual reality is more than we can imagine. Jesus cannot be confined to the pages of a book but lives on, inspiring creative transformation throughout history and our lives. Following Jesus’ words to Mary of Magdala, “do not hold onto me,” we can affirm that Jesus can appear to us in unexpected and surprising ways. Jesus is not even confined to the church or the Christian tradition. He gives life and inspiration to people in all times and places.

Today is a day of wonder in which congregants and preacher can alike awaken to the God who is as near to us as our next breath. Christ is alive and comes to us in many ways. Faithfulness to Christ involves embracing the Story behind the stories as well as opening to new stories told by persons of all ages, ethnicities, races, and sexual identities.

The Risen Jesus can show up anywhere and any place. Thanks be to the ever-living and ever-loving resurrection God! Let us breathe in God’s Spirit in scripture, song, sermon, and service.

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.