Last revised: April 16, 2017
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SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER — YEAR A
RCL: Acts 2:14a, 22-32; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31
RoCa: Acts 2:42-47; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31
“Dreaming of Peace” (2002) is a sermon that is among my most passionate and, I think, most articulate cases for nonviolence at the heart of the Gospel. It was inspired by a nightmare about executions during the night before preaching it. Waking up so revulsed by the dream of executions, it occurred to me that that’s what was behind Thomas’ doubts. Doubting a resurrection itself would be strange, since Thomas had recently seen Jesus raise Lazarus. From the sermon:
No, Thomas was struggling with the idea that God would choose to raise someone who was executed in shame. Thomas doesn’t just demand to see Jesus in order to believe. He demands to see the marks of his execution! He wants to see the nail prints in his hands and the place where the sword pierced his side. He was still shuddering at the horror of the one whom they thought to be the Messiah having been executed. Jesus was supposed to save his people from centuries of being oppressed. Jesus was supposed to help them turn around the oppressive violence of the Romans. How could one who seemed so powerless against that violence actually be the one who is saving us from it? Impossible! God raise him in power as the Messiah? He’ll believe that when he sees the nail prints and puts his hand in Jesus’ side.
And here’s the main point:
The cross as a repulsive execution brings us face to face with the heart of the matter: that our cure for violence is sacred violence, a violence we say is O.K. for the sake of keeping order, and that God’s cure for violence is completely different than ours. God submits to our sacred violence in the cross and reveals it as meaningless and powerless compared to God’s power of life. The resurrection of the one whom we executed puts us face to face with absolutely the most difficult thing for us to believe — namely, that the only way to ultimately cure violence is to completely refrain from doing it, even if it means submitting to it, revealing its meaninglessness compared to the Creator’s power of life. We need to keep believing in the violence we use to try to stop others from using violence on us. We refuse to believe that there could be a way of stopping violence that doesn’t involve violence — or “force,” since we generally want to call what we do something else other than “violence.” Thomas wants to know, we want to know, how someone who seemed so powerless against the violence could actually be the one saving us from it. If we want to truly be challenged by something impossible for us to believe, try believing that there is ultimately a nonviolent way to stop violence. Believing that God could raise someone from the dead is nothing compared to that.
When we talk about “faith in God,” it seems to be no problem for Christians to talk in terms of a God who backs our most deeply held values of sanctioning violence against the people we deem as bad, evil. But such talk increasingly causes me to have doubts about what we really mean by “faith in God” if we claim a Messiah who suffered violence but never dished it out. Is the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ the full and true revelation of God, or not? Is there some additional event needed to save us — like a second coming of Christ that’s completely different — namely, full of sacred violence — than the first coming? Isn’t that why apocalypses like the Left Behind series are so popular among Christians? Like Thomas on Easter evening, we just can’t quite come to believe that an executed Messiah is what saves us.
Twelve years later in 2014 I had given my Easter sermon on the theme “Easter Means Saving Religion, Too,” using a story of a pastor who was stranded the night before Easter with a nonreligious biker crowd, and so he rewrites his Easter sermon around reaching out to the nonreligious. For Easter 2 I had my own story to tell of rewriting a sermon because of an encounter the night before. But I based on this story of the 2002 sermon I extended the outreach to consider the anti-religious, not just the nonreligious. Thomas doubts because Jesus was executed as an anti-religious person. The Christian faith begins with a stance of being against what has counted as religion in human evolution. But not to leave it there; rather, to begin redeeming our religion — hence, the sermon “Easter Means Saving Religion, Too (Part 2).”
Acts 2:14a, 22-32
Reflections and Questions
1. The high priest says, “you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” In this age that we are now hyper-sensitive to anti-Semitism, we might in fact read anti-Semitism into this part of Peter’s response: “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.” It sounds blaming to us.
Yet does this ignore what comes next in Peter’s response? He goes on to say, “God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” In other words, the bottom line of pointing to the harsh reality of the cross is not a blaming or accusing in order to turn around and scapegoat Jesus’ persecutors. Rather, the bottom line is to give the opportunity for repentance and the forgiveness of sins. What stands in the way of such forgiveness and repentance is the refusal to see our own implication in the cross of Christ. Peter and the apostles don’t soft-peddle responsibility for the cross, but the point is to be witnesses to God’s forgiveness.
1 Peter 1:3-9
1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from April 7, 2002 (Woodside Village Church).
There is an emphasis in both this story and the “doubting Thomas” story to follow on Jesus showing them his hands and his side. At the time of this Gospel we know of a drift toward gnosticism, or docetism, the tendency to say that Jesus just seemed to be human. This emphasis on the hands and side is a way of saying that the crucifixion was a real death of a real human being. Jesus wasn’t just shadow-playing. The disbelief in the Thomas story is more of a disbelief in the crucifixion than the resurrection, from this standpoint of answering gnosticism. It is the scandal of the crucifixion which makes the resurrection difficult for gnostics to believe. In these verses, the emphasis is on “Peace be with you. As the Father sends me…” This sums up the resurrection, which is the experience of suddenly being impelled to do what he did. My life is no longer my own. He lives in me. The experience of the resurrection is twofold. First part: The Christic impulse is in me. I feel compelled to do what he did.
The second part: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” The Holy Spirit is synonymous with the Paraclete. The Paraclete is the defender of victims. How do we defend victims? Urban II had a way of defending victims: go and slaughter the victimizers [a reference back to the discussion of the Crusades earlier in this lecture]. We know where that leads. How does the Paraclete defend victims? Forgiveness, even forgiveness of the victimizers. From our sacrificial point of view, we read this as a stern God who says, ‘You get to go out there and decide who’s going to go to hell and who’s not.’ Rather, the part about retaining sins is an urging to the disciples to get out there and get busy forgiving people’s sins, because if they don’t do it, it won’t get done. Unless people experience forgiveness from them, they won’t be forgiven. If they don’t experience forgiveness at the hands of the Jesus’ disciples, then they will go on generating the kinds of rituals by which they will feel expiated. It’s not some pious thing that says, ‘Ah, you’re O.K.’ It’s tremendously dynamic – and hard to pull off. People today will pay hundreds of dollars an hour trying to be forgiven.
Rowan Williams wrote: “There is no hope of understanding the Resurrection outside the process of renewing humanity in forgiveness. We are all agreed that the empty tomb proves nothing. We need to add that no amount of apparitions, however well authenticated, would mean anything either, apart from the testimony of forgiven lives communicating forgiveness.” The resurrection was an experience of forgiveness. The disciples had all abandoned Jesus, becoming complicit with his murderers. The fact that the resurrection was happening to them was an experience of forgiveness for them.
Followed by quotes from Schillebeeckx, H.J. Richards, Bonhoeffer, Sullivan, and Johann Baptiste Metz.
Reflections and Questions
1. The theme of much of James Alison‘s work, as it locates its beginning point in the Resurrection experience of the apostles, is that Jesus came to them as a presence of forgiveness. When Jesus appears in these twelve verses and three times says, “Peace be with you,” I think we must understand something deeper than calming their fears and anxieties. John names their fear at the outset as fear of their leaders and what they might presumably do to them. Then, with Jesus’ sudden appearance, there is apparently some further hesitation and fear that is somewhat calmed by Jesus showing them his marks of identity as their Crucified Lord. At that point, they “rejoice,” but then why does Jesus insist on saying again, “Peace be with you”? Isn’t it because what they really need the most at that moment is forgiveness? Isn’t the kind of peace they need the one set in motion by forgiveness?
The ensuing Pentecostal commissioning would seem to support this. As the Father has sent Jesus with the presence of forgiveness, so now Jesus sends them, with the power of the Holy Spirit: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
2. What is retaining sins about? Is this an ironic portion of the commissioning that Jesus throws in to make clear their mission is to not be as the unforgiving servant was in the parable of Matthew 18? How could they retain the sins of any after experiencing themselves this utterly gracious presence of Jesus among them as forgiveness? Had they done anything to deserve Jesus’ forgiving presence with them at that moment? Had Jesus himself shown any hint of retaining their sin?
I made ample use of this John 20 passage in my Epiphany 5C sermon (entitled “A Bad Hire?”) on the first calling of the disciples in Luke 5:1-11. The theme I tried to bring out was that Jesus needed to call his disciples a second time. The first call didn’t stick. They all abandoned him at his time of need. So I used these verses from John 20 as an example of calling the disciples a second time. And I made a big deal out of the fact of Jesus calling them again after they had utterly failed. Why would he do that? Is this the case of a bad hire? Or is their failure, along with Jesus’ forgiveness of it, precisely their main qualification for being hired as apostles? Here’s the last several paragraphs of that sermon:
Here’s that second calling of the disciples, and it’s absolutely amazing! His disciples who had abandoned him and denied him are sitting in a locked room, grief-stricken, afraid, and feeling “guilty as sin,” and the Risen Jesus pops in to visit them. You and I would have, at the very least, sacked the whole lot of them. We would have fired them — ‘You good-for-nothing, fair-weather friends, you failed me! I never want to see you again! Now that I’m risen I’m going to get myself some new disciples, some real disciples, someone who will follow me through thick and thin.’ That’s what you and I would have said, right? But not Jesus! No, it’s incredible! Not only does he not sack the sorry lot of them; not only does he not return for vengeance; not only does he come instead with peace; but he hires them to go out into the world extending the word of forgiveness to others!! And, some time later, when Jesus goes out to hire the person he wants to take this message of forgiveness to the ends of the earth, he hires Saul, one who is guilty of killing some of Jesus’ first messengers. Is Jesus crazy? No, of course not. He’s the Son of God, and so he definitely does things differently from what we would do. To spread a message of forgiveness, he hires not those who appear blameless or somehow most worthy. He hires those who truly know that they themselves have been forgiven.
You and I are called as disciples of Jesus. Why? Because we are somehow better than others? No, the job description for being a disciple of Jesus begins with knowing how wrong you are [Alison’s The Joy of Being Wrong], with knowing how much you are forgiven. It begins by recognizing our own guilt and then having the wonderful experience of being forgiven for it. Life can begin anew! There is a joy in being forgiven, and that joy is knowing the life-giving power of being forgiven.
Our Risen Lord comes to us today once again in the Holy Sacrament of Communion. He comes to say to us, “Peace be with you.” Not only that, he comes to call us. He comes to hire us to help spread the news. He comes to ask us to extend this word of healing, life-giving forgiveness to others: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.” Oh, yes, there’s also this second part about, “if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But after you yourself have had your sins forgiven, could you really retain the sins of another? You see? Jesus has hired the right people, after all. Amen
3. Another twist on the releasing and binding of sins in John 20:23 is to look at it through the Akedah, which means “binding,” the story of Genesis 22 in which Abraham binds Isaac for sacrifice and then is released from such a horrific command. Jesus continues the Good News of a God who releases us from the sin of such idolatrous sacrifice — a sin to which we might nevertheless continue to bind ourselves if we resist the Good News. See my reflections on John 20:23 in light of the Akedah at Proper 8A.
4. Walter Wangerin, Jr.‘s version of this story in The Book of God lends itself well to a sermon about peace. What kind of peace do we usually think of when we read that Jesus suddenly came into their midst saying, “Peace be with you”? Peace from the inner turmoil of grief and guilt? Wangerin’s story sets the stage with Peter and James arguing, ready to come to physical blows, blaming each other. As James is ready to lunge at Peter, Jesus suddenly is between them speaking his word of peace. A much more dramatic version of “peace,” don’t you think? Link to a sermon making use of Wangerin’s telling of this story entitled “Called as Peacemakers.”
5. A comment from Britt Johnston in 1998:
A friend of mine who is a member of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty was demonstrating against an execution in Alabama last year. He was holding a sign that said, ‘Jesus was executed.’ But a church-goer who was demonstrating in favor of the execution took issue with him, saying that Jesus’ death wasn’t really an execution because it was the will of God fore-ordained from before creation for our salvation, etc. This is the equivalent of Thomas’ words, “unless I touch….and…see, I will not believe.” This is what Paul meant by the cross being a scandal. Once again, we want to cover over the murder with a comfortable myth.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the content of our believing as Christians. What are we supposed to believe in? That Jesus was God’s Son? That he rose from the dead? Is that what Thomas is having a hard time believing? Is it hard to believe that someone can be raised from the dead? In John’s story, the raising of Lazarus was still fresh for Thomas. Can he not believe that God could raise Jesus from the dead? I’m not so sure that’s what Thomas’ problem was. Perhaps it wasn’t simply that God could raise Jesus from the dead. Perhaps he had trouble believing that God would raise a crucified Jesus from the dead. Why would God raise someone executed in utter shame? How could someone so shamed be the Messiah worthy of resurrection?
The above comment by the church-goer favoring capital punishment puts these questions in perspective, I think. What are we supposed to believe? To me, this church-goer is off the mark. We are invited to believe precisely that God raised this one whom we executed. The execution brings us face to face with the heart of the matter: that our cure for violence is sacred violence, and that God’s cure for violence is completely different. God submits to our sacred violence in the cross and reveals it as meaningless and powerless compared to God’s power of life. The only way to ultimately stop violence is to completely refrain from doing it, even if it means submitting to it, revealing its meaninglessness.
Isn’t this what is truly difficult for us to believe? Consider our response to the horrific terrorism of September 11. Can we conceive of any other response than our own form of sanctioned violence? That God might be calling us in Jesus Christ to another way to respond — isn’t that the toughest thing for us to believe in? Was Thomas having trouble believing that God’s Messiah would be crucified? Doesn’t that confront him, and us, with a completely unheard-of plan of salvation from our constant violence? Doesn’t he insist on seeing the nail prints and the mark of the spear because he is having trouble believing in a crucified one? How could one who seemed so powerless against the violence actually be the one who is saving us from it? If we want to truly be challenged by something in which to believe, try believing that there is ultimately a nonviolent way to stop violence. Can we believe there’s another kind of response to September 11 than to wield our full military might at terrorism? And that Jesus came to call us to that other way? Don’t more folks have greater difficulty believing in the latter than in Jesus being raised from the dead?
6. My 2002 sermon, “Dreaming of Peace,” is very much related to these reflections (especially #5) but was spurred on from a most unexpected source: I had a dream, on the Saturday night before preaching, of experiencing an execution. I awoke still shuddering from the revulsiveness of it and immediately began to connect it to Thomas’ doubt in this Gospel Lesson. I have never before had an experience of feeling like a dream was given to me by God, and it resulted in an unusually powerful preaching experience for me.
7. As we watch the Israeli response to the “Passover Massacre” in 2002, does our response to September 11 look any different to us? (Does it seem to you — as it does to me — that we’ve seen more pictures of the Israeli military in action in this one week than we’ve seen of our own military in Afghanistan for several months?) Do we have any right to criticize the Israeli response without re-considering our own response.