Last revised: April 14, 2016
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SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER — YEAR C
RCL: Acts 5:27-32; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31
RoCa: Acts 5:12-16; Revelation 1:9-13, 17-19; John 20:19-31
1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from April 22, 2001 (Woodside Village Church).
Reflections and Questions
1. This passage begins the fourth of five sermons in Acts given by Peter. They all have quite different contexts and overall themes. But embedded within the themes of all five is the common theme of, ‘Humankind killed the Messiah; God raised him to life.’ Here we find it in verse 5:30: The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. (For all five verses in Acts ringing out this common theme, see section 4 of the former introductory page for this website.)
This is an extraordinarily important common theme that many Christians reverse with the traditional atonment theory, where God kills as punishment for sin and the resurrection doesn’t even play any necessary role. The story of salvation is focused on the cross, with the resurrection appended as a nice but secondary result, the supposed defeat of death. The primary move of saving us from condemnation to death by a wrathful, punishing, ‘just’ God is carried out on the cross by Jesus. Think about it: is the resurrection necessary under this version of salvation? Even if Jesus had remained dead in his grave, aren’t we still saved by his substitutionary death? Isn’t the popular view today of life-after-death not even of resurrection as a defeat of death? Isn’t it rather a view of immortality of the soul after suffering death? In which case, death isn’t really defeated? What I’m implying with these questions is that the soul living on isn’t really a thorough defeat of death as represented in Jesus’ resurrection of the body. And so the resurrection becomes completely superfluous to our salvation. In the popular version, we suffer death and then our souls are granted eternity because of Jesus’ sacrifice — except for unbelief in Jesus yields eternal death. I propose that we could drop the resurrection and still maintain our popular view of salvation as a life of the soul after death based solely on the cross — and its idolatrous view of God the Father.
But each of the first five Christian sermons in recorded history should have prevented such a relapse into idolatry. They make it clear, first, that we human beings are the ones responsible for killing Jesus. There is no hint whatsoever of some underlying cosmic scenario where God is actually killing Jesus behind the scenes as payment for our sins. Rather, God is responsible for the thing absolutely necessary — namely, resurrection — in order that we finally begin to put away our anthropological tendency to blame our violence on God. Without God raising Jesus to life on the third day as a reversal of our human violence, we remain trapped in our idolatry. Even with the resurrection, the traditional atonement theory manifests how strong is the anthropological tendency for us to lapse right back into the substitutionary idolatry hidden from us from the foundations of our human worlds. Only God’s raising of the Messiah as the pivot point of history has the power to heal that blindness.
2. 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 — with good reason — 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.
3. Staying with the theme of anti-Semitism: one of the best statements against it from the perspective of mimetic theory comes from Gil Bailie, in Violence Unveiled, in which he makes it clear that responsibility for the cross must be borne by all of humanity:
The surest way to miss the link between the cure (the crucifixion and its aftereffects) and the disease (the structures of scapegoating violence upon which all human social arrangements have depended) is to read the passion story with an eye to locating and denouncing those most responsible for it. There is a deep irony in this. The fact that we automatically search the text — or the world outside the text — for culprits on whom to blame the crucifixion is proof that we are one of the culprits, for the crucifixion was demanded by those determined to find a culprit to blame or punish or expel. Responsibility for the crucifixion and the system of sacred or scapegoating violence it epitomizes — is to be borne either by all of us or by only some of us. If the responsibility belongs only to some of us, those who bear responsibility deserve the contempt of those who do not, and we are back in a world of religious categories and sacred violence. The crucifixion’s anthropological significance is lost if responsibility for its violence is shifted from all to some. To lay the blame on the Pharisees or the Jews is to undermine the universal meaning of the crucifixion in favor of the familiar finger-pointing theory of human wickedness.The fact, however, that religious zeal played such a decisive role in Jesus’ death is both historically true and structurally essential to the revelation for which the Cross stands. The fact that it was Jewish religious zeal is not entirely without significance, but it has precisely the same significance that historical Christianity’s anti-Jewish pogroms have, namely, that the people who should have known better didn’t. And so, one of the great ironies is that historical Christianity’s willingness to blame the Jews for the crucifixion has often kept it from appreciating the role Jews played in recognizing the meaning of the crucifixion. The Cross became the revelation it is largely because it occurred in a Jewish setting. Only in a culture predisposed to empathize with victims could the crucifixion have had its full effects. If the forces that militated for Jesus’ crucifixion were Jewish, so were the men and women whose lives were fundamentally altered by it and who first experienced its historical and spiritual impact. The Jewishness of Jesus’ opponents should never be given more weight than the Jewishness of Jesus’ disciples and those who first felt the power of the Christian revelation and proclaimed it to others. It was Jews who rejected and reviled Jesus; it was Jews whose lives were transformed by him, and it was a Jew who was reviled and revered in each case.
To think, as historical Christianity has sometimes allowed itself to think, that the responsibility for Jesus’ death lies with the Jews is to entirely miss the meaning of the crucifixion. There is no better place to turn to disabuse ourselves of this notion than the Gospel whose language seems to have favored the notion in the first place, namely, the Gospel of John. The author of John’s Gospel used the term “the Jews” often and in various ways, but the phrase is almost always used as a synonym for the religious authorities who oppose Jesus. Were we to substitute for the word “Jews” the word “religionists,” we would be closer to the anthropological significance of the Gospel’s reproach. Such a revision, however, would be both too narrow and too broad. Unless we identify it to some degree with Judaism, as many of the first Christians did, we cannot feel the pathos of Jewish opposition to Jesus. The most telling point to be made by indicating the Jewishness of Jesus’ opposition is the point made in the prologue to John’s Gospel, namely, that “he came to his own domain and his own people did not accept him” (John 1:11). Jesus was the victim of his own people, heirs as he was of the biblical revelation, but too blinded by a parochial understanding of that tradition to be able to recognize the living incarnation of its universality. Now that Jesus’ own people are Christians, the moral weight of every New Testament reference to Jewish opposition to Jesus falls squarely on Christians. (pp. 218-219)
1. I have put together a primary resource on reading the Book of Revelation from the perspective of mimetic theory: “Nonviolence and the Book of Revelation.”
2. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, p. 145. Both Acts 5 and Rev. 1 are referenced on page 145, though neither involves the particular verses of this day’s lections. Still, Schwager’s comments in this section relate to the context of the Easter 2C readings. He is discussing the New Gathering of the Church, which, similar to its root gathering in the people of Israel, is an eschatological sign of the final gathering of all peoples. As sign, it continues to bear the marks of sinful humanity. Schwager writes:
Despite the concrete problems, the gathering of the faithful aimed at overcoming social, linguistic, gender, and religious barriers. The Acts of the Apostles emphasizes that all were “together” (Acts 2:46) and “of one heart and soul” (Acts 4:32), and according to Paul there is “neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female,” since all are “one in Christ” (Gal. 3:28). What was behind this concern for unity was not merely the realization of a noble ethical ideal; far more crucial was that this was how God’s plan for salvation was being fulfilled. The new gathering, which Jesus had begun with the message of the kingdom of God, had initially broken down because of people’s resistance. There was even a counter-gathering, a cooperation of different forces against God’s messenger, which Jesus answered with the surrender of his life for the many. The new post-Easter gathering — and the Spirit which made it possible — is to be understood as the fruit of this surrender. The heavenly Father answered the rejection of his Son and the Son’s obedience in a double fashion: through the resurrection of the crucified one and through the sending of the Spirit into those for whom the crucified one surrendered himself. The realization which emerged from consideration of the glossolalia, that pneumatic experience did not primarily come from outside but sprang from the disciples’ inner selves, thus has a deep significance. Because the crucified one let himself he drawn into the dark world of his adversaries, far from God, and there lived out his obedience to the Father, the deep godless realms of the human heart themselves became the place where the divine spirit can from now on reach and touch people. The Pentecostal gathering is for that reason not merely an outward gathering; the visible coming together of the faithful is only a sign, intelligible to our world, of that unification which, starting from the cross, finds fulfillment in the depths of people’s hearts through the sending out of the Spirit. Because of the new assembly’s function as a sign, it is not identical with the final eschatological gathering. Certainly, the disciples may have experienced both the appearances of the risen one and the pneumatic experiences strongly in the context of the end-time, so that it would have been an obvious temptation to treat the split between those who joined the community and those who refused to join as if it were the final separation between God’s chosen ones and those eternally rejected. But the later weakening of expectation of the end did not lead, as has frequently been remarked, to a deep crisis among the faithful, which is only understandable if temporal expectation was from the beginning given only a limited importance. The experience of the early community was in clear contrast to those expectations described in the prophetic and intertestamental texts, because it involved, instead of the one expected eschatological event, two events: the appearances of the risen Messiah/Son of God and the sending of the Spirit. Thanks to the pneumatic experiences, it was soon possible to look back on the time when the risen one appeared as something in the past, without getting the feeling of living now outside the salvation event. The faith of the early community was thus in no way exclusively directed toward the future. As the pneumatic experiences were perceived in connection with the crucified one and yet were distinguished from the appearances of the risen one, there was within the eschatological events themselves a past and therefore an interest in past history. The experience of the early community thus remained — despite the new emphasis on the present — within the great basic framework of Jewish faith, which remembers past saving deeds, asks for the present working of the divine spirit, and hopes for the speedy fulfillment of salvation.
That the new gathering had only the function of a sign must have become obvious to the young community from the very fact that there were still sins and sinners among it. As an example of this painful fact, the Acts of the Apostles tells the story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11). The extent to which sin remained at work in the community, despite the pneumatic experiences, is documented above all by Paul’s letters, which constantly speak of conflicts, falling back, and failure (1 Cor. 1:10-13; 5:1; 6:1-11; 11:18-22; 2 Cor. 2:1-6; 7:12; 10:1-12; 12:20-13:10; Gal. 1:6-9; 2:11-14; 3:1-5; 4:8-11; see also Rev. 1:9-3:22). (pp. 144-145)
3. Bredin, Mark. Jesus, Revolutionary of Peace: A Nonviolent Christology in the Book of Revelation. Bletchley, England: Paternoster, 2003. Bredin cites René Girard as one of his main guides in seeing “Jesus the Nonviolent Teacher and Activist.” In the foreward, Richard Bauckham writes: “[Bredin] brings to his study a Gandhian understanding of nonviolence and a Girardian suspicion of redemptive violence, not as prejudicial but as heuristic approaches by which to highlight what is ideologically remarkable in Revelation’s presentation of Jesus’ victory by non-violent witness…. Revelation’s Jesus appears not as a violent revolutionary, but as a revolutionary against the forces of violence.” For this passage, see especially pp. 162-164 on Rev. 1:5 in the context of talking about being a faithful witness; and pp. 172-174 on Rev. 1:7 in the context of “Jesus the Pierced Servant.”
4. In 2004 I began a sermon series on the Book of Revelation, after hearing a lecture by Lutheran New Testament scholar Barbara Rossing, based on her book The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation, which I highly recommend. It exposes the Rapture theology behind the Left Behind series which have been wildly popular in America. She lays out the Rapture theology as based on the “dispensationalism” of John Nelson Darby, a nineteenth century preacher, whose interpretation of Scripture has become foundational among many “evangelical” Christians in America — made even more popular by the Left Behind series (which has sold around 50 million copies). For more from Rossing’s book (primarily on dispensationalist politics) see Easter 4C.
5. For more on the violence of the Left Behind series and Rossing‘s assessment, see the page “Re-Sacralizing Violence in the Left Behind Books.”
Reflections and Questions
1. “on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.” John the Seer makes the universality of the cross explicit. Christ is the only one who can truly unite all the tribes of the earth. All those tribes had the Satanic principal of unification in common, but that commonality could never ultimately be a principal of unifying all of them because it is a principal that depends on casting someone out.
Jesus’ insight into this is summarized in his first parable (Mark 3:23-26), about “Satan casting out Satan,” one of the first key passages for René Girard. The latter is precisely what all the tribes have in common: they unify themselves by a mechanism of Satan casting out Satan. Satan in his role as Accuser unifies a community by falsely accusing someone as the devilish cause of chaos and casting them out. But as Jesus goes on to comment, this can never ultimately become a principal of unifying all of God’s creatures because the sought for global kingdom will always be a kingdom divided against itself. Someone will always need to be the scapegoat; someone will always need to be excluded. Only Christ, the Risen Victim of that mechanism, can be “ruler of all the kings of the earth.” (For more on “Satan casting out Satan,” see Part I.5 of the essay “My Core Convictions.”)
1. Gil Bailie, “The Gospel of John” audio tape series, tape #12. Here are some of my notes on this portion:
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.
3. Brian Robinette, Grammars of Resurrection, ch. 3, “Bodies in Abstentia.” In 2013 I was reading Robinette’s book and was inspired to preach on the bodily resurrection with the sermon “Salvation Includes Bodies, Too.”
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 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. 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, 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.
Think 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. In 2004 I used the basic insight from the dream to craft a similar sermon but without relating the dream — titled “Doubting an Executed Messiah.” In 2016 I recrafted this sermon again, becoming more blunt about our human tendency to believe in sacred violence and to doubt any other responses to our enemy’s violence; and also putting it in the context of churches now closing in the U.S. they way have in Europe since post-WWI: the 2016 version of “Doubting an Executed Messiah.”