Second Sunday of Easter – April 12, 2015
|Reading 1:||Reading 2:||Reading 3:||Reading 4:|
|Acts 4:32-35||Psalm 133||1 John 1:1-10||John 20:19-31|
SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER
By Ron Allen
April 12, 2015
The lectionary disadvantages the Book of Acts. Although Acts is the only book in the Gospels and Letters to narrate a story of what happens after the resurrection into the first generation of Jesus’ followers, the lectionary appoints only 24 passages from Acts over three years. Moreover, the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts tell one story, but the lectionary almost never allows that connection to appear. A preacher might abandon the lectionary for a season and preach continuously or semi-continuously through Acts.
The lectionary does appoint readings from Acts on the Sundays after Easter to call attention to the ongoing effects of the resurrection in the life of the church through the ongoing power of the Holy Spirit. However, the lectionary does not present the passages in the order in which they occur in Acts. This can confuse a congregation. Nevertheless, a preacher could take advantage of eight readings from Acts on successive Sundays (seven in the season of Easter and one on Pentecost Day) by doing a series on Acts as pointing to the continuing effect of the resurrection and as paradigmatic for the church today.
The reading today should be 4:32-5:11 since 4:32-35 is a vision of a community sharing all things in common, while 4:36-37 cites a positive example of someone doing so while 5:1-11 tells a disturbing story of the consequences of a couple who did not do so, and lied about it.
Luke 4:18 is important background to today’s passage. Jesus says that God has put the Spirit on him to finally and fully manifest the Realm of God which includes “good news to the poor.” God intends to end the multiple threats associated with poverty.
How will this good news come about in a practical way? Luke’s answer—and one that will resonate with readers of this journal—is that God will provide for the poor when members of the community share their resources. For Luke, such acts are expressions of mutual solidarity.
On the one hand, this theme is so important that Luke develops it twice—Acts 2:42-47 as well as 4:32-5:11. On the other hand, the idea of everyone selling what they have is found in Acts only in these two passages. As Acts unfolds, this notion living out of a common pot disappears, but Luke continues to picture people sharing their possessions so that all in the community have adequate resources. In this respect, the passage continues to be a paradigm for the church.
For those interested in a commentary on Acts from the perspective of preaching: Ronald Allen, Acts of the Apostles. Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries.
A main theme in Psalm 133 fits loosely with a main theme in Acts 4:32-5:11: the community of God as one of mutual support. Scholars recognize Psalm 133 as a song of ascents, that is, a song pilgrims sang as they walked (ascended) to Jerusalem.
Scholars point to a shift in the language of the poem from focus on the family to the larger community. (The Ancient Near East did not think of family as the tiny nuclear household of today but as extended family, often including servants). The psalm begins with the household (“kindred”) but moves to the larger community (“Zion”). The nature of the community is represented by a double meaning in the oil—practicing hospitality and anointing a priest. The community epitomizes ancient hospitality, and is priestly in the way in its function in the world.
The psalm was intended to refresh the pilgrims’ sense of being part of a true community in which all members are connected with one another and support one another. Singing the Songs of Ascent (Psalm 120-134), Pilgrims should become oriented being in Jerusalem as true community. The larger community is the true home of the many households that make up Israel.
This idea is reinforced when we recognize that the word “good” is the Hebrew tov which recurs in the refrain in Genesis 1, “And God saw that it was good.” The psalm echoes Genesis and its vision that God intends for all elements of creation to live together in mutual support. The qualities of life of Genesis 1 should characterize distinct households as well as the life of Israel as community. This life in partnership with God is the “life of blessing forevermore.”
Christians sometimes speak of “unity” in the mode of “uniformity.” In the Psalm, however, the unity is not sameness. “Unity” refers to shared relational purpose—to live together in ways that are mutually supportive while (consistent with God’s purposes in Genesis 1) which includes honoring the distinctiveness and integrity of each living thing.
1 John 1:1-10
The lectionary appoints much of 1 John for the next six Sundays of Easter. This sequence of readings suggests a sermon series.
Two pieces of background information are important for understanding 1 John. First, this letter was likely written after the Gospel of John. 1 John presupposes the two-story universe that we sketched in connection with John 20:1-18 on Easter Sunday (April 5, 2015). Heaven is the sphere of God, life, love, light, sight, truth, freedom, community, and abundance. The world is the sphere of the devil, death, darkness, blindness, lying, slavery, fractiousness, and scarcity. God sent Jesus into the world to reveal the possibilities of heaven (life, love, light, etc.). By believing in Jesus, a person in the world can live in the sphere of heaven. At death, the believer follows the way of Jesus to heaven.
Second, whereas the Fourth Gospel deals with a conflict between the congregation and traditional Judaism, 1 John focuses on conflict with other followers of Jesus. Indeed, some of Jesus’ followers have left the Johannine synagogue. However, John does not write to those who have left. John writes to assure those who remain that they have made the saving choice.
Issues of authority and purpose are in back of 1 John 1:1-4. John wants members of his congregation to believe they are the authoritative, faithful heirs of the Jesus tradition and that those who have left the congregation follow misleading authorities. John seeks to establish the confidence of the community by appealing to tradition and experience (“what we have heard . . . seen . . . touched”). The community has experienced the revelation of God through Christ. A preacher might explore why a congregation might take seriously this letter and the larger stories of Jesus and the Bible. On the basis of what authority(ies) do we believe?
The purpose of this revelation is to declare “eternal life.” For John, “life” is more than biology. Life is existence animated by the qualities of heaven. People enter this sphere by believing in Jesus Christ. This life includes participating in the community (“fellowship,” konini). John reminds listeners that this quality of existence begins in a sphere in the world but climaxes when believers follow Jesus to heaven (e.g. John 14:1-7). John assures those who have remained in the congregation that they receive life now and are on the way to eternal life. Indeed, eternal life begins in the present.
God is “light” (1 John 1:5-6). Those who do not know God revealed through Jesus Christ live as if the characteristics of the world are the only possibilities. Such people are essentially in a hermetically sealed dark room, void of light, void of awareness of God. Such an existence is a lie. It is false. A preacher might help the congregation consider circumstances today that continue to manifest the characteristics of the Johannine “world.”
Those who live in the present on the basis of the values and practices of heaven (i.e. the light) participate in mutual solidarity in the community of heaven in the present. The blood of Jesus “cleanses us from sin.” In this context, “sin” is continuing to live by the values and practices of the world (as if the revelation of God through Jesus has not taken place). Without going into technical detail about the meaning of “the blood of Jesus,” we can note that the writer underscores the purpose of what happened in the event of Jesus Christ: it frees believers from the limited, even death-dealing, possibilities of the world.
The community’s part is to confess sins, that is, to name and admit ways in which the members continue to live by the values of the world. To fail to do so is to lie, i.e. to perpetuate the values of the world in the community of Jesus. Indeed, to fail to confess is the same as treating God as if God is a liar. In this being, a preacher might help the congregation name what we need to confess, and how such things inhibit the congregation living in the full-bodied Johannine sense.
Here is a suggestion for renaming the sermon in social media, in the newsletter and in the worship materials. A minister I know does not refer to the “Sermon” but to the “Word of Life” (1 John 1:1). While not limiting “life” to meanings associated with John, this designation emphasizes what a sermon should do: offer life-giving possibilities.
This reading contains three parts—the so-called ‘Johannine Pentecost” (John 20:19-23), Thomas coming to believe (John 20:24-29), and the purpose of the Fourth Gospel (John 20:30-31).
These sections presuppose John’s two-story world view (heaven above, world below) described in connection with 1 John 1:1-10 and more fully on Easter Day in connection with John 20:1-18.
John 20:19-23 is a miniature of the situation of John’s community. Just as the disciples in this passage are huddled together with the doors of the house locked “for fear of the Jews,” so John’s congregation is huddled together in the face of conflict with some traditional Jewish leaders. Yet, the life-giving power of the risen Jesus is present both in the locked room and in the community to whom John writes. The awareness of this presence brings peace in the midst of their difficult situations (see John 16:25-33). Here, peace is not the absence of conflict but is more a sense of confidence that God is present and working for life even in the midst of tensions. Within struggle, the congregation can continue to witness to God’s life-giving purposes in the trust that God sustains them.
Jesus “breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.” John gives no indication here or elsewhere that the Spirit comes with tongues or other dramatic manifestations. Rather, the Spirit is the continuing presence and power of Jesus abiding with the community (John 14:16), continuing Jesus’ teaching (John 14:26), empowering the community to witness (John 15:26-27), and guiding the community into truth (John 16:12-15). Consequently, the community should not only continues the ministry of Jesus but also expand it (John 14:12).
A sermon might compare and contrast the situation of John’s congregation—huddled together in fear—with that of today’s community. Probably few congregations, at least in the Eurocentric church, are in fearful situations like that of the first century community. However, nearly all congregations are uncertain about some things, and nearly all congregations have tensions within and beyond. John assures such people of Jesus’ presence in the midst of uncertainty and reminds them to act in such situations in the power of the life-giving Spirit Jesus breathes on them.
In John 20:24-29, Thomas is in a position similar to many in the world to which John wrote the Fourth Gospel: they have heard that God raised Jesus from the dead, but they are not convinced. Indeed, many doubt. Jesus responds to Thomas’s doubt with a direct manifestation of resurrection presence. The climax of the passage, 20:29, reveals John’s goal for this passage: to encourage people long after Jesus that they can believe even when they have not had an immediate physical encounter with Jesus like the one between Thomas and Jesus pictured here.
The preacher could use this text as an important point of contact with today. A good many people doubt. This passage encourages the preacher to respect such doubt and to bring it into conversation with resources that offer plausible reasons for believing, as well as plausible forms for belief. Process conceptuality excels at both points.
John 20:30-31 may be the original ending of the Gospel. Some may have added John 21:1-24. In any event, John 20:30-31 states the purpose of the book: to help listeners develop the confidence that the revelation of God through Jesus is trustworthy, to believe in that revelation, and thereby to experience “life” in the way that notion is discussed in connection with 1 John 1:1-10. That could also name one of the purposes of preaching from a text in the Fourth Gospel.