Second Sunday of Easter – April 7, 2013

Reading 1: Reading 2: Reading 3: Reading 4: 
Acts 5:27-32Psalm 118:14-29Revelation 1:4-8John 20:19-31

By Russell Pregeant

Resurrection; mandate to witness; the faith-doubt dichotomy; courage in the faith of persecution; repentance/forgiveness of sins—who could ever complain about a lack of thematic substance in this array of texts? No one, I expect, other than the long-term pastor who has had to work with the same materials year in and year out in a lectionary that abandons rotation in this season. I have to wonder how many preachers have in fact acknowledged the difficulty with the words, “poor Thomas,” having grown just a little weary of having to deal with the famous doubter yet again. Maybe one needs to leave him alone for a year or two or….Then again, maybe there are ways to de-center him, without ignoring him altogether, by giving him a supporting role with other characters and texts taking the lead.

Let’s start with the concept of witness. A striking aspect of the reading from Revelation is that Jesus himself is named “the faithful witness,” whereas we generally think of him as the referent of his followers’ witness. The adjective “faithful” in conjunction with the epithet “firstborn from the dead,” however, is a clue to the force of the noun “witness” here. The Greek word is martys (alternatively transliterated as martus), which eventually takes on the meaning of “martyr” precisely because so many of those who witnessed to Jesus—that is, made him the subject of a religious testimony—were put to death. Of them we say that they were “faithful unto death,” which is clearly what “faithful” indicates in Jesus’ case. Thus Eugene Boring, noting that “martus in John’s Greek is already on its way to becoming the technical term ‘martyr,’” goes on to argue that “’first-born of the dead’ is…not speculative or abstract” but rather “directed to the situation of John’s readers, who were being asked to witness to the lordship of Christ by giving their own lives (2:10; 12:11).”

This is not to say, however, that the original meaning of martus as witness, or giver of testimony, is absent here. The term is on its way to a specialized meaning, but we cannot simply translate it as “martyr” without obscuring part of its force. The point is that Jesus carried out his mission even in the face of death and that this mission involved testimony. Jesus preached the imminent coming of God’s basileia (kingdom, rule, reign, realm, empire) and challenged the prerogative of religious authorities, thus pitting himself against “the rulers of this age” (to use Paul’s phrase in 1 Cor. 2:8).

We can project, then, that what is required of his followers is to witness to him in such as way as to repeat his own witness. That is to say, Christian witness is not merely a declaration of belief in an article of faith (in the resurrection) but an existential embracing of the same values for which Jesus stood and gave his life. This point is underscored, moreover, if we accept, with both the NRSV and NIV, the translation of the genitival construction martyrion Iesou in 1:9 as “witness of Jesus” rather than witness to Jesus” as in the RSV. Although this verse could mean that John has been exiled on Patmos because of his own testimony to Jesus, it could also mean that the ultimate cause behind all of the persecutions is the witness Jesus himself made.

In any case, the lectionary passage clearly presents Jesus as a faithful witness, as the one whom God raised from the dead, and also as “the ruler of the kings of the earth.” And this latter phrase underscores his role in opposition to oppressive human authorities, consistent with the whole thrust of the book of Revelation reveals in its virulent rejection of the Roman empire and the kings who consorted  with it. In conjunction with the resurrection theme, moreover, it poses Christ’s lordship as an answer to Roman (or any other oppressive) power. Jesus’ martyr’s death is more than a moral victory over evil. The resurrection and his enthronement signify that the ultimate power in the universe—contrary to all appearances in the present—is actively engaged in bringing the basileia of peace and justice into the world.

The passage in Acts is also about witness—this time clearly the apostles’ testimony to Jesus. It is not witness specifically against oppressive powers, but the powers’ opposition to it transforms it into an act of protest. Peter’s words in 5:29, moreover, underscore the point: “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” The opposition is couched in terms that raise the question of guilt for Jesus’ crucifixion. It is a point that the authorities themselves bring to the fore in the high priest’s accusation: “you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” Peter does not refute the point, but he does put it into the context of a gospel of mercy. In v. 30, he makes it clear that he is in fact indicting the religious establishment for Jesus’ death.

He proclaims, however, that God’s response was to raise him from the dead so “that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sin.” (v. 31) Since repentance is granted specifically to Israel, the Jewish authorities themselves—who collaborated with the Romans in Jesus’ condemnation—are included in the offer of forgiveness. The message thus has a double focus: the bloodguilt is real, but forgiveness is available—through repentance. Peter had already preached the same message to a crowd of Israelites at Pentecost (Acts 2:14-36), with the result that many hearers in fact were “cut to the heart” and repented (2:37-42). In Acts 5, however, the high priest and council simply become enraged (5:33).

An important aspect of this passage, from a progressive theological standpoint, is the insistence upon the guilt of those who crucified Jesus. This is consistent with the fact that Luke-Acts lacks a doctrine of atonement. Although Acts continually links the message of repentance/forgiveness to Jesus’ death and resurrection, there is no indication that the death wins God’s forgiveness.

On the basis of these two passages, we can identify two impediments to Christian witness. The first is fear born of the human tendency to place self-preservation above all else. It is not named as such but is implied by the allusions to Jesus’ death and the courage of the apostles who witness despite their arrest and warnings. The second impediment is refusal to accept responsibility for one’s deeds. The authorities cannot become witnesses alongside the apostles because they will not accept their guilt and so remain unforgiven. It is only as recipients of God’s grace that we have the motivation to testify; or to put the matter in different terms, it is only when we have experienced transformation that we have anything to point to as witnesses.

One dimension of witness in Luke-Acts is simply hearing Jesus preach and seeing what he does, as we read in Luke 1:1-2. But the acts of seeing and hearing do not become witnessing in the full sense until witnesses’ lives are changed, and in Luke-Acts this happens only with the resurrection. As is often observed, the disciples appear in Acts as transformed beings, hardly recognizable as the followers who fell asleep as he prayed in agony before his arrest (Luke 22:39-46) or denied him as Peter did (Luke 22:54-62).

A third impediment to witness appears in the gospel reading. It is easy to overlook the witness theme in the selection, since it is the “doubting Thomas” segment that generally commands our attention. The latter scene (John 20:24-29) takes place a week later than Jesus’ original appearance to the disciples in John 20:19-23, but the two portions are closely linked by the conjunction de (“now” in the RSV, “but” in the NRSV). In the first scene, Jesus presents himself to those present and then, after they rejoice, he sends them out in mission: “As the father sent me, so I send you.” Here again, we see that the disciples’ mission or mandate to witness is an extension of Jesus’ own. Thomas, however, is absent on this occasion and thus does not receive the commission.

And when Jesus appears to him in the second scene, his initial response is one of doubt: he demands the physical “evidence” Jesus presented to the others. When Jesus offers to give the evidence, however, Thomas’s doubt is dispelled and he utters an affirmation of faith. Now, but only now that his doubt is overcome, he is restored to the fellowship by Jesus’ words of blessing. He receives no explicit commission, but it is implied by his restoration: witness is what disciples do! And this point is in fact implied by 21:29 when Jesus blesses those who believe without seeing, clearly presupposing the Christian proclamation as the agent that engenders such belief.

To focus now on the impediments to witness from a process perspective, we can understand the failure to repent sometimes takes the form of a refusal of transformation—that is, a kind of idolatry of the status quo that resists the transformative power of God’s coming basileia. We can see this, on the  personal level, in the difficulties people have in allowing their relationships to change over time to encourage creative growth. We can see it on the social level in the ways in which we cling to social patterns, economic doctrines, and attitudes toward nature we have inherited from the past even when they have enormously destructive consequences. Fear plays into these attitudes, of course—both fear of disparagement by others and fear of losing ourselves or our cultural heritage if we change. And, finally, failure to take responsibility plays its part as well. It is not easy to admit the ways in which we stifle the  creativity of those to whom we relate or to take honest accounting of  the ways in which we contribute to problems as global warming and economic injustice.

Psalm 118 “seems to be a national leader’s prayer of thanksgiving.”[1] It is a song of praise to God for deliverance from some kind of humiliation, although the latter note is evident most clearly in vv. 5-13, which are not included in the lectionary selection.  Verse 22 plays an important role in the New Testament as a celebration of the resurrection, which is presumably the reason for the psalm’s inclusion in the Easter season readings. The irony of the rejected stone’s becoming the head of the corner is clearly appropriate as a complement to the irony of the resurrection of the one crucified as a criminal. It can also serve to complement the other readings for this Sunday.

Those who take the risky step of witness, as do the apostles in Acts and as did Jesus himself, win —contrary to general human expectations—an unexpected victory in God’s eyes. Thus, for example, those who take a dissenting stand on the meaning of American identity in the face of war mania, economic ideology, or “the American way of life” may well suffer social rejection; but in the topsy-turvy world of the gospel, it is they who receive “salvation.” And v. 26 takes on an ironical air when it is applied to Jesus, who is on his way to the cross: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” To take such a declaration at face value is to flirt with triumphalism; to embrace its irony is to accept the glorious burden of witness to a crucified Messiah.

[1] Marti J. Steussy, Psalms (Chalice Commentaries for Today; St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2004), 182.