The Second Sunday of Easter (April 23, 2017)

April 11, 2017 | by Bruce Epperly

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Acts 2:14a, 22-32 Psalm 16 1 Peter 1: 3-9 John 20:19-31

The Second Sunday of Easter, like the first Sunday after Christmas, is often perceived as a “low Sunday.” The excitement and celebration of Easter – the trumpets, processionals, egg hunts, and increased attendance – give way to the everydayness of Sunday worship. But, a low Sunday can be precisely when we can experience a spiritual high. I find the Gospel for this Sunday one of the most inspirational pieces in scripture. The gospel reading describes two events, a week apart, and could easily be separated into two distinct messages should the preacher choose.

It’s Easter night. The news has spread that Christ is alive. Peter and his companion testify that the tomb is empty and Mary Magdalene reports her conversation with the Risen Christ. Yet, the followers of Jesus are still filled with fear and trembling. They are still uncertain of their own safety and are struggling with the amazing news that Christ has risen and death defeated. In an upper room, they gather to share the amazing story and figure out what to do next. As if by magic, Jesus appears. There are no apparent limits or boundaries for the Risen Christ. He gives them a command, but more importantly he breathes on them. He gives them spiritual CPR. He enlivens their spirits and gives them energy and vision for the journey.

John 20:19-23 might be described as a John’s Pentecost. Jesus breathes on them, and says “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Now they have breathing space. Their cramped spirits expand and their hearts warm. Jesus has become as close as their breath. He now lives within them as their deepest reality, both at spiritual and cellular level.

If the first section is the focus, the preacher might speak of the power of breath to energize and connect. Some scientists suggest that the particulates from this divine breathing are still present in minute forms in our atmosphere. But, more importantly, a non-localized Jesus can breathe in and with us at any time. As part of the service, the pastor or some other church leader might teach the congregation a simple breath prayer to embody the scripture.

John 20:24-31 stand on their own, and could be the focal point of another sermon. The passage is complex as well as inspirational. First, it describes the faith of Thomas. Thomas should be heralded and not judged. Since he did not experience the Risen Jesus, his doubt is sensible. He doesn’t wish to leave his mind at the door. He wants to be sure that the resurrection is real, and so his doubt is warranted. Moreover, despite the fact, he’s missed out on the resurrection, he stays with the disciples. He could have left but his mind and heart yearn to know more. When he experiences the Risen Jesus, he willingly takes the next step in his spiritual journey and becomes God’s apostle to the wider world, including a journey to India to share good news.

The passage concludes with a verse of its own sermon. “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.” Jesus’ ministry and message go beyond the words of scripture. Jesus is global and cannot be localized to any written text. God is still speaking, as the United Church of Christ, proclaims. God’s providence expands to include new revelations. Always faithful, God’s mercies are new every morning. The Risen Jesus expands, rather than contracts, the temporal and historical scope of resurrection.

In an era of Christian anti-intellectualism, motivating the “war on science,” the account of Thomas’ doubt expresses the importance of evidence-seeking and rationality in the life of faith. Just asserting “the Bible says” does not close discussion about evolution, climate change, or sexuality. Our willingness to question scripture is a reflection of how seriously we take its message. The story of Thomas also reminds us of the embodied nature of faith. Thomas is not content with a disembodied spirit; he wants to touch the embodied Jesus, wounds and all. Our faith embraces the body as well as spirit, and we are challenged to love God in the world of the flesh. In all its imperfection, flesh reveals divine wisdom and is a pathway to wholeness.

The reading from I Peter continues the image of new birth and novelty through resurrection. In Christ, we are liberated from death’s “dead end” and embraced in life everlasting. The speech attributed to Peter, from Acts 2, describes the power of the resurrection to redeem the past as well as present and future. All who have lived will be transformed in light of Christ’s victory over death. The past is not changed, but it takes on new meaning as a result of the resurrection. Peter’s speech suggests that our ancestors will be revived retroactively. But, more importantly, the resurrection gives us hope not only for everlasting life but for this lifetime.

This Sunday’s passages are exciting, and plunge the congregation into the realities of meditative prayer, mystical experience, faith and reason, and ongoing revelation. All these are important issues for congregations that want to respond creatively to the seeking in the church and the seekers that are ready to explore Christianity “for the first time.”