The Second Sunday of Easter (Year A), 19 April 2020
April 19, 2020 | by David J. Lull
|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|
Unless otherwise noted, biblical quotations are from the NRSV.
- Easter is God’s “Yes!” to Jesus — God’s vindication of Jesus’ costly faithfulness and confirmation of his authority.
- Easter proclaims “God, not death, has the last word!”
- Easter proclaims God’s word of forgiveness, which brings new life here and now!
- Easter proclaims “Peace!” to those who live in fear.
Acts 2.14a, 22-32
The Lectionary rightly saves Acts 2.1-21 for the Day of Pentecost; nevertheless, we need to say something about vv. 14-21 here. Verses 17-21 contain quotations from Joel 2.28-32 that identify the time as that of “the last days … before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day, [when] everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” In Joel’s day, “the Lord” referred to God, but in Acts it could be God or Jesus (e.g., see 1.6, 21; 2.34 [“my Lord”] and 36)—or both, since God performed “deeds of power, wonders, and signs through him.” By means of these deeds, Jesus was “a man attested” to the people of Judea “by God.” That is, God vouched for Jesus’ character and identified him as God’s appointed agent. So, the first part of Peter’s sermon underscores what was at stake in the rest of the sermon.
Before we move on, we need to pause to acknowledge the anti-Jewish use—not intent—of Luke’s (by tradition, the author of Acts) address to Israelites and references to them with the second person plurals (e.g., “you crucified and killed…”). Because, for the first two or three centuries after Jesus, Jesus’ followers had not yet broken off from Judaism, we need to keep in mind that Acts reflects conflict among Jews—including among Jewish followers of Jesus—over the interpretation of Jesus’ significance within Judean and diaspora Judaism. From the perspective of Luke-Acts, the word “Israelites” and the second person plurals here refer to some Jews in Judea, especially temple authorities who collaborated with the Romans, and their descendants who rejected Jesus’ followers claims about Jesus. The conflict was between those who believed Jesus was justly executed by the Romans as a rebel-rouser (Luke 23.2, 5), and those who believed he was God’s unjustly executed “Holy One” (Acts 2.27 quoting Psalm 16.10).
Another aspect of Peter’s sermon that made sense in Luke’s day, but not for some of us today, is the phrase “this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” This phrase could refer to Jesus’ crucifixion, but it could also refer to the role played by some Judeans (“you,” “Israelites”). Peter asserts they knew God had demonstrated that Jesus was God’s “Holy One,” but nevertheless “crucified and killed” him “by the hands of lawless ones” (ἄνομοι, anomoi, which refers either to those who killed him without legal justification, or to those who do not live by the law of Moses, namely, gentiles or, specifically, Romans). The author’s assumption is that nothing—or at least the handing over, the crucifixion, and the role of the Romans and Judean authorities—happened accidentally or without God’s “plan” and “foreknowledge.” Similar is the belief that God would not “abandon” Jesus to “Hades” (v. 27 quoting Psalm 16.10), and that God swore with an oath to put Jesus, one of David’s descendants, on David’s throne (v. 30 quoting Psalm 132.11). Consistent with this perspective, the use of a passive adjective ἔκδοτος (ekdotos, “handed over”) implies an active agent, namely, God, implied by “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.”
From a “process” perspective (influenced by Whitehead and/or Hartshorne), historical events are the result of many actors responding, positively or negatively, to God’s aims (“plan and foreknowledge”). No one is a puppet or marionette! Those who crucified Jesus were responsible for their actions. If this text says that God’s aim was to have them crucify and kill Jesus, then God would be responsible as well. If that is what it was supposed to mean, it would have been clearer if the author had used an infinitive construction, such as, “God handed this man over to you to crucify and kill him.” As an alternative, I propose that Acts 2.24 means “God entrusted this man,” Jesus, to the Judean authorities, according to the prophets’ testimony that God promised to “put one of David’s descendants on his throne” (v. 30 quoting Psalm 132.11).
One of the main points in this reading—if not the main point—is that God kept alive the very person some Judean authorities in the Temple and the imperial Roman governor’s palace tried to silence. Not only that, but Jesus’ followers kept him alive with the proclamation: “the one you crucified was attested by God!” The perfect tense of the participle ἀποδεδειγμένον (apodedeigmenon, “attested”) expresses the idea that God’s act was completed in the past and it continues to be effective in the present. That is, the deeds God performed through Jesus were not only for the ancient Judeans but also for us today. Jesus’ deeds are as much of a challenge for us today as they were in the days of Roman imperial domination in ancient Judea. How will we respond? Will we allow imperial powers to silence Jesus’ call to welcome the unwelcomed? Or will we continue his hospitality to everyone, without exception?
The explanations of “resurrection” in Peter’s sermon also present challenges for preachers and teachers. For instance, the Greek text of v. 24 speaks of “the agony of death” (ὠδίν, ōdin, “great pain”), which is a metaphor for birth-pains, that is, severe pain and anguish. The genitive “of death” could express the agony belonging to and characteristic of death or death as the producer or cause of agony, anguish, and pain). In this view, death causes agony because it threatens to abandon the “soul”—the life and the very person—to “Hades,” the place of the dead in the underworld, where they would lie as decomposing corpses. However, God “raised up” Jesus “by freeing him from death’s agony”: the adverbial participle λύσας (lysas, “freeing,” from the verb λύω, lyō) expresses the means by which God “raised him up.”
Here we have two dimensions of Jesus’ resurrection: freedom from “the agony of death” and freedom from bodily decay. The first freedom is the result of the second. That’s where the explanation ends. Beyond the promise that God will prevent Jesus from remaining a decaying corpse, we are given no further vision of what today many call Jesus’ “afterlife.” What more do we need? The vision here is of God’s act of making Jesus alive again, not just in “spirit,” but also bodily. That is, it is the belief that Jesus’ person is truly present. Even today, many testify to their experience of Jesus’ real presence in their lives: when they receive the sacraments of baptism and communion; when family, friends, and pastors comfort them at times of pain, anguish, and agony; when refugees and asylum seekers find refuge and sanctuary; when those in prison are visited; when the thirsty and hungry are given clean water and nourishing food.
Jesus himself, through faith in God, would not allow death to “shake” him, as Peter’s sermon tells us in Acts 2.25-28, which applies Psalm 16.8-11 to Jesus. When Jesus faced death, he found refuge, hope, joy, and gladness in God’s presence. That enabled him to remain faithful to God to the end: “I will not be shaken [by death].”
At the end of this section of Peter’s sermon, Jesus’ followers are said to be “witnesses” of the proclamation “God raised up” Jesus. That does not mean they witnessed Jesus’ resurrection—no one saw it happen, because it was not an observable event. Rather, they were witnesses of the truth of the proclamation “God raised him up.” They were witnesses of its truth because they experienced the risen Jesus’ living presence in their community (Luke 24.13-53). Also, as “witnesses,” they proclaimed Jesus is Lord and Messiah. In that sense, they also “raised up” Jesus, freeing him from “Hades.” Otherwise, he would have perished forever, swallowed up in the waste heap of history. That is precisely what the authorities in Judea hoped his crucifixion would accomplish. However, “God, not death, has the last word!”
In addition to what I’ve written on Acts 2, which quotes this psalm, I highlight the following themes:
- Finding “shelter” in God, as an expression of faith or trust in God’s protection and provision of whatever is good, is contrasted with choosing protection from other gods, which compounds the troubles for which protection is sought. Today, as in antiquity, examples of “other gods” are wealth, armies, imperial power, one’s nation, or one’s social or ethnic group.
- Prime among the “good things” God provides is fertile, beautiful land (vv. 5-6). Those who lack tillable land cannot survive or need to keep moving in search of good land. To be landless is to be in danger of constant hunger, poverty, and death. In addition, the underlying belief here is that no one permanently owns the land: the land is God’s! What comes to mind are land justice for all and support for local farms, in contrast to vulture capital agribusiness, and responsibility for ecologically sustainable care for the land.
- To be constantly mindful of God is possible, because God is constantly present (vv. 8-9). Mindfulness of God’s constant presence is the source of true happiness, joy, and security. It can keep your faith in God from being shaken or you from giving up. I’m reminded of the refrain in a Negro Spiritual based on Jeremiah 17.7-8:
We shall not be moved
Just like a tree that’s standing by the water
We shall not be moved
We shall not we shall not be moved
We shall not we shall not be moved
Just like a tree that’s standing by the water
We shall not be moved
- Trust God to preserve your life. This promise is for everyone, without exception! God promises to preserve lives from perishing forever in the waste heap of history. God’s love is everlasting and victorious over death.
1 Peter 1.3-9
For a close exegetical reading, see Paul J. Achtemeier, 1 Peter, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 90-104.
These verses comprise the first two parts of the introduction of the letter’s main themes: The first part (vv. 3-5) praises God, who, through God’s mercy, has caused members of the community to be “born again” for a “living hope” through Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead. The object of this hope is an imperishable and pure “inheritance” preserved for them “in heaven.” This “inheritance” is “a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time,” for which “God’s power is protecting them through faith.”
The Greek verb ἀναγεννάω (anagennaō, “born anew, cause to be born again, beget again”) has less to do with being given a new life than with being born (“begotten”) a second time, this time by God in distinction from one’s human parents. That is confirmed in 1.23 by the contrast between being “born again, not from perishable [human] seed but imperishable [seed] through God’s living and enduring word.” This time, God fathered them, so that, just as God is “the father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1.3), God is also now their “father” (1.2 and 17). That means either that God has now made them God’s people, whereas formerly they were not (2.10), or that God has made them participants in “the divine nature” (2 Peter 1.4)—or both, so that as “God’s people,” they will participate in “God’s nature.” That is their “immortal, undefiled, and unfading inheritance preserved in heaven” (1 Peter 1.4). It is possible that this refers to a resurrection like that of Jesus Christ waiting for them—a “salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1.5).
This hope is “living,” because it is grounded in God’s mercy and was demonstrated in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In that sense it is also enduring. Hope based on anything else—one’s possessions or wealth, or one’s own strength, or military or national power—is dead, because it will fade and is susceptible to being corrupted.
The second part (vv. 6-9) begins with “In this, rejoice!” The community was called to celebrate God’s mercy, and the living hope grounded in it, even during “trials,” which will test their faith. Their hope and faith were like their love for Jesus Christ: They loved him even though they did not know him—namely, as a historical person of the past, Jesus who lived in Judea and was crucified by Roman soldiers under Pontius Pilate. In addition, neither were they able to experience his presence during their trials. That was not their fault: Jesus died decades ago and, although he had been raised from the dead, he had not yet been “revealed” (1.7; compare John 20.29). They had faith and hope that God would reveal their promised salvation (1.5), and because they had faith God would reveal Jesus Christ in the fully splendor of his resurrection (1.8), they were able to “rejoice with inexpressible and glorious joy.”
In support of my paraphrases above, I offer the following Greek notes (see BDAG, or another Greek-English lexicon for the New Testament; and Wallace, or another source for syntax in the Greek New Testament). Feel free to skip these notes!
- In v. 8, the accusative relative pronoun ὃν (hon, “he”), which refers to Jesus Christ at the end of v. 7, is the direct object of the nominative participle ἰδόντες (idontes, from the verb ὁράω, horaō, “see-know-experience”) and the second person plural present tense verb ἀγαπᾶτε (agapate, “you love”).
- The nominative participles ἰδόντες and ὁρῶντες (idontes and orōntes) are concessive/adversative: despite not knowing/experiencing Jesus, they nevertheless love him and believe he will be revealed.
- The nominative participle πιστεύοντες (pisteuontes, from the verb “believe, have faith, etc.”) expresses what causes them to “rejoice” (a second person plural present tense verb, ἀγαλλιᾶσθε, agalliasthe). The δέ (de, “but, at the same time, nevertheless”) introduces a clause in contrast to the preceding clause: despite not knowing/experiencing Jesus during their present trials, they nevertheless rejoice, because they believe Jesus Christ will be revealed.
- The second person plural present tense verb ἀγαλλιᾶσθε (agalliasthe) is absolute (i.e., without an object). I propose that the prepositional phrase εἰς ὃν (eis hon, “on whom”) is the object of the nominative participle ὁρῶντες (orōntes): “although you do not look upon him,” i.e., experience his presence. Although Paul Achtemeier reads the prepositional phrase εἰς ὃν (eis hon) with the verb ἀγαλλιᾶσθε (agalliasthe)—“in whom … you rejoice”—the object of this verb should be expressed by prepositional phrases with ἐπί (epi, with the dative, “in”) or ἐν (en, with the dative, “in”) and once with a simple accusative, but not with the preposition εἰς (eis).
- The dative χαρᾷ ἀνεκλαλήτῳ καὶ δεδοξασμένῃ (chara aneklalētō kai dedoxasmenē) expresses the manner, emotion, with which they perform the action of the verb ἀγαλλιᾶσθε (agalliasthe): “with inexpressible and glorious joy.”
The third part (vv. 10-12), which is not in the Lectionary, makes a claim for the antiquity of this “good news/gospel,” which was already revealed to the prophets. First, this is a claim for continuity with Jewish prophetic traditions. Second, it addresses skepticism, common in antiquity, about new teachings that lack a record in the past. In the 1960s, some of us distrusted anyone “over 30”: “Distrust authority” was a popular motto. In the early centuries of the Common Era, the motto was “Distrust any new idea!”
From a process perspective, novelty is essential to creative advance. Without creative advance, we would only have perpetual decay. But creative advance responds both to the past and to future possibilities. Solutions to our personal problems and to today’s global problems depend on “the vision thing”: considering new possibilities relevant to the past/present world. As a teacher of political science recently said, in response to cynicism about the present state of American politics in this anti-democratic time, “Hope is not an emotion, like optimism. It is envisioning a path forward and working on it, knowing full well the obstacles on the path! As such, it opposes cynicism.”
For parallel theological, pastoral, exegetical, and homiletical mini-commentaries, see pp. 396-401 in Feasting on the Word: Preaching on the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 2, edited by David L Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).
In the first part of this narrative (vv. 19-23), we find the disciples sheltering in place behind locked doors, “for fear of the Judean authorities.” In this Gospel, the word traditionally translated “Jews” sometimes refers to members of the Johannine community or Judeans who are not adversaries of the Johannine community, and sometimes to Judeans who are adversaries of Jesus and his followers. In v. 19, it refers to adversaries, namely, “Judean authorities.” With this in mind, preachers might consider what this story proclaims to those who live in fear and hunker down when threatened by “authorities” (for example, border police, ICE, and local police, if you are a refugee or asylum-seeker, or just black- or brown-skinned).
In this story, Jesus entered and stood in the center of the room. Unlike the story about the empty tomb (vv. 1-18), which seems to assume that Jesus exited the tomb after the stone sealing it had been rolled away (v. 1), What are we supposed to assume about how the Easter Jesus entered the room where the disciples were hiding? That they unlocked the door, which would be the only way an ordinary human being could have come in? Or that the Easter Jesus was no longer an ordinary human being and was able to pass through walls and locked doors, like a god or spirit? Remember how, in the previous narrative (vv. 1-18), Mary did not recognize Jesus, because the Easter Jesus was physically different from the pre-Easter Jesus.
Resurrection narratives in the Gospels, instead of being literal descriptions of how Jesus appeared to Jesus’ followers, are witnesses—proclamation—to their experience of his real presence after his crucifixion. They are witnesses—proclamation—to their belief that God ensured that neither Jesus’ executioners nor death silenced Jesus’ proclamation of God’s peace.
This narrative begins with what Jesus’ disciples heard—Jesus’ words: “Peace be with you!” In this story, the risen Jesus appears and speaks to Jesus’ disciples. But Jesus’ presence and words are not just for them. The Easter Jesus is present as God’s Word, the divine Word (1.1), with anyone who shelters in place in fear of harm. The gospel, in Jesus’ words, not only during Easter season, is that God’s peace is with everyone who is fearful.
This Easter narrative also has a visual aspect—it seems to claim Jesus’ followers saw the Easter Jesus in some bodily form. The sequence is significant: Jesus spoke and showed his hands and feet, and then, when the disciples “saw the Lord,” they “rejoiced” (v. 20). The importance of showing his hands and feet is that they identified the one who spoke “Peace be with you!” as “the Lord.” This story implies the Easter Jesus, despite being transformed by resurrection, was identified by marks of crucifixion on his hands and feet. After his resurrection, Jesus was still known and proclaimed as a person who was crucified. This story is a witness to the disciples’ experience of the presence of the Easter Jesus as the Galilean who remained faithful to God’s message of “Peace,” and for that was crucified by Roman and Judean authorities.
Jesus’ promise of “Peace” is both political and spiritual. It is spiritual because it offers those who live in fear, for whatever reason, comfort and strength to remain faithful to whatever cause God has called them to serve. It is political because Jesus’ promise of “peace” is set in the context of Jesus’ followers living in fear of Roman and Judean authorities who crucified Jesus. The peace of God was the source of the crucified Jesus’ faithfulness to God as he faced the demand to conform to the peace that the authorities offered—the false peace of submission and nonresistance. This Jesus, with his faithfulness in response to the peace of God and his promise of peace to others, can be a companion with those who face injustice.
As in all the Gospels, stories of Jesus’ postmortem appearance to the disciples are not just about Jesus; they are also about Jesus’ followers, whom Jesus commissioned and empowered to continue Jesus’ ministry (vv. 21-23). Jesus sends them, just like God sent Jesus (v. 21); then, with his breath, they received the Holy Spirit (v. 22). That means, first, that Jesus, not they, initiated their post-Easter ministry; second, that they were empowered, not by their own self-confidence, will power, or talents, but by a Holy Spirit, which came out of the Easter Jesus and so is his Spirit; and third, that their ministry should conform to the ministry that Jesus received from God, in contrast to a ministry that conforms to the wishes of the wealthy and powerful of the world.
This ministry has two sides. It is tempting to say they are authorized to “forgive the sins of any persons” and to withhold forgiveness from “any persons” (vv. 21-23). But that ignores the conditional “if you forgive” and “if you don’t forgive.” It does not say “you shall forgive any… and you shall not forgive any.” Rather, the point here is the effectiveness and performative power of what they say about anyone’s sins. It sounds more like a warning: “Be aware of the power of your words! They have consequences! If you proclaim forgiveness to anyone, their sins will be forgiven; and if you refuse to proclaim forgiveness to anyone, they will remain unforgiven.” Because Jesus sent them, their words should conform to Jesus’ words to sinners: “Repent and believe the gospel” (Mark 1.15; compare Mark 2.5 par. Matthew 9.2 and Luke 5.20; Mark 11.25; Matthew 6.12-15 par. Luke 11.4; Matthew 18.21-22 par. Luke 17.3-4; Luke 7.48; 23.34; and 24.47).
In the second part of our Gospel reading (vv. 24-29), we find the disciples again sheltering in place behind locked doors. Again, Jesus entered and stood in the center of the room. This time the focus is on Thomas, who was not present for Jesus’ first postmortem appearance to the disciples. It might be tempting to speculate about why Thomas was not there earlier, but the narrative provides no clues. Besides, that interest diverts our attention from the narrative’s focus on Thomas’ request for empirical verification of the other disciples’ report that they had had a seen “the Lord.” Thomas also had to touch the marks of crucifixion on Jesus’ body. Without empirical verification, he would not believe them. (See what Martin Marty and others say about this in Feasting on the Word, 396-401.)
When the Easter Jesus invited Thomas to see and touch his marks of crucifixion (v. 27), he instructed him to stop being unfaithful and a nonbeliever (ἄπιστος, apistos) and become faithful and a believer (πιστός, pistos). In response to Jesus’ words and based on what he saw, but without taking up Jesus’ offer to touch his wounds, Thomas called Jesus his “Lord” and “God” (v. 28). Like the other disciples, Thomas became “faithful” and “a believer” in response to seeing Jesus and hearing him speak.
This character in the story is the prototype of everyone who believes only what they see—like the people of Missouri, “The Show Me State.” In the Greco-Roman world (as in ours!), seeing was believed to be more trustworthy than hearing as a way to know the truth of the spoken word. In this Gospel, many, including the disciples (1.11), come to believe in Jesus “because they saw the signs that he was doing” (2.23; also see 4.46-54; 6.2, 14, 26, 30; 11.47-48; 12.18, 37; and 20.30-31). The word “signs” refers to a variety of sensory experiences, especially seeing, touching, and tasting. This Gospel, however, points to a higher way of knowing the truth: namely, knowing Jesus (14.6). After the last of Jesus’ earliest followers died, it was impossible to know the historical Jesus. But it was possible to know the Easter Jesus—the Jesus preachers proclaim when they preach the gospel and administer the sacraments. As Paul said, “Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes from the preaching of Christ” (Romans 10.17; the Greek genitive “of Christ” could be either “Christ’s preaching” or “preaching about Christ,” which is more likely). And our Gospel reading ends with the Easter Jesus saying to Thomas, and to us, “Blessed are those who have not seen [me] and yet have come to believe [in me]” (John 20.29). According to the next verses (vv. 30-31), those who “have not seen [Jesus]” can come to believe “Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God” in response to the words written in this Gospel and, “through believing, have life through his name.” The task of preaching is to proclaim, “Jesus is risen indeed!” so that those who have not seen Jesus can come to believe that “Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God” and receive new life in Jesus (compare 1 Peter 1.8-9).
David J. Lull, an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and Emeritus Professor of New Testament, Wartburg Theological Seminary, is a resident of Pilgrim Place in Claremont, CA. He also taught New Testament at Yale University Divinity School, was the Executive Director of the Society of Biblical Literature, and the director of the Bible Translation and Utilization unit of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. His publications include commentaries on Romans (with John B. Cobb, Jr.) and 1 Corinthians (with William A. Beardslee).