April 28, 2019
|Reading 1||Reading 2||Reading 3||Reading 4||Reading 1 Alt||Reading 2 Alt|
|Acts 5:27-32||Psalm 150||Revelation 1:4-8||John 20:19-31|
by Bruce Epperly
The Second Sunday of Easter, like the 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 ongoing Sunday worship. Attendance is typically down and often the senior or solo pastor takes this Sunday off. Nevertheless, what we anticipate as a low Sunday can be precisely the time when we can experience a spiritual high. Although I will be away from my home congregation on April 28 as I begin a month-long leave, I am delighted that I will be preaching at my college church in Northern California, the church where I felt my call to academic and pastoral ministry over forty-five years ago. I find the Gospel for this Sunday one of the most inspirational pieces in scripture. The gospel reading describes two resurrection 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 testifies that the tomb is empty, and Mary Magdalene reports her conversation with the Risen Christ. Mary of Magdalene’s female companions corroborate her amazing account. Still, the followers of Jesus are filled with fear and trembling. The news of resurrection turns their world upside down and they don’t know what to expect. They are 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.
What happens next is even more amazing. As if by magic, Jesus appears. There are no apparent limits or boundaries for the Risen Christ. His energetic resurrection body can go through walls and transport without the limitations of physical space. 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.
“Breathe on me breath of God, fill me with life anew” could be the theme of today’s service. Jesus invites them to share in his personal breath prayer. His life enters their lives and they are renewed for the next steps of 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. They can freely inhale and exhale. 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. With each breath, we can experience God’s new life.
This passage can be joined with Psalm 150, “let everything that breathes praise God.” We live in a world of praise, and in the wake of the resurrection, every breath can be a prayer.
The words of John 20:24-31 stand on their own and could be the focal point of another sermon. The atmosphere changes. A week has passed and Thomas with all his questions and concerns appears on the scene. The passage is complex as well as inspirational. First, it describes the faith of Thomas. Thomas should be heralded and not judged for his questions and doubts. 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. Doubt can be a sign of serious faith, as Paul Tillich asserts in his classic “Dynamics of Faith.” Moreover, although he’s missed out on the resurrection, Thomas stays with the disciples. He could have left but his mind and heart yearn to know more about what they’ve experienced. He knows he, too, needs a resurrection, but he wants it to be authentic and not wish-fulfillment. 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 that could be the basis of a third sermon. “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.” God can’t be imprisoned by a book or doctrine. 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. And, God will continue to speak! 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” and climate denial, 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 and wounds, flesh reveals divine wisdom and is a pathway to wholeness.
John 18 provides a context for the readings from Acts and Revelation. Encountering the Spirit takes us beyond and may lead us to challenge human authorities, even those of the church. Thomas honors his companions, but he must experience God for himself. In like manner, faith is always countercultural. As our ultimate concern, to use Tillich’s phrase, faith compels us to trust God rather than human institutions. Further, the mystic vision of John, described in Revelation, compels us to look beyond the words to the Living Word, and be willing to experience God anew in our time. Each of us is a mystic whether or not we are aware of it. Life changing moments can come at a moment’s notice. The doors of perception can be cleansed by divine inspiration and we can experience resurrection in everyday life.
This Sunday’s passages are exciting and plunge pastor and 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.”
Rev. Bruce Epperly, Ph.D., serves as Senior Pastor at South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Centerville, Massachusetts. Prior to moving to Cape Cod, he served on the faculties and of Georgetown University, Claremont School of Theology, Wesley Theological Seminary, and Lancaster Theological Seminary. He also served for nearly twenty years as Protestant University Chaplain at Georgetown University and for seven years as Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. Bruce is currently a professor of spirituality, ministry, and theology in the doctoral program at Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington D.C. He is the author of fifty books in the areas of process theology, spirituality, ministerial excellence and spiritual formation, scripture, and healing and wholeness, including The Mystic in You: Discovering a God-filled World; Tending to the Holy: Practicing the Presence of God in Ministry; Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God; and Become Fire: Guideposts for Interspiritual Pilgrims.