Monday, April 18, 2011

Second Sunday of Easter Year A

 Second Sunday of Easter A

Acts of the Apostles 2:14a, 22-32; Psalm 16; I Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

(Revised Common Lectionary)

As the Acts of the Apostles demonstrates, the proclamation --that Jesus, whose execution was public knowledge, but had been raised by God --saturated every aspect of the self-identity of the early church. To their hearts and minds, familiar phrases from the ancient psalms had new meanings when read again through their experience/memory of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

The psalmist gives thanks for the presence of God in his life. He mentions specifically when his conscience had kept him up at night. He is overjoyed by God's palpable presence.

This letter attributed to Peter is an indication of the
efficiency of the Roman empire to detect and suppress an unauthorized religion and/or the rapid rise in public awareness of the early church in the first three decades after the execution of Jesus. This letter of encouragement to believers under the threat of Roman persecution was especially meaningful to those who did not see Jesus before his death or after his resurrection, but still believe.

At this point in John's narrative, the disciples of Jesus know only Mary Magdalene's announcement that Jesus has been raised from the dead.  They are huddled  behind closed doors "for fear of the Jews" on the same evening they heard her news that morning.  Without fanfare, John simply writes, "Jesus came and stood among them...."  Echoing the promise of "peace" made the last time they were all together, (at supper of Thursday evening; 16:21-22), Jesus says: "'Peace be among you.'"  He volunteers his hands and side and the disciples "rejoiced when they saw the Lord."  He announces "peace" again, and then commissions his followers: "As the Father has sent me, so I send you."  He "breathes" on them with the words: "Receive the Holy Spirit."  John's narrative abruptly jumps forward a week to  the following Sunday, when the disciples are again "in the house."  Thomas, who had been absent a week earlier, insists that unless he sees and puts his finger in the mark left by the nails in Jesus' hands and can put his hand in the wound left by the spear in Jesus' side, he will not believe.  Jesus appears again with the same promise of "peace."  He instructs Thomas to touch his wounds and invites him to "believe."  Thomas responds unhesitatingly: "My Lord and my God."  John's narrative continues with two crucial sayings for the future.   First, Jesus now offers a specific blessing for a specific audience: "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."  Secondly, John pointedly writes that Jesus "did many other signs" that he did not write about, but the ones he did write about "are written so that you might come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God" and that this "believing" will bring you "life in his name."

In Aspects of the Novel, the novelist E.M. Foster offers an observation that preachers would do well to keep in mind continually, but especially during the Great Fifty Days of Easter. He described sermons as "hot denunciations or advice-- so that in the end you cannot remember whether or not you ought or ought not to have a body, and are only sure you are futile." (Harcourt, p. 143) 

The claim of the church is that God became a person with an actual human body in a specific time in human history and with a unique personality. In the scriptures, this claim does not weaken after his execution. It actually takes on a meaningful insistence. After he was raised, he ate, drank, talked with his followers, the gospels declare.  On the Sunday after he was raised, he insisted Thomas touch his wounds. We can assume on these occasions when the Risen Lord reunited with his followers they laughed, remembered shared memories and Jesus renewed promises he had made before he was executed. After the agony and violence of Thursday night, the spectacle of execution on Friday, the despair of Saturday and Magdalene's surprising news, John's narrative returns to the conversational Jesus at dinner on Sunday night. 

The scriptures also insist on another kind of embodiment; the church becomes the continuing embodiment of Christ.  In the intimacy among friends who had known him through everything that had happened, he passed to them the responsibility/opportunity to become his body in the world. He assured them they would have the appropriate abilities because of the gift of the Holy Spirit. At next Sunday's gathering of his followers, Jesus took the occasion of Thomas' need for independent, tactile experience to bless all those in the future who would come to the same experience in the fellowship of other believers. John makes clear that the transition is underway: the physical presence of the raised Jesus transfers/relays an experience/conviction to those who believed as well as all those in the future who will also believe. Time is erased; equally blessed are those who believe, no matter their timing.  These "post-resurrection appearances" are not about a "ghost" that "appeared" to women and men who immediately became perfectly formed believers; they are about an embodied Person around whose Presence grew a community of believers of all kinds and expressions of believing, the 'body' of Christ, "those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

Jacques Derrida was deeply impressed by the work of Jean-Luc Nancy on "touching."  Derrida's last book just before his death he titled On Touching--Jean-Luc Nancy, in which, at one point,  he takes up the importance of "touching" in all the gospel narratives.  Derrida writes: "Not only is Jesus touching, being the Toucher, he is also the Touched one, and not only in the first sense that we have identified (that is, touched in his heart by heartfelt, merciful compassion): he is there as well for the touching; he can and must be touched.  This is the condition for salvation-- so as to be safe and sound, accede to immunity, touching, the Toucher."  "It is not the touch that is saving, then, but the faith that this touch signifies and attests."  (p.101)

After the graphic scene painted by John where Thomas touches the scars left by the nails in the hands of Jesus and pokes around with his fingers in the wound left by the sword in his side Thomas attests: "My Lord and my God," the shortest, most unequivocal declaration of faith in John's gospel.  "It is not the touch that is saving, then, but the faith that this touch signifies and attests."