April 27 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Second Sunday of Easter
Texts: Acts 2:14a, 22-32; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31
Theme: All sorts of possibilities this week, some more obvious than others. The very brave might want to make something of the fact that this week Anzac Day (and all that that involves) falls exactly one week after Good Friday (and all that that means).* A safer option may be something like "No Turning Back" for reasons that may become clearer in these notes. I'm leaning towards "This Man and No Other", if only because it seems to capture the essence of Peter's message in our reading from the Book of Acts. In fact, a direct quote from the end of this passage may be a good choice of theme this week: "This Jesus God Raised Up".
[*I noticed a brief reference in the newspaper this week to the death in 1918 of the German flying ace, Manfred von Richthofen, better known as the Red Baron. It said "he was credited with 80 kills of the enemy". Think about that word "credited" – and about the identity of those referred to as "the enemy". Kyrie eleison!]
Introduction. It might seem a little strange to start this week's readings with an extract from Peter's Pentecost sermon, but it fits perfectly with the magnificent passage from John's gospel. The Risen Christ appears to his GUILTY disciples. Only when we grasp this can we hope to understand that, in coming to THEM, he is enacting divine forgiveness in the face of all human failure. Likewise, Peter, having received such forgiveness (and having understood himself as guilty), begins to preach in the same mode: he preaches to the GUILTY, not to condemn them but to open their eyes to their need for that same divine forgiveness. (More about that in next week's readings.) This same Peter may or may not have been the author of the letter from which our second lesson is taken this week. But whoever wrote it, it is surely one of the most positive, uplifting and encouraging passages in the Scriptures: and what a wonderful antidote it is to all the annual nonsense to which we are subjected "in the name of Easter" in the media!
And as for "Warbirds Over Wanaka"! Could there be a less appropriate time for such an event!
Background. In my former existence I was involved for about 20 years in law reform; so perhaps it's not surprising that I find myself every year at this time of the year pondering the reform of Easter – at least, pondering the reform of the observance of Easter in the Church and in our society in general. To start with the easy stuff, I would remove Good Friday and Easter Monday from the list of statutory holidays, and I would apply the same trading laws to Easter Sunday as apply to every other Sunday; and I must confess that I would thoroughly enjoy the uproar that such a proposal would provoke. A major part of my enjoyment would be watching those who would be in the vanguard of the protests. Although most advocates for change from the commercial sector are careful not to spell it out, the subtext seems to be that it is we nasty Christians who are interfering with their basic right to make money whenever they can, and that we have no right to impose our narrow, outdated beliefs on others.
But, of course, what the garden centre operators, and the so-called hospitality industry, and retailers in areas like Wanaka really want is not the removal of Good Friday and Easter Monday from the list of statutory holidays at all: want they want is to be allowed to trade on those statutory holidays. In other words, they want their customers to observe the statutory holidays, while they themselves do not. So as an non-recovering reformer I hope the Church will take the initiative in seeking the removal of Good Friday and Easter Monday from the list of statutory holidays, and any particular restrictions on trading on easter Sunday, leaving Christians to observe those days as holy days freed (at the very least) from the obscenity of Warbirds over Wanaka, and the State can then decide when to have an alternative long weekend, the principal object of which would be to pay special honour to Mammon in whatever manner (according to whatever rites) that particular god's devotees desire.
Right. That's society sorted, now what about the Church? I ended last week with a grumble about what seems to be a growing trend to drop observances of Holy (Maundy) Thursday. In the same cantankerous mood I want to question what seems to be a fairly common practice these days to have a time of fellowship (translation: a cup of tea and a hot-cross bun) following a Good Friday observance. Surely there can be no fellowship among us while our Lord and Victim hangs on the cross? (And if you were jolted by that word "Victim" read again Peter's sermon and John's description of that Easter evening "re-union".) When I realised that the church I was attending on Good Friday was about to "adjourn to the lounge") I found myself impelled (and I might almost say "propelled") to leave in such a hurry that I dropped first my hat and then one of my gloves!
On a more positive note, one thing I learned this time was the importance of our resurrection language. Twice during my sermon on Easter Day I caught myself referring to Jesus being "raised back to life", and had to correct myself. I haven't checked every reference in the Scriptures, but I do think that the word "back" in that phrase is dangerous. The Resurrection did not restore Jesus to his former existence; and it certainly did not erase or nullify the Crucifixion. Jesus was "raised from the dead" precisely as the Crucified One. Forgiveness does not remove the historical reality of our offences: it re-creates the relationship between the offender and the victim. That, it seems to me, is at the heart of John's story about the encounter on the Easter evening.
But here is one of the most disturbing stories I have ever read, quoted by Rowan Williams in his book Resurrection, and set in Ulster during the time of "The Troubles":
A mother noticed that her teenage son was in obvious distress and fear; when questioned, he admitted that he was involved with a (Protestant) para-military group, which had ordered him to perform a killing locally, or else face 'execution' himself. The mother was able to say eventually that being killed was preferable to killing; that night, her son hanged himself.
By killing himself, the son had not only refused to commit the sin of killing others; he had also refused to allow others to commit the sin of killing him. From Good Friday to Anzac Day, this story speaks to all of us who profess the name of the Crucified and Risen Lord.
And here's a question that occurred to me for the first time ever while I was out for a walk on Wednesday of this week: did the risen Lord appear to his mother? There doesn't seem to be any reference to it in the Scriptures. What do you think?
Acts. What we have here purports to be the first Christian sermon ever preached: at the very least, it is an example of the preaching of the Christian community in its earliest years. How different it is from most of the preaching we serve up today! It is direct and confrontational from the first word to the last. Sadly, Peter lapses into some biblical exegesis in between the first word and the last, but even that does little to quell the power of his words. In a word he is personal. He names his audience (target): "You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say": and he names the one about whom, and in whose name, he is preaching – "Jesus of Nazareth". He uses the very name by which he was known to those Peter is addressing. He reminds them of what "you yourselves know" about "this man" – his "deeds of power, wonders and signs"; and then he proclaims the indictment against them: "this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law." And he rounds off this part of his message with his ringing affirmation of faith and personal witness all rolled into one: "This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses." Wow! How did they react to such in-your-face preaching? To be continued...
Taking It Personally.
- Notice how Peter stresses "this man" and "you". No principles, no generalisations, no platitudes, and definitely no punches pulled. He is preaching about Jesus to you. How do you react? He is charging you: how do you plead?
- Notice the references in verses 24 and 32 to God having "raised him up". Do you agree that this is different from "raised him back to life", or am I just playing with words?
Peter. Now we focus on the question, what does the Resurrection of Jesus mean for those who believe in him? And here we have, not so much an early Christian sermon, as an early Christian creed. It is a statement of faith. The community of faith of the time this letter was written had already done a great deal of theological reflection on the significance of Christ's Resurrection. It is the bedrock of Christian hope: because of the Resurrection we dare to hope that not even death can separate us from God. Notice how the passage unites the past, the present and the future in our faith: it is rooted in what has already happened; it provides confidence for a glorious revelation in the future; and it gives an assurance that we are already in the process of receiving the outcome of our faith, our salvation.
Taking It Personally.
- Ponder this passage prayerfully, phrase by phrase, as you reflect on your own Easter experience this year. Be completely honest with yourself. Are you rejoicing "with an indescribable and glorious joy"? Or are you missing something?
- Read the passage again. Any better?
John. There is so much in this amazing passage that we really ought to stretch it over some weeks. We tend to think of this as "the Thomas story", and so skip over the earlier stuff. Let's slow down. Let's take the first verse, then pause and listen. Can we not hear an echo coming to us all the way from Genesis 1:1-5? It was on the first day that God separated darkness and light, night and day; and so into the darkness of that room, the Light of the world suddenly shines forth. Just as the tomb could not contain Jesus, so now locked doors cannot keep him out. He enters the holding cell, full of those who have failed him so miserably. He greets them, not with words of rebuke or vengeance, but of peace. Then comes the all-important verse 20: "After this, he showed them his hands and his side." Time for another pause. So often we seem to assume that he does this to convince them that it really is him, and not some "random apparition"; but surely there is more to it than that. After all, there is no reference to his wounds in the other resurrection stories. Is he not preparing the ground for what is to come in verse 23? He is showing them the reality of his suffering, the suffering they and all humanity have heaped upon him, so that, when he gives to them the power to forgive or not to forgive, they are aware of the enormity of the forgiveness they have themselves received. [Yes, it's the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant Mark II.] It is also the practical demonstration of Christ's extraordinary prayer on the cross: "Forgive them, Father, for they do not know what they are doing."
Which gets me to Thomas. Here again there is so much in this short passage that we can only begin to scratch the surface. His mere absence speaks to me of the breakdown of fellowship that inevitably flows from the death of Love on the cross. That breakdown is underlined when Thomas refuses to believe the testimony of his former associates. However, during the week that follows Thomas thaws a little, symbolised, I suspect, by that reference to the doors. Last week they were locked; this week they are merely closed. In the same way Thomas is now not quite so closed off – he is open enough to the possibility of the Resurrection to come along to the meeting with the others. But he remains to be convinced. What is it he wants to see and touch for himself? The very wounds that he and all humanity have inflicted on Jesus; but when the Risen Christ offers him the opportunity to do just that, he doesn't need to accept. "My Lord and my God" says it all.
Taking It Personally.
- Pray through this passage using your imagination. Place yourself in the room with them. Experience the darkness, the desolation, the fear, the emotional exhaustion, the emptiness, the shattered hopes and dreams, the disillusionment.
- How do you feel about Jesus now? Are you angry – do you feel let down? After all you have given up, after all you have committed to his cause? Did he bring it on himself?
- Or do you feel guilty – guilty for running away, for not being there for him in his hour of need? What about these others in the room? Are they any better than you – or any worse? Look at Peter; did you use to look up to him? What about now? Can you still look to him for leadership – or to any of the others?
- And then – suddenly Jesus is here standing among you. What is your immediate reaction? Once the initial reaction has worn off, how are you feeling? Embarrassed? Relieved? Overjoyed? Or just plain washed-out?
- Is there anything you would like to say to Jesus?
- When you are ready, come back to the present moment. Read verse 31. Do you really believe that Jesus is "the Messiah, the Son of God"? If so, tell him.
- End with a time of praise and thanksgiving.