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Thursday, March 15, 2018

Easter 2B, April 8, 2017


One in mind and heart, O God of glory, your people gather to proclaim your steadfast love, to proclaim the risen Christ in whom we are baptized.  Let the peace that Christ bestowed on the first disciples reign now over this assembly.  Let the Spirit breathed on them fill our hearts anew.  We ask this through Christ, with whom you have raised us up in baptism, the Lord who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.

From Prayers for Sunday and Seasons, Year B, Peter J. Scagnelli, LTP, 1992.

Some Thoughts on John 20:19-31

"What is more, he keeps showing up. As he came back a week later for Thomas, Jesus keeps coming back week after week among his gathered disciples -- in the word, the water, the bread, and the wine -- not wanting any to miss out on the life and peace he gives."

Commentary, Elisabeth Johnson, John 20:19-31, Preaching This Week,, 2014.

"Even though he said the greater blessing is for those who can believe without seeing, it's hard to imagine that there's a believer anywhere who wouldn't have traded places with Thomas, given the chance, and seen that face and heard that voice and touched those ruined hands."

"Thomas," Frederick Buechner, Buechner Blog.

"In the end, this is not a story of absence and doubt. It is the amazing message that the good news of Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, is able to break through locked rooms, through the limits of time and space."

Commentary, Lucy Lind Hogan, John 20:19-31, Preaching This Week,, 2012

Of Course this text appears regularly after Easter in our lectionary cycle. Furthermore, it also appears as the pre-story to the Pentecost lesson from John.  There is a lot in this week's text for consideration. I do think the preacher's challenge is to fix on one of the narrative pieces and preach fearlessly the resurrection.  So what I am offering today is a little about everything; ending with a few thoughts about where I think I am going with my sermon.

Every time we arrive at the text for this week I am mindful of the prayer of St. Chrysostom which may be prayed as part of our daily office:
Almighty God, you have given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplication to you; and you have promised through your well-beloved Son that when two or three are gathered together in his Name you will be in the midst of them: Fulfill now, O Lord, our desires and petitions as may be best for us; granting us in this world knowledge of your truth, and in the age to come life everlasting. Amen.
So it is that I cannot begin to think and ponder on John’s Gospel and the appearance of Jesus in the midst of the disciples without also thinking of the risen Christ in the midst of gatherings of people and how he is present and what he encourages us, as faithful followers, to undertake on his behalf.

Jesus loves gatherings. God loves it when people sit and eat and share. We might be tempted to steal the Gospel here and think that the only place is God is present in the gatherings of people is in our churches. But that would be to miss the point a bit. God is present in all kinds of gatherings, more visible when we remember him and gather in his name. Nevertheless, the God who created all things is present in the space between people - especially when they face one another and dine together.

Also I am mindful that the reality that this appearance and the appearance to Thomas a week later occur on the “first day of the week”. This suggests the presence of Christ on our day of worship and in the midst of the community gathered for both prayer and a meal, the Eucharist in our current practice. Raymond Brown and other scholars are quick to remind us of Isaiah 3.6: “My people shall know my name; on that day they shall know it is I who speak.”

A challenging word comes from the blogosphere via Brian Stoffregen [Exegetical Notes (Easter 2 ABC) by Brian Stoffregen at CrossMarks Christian Resources]
The purpose of this resurrection appearance is not so much to prove the resurrection as it is to send the disciples as Jesus had been sent. Easter is not just coming to a wonderful, inspiring worship service, it is being sent back into the (hostile) world, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to bear witness to the identity of God as revealed in Jesus.
So there is a sense of a coming, a witnessing, a filling or receiving, and a being sent or going. Not unlike Leonel Mitchel's thoughts that liturgy is always about making and drawing people deeper into Christ and the community of Christ at work in the world. Certainly echoing this liturgical theology and missional challenge are Raymond Brown's (New Testament and Johanine scholar) thoughts on this passage. His notes follow below from page 1019 of vol. 2 of his reflections about John’s Gospel for the Anchor Bible Dictionary. Here he suggests traces of ancient Johannine communal liturgy.

The disciples assemble on the Lord’s Day. The blessing is given: “Peace to you.” The Holy Spirit descends upon the worshipers and the word of absolution is pronounced. Christ himself is present (this may suggest the Eucharist and the spoken Word of God) bearing the marks of his passion; he is confessed as Lord and God. Indeed, this passage in John as been cited as the first evidence that the Christian observance of Sunday arose from an association of that day with the resurrection – an idea that shortly later Ignatius gave voice to: “No longer living for the Sabbath, but for the Lord’s Day on which life dawned for us through in and his death.” (Magnesians, ix 1). (R. Brown, John, vol 2, p 1019).
So it is and with these thoughts that I turn and think more closely upon the Gospel for this Sunday. This is a Gospel which clearly provides some marks along the pilgrim road. John gives us a sense that there is a reality to our being part of a community which gathers, receiving the witness of Jesus Christ resurrected, and then being sent to bear that witness out in the world.

And there is something stale in a community that gathers for itself only and does not go out into the world to see where God is gathering with others.

Our Gospel reading for Sunday begins with the disciples behind closed doors because of their fear. Perhaps afraid of the authorities or for those who might accuse them of stealing their messiah’s body they are hiding. The doors are locked. Jesus comes and stands in their midst, right in front of them.

Jesus says to them, “Peace be with you.” Shalom. Shalom Alekem. Yes this is a greeting. It is also an ancient form of saying or cuing the listener or hearer of these words that there is about to be a revelation. They are about to see, hear, or receive a revelation of God. The revelation (as with Gideon in Judges 6.23) is that the Lord is present, the Lord brings peace, and you will not die.

It is  more particular still. It is a blessing of peace. It is a reminder that they are to be a blessing of peace to others. Just as Abraham and Sarah were to be a blessing, so God comes into their midst to send them out to be a blessing of peace to the world. 

Jesus then shows his disciples his wounds. He shows them the very place of them. While there is some argument between scholars about the different wound sites shown and the different terms and placement between the Gospel of Luke and John’s visitation we nevertheless see that it was a powerful recognition of the Christ crucified. I am mindful that the disciples and those who experience the resurrection had not only a real experience but an understanding that Jesus was himself more fully present that before. The reality of these wounds and the powerful vision they must have created for those whose eyes fell upon them quiets me.

Here then the author and narrator uses the resurrection title, “the Lord.” While I have been using it, we notice in the narrative its first use here. Jesus is recognized but recognized as the risen one, the first fruits of those who have died.

He is also here in vs 27 from our Acts lesson Jesus is referred to as God's holy país - son or child. He is Lord, but he is Lord by his woundedness and by becoming the least among them...a child. Yes, the woundedness reveals that it is the Lord but a particular kind of Lord which is different than the Lord's of this world.

Jesus provides a vision of resurrection. He is present. He gives them a mission. "Just as God sent me I am sending you." We may reflect upon the previous chapters, his priestly prayer, and his ministry. Jesus was sent by the father to glorify God. Jesus now sends his followers to do the same.

And, Jesus gives them the Holy Spirit. As if from Genesis we have Jesus breathing over the new creation, new breath to the new Adams and the new Eves.

Then the Lord charges them to forgive. Forgive the sins and know that those which you hold will be bound by them. If you release them, you open your hand and they fall away. If you hold them you hold your hand closed and they cannot go. It seems important to reflect on this a minute. Jesus words here are very different than the legal words used by him in Matthew’s Gospel. Here we have kerygmatic words. Brown writes:

Thus the forgiveness and holding of sins should be interpreted in the light of Jesus’ own action toward sin…The Gospel is more concerned with the application of forgiveness on earth, and is accomplished in and through the Spirit that Jesus has sent…more general Johannine ideas about the Spirit, relate the forgiveness of sins to the eschatological outpouring of the Spirit that cleanses men and begets them to new life… the power to isolate, repel, and negate evil and sin, a power given to Jesus in his mission by the Father an given in turn by Jesus through the Spirit to those whom he commission. (John, vol 2, 1040-1044)
This is the re-creation in action. The disciples are given power by the Holy Spirit to be about the work of freeing people to and into the new created order.

Thomas, our dear brother Thomas, missed this historic revelationary moment. And, as we arrive at this time every year we know he will not believe it no matter what is said. So emphatic is he that he will not believe it unless he “throws” his fingers into the wounds themselves. This is a dramatic call for proof if there ever was one.

The disciples continue their stay in Jerusalem and find themselves with Thomas again in the upper room one week later.

Again, Jesus appears and he calls to Thomas. The Lord invites him to see and feel his wounds to reach out and touch them. Some scholars have spent time wondering how this could be so if the Christ was wearing clothes. Was it a loose fitting garment? These suggestions give rise to one of my favorite Brown quotes which I must admit almost caused me to fall out of my chair when I read it. Raymond Brown writes, “The evangelist scarcely intended to supply information on the haberdashery appropriate for a risen body.” (1026)

Jesus also tells him to stop or quit persisting in his unbelief by these actions. While Thomas was a follower of Jesus was a believer in the risen Christ? He is challenged here to change.

What has always struck me, but few preachers have ever remarked on, is the fact that Thomas doesn’t touch the Christ. I have pondered this a great deal. What is it then that changes him. Thomas’ faith is adequate without the proof. That seems the deeper point of the story. One scholar even remarked that John seems himself somewhat skeptical; perhaps not unlike our Thomas. Yet...Thomas comes to believe.

We often get so focused on what it takes to convince ourselves in God and then project it upon Thomas that we miss the narrative’s truth. Thomas believes without the proof.

Brown writes of all four episodes in chapter 20 of John’s Gospel:

Whether or not he intended to do so, the evangelist has given us in the four episodes of ch xx four slightly different examples of faith in the risen Jesus. The Beloved Disciple comes to faith after having seen the burial wrappings but without having seen Jesus himself. Magdalene sees Jesus but does not recognize him until he calls her by name. The disciples see him and believe. Thomas also sees him and believes, but only after having been over insistent on the marvelous aspect of the appearance. All four are examples of those who saw and believed; the evangelist will close the Gospel in 29b by turning his attention to those who have believed without seeing.” (John, vol 2, 1046)
Thomas’ words “My God and my Lord,” are the last words spoken by a disciple in the 4th Gospel. And they are the culminating Gospel proclamation for the faithful follower of Jesus. This statement brings him fully into the covenant relationship with the new creation.

Now that the witness of the disciples is concluded Jesus words are for us. The last and final Beatitude is given for those who would come after. Blessed are those who do not see but have believed. Here is Jesus, with us to the end, offering the last words in the Gospel. We have the opportunity to join the new covenant community, to be new Adams and new Eves, to participate in the stewardship of creation recreated and to take our place in the midst of the discipleship community. We do so through baptism. We do so also by embracing the kerygmatic Word and living a resurrected life. We live by making our confession: My God and my Lord. We live life on the one hand bearing witness to the ever present past of crucifixion and the ever present future of the resurrection life.

We make our witness as pilgrims of Shalom, of peace in the world, become the least (like our Lord) we serve the world in his name. We go out to feed and witness and to find God gathering with others in teh world around us. We go out to discover the marked children who are the persecuted in our day and wear the wounds of Christ.

This passage is not merely a passage about what is supposed to be our experience in Church but is a passage that speaks about what our experience is to be from Christian community - how we are to go out and discover God's suffering in the least and lost.

Some Thoughts on I John 1:1-2:5

"Certainly it would have been an exciting period full of fresh revelation, miracles, and the rapid growth of the church. However, texts like 1 John bear witness to the first century of Christianity also as a time of strife and the splitting of some Christian communities over differences. "

Commentary, 1 John 1:1-2:2, Nijay Gupta, Preaching This Week,, 2015.

"The church need not gaze wistfully for a "someday" to come in order to possess the fullness of its identity. There is no need to wait until there are more members, or more resources, or more of whatever we might believe is necessary to be a good, or faithful, or missional (choose your favorite adjective!) church. "

Commentary, 1 John 1:13 (All Saints A), Audrey West, Preaching This Week,, 2014.

There is a lot of debate about the authorship of this text. I remember from seminary that the text is meant for general reading instead of to a particular community and context. I also remember that it is likely that the author of this particular Johannine text is closely related, if not the very same editor, as the one associated with the final edit of the Gospel of John. 

The goal is right teaching focused primarily on a high spirituality with a low anthropology. We might say that the spirit is good and the flesh is bad. If the spirit is truly living in us, proposes the author, then we will see the good works as an out flowing sign of the saving work of God.

As we pick up the argument in this first chapter what we know is that the text tells us there is a debate on the incarnation. Did Jesus truly become human and did he really suffer? Or, as God was it all an act?  

The author is clear. Christ has existed as the Word since before the beginning. This living Word has been present in all of God's creative acts. At the same time this Word comes in very real flesh, lived and suffered with us. In this we have a very real fellowship not only with Christ Jesus but also with the father.

At the same time, the author continues, while the Word is truly human and was tempted in every way as we are, he did not fall prey to sin as we do.  

The author says one cannot live ethically as Christ does and do evil things. God's perfect sacrifice removes from us all sin and so we achieve a holiness of life. When we do fall and confess our wrong doing God will forgive us. We are sinful even though we are redeemed. Nevertheless, our goal to live a Christian life, an ethical life as Christ did, remains our goal.  Given our sinfulness and ability to always fail at this we are grateful for God's forgiveness. 

For those who believe, follow Christ's example, confess when we sin, forgiveness and union with God are ours through the gift of Christ Jesus on the cross. 

God does not promise that life will be easy, that we will be sinless, or that temptations will not come to us. God does promise forgiveness of sins to all those who truly call upon his name. 

The difficulty then becomes the human ability to point out other people's sins rather than focusing on our own. This is our way of dealing with this today. We would rather enter the confessional with our neighbor's list than to be about our own business repent and attempt an honest life of living out our forgiveness. When we are tempted to take the other person's inventory we avoid our own sinfulness by resenting others. The author is clear - God forgives. The ethical follower of Jesus is the one
focused on their own living of life rather than upon their neighbor's.

Some Thoughts on Acts 4:23-37 (Acts 4:32-35)

"The portrayals of Christ-following community in Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-37 raise red flags for many Euro-American readers."

Commentary, Acts 4:32-35,Margaret Aymer, Preaching This Week,, 2017.

"The Resurrection calls and enables us to perform powerful tangible acts that coincide with human need."

Commentary, Acts 4:32-35, Mitzi J. Smith, Preaching This Week,, 2012.

"Reading this text as a chiasm may suggest that the 'spiritual' qualities of the community (one heart and soul; witness to the resurrection; grace) leads to the 'social' qualities of declaiming ownership, sharing, and liberality."

"Two Ways of Reading the Early Church," D Mark Davis, raw translation and questions, Left Behind and Loving It, 2012.

"But 4:34 offers the clearest reason why they found it necessary to hold all in common; they were primarily concerned that there be no one needy among them."

"Holding All Things in Common," John C. Holbert, Patheos, 2012.

Religion is over. This passage reveals further that the passage from 1 John and John's Gospel are not about religious affectations that take shape within Christian community but that God's Gospel mission of peace, of Shalom, is to take shape out in the world among God's people.

Peter and John are released from captivity. They can't believe it! They don't understand why the world has rejected their message. They see clearly that power will fear a Gospel of peace where the Lord of lords is the least - the child - the servant. Their Gospel makes the world and its values topsy-turvy.  They state that the power that came from this servant made the powers and authorities afraid. They are praying to receive a spirit that will hold fast the truth of the Gospel in the face of such powers in their own time. They are filled with the Holy Spirit and they speak the truth of the God who became least, who became lost, and who became weak and even died so that others may have life. They spoke boldly and powerfully.

The passage then tells us that they shared much among themselves. This is not to say that everyone became poor. But it reveals that in this particular Christian community that people shared what they had so that all might have what is needed. They held things in common. "There was not a needy person among them." 
...for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”). He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.
The Gospel proclamation is one that takes root in action by the community. It is a Gospel that is not about supporting a church but the supporting of people and their common life together. 

Excerpts from my book Vocatio:

The church of Acts wastes no time pontificating about growth or obsessing over the health of their institution. Instead the Church of Acts puts its energy into going, sharing, caring, and serving in peace.

The Apostles of the Church of Acts are not professionals. They are not climbing a career ladder. When apostleship becomes a career, we turn the Church into a principality or a power--an infection of violence that begins in the subtlest, most innocent of ways. Institutionalizing apostleship is a faithless means of ensuring survival. Stringfellow warns that institutions shape leaders more often than leaders shape institutions. In an institutionalized Church, authentic apostleship and the impulse for mission are the first casualties.[i] For the church to truly undertake its vocation, it must produce disciples whose apostleship looks like Jesus’s own, as opposed to bureaucratic paper pushing. The Church should always look outside of itself for means of reform. It must use the tools of vision and mission to reconnect with the narrative arc of the community of peace. While we must accept, as Stringfellow does, that the Church is a principality, we read Acts so that we might reform it in every way possible, in hope that it may become a most "exemplary principality."[ii]

[i] Stringfellow characterizes how the institution works in this way: "In truth, the conspicuous moral fact about our generals, our industrialists, our scientists, our commercial and political leaders is that they are the most obvious and pathetic prisoners in American society. There is unleashed among the principalities in this society a ruthless, self-proliferating, all-consuming institutional process that assaults, dispirits, defeats, and destroys human life even among, and primarily among, those persons in positions of institutional leadership. They are left with titles but without effectual authority; with the trappings of power but without control over the institutions they head; in nominal command but bereft of dominion. These same principalities, as has been mentioned, threaten and defy and enslave human beings of other status in diverse ways, but the most poignant victim of the demonic in America today is the so-called leader. Stringfellow, "Acolytes of the Demonic Powers," Keeper, 274.
[ii] William Stringfellow, "Acolytes," Keeper, 274.


The last quality of the apostolic shalom community worthy of note is their practice of sharing what they had. They shared the good news of Jesus’s resurrection and of the community and reign of peace. They shared the Holy Spirit. (Acts 8:14) They did mighty works to be sure. (Acts 3:1-7) All of this required no repayment. It was free to those who desired it, for those willing to be a member of the peace community and reject the dominion of violence and a world where fees were charged for service. There was no enrichment to be had in this endeavor of mission. We do know that this mixed community of the poor and the wealthy came together to share what they had so that all might have what is needed to live. Those who lived together in community (which may have been the twelve and their families) shared things in common. (Acts 2:42) We are told that everyone in one community sold all their possessions and this was placed in a common purse for the good of the community. (Acts 4:34-35) We are told that this was a key ingredient to belonging to the community in Jerusalem. So much so that they confronted those who did not trust the community or God fully and did not give over all that they had. (Acts 5:1-11) This is important because the community in Jerusalem as a paradigm understood that everything must be pooled together in a common purse and used for the good of the whole. It had to be redistributed. In still other parts of the movement different ways were used to take in money and redistribute it for the good of all. In the case of Lydia or the Centurion in Acts no requirement is made that they sell everything. At the core was an understanding that it was good to give and share what one has and to do good works. (Hebrews 13:15-16) Those who followed God in the community of shalom rejected the norms of consumption, wealth, and the oppression of the poor. The economic system of the day was rejected in favor of a community of peace where there was no hunger. The care of the needy among the Church was so important that the first “ministers” called into the fledgling community were tasked with caring for those who could not take care of themselves - the widows and orphans who were being neglected in the distribution of food. (Acts 6:1-6) The early Church’s rule of life was a direct indictment of the practice of the religious authorities. But the early Church wasted no time telling the authorities that they should feed these people. They simply fed the people. When the community of peace shares what they have with those who are going without they undermine the powers and authorities which prey upon the weak, needy, and vulnerable, holding them up as scapegoats for society's problems.

Previous Sermons For This Sunday
This is a sermon on John 20.19-29, the Second Sunday of Easter.  I preached the sermon at Christ the King, Alief.  In my prayers and study I was interested by the human desire to deal with our doubt by seeing and touching, and then wondered where is one of the places the risen Lord is present in our lives.

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