This reading is one of four post-resurrection stories in the Gospel of John. The first is the Easter morning narrative, in which Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb and finds the stone removed. She notifies Peter and the Beloved Disciple, who then come but leave for their homes (20:1-10). The second story in John’s Gospel relates the appearance of the risen Jesus to Mary Magdalene (20:11-18).
The next two stories make up the reading for the Second Sunday of Easter. The first takes place on the evening of Easter Day, an appearance of Jesus to his disciples, when Thomas is absent (20:19-25). The second narrates an appearance of Jesus to his disciples a week later when Thomas is present (20:26-31). These two scenes can be treated separately and then together.
The first of the two scenes (20:19-25) opens with the disciples gathered at a house in the evening of Easter Day in or near Jerusalem. The reason for the disciples to meet behind locked doors is fear, but the effect upon us as we hear the story is that we anticipate a miracle. We are not disappointed. The resurrected Jesus appears miraculously.
No explanation is given for the gathering of the disciples. But in the previous verse (20:18) the evangelist says that Mary Magdalene had reported the news of Jesus’ resurrection to the disciples. Both Peter and the Beloved Disciple had come to the tomb in the morning, but it was only the Beloved Disciple who had actually come to believe in Jesus’ resurrection (20:8). Peter had not yet come to believe, nor had the other disciples. But in the sequel (20:11-18) the risen Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene. She recognizes who he is, and she tells the disciples that she had seen the risen Lord.
The scene unfolds in 20:19b-23 with a series of four events.
(1) Jesus appears in the midst of the disciples and gives them the common Jewish greeting: “Peace” (“Shalom”). He identifies himself by showing his hands and side. The reaction of the disciples is one of rejoicing.
(2) A commissioning follows (20:21). Jesus says that he had been sent by the Father. That is a common affirmation in the Gospel of John (41 times). Jesus was sent into the world to reveal the Father, teach, and gather disciples. Furthermore, he declared that after his return to the Father, he would send his disciples to continue his ministry (17:18). Now that is being fulfilled.
(3) The “Johannine Pentecost” follows in 20:22. According to the Fourth Evangelist, the gift of the Spirit was bestowed on the evening of Easter Day itself, not on Pentecost some seven weeks later, as Luke has it. The disciples are immediately commissioned and given the Spirit as a power that will enable them to witness to Christ.
(4) The authorization to forgive sins completes the series of events on Easter Day (20:23). The passage is similar to those in Matthew 16:19 and 18:18.
Important as the foregoing scene is, the interest of the preacher and the congregation will probably focus more on the second of the two scenes in our reading.
That scene (20:26-29) opens with the disciples gathered again in the house on the following Sunday, but this time Thomas is present. Jesus invites Thomas to touch his wounds and to believe. We do not know whether Thomas actually does that or not, but he confesses his faith: “My Lord and my God!” In making that confession, it is not likely that he is expressing a full-blown ontological Christology, as presented in the creeds and christological formulas of the fourth and fifth centuries. What he says, in effect, is that he has encountered the presence of God in the risen Jesus.
The final verse of the scene (20:29), a punch-line, is a bit tricky. One could take it as a rebuke of Thomas, whose faith is dependent upon seeing Jesus, in contrast to those who believe without seeing him. But that reading is not the only possibility. His coming to faith through seeing is not discredited. After all, in that regard he is no different from the others, for they too believe only on the basis of the appearance of Christ to them. It is better to discern another contrast. That is a contrast between two ways of coming to faith. The one is through seeing; the other is through a means apart from seeing. And that is through hearing and believing the gospel proclaimed by Jesus’ witnesses.
Jesus’ beatitude (“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”) puts Christians of all times and places on the same plane before God as that of the original disciples. The latter, to whom the risen Jesus appeared, were bound by time and place in first century Jerusalem. But others have come to believe far and wide without that originating experience. The beatitude is addressed to the reader or hearer of the Gospel of John. We who have come to faith are declared blessed as we hear the gospel being read.
The most obvious reason for assigning this reading for the Second Sunday of Easter is that the Thomas story falls chronologically on the Sunday after Easter. But there is another reason for using it as a basis for preaching, and that is to emphasize its two ways of coming to faith.
First, what did it take for persons to become believers in ancient times? We might assume that faith came easily to the disciples of Jesus. But our story shows that it did not. It took an appearance of the risen Jesus to them. Thomas, like the other disciples, insists on more than hearsay. He is thoughtful and discerning, and in that way he is a good model for us.
Second, what does it take for persons to become believers in our time? It is impossible to establish the facticity of the resurrection to everyone’s satisfaction. As with the affirmation that God created the world, so too the affirmation that God raised Jesus from death to life goes beyond the usual rules of evidence. But what is clear is that the twin claims are consistent with one another (both speak of creation out of nothing), and they are consistent with the kind of God who is revealed in the Scriptures. Faith is not a certainty based on physical perception, but is trust grounded in insight into the reality of God, what God is capable of doing, and how Jesus fits into the larger drama. One should not believe all religious claims that come to us, but the story of Jesus continues to engage us and calls us to belief in him as risen Lord. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Peter tells an audience in Jerusalem that the resurrected Jesus reigns at God’s right hand, and that Jesus’ ministry continues through his followers, in the power of the Holy Spirit.
He delivers the sermon on the day of Pentecost, immediately after the Holy Spirit arrives. Why, then, does the lectionary assign this passage during Easter? It is because here Peter speaks the first public proclamation of the gospel offered in Acts, and he announces (among other things) Jesus’ resurrection. Also, in a theological sense, the resurrection of Jesus and the giving of the Holy Spirit are integrally related (thus Christians celebrate Pentecost as the final day of the Easter season, not yet a new season). The close connection between Jesus and Spirit seen in John 20:19-23, where Jesus bestows the Spirit during his first post-resurrection appearance to a group of his followers, is presented differently but no less significantly in Acts, where almost fifty days separate Easter from Jesus’ giving of the Spirit.
The lectionary carves Acts 2 into pieces. For today’s reading it designates the second part of Peter’s sermon (in several weeks, when Christians celebrate Pentecost, the lectionary will return to this scene and assign the verses that relate the sermon’s occasion and first part [2:1-21]). Over the next two Sundays it offers the audience’s response to the sermon (2:36-41) and a description of the community that forms as a result (2:42-47). The three consecutive readings urge preachers to work with Acts 2 for several Sundays, helping congregations gain a deeper understanding of this important chapter.
The impetus for Peter’s sermon is significant, for he speaks specifically to explain why the Holy Spirit has been given to Jesus’ followers. In the sermon’s first part he refers to Joel 2:28-32a (in Acts 2:16-21) to identify the presence of the Spirit, to underscore its role in empowering people to interpret God’s deeds (prophecy), and to announce the time of God’s salvation. Then comes the second part, which is this Sunday’s reading (as explained below, preachers must extend today’s reading through v. 36). Here, Peter explains that it was Jesus’ dying, rising, and ascending that resulted in the sending of the Spirit. Through those things God established Jesus as Lord and Messiah (Christ).
Peter’s explanation is not easy to follow; it proceeds as an exegetical argument that is saturated with weighty theological assertions. The argument appeals to at least three psalms and depicts Jesus as superior to his forerunner David. Peter refers to David as the author of these psalms and interprets their words as prophetic testimony concerning the expected Messiah. Through his exegesis and dramatic assertion that Jesus’ death unfolded “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (v. 23), Peter characterizes God’s work through Jesus Christ as certain, reliable, and effective. I will return to the significance of this characterization after providing a brief overview of the sermon.
Peter’s statement in vv. 22-24 comprises a single sentence in Greek, one that makes a significant impact. It begins, as in the NRSV, by stating its focus: Jesus of Nazareth. The sermon recounts the story of Jesus, but Jesus functions–both grammatically and theologically–as the direct object. Grammatically, Jesus is the direct object throughout the long sentence. He was the one who was “handed over you” and the one whom “you crucified and killed” through the agency of the Roman government. But Jesus was also God’s own object in the story: the one who was “attested to you by God,” the one through whom God worked, and the one whom “God raised.” Note the contrast in what was done with Jesus, and the dramatic reversal: you killed him, but God raised him.
Why did God raise him? Peter does not suggest that something had gone wrong, as if God had to correct a mistake. He says it was impossible for Jesus to be held in death’s power. Why was that impossible? Jesus was no ordinary man but God’s designated Messiah. Peter appeals in vv. 25-28 to Ps 16:8-11, which speaks of one who will not be abandoned to Hades or experience corruption. Since David, the speaker in the psalm, certainly died and his body decayed (thus the statement, in v. 29, indicating that his tomb remains occupied), the “Holy One” mentioned in the psalm must refer to someone other than the speaker. This, Peter concludes, is the Messiah, who then must be spared bodily corruption through the resurrection of his body.
After contrasting the incorrupt Messiah with the decayed prophet, Peter continues by asserting that the Messiah’s resurrection had a purpose. It was not merely deliverance from corruption for the sake of preserving a body or gratuitously exercising power. The resurrection established the Messiah’s right to rule over all. As Messiah, Jesus is the descendant of David whom God enthroned (v. 30; see Ps 132:11).
The rule of the Messiah is superior to King David’s former reign, as impressive as that was. This is because the Messiah sits at God’s right hand, meaning that he possesses full authority from God. Verses 32-36 do more than reiterate the Easter claim that God raised Jesus from the dead; they also describe an integral connection between Jesus’ resurrection and his exaltation, confirming his identity as “Lord and Messiah.” There is no excuse for the lectionary’s omitting vv. 33-36 from this Sunday’s reading (and from next Sunday’s, which begins at v. 36). The Greek syntax supports reading vv. 32-33 as a single sentence, and these verses form a climax of Peter’s speech, which originally set out to answer the question posed by those who were astounded by the Spirit-inspired speech (2:12). The main point of Peter’s sermon is to construe the execution, resurrection, and glorification of Jesus as the basis for the coming of the Holy Spirit. The resurrected and ascended Jesus himself pours out the Spirit (v. 33), precisely because he now is enthroned at God’s right hand. To offer a final piece of support from the prophetic voice of David, and to underscore the notion that God has vindicated Jesus, Peter appeals in vv. 34-35 to Ps 110:1, which suggests a close association between the Lord God and David’s Lord (the Messiah). Even more powerful, Peter’s final words in v. 36 declare that God has made Jesus “Lord,” implying that Jesus is indeed equal to God (the kyrios–Lord–of the Jewish scriptures).
Peter’s declarations provide us with much to consider, and it quickly becomes overwhelming if we try to shoehorn an explanation of every detail of his sermon into one of ours. Yet, several aspects of Peter’s big picture are vital to note. We cannot separate the crucifixion, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus. Each of these events gives meaning to the others, and each is a crucial piece of how God establishes and confirms Jesus’ messiahship and lordship, which results in the sending of the Holy Spirit. During Easter, then, we remember that the resurrection is not “death moving backwards” or God’s “Plan B,” it is part of the mysterious means by which God makes Jesus of Nazareth ruler over all creation, even over death itself.
Earlier I mentioned that Peter’s sermon characterizes God’s work through Jesus Christ as certain, reliable, and effective. It is a message about God and what God accomplishes through Jesus. These accomplishments show that God’s ultimate purposes cannot be deterred by human ignorance or humanity’s conflict with God. What Jesus announced and embodied in his earthly ministry about the reign of God continues and is assured through Jesus’ reign as Lord. The Spirit he sends to his followers means that the work and promises of that reign continue today in them.
The First Letter of Peter is addressed to the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia. One commentator suggests that geographically speaking this would be 300,000 square miles!
Peter has been the accepted author of these letters from the earliest days of the church. If Peter is indeed the author then the letter must be dated prior to 64 A.D., the date of Peter’s death in Rome. There are voices that contend that Peter is not the author of this epistle and that the date of the letter needs to be set somewhat later.
The major purpose of the letter appears to be an appeal to Christian believers not to turn away from the gospel they have heard proclaimed. A very interesting theory of the usage of the letter is that it was a letter intended to be read at a baptismal service with the purpose of strengthening the faith of the baptized as they find themselves living as exiles in an alien culture. We note, e.g., that I Peter 1.3 refers to new birth. Cf. the reference to being “born anew” in 1.23.
Others assert that the letter itself is structured after a baptismal liturgy. This theory is built on the hypothesis that I Peter is based on a liturgy containing various prayers and homilies spoken by a bishop at the various stages of an Easter baptismal service. This theory divides the book of I Peter as follows:
A description of the audience for this letter of I Peter would include the fact that they were relative newcomers to Christianity [1.4; 1.17; 1.25; 2.2]. They were an immature group of believers who were encountering a hostile environment. They were foreigners in their own country because of their election [1.2], their worship of God [4.14-15], their origin [1.3, 23; 2.2], their lifestyle [2.16], and their innocent suffering [2.12; 3.13, 16]. They needed guidance on their way. One interpreter of this letter sees, therefore, a two-fold purpose for its writing: 1] It is a call to young Christians to hold fast their faith. “Become who you are,” might summarize Peter’s message on this point. 2] It is a description for how young believers can be Christians in a hostile cultural environment. This message is fashioned for those who have suffered much for their new faith. The role of suffering, the suffering of Jesus and the suffering of his followers pervades the epistle.
This text from I Peter is appointed for the Second Sunday after Easter. One sermon possibility for preaching is to take up the theme of Easter hope in a world of decay and death. Vv. 3-5 are a flourish of praise for baptism; new birth! Note how the hope of new birth is dominated by images of the resurrection. Our salvation here is pointed toward the end of history! As Easter people we live between the NOW and the NOT YET. Easter people live between the times!
A second sermon possibility is to focus on the reality of Baptism. We mentioned above theories that I Peter is structured after a baptismal liturgy or meant to be read at services of Holy Baptism. Baptism speaks of God’s relationship to us in the indicative mode. God has given us a new birth. [See also I Peter 1.23-25. This is next week’s text]. The word of salvation is announced to us! According to Luther’s writings we are invited to speak of three tenses of time in our understanding of baptism. Luther could have gained this understanding from these verses in I Peter.
A third sermon possibility would be to treat the theme of suffering in this text and throughout I Peter. “…now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials….” v.6. Vv. 6-7 lift up the theme of suffering. The content of their suffering is mixed throughout the epistle although the primary “suffering” focus would seem to be the fact that those to whom Peter wrote are, indeed, “the chosen strangers of the diaspora.” They live in a hostile faith environment. If one chooses this theme it would be best to connect it to the ways in which our present culture is hostile to the faith of believers.
We have indicated above that one of the basic themes of this epistle is counsel on the way to be a Christian in a hostile cultural environment. Peter continually cites the suffering of Christ as the great hope for the beleaguered believer: 2.21-23; 3.18-23; 4.1-2, 13f. [Some interpreters identify the theme of suffering and hope as the key themes in I Peter.] In these texts Peter gives expression to a profound theology of the cross. There is much wise guidance here for us.
A final sermon possibility is to explore Peter’s understanding of faith. He mentions faith three times in our assigned text: vv. 5, 7, 9. Faith in these passages has a strong eschatological emphasis. Faith, that is, lives toward the future and the future has been revealed to us in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the grave.
There is a strong theological content in each of these sermon possibilities. In order to resist a sermon that is a “mini-theological lecture” it would be wise to thread stories with the ideas of these texts. Stories and ideas can dance well together in our proclamation of the gospel.