Lectionary Commentaries for April 19, 2009
Second Sunday of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 20:19-31

Richard Carlson

Year in and year out, the gospel lesson for the second Sunday of Easter is always the same.

Year in and year out, this is the Sunday we hear the story of doubting Thomas. Or do we?

Actually, the Greek word meaning doubt (distazō) never appears in this story (despite the mistranslations of NRSV and NIV in John 20:27). Distazō is found in Matthew’s post-resurrection reunion story (Matthew 28:17), but it is completely absent in John 20.

Likewise, if doubt is an attitude of uncertainty or a wavering of belief, then Thomas is anything but doubting. Consequently, perhaps the tried and true sermons on doubting Thomas are not true to the text, and other approaches should be tried.

From the start, it is important to realize the story is not about Thomas. Rather, the story is about varied responses to the reality of the resurrection.1  Thomas’ response (though quite vivid) is but one in an assortment of responses presented in John 20. Various initial responses to the resurrection in 20:1-18 include:

  • Mary Magdalene’s first response is one of consternation, because she concluded that Jesus’ corpse was moved to some unknown location (20:2, 13, 15).
  • Peter’s response is quite ambiguous. He sees the immediate evidence (the position of the linen clothes and the face cloth, 20:6-7) but comes to no definitive conclusions.
  • The response of the Beloved Disciple is to see and believe even without knowing the scriptural prophecy regarding Jesus’ resurrection (20:9).
  • Subsequently, Jesus moves Mary Magdalene to a response of obedient faith in which she carries out Jesus’ commission and testifies to the fact that she has seen the Lord (20:17-18).

As our text opens, the disciples display an initial response of fear because of the Judeans. They are letting the world, rather than the risen Jesus, control their actions and attitudes. Jesus, however, breaks into their locked up, fearful lives and bids them peace as fulfillment of his promises in 14:23, 27-28. This triggers their new resurrection response of joy (20:20b fulfilling 16:22).

The so-called Johannine Pentecost scene immediately follows as Jesus imparts the Holy Spirit onto them, and commissions them to participate in the ongoing mission for which the Father had originally sent Jesus. Jesus’ act of breathing the Spirit echoes Genesis 2:7 and Ezekiel 37:9 while also fulfilling his promise regarding the Spirit (14:17, 26; 15:26). As Mary Magdalene responded obediently to the commission the risen Lord gave her (20:17-18), so it is anticipated that the disciples will respond obediently to the commission the risen Lord has given them regarding the forgiveness and retention of sins (20:23).

In John 20:24-25, Thomas presents a very different response to the reality of the resurrection. For their part, the disciples continue to reflect the proper Easter faith response in their report that they have seen the Lord (20:25a virtually repeating Mary’s Easter faith response in 20:18). Thomas responds, not with doubt, but with definite and emphatic conditions for believing.

The Greek construction of 20:25b is a clear “if…then…” condition stated negatively. Essentially, Thomas is saying that if the conditions he establishes are not met, then he will definitely not believe.

Rather than “doubting Thomas,” the text presents “conditional Thomas.”

This, in turn, opens up new sermonic possibilities for our seemingly tried and true text. How often do we approach our faith relationship as a legal contract in which we seek to establish the terms by which we will respond with faith? “If I have historical proof…If I have a sign…If near-death experiences can verify…If God would do…If Jesus would cure…Then I will believe in Christ…Then I will know that God exists…Then I will know that there is life after death…Then I will make a commitment of faith.”

We replicate the folly of conditional Thomas each time we establish for Christ how Christ needs to operate in our lives and each time we ground our faith in what we demand from God, rather than in what God does in Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit.

An initial reading of 20:27-29 might lead one to conclude that Thomas comes to believe because Jesus meets his conditions. John’s text, however, is more subtle than that.

On the one hand, in 20:27 Jesus gives several commands to Thomas, echoing the conditions Thomas had established in 20:25. On the other hand, Thomas never physically examines or inspects Jesus’ wounds as he claimed he needed to do before he would believe.

Instead, the key is the closing command Jesus gives in 20:27, “Don’t be unbelieving but believing.” Jesus’ command functions as performative speech. He speaks the proper response into Thomas so that Thomas responds with the ultimate relational confession of faith, “My Lord and my God.” (20:28)

Through the series of responses to the reality of Easter presented in John 20, we discover that believing is neither a matter of physical proofs nor having our conditions met. Likewise, believing is not simply a matter of seeing but transcends seeing, as Jesus’ congratulatory 20:29 makes clear.

Ultimately, the appropriate response to the reality of Easter involves being transformed by the Word, the Word which in John is Jesus incarnate (1:14), Jesus crucified (20:20, 27), and Jesus, one with the Father (20:28).


1In John, Jesus’ resurrection is to be assumed by the readers. Thus, it is never directly reported by characters within the narrative beyond two reports of characters having seen the Lord (20:18, 25). This assumption is based on Jesus’ prophesy of his resurrection (2:18-21) and that the resurrection was noted in a narrative aside (2:22). Additionally, Jesus had declared that he is the resurrection and the life (11:25). Finally, in his extended after dinner discourse Jesus used various figures of speech to describe the fact that he would depart from the disciples and subsequently they would see him again (14:2-6,18-19,28-29; 16:5-7,10,16-22).


First Reading

Commentary on Acts 4:32-35

F. Scott Spencer

For the early church depicted in Acts, the resurrection of Christ is less a creedal article of individual faith and hope than a creative force of community formation and fellowship.

According to our text summarizing the “state of the union” of the first believers in Jerusalem, the apostles had borne “testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus,” thereby mediating “great power (dynamis)” and “great grace (charis) …upon …all” who embraced their message (Acts 4:33).

From the start, the risen Jesus charged his witnesses to share the good news of his resurrection with the world (Luke 24:44-48; Acts 1:1-8). After all, this is the climactic (eschatological) sign of God’s light-giving, life-saving purpose for all people and places, even “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8; cf. 13:47). The resurrection forges new communities of light and life. Only in such fellowship (koinonia) is the meaning of the resurrection progressively discerned and demonstrated, learned and lived out.

As in our own day, the early church worked out its resurrection faith through regular communal practices, such as baptism, the Eucharist, scripture study, and prayer. An earlier summary reports (following Peter’s Pentecost sermon): “So those who welcomed his message were baptized… They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (2:41-42).

But they also engaged in a radical resurrection practice not so popular today: “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common (koina)” (4:32).

Our text particularly highlights the habit of land/homeowners’ selling their properties and laying the proceeds at the apostles’ feet for distribution to anyone in need. Accordingly, “there was not a needy person among them” in this power- and grace-filled resurrection community (4:34).

What a remarkable group! They held everything “in common,” yet were notably uncommon by normal social standards, both in the limited goods, zero-sum world of Mediterranean antiquity and in the private-boosting, wealth-expanding economy of modern Western capitalism.

How did Christ’s resurrection motivate such a unified, generous community? Or, conversely, how did the practice of communal goods inform the early church’s understanding of the living Christ?

First, Christ’s resurrection is inextricably connected with his crucifixion. God did not raise Jesus from just any death, but death on a cross, signifying ultimate self-emptying and sacrifice. Jesus dies bankrupt and bereft, stripped of all earthly possessions (including clothes – cf. Luke 23:34) and reliant only on his Divine Father into whose hands he commits his breath/spirit (pneuma, Luke 23:46).

It is out of this experience of complete surrender that God brings fresh, resurrection life to Jesus. Losing his life, he saves it. Forfeiting “the whole world” of self-aggrandizing profit, he gains the true wealth of God’s kingdom. The crucified and risen Jesus thus inspires his followers to find new life as they “deny themselves and take up their cross daily” (Luke 9:23). They relinquish all they are and own into God’s hands or, more literally, at the feet of God’s apostles in Acts 4:35.

Second, raising Christ from the grave signals anew God’s creative sovereignty over all creation (cf. Acts 4:24). According to one biblical image, God’s bringing life from death is likened to a seed falling into the ground, “dying,” and then bursting forth, “rising” in fruitful bloom and flower (see John 12:24-25; 1 Corinthians 15:36-38).

Resurrection thus stakes afresh God’s claim on the whole earth. “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” (Psalm 24:1). “The land is mine,” God announces, as grounds for the Sabbath/Jubilee provisions of restoring properties to original owners and remitting debts so “there will be no one in need among you” (Leviticus 25:23; Deuteronomy 15:4). Fittingly, then, the community of the resurrected Christ ceded private ownership and pooled the resources of their “lands and houses” to meet the needs of all (Acts 4:32-35).

Finally, the resurrection of Christ marks the “first fruits” not only of a new, singular beginning, but also of a climactic restoration of all things.

For the early church, this conviction forged a close nexus between Christ’s resurrection, ascension and parousia (final re-appearing). “Christ is risen!” joined naturally with “Christ is coming again soon!” Hence, with this imminent hope of a remade world, investing in “lands and houses” for the long haul might seem unnecessary at best, unfaithful at worst.

There is some question about whether selling one’s possessions was compulsory (as with the apocalyptic Jewish sect at Qumran) or voluntary for membership in the earliest Christian community. But our summary text suggests it was the norm, if not the rule. And although Peter informs Ananias in the next chapter that he was free to dispose of his property as he wished (Acts 5:4), the fact that Ananias publicly lies about contributing all the proceeds from a land sale (and then drops dead!) demonstrates the strong community pressure to pool all possessions for the common good (5:1-6).

Of course, however much we might admire the radical communitarian practice of the early Jerusalem church, we may also pity, even decry, their shortsighted, impractical economic vision. Quite possibly, it contributed to hard times down the line, requiring assistance (bailout) from the more prosperous congregation in Antioch (11:27-30).

Turns out they were in it for the long haul, or at least a longer haul than they expected. And the clock is now ticking well past the 2000-year mark. It is all too easy, then, for us not simply to pity the early church’s practice, but to dismiss it altogether.

But we thereby also run the risk of dismissing their vibrant resurrection faith that ignited their extraordinary common-fellowship (koinonia) in the first place. And resurrection faith that does not profoundly shape communal practice lacks depth of meaning and breadth of appeal.

So, how shall we live out our faith in the risen Christ today?


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 133

Nancy Koester

Psalm 133 is a Song of Ascents–a song for going up to a high place.

For the Jewish people in ancient times, that high place was the Temple in the city of Jerusalem. One literally “goes up” to Jerusalem. The city crowns the hill and its Temple stood on a “mount.” In this exalted place, the highest act was to worship God.

The Jewish people sang Psalm 133 to express their joy in coming together for worship at the Temple, where God promised to meet them. The Psalm imparts blessing and life to God’s people. And it proclaims oneness in faith. These themes–abundance and unity–flow from Psalm 133.

As the Temple in Jerusalem was the high place for the Jewish people, so Easter is the high point of the Gospel. From here the Gospel spreads around the world. Jesus has risen from the tomb, and he raises us up from unbelief to faith, from death to everlasting life.

Faith in the risen Christ draws people–not only to see things from this Easter point of view, but to see things with our fellow Christians. The risen Lord creates a new family of those who believe in him. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” Jesus tells Thomas in John 20:29. The Gospel flows down freely from the summit of Easter and makes one family in Christ. Easter unites Christians around the world. Standing on this high place, we become one in faith, hope and love.

Unity in God is a major theme in Psalm 133. “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity” (verse 1).

According to the New Interpreter’s Bible, the word “kindred” (which may also be translated “brothers”) does not mean blood relatives, but a people joined by God’s grace1.  The Psalm, though short, is “highly” ambitious: it calls all people to worship God. It begins at one very particular summit and cascades downward from there. It starts with a few insiders but flows outward in blessing for many. To preach this Psalm is to “go with the flow” down the mountain and outward to valleys and plains.

Only liquid can flow. So the Psalm (in classic Hebrew parallelism) gives us two liquids: oil and dew.
First in the text comes the “precious oil on the head” (verse 2). This is the fragrant, refreshing oil used to consecrate a priest. The priestly intent is clear because the Psalm refers to Aaron, part of Israel’s priestly tribe. “Moses ordained Aaron to the priesthood by anointing his head with oil,” (Leviticus 8:12).

“All priests have the oil of Aaron on their head,” writes biblical scholar James Limburg. And though the oil is precious, God is not stingy with it. Indeed the oil is poured out so lavishly on the head of the priest, it runs down the beard of Aaron and onto the collar of his robe. “The generous quantity of oil adds to the picture of the community gathering as ‘a sweet pleasant time together.'”2

Of course, priests were not the only ones to use oil in this way. A generous host would provide oil to a guest for anointing before a meal (Luke 7:44-46)3.  Looking back from the high point of Easter, Christians recall a woman who anointed Jesus for his burial and how the women brought spices to the tomb. But on Easter, these gifts of mourning took on a new meaning as hope spread from the empty tomb. Life is no longer scarce but abundant, no longer rationed but spilling over like an endless fountain.

For Christians, the oil signifies worship, feasting, celebration in unity. Death separates people, but resurrection promises that we will dwell in unity forever in Christ4.  God is in the business of bringing the faithful together, a community of saints across time and distance.

The second liquid in Psalm 133 is the “dew of Hermon” (verse 3).

Mount Hermon is far to the north of Jerusalem (i.e. Mount Zion). Mount Hermon rises above the upper Jordan Valley. It had its share of heavy rainfall and snow. The melting snow, or dew, flowed down into the valley. It fed the Jordan River and reached as far as the oasis of Jericho5.  In arid country, where the rain is scarce and the rivers dry up, the land and the people depend on water that comes from a distant source. It is the scarcity of water in the dry lands, which makes Mount Hermon’s dews so precious.

Like the oil that flows down the beard of Aaron, so the dew of Mount Hermon reaches far beyond its point of origin and gives life to faraway lands. God’s generosity calls people to worship. And in worshiping this God of abundant life and love, we become one family.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ slakes our thirst for life and love. We thought that life was a scarce commodity, measured out in years and months, days and hours. But Jesus arose and opened the way to eternal life. We thought that love was reserved for a chosen few, with never enough to go around. But Jesus arose and his Word calls forth a global family of believers. And there at the high point of Easter, “the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore” (133:3). Grace flows down to us and makes us one in faith.

In our times of conflict and economic distress, Psalm 133 is like water on parched ground. People who are divided and estranged from one another need God’s call to “live together in unity.” For them, this Psalm offers hope and the promise of kinship in Christ. And people suffer scarcity in everything from food and housing, to justice and love. The message: God loves us abundantly and holds nothing back.

Easter is like the oil of blessing, bringing people together in faith. Easter is like the dew of Mount Hermon, flowing with abundant life.


1New Interpreters’ Bible vol. VI (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 1214.
2James Limburg, Psalms (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2000), 455.
3Richard Clifford, Psalms 1-72, (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 260.
4NIB, 1214.
5Paul J. Achtemeier, ed. Harper Collins Bible Dictionary (HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), 416.


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 John 1:1—2:2

C. Clifton Black

Ask a non–Christian–even ask some Christians–what the point of Christian faith is.

For many, it is “Jesus came so that I’ll live forever.” In the Gospels, however, Jesus never promises that he will be crucified and his disciples will be the risen ones.

Such self–centeredness renders us deaf to a keynote in all of this Sunday’s lections: the capacity of the risen Christ to draw individuals into authentic life together.

In John 20:19-31, Jesus appears to the Twelve, not only to quell their distrust, but also to unite them as a disciplined church (cf. verse 23). In Acts 4:32-35, the power of Jesus’ resurrection graces his church with an uncommonly open heart, out of which every material need is satisfied. Even Psalm 133 accents the joy of community: “How good and sweet it is when brothers and sisters dwell in unity” (Psalm 133:1). Lastly, 1 John 1:1–2:2 is a candid yet encouraging meditation on life in a community whose Lord is Jesus.

First, John’s opening plays a riff on the Fourth Gospel’s first verses. Notice their similar language:

  • the Word or “the word of life” that was “in” or “from the beginning” (John 1:1; 1 John 1:1)
  • a life made manifest and testified to (John 1:4, 7, 15; 1 John 1:2)
  • the intimacy of God the Father with his Son Jesus Christ (John 1:14, 17-18; 1 John 1:3)
  • the proclamation of the Word (John 1:4-5, 7-9) or of God (1 John 1:5) as light unquenched by darkness

In contrast, the distinctive contributions of 1 John 1:1-4 are to draw at least two things out of John’s background and set them center stage.

First, the Gospel highlights Christ’s divine glory, assuming his incarnation (John 1:1-3, 14). 1 John reverses the polarity by repeatedly stressing the sensory character of “the eternal life that was with the Father and made manifest to us” (1 John 1:2): “what we have heard, what we have seen with our own eyes, and we have beheld and touched with our own hands” (1 John 1:1, 3).

Most of these verbs are conjugated in the perfect tense, which connotes a past reality extending into the reader’s present. Right out of the starting gate, 1 John commends as truthful confession “Jesus Christ’s coming in the flesh” (1 John 4:2), and repudiates any denial of the Son’s genuine humanity (1 John 4:3).

1 John’s other manifest concern is the importance of genuine fellowship (koinonia) “with us” and “with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3).

In simple terms, this is 1 John’s theme throughout: the coherence of the church with God’s love expressed in Jesus Christ. In practice, it is not at all simple; for soon we learn that the letter’s author is distraught over a schism in that church, a divorce over who Jesus is and the difference his coming has made (cf. 1 John 2:18-25; 4:1-6; 5:1-12). The author writes with heartfelt hope that “our joy may be consummated” (1 John 1:4).

In 1:5, the author reminds listeners of the gist of his (God’s or Jesus’) message: God is unmitigated holiness, or metaphorically speaking, light without any darkness whatever. Having absorbed the Fourth Gospel’s penchant for dualistic imagery, 1 John 1:6-10 now unfolds the implications of that affirmation for the church in a series of contrasting hypotheticals.

If (on the one hand) we say we have fellowship with him (God or Jesus), yet walk in darkness (conduct ourselves unscrupulously), we’re lying and aren’t doing the truth (1 John 1:6). But if (on the other hand) we walk in the light, as he is in the light (live in accord with his righteousness), then we indeed have fellowship with one another. Such community is based on Jesus’ power to cleanse us from all sin (1 John 1:7).

On the subject of sin: If (on the one hand) we say we don’t have sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us (1 John 1:8). But if (on the other hand) we confess our sins, he is dependable, righteous, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).

And if (on the one hand) we say we haven’t sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word (his promise of forgiveness) is not in us.

This last possibility breaks the pattern, leaving the listener hanging without a countervailing “other hand.” Note that the writer of 1 John does not play the role of omniscient scold, rampantly condemning a few misguided souls while claiming for himself and the majority superior righteousness. Real churches act in this way. For no matter how truthful the gospel they have received, all Christians are capable of both clear–eyed contrition and self–deluded evil.

The author hastens to pastoral comfort (1 John 2:1-2). He writes, not to stir up sin or despair, but to console a riven church that Jesus Christ is a living, righteous force that releases us from our sins.

The images for that redemption are both judicial and cultic. Christ is our advocate (parakletos) with the Father, adopting the role that Jesus in the Fourth Gospel attributes to the Holy Spirit who comes after him (John 14:16-17, 26; 15:26; 16:7-11). At the same time, Jesus has sacrificed himself as the expiation (hilasmos) for sins; not merely ours, but the whole world’s (1 John 1:7; 2:2; see also Romans 3:25; Hebrews 9:11–10:18).

First, John’s memo to the church: let’s not pretend that for generations the message handed down is some figment of a sick or infantile imagination. Let’s not sing of community while stabbing others in the back. Let’s not kid ourselves that we’d never think of such a thing and haven’t done it. God is no fool, and Jesus didn’t give his life for us to continue living our lies.

Easter is God’s refusal to leave the world in the lurch, the risen Son’s promise to reclaim us and everyone else for his Father.