Lectionary Commentaries for April 15, 2012
Second Sunday of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 20:19-31

Lucy Lind Hogan

“So that you may come to believe . . . “

As our Easter celebrations continue we hear of further encounters with the risen Christ. And it is with the two scenes in today’s reading, Jesus’ appearance to the disciples and Thomas’ experience, that scholars believe John’s gospel came to an end; the final chapter being a later addition.

With this conclusion, unlike Luke who opened his gospel with the explanation for his writing of his “orderly account,” John, the author and narrator, finally steps into the scene to explain why he has written his gospel. The risen Jesus, John explains, did many other things, but he, the gospeler, has written down these stories and joyous news of Jesus’ resurrection so that future readers and generations to come may read and “come to believe that Jesus is the . . . Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

From the soaring poetry with which John opened his gospel — sending the reader back to the “big bang” of the creation of the universe, to this final intimate moment of comfort and assurance, John wants us to know that we did not have to be there in person. We did not have to walk the paths with Jesus. We did not have to witness the miracles first hand. We did not have to be locked in that upper room. Through the reading of John’s message we may hear the stories and come to believe. And, in believing, we may have life eternal.

When the Gospel messages are read on Easter morning and the Sundays that follow, choruses of joyful hymns reverberate. Likewise, banks of flowers greet our senses. We are celebrating the good news that has been passed down through the generations.  Therefore, it is difficult for us to enter into the moments of fear and uncertainty in which John places us. In the darkness of that first day of the week, Mary, Peter, and the beloved disciple did not know what had happened. Had the body of their teacher and friend been stolen? It began a day that would be filled with an empty tomb, heavenly messengers, and the news that the man they had watched hanging on a cross; the man whose dead body they had laid in a tomb, was now walking and talking to their friend. How could they make sense of what was happening to Jesus; to them?

Now we find ourselves again in the dark. These are the people who heard the news from Peter that the tomb was empty. These are the friends and followers of Jesus to whom Mary brought the message that she had met the risen Christ. She gave them Jesus’ message. But what are they doing this night? They do not seem to be celebrating. They have locked the door for fear that the same thing that happened to Jesus will happen to them. Into that locked room Jesus appears.

John seems to be telling us that everything has changed. Into that moment of fear and surprise, Jesus comes with a message of comfort, “Peace be with you.” In fact, he offers that message to them twice. First, when they first see this figure suddenly appear before them. Then, he repeats this message once again after they realize that they, like Mary before them, have finally met the risen Christ. But it is important for us to notice that they neither recognize him nor rejoice until Jesus shows them his hands and his side. We should not chastise Thomas for later asking for the same manifestation.

All was coming to a fulfillment. Jesus had assured them earlier that he would bring them comfort and joy (John 17:12-13). He would give them an advocate, “the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father” (John 15:26). And with that Spirit, he would send them into the world to continue the work and spread the message so “that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:23). Now, in their presence, Jesus breathes on them. They are all touched with the Holy Spirit. In John’s gospel, unlike Luke’s which separates the resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit by fifty days, these happen on one day.

The disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit so that they would become messengers of the good news of what God had done in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. And they were to proclaim God’s love for the entire world. Strengthened by the Holy Spirit they were to fling open the locked doors of fear. To Thomas they brought their words of comfort. He demanded what they had experienced — to see the wounded hands and the pierced side of his Rabbi.

John tells us that a week later the disciples, once again, had gathered together. (But notice that this time the doors although shut, are not locked). Thomas is now with them. Again they are given the gift of peace and again Jesus offers his hands and side to a disciple Thomas. He does not seem to chide Thomas for his skepticism. Rather, Jesus asks Thomas not to be apistos — unbelieving. It is then Thomas who declares what Gail O’Day describes as the “high point of the Gospel’s Christological confessions,”1 “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28)

Finally, in the end, John once again returns to one of the earliest encounters with Jesus at the opening of the gospel. Here, Jesus asks Thomas if he believes because he had seen Jesus. When Jesus first met one who was to be a disciple, Nathanael, Jesus challenged him, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” (John 1:50) And what would Nathanael see? What did Thomas see? What do we see — “heaven opened and the angles of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” (John 1:51)

Do we come to this Easter message in the dark? Do we come, like Mary and the disciples with fear, misunderstanding, and uncertainty? 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. We are all, John is trying to tell us, like Thomas. We were not in that upper room on the “evening on that day, the first day of the week.” But that does not matter. 

Like Thomas, we all depend upon disciples and gospel writers to bear witness to the news that brings life. And Jesus has empowered that witness. So, whether it is Mary telling the disciples that first morning, Peter joyfully telling Thomas what happened to them when he was absent, or you, the preacher, standing before your community in 2012, we all have been given the message and the power to invite people into the reign of God.


1Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John  Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible  Vol. IX  (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 850.


First Reading

Commentary on Acts 4:32-35

Mitzi J. Smith

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

In the immediate literary context, Peter and John had been detained for preaching about how God has raised Jesus and for demonstrating the power of this reality by claiming to have healed a man in Jesus’ name (4:1-11). But they continued to preach boldly and to perform miracles, signs and wonders (dunameis, sēmeia, and terata) in the name of the resurrected Jesus (4:12-31). The apostles tangibly changed peoples’ lives as Jesus had done. The apostles imitated what Jesus before them had done — miracles, signs and wonders (2:22). The magnitude with which God’s presence and power is shown to be present in word and practice coincides with the spiritual transformation in the hearts and souls of those who heard and believed the resurrection news that God raised Jesus (1:10; 2:32).

At 4:36-5:11, immediately following our pericope, Luke (the author) provides the reader with both a positive and negative example of a communal practice, mandated by the needs of the community, of selling properties and sharing the proceeds for the benefit of the needy among them, verse 34. The positive example is about one man, Barnabas, who in accordance with the summary, sold his property and laid the proceeds by the apostles’ feet. The negative example is of a married couple who fail to live up to the expectation for communal sharing of properties. The consequence for the couple is grave, pun intended. Perhaps, one reason why Luke, the author, placed the two stories after the summary was to put flesh on the ideal; to show that the ideal had become a reality, but not in every case. And when the ideal failed to materialize, the consequences were miraculous and ugly. 

Perhaps the story of Ananias and Sapphira metaphorically represents a dying community when we, one by one or two by two, choose self over community rather than self and community.

I do not support capital punishment, even when it is attributed to God. But I can champion the idea that our lives are inextricably linked; that if we do not demonstrate compassion for one another, crime and death lies at our doors.

The Resurrection was a relational event!  God resurrected Jesus; Jesus did not resurrect himself.  And because of what God did for the incarnated Jesus, we believe God can resurrect us from spiritual and physical death dealing situations now and beyond. God “resurrects” us not just for ourselves but for our fellow human beings. Jesus’ resurrection benefits us. And God resurrected Jesus!

Like-minded people gathered together. Evidence of God’s powerful presence in and among the people is not simply or conclusively joyous shouting and audible praise. The evidence is the new relationship created among the diverse people who experience the power of God. Like-mindedness should foster like-minded behavior; a power filled life. This gathering was not one of people with a well-developed doctrine, a hierarchical infrastructure, a board of deacons, a newly printed hymnal, a dynamic well-trained choir, a magnificent “house of God,” or a membership roster. We are summoned to be channels for God’s power, pragmatically changing lives.

Metaphorically, Ananias and Sapphira represent the majority and Barnabas a minority among the believers. Significantly, the practice of sharing to meet needs was instituted early in the community, at least in the world of the text. It is possible that the Acts summaries (2:42-47; 4:32-35, and 5:12-16) are romanticized and fictional portrayals that do not represent actual practice. Nevertheless, they are at least ideals.

“No one was saying that property belonging to him or her was their own but that it belonged to the community,” verse 32. All (including Barnabas, Sapphira, and Ananias, we presume) rehearsed the rhetoric of commonality and of providing for the needy among them. But when it came to actual practice, the rhetoric did not match the practice. The constant use of the imperfect tense (action starting in the past and continuing in the present) supports this idea of an established and yet inchoate or developing ideal. It is an ideal worthy of conception, reflection, inflection (nuance), and execution.

Those who incarnated the power of the resurrection were selling material possessions. But some panicked when instead of steak for dinner, they got beans; several were used to shopping at Neiman Marcus and now had to settle for Kohls; and others felt they worked too hard to give up their goods for someone.  We are bombarded with media images and even sermons that teach that material goods are the trophies and markers of our successes. The more successful we are, the more we are entitled to.

The statement about how the apostles declared the power of the Lord Jesus’ resurrection is connected both grammatically and causatively to the showering of God’s great grace upon the crowd.  All the believers were having access to God’s grace. But the presence of God’s resurrection grace (God raised Jesus) is expressed when the community provides for the needy among them with their own resources. At a time when some Christians and politicians demonize a social justice gospel, the scriptures still call us to it. The scene may be somewhat romanticized, but it is a worthy ideal, nonetheless.

If we believe in God as one who can do the impossible and the unimaginable, why do we hide behind the “ideals” as the unattainable? In an ideal world, we say…. But isn’t that the point of believing in an ideal God that She can assist us in creating, and surpassing, some of our ideas and ideals?  Currently, it is estimated that 15.7 million children live in poverty. What is the response of the people of God who believe in the power of the Resurrection?


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 133

Shauna Hannan

Behold! A psalm that oozes with hopefulness even in the face of perceived impossibilities.

The unity this psalm calls for is between Democrats and Republicans. Impossible? It is between Christians and Muslims. Impossible? It is between Palestinians and Israelis. Impossible? Behold! How good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in full harmony. The primary proclamation of this Psalm is that full harmony is possible because the source flows from on high.

Full harmony seems so unlikely that the Psalmist has to turn to a series of similes in order to describe it. Both similes emphasize the abundance that accompanies unity. First, unity is like oil. It is not just any oil, but precious oil. The Hebrew word for “precious” is the same word translated as “good” in verse one. (This is also the word for “good” used repeatedly in Genesis 1.) Whether this is the oil used to anoint a high priest in a liturgical act or the oil ritually used on guests as a sign of hospitality, the point is abundance.

We are not talking here about the little dab of oil on the finger of the pastor making the sign of the cross on the forehead of the newly baptized. No, this anointing is extravagant. (I cannot help but recall the story of Mary and the costly nard in Mark 14). There is so much oil used that it runs down onto the beard of the anointed one, Aaron, whose beard ran down to the hem of his robe.1 That is a lot of oil. It is extravagant. Messy? Probably. So might unity be between divided peoples!

Oil is not the only thing running down. The second simile likens unity to the dew that runs down from Mt. Hermon in order to quench the thirsty land. Extravagantly, once again, the dew runs down from Mt. Hermon all the way to Zion. Impossible? Probably, since they are hundreds of miles apart. Even so, as Grogan states, the linking of Hermon and Zion means that, for Israel, “no limit was being set to the need for harmony.” 2

No limit suggests all have the potential to be considered “kindred.” There has been some disagreement over the reference to “kindred.” Is it literally (and only) blood siblings? Extended family? Is it those whom God has brought together? Is it those who profess belief in God? Ultimately, the psalm suggests there are no boundaries to “kindred.” The Psalmist proclaims the hopefulness of the harmonious living of the Northern Kingdom (Judah) and the Southern Kingdom (Israel); two lands turned into one people. Water has no bias and hosts anointing guests with oil before a meal (Luke 7:44-46) extends hospitality beyond borders.

Both liquids flowing in this Psalm (water and oil) spread beyond their points of origin. Living together in full harmony is good and pleasant because it is no longer scarce, it is limitless, it spreads beyond its point of origin. I began with listing a few prominent limits of harmony in the news today that inevitably are challenged by this Psalm. Preachers, can you think of others?

Not to be missed in this Psalm are both the liturgical elements and the movement. The oil itself signifies the liturgical act of anointing. This is underscored by mentioning Aaron, the high priest who resides in the temple of Jerusalem (Zion). The robes (plural), too, suggest liturgical vestments. These liturgical references are not surprising given that this is a song of ascent, which is a song that was sung by the people as they made their way to Jerusalem for a festival. And yet, this Psalm is not simply about one group of people making their pilgrimage to Zion in order to celebrate their union there.

The movement outward, the abundant and extravagant movement outward, is not to be missed. Good and pleasant things do not simply flow within neat boundaries. Unity is “on the move.” First, as mentioned, this is a song of ascent depicting people on the move. (It is curious that a song about going up has such a downward movement.)  Second, the oil just keeps moving from the top of the head, to and through the beard down to the hem of the robe. Water making its trek from Hermon to Zion would have to be mighty voluminous. Even the words themselves highlight movement. “Running down” in verse 2 and “falling down” in verse 3 are from the same participle (yored). Yored appears three times in this short Psalm anticipating the blessing coming down from God.

This whole Psalm runs from living in harmony to God’s blessing as if to say it all comes down to this: God’s blessing is life forevermore. This is the theological crux of the Psalm. Full harmony is somehow connected to life and blessing from God. What exactly is the connection between living together in unity and life forevermore? Goldingay suggests a circular connection: “Kinfolk living together in harmony is a means of the blessing being released. But the blessing is also an image for the wonder of kinfolk living together in harmony.”3 

Homiletically, there is no need to exhort (you must unite or else!). Instead, invite. Then again, perhaps this is simply a psalm of celebration when it is already happening. Preachers, point out those places in your community where harmony exists. This is Easter, a season in which the resurrection stirs us to celebrate even as it unites. Not even those who doubt (Thomas) are beyond the gushing of the oil and water.

You might also consider other similes you would use to describe the kind of unity to which the psalm refers. What are your images of “good” that describe the preciousness of unity where division prevails? We are an Easter people coming together on this second Sunday of Easter singing a reminder to all (even to ourselves) that living in unity has extravagant and abundant benefits far beyond measure. Even if we are not yet fully there, God willing, full harmony is a place toward which we are moving.


1Terrien, Samuel. The Psalms: Strophic Structure and Theological Commentary. Eerdmans Critical Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003.
2Grogan, Geoffrey, W. Psalms. The Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008.
3Goldingay, John. Psalms: Volume 3: Psalms 90 — 150. Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic Press, 2008.


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 John 1:1—2:2

Audrey West

Good News, Bad News

This text plays nicely with this week’s reading about Thomas and his desire to press his hands into the bloody wounds of Jesus.

It matters what our eyes have seen, what our ears have heard, what our hands and fingers have touched, because a flesh-and-blood world needs a flesh-and-blood savior.

Easter is a week behind us. The alleluias still ring in our ears, the joy of resurrection has been proclaimed through white lilies, soaring music, and maybe even a few leftover chocolate eggs and ham sandwiches. We have heard with our ears and seen with our eyes and touched with our hands this celebration of the empty tomb and a world forever changed by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

At the same time, however, our ears ring with the world’s same old bad news. The joy of resurrection is flattened by political wrangling and the ongoing reality of home foreclosures and fruitless job searches, by despair and injustice and hearts broken open with jagged edges of grief. Is it not tempting to shut our eyes and our ears, to close our hands into fists of denial, to ignore those earthly realities? 

Don’t we wish, at least for a moment, that the shining, bright holiness of a resurrected Christ would blind our eyes to the stains of this fleshy, painful world? Now that we walk in the light of Jesus, can’t we just ignore the sin around us and especially our own complicity in it? 1 John responds to these tempting questions with a resounding, “no!”

Two-part structure

The passage is readily divided into two sections (either of which could serve as a sermon focus) around a central thesis statement. Part one (verses 1-4) functions as a prologue to the whole book (similar to the prologue of the Gospel of John), and bolsters the author’s subsequent argument by claiming a first-hand experience of God’s revelation: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life” (1:1). 

The thesis appears in verse 5: “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.” Part two (1:6-2:2) lays out the implications of this thesis in terms of our lives together (“if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another”, 1:7). To deny our own sin or the sin of the world is deceitful, and it proves that we are not walking in the light. But if we confess our sin we will be cleansed by the blood of Jesus (1:9).

Too Holy to be Earthly Good

The author of 1 John (called “John” because the language and theology of the letter — which is really more like an public essay than an epistle — closely correspond to the Gospel of John) is worried that his readers will be led astray by community members who have split off from the group (2:19). 

Apparently, the secessionists have developed such a spiritualized view of Christ that the earthly, material reality of Jesus no longer matters much, nor do their own earthly, material actions. According to John, these people say they know Jesus but live as though they do not (2:4-6). They say they are in the light, but their actions suggest otherwise (2:9). They claim that they have no sin, but their claim is a lie (1:8).

In short, they talk the talk but do not walk the walk.

At stake for 1 John is not merely (merely!) right doctrine or proper belief. Rather, at stake is whether our actions testify to the truths we confess, whether our lives line up with our beliefs. In the view of 1 John, the truth is not simply something we think or believe, it is something we do.  And the “doing” includes confession of sin. Why? Because that confession testifies to the truth that God “will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1:9-10). It opens our lives up to the “cleansing” of our actions, to new ways of being and doing.

Show us the body

The bottom line for 1 John is embodiment and incarnation. How do we know we walk in the light? The evidence is in our embodied relationships, that is, in our fellowship with and our love for one another (cf. 3:18). If we are doing the truth, then the community becomes a kind of incarnational evidence. If we sin, that, too, is manifested in community. What happens in the body matters, whether in the koinonia-body or in individual bodies (1:7). 

One way to approach the sermon is to focus attention on embodiment: ours and Jesus’. 1 John claims that the eternal life that was with the Father has been revealed in a way that can be seen, heard, and touched (1:1-2). The blood from the body of Jesus cleanses the sins that are manifested in our individual and collective bodies, sins that can be seen, heard, and touched.

The message we have heard from God and we proclaim in our embodied communities is that Jesus does not save in an abstract way, but he saves us in our actual bodies. The risen Christ, incarnate as the flesh-and-blood Jesus, is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world (2:2).