Jesus’ death on the cross was traumatic.
Mary Magdalene’s announcement of her witness to the risen Lord could not convince them. The empty tomb is not the sign of his resurrection for the disciples but a source of disappointment and fear, which leads them to gather in a locked house. We are now intimately familiar with words such as lockdown and fear. What messages does John’s story of the second Sunday after Easter give us as we have experienced wounds and traumas that the global pandemic of the virus and injustices caused?
Easter message of peace and forgiveness
On the evening of Easter Sunday, Jesus appears, standing among the disciples in the house and says, “Peace be with you” (20:19). He shows them the marks of nails in his hands and a hole in his side. What they see must be terrifying, especially for Peter as a flashback of his denial painfully flits on the wounds. But Jesus is going to take care of his heart (see 18:15-18, 25-27; 21:15-19). As Jesus foretold, their pain and sorrow turn into joy because “they saw the Lord” (20:20; see also 16:20-24; regarding the term see [idein], refer to last week’s lectionary). Their teacher, who was crucified, is alive! Jesus says again, “Peace be with you” (20:21).
Amidst fear, the peace Jesus gives will enable them to go out. As God sent Jesus, he sends them into the world. Promising the Holy Spirit, paraklētos, Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you (aphiēmi)” (14:26-27). Though the word is used with a different meaning, if they forgive (aphēte) sins of any, they are forgiven for them (20:23; compare to the grand scale of the missions given to the disciples such as “making disciples of all nations” in Matthew 28:16-20). If Jesus came to take away the sin of the world (1:29), they would continue the work of forgiving and peace-making through the power of the Holy Spirit.
The way Jesus empowers them is, like last week’s story, intimate again. Jesus breathes the Spirit on them. The Synoptic Gospels illustrate Jesus breathing out his last (spirit) only at the moment of his death (see also John 19:30). In Acts, the Holy Spirit comes upon the disciples publicly only after Jesus’ ascension (Acts 1:8; 2:33). In contrast, the disciples in John personally receive the Holy Spirit in a private space when the risen Jesus is still on earth.
Unless I see, I will not believe
Thomas was absent when Jesus appeared to the disciples. He could not believe that the other disciples saw the risen Jesus showing his wounds in his hands and side. For people like Thomas, seeing is a prerequisite for believing. He needs strong evidence: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put his fingers in the mark and put his hand in his side, I will not believe” (20:25).
Strangely enough, the disciples who saw the risen Lord and rejoiced are still in the house a week after Easter. Yet, Jesus can pass through the locked doors (the same words used as in verse 19) and greets them once again with “Peace be with you” (verse 26). This time Jesus allows Thomas to see and touch (“put inside”) him. It is Jesus’ invitation for him to believe. Finally, his belief is expressed in the supreme form of confession: “My Lord and my God.”
See the sign and believe
John 20:30-31 seems to be a proper conclusion of both these post-resurrection stories and the entire book, even though another chapter is added to the Gospel as an appendix or postscript. “Many other signs” in verse 30 implies that what Jesus has just shown is a sign. In John’s narrative, seeing signs is closely related to believing. Jesus said earlier, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe” (4:48; see also 6:30). This represents the position of Thomas. Then are the physical wounds and scars on the body of the risen Jesus a sign? Resurrection belief challenges us to see life in the marks of an excruciating death.
One may ask if anyone who sees the sign believes. Thomas was fortunate to see the sign and believe. Still, others see signs but do not believe (12:37). Finally, Jesus speaks about another group of people—the blessed who believe even without seeing (20:29).
Readers of the Gospel in John’s time and our time cannot see the signs Jesus performed, but they are “written” in the book so that the readers “may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God” (20:29-31).
Believe without seeing; it is written
People write to preserve memories or communicate messages. Some writings and inscriptions, such as laws, history, scripture, etc., have authority. Regarding what to write on an inscription on the cross, Pilate has the authority: “What I have written I have written” (in three languages!). However, neither the inscription of the so-called King of the Jews nor the self-proclaimed King of the Jews represents who Jesus is (John 19:19–21). A hero’s name and his achievements can be engraved in the monument of his tomb. One could read John’s writing in the way she reads such an inscription, as a way of immortalizing his life—a way to write Easter in a Western consumerist culture.
On the second Sunday of Easter, what is written in John’s Gospel calls our attention to the wounds and traumas inscribed in his body. John invites us to see the life Jesus has given to the world in the midst of wounds, pains, and traumas. John’s story goes on to recount that the disciples return home to Galilee again. They once again fail to see him (21:4, 12), but most significantly, the risen Christ appears to them again. Then, the preacher “writes” the resurrection message of comfort and peace in and for the troubled and wounded hearts of her or his people (14:27; 16:6, 22). Today—and tomorrow—our pain and sorrow may turn into joy.
Something always feels disjointed about our lectionary’s pattern of assigning passages from Acts during the Sundays of Easter. After all, only the first chapter of Luke’s second volume takes place prior to the church’s initial experience of Pentecost. But don’t let that distract you. Every page of Acts is interested in addressing the question: What does the resurrection of Jesus make possible? That’s a topic every preacher ought to take seriously during Eastertide.
By beginning with the brief description of the Jerusalem church’s common life in 4:32-35, our encounters with Acts from this Sunday forward keep us grounded in a stirring vision of community and mutual care. During the coming weeks in our scripture readings we will jump from place to place in Acts and experience bold sermons, daring confrontations, and amazing conversions. All of those stories pull our attention toward the faithfulness and legacy of some of the church’s most visible leaders whose ministry is bent on “turning the empire [oikoumenē] upside down” (Acts 17:6).
Before then, however, we must meet this community of believers in Jerusalem. We have to acknowledge the spiritual vitality shown by a multitude of unnamed and unremembered saints. We have to feel their shared heartbeat of generosity and linger with their willingness to risk. For the community itself, in its unity of purpose and its commitment to protect the well-being of all, especially its most vulnerable members, bears witness to the new life God makes possible through Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit. There’s always a community, whether you notice it or not.
Preachers should be aware that this is the second of two descriptions of harmonious communal life among the Jerusalem believers. The previous one, Acts 2:43-47, is the conclusion of the Pentecost story. The arrangement of Acts 2 indicates the Holy Spirit’s role is about more than providing polylingual understanding and instilling courage for public preaching. The Holy Spirit pulls people together as members of a community that manifests its newfound salvation in Christ in a corporate existence through its worship, learning, sharing, and service. Consistently in Acts, the story of salvation is a story of belonging.
In Acts 4:32-35 we receive additional information about the believers in Jerusalem. For one thing, they share a single “heart and soul” (kardia kai psuchē). That short phrase reflects an intensity of mutual devotion and shared existence that was part of ancient Hellenistic philosophical discourse about the virtues of friendship.1 In a similar vein, Plato’s Republic (5.462c) envisions a thriving society in which people reject the misuse of words like mine, not mine, and alien. Therefore, the kind of cooperation and interdependent identity that other ancient people hoped to accomplish through a just and ideal political system Acts sees coming into being through a community enlivened by the Spirit to embody the power of Jesus’ resurrection. Hope not for a golden age created by mighty emperors or wise philosopher-kings. Look instead, Acts urges, to the Spirit poured out by the resurrected and glorified Jesus Christ.
A second piece of additional information expands on the depiction of a community that has “all things in common” and whose members willingly sell their belongings so everyone can survive (2:44-45). We learn in Acts 4:34 that some of the more prosperous members of the church sell homes and land to support their sibling Christ-followers. They offer their proceeds to the apostles to manage, suggesting that they are doing more than redistributing wealth; they are willingly handing over status, privilege, and security as well (see also Luke 18:18-30), all for the sake of believers’ common good.2 We see also that this community thrives not only because of the generosity of a few well-to-do patrons; with maybe a dash of hyperbole, Acts 4:32 reports that “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions.” Everyone participates. Everyone dares to show solidarity. Because everyone belongs.
A significant challenge for preachers is to keep the theological energy of this story in the forefront. Overemphasis on generosity and fellowship (koinōnia, Acts 2:42; see also Acts 4:32) as abstractions, ethical yardsticks, or strategies for uniting disgruntled congregations miss the point. Something greater than charity and mission is surging through this passage; believers are living out a commitment to belong to one another, and they recognize they must address the impediments to doing so. As Willie James Jennings puts it, “Money here will be used to destroy what money is usually used to create: distance and boundaries between people.”3 Therein lies the theology. This passage offers a stunning display not of mutual concern but of mutual identity—an identity formed in Christ and his new life.
The lectionary declines to take us into the second half of this story, the dreadful account of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11), the self-protective antitypes to Barnabas (Acts 4:36-37). But take note of those verses as you prepare to preach on Acts 4:32-35, just to be reminded of how fragile a task it is to try to give communal witness to the kinds of relationships God desires for human flourishing. Communities are, after all, composed of people like me and you.
Audiences and readers often ask about Acts 2:43-47 and 4:32-35, “Did the church in Jerusalem really live like that?” It’s a fair question, for the stories display extraordinary self-giving and no other passages in Acts or the Epistles describe the same kind of communal dynamics. Clearly these snapshots of the early church represent an ideal, and Ananias and Sapphira’s fears and reluctance are more common than we care to admit. I prefer to answer the question with another one: “How else could this fledgling community have made it?” Surely something allowed a crowd of Galilean transplants and Pentecost pilgrims to find a way to settle down in the big city. How else would they survive? How else could they belong? Surely something about their encounter with Resurrection and Holy Spirit caused them to repent (Acts 2:38; 3:19)—that is, to perceive their realities completely differently. Why wouldn’t that transformation leave them unsatisfied with living lives governed by financial calculations, social transactions, and status-based privileges?
Easter, Acts keeps reminding us, has a way of doing things to people. And that makes all sorts of things possible.
Psalm 133 is a Song of Ascents—a song for going up to a high place.1
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 grace.2 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.’”3
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).4 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 Christ.5 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 Jericho.6 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.
Despite bearing the title “the First Epistle of John,” the author of this work is not named in the writing, and it is not written in the standard form of a letter in the Greco-Roman world. It seems to take the form of an essay or homily, or perhaps several meditations threaded together around common themes.
Given that the themes of 1 John are also prominent in John’s Gospel, the writing is most likely addressed to a community for whom the Gospel of John is particularly important. At the time of the writing (near the end of the first century) it is a community in crisis, threatened by schism. The author writes to members of the community to prevent them from being led astray by a dissident group.
The nature of the controversy dividing the community is both Christological and practical. Clues to the Christological nature of the conflict are found in 1 John 2:22, where the author writes, “Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son,” and in 1 John 4:2-3, which states, “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God” (see also 2 John 7).
It seems that the dissident group denied that the human Jesus was in fact the Christ, or in other words, that Jesus Christ had come in the flesh. These beliefs resemble those of Docetism (from the Greek verb, dokein, meaning to seem), which claimed that Christ only seemed to have a physical body and to suffer and die. The underlying belief system of Docetism, also integral to Gnostic beliefs appearing in the 2nd century, held that matter (and thus human flesh) was inherently evil. Therefore, it was impossible that Christ, who was inherently good and spiritual, could become flesh. If Christ did not physically die, then his resurrection was also an illusion.
The prologue of 1 John (1:1-4) echoes the prologue of John’s Gospel in several themes, one of which is its insistence on the incarnation—that the Word became flesh and lived among us (John 1:14). “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 John 1:1). The author is not necessarily claiming to have been an eyewitness to the earthly ministry of Jesus but is laying claim to the collective witness of the church, that which has been proclaimed “from the beginning.”
The author insists that true fellowship with God the Father is possible only through his Son Jesus Christ, whose human, earthly life and ministry revealed the way of eternal life (1:2). The importance of this Christological argument is closely linked to the practical problems posed by the dissident group. Belief in a disembodied Christ sustains a disembodied piety—a piety that claims a higher knowledge and spirituality freed from the body and its sinful nature (1:6-10), a piety that displays hatred rather than love toward others (2:9-11) and is oblivious to their physical needs (3:17).
It seems that certain members of the dissident group claimed to have already “arrived” spiritually, to be in perfect fellowship with God and free of sin. In 1 John 1:6-10, the author introduces three conditional statements with “If we say…”, and then echoes the claims of the dissident group: “that we have fellowship with him” (1:6), “that we have no sin” (1:8), “that we have not sinned” (1:10). The author makes clear that all these claims are simply self-deception.
“But if we confess our sins….” The author asserts that the alternative to self-deception is to let the pure, healing light of God (1:5) shine into the dark corners of our lives. It is to confess our sins and receive God’s forgiveness and cleansing (1:9). We are assured of forgiveness because Jesus Christ is our advocate (paraclêtos) with the Father who is called alongside us to plead our case. He is also the expiation (hilasmos) for our sins and for the sins of the whole world, the one whose self-sacrifice removes the stain of sin.
1 John insists that the real, flesh-and-blood presence of Jesus in this world matters. His suffering and dying as a human being matter. They show us that God is not distant or detached from our existence but enters fully into our human reality. So also, the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ matters. It assures us that his life-giving power will finally conquer sin, suffering, and death, and that our whole selves will be redeemed.
The author writes so that his readers/hearers may remain in fellowship with the community of faith and with the Father and the Son (1:4). In fellowship with the Word made flesh, it is impossible to remain distant from others or detached from their suffering. Fellowship is not simply a warm, cozy gathering of like-minded people. It is a call to embody the love of God made known in Jesus Christ, the implications of which will be spelled out in the rest of the letter.