The Second Sunday of Easter, 3 April 2016

Acts 5:27-32
Psalm 118:14-29 or Psalm 150
Revelation 1:4-8
St. John 20:19-31

Background: Thomas

It is this Gospel reading that we most readily associate with Thomas, identifying or perhaps put off by his skepticism, and then startled by his confession, “my Lord and my God”. There are other quotations by Thomas that lead us to this portrait of him in the Gospel of John. The first is from a scene in John 11:16, where Jesus proposes going back to Judea, where there was an attempted stoning of Jesus. Thomas replies, “Let us go also, that we might die with him. Later in John 14:5, Jesus describes his own going to prepare a place for his followers.  Perplexed, Thomas replies, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” It appears that Thomas was one of the most honest of the disciples.

From here, the Thomas story diverges into two distinct possibilities. The first is the collection of Jesus sayings that are recorded in the Gospel of Thomas, introduced, as “these are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas recorded.” The traditions that surround this collection and the various names of the apostle are many and confused.

The second possibility is Thomas’ missionary work in India. The story is that Thomas sailed to India in 52 CE, and is to have done missionary work in the area of the Port of Muziris, Tamilakam. That there was a Jewish settlement there at the time, only adds to the interest of the story. There is an alternate tradition that Thomas was “the apostle to the Parthians. The connection to India, however, is a more firm tradition with quotations by St. Ephrem, and writings in The Acts of Thomas. The same Ephrem also writes that Thomas was killed in India, and that his remains were brought to Edessa by a merchant. There a great feast day is celebrated on 3 July, for “Thomas, who was pierced with a lance in India.”

Acts 5:27-32

When the temple police had brought the apostles, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, saying, "We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man's blood on us." But Peter and the apostles answered, "We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him."

Already lines are being drawn. The Jewish authorities assume a level of authority over the disciples, and authority that they disregard. The followers of Jesus are still seen as Jews subject to the decisions of the Jerusalem hierarchs. Peter will not allow for this, and in his own stead is moving to the position of a leader of the movement. He defers to God. What follows from his apology, however, are the roots of a creed. The elements are all there – the killing, the three, the exaltation, and the witnessing along with the gift of the Holy Spirit. Something new is happening that will bring a point of decision and identification. The two groups will soon part from one another.

Breaking open Acts:
  1. Who would you summarize the Gospel?
  2. What did Peter leave out? Anything?
  3. Is Peter structuring this for decision?

Psalm 118:14-29 Confitemini Domino

14    The Lord is my strength and my song, *
and he has become my salvation.
15    in the tents of the righteous:
16    "The right hand of the Lord has triumphed! *
the right hand of the Lord is exalted!
the right hand of the Lord has triumphed!"
17    I shall not die, but live, *
and declare the works of the Lord.
18    The Lord has punished me sorely, *
but he did not hand me over to death.
19    Open for me the gates of righteousness; *
I will enter them;
I will offer thanks to the Lord.
20    "This is the gate of the Lord; *
he who is righteous may enter."
21    I will give thanks to you, for you answered me *
and have become my salvation.
22    The same stone which the builders rejected *
has become the chief cornerstone.
23    This is the Lord'S doing, *
and it is marvelous in our eyes.
24    On this day the Lord has acted; *
we will rejoice and be glad in it.
25    Hosannah, Lord, hosannah! *
Lord, send us now success.
26    Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; *
we bless you from the house of the Lord.
27    God is the Lord; he has shined upon us; *
form a procession with branches up to the horns of the altar.
28    "You are my God, and I will thank you; *
you are my God, and I will exalt you."
29    Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; *
his mercy endures for ever.

We have been using the verses of this psalm over the last few holy days and Sundays. Each time we repeat certain sections, and each time we explore other areas of the psalm. Our selection today begins with the “voice of a glad song.”  The question that the psalm addresses is one that explores what we ought to do after God has acted in a demonstrable way. Here we see the true vocation of those who believe God and honor God – we are called to honor God with our praises. Thus the psalm fits well into the Easter season that our praises need to continue as we see what it is that God has done in the resurrection of Jesus. The believer’s vocation is twice repeated at the end of the psalm where we are bidden to acclaim God. Our translation is almost terse – “Give thanks to the Lord.”

Breaking open Psalm 118:
  1. What is your glad song?
  2. When do you sing it?
  3. What does it mean to you?


Psalm 150 Laudate Dominum

Praise God in his holy temple; *
praise him in the firmament of his power.
2      Praise him for his mighty acts; *
praise him for his excellent greatness.
3      Praise him with the blast of the ram's-horn; *
praise him with lyre and harp.
4      Praise him with timbrel and dance; *
praise him with strings and pipe.
5      Praise him with resounding cymbals; *
praise him with loud-clanging cymbals.
6      Let everything that has breath *
praise the Lord. Hallelujah!

The Collection of Psalms is closed by six praise psalms, of which this is the final one. The kingdom of God is seen as a connection between the Temple and the heavens which overarch the earth. In this holy realm, our duty is to praise – a verb that is repeated some eleven times in the course of this brief psalm. The reason for praise is quickly and succinctly listed, “for his mighty acts,” and “for his excellent greatness.” What follows are the modalities and expressions of this praise; Ram’s horn, lyre, harp, dance, strings, cymbals, indeed breath life, the imprint of the Spirit’s gift, is foundational to the praise. I always think of Bach here – alles was Odem hat.

Breaking open Psalm 150:
  1. How do you praise God?
  2. What do you use to praise God?
  3. How do you share your praise with others?

Revelation 1:4-8

John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.

To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen. "I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

Here we have the salutation that invites us into the vision of Saint John the divine. And it is more than we who are invited by also the seven churches of Asia as well. Here John characterizes the Jesus whom they are to meet again in the visions of the Divine: Jesus as witness, the firstborn, and the ruler. All of these attributes will soon obtain for us as well, but in very different ways. What is being set up here is a counter-cultural understanding of Jesus’ ministry, and of what will follow from it in the life of the Roman world that surrounds the believers. In that context we are to be a people (kingdom) and priests that are to mediate this new world. It is a world of expectation and anticipation. The scope of Jesus’ suasion is contained in the phrase “I am the alpha and the omega” and the timelessness of his message and presence, “who is and who was and who is to come.”

Breaking open Revelation::
  1. How is the divine describing a new culture?
  2. What are the expectations of this passage?
  3. What does it mean to you that Jesus is “the Alpha and the Omega?”

St. John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

There are two pericopes here, The Appearance to the Disciples and the Gift of the Holy Spirit (19-23), and then the Appearance to Thomas and a Summary (24-31). John sees the gift of the Spirit as an immediate consequence of the resurrection, rather than as a later even as does Luke. Thus the elements of cross, tomb, resurrection, ascension, and the Spirit are inextricably tied together for the reader. There are elements of creation here as Jesus blesses the disciples with peace, and then “breathes on them.” What will follow will be heavy duties that involve the gifts of reconciliation and forgiveness in the world. The difficulty of this enterprise is quickly made evident in the second pericope where Thomas is not satisfied with the gifts but desires more convincing evidence. The physicality hinted at in the first pericope, “he showed them his hands and side,” soon becomes the literal touchstone for Thomas. Here the Spirit’s intervention is seen in Thomas’ confession, “my Lord and my God.” But not all witnessing will be that easy, at least in Jesus’ estimation. He recognizes that there will be similar demands on those who wished to believe. Blessed are those who do not need that, but the ministry is anointed to encounter a thousand Thomases.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What are your doubts?
  2. How do you deal with them?
  3. What do you firmly believe?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Almighty and everlasting God, who in the Paschal mystery established the new covenant of reconciliation: Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ's Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2016, Michael T. Hiller


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