The Second Sunday of Easter, 23 April 2017

Acts 2:14a, 22-32
Psalm 16
I Peter 20:19-31
Saint John 20:19-31

Background: Confession and Absolution

Making comments on the practice of Penance, or Confession and Absolution as it is known in some churches, might seem odd as we enter the Sundays of Easter, but the Gospel reading for today suggests it as a brief topic of study. For those of you ordained as priests, or pastors, the Gospel suggests a practice that may have fallen into disuse in your parishes, or that is only practiced in a general way at each Eucharist. For those of you who are laity, the texts might suggest a contemplation of how or how not we have used this sacrament available to us. To discuss the approaches of the various churches with which you might be associated would be beyond what is possible here.  I shall leave it to you to think about the ministry of Penance, and how you make that available to others, as a priest, or how you make it available to yourself as a layperson.

First Reading: Acts 2:14a,22-32

Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd, “You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. For David says concerning him,

‘I saw the Lord always before me,
for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken;
therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;
moreover my flesh will live in hope.
For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,
or let your Holy One experience corruption.
You have made known to me the ways of life;
you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’

“Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would put one of his descendants on his throne. Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying,

‘He was not abandoned to Hades,
nor did his flesh experience corruption.’

This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.”

In Acts, Peter emerges as a preacher, and as a healer as well. This pericope however sees him in the first role. The first section of his sermon is elided from our liturgical pericope and we go immediately to the second section in which Peter argues for the position of Jesus as the Christ. To back up his assertions, he refers his hearers to two pieces of psalter, Psalm 16, and then Psalm 110. In these passages we see Jesus as the promised Messiah, and then Jesus as Lord. All is a part of a holy plan initiated by God, that took an evil deed manifested by – and here we come to a sensitive problem. Do we see in the “you” of the text the Judeans of the time, or can we see in this text the Roman authorities. It is one of those homiletical moments where we must be careful not to characterize the Jews in a way that the Scriptures do not, or that our hearers might not completely understand.

Peter corrects the misunderstandings that must have surrounded Jesus and the early Christian community as they used the term Messiah. Was this a political or a theological role? Peter argues for the latter. As he talks about the hope that born in Easter and that sees the triumph over death’s effect, we realize that Peter is attaching Christ to the future and to the daily living of God’s people. There is hope that springs from the resurrection – that is his prophetic message, “But God raised him up.”

Breaking open Acts:
1.          In what ways is the life of Jesus a continuation of the Hebrew Scriptures?
2.          What is God’s plan for your life?
3.         What role does Jesus play in that plan?

Psalm 16 Conserva me, Domine

     Protect me, O God, for I take refuge in you; *
I have said to the Lord, "You are my Lord,
my good above all other."
2      All my delight is upon the godly that are in the land, *
upon those who are noble among the people.
3      But those who run after other gods *
shall have their troubles multiplied.
4      Their libations of blood I will not offer, *
nor take the names of their gods upon my lips.
5      Lord, you are my portion and my cup; *
it is you who uphold my lot.
6      My boundaries enclose a pleasant land; *
indeed, I have a goodly heritage.
7      I will bless the Lord who gives me counsel; *
my heart teaches me, night after night.
8      I have set the Lord always before me; *
because he is at my right hand I shall not fall.
9      My heart, therefore, is glad, and my spirit rejoices; *
my body also shall rest in hope.
10    For you will not abandon me to the grave, *
nor let your holy one see the Pit.
11    You will show me the path of life; *
in your presence there is fullness of joy,
and in your right hand are pleasures for evermore.

This psalm has confessional aspects to it in which the author (or the one speaking the psalm) attests to his or her faith in YHWH. There are also indications that the speaker abhors other gods (see verses 3 and 4). It would be interesting if this poem were the work of an actual convert, for the following verses speak of portion and lot, i.e. inheritance. If this is indeed the case, that any who confesses faith, might then be joined to family and community, then it speaks to a certain universalism that began to bloom in the post-exilic period. The hopes regarding death, Sheol, and its inevitability make this the perfect Easter psalm.

Breaking open the Psalm 16:
1.         What would a confession of your faith sound like?
2.         What have you left behind in order to be a Christian?
3.        What are your hopes about death?

Second Reading: I Peter 1:3-9

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith-- being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire-- may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

The form here is the Hellenistic letter in which a salutation is followed by notes of thanksgiving, “Blessed be the God and Father…” The metaphor used here is birth, but the birth (also a gift) is a new birth made evident in the resurrection of Jesus. This gift of eternal birth is almost platonic in its description, “kept in heaven for you.” And again the notion of the fullness of time (a concept that followed us in Holy Week) is evident as well – we wait for the fulfillment of the promise and of the hope.

The author refers to the social context of the people to whom he is writing, and it is evident that they are in stress, undergoing various trials. The trials are tied to the Easter faith that they hold, and they are encouraged to hold on to them. There is a theme of absence or of being apart, “although you have not seen, etc.,” that is mediated by love and joy. That which was being waited for is made manifest now, “for you are receiving the outcome of your faith.”

Breaking open I Peter:
  1. What are the trials in your life?
  2. What are the trials in your church?
  3. How will you overcome them?

The Gospel: 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.

We have two scenes here, one in which the disciples are not only greeted by the Risen One, but are also recreated (he breathed on them) for a new and a continuing ministry in his name. They are sent for a purpose, and the purpose is to forgive sin, and to confront sin in the world. Thus they are made prophets in their receiving of the Holy Spirit.

The second seen wrestles with the difficulty of this new faith, the faith born in an empty tomb, and the word of the women. Thomas stands in for us, having difficulty in accepting what the others have taken in and made their own. His comments might be our own in this day and age, “Unless I see/touch.” We are seeing in our own time how what we see and touch through our own scientific community is not trusted – so great is the burden of proof in our time. How does the church then announce the foolishness of this Gospel? We might have to return to the first scene to get a clue – that the world must be addressed in its righteousness and in its irreverence. We need to live in the paradox of that belief/unbelief, addressing a world and a community that is unsure of itself. However, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Yes, indeed – it is a difficult task, and it requires Thomas as well.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     How do you deal with your religious doubts?
2.     What are your doubts?
3.    Where do you find faith?

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 © 2017, Michael T. Hiller


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