The Second Sunday of Easter, 28 April 2019

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

Background: Doubt

This Sunday and its Gospel are inextricably tied to the notion of doubt, especially in the character of St. Thomas, the Apostle. It might behoove us, then, to look at the notion of doubt as it appears not only in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, but also in classical life that preceded the Christian Era. First, let me recommend an interesting study on doubt by Jennifer Michael Hecht, Doubt, a History.[1]The subtitle gives us a bit of the broad spectrum that doubt entails, “The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson.”[2]She goes further to explain,  “Like belief, doubt takes a lot of different forms, from ancient Skepticism to modern scientific empiricism, from doubt in many gods to doubt in one God, to doubt that recreates and enlivens faith and doubt that is really disbelief.”[3]

Jewish doubt was of a different variety than what would become Christian doubt, and the doubt of Thomas is an entirely different thing. Jewish doubt itself moved from national God doubt to a doubt that was influenced by Greek thought, and Hellenism in general. What is interesting to me, however, is the author’s understanding of Jesus’ doubt. She writes, “Historians have also argued that Jesus’ doubting of establishment values had so much in common with the Cynic way of life that he was quite possibly influenced by them.”[4]You might also want to check out an paper by Hans Dieter Betz, “Jesus and the Cynics: Survey and Analysis of a Hypothesis”, that was presented to the seminar on “The Historical Jesus” at the forty-eighth general meeting of the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas, in Chicago, 12 August 1993. The question is one of whether or not Jesus was influenced at all by the Greek culture of Sepphoris and Tiberias or remained removed from the culture. Jesus’ doubt was largely centered on the values of contemporary Jewish life and religion, thus the violent demonstration he makes in the Jerusalem Temple. That doubt ought to be the center of a sincere conversation by today’s Christians.

Thomas’ doubt is on one hand a doubt as to an event, and on the other belief as to the nature of Jesus. As we continue the Easter Mystagogy, we ourselves must be curious about all the levels of doubt. I would be especially interested in a discussion of Thomas’ doubt and Jesus’ doubt as a means that, as Dr. Hecht puts it, “recreates and enlivens faith and doubt that is really disbelief.” The public discussion of religious life in this day and age has become obsessed with “proper belief”, and the notion of exploring all the variations that both Scripture and doubt might bring is discouraged. We need to be wary of such cautions and give way to the wind of the Spirit.

First Reading: 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." 

The disciples are living into the doubt that Jesus had about the religious leadership of Israel, but the leaders themselves are not there. They feel that they still had suasion with and authority over the apostles. The words that the High Priest uses in accusing them is interesting, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name.” Does the name of “Jesus” have such great power that he avoids it? Or, is this a subtle reference on the part of Luke to the Name. What results is a sermon from Peter that announces the Easter Kerygma – a proclamation of what was believed by this Christian community. It is a belief that does not emerge on its own but is deeply connected to what had come before – “The God of our ancestor,” “give repentance to Israel.” The text is problematic with its blaming of the Jewish leaders, “whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.” The temptation to wander off into an antisemitic rant must be avoided, because that is simply not the totality of the situation. Luke would soon understand Israel as including gentiles, and the belief was that Jesus took away the sin of the world.Center on the kerygma, the message, so that all who here it might understand their own repentance and forgiveness.

Breaking open Acts::
  1. How do you describe your Easter belief?
  2. What led to your becoming a Christian?
  3. How is Easter forgiveness?

Psalm 118:14-29 Confitemini Domino

14    The Lord is my strength and my song, *
and he has become my salvation.
15    There is a sound of exultation and victory *
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 had over the days of Holy Week, the Triduum, and now into Eastertide, a great experience with this psalm. The lectionary focuses on this Sunday on the latter verses of the psalm. The theme is one of righteousness and victory. There is another note, however. At verse 19, “Open for me the gates of righteousness,” might have another sense as well in that the gates of the city are where the judges sat to dispense justice as well. The notion of victory is seen to have several levels of meaning.  If these are the temple gates, then there is a wholly other sense to the context. 

Another theme present in the psalm is the theme of life and death. Verse 17 reminds us that it is the living who praise God. This idea is recounted well in Psalm 115, where God is reminded that it is the living who praise God. That idea is well linked to the day which continues the celebration of the Resurrection of our Lord. The remaining verses form a remembrance of what we have lived through in the Triduum – even Palm Sunday. Verse 27 is redolent of the Aaronic Benediction, and the remaining verses mindful of how we leave the liturgy, “Go, in peace, to love and serve the Lord. Thanks be to God.”

Breaking open Psalm 118:
  1. When have you been blessed with justice?
  2. When have you argued for justice for others?
  3. Where do you find gates that dispense justice?



Psalm 150 Laudate Dominum

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

The last six psalms in the collection of psalms are tehilim, songs of praise. How appropriate is this psalm then in closing out the Octave of Easter? The subsequent verses locate and remind us of praise – temple, firmament, night acts. There are sounds as well – ram’s horn, lyre, timbrel, strings, cymbals. Praise is the expectation of all that has breath. Perhaps Johan Sebastian Bach can help us here.

Breaking open Psalm 150:
  1. How do you praise God?
  2. For what do you praise God?
  3. How do you praise God to others?


Second Reading: 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.

John greets us with the purpose of Jesus, something that we must yet remind ourselves in this Eastertide. Jesus is the “faithful witness” in his death on the cross, the “firstborn from the dead” in his resurrection, and the “ruler of the kings of the earth”, in his rule over the peoples of the earth. That Jesus was the martyr (witness) in his death, will become an important theme in the remainder of John’s vision. The other theme, that of kingship, is a contrasting vision to the kings and rulers of the time. What was offered by the Roman imperium was challenged by Christian ideas of what was expected of leaders. The book begins with the end. A vision of the one coming in glory, the Alpha and the Omega needs to be firmly in our minds as we begin to understand the purpose of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and for the gifts that will descend upon the church in the breath of the Spirit. 

Breaking open Revelation:
  1. How is Jesus a martyr (witness) and to what?
  2. What does the title “firstborn of the dead” indicate to you?
  3. How is Jesus a ruler?

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.

The show seems to be stolen by Thomas and his doubt. We rush past the opening events of this pericope in order to touch the hands and feet. In doing so, we rush past the apostolate to which we are called. It begins with a new creation, “When he had said this, he breathed on them – ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.” The resurrection is not only of Jesus, but we are, all of us, raised up as well – made new. We wonder why we are made new. Jesus cuts to the quick. Forgiveness is the order of the day. It is about reconciliation, a continuation in a way of the message of the Baptist, repentance and forgiveness. 

The Easter story and celebration seem to want us to look to the future, a future within the kingdom of God and in God’s presence. Jesus, however, wants us to remain here right in the middle of human difficulty. Thomas’ doubt is only one minor aspect of the human dilemma. The ministry is described somewhat obliquely, ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” The ministry is focused on those separated from the event, those who have not seen, those who desire to see. That some should come to believe, to trust, and to act, is up to the ministry of the Church abetted by the work of the Holy Spirit. In the second reading John describes Jesus’ death as a “witness.” His being raised by the Father is of a similar nature – a sign of the courage we must have, and the support that God will give.

Breaking open the Gospel: 
  1. What has Jesus called you to do?
  2. How are you like Thomas?
  3. How do you overcome that?

Central Idea:               Being certain?

First:                             Being certain in our Courage (First Reading)

Second:                        Certain in our being redeemed (Psalms 118, 150)

Third:                           Learning to be witnesses (Revelation)

Fourth:                         Certain in our ministry, and comfortable with doubt and questions (Gospel)

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 © 2019, Michael T. Hiller

[1]      Hecht, J. (2003), Doubt: A History, HarperCollins, New York, Kindle Edition
[2]      Ibid, location 2
[3]      Ibid, location 46
[4]      Ibid, location 3851


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