Easter 2A: Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt

"The Incredulity of St. Thomas", Caravaggio, 1601-02
“The Incredulity of St. Thomas”, Caravaggio, 1601-02

OLD TESTAMENT: Acts 2:14a, 22-32

To read the First Lesson from this week’s Lectionary, click here

During Eastertide, we read from the Acts of the Apostles, rather than the Old Testament. Similar to the story of how the Hebrew people united to be the people of God and the people that they were, Acts provides the earliest account of the disciples uniting together in the face of Christ’s Resurrection and how the church as the Body of Christ came to be.

The book began as a written conversation between a storyteller (Luke) and his story’s first reader (Theophilus). It is actually, though, considered an anonymous book. Even though the church traditions give credit to the evangelist Luke for writing both the third Gospel and Acts, there is no real evidence either way. If you read Acts for Acts, then the identity of the author is really of no importance. The focus for the writer and the focus for us is on the story itself.

There is also no clear evidence of when the book was written. Theophilus, as Acts “first reader” is unknown to us except for a mention in the third verse of The Gospel According to Luke. His name means “dear to God” and there is some speculation that that was the writer’s clever metaphor for every new Christian seeking theological instruction. (But it is probably more likely that he was a wealthy patron who underwrote the writing of the detailed manuscript to provide a useful story that would confirm his own faith.)

According to the writings of Acts, it seems that those who had been with Jesus did get on task pretty quickly and suddenly turned into witnesses rather than limiting themselves to being followers.  This passage is part of Peter’s “Pentecost Proclamation”.  You can hear the excitement in the voice of the writer.  There really is a desire to get everyone on board, to let everyone see what the witnesses have seen, what the witnesses now know.  The problem is that with most of us humans, there’s always a “but”, an excuse, a really, really, really good reason why we can’t fully commit to what God is calling us to do.

At first reading, it seems that there exists a strong belief here in the notion of Jesus’ death being “pre-ordained” by God.   I’m not so sure about that though.  If God did “pre-ordain” Jesus’ crucifixion, does that also mean that God “pre-ordained” the Crusades, the Holocaust, and the terrorist act of September 11, 2001?  I mean, where does it stop?  Whatever happened to free will?  Are we just pawns in some great divine chess game waiting for God to move us to the next place?  I have to tell you, that’s not my image of God.

As the Scripture says, I think God actually DID intend to hand this God Incarnate over to us, to give up a piece of Divine control, to invite us to respond to this incredible act of God literally walking in our midst.  Think about it…you know how you take that favorite jacket to the dry cleaners?  Life is not designed such that you can stand there and watch them check it in, go through the dry cleaning process, and hang it back in its environmentally-unfriendly plastic bag (yes, that was a little bit of a dig!), all the while making sure that it is properly tagged and identified and gets to where it needs to go.  No, the truth is, you hand it over to the cleaner.  Now, at the risk of comparing the Son of God to a really cute jacket, God handed over the human part of God to us.  God relinquished control.  It was up to us.  But…but we messed up.  No excuses this time!  We royally messed up.  We didn’t like change; we didn’t like being told that the way that we had figured out how to live was not the right way; and we didn’t like the idea that we could no longer control our own destiny.  So, we killed God.  We lost the Divine in our midst, if only for a moment.

BUT…”God raised him up”.  BUT God stepped in and found what was lost, redeemed what was gone, and made alive what was once dead.  THAT is what we are called to witness–not that something awful that God had supposedly “pre-ordained” happened, but that God had “pre-ordained” handing the very Godself over to us.  And when we didn’t respond the way we should have, God stepped in yet again–not to punish, not to “undo”, but to take the worst of humanity and recreate it into the best of God.  Now, my friends, THAT is a good story.  THAT is something to which we can witness!

This is the season when God shows us how to be more than followers, how to be witnesses and doers, how to BE Christ in the world…no “buts”…we really are supposed to do it!

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What is the difference in this interpretation and the one that says that God “pre-ordains” participating with humanity in life?
  3. What do either of those notions say about one’s understanding of God?

 

NEW TESTAMENT: 1 Peter 1: 3-9

To read the Lectionary Epistle reading, click here

First Peter is considered to be one of the general (or catholic) epistles, along with Hebrews, James, 1,2,& 3 John, 2 Peter, and Jude. They are not attributed to Paul and they are not addressed to a particular church but to a group of churches (catholic). First Peter speaks to the condition of the churches across the traditional lines of time and place. It has provided comfort for believers in troubled times from the end of the first century to the present. Using the imagery of baptism, it provides a reminder for the baptized of what it means to live out of the sacrament and to live out the sacrament in their lives as individuals and as a community.

The passage that we read includes praise for God for the ways in which Christians have been elected and redeemed. The term “new birth” refers to the new life received through Christ’s Resurrection. Being “born anew” does not refer to a specific spiritual experience, but, rather a radical rebirth through the Resurrection. The Resurrection of Christ provides hope for the future and strength for the present, according to the reading. Another theme represented is the idea of belief without seeing, or, actually, faith. It is by faith that we provide hope for our future and joy until then.

This letter was first written to people who were going through some really tough times, possibly people who were suffering because they WERE who they were.  They are not being promised a quick fix.  In fact, there’s a possibility that this is just not going to get any better at all.  Faith is not believing that God will fix it; faith is believing that there is always something more, something beyond what we know, something beyond even this.

 

  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. What does the concept of being “born again” mean to you?
  3. What does this passage say to you about faith?
  4. How does this speak to you about suffering?

 

GOSPEL: John 20: 19-31

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

This passage occurs as a text for both Easter and Pentecost in the church’s lectionary. It reminds us that the seeing of the risen Christ is also the gift of the Spirit that begins our Christian journey. The second part of the passage is usually referred to as the story of “Doubting Thomas”. In essence, this really sort of falsely isolates Thomas from the rest of the disciples (and perhaps even us!) The center of this story, though, is Jesus, rather than Thomas.

It is the story of Jesus giving Thomas what he needs—the generous offer of himself. It says that, for Jesus, Thomas’ faith is more important than the grounds on which it is made. (In other words, HOW we got our faith is insignificant in the face of our faith, itself.) There is a fine line drawn between what Thomas needs and what Jesus offers. (Thomas needs what Jesus offers; Jesus offers what Thomas needs—the two are interchangeable—neither really came first.) So Jesus’ love for his own did not end with his death, but determines all future interactions between Jesus and the community of believers. It is a story of hope and promise, rather than a reprimand of unbelief. Jesus loved Thomas enough to do what needed to be done so that he would get it.

Hans Kung said that Doubt is the shadow cast by faith. One does not always notice it, but it is always there, though concealed. At any moment it may come into action. There is no mystery of the faith which is immune to doubt. Isn’t that a wonderful thought? Doubt is the shadow cast by faith. Faith in the resurrection does not exclude doubt, but takes doubt into itself. Faith is a matter of worshipping and doubting, doubting and worshipping. It is a matter of being part of this wonderful community of disciples not because God told us to but because our doubts bring us together. Examining our faith involves doubts, it requires us to learn the questions to ask. And it is in the face of doubt that our faith is born. God does not call us to a blind, unexamined faith, accepting all that we see and all that we hear as unquestionable truth; God instead calls us to an illumined doubt, through which we search and journey toward a greater understanding of God.

We have a common saying that expresses our insistence on tangible proof of every faith claim: “I’ll believe it when I see it.” And just when will that be? I ask myself, as I read this passage about Jesus’ appearances to the disciples and then to Thomas. When will the moment come when we look up and really notice, really see the Risen Lord who stands before us in every room in our house, in every situation in our lives? He is, in fact, standing beside you right now as you read this. Have you noticed?

The disciples were, John tells us, locked in their room “for fear of the Jews.” “The Jews” is John’s label for those among the religious leadership of the day who opposed Jesus. And, probably, code for those who opposed his community at the end of the first century. It doesn’t refer to all Jews of Jesus’ day and it certainly doesn’t refer to Jews today. I don’t take the disciples’ fear lightly. There was danger out there. Who knew whether the people who had killed their leader would now come after them? (Jn. 15:18, 19) Or whether they would be accused of having stolen his body in some resurrection scam? They were locked in their room with their fear and their grief.

That was bad enough, but now Mary had to come and introduce a ridiculous hope into their grief: that she had seen him and that he had spoken to her. How could such a thing be true? If I had been there in that locked room, I would have been thinking “I’ll believe it when I see it.” But the fact that I was looking down would have made that impossible. I would have tried looking at the four walls and the locked door. But all they signal is fear and false security. I would have tried looking at my friends’ faces. But all they signal is grief and confusion. So I would have been looking down when the Risen Lord arrived.

There is so much we miss when we’re looking down.

In these two scenes (Jn. 20:19-23 and 20:24-29) taken together, there are a couple of crucial things we would miss.

We would miss our Risen Lord’s greeting.

We would miss his good news.

We would miss the Risen Jesus’ Greeting:”Peace be with you.  Jesus’ greeting is not a statement of what Jesus wishes for his disciples. It is a statement of fact, of present reality. And he says it not once, but three times (Jn. 20:19, 21, 26). In early Christian worship services, the “passing of the peace” echoed this greeting of the Risen Lord whom they believed, as we do today, that he was in their midst when they gathered to worship. Worshipers greeted one another with the kiss of peace and the words “The Peace of Christ be with you.” I always feel cheated when, in a worship service these days, we are told to greet one another and everybody goes around shaking hands and saying “Good morning.”

“I hope you are having a good morning” is a far cry from “The Peace of Christ be with you.” The former is wishful thinking. The latter is a statement of the way things are because the Risen Christ, present with us in worship, has brought us peace. .” (From “Heads Up! Jesus is All Around”, by Alyce McKenzie, available at http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Heads-Up-Jesus-Is-All-Around-Alyce-McKenzie-04-25-2011)

a)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

b)      What does this passage say, then, about doubt?

c)      Where do you find yourself in this story?

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

Bidden or unbidden, God is present. (Erasmus)

 

I have discovered over time that the cross is supposed to take its toll on us. It forms us to find God in the shadows of life. Ironically enough, it’s the cross that teaches us hope…it is this hope that carries us from stage to stage in life, singing and dancing around dark corners. (Joan Chittister)

 

The beginning of wisdom is found in doubting; by doubting we come to the question, and by seeking we may come upon the truth. (Pierre Abelard)

 

 

Closing

The silence breaks into morning.

That One Star lights the world.

The lily springs to life and not even Solomon…

 

Let it begin with singing and never end!

Oh angels, quit your lamenting!

Oh, pilgrims, upon your knees in tearful prayer, rise up and take your hearts and run!

We who were no people are named anew God’s people, for he who was no more is forevermore. (Ann Weems, from Kneeling in Jerusalem)

 

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