Thursday, April 28, 2011

I Believe in the Resurrection -- A Lectionary Meditation

Acts 2:14a, 22-32



1 Peter 1:3-9


John 20:19-31


I Believe in the Resurrection


This may simply be the week that follows Easter. We had our great celebration, but now it’s time to get on with business. The liturgical calendar has, of course, other ideas (as does the lectionary). Therefore, let us continue the celebration we began on the Day of Resurrection by singing the songs of resurrection. With contemporary hymn writer Brian Wren we can sing:

Christ is risen! Shout hosanna! Celebrate this day of days.
Christ is risen! Hush in wonder; all creation is amazed.
In the desert all surrounding, see, a spreading tree has grown.
Healing leaves of grace abounding bring a taste of love unknown        (Chalice Hymnal, 222).

And, with St. John of Damascus (8th century), we can sing:

Let the heavens be joyful! Let earth its song begin!
The world resound in triumph, and all that is therein;
let all things seen and unseen their notes of gladness blend;
for Christ the Lord has risen, our joy that has no end.                         (Chalice Hymnal 228, vs. 3).
Yes, it’s not yet time to let go of the Easter song – indeed, the reason that we gather for worship on the first day of the week is that Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week.

I realize that this doctrine of resurrection continues to be controversial, with scholars taking positions along a spectrum from bodily/physical to the metaphorical and everything in between. You can pick your theologian/interpreter and go from there. But, as theologian Clark Williamson reminds us, we can’t get away from its message:

The resurrection explains the New Testament; the New Testament does not explain the resurrection. The resurrection is God’s answer to Pilate’s brutality and to the death dealing ways of all oppressive powers and principalities
.
Thus, God chose to exalt him so that every knee should bow and tongue confess him Lord (Phil. 2:9-11). He goes on to write:

When the church affirms that the Christ who was raised still bears the marks of the crucified Jew who died on a Roman cross, it puts us on notice that the risen Christ will not now do anything out of character with what the Jew Jesus did in relation to his followers. As Jesus then confronted his followers with the promise and command of the God of Israel, so Jesus now confronts his followers with the same promise and command. (Williamson, Way of Blessing, Way of Life, pp. 200-201).

It is this nail scarred but risen Lord whom we meet again in John’s gospel, and through whom we experience the healing presence of God.

On the first Sunday after Easter the lesson from the Hebrew Bible is replaced by a reading from Acts 2, though this passage draws our attention to the words of Psalm 16, the author of which, according to Peter, is David. In this text we hear Peter addressing the gathered crowd on Pentecost, and drawing upon Psalm 16, Peter declares that in this song of the ancient Jewish people, David had declared that the Messiah (the one who would sit on David’s throne) would not be abandoned to Sheol (Hades) or experience corruption, which Peter takes to mean resurrection. David might suffer death and be buried – after all, his tomb remained with them. But the one whom “they” had crucified, God redeemed by raising him from the dead – all of this according to God’s foreknowledge. They may have acted outside the Law, but God had acted to reverse their judgment and restore to the throne of David the chosen one of God. For Peter, David, who died, and whose tomb remained with them, had made it clear that the one who would redeem his throne would be greater than him, for he would be the risen Lord.

If Acts roots the promise of Resurrection in the Psalmist’s prophetic statements, 1 Peter, a letter that claims the great apostle as its author roots the new birth and living hope of the people of God in the resurrection of Jesus. That is, the church doesn’t explain the resurrection – the resurrection explains the church. Therefore, because of this resurrection, the people of God will receive an “inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heave for you . . .” That promise of the resurrection that the letter speaks of gives hope and strength to those who must suffer trials because of their faith. It enables the follower of Jesus to endure the testing of faith by fire. In the end, strengthened by this promise, they will express their joy in praise and glory and honor. And though you may not have seen him you will be able to love him and believe in him. Yes, because of the resurrection you will experience indescribable joy due to the salvation of your soul.

The text that truly grabs us on this Sunday after Easter is John 20. It comes to us in two episodes, both of which remind us that this resurrection of which we speak was no mere resuscitation, but it also appears to be more than mere metaphor or vision.

In the first episode, the disciples are locked away in the Upper Room, because they’re afraid “of the Jews.” It’s interesting that the Romans executed Jesus, but in John’s view they fear the Jews (even though that too are Jews!). But the point that needs to be grasped here is that they are afraid. This is no jolly band ready to continue the work of their fallen leader, and therefore it would seem to take more than a metaphor to cause them to take on a new calling.

Hiding away behind that heavy door, afraid of their shadows, they experience something unexpected. Jesus suddenly appears – as if he walked through walls. Here’s the piece that fits with Clark’s meditation on the resurrection – he shows them his hands and side and then they rejoice. They are comforted that he’s the one marked by the cross. Because they believe and receive him, Jesus then breathes upon them the Holy Spirit and gives them a commission – forgive or retain sins, for whichever you choose, God will act upon this choice. This is John’s Pentecost, the time in which the Spirit empowers and ordains the disciples to be witnesses. They are given the responsibility to share the word of forgiveness.

But not everyone is there that night. One is missing – Thomas, the Twin. He’s not ready to receive their witness. He’s something of a David Hume. He has to see in order to believe. I’m with him really. I too need evidence to quell my doubts. And so we have the second episode. Again, the group of disciples hunkers down behind locked doors – a reminder that the resurrection message didn’t completely take. They received the Holy Spirit from Jesus, but the Spirit had yet to free them completely from their fears. And once again, Jesus appears – through the door - -and he again says: “Peace be with you.” This time his focus is on the doubter, and he invites Thomas to touch the wounds on his hands and in his side. Touch them so that you might know and believe. Yes, the New Testament doesn’t explain the Resurrection. The Resurrection explains the New Testament! It is the Resurrection that compels the people of God to share the good news. Now, Jesus doesn’t condemn Thomas for his doubts, but he does offer a blessing on those who don’t see and yet believe. We who live after David Hume, should receive this word with joy, for if we’re to take the Resurrection Road, it will require of us great faith and trust.

The Gospel doesn’t tell everything that occurred, but it does tell us enough that we might believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God. If we’re willing to believe this, then there is salvation in his name.

The hope of the church and the world is found in the risen Lord. For as Charles Wesley put it:

Soar we now where Christ has led, Alleluia!
Following our exalted Head, Alleluia!
Raise your joys and triumphs high, Alleluia!
Sing, O Heavens, and earth reply, Alleluia!                                                      (Chalice Hymnal, 216 vs. 4)

1 comment:

John said...

I am always intrigued by the use of Jesus breath to give new life andd new powers to the disciples. There again the the Spirit (breath, wind) of God mving over the chaos, moving through world - we have only to draw it in to receive the new life promised to us.

Just as intriguing is the nature of the power granted by the Spirit, the power to forgive. Of all the powers Jesus could have granted, he chose to grant the power to forgive. What will we do with it? Are we even able to grasp its significance? As Christians do we even take the time to examine this gift? As I look at those Christians around me, look into my own heart, I have to ask myself, do I truly comprehend that the one power Jesus saw fit to give to his disciples was the power to forgive? Not to heal, not to convert, not to rule, not to make money, not to fly, not to speak in tongues, not to prophesy - but the power to forgive!

I am also moved by the image of the Risen Lord,WITH SCARS. When we think of resurrected and glorified bodies it is easy to imagine that we will have jetiisoned the crippling wounds, emotional and physical, of this life. But the fact that Jesus' resurrected body continues to carry his earthly wounds suggests to me that we too will bear wounds, wounds to be healed with the leaves of the trees of the new Kingdom, but still, the scars will remain. The scars that form us, that formed our personal histories, that combine to define each of as unique beings. It suggests to me that we will not lose our identities, nor will we forget what we have endured during our earthly journeys. It suggests to me that we will not forget those whom we have left behind.

And I am heartened by the teaching to Thomas, who is our proxy. He doubts until he sees and touches the wounds of the Risen Lord. Is this not exactly who we are? Do we not daily ask for confirmation that our hopes and our faith is trustworthy, that our Lord is real, and present among us, breathing his healing spirit on and among us?

And he is blessed in all his doubt.