Faithful Witnesses -- A Lectionary Reflection for Easter 2
On the Sunday after Easter, everyone is supposed to take a breath and get back to normalcy. The preacher might even take the weekend off (I don’t, but some do). But, is this the time to sit back and enjoy the ride? Or, is Easter the beginning of something new and exciting. Should we not be attending to the work of God?
The texts for this week suggest that the Resurrection inaugurates a new age, where the people of God get ready to go out into the world. John’s Gospel reading even has its own Pentecost message. Luke may have us wait a few weeks, but John is ready to go. The Lectionary itself pushes us forward with its readings drawn from the Book of Acts – in place of the regular Hebrew Bible texts. In these readings from Acts we engage with stories that detail transformative encounters that occur as the people of God head out from Jerusalem taking with them the Good News of Jesus. The word that comes to us is that Jesus hasn’t retreated to heaven so we can go back to life as usual. This isn’t the 1950s, when everyone was content to forget the war years and embrace normalcy.
The first reading comes from Acts 5. Just prior to this excerpt, we learn that the Jerusalem Church was experimenting with community of goods, an experiment marred by the deceit of Ananias and Sapphira. We will also find in the sections prior to this reading, the previous arrest and imprisonment of Peter and John, who were delivered from their chains by divine intervention. As we come to this reading, Peter and John have again been arrested for preaching the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection – contra the instructions of the ruling council in Jerusalem. Although we only get a snippet of the “trial” before the Council, we do hear Peter’s response to the charge that the disciples were teaching things that made the Council uncomfortable – charging them with complicity in the death of Jesus.
Peter’s response is direct and powerful. It’s a response that is well known to many Christians, but rarely imitated. Peter tells the council that “we must obey God rather than humans!” It is clear that while Peter and John stand before the religious leaders, they don’t recognize them as speaking for God. As a preacher I must take this as a reminder that clerical status doesn’t determine whether a message is divinely inspired or not. Peter and John tell their judges that they must take their instructions from the Spirit of God, who compelled them to bear witness to Jesus.
Now, we must be careful in our reading of this passage that we don’t fall into the trap of blaming “the Jews” for the execution of Jesus. While there were important figures in the leadership that colluded with the Roman government – in part as a way of protecting the religious privileges of the people – it is inappropriate to tar the entire community with this stain. That being said, Luke does hold this group of religious leaders responsible for Jesus’ death, and he makes it clear that their guilt stems from their refusal to take responsibility for their collaboration with the powers that be. As we read this text, we must ask the question -- how often have we done the same? History shows that at least since the days of Constantine, the church has often stood on the side of those who wield power at the expense of the people. Whether or not they agreed with Hitler’s desire to exterminate Jews, the majority of German church leaders did nothing to stop him – nor did they encourage their people to do anything. In an earlier era the church was complicit in the near extermination of Native Americans in the first decades following the European conquest of the region. There were a few who resisted – like Bartolomé de Las Casas, but he wasn’t among the majority of church leaders. Good Christian preachers not only supported but gave religious sanction to slavery.
So where do we stand? To whom do we give our allegiance? There is one who stands out as a modern martyr. Archbishop Oscar Romero came to believe that as a bishop he needed to speak out against the oppression he saw occurring in his country. He was accused of entering the political realm, but he continually pointed to the prophetic texts to support his engagement on behalf of those who were oppressed in his country. Finally, he was assassinated as he celebrated the Eucharist by members of the right wing death squads that were connected to the government. In that era similar groups were terrorizing Latin America -- – often with the support or at least acquiescence of the American government – and when the church stood up to these groups they suffered mightily. So, as we hear this word as expressed by Peter, we face the question of where we stand. Luther is famous for standing up for his faith, declaring: “Here I am, I can do no other.” Peter said something similar, as did Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. So, what are we willing to say?
The next two readings come from documents that traditionally have been attributed to the Apostle John – the one who joined with Peter in that moment of confrontation. In the first reading – from Revelation -- we hear a word from John of Patmos, who writes to the seven churches of Asia. We don’t know the full context, but the church seems to be under duress. There is a need to remain faithful to the gospel, but also an expectation that Jesus will intervene in cataclysmic fashion. The second reading comes from the Gospel of John, which speaks here of Jesus’ post resurrection appearance to his now fearful disciples.
In the first reading, from Revelation, John of Patmos (whether the apostle or someone else) speaks of a “revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place.” This is an apocalyptic text. The expectation is that Jesus is going to act soon to deliver the people of God from their situation of duress. Again, we can only speculate about what is happening (and we’ve been good at speculation). John notes that this message came to him by way of an angel, “who bore witness to the word of God and to the witness of Jesus Christ.” It’s important to note the use of the word witness.” Jesus sends the angel to John to bear witness to Jesus, and in the course of the conversation, John and his followers will be encouraged to take up their own witness. But we start with the one whom John calls the “the faithful witness, the firstborn among the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.” This is the one who speaks and whose word his followers will share in their own witness.
In this brief reading, the author invites us to honor the faithful witness who “loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood.” Do you see in this an echo of the word given in the Gospel of John, which speaks of God’s love of the world and the sending of the son into the world? (John 3:16). Because of what God has already done in Christ, we become part of a kingdom and “priests to his God and Father.” To this one “belongs glory and power forever.” He is the “Alpha and Omega.” To a community that is feeling lost and alone, this is truly a word of encouragement. The “Alpha and Omega” stands with you, enabling your witness. The moral of the story -- If Jesus is a faithful witness, then should we not pick up the task ourselves? The witness began with Jesus, moved through the angel to John, and from John to us, so that we can be faithful witnesses ourselves – even in the face of great danger.
When it comes to the reading from the Gospel of John, I’m intrigued by Lee Harmon’s suggestion that it comes from the same hand as Revelation, and that the Gospel is really a reassessment of John’s eschatological message. Harmon thinks that Revelation was written in the decade following the Jewish War that led to the destruction of Jerusalem. In this earlier text there is an expectation that Jesus will return to set things right. In the Gospel, however, John (the Apostle) offers a new vision, one that expresses a “realized eschatology.” Instead of waiting for the kingdom, the kingdom is already present. Jesus is here in our midst! There is no impending catastrophic day of the Lord. We just need to embrace the kingdom now, and allow it to unfold in our midst. When it comes to our text for the week, Harmon is convinced that the bulk of John 20, including the story of Doubting Thomas is a later redaction of the Gospel that seeks to align its message more with that of the Synoptics. I don’t have space to engage this issue, but I do find an important word that connects us with the messages in Acts and Revelation. That word comes in the first scene, prior to the encounter with Thomas, which I’m leaving to the side.
In verses 19-23 of John 20, the disciples are hiding behind closed doors. They’re afraid. Jesus has been executed – and they might be next. We’ve heard the reports of Jesus’ resurrection and appearance to Mary, but it would seem that more is needed to convince the community that there is more work to be done. So, on the evening of the Day of Resurrection, Jesus comes and stands with them. He just shows up – out of nowhere, but in this passage he does show them his hands and side to prove that he’s not a phantom (Thomas will demand more proof – wouldn’t you?). This encounter with the risen Christ fills them with joy, but this is only the first step – reassurance. Next comes the Johannine equivalent of the Great Commission plus the blessing of Pentecost (without the gift of tongues). Jesus says to the gathered community:
As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:21-22).
With this the disciples receive both their commission to be faithful witnesses and the empowerment to fulfill that calling. In fact, they’re even given authority to forgive (or not forgive) sins.
God into the world – be witnesses. That is the calling of the body of Christ. It is the message not only of Pentecost, but Easter as well. The Resurrected One has spoken.