Sunday, April 5, 2015

Sunday 12 April 2015 - Easter 2

Theme: Resurrection / Overcoming Doubts / Believing in the risen Christ / New life in Christ

Sentence: But God raised Jesus up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held by in its power. (Acts 2:24)


we praise you, God,
that the light of Christ shines in our darkness
and is never overcome;
show us the way we must go to eternal day;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Readings: (note that Acts is specified in the lectionary through these weeks of Eastertide as the 'Old Testament' reading).

Acts 2:14a, 22-32
Psalm 133
1 John 1:1-2:2
John 20:19-31


Acts 2:14a, 22-32

It is appropriate to have readings such as this in place of an Old Testament reading, for this reading effectively illustrates Paul's point about the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:4, that Christ was raised from the dead 'according to the scriptures' (i.e. according to what we call the Old Testament).

In the course of Peter's Pentecost sermon, these verses focus on the resurrection of Jesus as the crowning moment of God's power at work in his life, a power which had healed people through Jesus and fed people through Jesus (22) and now has worked in and through Jesus himself to free him from death and the power of death (24). Peter says that this was prefigured in the Scriptures of Israel when David wrote in Psalm 16:8-11 the words cited in verses 25-28 and, to underline the point, in verse 31.

The resurrection is not a random event on the part of God but part of the well thought out plan of God (23) which permits Jesus to be crucified (23).

Peter's final note in this passage is to observe that the resurrection has been witnessed by witnesses (32).

Psalm 133

This - second shortest - psalm starts with feel good thoughts about unity among God's people and ends with the thought of 'life forevermore' (3b). From the perspective of resurrection we can think of life forevermore lived in God's presence as a life without division, discord, dissent or dispute.

Our question from the psalm, in the light of the resurrection, could be, How do we begin to live in unity now since we are going to be doing that forever?

1 John 1:1-2:2

Introduction: The question of authorship of John's Gospel and John's Epistles is complex (at least in the sense that there are good arguments for thinking that more than one person is responsible for the composition of the gospel and three letters) but generally no scholar doubts that the gospel and epistles share common concerns about opponents of the Johannine Christians (likely based in Ephesus, late in the first century). So, it is highly appropriate that we twin this first epistle of John with the Gospel of John in our readings today. In accordance with the tradition of the church I will refer to the author of the epistle as 'John.'

Passage: On Easter 2 we find no direct words about the resurrection of Jesus Christ but we find plenty about the life of the Christian community post-resurrection. The community being addressed are those who welcome the testimony of those who personally experienced Jesus Christ as 'the word of life' (1-2). This testimony has been given and is being restated here in this epistle in order that John (or, noting the language of 'we', the authors) and readers might have 'fellowship', a fellowship which 'is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ' (3). The author seeks 'complete' joy (4) which hints at controversy and disagreement: this epistle will lay out the common ground on which the fellowship or common life of the community is built. If agreement is secured, the joy (of fellowship) will be complete.

In verses 5-7, John addresses the question of quality of fellowship between believers. This quality turns on the question of 'light' or living a pure and holy life, marked - as we see later in the epistle - by the tenderness and mercy of love. This quality of life begins with God's own life: 'God is light and in him there is no darkness at all' (5). This is the benchmark for all Christian fellowship: with God and with each other. If we claim to be in fellowship then we will walk in the light and not in darkness (6-7).

But what is John addressing here by way of issue or question? If we go down to verse 10 it appears that false teachers were affecting (infecting?) this community of believers by teaching that true believers were sinless. Not so, says John. Believers sin. Believers should not pretend otherwise (6, 8). How do sinners deal with sin while walking in the light? By admitting their sin, confessing it, receiving forgiveness and continuing to walk with the Lord (7-9).

One of the great promises in Scripture is verse 9. Every Christian should memorise and apply this verse!

But the point here, in the light of the resurrection, is that assurance of forgiveness of sin comes because the 'advocate with the Father' on our behalf, 'Jesus Christ the righteous' (2:1) has died but not remained captured by the power of death. He is 'the word of life' (1:1). Further, it is not just that Jesus is our advocate (paraclete, a word familiar from John's Gospel, but there used of the role of the Spirit) but that he 'is the atoning sacrifice for our sins' (2:2). We can confess our sins, per the promise in 1:9, confident of forgiveness because the advocate on our behalf continues to remind the Father that our sins have been atoned for.

The word for 'atoning sacrifice' is hilasmos, which is also used in Romans 3:25: Pauline and Johannine theology are coherent! Arguments abound as to whether hilasmos should be translated as 'expiation' or 'propitiation' but I find 'atoning sacrifice' to be a worthy and non-controversial alternative to the two. Indeed, acknowledging that arguments in favour of both expiation and propitiation have merit, I would argue that 'atoning sacrifice' allows us to think of hilasmos as both expiation and propitiation.

The final words of the passage are most wonderful. Jesus died for our sins (that is truly wonderful) but John goes further, 'and not for ours only but also for the sins of the world.' That is even more wonderful and could and should motivate us to proclaim the gospel of salvation to the whole world.

Postscript: When some theologians invoke John Calvin in support of the concept of limited atonement (that Christ died for the sins of the elect only), I wish they would go back in history to a greater John and note that the Scriptures themselves do not teach limited atonement

John 20:19-31

The resurrection appearances of Jesus are episodic rather than continual. Jesus appears, disappears, reappears rather than (say) visiting with a group of disciples and staying in their house 24/7 for a few weeks. In this passage, as John reports on the risen Jesus, Jesus appears at the end of 'that day, the first day of the week' (19), having (seemingly) disappeared since his early morning encounter with Mary (11-18), then a whole week elapses (26) before his next appearance.

But what significant appearances they are!

In verses 19-23, Jesus commissions his disciples to continue his mission from God and of God to the world God loves: 'As the Father has sent me, so I send you' (21, see also 17:18).

But first Jesus reaches out to the disciples who are cowering in hiding 'for fear of the Jews' (which here must mean 'the Jewish authorities', 19). Twice he says 'Peace be with you' (19, 21) and he shows them the reality of his risen body which (interestingly, for those of us who have succumbed to the temptation to think that our own resurrection bodies will be something akin to our state in our physical prime :) ) includes 'his hands and his side', testifying to Jesus' body bearing the marks of his crucifixion (20).

So the disciples who are commissioned are now disciples of the risen Lord, who 'rejoiced when they saw the Lord' (20). This joy will be vital to their energetic taking up of the commission. Its vitality will not ebb away because Jesus moves to endow them with the Holy Spirit (22). On another occasion we might engage with the question of how this account of endowment of the Spirit complements the account given by Luke in Acts 2, but here we simply note that John offers us 'the Johannine Pentecost', the moment when the Spirit of the Father is given by Jesus the Son to the disciples.

With this power comes authority, the authority to forgive or withhold forgiveness (23). Such authority is effectively the authority to grant or withhold new life in Christ for without the forgiveness of sins we are held back by the past and unable to move forward into the new future of eternal life available in Christ.

Note that through this chapter Jesus is raised from the dead (1-10), anticipates his ascension to the Father (17) and brings about Pentecost (22): for John the exaltation or glorification through lifting up of Christ is one sweeping movement through crucifixion, resurrection, ascension and Pentecost. In this movement Jesus returns to the Father and unleashes the Spirit to continue his work in, through and among his disciples (as taught in chapters 14-16).

(As an aside, in the great debate between Western and Eastern Christianity over the filioque clause of the Nicene Creed, that is, over whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father or proceeds from the Father and the Son, 20:22 underlines why we in the West believe the Spirit proceeds from Father and Son and not from the Father only.)

Verses 24-26 then forms an introduction to the next episodic appearance of Jesus, a week hence. Thomas has not been present on that first evening. He is unconvinced by the disciples' testimony 'We have seen the Lord' (25a). (To be fair to Thomas as 'the Doubter', the other disciples were not so convinced by Mary's similar testimony, 18, that they did not lock the door to their hiding place a week previously, 19!). His demands for evidence (25b) are narrated to represent all readers who doubt that Jesus rose from the dead. What Thomas requires is what any reasonable person would require as evidence for the resurrection. He needs more than the Empty Tomb (which, presumably, he could easily check out for himself  and which does not alone constitute sufficient evidence for the resurrection because it is compatible with an alternative explanation that the body was stolen, see Matthew 28). He demands (so to speak) hands on physical evidence: show me the holes in his body, let me touch and check them out for myself.

'Be careful what you wish for'! On the eight day of resurrection, Jesus reappears before the disciples, this time with Thomas present (26). Jesus knows what he wants and invites Thomas to touch him. Interestingly we are not told that Thomas does this. Instead he blurts out his instant conviction that the Lord is risen, risen indeed, 'My Lord and my God' (28). Seeing Jesus (29) is enough, he does not need to touch him. When Jesus goes on to commend those without opportunity to see the risen Jesus for themselves (29b) he is commending all John's readers, then and now, for this gospel was written long after the risen Jesus ascended to be with the Father.

It is now time to wrap up the gospel (or, at least to wrap up the main body of it, noting that chapter 21 is either an epilogue to the main part or an addition to the main part by another contributor to the gospel). So we find a classic narrator's trick to acknowledge that the end of the narrative is near but the narrative could be much longer because there is more to tell: 'Now Jesus did many other signs ... which are not written in this book' (30). Incidentally this could also be an acknowledgment of the presence in the wider Christian community of the other gospels.

Verse 31 then becomes the conclusion by way of stating the purpose of the book: '... that you may come to believe ...' John is saying that when we cannot see and experience Jesus for ourselves, the next best thing in order to elicit belief is an authoritative, authentic, intimate and true account of the events of Jesus' life and death. Here is this account (see also 21:24).

But belief in itself is not the goal of the mission of God through Jesus Christ: the goal is 'life in his name' (31).

As we contemplate the resurrection of Jesus Christ we are not being invited to be spectators, let alone judges as to whether what we 'see' by aid of the gospel is true. We are being invited to be participants in the life of God through Jesus Christ.

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