Friday, April 14, 2017

Sunday 23rd April 2017 - Second Sunday of Easter (Low Sunday)

Theme(s): Resurrection. New life in Christ. Our mission, God's gift of the Holy Spirit. Victory in Christ. Our inheritance in Christ.

Sentence: Let us give thanks to the Father who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. Alleluia! (Colossians 1:12 (adapted))


Almighty God
by the glorious resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ
you have broken the power of death
and brought life and immortality to light;
grant that we who have been raised with him
may triumph over all temptation
and rejoice in the hope of eternal glory;
through him who lives and reigns with you
and the Holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever. Amen.


Acts 2:14a, 22-32
Psalm 16
1 Peter 1:3-9
John 20:19-31


Acts 2:14a, 22-32

Peter, preaching on the Day of Pentecost, sets out that the crucified Jesus has been raised from the dead.

Note the emphasis Peter puts in the resurrection being a release of Jesus from the power of death (24).

When debates with sceptics involve doubts about whether the tomb of Jesus became empty because the body of Jesus was raised up to new life, note the enigmatic description in verse 29. There Peter describes David - the writer of the psalm which prophetically looks ahead to the resurrection - as

'both died and was buried and his tomb is with us to this day'. 

He doesn't quite say it, but the implication is there: David died, we know where his tomb is, we can enter that tomb and touch his bones; whereas Jesus died, we know where his tomb is, we can enter that tomb but we cannot touch his bones for 'he is not there' (see Mark 16:6).

Psalm 16

This lovely psalm - a portion of which is cited in the Acts reading above - needs little explanation or attention paid to its details. Save that the last two verses express a hope in God's saving power beyond the grave which are consistent with the later developed doctrine of the resurrection for (some) Jews and then for Christians.

When Paul claimed that Jesus was raised from the dead according to the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:4) did he have these (as well as other) verses in mind?

1 Peter 1:3-9

What is the importance of the resurrection of Jesus?

In these verses, Peter gets his whole epistle going to Christian readers, an epistle written mostly to encourage the readers through tough and difficult days. He launches straight in to the basis for hope in the face of troubles, but does so with a homage to God:

'Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he had given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead ...' (3)

The importance of the resurrection of Jesus is that it has great relevance to us who believe: through God's mercy we have new birth into a living hope. This hope is life-giving because the resurrection of Jesus is a promise that we one day will inherit something spectacularly magnificent (imperishable, undefiled, unfading, kept in heaven for us).

Further, this inheritance is sure because the power of God, the same power which raised Jesus from the dead, protects us through difficult times until this inheritance, also known as 'a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time' (5), is granted to us.

In other language (influenced by many other parts of the New Testament), the resurrection of Jesus offers new life now which one day will become complete: everlasting, abundant life. The experience of that life now and the hope of that fullness to come enlivens us, especially when the going gets tough between now and then.

Finally, note the importance of 'faith' (5, 7): God has raised Jesus from the dead. Our response of faith, entrusting our lives to God, believing that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God (see notes below) is both crucial to receiving the blessing of life through the resurrected Christ and vital for maintaining relationship with life through days of testing. In fact, our faith itself is being tested. Its genuineness is important to God. One day it will result in 'praise and glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed' (7).

John 20:19-31

There is a lot going on in this passage! In one passage we have two significant appearances of the risen Jesus (to the Ten, to Thomas with the other ten disciples), the Johannine commissioning of the disciples for mission (21-23), the (so called) Johannine Pentecost (22), and the purpose of the whole gospel (30-31).

Naturally, one Sunday after Easter Day itself, we might prefer to focus on the two resurrection stories and treat the other themes in passing. Yet we could appropriately use this Sunday to focus on what the resurrection of Jesus Christ means for us today and how we live as Christians.

The two appearance stories are masterfully told. The disciples are behind locked doors. Why? 'for fear of the Jews' (19) But this detail serves to tell us something about the body or 'body' of the risen Jesus: it is not his normal pre-death body, Jesus has not been raised as Lazarus was, he has a new body, it can appear at will in rooms otherwise locked to the ordinary human body. Yet this body still bears marks of the pre-death body and carries the possibility of feeling specific marks (indentations) on that body (20, 27). The risen Jesus is in a 'resurrection body', not in an ordinary body now revived and resuscitated.

With the second story, lines of continuity connect it with the first story but this time Thomas is in view. Assuring this doubting believer that Jesus really and truly has been raised from the dead is an assurance for all future readers with doubts that

(a) they do not need to doubt, and

(b) their situation as believers never having met Jesus of Nazareth (pre-death or post-death) is more blessed than the situation of those who did meet him.

Familiar with Matthew's and Luke's ending to their gospels, and with Luke's beginning to Acts, we are not surprised that John incorporates into his narrative an act of commissioning for service and an act of bestowing the Holy Spirit on the disciples.

What is surprising is that John offers this incorporation on the first day of resurrection rather than some time subsequently - though there is an interesting point of comparison to consider: Luke's Gospel ending offers a kind of very long single day of resurrection through to departure/ascension. (By contrast, Luke writing the first chapter of Acts offers a different sense of time passing, explicitly stating there was an interval of forty days between resurrection and ascension.

John offers his commission and bestowal of the Spirit in characteristic Johannine manner.

Throughout the gospel Jesus has been the one sent by the Father to do a special work in the world. Now this sending and its associated mission becomes that of the disciples: 'As the Father has sent me, so I send you' (21). Simply said, profoundly full of implication: our mission is the mission of Jesus; the Father sends the Son, the Son sends us because the Son has the Father's authority (before you know it, we have the Trinity)! Our mission is worldwide in scope (see John 3:16), it follows through a divine plan hatched since before the world began (see John 1:1-18) ... no pressure then!

The Holy Spirit has been coming into view as we read through the Gospel. In his final testament to the disciples (see chapters 14-16 and his final prayer for them, chapter 17), Jesus has promised the Spirit will assist them in various ways, principally in recalling to their minds all that he has taught them and opening up for them the significance of that teaching. Now, Jesus having died and been raised to life, and commissioned the disciples for service, the time comes for the bestowal of the promised Spirit:

'he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit".'

Again, simply said, but full of profound implications. What equipment does the church of God require to do God's work? Theological degrees, certificates for training undertaken, an iPhone, a photocopier, an internet connection and a car is a possible answer. All those are useful but the primary equipment is the Holy Spirit!

Two questions might then arise.

a. would we have then said what is said in verse 23 about forgiving sins?

Wouldn't we expect, say, something about 'go and preach the gospel with power' or 'discern which gifts the Spirit has given you and get on with using them for God's glory'?

Yet, when we pause and reflect on thee words said in verse 23, we can see a profound connection between the work of the Holy Spirit and the forgiveness of sins. What is the forgiveness of sins but the healing of the past which so often prevents people from living well in the present and rejoicing with hope for the future. The Holy Spirit comes to heal the fallen creation and to initiate the new creation of God. Those who receive the Holy Spirit have the power to enable this work of healing through forgiveness or withholding it (e.g. by keeping the gospel of grace to themselves).

b. If we call verse 22 the 'Johannine Pentecost', how does this fit with 'the Pentecost' of Acts 2, much celebrated as a specific event of bestowing the Holy Spirit fifty days after the day of resurrection?

- there is not a strict incompatibility as though this event happening in this way for ten disciples prohibits a different (but related) event happening for 120 disciples

- John tends to tell us about Jesus in his own Johannine way. 'Let John be John' is the title of a famous paper by Prof. James Dunn. Perhaps the Johannine Pentecost is the bestowal of the Holy Spirit told in John's manner, associated with John's version of the commissioning of the disciples. Luke's version is Luke's version.

- the Spirit comes upon believers more than once (albeit with one of the many such occasions perhaps being more distinctive and memorable than others); even in Luke's Acts, the Holy Spirit is manifest on more than once occasion.

- the way of John telling the story of Jesus bestowing the Spirit must stand for a means of bestowing the Spirit which is available beyond this specific instance: Thomas was missing (for starters); no woman was present (contrast Acts 1-2).

So, finally (with much left unsaid here, see commentaries ...) there are the last two verses of the passage to consider.

John offers a kind of "bog standard" cliche at the end of his story (30): I could have told you more but I have run out of space.

On the one hand that is a humble acknowledgement of the limitations of his project; on the other hand that allows his readers freedom to value and appreciate many other stories about Jesus (especially those told in other gospels circulating through the churches).

Then in verse 31, John  gives a summarizing purpose for what he has told us about, 'But these are written ...'

On a plain reading of what follows, John has written an essentially evangelistic gospel, a gospel for non-believers with the purpose that they would 'come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah ... and that through believing you may have life in his name'.

Yet a non-believer is taken through some amazing material, which has given believers much food for thought as they have read the gospel. Is it possible that John is also saying to believers who read the gospel,'This is for you too, that your belief might grow stronger and your experience of life in Christ grow deeper'?

Either way, note that John is very clear about what a 'believer' believes: 'that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.' A believer is more than someone who thinks highly of Jesus and sets out to live like Jesus' example and according to his teaching. A believer believes something distinctive and potentially challenging (as it was and is, e.g. for Jews then, for Muslims subsequently), that Jesus is a specific being with a definitive identity: 'the Messiah, the Son of God'.

Further, John clearly links the benefits of belief ('life in his name') with the content of the believers' confession, that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.

Finally, note the theme of 'life' making its presence felt here. Throughout the gospel Jesus has offered life or eternal life to people. His signs have been signs of that life. The signs have always been some kind of transformation (water to wine, blindness to sight, etc) in which life has come to the recipients even as the signs point to the greater and deeper transformation of the whole of life offered by Jesus to believers.

In John's Gospel the resurrection of Jesus is the final and most complete sign of the power of God to change lives.

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