Easter 2A. 27 April 2014.
It has become the tradition of the church to read from the Acts of the Apostles in place of the Old Testament lesson during the Easter season, which means of course that combined with an Epistle lesson, we are given two lessons from the New Testament. Three, if you include the Gospel—and the Gospel lesson on this Sunday is always the story of Thomas, who misses Jesus' first appearance on the day resurrection, but then one week later, Jesus returns.
The result of this combination of these lessons is a very interesting course of study on seeing and believing—or not seeing and believing—or not seeing and not believing!
The lesson from Acts could be called one of the first resurrection sermons. It is offered by Peter. It contains a theological assertion that the handing over of Jesus to be crucified was, as Peter says, "according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God." If you read the Passion narrative carefully, you will notice that Jesus is brought to trial and then released. He had done nothing worthy of punishment, but the people still wanted him gone. Peter proclaims, in essence, that even amidst the chaos of the crowd God is working out a divine initiative. That it wasn't just caprice or mob mentality, but that God was overseeing and directing this.
Within the Christian tradition, you will encounter a very strong theological doctrine that what is really going on is that the Messiah of God was offering himself. We studied this in our Lenten series—that Jesus is fulfilling the ancient rites of atonement, wherein Jesus puts an end to all sacrifice by summing all sacrifice up in his body.
Follow me here. There is human sacrifice, animal sacrifice, and food sacrifice. So Jesus, the man, the lamb of God, and the bread and wine, all together and at once were offered to the Father—human, animal, and food—so that no other sacrifice could be made more fully.
Peter is making this proclamation—that Jesus was not a helpless victim of circumstances, but that he was offering himself in obedience to the Father. We recite this theology in many ways in The Book of Common Prayer, perhaps most beautifully in Eucharistic Prayer A, which reads, "He stretched out this arms on the cross, and offered himself in obedience to your will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world."
Peter is proclaiming that God was in control, even in the most chaotic moment of Christ's life. And then he transitions to the Easter message, "But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power." And he gives the citation from David—from the Psalms—for all of this to be considered God's action—God's initiative.
"For you will not abandon my soul to hell, or let your Holy One experience corruption. You have made known to me the ways of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence."
It was the tradition of the rabbis to give references when speaking. "For David says…" For Moses wrote…" Do you remember when they said of Jesus that "he speaks as one having authority and not as the scribes?" (Matthew 7.29) To speak as the scribes is to give citations and references. Peter is trying to show that the Resurrection is an continuing revelation of what God wishes to do for his people—that it's not just a brand new theological concept, that this makes sense within their tradition.
"This Jesus," says Peter, "God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses." By "all of us," he means all of the other disciples—not that everyone in that crowd had seen Jesus.
Here you begin to see the problem that the disciples are going to have to address: Some have seen, and others have not.
So flip over to the first letter of Peter, and here he writes, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead…Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls."
Again, some have seen, and others have not. And within this letter you begin to see how Jesus' resurrection moved by faith from those who did see to those who did not. The faith moved to others because they believed the disciples.
It is not that the risen Jesus came physically to everyone he knew—everyone he had healed, or fed, or ate and drank with. He came to his disciples. He came to others, but he revealed himself—post-resurrection, anyway—to a very small group of people. And it is through their witness that—2000 years later—those of us who believe have come to believe.
The faith in Our Lord's resurrection did not remain with the select group of people who saw him. They shared this faith, and through sharing it with others, other people came to believe.
It's as simple and as complicated as that. And what I want to say is that it remains that simple and complicated.
It is simple language to say, "I believe that Jesus is alive," but try saying it to someone else. It's hard to do, because the inevitable questions come up, whether from inside of youself, or from someone else, "Why do you believe that?" "Are you just saying that you believe that, or do you really believe that?" "How have you come to believe that?"
And then you sort of see yourself standing there—alone—with the question or questions in front of you, and maybe you start to feel like a first grader in elementary school. You've been asked to substantiate your claim.
"Okay, you believe. That's nice. Why? How? Did you see him? Can we have some kind of evidence here?"
And the knees shake a little bit, because you feel like this is not just a single issue. Your answer may be the way in which others assess your credibility, and what does that say about the other things that you claim to be true?
The questions are a threat. They expose you. You didn't see. You heard. You were told. So who told you? (Pause.)
Your grandmother was a sweet woman. She made you cookies and you sat next to her in church and she believed, and because you loved her, you said you believe. What about now? Did her faith become your faith, or did you just borrow hers, because you loved her? Well.
Maybe she borrowed her faith from her grandmother..? Well…now there's an interesting thought! But see, if you follow that line of grandmothers all the way back, eventually you will find the twelve disciples and an empty tomb.
Do you see what I'm saying? The person who believes but hasn't seen trusts in the testimony of those who did see. I have not seen Jesus risen from the dead. Neither did I know him before he was crucified. But I have come to believe in him through the testimony of those who did—and that faith has been passed along for 2000 years.
So to share this faith is to say, "I believe in this," to someone else. It is not sharing information. This is sharing faith. And faith by its very nature is not able to be backed up with cold hard facts. It is only backed up by the fact that others have come before us who have also believed. That we have not conspired to tell a lie, but to share the faith—to trust—in those who saw.
Now, if you are someone who doesn't like to trust other people, you may have trouble believing in the resurrection. Consider Thomas. You would think that he would have come to trust the other eleven disciples who had seen Jesus. They have said to him, "We have seen the Lord." And Thomas responds, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands…I will not believe." Think about that.
This happens the day of the resurrection, and Thomas is out of the room, but there are eleven of his closest friends—people he has worked and prayed beside—and the implicit meaning of what he says to them is, "I don't believe you. I don't trust you."
And a whole week passes. Seven days of this. I have imagined Peter going from man to man trying to catch them in a discrepancy. "Are you sure he said, `Peace be with you'?" "You say you saw the marks of the nails?" "You say he breathed on you. Was it a blow? Was it a sigh? Was it is a…I don't know…a kind of half sigh/half blow?"
And John records that when Jesus returned and proved his resurrection to Thomas, Jesus said, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." And perhaps what Jesus was really saying is, "Why didn't you trust the people who told you?"
Do you realize that the Resurrection of Christ is the most frequently remembered action in human history, and it is also the most frequently doubted? Think about that. This moment in time when God ripped through the fabric of space and re-created his son eclipses every moment in human history before or since. We don't tell any story from any other time with greater frequency, but you ask people, "Did it happen?" Or if someone asked you, "Did it happen?..." What would you say to them?
And it still comes back to trust. Jesus says to Thomas, "Do you believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not see, and yet have come to believe."
I've told you this story, but I'm going to tell it again. Last year Maggie was taking swimming lessons. And there she was standing on the diving board with a teacher holding her from behind, and a teacher immediately below her in the water. And the teacher in the water said, "Maggie! Jump! I'll catch you!" And you could see the wheels spinning in her head, as she calculated the probability that what the teacher had said was a lie.
And here we are in church. You are on the diving board, the Holy Spirit is behind you, and the whole company of heaven—the whole communion of saints—is in the baptismal water below. And they are shouting, "Don't worry, Church! Jump! Christ is risen!"
"Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe."
Please support the mission of Christ with your time, talent, and treasure.
Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel