Acts 2:14a, 22-32; Psalm 16; I Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31.
The apostles, witnesses of the resurrection, open the scriptures and offer forgiveness.
In the Easter season, the first reading in the Lectionary each Sunday is from the witness of the Apostles to the risen Lord instead of from the prophecies of the Messiah by the Prophets. It is the one time in the Church year when readings are taken from the Acts of the Apostles. Even so, Peter’s speech to his Jewish audience at Pentecost includes long quotations from the Jewish scriptures, which are interpreted as prophecies of Jesus’ resurrection, his exaltation to heavenly power, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit creating the body of Jesus’ followers.
Acts 2:14a, 22-32.
We hear the message of Pentecost, even though that event itself will come at a later date.
First, Peter’s Jewish audience in Jerusalem is reminded of the man Jesus. “Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know –” (verse 22, NRSV). They know about Jesus and his doings. They also know about his death – because they shared responsibility for it! “This man…you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law” (verse 23).
However, whatever humans may have had to do with it, Jesus’ death took place “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (verse 23, NRSV). Things much vaster than the politics of Jewish social and religious elites, or than Roman anxiety about provincial disturbances, were involved. Something of multi-national and trans-cultural magnitude was coming about here, and that would override small-scale human concerns. Such human things are overshadowed by the event to which the disciples are witnesses.
“But God raised up [Jesus of Nazareth], having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power” (verse 24). That “definite plan” of God had to do with this triumph over death. Therefore, what looked like a dastardly human plot when viewed only in terms of worldly motives and deeds is seen as the working out of God’s plan for salvation, starting with Jesus’ triumph over death.
The clinching argument that this was a transcendent act of God comes from its prophecy in scripture. Psalm 16 – read as the Anointed One speaking to God – says, “For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption” (verse 27). David, who originally chanted these words, was an ordinary man, who died and whose near-by tomb was well-known. The words were a prophecy, which can be fully recognized now, now that their true reference has appeared in Jesus’ resurrection.
Thus, the death of Jesus is not important now as a crime, but as a wonderfully saving act of God. That is Peter’s good news to his Jewish audience.
The Psalm reading is integral to Peter’s speech, but we may also listen to it as an Israelite liturgical composition.
The opening lines of this psalm are pretty uncertain, as different translations show. However, in general they seem to exalt loyalty to the Lord and condemn those who follow other gods.
At verse 5 the metaphor of inherited property is introduced, and the speaker affirms that Yahweh is one’s “heritage” – one’s chosen portion, one’s cup, the “pleasant places” enclosed within one’s boundaries. Actually, the speaker may not be a land owner at all, but rather a landless servant of God’s court, like a Levite who belonged to the Lord and could not own land in Israel. Thus the “heritage” would be entirely metaphorical, even though the security it provides is very sure (verses 6-8).
The speaker’s sense of safety encompasses the entire person: “My heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure” (verse 9). The speaker’s welfare includes the body. This is the part of the psalm in which the early Christians heard Jesus speaking to his Father, referring to Jesus’ triumph over death:
For you did not give me up to Sheol,
or let your faithful one see the Pit. (Verse 10, NRSV.)
The Israelite psalmist may have had in mind narrow escapes from the hazards of active life, but the disciples heard a far more profound declaration, which was good news for all of God’s “faithful ones”!
I Peter 1:3-9.
The voice of Peter speaks again in the Epistle reading. (First Peter is the source of all the Epistle readings in Easter season this year.)
The letter of First Peter, after its salutation, opens with a blessing that repeats two of the themes of the Acts and Psalm readings. The resurrection: God is blessed for giving us “a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” And this hope is “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (verses 3-4, NRSV).
The letter addresses its hearers as “exiles of the Diaspora,” applying terminology of scattered Israel to people who were probably non-Jewish Christians, learning the Jewish scriptures and the Christian traditions as the movement spread through the Roman provinces of northwestern Asia Minor (listed in 1:1). The believers are encouraged to endure persecutions that come on them because they are Christians, and to maintain responsible moral conduct. The framework of their hope is the coming revelation of Jesus Christ (verse 7).
They may be second generation Christians but they still share fully in the revelation! “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 and glorious joy” (verse 8).
The Gospel reading takes us to the evening of the first Easter day, as reported in the Gospel According to John. This is the appearance of the risen Jesus to commission and empower the disciples to continue his work. They are gathered fearfully in a locked room when Jesus materializes before them. Jesus’ first words each time he appears are, “Peace be with you.”
The disciples have two tasks. The first is to be witnesses to the resurrection, and for this Jesus shows them his pierced hands and side. They rejoice in seeing that this is really their risen Lord. Then, after another peace blessing, Jesus makes them “apostles,” ones who are “sent” on behalf of another. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” and he breathes on them the gift of the Holy Spirit (verses 21-22, NRSV).
The second task of the disciples is to bring to others the most powerful and precious gift of the Spirit, the forgiveness of sins. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (verse 23.)
This pronouncement envisages an awesome authority exercised within the emerging Christian church by those recognized as apostles. This is probably the tradition of the churches around Ephesus, the capital of the Roman province of Asia. The same authority is exercised in the name of Peter in the Gospel according to Matthew (16:18), which is probably the tradition of the churches of the province of Syria with its capital at Antioch. The great liberation the apostles bring to the nations is the forgiveness of sins, made effective through the resurrection and the power of the Holy Spirit.
Our reading also expands on those who will believe after the time of the apostles.
The role of “doubting Thomas” is to reinforce the special status of the apostles as witnesses. Disciples must SEE the risen Lord – and touch him. That makes them apostles. Thomas insists upon this seeing and touching. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (verse 25).
The apostles have done this seeing and touching on behalf of all the later followers, on behalf of all those who doubt such a resurrection when they first hear of it. The apostles have seen and touched on our behalf. Thus, the real punch line of the Thomas episode is, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (verse 29).
These later folks come to believe because they have the testimony of the apostles.