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
Our reading is Peter’s announcement of God’s raising of Jesus from the dead and the quotation from Psalm 16 as a testimony of David to that resurrection. Since that psalm is itself the second reading, we will focus here on the context that Peter gives it in his speech.
First there is the reminder of who the man Jesus was. “Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you [the Jewish hearers] by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know—” (verse 22, NRSV). This is an opening to tell the stories of Jesus’ ministry with his disciples in Galilee, and then in Judah and Jerusalem. Peter claims that such things are familiar knowledge to Jews now attending festivals in Jerusalem.
This Jewish audience in Jerusalem is also held to know about—and even to have had responsibility for—Jesus’ death. “This man…you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law” (verse 23). This presupposes the story given in all our written Gospels of how Jewish authorities sought Jesus’ death and persuaded the Roman Governor Pilate to execute Jesus as a criminal.
However, the responsibility for this death—who caused it?—is significantly qualified. Whatever part in it humans may have had, this death took place “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” Things much vaster than the politics of Jewish social and religious elites or 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. The event that gave this ultimate significance is Peter’s next declaration.
“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). The “definite plan and foreknowledge of God” had to do with this triumph over death—conceived here almost as a great, awesome tyrant (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 the reading from Peter’s speech, but we may also listen to it as an Israelite liturgical composition.
The Hebrew of the opening verses of Psalm 16 is open to diverse readings. (The NRSV and the New Jerusalem Bible have very different renderings of the first four verses.) In general terms, the opening verses declare strong loyalty to Yahweh and refer negatively to 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 could be a landless servant of God’s court, like a Levite who belonged to the Lord and could not own land in Israel (see Deuteronomy 10:9, “Therefore Levi has no allotment or inheritance with his kindred; the Lord is his inheritance…”). Thus the “heritage” would be entirely metaphorical, signifying that one’s entire person belongs to God’s realm.
Extending the affirmation of good fortune received from the Lord, the speaker refers to contests or struggles—either actual combat or more likely competition among counselors. “I bless the Lord who gives me counsel, / in the night also my heart instructs me,” that is, the speaker is able to give successful counsel to a patron or ruler because God inspires one even when one is asleep. Therefore one is successful, one’s heart is glad, one’s soul [Hebrew reads “my glory”] rejoices, and one’s body is safe (verse 9).
Though the speaker exults in this state of blessedness, the possibility of sudden disaster is not overlooked. God is praised because “you do not give me up to Sheol, / or let your faithful one [hāsīd] see the Pit.” Sheol and the Pit definitely refer to death. The speaker has utter confidence that God will not let one fall a victim to the dangers of active life.
It is the possibility of this fall into hell and death that made this an Easter text for early Christians. It is Christ the Lord who says, “You did not give me up to Sheol.” That is, God the Father did not allow the power of Death to prevail over the Servant, but reversed the fate of all humans and raised the faithful one from the dead.
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 the apostolic testimony sustains their faith. “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).
Through this gift of the Spirit, the apostles are empowered 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.
The rest of our Gospel reading expands on the topic of the apostles as witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection. The role of “doubting Thomas” is to reinforce the special status of the apostles as such 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.