The response to the Easter message is Alleluia shouting, awe at the heavenly drama, and a new Presence that empowers mission and forgiveness.
Between Easter and Pentecost, the Lectionary takes the first reading each Sunday from the New Testament book of Acts rather than from the Hebrew scriptures – from the witness of the apostles instead of the witness of Moses and the prophets.
The Acts reading here presents the apostles, always led by Peter in this section of Acts, facing opposition from the highest Jewish authorities in Jerusalem, the same authorities who turned over Jesus to the Romans for crucifixion. Some of the apostles have already been warned not to teach in Jesus’ name. The message (and healing power) of Jesus tended to disturb the peace (Acts 3-4:22)!
In our reading, the apostles once again have done jail time and are being warned yet again not to use the name of Jesus in public in Jerusalem. The Jewish authorities are concerned that telling the story of Jesus keeps alive their responsibility for his death – “you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us” (verse 28, NRSV). Peter tells them, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” They take their stand as witnesses of the resurrection, in the face of the establishment.
In making his reply to the Jerusalem council, Peter repeats in short form the message that is causing the trouble. Jesus, whom you killed, was raised by the God of the ancestors and now sits at the right hand of God, exercising power as Leader and Savior on behalf of Israel, to whom he offers repentance and forgiveness of sins. The business of the witnessing apostles is to show the presence of this heavenly power by bringing joy and healing to the people.
The Psalm reading is the doxology that ends the scroll of the Psalms (except in many Eastern churches, which have Psalm 151 as a little confession by David the psalm-maker). The psalm is one unbroken sequence of Hallelujahs (translated “praise the Lord” or “praise him”). This is simply the intensified conclusion of a series of Hallelujah psalms that begins with Psalm 146. The last five psalms all begin and end with Hallelujah, in the traditional Hebrew text. The Greek translation of the Psalms used by the early Christians does not translate this praise shout, but gives it in its Hebrew form, “Alleluia.” This stands at the beginning of each of psalms 146 to 150, in the Greek translation. The Latin scriptures and liturgy took over this Greek form and gave us all the Alleluia choruses of Western church music.
Some Christian churches have a tradition of avoiding the praise-shout “Alleluia!” during Lent, so that it is not heard from Ash Wednesday until Easter. Then, it breaks forth with a riotous joy at the Easter news. This psalm reading is an insistent reclaiming of the joyfulness of praise after a forty-six day period of penitence and searching.
In this Year C of the Lectionary, the Epistle readings during Easter season are taken from the New Testament book of Revelation. This first reading for the season continues the spirit of the Psalm: it is mainly doxology. It is presented here, however, as the seer’s beginning of his letter to the seven churches. As the Easter season unfolds, glimpses and scenes of the vast visions of God’s completing the new creation are shown from the book of Revelation, but the opening is a revelation to the churches themselves of the heavenly glory of the risen Christ.
The benedictions proceed by triads. The first prayer asks for peace from God, “who is and who was and who is to come” (verse 4, NRSV). Note it is not “who is to be,” a more Greek ontological turn, but “who is to come,” the active perspective of salvation history. Peace is also asked from Jesus Christ, who is also characterized by a triad: “the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.” The faithful witness was performed in the earthly ministry of Jesus, the firstborn of the dead is the victory over death signaled by the resurrection, and the rule over the kings of the earth is the assurance of Jesus’ heavenly rule, later to become more dramatically evident in this book of visions.
The drama continues with an exclamation. Someone sees it: “Look! He is coming with the clouds; / every eye will see him, / even those who pierced him” (verse 7). And over the scene of the one coming on the clouds the voice of God is heard: “I am the Alpha and the Omega.” For what lies ahead for God’s people, no vision is too vast or comprehensive.
The Gospel reading for the 2nd Sunday in Easter is the same every year. It emphasizes the joy of the disciples in the presence of the risen Jesus, the physicality of Jesus in this temporary presence to his believers, the gift of the Holy Spirit through which forgiveness of sins becomes very specific in the communion of these believers, and, particularly in the Thomas episode, “the transition from sight to faith.”
The passage narrates the appearance of Jesus to the disciples as they are gathered furtively in a locked room. Jesus appears mysteriously among them, but his body is real. There is strong emphasis on the solid, physical aspect of Jesus’ resurrected body. (This John passage is a version of the appearance story in Luke 24:36-43, with the doubting Thomas episode added to it.) This emphasis on Jesus’ body seems to increase as the traditions of the resurrection appearances develop. In the early empty-tomb tradition, Jesus is not present at all; then he is only seen; but in this upper room tradition in Luke and John his body is touched and he eats and drinks.
In the first appearance to the disciples, Jesus commissions them for their work ahead. He “breathes” the Holy Spirit into them and solemnly pronounces, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (verse 22). The climax of this action, however, really has to do with the forgiveness of sins. “If you [who have received the Holy Spirit] forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (verse 23). This is an awesome authorization! It is an early stage in a long history of the Christian Church’s rituals of absolution. (The equivalent in the Gospel According to Matthew is in 16:18-19.)
Our passage includes the episode of doubting Thomas. Once the emphasis upon the physicality of the risen Jesus began, this Thomas episode was probably inevitable. What does it take to convince some people? “Unless I see” with my own eyes, etc., I will not believe. That the demand for physical seeing and touching has already missed the nature of religious faith has long been recognized. The seeing can always be further questioned, further explained. That is not what having faith is about, not the kind of faith that creates a spirit-empowered life and the forgiveness of sins.
William Temple summarizes this passage: “The Lord is calling His followers to enter on the transition ‘from sight to faith’ – from outward companionship to inward communion, from the discipleship which rests on a bodily Presence to one which is perfected in spiritual union.” ( Readings in St. John’s Gospel, p. 376 )