On the first Sunday after Easter (which sometimes goes by the shorthand “Easter 2”) the Revised Common Lectionary uses the same passage from the Gospel of John in all three years. Obviously, somebody thought the story of Thomas (Mr. Doubt himself) bears repeating. And it does, of course. I’ve written about Thomas before in this blog, and each time I come to a greater appreciation of his “faith seeking understanding.”
This year on Easter 2, let’s give Thomas a break and check out another of the suggested lectionary scriptures: Acts 5:27-32. The stage needs to be set a bit first, because the lectionary passage jumps right into the middle of the story.
The apostles had been attracting quite a bit of attention preaching about Jesus and healing all kinds of people. That didn’t set well with the religious authorities. I suppose that’s somewhat understandable, considering that Jesus had been put to death by the Romans as a threat to Caesar, which the Romans wanted everybody to believe was the only authority figure in town–or, for that matter, in the entire empire. I’d assume the temple leaders would just as soon not want it pointed out that the followers of this dangerous revolutionary Jesus were telling everybody their God had usurped Caesar’s power and raised him from the dead. And so the apostles were thrown in jail.
But by the power of the Holy Spirit they were soon sprung from jail and were back in a very public place preaching about Jesus again. So they were once more rounded up and brought before the high priest. This is where the lectionary picks up:
When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, saying, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.” –Acts 5:27-32 NRSV
Judging by this interchange, it would appear that the apostles were not preaching about a “meek and mild” Jesus who loves everybody and promises a place in heaven if you’ll just accept him as your personal savior. In fact, you can search throughout the entire book of Acts and not find anything at all about Jesus’ love.
Look again at the passage from Acts and you find Peter and the other apostles witnessing of the “God of our ancestors [who] raised up Jesus…. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior [two terms, by the way reserved exclusively for Caesar] that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.”
Certainly that short statement offended the high priest, who it was believed was the only one in Judea with the authority to represent the religious nation by entering the Temple’s Holy of Holies to seek atonement for the nation’s sins. And, yes, there was that bold acknowledgement that Jesus’ power was greater than Caesar’s. Quite the “two-fer.”
This little narrative causes me to wonder why we Christians today don’t witness of Jesus in a similar manner. How often do we hold up our belief in the power of God’s Christ as something greater than all the principalities and powers and nations and corporations in our 21st-century world? At the same time we don’t generally spend much time talking about repentance and sin and turning away from the “ways of the world” to follow a higher authority.
A now-deceased friend of mine spent most of his adult life as a full-time missionary for our denomination. More than a few times after a worship service in our congregation he would somewhat slyly (or at least it seemed to me) ask me what our worship time had to do with missionary work. In my mind I often thought, “Once a seventy, always a seventy” and returned his query with a smile. On those few occasions when I wanted to engage in a little back-and-forth, I’d propose that there are other purposes for worship than to lead folks into the baptismal font.
Eventually we came to an unspoken agreement that neither of us was going to change the other. Yet those conversations have had an effect on me, for I frequently find myself asking a related question whenever I’m involved in “church work”: What does all this have to do with Jesus Christ?
Now that all the hoopla has quieted down after our big Easter worship celebrations, that may well be a pretty good question to ask on Easter 2. And every other day after that, too.
A personal note: This past week numerous full-time staff employees and ministers of my denomination were released from employment (that’s the nicest way I could put it). Seven years ago this summer, the same thing happened to me. I don’t want to go into all the details and reasons why it occurred today or back then. But I know it’s painful for lots of folks. It’s a hard time. There’s no getting around it. But this I do believe with all my heart: God’s not punishing anybody; God doesn’t work that way. Stuff happens. We may not like it, but we deal with it. We move on. There’s no simple blueprint, no easy path. that’s true for those whose jobs have ended, for those who remain who may have to do more, and for all of us who depend on a denominational structure for resources and services. Christ’s peace be with you.