- Acts 5:27-32 & Psalm 118:14-29 (or Psalm 150)
- Rev 1:4-8
- John 20:19-31
During the great Fifty Days of Easter, the RCL will deviate from the usual lectionary architecture that begins with a reading from the Hebrew Bible, followed by a passage from one of the NT epistles and then a text from the liturgical gospel of the year (in this case, Luke). Instead we shall have all the Sunday readings drawn from early Christian sources:
- selections from the Acts of the Apostles for the first reading
- the second reading will come from the Revelation to John, also known as the Apocalypse of John
- the Gospel of John will provide the Gospel lections through this season
First Reading: Obedience to God comes first
The selection from Acts 5 depicts the apostles—led by Peter—proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus when they are brought before the Sanhedrin to explain their actions in continuing to preach and heal in the name of Jesus:
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)
This is part of a longer narrative in which the storyteller portrays the early Christian community as enjoying incredible success and winning the respect of everyone—even those who did not dare to join the new movement. Typical of Luke’s treatment, however, the Jewish authorities are portrayed in uncomplimentary ways. They are said to be directly responsible for the death of Jesus, the very one chosen and vindicated by God. Their incapacity to see ther significance of Jesus is compounded by their incompetence in keeping the apostles in detention over night.
Luke’s intention seems to have been to lampoon the opponents of Christianity as unworthy of the authority they exercised, and to boost the respectability of Christianity in the eyes of readers who enjoyed (or aspired to) Roman respectability.
In the process, Luke has created another occasion for Peter to articulate the Easter message—and unintentionally provided a liturgical text for Christians communities two millennia after his own time (and in locations Luke could not have imagined).
At the same time, and despite his desire to make Christianity more acceptable in the higher classes of Roman society, Luke has given voice to a core principle of the Christian community:
- We must obey God rather than any human authority.
That principle lies at the heart of civil disobedience as a strategy for prophetic actions against discrimination and oppression. It is often expressed as nonviolent resistance but in extreme situations, such as Deitrich Bonhoeffer faced during World War Two, it can also be udnerstood as permission to use violence against those who cause harm to others.
Second Reading: The coming One
The second reading is replete with echoes of themes from the Hebrew Scriptures, as well as numerous expressions of Christian devotion to Jesus as the one raised to heaven and soon to return as the divinely-authorised judge of the world:
John to the seven churches that are in Asia:
Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.
To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
Look! He is coming with the clouds;
every eye will see him, even those who pierced him;
and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.
So it is to be. Amen.
“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”
(Rev 1:4-8 NRSV)
The greeting grace and peace is a Christian variation of the common form of greeting used in ordinary letters at the time. We are most familiar with it from Paul’s letters, and its use here serves to give this Christian apocalypse something of the feel of a letter.
We have a kind of trinitarian formula, but it is not quite the classic form that came to dominate in Christian thinking:
- God – “the one who is and who was and who is to come”
- Spirit – “the seven spirits who are before his throne”
- Jesus – “Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the first born of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth”
The initial triple description of Jesus is interesting in its own right, as it rehearses different aspects of Jesus role:
- the faithful witness – the one who faithfully proclaims the message entrusted to him by God
- the firstborn of the dead – the risen One
- the ruler of the kings of the earth – a claim to universal dominion that relativizes all other human authorities
Following that triple description we have another triplet, this time a pastiche of biblical phrases:
- he is coming with the clouds – like the son of Man in Daniel 7:13
- every eye will see him, even those who pierced him – c.f. Zechariah 12:10-12
- on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail – the significance of Jesus extends far beyond the Jewish community
Finally there is the distinctive use of Alpha and Omega—a formula that is found only in the Apocalypse, where it occurs three times:
- “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty. (Rev 1:8)
- Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. (Rev 21:6)
- “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” (Rev 22:13 NRSV)
By citing the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, the phrase suggests an all-encompassing completeness about God, and Jesus. In subsequent Christian art, the Alpha/Omega becomes a symbol for Jesus, but here it seems to be used of God and also of Jesus.
For an extensive collection of Alpha-Omega images see the WikiMedia Commons.
Beyond Locked Doors
GJohn presents a distinctive account of Easter. Unlike Mark and Matthew, there is no immediate trip to Galilee for the first sightings of the risen Jesus. (How do the literalists rationalize the discrepancy between the angels’ clear instructions and the very different versions in Luke and John?) John has more in common with Luke, whose entire relocation of the Easter appearances from Galilee to Jerusalem may have been inspired by John’s compromise with the major appearances taking place in Jerusalem and a secondary set of appearances—relegated to an appendix—happening in Galilee.
The appearance tradition within the four NT Gospels can be mapped as follows:
|Women find an empty tomb and are told by an angel to pass on a message that the disciples are to meet with Jesus in Galilee.||Women find an empty tomb and are told by an angel to pass on a message that the disciples are to meet with Jesus in Galilee.||Mary Magdalene finds the tomb empty and reports it to Peter and the beloved disciple. The male disciples verify her report but receive no angelic messages nor any encounter with Jesus.||The women find an empty tomb but Luke’s two angels cannot pass on the instruction for the disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee, since that is not to happen in Luke-Acts. Instead, the angelic pair remind the women of what Jesus said to them while he was still in Galilee, and the women are left to share this reminder of the biblical texts that spoke of the Messiah’s sufferings and his resurrection “on the third day.”|
|The women leave in fright and say nothing to anyone.||The women meet Jesus on their way to tell the disciples. He repeats the instruction that the disciples meet him in Galilee.||Mary Magdalene meets Jesus in the garden and is given a message to share with the other disciples: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”||Luke tells the story of two disciples (not members of the Twelve, but the otherwise unknown Cleopas and his partner) who have a surprise encounter with Jesus while walking home to Emmaus, a village just a few miles from Jerusalem. As they travel their unrecognized companion upbraids them for not understanding the Scriptures that had predicted the suffering, death and resurrection of the Messiah. After agreeing to stay the night with them, the Stranger’s identity is revealed as he breaks the bread at the start of the meal — and then he vanishes.|
|There are no appearance narratives in Mark, but the suggestion is that they took place in Galilee.||The Eleven (No women! Not even Mary, the mother of Jesus, or Mary Magdalene?) go to a specified mountain in Galilee (a detail not previously given) and there Jesus appears to them (out of the sky?). The disciples worship him, despite some having doubts. Jesus then claims universal authority. He commissions them to share his message and make disciples from all nations, before assuring them of his continuing presence.||At evening that same day Jesus appears to the disciples in their secure meeting place. He commissions them for their work, and delegates his own authority to bind and to loose. Thomas is absent.||After the Emmaus couple have rushed back to Jerusalem to share their news with “the eleven and their companions,” Jesus himself appears in their midst. He relieves their alarm by eating a small portion of food, before giving them a master class on the correct interpretation of all that was written about him in the Scriptures. The disciples are commissioned as witnesses, and told to wait in Jerusalem until they are clothed with power from on high.|
|A week later (and with seemingly no appearances in the mean time) Jesus again appears to the disciples, this time including Thomas. There is no purpose for this second appearance other than to meet Thomas’ need for a direct experience of the risen Lord.||Jesus then leads them to Bethany on the far side of the Mount of Olives, from where he made his ascension into heaven.|
|In an appendix to the Gospel (ch 21), we have the story of an appearance by Jesus by the Sea of Tiberias in Galilee. After a fruitless night of fishing, the disciples are given a miraculous catch of fish by a Stranger on the beach. When they reach land, they find the Stranger is Jesus and he already has fish cooking on a fire for them.|
|Jesus then has a private conversation with Peter, in which Peter’s love for Jesus is affirmed and Peter is commissioned to feed the sheep.|
|Jesus refuses to entertain Peter’s questions about what will happen to the Beloved Disciple.|
It seems reasonable to conclude that the appearance traditions within the NT Gospels are in three distinctive streams:
- Mark/Matthew speak of Galilee as the place where the risen One was encountered, and as the birthplace of the continuing Jesus movement after Easter.
- John has the major events happening in Jerusalem, with appearances to Mary Magdalene, the Ten (plus others?) and to the Eleven (including Thomas, and perhaps others). The lakeside appearance is not part of the original design of the Gospel, but its inclusion in the appendix extends the distinctive Johannine focus on individuals as well as honoring the older tradition of appearances in the Galilee.
- Luke allows no appearances in the Galilee, and each of his scenes includes explicit reference to the theme of prophetic fulfillment. While there is a mention of an otherwise unreported appearance to Peter (Luke 24:34), Luke chooses to avoid any appearances to significant individuals. Jesus appears only to gatherings of disciples: the twosome heading home to Emmaus, and those gathered in the Jerusalem safe house.
The point of the appearances never seems to be to establish the resurrection of Jesus. Rather, in all three traditions the appearances serve as occasions for the disciples to be commissioned for their future roles within the Christian community. This is especially clear in John 20, where …
- The risen Lord tells the disciples that they are now being sent by him, just as he had been previously sent by the Father.
- Jesus gives them a special endowment of the Holy Spirit.
- The Eleven are given the power to bind or loose.
The central issue seems to be not “What happened to Jesus?” but rather “How are we to order our life together as the continuing community of Christ?”
- 018 Revealed to Disciples – vss. 19-21
- 479 The Promised Spirit – vss. 19-22
- 375 Binding and Loosing – vs. 23
- 386 Faith against Sight – vss. 24-29
- 364 These are Written – vss. 30-31
Liturgies and Prayers
For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site
Other recommended sites include:
- Alleluia (Richard Bruxvoort)
- By your kingly power – AHB 306
- I know that my redeemer lives – AHB 299
- The Lord is risen indeed – AHB300
- The strife is o’er – AHB287
See also David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.