04/16/23 – The Most Powerful Witness

THE MOST POWERFUL WITNESS

April 16, 2023
2nd Sunday after Easter
Acts 2: 14a, 22-32; Ps. 16; 1 Pet. 1: 3-9; John 20: 19-31
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

Every year, on the Sunday after Easter, we read John’s gospel account of the risen Christ’s second locked room appearance to his disciples. But it isn’t as well-known as some other passages, since the second Sunday of Easter is known as “Low Sunday when the twice-a-year church attenders are not in the pews; and even the more regular attendees seem to feel they need a week off after all the hoopla of Easter. In John’s gospel, it appears Jesus came back just to show Thomas, who hadn’t believed the other disciples’ testimony, that he had risen from the dead. Hereafter, Thomas has been saddled with the moniker, “Doubting Thomas.” He went from one nickname to another, from Thomas the Twin to “Doubting Thomas.” We never hear anything about Thomas’ twin in the New Testament. It has been suggested that Thomas’ Twin is actually us. What Christians can honestly say they have never doubted? We certainly doubt the divine wisdom of Jesus’ words when we ignore or don’t follow them, don’t we? Our scripture readings for today highlight the power of witness for bringing the Good News of the gospel, Jesus’ own witness to the kingdom of God.

The gospel of John gives us more appearances of the Risen Christ than any of the other three gospels. Today we read about the second and third appearances, both of which occur behind the locked doors of a house. The disciples had isolated themselves out of fear. The text says they were hiding for fear of the Jews. We know these disciples and most of Jesus’ followers at the time were Jews themselves, so their fear was not of all Jews, but the particular Jewish religious leaders, who had played a role in Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion.

According to John, the first to encounter the Risen Christ was Mary Magdalene who met Jesus outside the empty tomb. Jesus then appeared to his disciples three times, twice behind the locked door of the upper room and a final time to a group of disciples, with whom he breaks bread and shares a fish breakfast on the lakeshore. It seems to me that John’s most important point in the post-resurrection accounts is that Jesus comes to meet us at the point of our need by means that we are most likely to recognize; and keeps on trying until we get it or we give up trying to find him.

In John’s gospel, Thomas is the last living disciple of the original twelve to see the risen Christ.  But he who was last was the first to deliver the most powerful line in the whole New Testament. After Jesus offers to let Thomas touch the wounds on his hands and side, he says to Jesus: My Lord and my God!” Jesus came back to give that first generation of witnesses the boldness of belief that would build the Church. As our readings from Acts and 1 Peter attest, after the Resurrection it would be the Church that would gather its witnesses and be his body in the world.

Today and for the next few weeks, our first reading will not be from the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, but from the book of Acts. The full title, the Acts of the Apostles, the sequel to Luke’s gospel, tells the story of the Church’s beginning. It has been suggested that Acts should really be called “The Acts of the Holy Spirit,” because it chronicles the effect of the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost on the people who witnessed the event. It is filled with sermons and speeches, all giving testimony to Christ. There are as many sermons and speeches in Acts as it has chapters, 28 to be exact. Our reading for today is the first sermon and it is delivered by Peter, who himself witnessed Jesus’ ministry and post-resurrection appearance.

It’s no short of miraculous that 10 days after Jesus’ disciples deserted him, Peter, who denied Christ three times on the day of his crucifixion, preached a powerful sermon attesting to the authenticity of Jesus as the resurrected Messiah. The remaining eleven disciples, who also deserted Jesus at his crucifixion, stood at the podium with him. The event that changed the world began with the first witnesses of the Risen Christ.

Peter’s first sermon was a testimonial, but we skip over his very abridged version of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Perhaps the folks who assigned the readings for this Sunday figured we had heard the story so many times during Holy Week that we didn’t need to hear Peter’s little synopsis. What we have is Peter’s reference to Psalm 16 which is attributed to King David, Jesus’ ancestor.

“For David says concerning him, ‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he
is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken; 26therefore my heart was
glad, and my tongue rejoiced; moreover my flesh will live in hope. 27For
you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience
corruption.” (Acts 2:25-27)

With these verses, Peter claims David prophesied Jesus’ resurrection and God’s gift of resurrection into eternal life for all.  However, Peter’s interpretation doesn’t quite fit the text of Psalm 16. The psalmist writes about a life blessed with good fortune, in which God was always with him and his enemies always failed to do him harm. Though there is no question that God was always with Jesus, his life was not the bed of roses the psalmist describes. Jesus experienced many trials and tribulations. His enemies were always around to confront, question and ridicule him. Ultimately, his enemies crucified him, and all his disciples abandoned him to his suffering and death.

Perhaps Peter’s homiletic interpretation can be supported by the Scriptures overarching testimony that what God intends for us is what the psalmist experienced; and never intended we should experience the kind of suffering and deaths we see all too often in the world. God never intended for children to starve in a world rich with resources to feed them, to be gunned down in their school rooms, or to be exploited for slave labor or sexual gratification. The psalmist describes a good life that God intends for all God’s children, of any age, which is to be in loving and nurturing relationships with one another. Jesus did indeed serve as humanity’s witness to God’s intention to ‘love God with all our hearts, souls and minds and to love one another as we love ourselves.” (Mark 12:29-31) His witness to our loving and saving God is what Peter describes as our “inheritance.” Peter’s first sermon was the dream of all preachers. When it was over, 3,000 people followed his directive and were baptized.

In another address to the early church, a letter attributed to Peter acknowledged that the struggles of the early Christians tested their faith. He likened their faith to something even more precious than gold, which is tested by fire. Like Isaiah’s refining fire, troubling times can polish us, burning away what is not valuable to God and leaving the priceless treasure of a life lived with God. Peter reminded his audience that Christ’s Resurrection was the reason for their faith that God’s kingdom will always prevail over whatever worldly evil causes our suffering.

As “inheritors” of the Resurrection we are now the witnesses to the world, in our own communities, of the saving power of Christ’s sacrificial love. Jesus comes to us as he came to our twin Thomas. He comes where we are, in our fear, grief, and loss of hope, and reveals the new life that is ours for the taking. No, that new life doesn’t let us stay safe and comfortable from the challenges of the world still outside of God’s kingdom. He appeared to those first disciples as he comes to us – to equip us for the journey through this life into the next. Jesus meets us to demonstrate that God’s promises can be trusted – God keeps a covenant with us, even when we fail to keep a covenant with God. Jesus spoke no words of judgment to the disciples, he spoke to them in words of relationship: “peace, receive, forgive, go to, bless.”  That is what the church, the body of Christ, has been commissioned to do – not to establish rules of admission into God’s kingdom, but to create, sustain, and nurture relationships with God and relationships with one another. The work of sustaining and nurturing one another requires a love that is expressed in forgiveness, compassion, truth-telling, and justice.

Jesus was always bringing people into relationships – especially those that were the least welcome in society – the sick, the poor, and those deemed as outsiders.  He even welcomed sinners. Sinners, now there’s a label that doesn’t leave anyone out. Jesus is the ultimate witness of God’s love for all. While we are busy putting people into boxes with labels that make them enemies, even less than human, Jesus declared we all have the same label – God’s beloved children.

 

Amen. May it be so!

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2023, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church | 1420 W. Moss Ave. | Peoria, Illinois 61606
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