Saturday Night Theologian
3 April 2005

Acts 2:14a, 22-32

Spring is the time of year when the lifelessness of winter months gives way to new life. Trees bud and sprout new leaves, flowers burst into bloom, and butterflies appear seemingly out of nowhere to add color to nature. Spring is a time of new hope. The disciples who had experienced Jesus' death at Passover appeared in the temple a few weeks later proclaiming that he had arisen. In response to Job's question, "If a man dies, can he live again?" their answer was a resounding "Yes!" What happened during the intervening fifty days between Easter and Pentecost, the time known as Eastertide, to change the disciples from a defeated, weary, wary group of peasants into a bold, outspoken, fearless band of evangelists? The gospels tell of visits to the empty tomb, the encouragement of angels, and tantalizingly few encounters with the risen Christ. Today's reading from Acts also alludes to another activity in which the disciples engaged: the study of scripture. To judge from Peter's sermon as recorded in Acts 2, the disciples seem to have devoured the scripture, reading it from a new perspective, the perspective of resurrection. Even if Luke followed the common practice of contemporary historians of composing the speeches that he puts in the mouths of his leading characters as he charts their history, it is clear that the early preaching of the disciples included a radical new understanding of the message of the Bible. Like their contemporaries whose words are recorded in some of the sectarian documents found at Qumran, Jesus' followers understood the scripture to be speaking specifically to them, with a message so profound and revolutionary that they had to speak it boldly to their contemporaries. Something quite astonishing had happened: a re-reading of the sacred texts revealed that God had it planned from the beginning. The greatest triumph of all time, Jesus' victory over death through his resurrection, was there in the pages of scripture for all to understand who had eyes to see or ears to hear. For, as Peter proclaims, "It was impossible for him to be held in its power." Today we need a fresh reminder of the power of God that can transform lives and bring hope. The world too often sees Christians bickering with one another or fighting with their adversaries in word or in deed. "Where is the redeeming power of Christ?" they ask. They see Christians afraid of death, and they wonder, "Where is the power of the resurrection?" They see Christians acting in a way that is indistinguishable from their neighbors, spewing hatred, violence, and contempt from their mouths and promoting violence and injustice both locally and globally. "Where is the transforming power of Christ?" they ask. Where it should be, says Peter, is in us. "This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses." May our lives demonstrate the reality of that conviction.

Psalm 16

As I write these words on Friday evening, Pope John Paul II lies in his Vatican apartment, his life gradually ebbing away as he approaches death. People are holding vigils in St. Peter's Square, in his native Krakow, and in cities around the world. Official Vatican announcements have switched from cautious optimism about the pope's probable recovery to a concession that he is in his final hours on earth. During the day today he asked that the Stations of the Cross be recited for him, and he also asked those around him to read the scriptures. I don't know what specific passages he asked to have read to him, but Psalm 16 would have been a good choice. "Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge." This is the prayer of an individual who knows what it means to follow God and who is ready to face whatever lies in store for him. Some people reach the end of life gradually, like the pope, and are prepared for it, having lived their lives in service to God, so they greet death without fear. Others, like the present pope's immediate predecessor, John Paul I, meet their end suddenly, without time for preparation, yet because of their faithfulness to God over the years, they, too, have nothing to fear. For some, death comes suddenly in the prime of life. For others, death creeps up slowly but surely. Not everyone who faces death faces it prepared to meet God. Probably most of us, if given the chance, would gladly extend our lives a little longer if we could in order to prepare ourselves further, or in order to perform this or that piece of unfinished business, but life isn't like that. Because death sometimes comes upon us unawares, we must be in a constant state of readiness. That doesn't mean that we should fear death, or even expect it at any time, but we should live our lives in such a way that death, whenever it comes, will find us about God's work. We should live our lives so that we can say, with the psalmist, "You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore."

1 Peter 1:3-9

Karl Marx said that religion was the opiate of the people, and he had a point. All too often religion has been used by those in positions of power to manipulate the poor and weak into focusing on the rewards of the afterlife, so that the powerful can continue to enjoy the rewards of the present life. Having said that, however, the comforting power of religion to those who are suffering is real and wonderful, something that Marx never understood. The author addresses Christians in Asia Minor who are undergoing a time of persecution, perhaps a decade or two before the one that claimed the life of Ignatius, bishop of Antioch. Although there is no evidence from the letter that any Christians in the area had yet suffered martyrdom, previous persecutions in Rome and elsewhere made it a possibility not to be discounted. Even if the present persecution was not one that would lead to death for many, if any, of the letter's recipients, their suffering, whether physical or psychological, was real nonetheless. Where can people turn when their lives are disrupted by forces too powerful to overcome, at least in the short term? When resistance is futile, how can people respond? One possible response is despair and surrender. Another is anger and resistance. Yet another is acceptance and faith in the future. It is this last attitude that the author stresses in his letter. He speaks of the inheritance that is reserved for believers in heaven and a salvation ready to be revealed in the last days. In light of this assurance, he urges his readers to rejoice, "even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials." The promises of God, including "the salvation of your souls," are indeed a comfort to people who are suffering, and their power to sustain lives and provide joy must not be underestimated. When we face trials in our own lives, it is good to remind ourselves that our true inheritance is not in this world but lies in the next. At the same time, we should continue to work toward a world that approximates God's reign, one that is just and peaceful and free. The Christian religion is powerful enough to supply both an inspirational vision of the afterlife and a realistic program for the present life.

John 20:19-31

The Gospel of Thomas is an early, non-canonical gospel purportedly written by the apostle Thomas, the Twin. Unlike our canonical gospels, the Gospel of Thomas contains no narrative structure. It consists entirely of a series of sayings of Jesus, sometimes encased in a brief dialogical framework with occasional, incidental narrative elements. Many of the sayings are the same as or similar to those found in the canonical gospels. Others are unattested in our gospels, though in essence they are similar. Still others are esoteric, speaking of a secret knowledge that has been transmitted via Thomas rather than through any of the other followers of Jesus. Although the association of this work with the apostle Thomas is highly doubtful, it was common practice to associate later works with earlier heroes of the faith, like the apostles. Heroes of the faith? Why, then, choose Thomas of all people? It turns out that Thomas' name was frequently invoked by early Christians (including Gnostic Christians) in such writings as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the Book of Thomas the Contender, the Book of Thomas, the Acts of Thomas, and the Apocalypse of Thomas. It is unclear why early Christians, especially those influenced by the "secret teachings" of Gnosticism, fixated on Thomas as pseudonymous author more than on most other apostles, but I can think of three possible reasons. First, they may have been attracted to Thomas because of his appellation "The Twin" in the Gospel of John (whose twin? Jesus'?) Surely someone who had a special, possibly family, connection with Jesus would have great insight! Second, they may have been attracted to Thomas' statement regarding the divinity of Christ ("my Lord and my God!"), the statement with the most elevated Christology in the New Testament. Surely the one disciple who recognized the inner divinity of Christ most clearly was full of other insights! Third, they may have been impressed with Thomas' stubborn refusal to believe in the absence of hard evidence. Surely a person as skeptical as Thomas, once he has become convinced by the evidence, can be trusted! Whatever the precise reason for Thomas' relative celebrity in the early centuries of Christianity (he was also associated with taking the gospel to India), modern Christians can appreciate his example and learn from it. First, whatever the precise meaning of the nickname "The Twin," it is evident that Thomas enjoyed a close relationship with Jesus prior to his crucifixion, and we can understand his skepticism regarding the extravagant claims of the other disciples. Second, Thomas gave explicit voice to the predominant underlying theme of the Gospel of John, namely, that in Jesus the glory of God was manifest in a real and unique way. Third, that Thomas doubted was not the end of the story, for in the end Thomas expressed a profound faith in the risen Lord. Confidant, visionary, doubter, believer, may we all be more like Thomas!

For other discussions of this passage, click here, or here, or here.