Revised Common Lectionary Readings: Acts 2:14a, 22-32, Psalm 16:1-11, I Peter 1:5-9, John 20:19-31
I offer three possible starting points for a conversation about this week’s lectionary readings. You can add your own, starting from an entirely different point.
Starting point number one: Kerygma. It’s the Greek word for “preaching.” It “has come to mean the core of the early church’s” telling of the story of Jesus. The leaders of the early church developed a summary of that story that was usually the beginning point of their sermons. “The term kerygma has come to denote the irreducible essence of Christian apostolic preaching.” I’m not going to try to set that summary in stone. It’s there in the sermon Peter preached after the astounding event experienced by those gathered for Pentecost. Those present wanted to know how and why this was happening?
The portion we are given features Peter standing up, preaching a sermon of explanation. He begins with that summary: “Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know---this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.” (vss. 22-24)
How would you summarize what you believe about Jesus? What part of Jesus’ story touches your life, is a source of power and meaning for you?
As the years passed, the church tried to capture the essence of that story in creeds. Two have become dominant in those churches which test belief according to adherence to set statements of belief---The Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. They lead us into a second point that might come under discussion when considering this week’s readings.
Here’s the “kerygma” presented in each. (Note in neither case is the entire creed cited.)
The Apostle’s Creed: I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell; the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead
The Nicene Creed: And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made. Who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and which into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
You can see a variety of differences. The one that is especially relevant in this week’s readings is the phrase, “He descended into hell,” included in The Apostles’ Creed. The writer of Acts (probably Luke) harks back to Psalm 16 where David rejoices in the fact that God did not give him up to Sheol, “or let your faithful one see the pit.” (Psalm 16:9-10---See Acts 2:27) Over the years David’s declaration has come to be seen by some as a prophecy about Jesus. Jesus, they say, went to hell before his resurrection appearances on earth, in order to save the faithful who had died before this new path to heaven was opened. Go where you want with that. I don’t want to insult anyone by saying it’s not worth discussing.
To the extent that I’m a creedal person, I’m a follower of the Nicene Creed. At the same time, I do remember a rash declaration I made while a seminary student. We were debating the reality of hell and who goes there or doesn’t. I said that if I followed the example of Jesus (who left heaven to dwell among us humans), compassion would require me to join those in hell, continuing to reach out to them in love.
It all sounds a bit like counting the number of angels on the head of a pin, doesn’t it? All Peter seems really to be saying is that David died. We have “his tomb with us to this day.” (Acts 2:29) In contrast Jesus “was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh experience corruption.” “This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.” (vss. 31-32)
Whatever else we’re talking about here, we’re talking about the power of life over death, of heaven over hell. Discuss hell as much as you want---and all the nuances of different words and different meanings. There is no fear of hell in these readings. What is it that you fear? Where do you find the power of life, the power to face what you fear? What does the power of resurrection mean to you?
The other two readings can engage us in a discussion of what it takes to elicit belief. First, I want to say that Thomas has gotten a bum rap. In the reading from The Gospel According to John, Jesus appears in the midst of the disciples who had met behind locked doors “for fear of the Jews.” (John 20:19) Note that he says to them, “Peace be with you” (vss. 19, 20, & 26). He breathes on them and tells them to “receive the Holy Spirit.” (vs. 22) What is relevant to Thomas is that Jesus “showed them his hands and his side.” (vs. 20) Thomas wasn’t there. When he is present a week later, he simply asks for the same privilege the rest had been given earlier. If Thomas had a failing, it is that he didn’t trust their word. He had to see if for himself.
Still, aren’t we a lot like that at times. Most of us (all?) are doubters at one time or another. We want proof.
Jesus gives Thomas what he asks for, but eventually says to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (vs. 29) In a similar manner, the epistle reading from I Peter, reminds the readers of “a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,” and of “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.” (I Peter 1:3-4) The readers are then told, “Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy . . .” (vs. 8)
It all set me to thinking about how we come to believe what we believe, how we “know” what we know. My line of thinking led me to make a distinction between “head” knowledge and life experience. Then I got to thinking about how I know about the earliest years of my life or all the realities of the lives of my father or mother. In all those instances there are things which I know because I was there and remember them. They were part of my experience. Other things I remember come from stories my parents and others have told me. Sometimes it’s not easy to separate the two.
That insight has something to do with our understanding and experience of Jesus’ resurrection. The truth of that event may come to us in a moment of mystical epiphany, but it also comes through the stories we have been told over the years. The story of Thomas ends by telling us the reason for the sharing of the stories contained in John’s Gospel. “ . . . these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” (vs. 31)
So---in all of our discussions about the resurrection let us not forget the central message of that event---that we “may have life in his name.” Today, I also choose to take the final verses of that Psalm (and the end of this blog entry) as a statement about the power of resurrection. “You show me the path of life. In your presence is fullness of joy . . .” (Psalm 16:11)