Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Preacher’s Study – Easter 3B

The Preacher’s Study

Third Sunday of Easter, Year B

John W.B. Hill

Acts 3:12-19; 
Psalm 4; 
1 John 3:1-7;
Luke 24:36b-48.

What an excellent word for new disciples this Sunday’s second reading provides: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God...Beloved, we are God’s children now...” 

‘But were we not always God’s children?’ we might ask.  Yes, certainly, as creatures of the world God made, but not as bearers of the divine character and image.  How could we be God’s ‘children’ in that sense if we “did not know him”?  Now, however, we are a new creation, living in the hope of one day being like him in his resurrected being, when we “see him as he is”.  That is why children of God (disciples of the Lord) purify themselves, for they live in this hope.  (An excellent word for old disciples, too.)

Then follow some stark words about this new creation: “No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him.”  How shall we reconcile this with the author’s earlier teaching (which we heard last Sunday): “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9)?

The clue is provided in the stark truth that now “the world does not know us” because “it did not know him.”  Yet how anxious we are to be known, understood, and affirmed by “the world”, and to fit in with the norms of our culture.  Can we be content instead with being understood and affirmed by “the Father”?  If Jesus himself was ridiculed and rejected, are we willing to endure some of the same ourselves for the sake of our loyalty to him?  When he appears, will we indeed recognize in him our true selves?  We must not misunderstand last Sunday’s assurance of forgiveness, thinking of it as grounds for acquiescing in an endless cycle of yielding to sin and receiving forgiveness.  We are ‘children of God’: yielding to sin is a denial of this truth.

But thanks be to God, we have been given this prolonged season of Easter as the time we need get past our initial astonishment and disbelief.  Last Sunday we heard John’s account of Jesus’ appearance to his disciples, risen from the dead; this Sunday we hear Luke’s version — similar in so many ways!  For we need to hear it again so that it can really sink in.  Again we hear Jesus’ words: “Peace be with you.”  Again we are invited to behold the marks of his Passion.  Again he charges us to continue his mission.

However, there are two elements of this story that are unique to Luke’s version.  The first is Luke’s distinctive recognition of the essential role of scripture — “the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms” — for recognizing what God has been doing in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus.  It is as the unanticipated fulfilment of these scriptures that Jesus has been given to the world.  Unhinged from that, the story of Jesus can mean just about anything we want it to mean!

The second unique element in Luke’s version of this story is his characterization of disciples as witnesses.  When Jesus forewarned his disciples about how they would be arrested and brought before the judicial authorities, he added, “This will give you an opportunity to testify!” (Luke 21:13).  And in this Sunday’s first reading, we heard Peter saying, “you...asked to have a murderer given to you and you killed the author of life, whom God raised from the dead.  To this we are witnesses.”  Luke describes the role of disciples as witnessing or testifying at least seventeen times. 

It is worth remembering, therefore, that there is no account of the risen Christ appearing to anyone except to disciples (or disciples-to-be).  If they had failed to bear witness, we would never have heard of Jesus of Nazareth!  Disciples are the living evidence of the power and wisdom of the gospel.  The job of any witness is to share what you know (through your own experience, not by hearsay).  A witness in a courtroom does this and nothing more.  It is for the hearers to make of it what they will.

And anyone hearing this witness for the first time is likely to react with astonishment and disbelief, as did the good people in Solomon’s Portico of the Temple (Acts 3), because they “did not know him”.  Even his disciples didn’t truly know him (either before or after his Passion!) until he showed them his wounds, and “opened their minds to understand the scriptures” (Luke 24:45). 

Why such difficulty in believing?  Because we only understand things that we can fit into the plausibility structures we use to make sense of anything.  As Lesslie Newbigin pointed out, “the story of the empty tomb cannot be fitted into our contemporary worldview, or indeed into any worldview except one of which it is the starting point.”[1]

So our initial astonishment and disbelief when meeting the risen Christ is only to be expected, for he is reconstructing our worldview into one that takes his empty tomb as its starting point.  That is what this Easter season is for.

John W. B. Hill is an Anglican presbyter living in Toronto, Canada. He is a Council member of APLM, chair of Liturgy Canada, and author of one of the first Anglican sources for catechumenal practice.

“We Are One in Jesus the Lord,” by Soichi Watanabe.

“Jesus Appears to the Disciples After the Resurrection” (2009), by Imre Morocz.

[1]The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, page 11.

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