These Easter readings line out the new life lived by the community of Jesus. They show, on the one hand, that Easter life is dangerous and demanding. Stephen, as the church's first martyr, is an embodiment of the risk of Easter faith. His witness collided with the powers of "the old age" that wanted no new life to be announced or enacted in their world. On the other hand, Easter living is an existence of joy and well-being that culminates in praise and thanks.
These texts constitute ancient testimony. They are, however, as contemporary as today. Practicing Easter life continues to be risky because it contradicts the deathly commitments of our world -- one devoured by greed, anxiety, and violence. A practice of Easter life continues also to be one of joy, as attested to by contemporary witnesses who are freed of ancient fears and live by Jesus' command that we "love one another."
Walter Brueggemann, a Sojourners contributing editor, is professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia.
The story of Jesus' resurrection is, as the Brits say, a "one off." It has happened only once. It shatters all of our explanatory categories and leaves us in awe. It is for this reason that the earliest church had to tell the story in many variant forms, because none of the stories seemed fully adequate. Certainly the story in John's gospel about the resurrected Jesus penetrating locked doors does not seem adequate for our theme. It turned out that the risen Jesus -- who twice said “peace” to his disciples (verses 19, 21) -- eventually said "peace" even to Thomas, who is the voice of our own doubt.
We are offered two concrete evidences about the new life in Christ that constitutes the Easter claim. First we are given "the book," the written testimony of scripture "so that you may come to believe" (John 20: 31). These writings exhibit "the way of life" that is a path of joyous obedience (Acts 2:28; Psalm 16:11). The second concrete evidence of the resurrection is the body of the church that lives in Easter response. It is this people that is given "a new birth" (1 Peter 1:3); is ready to suffer in the world for its obedience to Jesus (verse 6); and who come, in daily practice, to a sense of well-being that culminates in joy (verse 8), "salvation" (verse 9), and an inheritance that is "imperishable" (verse 4).
[ May 8 ]
A Buoyant Faith
Acts 2:14a, 36-41; Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19; 1 Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35
Peter’s Easter proclamation takes an honest, dim view of life in the world. In his sermon Peter speaks of "this corrupt generation" (Acts 2:40) and writes of "the futile ways" of the world (1 Peter 1:18). There are many ways to characterize that futility. One is that it is a world devoured by anxiety because of war, terror, economic failure, and moral confusion, all of which comes to the question of control. Another is that it's a world of despair that has nothing for which to hope: No more gifts will be given because, in such a world, there is no generous giver of gifts who can be trusted.
Against that, Peter writes of Easter people, "Your faith and your hope are set on God" (1 Peter 1:21). In the horizon of Easter, it is faith that counters the anxiety of the world, confidence that God’s goodness will give the gifts we need. It is hope that counters the despair of the world. The church has confidence that the future -- as bewildering as it is -- is in God's good hands.
The walk with the risen Christ is an ongoing process of having our anxiety transformed in faith, and our despair transformed in hope. While our anxious, despairing world is inevitably self-destructive, the church alternatively lives in buoyant faith and daring hope that issues forth in an emancipated life in the world.
[ May 15 ]
Living an 'Awed' Life
Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10
We may take the "shepherd-sheep" metaphor as a way to discern our life. On the one hand there are false shepherds, false religious leaders, greedy economists, phony politicians, even mistaken parents who offer an illusionary world for their children. On the other hand, there is life with no shepherd, being on one's own, vulnerable and without resources, stumbling from one failed prospect to another.
Into this false shepherd/no shepherd world comes the gospel alternative. The reading from Acts is dominated by the term "awe" (verse 43). Those who heard apostolic preaching were drawn into awe, because the offer of another world swept them off their feet. Their lives were filled with praise, food for the day, and lively brothers and sisters who shared life with them.
But awe, so Peter writes, must be transposed into endurance, the capacity to put up with demanding disciplines and risky behaviors. Such an "awed" life, without endurance, soon burns out. Except, says Peter, we are led, fed, kept, and protected by "the shepherd and guardian of our souls" (1 Peter 2:25). This gospel reading appeals to the best-loved psalm that affirms that "goodness and mercy" is God’s way with us and delivers for us the "abundant life" of which Jesus speaks. Our mandate is to move into awe and endurance that counters all of our false shepherds and our failed attempts at living with no shepherd.
[ May 22 ]
Under New Management
Acts 7:55-60; Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14
Stephen's sermon addressed people who resisted the Easter news. They wanted to keep the world the way it had been, under old management, with a certain set of assurances and practices that they treasured. Easter is like that: It initiates an upheaval in every "business as usual" approach. It exposes us as "stiff-necked," stubborn, and unresponsive (Acts 7:51). The reaction to Stephen's preaching is that he is stoned to death, punishment fit for a blasphemer.
The remarkable turn of the narrative is Stephen's response to the violence enacted against him. He imitates Jesus on the cross with his petition that God should forgive them (verse 60; Luke 23:34). Stephen's response is in keeping with the Friday-Sunday story of Jesus that does not give in to the power of death. The footnote in Acts 8:1 concerning Saul (Paul), who at this point still resists the news of Easter, is an indication that any of us -- like Saul -- can still be transformed, even if belatedly, by the power of new life.
The other readings offer an assurance to those who run risks for the faith. The gospel reading not only assures (John 14:1-3), but also promises to the disciples the authority to do "greater works than these" as the church sets out on its mission (verse 12). The epistle reading is a reminder to the church of its special identity, its special reception of mercy from God, and its special mandate in the world. The psalm provides an assurance to such as Stephen. Verse 5 anticipates the prayer of Jesus on the cross (Luke 23:46) and is the prayer that the church must always pray when it runs the risk of Easter obedience.
[ May 29 ]
A Daring Love
Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:8-20; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21
The unknown has become known! It is now known, says Paul, that God is the creator of all that is, all are given life, and all are accountable. Thus the doxology about the wonder of creation turns into a summons to repent. Only late in the paragraph of Paul's speech in Acts is Jesus mentioned, and this only by allusion to "a man whom he has appointed" (Acts 17: 31). The speech culminates with reference to Jesus, about whom Paul makes this affirmation: First, Jesus is raised from the dead. Second, his resurrection is a promise that all will be judged in righteousness. Thus the creation culminates, as the Apostle's Creed says, with the one who will "judge the living and the dead."
What begins as a philosophic affirmation by Paul ends in a summons to an alternative ethic. The "offspring of God" (Acts 17:29) who receive the Easter news are under a peculiar mandate. The command is to love one another in self-sacrificial love (John 14:21-23). The ethical summons of Easter is the accent in the epistle reading. Peter writes, "be eager to do what is good" (1 Peter 3:13), "keep your conscience clear" (verse 16), practice "good conduct in Christ" (verse 16), go about "doing good" (verse 17), and maintain "a good conscience" (verse 21). The sum of the mandate is that the Easter news has liberated God's people from fear (verse 14) and for loving in risky, daring, and transformative ways. Those who trust God are kept "among the living" (Psalm 66:9), live in "a spacious place" (verse 12), and end with offerings of thanks and praise (verses 13-15), rendering back to God in gladness the life God has given. As a church we celebrate all that is now known!
"Preaching the Word," Sojourners' online resource for sermon preparation and Bible study, is available at www.sojo.net/ptw.