The 2nd Sunday of Easter (Year B)
The witnesses to the resurrection find new life in the community (koinonia) of the forgiven.
After Easter, it is the testimony of the Apostles that is heard – temporarily in place of the Law and the Prophets.
The overriding theme is witnessing to the resurrection. “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” (verse 33, NRSV). The early chapters of the Acts of the Apostles are occupied entirely with this testimony of the apostles, of Peter and John, and its consequences—growing numbers of believers and slowly developing resistance from authorities.
Our reading also gives a picture of *the common life—the koinonia—that sprang up for those who came to believe in meaning of the resurrection. Their belief made them one harmonious body. “The whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (verse 32). As more resources were needed to sustain the common life, some of them would sell their lands and houses in order to provide for those in need. The apostles received the proceeds from such sales and administered them. The result was a remarkable one: “There was not a needy person among them”! (All of this in verses 34–35.)
In the long run this totally communal life was not to continue, and Acts itself soon recognizes serious problems relating to it (Ananias and Sapphira in 5:1–11, plus distribution problems beginning the story in chapter 6), but we are to understand that when the full power of life under the resurrected Lord broke in it overcame all kinds of human weaknesses and selfishness. It made clear that to really live in the power of the Holy Spirit is to live together “with not a needy person among” us!
The Psalm selection is an ecstatic celebration of the same kind of communal harmony and blessing.
The opening verse, given a slightly more literal rendering, might be expressed, “What goodness! And what delight! Relatives dwelling in a single camp!” The reference may be to clans camping near the holy city at a festival time. Some ancestrally-related groups, who have been known to feud with each other, are camped together!
The speaker then pulls up two very Palestinian images to elaborate this idealistic condition. The oil of anointing, which makes the hair beautiful. “It is like the precious oil on the head, / running down upon the beard, / on the beard of Aaron…” The poet evokes the anointing of a high priest. The anointing comes in the middle of marvelous ceremonies, rituals, and auspices of new blessings to flow over the land with the inauguration of the new sacred leader.
In the second image, the blessing of moisture over an essentially dry land is contemplated. “It is like the dew of Hermon, / which falls on the mountains of Zion.” The summit of Mount Hermon, visible to the far north of Israel, was normally snow covered. That white top was a perpetual reminder of the moisture that was periodically experienced in the lowlands as the vitalizing freshness of morning dew. This dew was a blessing intended by God for “the mountains of Zion.” There at Zion the Lord established (literally “commanded”) the “blessing” (berakah). This blessing, symbolized by the renewing joy of oil and dew, is everlasting life (New Jerusalem Bible), or more literally “life to the (end of the) age.”
The psalm contemplates a perfect, harmonious community life as the richest blessing that can come from God to all the lands and peoples.
I John 1:1–2:2.
The Epistle reading also is about community/communion (koinonia), the common life of believers in Jesus’ resurrection and its consequent forgiveness of sins.
The opening paragraph of I John (verses 1–4) is a mini-prologue, echoing phrases and ideas from the prologue (1:1–18) of the Gospel According to John. Jesus is the word of life and also the eternal life that is with the Father, and his followers declare this to others, “that you also may have fellowship (koinonia) with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”
The second paragraph (verses 5–10) speaks of some conditions that apply to this common life united with God. This common life cannot be shared by those who “are walking in darkness,” for the new life derives from God’s own light (verse 5). It cannot be shared by those who say they have no sin. This common life includes confessing of sins so that we may be cleansed “of all unrighteousness” (verse 9). In addition to sharing in eternal life, this koinonia clearly involves forgiveness of sins, and that not only as a once-for-all event at baptism, but as an ongoing basis of community life.
A third paragraph (2:1–2) expands on the forgiveness of sins by describing Jesus’ function as heavenly advocate (parakletos). This advocate “is the atoning sacrifice for our sins,” a complex notion of Jesus’ saving work, but the emphasis at this point is on the universality of this saving work. The sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins is “not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” Here, as in other Easter passages, the resurrection breaks all previous boundaries of covenant relations and elect groups; the eternal life and its blessings of common life are for all who believe and open themselves to it.
The Gospel reading continues the Johannine perspective on the resurrection.
We hear about the appearance of Jesus to the disciples as they are gathered furtively in a locked room. This gathering is on the first day of the week, Sunday. The Christian observance of Sunday as the Lord’s day instead of the Sabbath is already in process (a process completed before the end of the first century CE, see Revelation 1:10 and Acts 20:7). When Jesus reappears for a special meeting with Thomas, it is on the same day the following week (verse 26). That is, meetings with the risen Jesus take place on Sunday.
This passage emphasizes the solid, physical aspect of Jesus’ resurrected body. (Another version of this risen-Jesus episode is found in Luke 24:36–43.) This emphasis on Jesus’ tangible body seems to increase as the traditions of the resurrection appearances develop. In the early empty-tomb tradition, Jesus is not present at all (Mark 16:1–8). Then he can be seen but not touched (John 20:14–17). Only in these appearances to the disciples in a closed room, in Luke and John, is his body touched and (in Luke) does he eat and drink. (Matthew 28:9 is a minor exception about the touching.)
The first appearance to the disciples (verses 19–23) is about the Holy Spirit and forgiveness of sins. Jesus commissions the disciples for their work ahead. He “breathes” the Holy Spirit into them and solemnly pronounces, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (verse 22). The climax of this action, however, concerns the forgiveness of sins, again. “If you [who have received the Holy Spirit] forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (verse 23). This is an awesome authorization! It is an early chapter in a long history of the Christian Church’s rituals of absolution. (An equivalent authorization is given in the Gospel According to Matthew at 16:18–19. For Mark, compare 2:10.)
Our passage includes the episode of doubting Thomas. Once the emphasis upon the physicality of the risen Jesus began, this Thomas episode was probably inevitable. What does it take to convince some people? “Unless I see” with my own eyes, etc., I will not believe. That the demand for physical seeing and touching has already missed the nature of religious faith has long been recognized. The seeing can always be further questioned, further explained. That is not what having faith is about, not the kind of faith that creates new life and koinonia.
And koinonia, the blessings of a new common life together that transcends old boundaries and breaks forth in new wonders of mutuality, is the real gift of the resurrected Lord. That is a life that might bring it about that there is not a needy person among us!
“Truth is above harmony. Those who fear disorder more than injustice invariably produce more of both.”
—William Sloane Coffin, Jr.