Holy Language (April 25 – May 1)

Sunday, May 1
Second Sunday of Easter

Weekly Theme
Holy Language

Weekly Prayer
Blessed are you, O God of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom we receive the legacy of a living hope, born again not only from his death but also from his resurrection. May we who have received forgiveness of sins through the Holy Spirit live to set others free, until, at length, we enter the inheritance that is imperishable and unfading, where Christ lives and reigns with you and the same Spirit. Amen.

Weekly Reading
John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But 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.

All readings for the Week
Acts 2:14a, 22-32
Psalm 16
1 Peter 1:3-9
John 20:19-31

Focus Questions

1. What makes us, as followers of Jesus, “hide out” today?

2. What would you have done, in Thomas’ place?

3. Do you think that “seeing is better than hearing” for the life of faith?

4. Why do you think a woman was entrusted with the news of the Resurrection, if the men struggled to believe her?

5. Where do you see the risen Jesus alive, today?

by Kate Huey

That same night, after Mary Magdalene claimed to have seen the risen Jesus and to have talked with him, the frightened disciples were hiding out behind a locked door. No one could get in–the door was barricaded against the authorities (and their supporters) who feared the way the crowds loved Jesus. Those authorities had executed that troublesome prophet and teacher, and might want to come after his disciples, too. Not only were his followers bereft at the death of Jesus and perhaps at their own failure to stand with him to the end, but now this woman was making the most incredible claim that could reverse their sense of failure and inadequacy, their turmoil, their loss of hope. All might be made right after all; all might be healed. Could it really be true?

Gathered in fear and confusion, they locked the doors and waited. And suddenly there he was, in their midst. What were his first words? “Peace be with you.” No fear. No scolding. No turmoil. No doubt. Peace. Those words Christians have said to one another ever since, perhaps without thinking: Peace be with you. And then–since this is Pentecost in the Gospel of John–Jesus gave the gift of the Holy Spirit to the disciples. He commissioned them to go out and be peace and love and justice for the world. Just as God sent Jesus, so Jesus sent them into the world that God loves so well. O. Wesley Allen hears an echo of Genesis and “God’s breathing life into creatures at the beginning of the world (Gen. 2:7). Easter tell us that we are recreated through Christ’s resurrection…a current (continual) experience of new life in Christ available to all.” Creation, resurrection, re-creation. God continues to speak, and to act, in the world.

Jesus then talked about that thing that’s more difficult to talk about in the church than sex or money: forgiveness. Eugene Peterson’s translation of Jesus’ words in The Message provides a different take on forgiveness and grace: “If you forgive someone’s sins, they’re gone for good. If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?” For O. Wesley Allen, the text tells us that “We cannot keep the Spirit to ourselves. We are gifted with it for the sake of others. God gives the church the spiritual gift of resurrection life so that the church will bring it to bear on the world.” It sounds as if a purely personal, private faith is not what Jesus intends for us, but instead he wants a Spirit-filled church to be his gift to the world. He wants us to be gifts to one another, and bearers of forgiveness and grace.    

Once again this week we hear about “the vision thing”: the importance of “seeing” in John’s Gospel. Recall that Mary Magdalene came to the tomb last Sunday and “saw” that the stone had been removed; that Peter and the other disciple ran to the tomb and “saw” the linen wrappings lying there; they went in and “saw and believed.” Mary Magdalene “saw” two angels in white, and then she “saw” Jesus standing there (but didn’t recognize him), and he asked her, “Whom are you looking for?” When he said her name, she said, “Teacher!”–she went and told the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”

Now, in the evening of the same day, the disciples see Jesus, in his body, wounds and all. But Thomas, who arrives afterward and misses everything, very reasonably says he won’t believe until he sees for himself the mark of the nails on Jesus’ hands (he sounds almost modern, requiring empirical evidence, doesn’t he?). He even wants to put his own finger in the mark of the nails and to feel the reality of the resurrection for himself. Barbara Brown Taylor describes Thomas as “a brave and literal-minded maverick who could be counted on to do the right thing, but only after he had convinced himself that it was the right thing.”

Perhaps we’ve been too judgmental of “Doubting Thomas.” After all, the disciples have all seen Jesus and the marks on his hands and side. But once Thomas “sees” and even touches the wounds of Jesus, he believes, too. “What he says, in effect, is that he has encountered the presence of God in the risen Jesus,” writes Arland J. Hultgren. The story of Thomas, for the writer of the Gospel of John, speaks to all those in later generations (including us, today) who didn’t witness with their own eyes the things the Gospel describes, and yet have come to trust the testimony as true. Again, as Peterson translates it: “Even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing.” Hultgren calls Jesus’ words a “beatitude” that “puts all Christians of all times and places on the same level before God as the original disciples.” 

Indeed, for centuries, these stories have been passed down from generation to generation, coming alive for each one in its own time. We have them in Scripture, “the message,” Barbara Brown Taylor calls it, that “our ancestors rolled up and put in a bottle for us, because they wanted us to experience the person of Jesus–if not in the flesh, then in the word….We are free to believe them or not, but one thing this morning’s story tells us is that seeing is not superior to hearing.” And so, ironically, after all this talk in the Gospel of John about seeing and believing, our generation is asked to “hear and believe.”

Seeing the risen Jesus alive today

And yet, an ever greater irony is that in every generation our eyes, in ways both marvelous and wonderful, do see the risen Jesus alive in this world. If it’s true that we are indeed recreated through Christ’s resurrection, as O. Wesley Allen claims, then our beautiful, majestic, joyous Easter services in churches around the world are only an effort to give expression to the profound experience of encountering the presence of God in the risen Jesus not just one morning but every morning of our lives, in every “little” death that leads to new life, every experience of healing and grace, forgiveness and new hope. Relationships repaired and renewed, churches brought back from the brink of closing to new and vibrant ministry, health restored after suffering and illness, delight again in life after long grief…the experience of resurrection and new life, in moments and ways both large and small, all point to the One who gives us life and promises life eternal, the One who raised Jesus up on the third day and recreates us, day by day. 

The Church is the Body of Christ, we often say; if that is so, then it is the risen Jesus alive and in love with this beautiful world. We see, and we believe. Resurrection isn’t something that happened a long time ago, something that we simply commemorate each Easter. In our day-to-day lives as the church in ministry, we put our hands on the wounds of this broken world, but we also witness to the hope that sustains us: we will rise again, and everything is going to be all right in the end.

“A limbering effect”

William Sloane Coffin, a great prophet of the United Church of Christ who died several years ago, fittingly, during Holy Week, once said: “As I see it, the primary religious task these days is to try to think straight….You can’t think straight with a heart full of fear, for fear seeks safety, not truth. If your heart’s a stone, you can’t have decent thoughts–either about personal relations or about international ones. A heart full of love, on the other hand, has a limbering effect on the mind.”

Those disciples cowered in fear behind locked doors when good news was waiting for them outside. Good news came to them anyway, even in their fear. They were seeking safety, and the truth came instead. Is it fear that makes us hide from the suffering of the world? Perhaps that’s a mystery of the heart, so easily turned to stone, so easily turned away from the pain of others. Coffin warns us that we run the risk of washing our hands, like Pilate, because power is hard-hearted. And yet, he says, we belong to one another, according to the vision of the religious community, the saving vision, the ancient prophetic vision of human unity, billions of us on this earth, all brought together as the children of God. As Allen said, we can’t keep the gift to ourselves: the Spirit was given to us because we are connected to, and responsible for, one another.

Prophets in our own generation

Sometimes it feels like there’s a gap in the prophetic witness in our own generation. Where is this generation’s William Sloane Coffin or Martin Luther King or Mother Teresa or Oscar Romero? And yet, in today’s passage from the Gospel of John, the words of Jesus, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” reassure us that God has given us, each one of us, the Holy Spirit and commissioned us, and empowered us to be, like Coffin and King and Romero and Mother Teresa, a holy and brilliant flame, each in our own way, breathing love and peace and justice in the midst of fear and pain and hopelessness. To William Sloane Coffin, spirituality meant “living the ordinary life extraordinarily well,” like Mother Teresa, who tried not to do great things, but to do small things with great love.

Whenever we’re afraid and hiding out, all locked up, God comes to us in the midst of our fear and says, “Peace be with you.” Whatever doubts churn in our minds, whatever sins trouble our consciences, whatever pain and worry bind us up, whatever walls we have put up or doors we have locked securely, God comes to us and says, “Peace be with you.” Whatever hunger and need we feel deep in our souls, God calls us to the table, feeds us well, and sends us out into the world to be justice and peace, salt and light, hope for the world. We can do it, if we keep our eyes open, our minds limber, and our hearts soft and willing to love. As God sent Jesus, God sends us, this day. 

For Further Reflection

Bruce Epperly, 21st century
When author Madeleine L’Engle was asked, “Do you believe in God without any doubts?” she replied, “I believe in God with all my doubts.”

Robert Browning, 19th century
I show you doubt, to prove that faith exists.

Stuart Chase, 20th century
For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who don’t believe, no proof is possible.

Kahlil Gibran, 20th century
Faith is a knowledge within the heart, beyond the reach of proof.

Paul Gauguin, 19th century
I shut my eyes in order to see.

Paul Tillich, 20th century
Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith.

About Weekly Seeds

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Weekly Seeds is a service of the Congregational Vitality and Discipleship Ministry Team, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The Revised Common Lectionary is © 1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.