United Church of Christ

Sermon Seeds April 28, 2019

Second Sunday of Easter Year C

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Lectionary citations:
Acts 5:27-32
Psalm 118:14-29 or Psalm 150
Revelation 1:4-8
John 20:19-31

Worship resources for the Second Sunday of Easter Year C can be found at Worship Ways


Sermon Seeds

Focus Text:
Acts 5:27-32
Additional reflection on John 20:19-31 by Kate Matthews
Additional reflection on Creation Care by Maria Teresa Dávila

Focus Theme:
Love's Disruptive Witness

Reflection:
by Kathryn M. Matthews

Even if we didn't know "the rest of the story," we can sense from today's passage that Peter and the other disciples are headed for trouble. However, we do know the rest of the story: they will all end up as martyrs, dying for the sake of the truth they are preaching in the name of Jesus.

We've been taught to think of a martyr as someone who gets killed for a cause, but Dianne Bergant reminds us that "martyr" means "witness," that is, one who lives a faithful life, no matter what (Preaching the New Lectionary Year C). And Kevin A. Wilson observes that this is an active, not a passive, commitment that calls on the witness to share their faith (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 2).

These claims provide a good starting-point for reflecting on evangelism, and why we do — or fail to do — the work of sharing the good news of the risen Jesus Christ, of witnessing to the Resurrection. Are we merely passive observers, hearers, of the good news: does it stop here, with us? Are we afraid, or do we feel inadequate, to share something that has transformed our lives and given them meaning?

Courage in every setting

Almost forty years have passed since the martyrdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who gave his life because he spoke out against the brutal injustices perpetrated on the people of El Salvador. Like the disciples in this week's passage, Romero was not intimidated or deterred by earthly authority and was willing to face death, if necessary, for the gospel.

However, Dianne Bergant reminds us that, even if we don't actually suffer death for the truth, we can still witness to God at work in our lives and in the world by the way we speak and live. In fact, the way we live can itself speak volumes about what we truly believe, about what has grasped our lives.

Witnessing where we are

And this is just as important in our own settings, wherever we are, even if we don't live in places of obvious brutality, remembering of course that so much brutality may be hidden, behind the doors of our homes, in the shadowed streets of our cities, and even in our institutions.

The world today hungers for the same good news that the disciples preached to the Sanhedrin so long ago. Bergant, then, encourages preachers and teachers alike to help their listeners regain their "sense of religious purpose" (Preaching the New Lectionary Year C). More on that, in a moment.

Frustrating the authorities

Have you ever known anyone so convinced that she was right that she relished being persecuted for her beliefs and even took it as validation of her position? Well, you might understand then just a little how the high priest and the council must have felt when these pesky followers of Jesus kept turning up and swaying the crowds with their persuasive and passionate speech.

Imprisoning them didn't work. They just escaped miraculously from jail! No wonder the authorities were worried about the crowds turning against them. Someone had to do something about the situation.

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No one can silence them

Our short passage from the Book of Acts, the story of the earliest Christians, is a marvelous glimpse of the passionate, exuberant conviction of Peter and his companions, the ones who walked "clueless" with Jesus and finally "got it" when the Holy Spirit came upon them at Pentecost, several chapters earlier in this Book of Acts.

Now they feel downright compelled to speak the truth as they see it, even when they're face to face with a body that we might compare to both the Supreme Court and a panel of the most esteemed theology professors of our time.

Misreadings and misinterpretations

This is not a new thing to the religious authorities, who have dealt with various popular religious teachers and their followers before (immediately after this passage, the Pharisee Gamaliel rehearses a couple of examples of such leaders who "came and went").

And it would be easy, reading Peter's words and agreeing with them as we do - that it is better to obey God than any human authority (as Marcus Borg says, Jesus is alive, and Jesus is Lord) — to see how a misreading and misinterpretation of the story could make "the Jews" the enemies of the truth. What calamities have followed from such a distortion of the story!

A feud in the family

It is very important that we approach this text and all the stories from the earliest days of the church with the understanding that the conflicts that arise are more like a family feud than the victory of one religion, or religious sect, over another.

When Peter responds to the religious authorities, his argument is in fact a religious one that is in line with the tradition of his people, as he invokes the memory of Moses by speaking of Jesus as "Leader and Savior," and proclaims the repentance and forgiveness of sins that Israel longed for.

Trouble-making preachers

These are also not foreign categories for the members of the Sanhedrin — they cut to the heart of who Israel claims to be as the people of God. But the Sadducees certainly don't appreciate the source of these words, or the irrepressibility of this bunch of trouble-making preacher-healers who are gaining an uncomfortable measure of power among the people.

The popularity of the disciples gives the religious powers that be less room for moving around in, and also forces them to take a second, uncomfortably hard look at their own role in the death of Jesus. They also have to take a much longer, broader look at what God is about in the story: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

A tragic mis-reading

A note here about the "role" of the Jewish leaders in Jesus' death, which has been used for almost two thousand years to justify unspeakable hostility and crimes against the Jewish people: it was the Roman Empire that had the power to execute Jesus, and in this text we see the religious leaders of Jesus' own people wrestling with their part in the Roman conspiracy of brutality and suppression.

And there's even more going on here, because there are complex factions among the Jewish authorities, two of them represented in this scene.

Finding common ground with the Pharisees

The Pharisees and the Sadducees don't see eye-to-eye on many things. We're used to a one-dimensional, inaccurate portrait of one side, the Pharisees, even though they actually had more in common with the disciples (and with us), belief-wise, than we might think.

For one thing, they believed in the resurrection when the Sadducees did not, which makes this conversation even more interesting. The Sadducees were guardians of the truth in their time, and the weary conflict between religious factions is sadly familiar to us today, when conservative/traditional and liberal/progressive voices seem to be perpetually at odds instead of finding common ground.

Don't miss the rest of the story

This story is so good in so many ways that one hardly knows where to begin to unpack its meaning, and then the ending comes too soon. By not telling the rest of the story, our lectionary passage for this Sunday misses the opportunity for a particularly great teaching moment for the whole church, for congregations, and for each of us.

And so we simply have to continue, past the end of the lectionary text, through the rest of the chapter, to the words of Gamaliel, if we want to reach that really good teaching moment. What do we do in the church when we cannot seem to agree about the truth? What do we do, and what can we do? One option, wise and Spirit-filled, is urged by the Pharisee, Gamaliel, in verses 33-39.

Friends of Jesus

But first, we have to acknowledge the common misconceptions about the Pharisees as harsh and legalistic, for we forget that Jesus had friends who were Pharisees, and that he enjoyed having dinner with them.

Robert W. Wall observes that the book of Acts, where Pharisees are among the early converts to Christianity and Paul himself is not ashamed of having been a Pharisee himself, gives us a fuller picture of the Pharisees than the Gospels do, where they are often portrayed as enemies of Jesus (“The Acts of the Apostles,” The New Interpreter’s Bible).

A reasonable proposal

We may or may not be surprised, then, that a proposal more tolerant than most of those arising in our own, post-modern church councils came indeed from an ancient Pharisee, of all people. Gamaliel observes that other popular leaders have come along in the past, gathered followers and caused an uproar, but things quieted down afterward.

Perhaps he senses that something different is happening this time, or perhaps he possesses a kind of wisdom, and a depth of trust in God's mysterious ways…wisdom and trust that make it possible for him to take the long view of things: "if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them — in that case you may even be found fighting against God!" (5:38b-39a).

What a remarkable character from the Bible, and what an outstanding model he would be for every church meeting, and every doctrinal discussion.

Listening for truth

Both sides in today's story, the disciples and the Sanhedrin, were convinced that they possessed the truth. Perhaps Gamaliel had the humility to wait on God, to listen for God, and to open himself to the possibility of a new thing unfolding in the life of God's people. The council at least found him persuasive.

Of course, they still flogged the disciples, and the disciples still persisted in their preaching. Still, we hear Gamaliel's patience, humility, and wisdom, and we wonder if the church can claim to live those virtues so well today as our ancient ancestor in faith did long ago.

A word of caution

Several commentators develop the comparison between this intramural conflict within Judaism and the internal struggles within the Body of Christ, the church, today. Some of these writers seem particularly put off by the posturing of modern-day self-proclaimed prophets.

For example, Colin Gunton challenges us not to assume that a stand is prophetic simply because it goes against "the establishment" (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts). And J. Michael Krech develops this line of thought, questioning the authenticity of a faith, for example, that insists on prayer in public places, no matter how it affects others (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 2).

The courage to preach

Still, there is no question that we are called to witness, even if we're also called to discernment about the appropriate time and place and method of that witness. Krech challenges preachers to be courageous, like Peter and the other disciples, when they step into — of all places — the pulpit itself. He provides a thought-provoking reflection on the many reasons a preacher may be as fearful before a congregation as the earliest Christians could have felt before the Sadducees.

There's a double burden here, and every pastor is understandably reluctant to cause conflict with the powers that be within the congregation, or to lay burdens on the people they cannot bear. But Krech observes that the people return to church Sunday after Sunday, hoping to hear words of transformation and new life (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 2).

Isn't that, after all, the Easter message, and isn't it the preacher's great call and responsibility as well?

Many ways, many settings to witness

Whether we witness from the pulpit or in the pews, under the threat of brutal regime or private suffering, with words or deeds, we are part of that great movement that began back in Jerusalem, with a turbulent trial of a little band of troublesome preacher-healers, or farther back, with the bloody death of their Teacher, the Savior-Leader, and moved outward, even to the ends of the earth.

Whatever and whenever we are called to share this truth, this good news, we can count on the presence and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who was present with, and inspired, our ancestors, these early followers of Jesus. We can trust that the same Spirit guides the church today, as well.

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The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired in 2016 after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.

A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.

For further reflection:

Ella Wheeler Wilcox, 19th century American poet
"There is no chance, no destiny, no fate, that can circumvent or hinder or control the firm resolve of a determined soul."

Desmond Tutu, 21st century
"I wish I could shut up, but I can't, and I won't."

Søren Kierkegaard, The Journals of Kierkegaard, 19th century
"The tyrant dies and his rule is over, the martyr dies and his rule begins."

Lillian Carter, 20th century
"I don't think about risks much. I just do what I want to do. If you gotta go, you gotta go."

Joan of Arc, 15th century national heroine of France
"Get up tomorrow early in the morning, and earlier than you did today, and do the best that you can. Always stay near me, for tomorrow I will have much to do and more than I ever had, and tomorrow blood will leave my body above the breast."

Harvey Fierstein, 21st century
"If you deny yourself commitment, what can you do with your life?"

M. Scott Peck, 20th century
"A life of total dedication to the truth also means a life of willingness to be personally challenged."

Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl, 20th century
"I don't think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains."

Clarence Jordan, 20th century
"The proof that God raised Jesus from the dead is not the empty tomb, but the full hearts of his transformed disciples. The crowning evidence that he lives is not a vacant grave, but a spirit-filled fellowship. Not a rolled-away stone, but a carried-away church."

Irving Stone, The Agony and the Ecstasy, 20th century
"Talent is cheap; dedication is expensive. It will cost you your life."

Sermon reflection on John 20:19-31:
by Kathryn M. Matthews

You know that experience, don't you, of being overwhelmed? I once read a good description by Craig Dykstra of what it feels like, especially in ministry: "Sometimes we are overwhelmed by the sheer hugeness or complexity of something. We can't get our arms around it. We can't get it figured out. We are unable to organize it or to bring it under control. We are overwhelmed in a way that makes us feel small, weak and inadequate" (Keys to Excellence: Pastoral Imagination and Holy Friendship).

I think that probably just about says it for the disciples three days after Jesus died. Really, could things have gotten much worse for them? There they were, huddled together in their fear and confusion, not knowing where to turn or what to do next. Their leader and teacher – the one who had held them together all these long months: dead and buried – executed like a common criminal, and lying in a tomb…or so they thought. What a disappointing turn of events!

Their hopes had died, too

With Jesus into that tomb went all their hope, their vision, their sense of direction and purpose in life. They were left with only an overwhelming sense of failure and loss and shame, because they knew they had deserted Jesus in his hour of need. We wonder whether they were more disappointed and disillusioned with themselves or with Jesus, who had raised their hopes so high.

It would be hard to get your arms around that kind of disappointment, to organize the feeling of that kind of loss, to bring under control that depth of shame – of course they must have felt small, weak and inadequate. What a depressed little group of crushed and defeated disciples gathered behind those locked doors!

A woman, talking nonsense

But now, one of the women, Mary Magdalene, was saying things that didn't make sense – that she had actually seen Jesus and had talked with him, that Jesus was alive, that he had risen from the dead just as he had promised. Could this be so? How could it be so?

They didn't believe Mary's words, of course, because she was only a woman, and, well, you know how they are. Women aren't rational thinkers. So, except for Peter and John, the men didn't open up the doors and rush back to the tomb – most of them just stayed put and waited to see what would happen next.

And then, suddenly, astonishingly, quietly, there he was, right there, in their midst, right there, before their very eyes. Jesus was alive.

Will he still love us?

Don't you think that maybe just for a moment some of the disciples might have been a little bit afraid that this was not all good news? That Jesus – understandably – might be angry with them for abandoning him – and in Peter's case for even denying him three times there, as he warmed himself by the fire in the courtyard, while his Lord and Savior was questioned by the religious authorities?

It's frightening enough to think about seeing someone who was dead suddenly alive, but what if he has every reason to say, "Where were you when I needed you? What kind of faithful disciples are you, anyway? Why did you run out on me? Peter, you especially, I picked you out to be the leader; how could you have denied me three times?"

No anger or recriminations

But no. That's not what happened. There were no recriminations, no anger, no condemnation or judgment, not even an understandable expression – or as we would say, "venting" – of disappointment and hurt. No. The first words Jesus offered were a gift: "Peace be with you."

He knew what was in their hearts; he knew why they had barred the door. He knew they weren't re-grouping, getting it together and deciding on their next move, how they were going to carry on Jesus' legacy or spread his teaching. They were scared and they were hiding out.

Returning quietly, bringing peace

And suddenly, in the midst of their fear and confusion, there he was, not with angels, trumpets, or legions, but quietly, without a hint of anger. No accusations, no trouble or turmoil. Only peace. And then, the very next thing, he gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit – he doesn't just give it to them, but breathes the Spirit into them.

In the Gospel of John, this is Pentecost, but the Spirit comes not with wind and flame but with Jesus' own breath, the life-force of one raised from the dead who tells them to go out and be peace and forgiveness and love for the world. Just as God sent Jesus, so Jesus sends them into the world that God loves so well.

God, creating and re-creating

It reminds us of creation, when God breathed life into us humans, a tender, intimate, up-close and personal moment, and here we are again, with Jesus re-creating this sorry crew of weak disciples, giving them the gift of new life, the gift of grace, and commissioning them to share that gift, that good news, with the world.

Jesus doesn't give them the gift of a personal, private faith – a just-you-and-me-Jesus faith that has nothing to do with the world that God loves so well. Instead, these weak and overwhelmed disciples, now Spirit-gifted, are Jesus' own gift to the world.

Offering forgiveness, of all things

And then he talks about that thing that's more difficult to talk about in the church than sex or even money. He talks about forgiveness, which gives us a sense of what's uppermost in Jesus' mind. But the story shifts right away to Thomas, who must have been out running errands; when he returned and heard that the others had seen Jesus, he understandably wanted to have the same experience himself.

We may call him "Doubting Thomas," but all this disciple was asking for was the same assurance the other disciples had received. He was no more a doubter than they were, before they saw the risen Jesus. I think Thomas wanted to experience the Resurrection for himself, to put his finger and his hand on the marks of Jesus' suffering and feel for himself that this incredible news was indeed not "too good to be true."

One more little sheep to find

His faith was no less; he was just that one little sheep that the good shepherd sure enough would come back for, to tie up this one loose end. The point of all this, Thomas not believing unless he sees with his own eyes, is a message for the people in John's community a generation or two later when the Gospel was being written down.

Their faith was based not on what they had seen with their own eyes but on what they heard. Jesus is really talking to them (and to us) when he says to Thomas the words that Eugene Peterson translates in The Message as, "Even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing."

Believing without seeing

Even better blessings. That would be the promise to all of us, one week after the beautiful Easter services, back to life as usual. Back to our lives with their own "overwhelmings" – with threats of terrorism, global warming, economic problems, wars that never end, an election season that puts our nation to shame, and of course, with our own private griefs and burdens – health problems, kid problems, too much work, too much worry, too much coming at us, so much to run away from, so much to fear. What's an overwhelmed person of faith to do?

One of my favorite prophets of the United Church of Christ, William Sloane Coffin, 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" (A Passion for the Possible: A Message to U.S. Churches).

Loving the world the way God loves it

All of us disciples, when our hearts fill with a fear we can't organize or get our arms around, a fear that makes us feel weak and small and inadequate, all of us disciples receive that same gift of grace and forgiveness and the Holy Spirit, a gift that limbers up our minds and our hearts, turning them from hearts of stone to hearts full of love. That's why Jesus sends us out into the world, to put our hands on the marks of its suffering, to bring good news and hope to all of God's children.

Isn't that why we come to church, and what we hope to experience as part of a community of faith? Isn't that the mission of the church: to love the world, as Parker Palmer says, "not to enlarge [our] membership, not to bring outsiders to accept [our] terms, but simply to love the world in every possible way – to love the world as God did and does" (The Company of Strangers)?

God comes into the midst of our lives

Whatever overwhelms us, on any post-Easter morning, 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, for we ourselves have been overwhelmed by the love of God. As God sent Jesus, God sends us today.

Additional reflection for Creation Care on the Easter Sunday texts for Second Sunday of Easter Year C:
(originally contributed for Mission 4/1 Earth in 2013)
by Professor Maria Teresa Dávila
Andover Newton Theological School

The readings for the Sundays following Easter Sunday always seem to me to be something of a let down. After the long journey of Lent, the dramatic unfolding of the narratives of Holy Week, beginning with Jesus' entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, through the climactic events of the trial, execution, and resurrection of Jesus, I am a bit disappointed to read in subsequent Sundays that there are more questions than actual answers in Jesus' post-resurrection appearances, more challenge to the disciples than vindication for having followed and been faithful to Jesus' message, more loss and disunity depending on the different interpretations of what Jesus' rising from death means than the sense of hope and gain that should have overwhelmed them upon hearing from the women that they had found the tomb empty.

Take, for example, the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Their deep sense of loss and grief after Jesus' death so overwhelms them that they cannot even recognize the risen Lord as he joined them on the road. It was only in the breaking of the bread, that radical act of table hospitality, that they are able to open their eyes and see Jesus in their midst, only to lose him again.

The psalms paired with these weeks' readings invite rejoicing and exalting God's majesty and goodness, with phrases such as "Praise God for God's mighty deeds; praise God according to God's surpassing greatness!" (Psalm 150). Now, this is more like it! "The LORD is God, and God has given us light. Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar." (Psalm 118) Yes! These psalms much more accurately reflect the emotions that should mark the Easter season for the faithful – rejoicing paired with ever-lasting praise for the most wondrous miracle yet, our hope over the specter of death witnessed to by the risen Christ.

Therefore, the scene in the Gospel of John with the apostles in the upper room, scared, barely clinging to each other for comfort, lost without their beloved teacher, comes as a bit of a shock to me. The shock doesn't come from how alien the scene may appear to me. Rather, the shock comes from the realization that the disciples were human beings, and in fact the scene is very typical of my own responses of doubt, loss, skepticism, and fear in the face of the monumental task of living into the Kin-dom. As the mother of four young children, I find the task of being a faithful steward of creation a monumental one: teaching my children about love for and care of the natural world, and, most especially, leading our household in living a simpler life and consuming less and more wisely for the sake of the human family and the environment often sees me paralyzed like the disciples were in the upper room before encountering the risen Christ.

We live in a society that up to very recently promoted reckless consumption as a means of stimulating the economy. After the horrific events of September 11, our political leaders encouraged consumption as a way to resume "life as usual" and show the world we had not been defeated by this act of terrorism. Every Christmas season the stores await the throngs of shoppers to see exactly how they will manage to make a profit, especially after the economic crash of 2008. In this kind of social and cultural context, it becomes very difficult, almost isolating, to go against the current and attempt to raise a family in the ways of care for the environment and simple living.

Stewardship of the earth, in our current social context, is a counter-cultural, almost rebellious action against the market forces that see consumption as the only fuel to propel an economy that rarely if ever stops to consider the real costs it bears on the environment and on those who first suffer the effects of environmental degradation. Whether by industrial smog and waste, dumping on waterways, or poor working conditions that expose farmers, workers, and eventually consumers to toxic chemicals used to increase production, ALL members of our global family are paying a high price for a level of production and consumption that stopped being sustainable years ago.

Perhaps the reading in Acts presents a more accurate reflection on the risks of being counter-cultural. We find the disciples of Jesus preaching and living according to what they have been taught. We know that in fact these two actions in tandem – the preaching and intentional living of the early communities – were the reason that so many were attracted to this fledgling movement initially. We hear in this reading the following exchange between the authorities, who have (apparently once again) brought the disciples in for questioning on their subversive and counter-cultural activities:

"When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, saying, 'We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man's blood on us.' But Peter and the apostles answered, 'We must obey God rather than any human authority'" (5:27-29).

Clearly the enthusiasm, witness, and everyday life of the disciples and their followers are an affront to the authorities, their way of life, business as usual. The disciples seem to be inviting alternatives in living and being in community that do not sustain the power structures of the time. As a response they declare the line attributed to Peter here: "We must obey God rather than any human authority."

I often wish I had Peter's fortitude when I speak to my children about why we ask our guests not to bring any presents to our birthday parties or our Christmas parties. To my children, who are now realizing that not everyone lives under the same family traditions (for example, our "no gift" policy), this seems terribly counter-cultural. Worse yet, they understand that this and other earth-practices that we follow (such as composting, gardening, using every ounce of any product in the house before recycling its container, only buying natural and organic toiletries, re-using the backs of paper to turn in assignments) put them outside the norm. Following earth-friendly practices in the home can mean and has meant to them some sense of loss, exclusion from the dominant culture, and labeling by others, not unlike the apostles in the upper room, the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and the early Christians in Acts.

These stories, then, serve as a mirror of the real human experience of making a real and significant choice to follow one's principles and being faithful stewards of creation and loving our neighbor. They very realistically describe the sometimes challenging sense of loss, isolation, and exclusion that can come when individuals, families and communities take significant measures for the environment that run counter to political, economic and socio-cultural "common sense." You need only think back to the discussions that may have ensued in your own churches when making decisions for the environment, perhaps some costly ones, when it was time to replace a heating system, a copy machine, or getting a sanitation permit to go from Styrofoam cups for the coffee hour to ceramic re-usable mugs. For some people making these changes seems utterly unconventional, challenging the very structures and foundations for our life in community.

But Peter's words are helpful in addressing my sense of loneliness and isolation: I must obey God rather than any human authority. Further in this exchange we receive another gift or grace in understanding how we are to pursue these counter-cultural earth-friendly practices: "And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey [God]" (v. 32). It is through the power of the Spirit that we can stand firm and move along the path of faithfully transforming our churches, our offices, our schools, and our homes to places of environmental concern and stewardship in solidarity with the earth and all the human family.

The Gospel reading from John also promises the presence of the Spirit to accompany us in the many challenges of life in community. The Spirit calls us into communities gathered by covenant to work together through these challenges, correct each other in loving embrace, learn together about projects and efforts which are new to us, and that may feel too different and too challenging to pursue.

The stories for today, including that of Thomas, the disciple who was lovingly welcomed by the risen Christ to come close and believe, do not end with the phrase, "and mistakes were never made because they were perfect in every way." Rather, we are faced with the real and very human face of the life of the communities after the resurrection, real lives experiencing loss, isolation, fear, and hopelessness. It is in the midst of these very negative feelings that is the hardest to proclaim resurrection – for the earth, for our communities, for our fledgling families trying to honor God's creation. And yet we move on in the embrace of the Alpha and the Omega, in the knowledge that we are within God's plan of redemption that includes all of history, all the times. We are then called to live as people of hope, for the earth, for each other, and for the human family, in this time, making mistakes, being truly human, faithful in the Spirit.

Dr. Maria Teresa Dávila, Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics at Andover Newton Theological School, is a lay woman in the Roman Catholic tradition.


Lectionary texts

Acts 5:27-32

When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, saying, "We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man's blood on us." But Peter and the apostles answered, "We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him."

Psalm 118:14-29

God is my strength
   and my might;
God has become my salvation.

There are glad songs
   of victory
in the tents
   of the righteous:
"The strong hand of God
   does valiantly;
the mighty hand of God
   is exalted;
the strong hand of God
   does valiantly."

I shall not die,
   but I shall live,
and recount the deeds
   of God.
God has punished me
   severely,
but God did not give me over
   to death.

Open to me the gates
   of righteousness,
that I may enter through them
   and give thanks to God.

This is the gate
   of God;
the righteous shall enter
   through it.

I thank you
   that you have answered me
and have become my salvation.

The stone that the builders rejected
   has become the chief cornerstone.

This is God's doing;
   it is marvelous in our eyes.

This is the day
   that God has made;
let us rejoice
   and be glad in it.

Save us, we beseech you,
   O God!
O God, we beseech you,
   give us success!

Blessed is the one who comes
   in the name of God.
We bless you
   from the house of God.

The Sovereign is God,
   and God has given us light.
Bind the festal procession
   with branches,
up to the horns
   of the altar.

You are my God,
   and I will give thanks to you;
you are my God,
   I will extol you.

O give thanks to God,
   for God is good,
for God's steadfast love
   endures forever.

or

Psalm 150

Praise be to God!

Praise God
   in God's own sanctuary;
praise God
   in the mighty firmament!

Praise God
   for God's mighty deeds;
praise God
   according to God's surpassing greatness!

Praise God
   with trumpet sound;
praise God
   with lute and harp!

Praise God
   with tambourine and dance;
praise God
   with strings and pipe!

Praise God
   with clanging cymbals;
praise God
   with loud clashing cymbals!

Let everything that breathes
   praise God!
Praise be to God!

Revelation 1:4-8

John to the seven churches that are in Asia:

Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.

To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
Look! He is coming with the clouds;
every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him;
and on his account
all the tribes of the earth will wail.
So it is to be. Amen.

"I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

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.


Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:blains@ucc.org)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ

(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: "Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place" in Calendar: Christ's Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)  

The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about "traditional" colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.

The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.

Before the Reformation's iconoclasm, and Trent's code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of "best," "second best," and "everyday" — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the "best" vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got "second best" or "everyday."