Every Tuesday at about 12:30 pm we have a Bible Study. We usually meet in the library in the Town Church, but, like everything else, we have moved to Zoom. You are, of course, all welcome to join us. When I arrived, the group had been working their way through Genesis, but in the past, the group has followed the lectionary, so this past week we decided to return to the lectionary.
In the process, we came across a couple questions about the lectionary that I thought it might be useful to answer here for everyone. I’ll start with what it is: the lectionary, or, more fully, the Revised Common Lectionary, is a three-year cycle of scripture readings designed by representatives from many of the Protestant denominations in North America, including our own PC(USA). As you might guess from it’s name, it is the second version—the first was just the Common Lectionary. Both are inspired, and to some degree, based on the Roman Catholic Ordo Lectionem Missae, which came out of Vatican II in 1969.
The Lectionary generally provides four texts for each week: two from the Hebrew Bible, one of which is a Psalm, and two from the New Testament, one of which comes from the Gospels. Those of you who are paying attention might now be thinking “Wait…we didn’t have an Old Testament reading today” and that’s because in the Easter Season (yes, it’s not just one Sunday), the Lectionary replaces the Hebrew Bible reading with one from Acts. We’ll start getting Hebrew Bible readings in June. This is because, yes, the four readings are chosen with some attention to the cycle of the church year, and also with an eye toward covering most of the Bible over the course of the three year cycle. This brings me to some bad news for the Tuesday Bible Study: this year, we spend much of the summer right back in Genesis.
Another question from the group came out of today’s reading from Acts, which, I know it was a while ago, was was chapter 2, verse 14a and verses 22-32: what about verses 14b through 21? I always make sure to do when the lectionary skips a section, is to go see what they skipped.
This omitted verses from Acts this week include a quotation from Joel, and the declaration that Peter and the people with him aren’t drunk, certainly not at 9 am. The passage from Joel is a good one, beginning with “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” I really like that idea, so I’m glad I was able to work it in here, but ultimately, this omitted section is really about Pentecost, and, in fact, we’ll be reading it on Pentecost, so I’ll lay it back aside until May 31.
I always check the skipped verses because they might give me new or different ideas for preaching, though usually, like today, its clear enough why they were set aside. The problem, of course, is one that we can’t completely get around. Most of the Bible was not written with our ideas of worship in mind. The Gospels were often recited from memory in a single sitting—there are still people who do that with Mark, the shortest of the four. The Epistles, and Epistle is just a fancy way of saying “letter,” were as much advice column as theological documents, and you can imagine that, when a community received a letter from Paul, who was often behind the formation of that community in the first place, they would gather together and read the whole thing together. They certainly weren’t likely to have someone read an excerpt and then tell them what it meant…well, at least not the ones who had learned Greek, which wouldn’t have been everyone.
I’ve gone, I think, plenty far down this particular path in the forest of all knowledge, and while there is much more to learn from this particular tree, we don’t want to miss the forest. You came for a sermon about the readings, not an academic lecture on how they were chosen.
In our reading from Acts, we open in verse 14a, telling us that Peter is giving a speech, and then skip to the middle of that speech, as Peter proclaims the resurrection, quoting David, through the Psalms to declare that, thanks to the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus, David’s prophesy has been fulfilled. Peter is proclaiming that he was a witness to these things as he seeks to convince the crowd to believe even though they, themselves have not. David’s tomb, like the tombs of many other Biblical figures, was and is a place of worship and veneration. We have no tomb of Jesus for worship because the tomb is empty: Jesus is not there.
In our reading from first Peter, a letter attributed, but that may or may not have been written by that same Peter, the author similarly assures people that they can believe even though they have not seen Jesus. He is writing to several churches in what is now Turkey, urging them to persevere. In the time this letter was written, the church has spread, with Christian communities throughout the Roman Empire, but it is still fragile. For many of Peter’s audience, joining the church meant leaving other relationships behind. They would not have been meeting in big buildings downtown with signs out front, but would have been meeting in small groups, perhaps in their homes, furtively. Peter’s promise to them is that this present distancing of themselves is worth it.
This image of these early Christians gathered in their homes, perhaps afraid of detection, afraid to be seen in public, is one that has stuck with me this week. It’s an image that isn’t just behind our text from 1 Peter, hidden underneath “even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials.” Our text from John is a bit more explicit.
‘“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.”’ The Gospel writer emphasizes the fear of the Jews because when the Gospel of John was written, the early Christian Community was being driven out of the synagogues, one of the trials 1 Peter refers to. We shouldn’t read that in blame Jewish people, either contemporary or historic, for anything here. Their fear would not have come from any single source. Let’s pick that sentence apart a bit—“It’s evening on that day, the first day of the week.” That is to say, this is the very day of the Resurrection. They are still processing, still in shock over Jesus death. They are afraid that the authorities, Roman and Jewish, might be coming for them next. They are afraid that everything they had been working for and trying to build was, like Jesus, dead. And so, they gathered together and locked the doors, seeking safety indoors because they just didn’t know what was out there, and they didn’t know when it would be safe to go out.
Jesus is not stopped by their fear. He is stopped by their uncertainty. And he isn’t stopped by their locked doors. Jesus came to them, said “Peace be with you.” And showed them his wounds to prove himself to them.
Well, most of them.
Thomas wasn’t home. We don’t know where he was. In this moment, I keep thinking that, just maybe, Thomas was out at the market getting them food, the one who maybe drew the short straw, or maybe was the bravest, the one who was willing to do what needed to be done to take care of the rest.
I’m trying to inflate Thomas a bit, because I feel like Thomas gets treated unfairly in this text, this story that has, for the last 2,000 years stuck Thomas with the nickname “Doubting Thomas.” That name bothers me, our insistence that we treat Thomas as somehow less than the others when all he asked for was the same thing they had already gotten.
Some of that treatment is due to a quirk of the lectionary. Today’s text picks up in the evening of “that day, the first of the week.” That phrasing should tell you that something happened earlier. That something that happened earlier, leading up to verse 18 in the twentieth chapter of John’s Gospel, was Mary, and the other women, going to the tomb to make sure that Jesus’ body was properly cared for. There, Mary, and the other women, found the empty tomb, and talked to two angels and then witnessed Jesus’ first resurrection appearance, during which Jesus tells her to go and tell the others. So, now we split the texts, and we tell that story on Easter Sunday and let a week go by to pick up the same evening when the disciples have locked the doors because they do not believe her.
No, we don’t get to be mean to Thomas, or at least, not any more so than we should be to the rest of the disciples. None of them accepted the word of anyone else in their group. Each of them got an experience with the risen Jesus.
Jesus gave each of them what they needed.
Mary, responding to her fear and grief by over-functioning, getting up early and looking for things to do, gathering the oils and spices for embalming and setting off to the tomb saw Jesus there, where he gave her comfort and gave her a task, go and tell the others, even if they won’t listen.
The disciples in the room that night, hiding behind locked doors saw Jesus saw his wounds, and were greeted with words of peace and forgiveness. They had not believed Mary and were doubting God, and so were given assurance.
Thomas, perhaps more reluctant to go out than Mary, but still doing the things that needed to be done, going out despite his fear and doubt, he too was given the assurance he needed, and through him, we also receive a blessing, even those of us who are, once again, behind closed doors waiting for it to be safe to go out. The tomb is empty. This sanctuary is mostly empty. Jesus is not confined. God is not stopped by our closed doors. God will be with us when we come together here and at St. Luke’s, but God is with us in our homes now.