Resurrection in the early church

__Sharing Scripture and Communion. Second Sunday of Easter, April 3, 2005.__

First Congregational United Church of Christ, Santa Rosa, California. An Open and Affirming Congregation. The Rev. Robert F. Cramer, Eucharistic Minister.

_The gospel readings for today are John 20:19-23 and 24-29:_

That Saturday evening, the disciples had locked the doors for fear of the Judeans, but Jesus came and stood in from of them and he greets them, “Peace.” Then he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples were delighted to see the Master. Jesus greets them again: “Peace,” he says. “Just as the Father sent me, so now I’m sending you.” And at this he breathed over them and says, “Here’s some holy spirit. Take it. If you forgive anyone their sins, they are forgiven; if you do not release them from their sins, they are not released.” [John 20:19-23.]

_[On Easter, I shared a meditation on resurrection, without the kind of text-study I so often present; today, back to “Sunday school,” which always precedes our communion.]_

Here in the first passage we have what seems to be a special re-telling of a couple of major stories found elsewhere in the New Testament. One is Pentecost–which of course is otherwise pictured as a much larger public event; the other is the Great Commission. The gift of the spirit is to be shared along with forgiveness of sins.

I take it that really the idea of apostolic succession begins here. I’m not sure it’s ever presented that way, but isn’t it interesting that it’s the risen Jesus who directly confers the power that bishops, and the priests they ordain, continue to pass on.

I’m using the Scholars Version, as usual. Does it bother you that a lot of the texts translated by the Jesus Seminar, as this is, seem sloppy in their use of grammar? The tenses change frequently, often within a sentence. Most editions of Christian scripture present cleaned-up grammar. But the Scholars Version presents what is in the available earliest texts. We are told that if we listen carefully to people speaking, today, we will see such grammar, especially in telling stories. So we are reading something much closer to the original writings than we usually get to see.

The Jesus Seminar tells us that John’s story of the commissioning is like the one we know in Luke 24:36-49, except this one is simpler. Luke has Jesus eating fish to show he is not some imaginary figure–and yet, Jesus comes through a closed door to be with them. The early believers had a very difficult time figuring out what resurrection meant, and it shows in the gospels that they produced. So the gospels differ, as believers did.

_The rest of this morning’s regular gospel reading:_

Now Thomas, the one known as _The Twin,_ one of the twelve, hadn’t been with them when Jesus put in his appearance. So the other disciples tried to tell him, “We’ve seen the Master.” But he responded, “Unless I see the holes the nails made, and put my finger in them and my hand in his side, I’ll never believe.” A week later the disciples were again indoors, and Thomas was with them. The doors were locked, but Jesus comes and stood in front of them and said, “Peace.” Then he says to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and look at my hands; take your hand and put it in my side. Don’t be skeptical but be a believer.” Thomas responded, “My Master! My God!” “Do you believe because you have seen me?” asks Jesus. “Those who can believe without having to see are the ones to be congratulated.” [Jn20;24-29.]

We’ve thought about _Doubting Thomas_ a couple of times already this year. The way John writes the story tells us it is probably written about a full generation after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. By that time, some were beginning to worship Jesus, or at least to make it seem okay to call him God. It is no wonder the Jewish leaders threw them out. Anyway, this story doesn’t actually say Thomas touched Jesus, even though he’d been invited to do so. It is Jesus’ assurance that he is real that seems to have grabbed Thomas.

Thomas became very important to many Christians. With the Jesus Seminar, I study not only Jesus but the whole history of the first few centuries of the Christian tradition. Much of that history is to be found in a wide range of gospels and writings of the church fathers. Among them are many gospels not included in the New Testament, but which were important enough to early believers that they were protected from destruction when they were suddenly declared to be heretical.

So we have the Gospel of Thomas in a Coptic text as well as in some Greek fragments; we have an Infancy Gospel of Thomas from the second century; we have the Acts of Thomas, from the third century; and the Apocalypse of Thomas from the fourth century. Thomas is supposed to have founded the Mar Thoma Church in India, which survives today. And he is closely associated with Syrian Christianity. _Thomas matters._

Among other recently-found texts, important to early Christian groups, are The Gospel of Peter, of which we have some fragments, and the Odes of Solomon (which in spite of their name were Christian hymns).

I thought we might look at them this morning, just for interest. They were selected for today by Father John Butcher for his _Uncommon Lectionary,_ intended to complement the standard lectionary. Butcher also suggested reading from Exodus. So here are the three readings.

You shall celebrate a sacred occasion on the first day, and a sacred occasion on the seventh day; no work at all shall be done on them; only what every person is to eat, that alone may be prepared for you. You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread, for on this very day I brought your ranks out of the land of Egypt; you shall observe this day throughout the ages as an institution for all time.In the first month, from the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread until the twenty-first day of the month at evening. No leaven shall be found in your houses for seven days. For whoever eats what is leavened, that person shall be cut off from the community of Israel, whether he is a stranger or a citizen of the country. [Exodus 12:16-19.]

Now it was the last day of Unleavened Bread, and many began to return to their homes since the feast was over. But we, the twelve disciples of the Lord, continued to weep and mourn, and each one, still grieving on account of what had happened, left for his own home. But I, Simon Peter, and Andrew, my brother, took our fishing nets and went away to the sea. And with us was Levi, the son of Alphaeus, whom the Lord…. [Gospel of Peter 14; from _The Complete Gospels,_ Polebridge Press.]

The Exodus passage, of course, we have always had with us. Maybe we don’t often think about the rites Jesus and the others participated in. I think it’s a good way to enrich our understanding of the passion, of resurrection, and of the formation of our faith.

The Gospel of Peter, its remaining fragment, ends as we have just read it. Various gospels have always differed as to where the appearances of Jesus occurred; this one is back in Galilee.

Now imagine singing this hymn at a time when people are still looking back to the Greek Old Testament to figure out what had happened in Jesus.

_You know me and bring me up. You are the summit of perfection. You glorify me by kindness. You lift my thought to truth. You show me Your Way._

_I open closed doors, shatter bars of iron. My shackles melt. Nothing appears closed because I am the Door to everything. I free slaves, leaving no one in bonds. I spread my knowledge and love, I sow my fruits in their hearts and transform them. I bless them. They live. I gather them and save them. They become the limbs of my body and I am their head._

_Glory to You, our Head, our Lord Messiah. Hallelujah!_ [Odes of Solomon 17:6-9; Syrian Christian, circa 100 CE.]