Saturday, April 18, 2009

Lectionary Notes

Some Notes on the Second Sunday of Easter, Year B
19 April 2009

I regret that the pressure of pastoral work made it impossible both to bring the notes on Holy Week up to date and to provide reflections on Easter Day, and hope that my readers will be understanding. This week’s notes are somewhat less complete than I would like, but perhaps what is here will be of some help and interest.

Of the Sunday
In the old Calendar this was the First Sunday after Easter, but the revised liturgy, wishing to stress the unity of the fifty days of Easter names the Day of the Resurrection the First Sunday of Easter. This is probably an improvement. In the Roman Rite the introit for this Sunday had (and has as an option) the antiphon 1 Peter 2.2, “Like newborn children you should thirst for milk, on which you spirit can grow to strength, Alleluia.” From the first words in Latin, Quasi modo geniti infantes, this Sunday gained the name Quasimodo, and since in a famous novel a certain foundling appeared at Notre Dame on this day … [It may be noted that the liturgical text of the antiphon differs from the standard text of the Vulgate, which is “sicut modo geniti, &c.”]

The Sentence and Collect make doubt and belief the themes of this Sunday, in line with the Gospel account of St Thomas’ doubt and coming to faith, which is read in all three years.

The Readings
Acts 4.32-35
The first nine chapters of the Acts of the Apostles relate the growth of the Church in Jerusalem. In these chapters there are three summaries which “they tend to generalize and idealize” [RCL commentary]. The summaries are this passage and 2:42-47 and 5:12-16. This reading follows the account of the healing of a lame man by Peter and John at the Temple in the name of Jesus [3.1-10]. There was a great public interest and Peter delivered a sermon [3.11-26]. The reaction of the Sadducees and the Council was hostile: the two apostles were arrested and questioned, but after forbidding them to speak any more of the name of Jesus the Council released them [4.1-18]. Peter and John explained politely that they would not be able to cease speaking of what they “had seen and heard”. They returned to the other disciples, and the community gave thanks and were filled with the Holy Spirit so that the place where they were shook [4.23-31]. Then follows the summary passage [32-37].
The community is described as having all things in common, so that none said that what belonged to them was their own. Some observations on this “apostolic communism” are in order.
Even the most socialist of Christians who laments with St John Chrysostom that the Church has relapsed into private property will realize that this this experiment of the first Christians in common living was apparently of short duration. Indeed, this passage and the story of Ananias and Sapphira suggest that communal property was a voluntary rather than an absolute condition of community life (see especially 5.3-4). The last two verses of the summary [4.376-7] which are for some reason omitted from today’s reading also prompt one to ask how common the selling of property actually was, if Branabas is remembered by name for doing this thing.
However, to discuss these questions is to discuss how the community fulfills the new commandment of the Lord Jesus, to love one another as he has loved us. If Christians see the things they own as God’s gift, whose primary purpose is to help others, then perhaps they do not need to hold all things in common. The verse that tests our apostolic living, then, would not be “everything they owned was held in common”, but “there was not a needy person among them”.
Psalm 133
This is of the “Psalms of Ascents” [Psalms 120-134], associated with the coming of pilgrims to Jerusalem, which sings of the joys of fraternal harmony, is an apt reflection on the first reading. The RCL commentary refers the first verse to the commandment of levirate marriage in Deuteronomy 25.5, on which see This seems to me to stretch the meaning, but then I am not an expert on the Old Testament.
The Epistle, 1 John 1.1-2.2
In this passage the author stresses that the teachers in the community were eye witness of the events they proclaim. On the whole question of eye-witness testimony and its place and importance in the early church, especially in the formation of the Gospels, see Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006). The RCl comments on this passage .
This reading is linked to today’s Gospel by the first verse, “what we have looked at and touched with our hands”, and in the purpose of the letter as given in verses 2 and 3. For the rest t
he passage is quite straightforward: you might find the RCL commentary on this passage helpful.
The Holy Gospel: St John 20.19-31
The Gospel passage has three sections. John 20.19-23 relates the first appearance of the Risen Lord to the disciples on the evening of the first Easter Day. 20.24-29 tells of Thomas, who was not then present, but sees the Lord a week later. 20.30-31 form a conclusion to the Gospel: for its relation to the following chapter, see a good commentary on John. I would particularly recommend Archbishop Temple’s Readings in St John’s Gospel, which is an almost indispensible companion to the Fourth Gospel. He treats this passage on pp 377-8 of the complete edition (reprint, Morehouse Barlow, 1985).
Some points should be noted.
Both appearances of the Lord occur when the disciples are gathered on the first day of the week, the Lord’s Day. That it was in the evening is no surprise, since Sunday was an ordinary weekday. Temple suggests that it was late in the evening, referring to the account of the journey to Emmaus (Luke 24.29, 33-36). That the Lord’s appearances were made on the Lord’s Day to the assembled community is important, for the Gospel is addressed to those who come to faith not through sight or touch but through the witness of the apostles.
The doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews [NRSV]: the RSV’s “shut” is a better translation, for while the word is related to kleis, “key” it seems to mean rather “shut up” than lock: the Vulgate has clausae, shut. There is nothing in the text to justify “of the house”, and although “had met” is found in some manuscripts, “where the disciples were” is the reading of the better texts. It is only necessary to think of the room they were in being shut up, though the whole house may have been. I point these things out to suggest that the NRSV is sometimes too loose a rendering, but having said that I will try not to dwell on it. Far more important is how we read for fear of the Jews. It is very important that we remember the note in the Liturgy of Good Friday here: “The term ‘the Jews’ in St. John’s Gopspel applies to particular individuals and not to the whole Jewish people.” This should be obvious, since as far as we know all the people behind the shut doors were themselves Jews. Specifically, the term should be taken to refer to the religious leadership of the day.
The RCL commentary says that “it is not clear why at this time Jesus’ followers should fear them”, but it seems quite natural that the followers of a man who had been condemned and executed might be at some risk from the authorities. Temple says, “no doubt the story of the empty tomb was known and the disciples might well be charged with stealing the Body.”
Much has been said about the appearance of the Lord. Temple’s comment is helpful and restrained.:
came Jesus and stood in the midst. We need not say that He came through the closed doors; The Evangelist does not say that; the word came implies no more than that at one time He was not there and at a later time He was there. But the story does imply that the Risen Body was free from some of its former limitations.
He showed them his hands and sides as marks of identity. The common greeting Peace with you had a deeper meaning for the disciples because of Jesus’ words in John 14.27: Peace I leave to you
Our translation then has: “When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” This should be translated as “receive holy spirit”, on which see Temple, page 368, where he notes that “what is bestowed is not the Divine Person Himself but the power and energy of which He is the source”. He goes on to point out that the authority to forgive is here “given to the body, not, or at least not necessarily or certainly, to any one member of that body”, but that “in practice the Church must do this through appropriate organs”: Matthew 16.19 “supports the practice of the Church in translating this commission from the plural to the singular in the Ordination of Priests”. The rest of the discussion is unfortunately too long even to summarize here.
Sadly, I must stop there if these notes are to be available before Sunday. I hope that the joy of the Resurrection may be yours.