May 1, 2011
Commentary by Jeanyne B. Slettom
Acts 2:14a, 22-32
1 Peter 1:3-9
The Easter Season texts concentrate on Acts and 1 Peter and focus on the first-century establishment of the church within the overarching context of the Roman Empire. Because the church is well established by the time we come along, one might argue that these texts have more historical than theological interest. However, in a process view, the church is never “established,” but always in a state of becoming. In these contested times, when there are open conflicts about what it means to be a Christian, and when the United States is the world’s sole superpower, both economically and politically, the question of how to live with the faithfulness of Jesus in the overarching context of empire remains remarkably pertinent. How are we faithful to the transforming power of God here and now when a dominating worldly power is also the reality in which we live?
The book of Acts begins in Jerusalem and ends in Rome. From a strictly narrative point of view, this is an arc that takes the nascent Christian faith from the foot of the cross to the seat of the Roman Empire. In many ways, it is a trajectory still taking place, for empire religion is still part of our world today, and Jesus’ message of justice and inclusion still needs to be heard. We are always bringing the Gospel to worldly seats of power.
Peter’s 1st Epistle begins with the assumption that diasporic Christians are like foreign bodies in the body politic of Rome. He doesn’t mean it in a political sense, but in a theological sense. Christians are not politically opposed to Rome, it’s just that their allegiance is to God and the new society in Christ. To Roman eyes, Christians were suspect because their refusal to legitimate civic religion and emperor worship was seen as subversive—destabilizing the state. The question then becomes, again, how to live with the faithfulness of Jesus in the overarching context of empire. How are we faithful to the transforming power of God here and now when a dominating worldly power is also the reality in which we live?
Acts 2:14a, 22-32
In this speech, Peter is concerned to establish the event of the crucifixion as happening within the power and purpose of God. His use of Hebrew scriptures is intended to affirm Jesus as the Messiah, the anointed one of God, descended from the line of David. At the same time he affirms a resurrection belief that Jesus has been raised up by God. In other words, the crucifixion should not be understood as undermining the disciples’ beliefs about Jesus; on the contrary, events should be read as conforming with prophecy, and therefore confirming Jesus as the Messiah.
What are we to make of this? The doctrinal answer, of course, is bodily resurrection. At stake in this answer is not only the power of God over the death of Jesus, but specifically the power of God over our deaths, yours and mine. I have no objection to this hope and this promise, but I also think we miss something important if we limit ourselves to this eschatological understanding.
Anyone familiar with Hebrew scripture knows that God often does surprising things. Anyone familiar with Jesus’ parables knows the same thing. From this we understand that with God, things are not always what they seem. As a teacher, God does not go for the rote method, but turns things upside down and around for what could be called the “aha!” method. In this case, by putting death and resurrection in the context of the prophetic books, Peter is reminding the disciples that it is precisely in this paradoxical way that God works, and therefore God really is behind these events.
From a process perspective, we would say that God is at work in these events, transforming the crucifixion event—intended by Rome as an ending—into a resurrection event—intended by God as a new beginning. The Greek word for resurrection used in the New Testament is anastasis, literally “to stand up, to rise.” The death of Jesus does not destroy the faithfulness of Jesus; it stands up, rises, in everyone who participates in that faithfulness. Christ is alive—and it is the paradox that establishes the truth.
Pairing this psalm, which expresses complete trust in God, with the New Testament texts, which address those fearful and confusing days following the crucifixion, reinforces the message of Peter’s speech in Acts 2. It reminds us of the nature of God. The evocative language of protection, refuge, and presence speak powerfully to God as the foundation on which we stand. God counsels, God is at the psalmist’s right hand; therefore his body “rests secure.” This is contrasted with the “multiple sorrows” of those who serve another god. If we read this psalm as preachers and not exegetes, it can serve as a further reflection on the inner turmoil of the disciples. There is the “other god” of Rome, and it has one version of events, the appropriate response to which is fear. And there is the God of Israel, and this God has another version of events, the appropriate response to which is faith and a glad heart.
1 Peter 1:3-9
The theme continues, with its emphasis on faith in a relational God, who gives new birth, living hope, and an imperishable inheritance—not in the abstract, but personally, to each of us. The take-away for our times is consonant with the epistle writer’s message to persecuted believers, foreigners in the body politic of the Roman Empire; namely, to hold on in the face of trials, to trust even in extremity in the presence and promise of God.
We have all known people who renounce their faith when tragedy strikes, wondering “what kind of God” would permit such pain and suffering. The message from all of these texts suggests that such “faith” is based on a faulty understanding of the nature of God. Reciting the history of God’s interaction with Israel and in the life of Jesus is meant to remind us that God’s power is not in preventing the consequences of human free will (the “cup” did not pass from Jesus) but in transforming them into something life-giving. Nowhere is this more powerfully represented than in the cross, which transforms an instrument of death into a declaration of life.
The heart of this story is epistemological. It asks the question, how do we know what we know? The disciples know what they experienced in the aftermath of Jesus’ crucifixion. It was an overpowering sense of his presence and the conviction that his message had not been silenced but was still alive. They felt this because they had known Jesus and thus what it felt like to be in his presence. But what about those who came after, who hadn’t known him as they had? How could they share in this palpable presence if they had never known him in life?
This story addresses ways of knowing. It acknowledges the struggle between intuition and fact, between being persuaded by the heart or demanding the empirical evidence of sight and touch. When Jesus appears on the other side of a locked door; when he greets the disciples with the words, “Peace be with you,” he is as real as the visions so many people have experienced of deceased loved ones. According to the story, there is no question that the disciples see Jesus. This experience is then contrasted with Thomas, the empiricist who must touch the wounds of Jesus in order to believe.
So does Thomas actually touch flesh? I don’t know. But the gospel of John constantly contrasts literal and metaphorical understanding, and in this case the writer offers a narrative that addresses both kinds of knowing and uses different characters to represent each approach. What emerges, then, is this: it doesn’t matter how one comes to believe, but that one comes to believe. And the author is convinced that his story has that kind of persuasive power, that it addresses our varying approaches to ascertaining truth.
There is one more thing to consider here. Thomas recognizes Christ—the transformative power of God—when he touches the wounds in Jesus’ side. In other words, there is a metaphorical message even in this nod to empiricism. Sometimes it is only when we touch our wounds that we discover Christ the companion, Christ the fellow sufferer. When our story touches Jesus’ story, we are drawn into this powerful example of faithfulness and transformation. When we then discover of what this faithfulness consists, we learn the ethics of Jesus, and when we put them into practice, we become one more voice speaking truth to power and one more participant in the transforming work of God.
Jeanyne B. Slettom is the director of Process & Faith. She received her PhD from Claremont Graduate University. She is an adjunct professor at the Claremont School of Theology and United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, and also co- pastor of Brea Congregational (UCC) Church in Brea, CA. She is the editor of Creative Transformation, managing editor of Process Studies, and editor of The Process Perspective, by John B. Cobb, Jr., and The Process Perspective II.