Our Gospel reading this morning is once again from John, and it will be June before we return to Matthew, the primary Gospel for Year A in the RCL. You may be surprised to learn that while all the other readings for the the second Sunday of Easter change from year to year, this pericope from John is the Gospel reading for this Sunday every single year. And of course it’s the reading that prominently features the poor chap who for 2,000 years or so has been memorialized under the unfortunate moniker of “Doubting Thomas.” This morning it’s my intention to let Thomas off the hook, not to follow others in either bashing him once again or in attempting by exegetical tour-de-force to rehabilitate his reputation, but instead by ignoring him altogether, simply because I found it more interesting this week to trace Peter from what was surely his very first sermon as recorded in Acts 2 to what may be presumed to have been among his last sermons in his first letter, addressed “to whom it many concern” in Asia Minor. I love both the continuity and the progression in Peter’s thoughts as he reflects on the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, first only a short time after the fact and then some three decades later.
We all love Peter because we find so much in him that reminds us of ourselves. Clearly Jesus loved Peter even more than we, as he included him in the innermost circle of the disciples, addressed him personally on numerous occasions, moved to his home town, healed his mother-in-law, gave him the rather more positive moniker of “the Rock,” said that He would build His Church on the rock of faith that Peter exhibited, and specially commissioned him to feed His sheep. We may try to rehabilitate Thomas after his doubting, but Jesus Himself rehabilitated Peter after his denials by giving him three opportunities to declare his love for Him. And I’m not the first to observe that on the very day of His Resurrection, Jesus told the women to go tell Peter and the disciples that He had risen from the dead. If that was not a clear act of forgiveness before it was even requested, I don’t know what is!
And so, what do we find Peter saying and writing about the Resurrected Christ? First, we will look at his magnificent first sermon, one so amazing that every young preacher wonders how such mastery is possible, forgetting that this was the Day of Pentecost and that Peter most assuredly was not “on his own” in preparing and proclaiming his Spirit-inspired message. Perhaps you noted with some pleasure that after several consecutive weeks of unusually long lectionary readings, the RCL people have seriously truncated Peter’s sermon, jumping straight from the introductory words to the middle two-fifths before dropping altogether his dramatic and poignant conclusion. (You might even wish that the same could be done with my sermon!) But when it comes to Scripture, cutting out any of the context always results in diminishment, and this is no exception. Without hearing the opening two-fifths of Peter’s sermon we miss the fact that in this very first post-Resurrection sermon Peter presents what some have termed Christological Eschatology: the centering of end times theology entirely in the Person of Jesus Christ.
Peter quotes from the prophecy of Joel that predicted a time when God would pour out His Spirit on all flesh, signs and wonders would appear and, very importantly, the prophetic voice would once again be heard. Joel wrote that this would occur “in the last days.” Peter is affirming that those last days have arrived: what was prophesied by Joel had begun dramatically in the ministry of Jesus and in the events of Pentecost. And the final verse that he quotes from Joel is this: “It shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the Name of the Lord shall be saved!”
Not content to leave the Scriptural witness just with the apocalyptic prophecy of Joel, Peter turns to our Psalm for today, Psalm 16, to show how David himself foresaw and spoke prophetically about the Resurrection of Christ, Whose soul was not abandoned to the place of the dead. Continuing in some of the verses left out of today’s reading, Peter adds words from Psalm 110 that foretell the Ascension of Jesus to the right hand of the Father, where He remains until His enemies are made His footstool. Clearly Peter was paying attention on those occasions when Jesus opened the Scriptures to His disciples, showing them how the Law, the Prophets and the Writings all bore witness to Him.
There’s one other thing not to be missed in Peter’s Pentecost sermon: it’s that he places everything that had happened in the context of God’s sovereignty: he says that Jesus was “delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God,” leaving no room at all for the thought of some grand scheme having gone awry at the hands of those whom Peter calls “godless men.” Those who called for Jesus’ crucifixion had no idea that they were following the “predetermined plan” of God! But the plan did not end at the Cross. Peter adds, “But God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power.” Imagine that this entire story simply played out according to what God had predetermined!
This makes an almost perfect segue to the first letter of Peter. We could go directly from the final sentence in today’s reading in Acts to the first sentence in the epistle: “This Jesus God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses.” “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” If the Resurrection had been nothing more than a historical event with no particular consequences, it’s highly improbable that it would be remembered much less celebrated universally 2,000 years later. But Peter writes that God’s chesed, His covenant mercy, as demonstrated in the raising of Jesus, has issued in our own rebirth and instilled in us a “living hope!” The Resurrection is the ground, the basis, the assurance of the “living hope” to which we’re born again. Combining this with the definition of faith that the author of Hebrews gives us, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for” (Hebrews 11:1), we can confidently say with Peter that we have “an inheritance that is imperishable and undefiled and unfading, reserved in heaven.” That’s what “living hope” means: that our faith is not founded on finger-crossing, but on the work that God Himself has done on our behalf.
That’s enough for me. But it’s not enough for Peter: he goes on to pile up several more amazing phrases in witness to the assurance of our faith, bolstering up its foundation beyond any doubt, even speaking of “the proof of our faith,” which might sound to some like an oxymoron! First Peter writes that we are “protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” Once again, as in his very first sermon, Peter is establishing his Christological eschatology: that is, that the finished work of Christ that ensures our salvation is at the very center of God’s grand scheme for the whole of His creation including its final destiny.
We need to look briefly at these stunning words of our favorite Galilean fisherman about our imperishable, undefiled, and unfading inheritance:
- First of all, according to vs. 4, it already is reserved in heaven for us. Peter, in the Upper Room, heard Jesus say that He was going off to prepare a place for us (John 14:1). I love to plan trips, but I like to leave nothing to chance. I like to have reservations made months in advance for hotel rooms, restaurants, concerts, admissions to special places or events: as many things as possible are booked well ahead of time in order to reduce greatly any anxiety that might arise from not having planned ahead. Peter says that our reservations for heaven are already made, that they are in the category of things that cannot fade away, and that we even have trip insurance: God’s powerful protection (vs. 5).
- Second, Peter adds that there may be some speed bumps along the way, perhaps some trials if necessary, even distressing ones, ones that may put a bit of a damper on our rejoicing. But even these are placed in the broader context of pure gold, gold that is refined by fire, not destroyed by it (vss. 6, 7). Peter goes so far as to say that even these trials are to be understood as “proof of our faith,” resulting in “praise and glory and honor.” We might wish to interrupt and ask, “What about those martyrs whose ‘various trials’ resulted in a horrible death? Where is their “praise and glory and honor?” Peter writes that it will be at the revelation of Jesus Christ, once again affirming his Christological eschatology. Clearly the unexpected delay in Christ’s return did nothing to diminish Peter’s certainty that it was coming. In his second letter, Peter reminds his readers that “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as one day,” but that “the Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness” (II Peter 3:8, 9). It’s been only two days since the Resurrection! Meanwhile, as we wait, Peter writes a few verses later, “Fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (vs. 13).
- Third, Peter makes one of his most beautiful statements in vs. 8: “Though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you rejoice greatly with joy inexpressible and full of glory.” Can it get any better than that? Really? What possibly could be better in this life or in the life to come than “joy inexpressible and full of glory?” How often have we experienced that? Peter is saying that it’s available right now to those who love Him and believe in Him: joy inexpressible and full of glory!
- And at the end of this amazing list comes this assurance, that when all is said and done, we will “obtain as the outcome of our faith the salvation of our souls.” It may sound irreverent to say, “That sure beats the alternative,” but it’s true.
We did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, such an utterance as this was made to Him by the Majestic Glory, “This is My beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased;” and we ourselves heard this utterance made from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain (of Transfiguration).
So we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the Morning Star arises in your hearts.
Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen