Lectionary Commentaries for April 26, 2020
Third Sunday of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Luke 24:13-35

Eric Barreto

Luke’s narratives take us on the road frequently.1

A journey brings Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. A road is the narrative setting for the parable of the Good Samaritan. A road leads the prodigal back home to his father. Jesus sets his eyes toward Jerusalem in Luke 9:51 and travels there until 19:28; this is known among scholars as the travel narrative wherein we find some of the most distinctively Lukan contributions to the story of Jesus.

The roads continue in the Book of Acts where, for instance, Paul encounters the risen Jesus on his way to Damascus. There is something about travel that evokes Luke’s literary and theological imagination. There is something about roads, the way roads bring us together, the way roads can pose a danger to us all, the way roads become a symbol of a faith on the move.

It is poignant then that the narrative of these two disciples on the road to Emmaus draws us to the conclusion of the Third Gospel. The story is a narrative wonder. Irony, misunderstanding, drama, a reveal: these are components of powerful story. Moreover, a number of Lukan themes are woven together in this narrative: table fellowship, hospitality, faithfulness, discipleship. The scene on this road augurs the future of Christ’s church in the Lukan imagery. This will be a church on the move, sent out by a Jesus who walks alongside us even when we don’t recognize him.

Let’s take a closer look at the narrative.

This scene is set on the same day as the women’s discovery of the empty tomb from last week. We learn that two disciples are walking, leaving Jerusalem to make the seven-mile jaunt to Emmaus. Why are they leaving Jerusalem? Do they fear for their lives now that Jesus has been executed? We don’t really know. All Luke tells us is that they are grieved about their recent experience. They are talking to one another, hoping to make sense of the nonsensical, when Jesus himself walks alongside them and joins them on their journey.

But in a sentence no English teacher would allow to stand, Luke recounts, “but their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (verse 16; italics added). Did you catch the passive voice? This grammatical construction occludes the reason that they can’t recognize Jesus. Were they so grieved by their experience and so sure that Jesus was gone that they simply didn’t expect him? Did Jesus look different after the resurrection? Was his face transformed? Was Jesus wearing a mask with a goofy mustache? We just don’t know. Luke does not tell us.

In a strikingly ironic moment, when Jesus asks these two disciples what they are discussing, they are incredulous. Who doesn’t know what has been happening in Jerusalem these days? It was all over the news; it was a trending topic on Twitter!

Their dashed hopes are voiced in verse 21: “… we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel…” Had hoped. We invested our hopes in this Jesus, but he was not whom we had hoped he would be. In response, Jesus outlines for them the meaning and significance of his own death, starting from Moses and the prophets. It was “necessary” that Jesus would suffer, die, rise, and be lifted up into “glory.”

The story takes one more twist. As they approach their destination, the two disciples notice that Jesus seems to be planning to keep walking. (Where was he headed? Again, Luke leaves us in the dark!) They exhort Jesus to stay with them. They offer hospitality to one whom they believe is a stranger. They offer to be hosts to this traveling companion and “new” friend.

But as soon as the table is set, Jesus upends the expected social roles. He becomes the host by blessing the bread and sharing it. Now, remember, they still don’t know that they are dining with Jesus once again; they don’t realize that their dashed hopes are restored in the resurrected body of this “stranger.”

But when Jesus does the most Jesus thing of all, everything changes.

I wonder what we think is the most characteristic activity of Jesus. When we imagine Jesus, what is he doing? For many, he is on the cross. For many, he may be preaching to a crowd. For many, he may be healing the sick with the touch of his hands. For many, he may be enthroned at the right hand of God.

For Luke, however, Jesus is most Jesus at a quotidian table, at an ordinary meal infused with significance because of the people gathered around the food. Jesus is there at this table but so also all the sinners and tax collectors with whom Jesus shared meals. But not only that! Also at this table are the many powerful people with whom Jesus also dined.

One of the most characteristic activities of Jesus’ ministry in Luke is eating. He is accused early in the Gospel of being a glutton and a drunkard (7:34); worse, he eats with all the wrong people! So, it’s instructive that it’s not his teaching that open their eyes. It’s not his presence. It’s his sharing of bread with his friends. It’s his blessing of food. In this sharing of bread at an ordinary table, we catch a glimpse of Jesus’ transformative kingdom.

In Luke, eating is a radical act because it breaks down cultural boundaries. In Luke, the resurrected Jesus shares that bread once again with his followers. And in feeding them, Jesus opens their eyes, helping them see that Jesus was with them the whole time.


Notes

  1. Commentary first published on this site on April 23, 2017.

First Reading

Commentary on Acts 2:14a, 36-41

Jerusha Matsen Neal

The sermons in Acts are not autonomous, “sage-on-the-stage,” rhetorical performances.

They record lived encounters between preachers and communities grappling with the presence of a risen Lord. As such, sermons in Acts are regularly interrupted by the unexpected. Acts 10, for example, describes Peter’s sermon as being interrupted by the Spirit, leading to an outbreak of communal praise (Acts 10:44). In Acts 2, Peter’s sermon is interrupted again, this time by a community “cut to the heart” with contrition (verse 37). In both cases, resurrection preaching leads to responsive action and congregational speech.

In congregations where I worship, interruptions of the sermon are rare. When it happens, it is often a holy thing. I remember a sermon where a pastor was preaching on the importance of prayer, and a woman in the back row stood up and said, “Pastor, I don’t understand what you mean by ‘prayer.’ What is it that I’m supposed to do?” The conviction in her heart was so urgent that she needed specifics and clarification, and she was willing to interrupt worship to get them. Verse 37 is evidence of God’s power at work. Peter’s listeners interrupt his words and step onto the sermonic stage.

The timing of the interruption is significant. The lectionary passage begins with Peter’s own disruption of his listeners’ expectations. Up to this point in the sermon, he has been building his claim that Jesus is Lord and Messiah, drawing on Psalm 16 (Acts 2:25-28, 31) and Psalm 110 (verses 34-35) to make his point. Luke’s larger project in Acts 2 has been describing the significance of Jesus’ Lordship for the gathered community. What difference does it make that Jesus has been raised from death and now sits at God’s right hand? The Spirit is poured out. The “last days” (verse 17) break into the present. “All of us” are invited to be “witnesses” of resurrection life (verse 32).

But now there is a change in tone. Like an hourglass turned on its head, Peter inverts his point. The question is not only, “What does it mean to have a Savior and Lord who has been raised?” The question is also, “What does it mean to have a Savior and Lord who was brutally killed?” Peter does not mince words contrasting the action of God with the action of humanity. “God made him both Lord and Messiah,” Peter says, “this Jesus whom you crucified” (verse 36).

It is important to note that Peter’s “you” is addressed to those gathered from many countries and social locations. Weeks have passed since Jesus’ crucifixion. This Pentecost crowd is not the same crowd that chanted, “Crucify him!” (Luke 23:21) during Holy Week. And yet, they do not justify themselves. They do not bluster about who is really to blame or wash their hands of responsibility. Their hearts are convicted of complicity. Given our contemporary proclivity to avoid accountability of any sort, the crowd’s response seems as much a sign that the Spirit of the Crucified One is in their midst as speaking in tongues!

Christian tradition’s use of this passage to blame the “house of Israel” (verse 36) for Jesus’s death completely and tragically misses the point of Peter’s words. Like so many of Peter’s pronouns in this sermon, there is an eschatological bending of time in his accusation. There is an invitation to find ourselves in his “you”—in the same way that we are invited to find ourselves recipients of God’s promise (verse 39). In fact, finding ourselves in the one seems a precursor to finding ourselves in the other. We have all participated in Christ’s crucifixion throughout the centuries, in what we have done and what we have left undone.

In his reflection on why Jesus’ risen body bears the marks of mutilation in Luke, Ched Meyers remembers the courageous witness of Mamie Till-Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till. After her 14-year-old son was horrifically beaten and killed for allegedly whistling at a white woman, she refused a quick burial, returning her son’s body to Chicago to be viewed by thousands at a public funeral. She left the casket open, “insisting that America gaze on the reality of Jim Crow brutality.”1 African-Americans were not responsible for the killing of Emmett Till, but Till’s body demanded a response. What would they do? What would they risk? How would they live differently in light of this injustice? Many credit Till’s funeral as a catalytic spark in igniting the Civil Rights movement.

In Acts, Jesus’ crucifixion is not a mystic source of apocalyptic power.2 For all Acts may nod in the direction of God’s foreknowledge (verses 23), the crucifixion is laid at the feet of humanity. It is the result of sin, cowardice and passivity in acquiescence to an unjust empire. The “power in the blood” of Christ comes through its ability to interrupt our self-justification with repentance and awaken the possibility of resistance and change. “What should we do?” the crowds ask Peter. We have killed the Lord.

Today is a day for Easter repentance and congregational speech. It may be a day for lay testimonies or a liturgy that remembers the commitments of baptism. However a congregation goes about it, this is a day for interrupting the passivity of the ordinary. It is a day to name sin, relying on the hope of God’s forgiveness and the gift of the Spirit—a promise “for you, for your children, and for all who are far away” (verses 39).


Notes:

  1. Ched Meyers, “Jesus’ risen mutilated body,” Christian Century, September 3, 2019, https://www.christiancentury.org/article/critical-essay/jesus-risen-mutilated-body.

  2. Acts 20:28 is a rare exception.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19

Jason Byassee

Scripture is a confounding thing. If you’re not baffled by it, you’re not paying attention.

Mark Twain is reputed to have said, “It’s not the parts of Scripture I don’t understand that trouble me, it’s the parts I do.” We still proceed as though Scripture is troubling for its obscurity, its historical distance from our time and place, its debatable assumptions, its its its. We seldom stop to ask whether the problem is with us. Queer and feminist scholar Rita Felski often points out that the contemporary academy makes students and faculty sublimely articulate in our critiques, but surprisingly tongue-tied with regard to our loves.

Psalm 116 is not tongue-tied with regard to its loves. “I love the Lord,” it gushes right out of the gate. Sometimes we on the theological left dunk on praise and worship music as “Jesus is my boyfriend” music. The charge sticks when we throw it at this psalm. The way to pray it is without cool reserve, composed distance, measured equilibrium. It is to pant after God, who pants with longing for us first.

I love how physical the first few verses are. The Lord not only has an ear, but even inclines that ear toward the one praying (verse 2). These sorts of anthropomorphic descriptions of God are not to be taken literally, as both ancient and modern biblical scholarship agree (a rarity, that). Yet those of us joined in Christ to the God of Israel cannot help but see something of an anthropomorphization of God here. Literal description becomes an enfleshed God in Mary’s womb. God is shown to be surprisingly faithful to Scripture and frightfully allergic to our desire for distance from the divine.

God comes because we call. Be suspicious of the old canard, “there are no atheists in foxholes.” To read this psalm, there are no foxholes without God in them. The one praying calls out from the “snares of death,” the “pangs of Sheol” (verse 3), brought low to a place of death and tears and stumbling feet and affliction. But, however low the psalmist is pressed down, God presses God’s self down lower. God inclines (verse 2). God is not just gracious and merciful, as we have come to expect from Israel’s scripture (Exodus 34:6-7). Here, mercy is a participle. God goes around mercying. God delivers. God protects. God saves. The psalmist will not die, but will live (verse 9). When the psalms pray this way—and they often do—we presume the pray-er has come within an inch of death and then been miraculously delivered in order to render praise once more. But in Christ, we see that the one praying has not been delivered from death, that one has been delivered through death. There is no depth now to which Christ has not plunged, to save.

The latter half of the psalm is one of the richest fields for harvest for our New Testament’s writers. “I said in my consternation, ‘Everyone is a liar.’” It’s the sort of sentiment one lobs from the depths. And it is, of course, terribly dangerous. Spiritually speaking, no one should claim to be the only truth-teller. This is the sort of verse that led Dietrich Bonhoeffer to argue that only Christ prays the psalms. He is the only one free of deceit. St. Paul lands on this verse as part of his litany of human catastrophe in Romans 1-3: there is no one who is righteous, not even one (3:4, 10, 20, 23). We might amend, against Paul in one way but with him in all others: well, there is One … The psalmist’s “I kept my faith, even when I said” (verse 10) progresses through centuries and translations to become St. Paul’s “I believed and so I spoke” (2 Corinthians 4:13). As Paul glories in his weaknesses and foibles, he sees the pattern of Jesus: suffering, and so giving life, rather than death. The God of the cross only gives life through weakness, suffering, and death—no other way. “I kept my faith,” the psalm exults, and the writer of Timothy takes note, offering the epigram for which all people should long, “I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). Christian eucharistic prayers have often drawn upon verse 13, “I will lift up the cup of salvation” (see 1 Corinthians 10:16 here). What was once a reference to a drink offering, perhaps one that Jesus himself engaged in the night of his betrayal (Mark 14:23), here becomes a reference to another sort of cup of blessing, a drink that seems only for death but actually makes for new life. There are not only negative reasons to see Christ as the “I” in David’s songs. There are positive ones also. If you read this psalm in Christ, you start to discern the figure of the One who grants us access to the psalms in the first place.

The best known verse in this psalm for Christians may be one not quoted in the New Testament: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones” (verse 15). Both in Israel and in church, this has often been taken as a reference to the martyrs and to the death of God’s saints more generally. The word we translate “precious” could also be translated “costly.” It costs God dearly to see the death of even a single holy one. A light bearing witness to God’s grace goes out, and that costs God dearly. Yet in a surprising turn, even that light-gone-out can go on bearing witness, as it does in this psalm, as it does in Israel’s and the church’s memory, as it does in the communion of the saints. Never make death into a friend. It is only ever an enemy. As this psalm insists, it is an enemy defeated by a God who will bear any cost to save us. He then makes a trophy out of what death thought was a certain triumph, that turns out to be its ultimate defeat.


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Peter 1:17-23

Janette Ok

What happens when you no longer feel at home in your own household? Where do you find your sense of identity and belonging?

How can you maintain Christian distinctiveness and maintain God-honoring relations with non-believers, including members of your own family?

First Peter seeks to make the strange, familiar and the familiar, strange for believers who feel very much at home in the dominant culture. The letter addresses believers as though they are Gentile converts who are struggling to disidentify with their former way of life.

These believers face the pressure to conform to the attitudes, customs, and behaviors that characterized who they were before becoming Christian. God has given them new birth into a new family, but they must familiarize themselves with the values and lifestyle of their new reality as Christians. First Peter understands how becoming Christian is a process of becoming like Christ that involves not only spiritual transformation but identity formation.

In Greco-Roman society, it was expected that children obey their fathers. The author of 1 Peter expects the same from God’s children. However, the author does not simply command believers to do what God tells them to do. Rather, he offers a theological basis for his ethical exhortations (based largely on Leviticus 19). God’s children need to know God’s character because who God is shapes how they are to live. God the Father is holy—so, God’s obedient children must also be holy (1 Peter 1:14).

The holy one who called believers (1 Peter 1:15) is the same God whom believers can call “Father” (1:17). To “invoke God as Father” reminds us of the Lord’s prayer, where Jesus invites disciples into his relationship with God when addressing God as “our Father.” All of God’s children have one Father and belong to one family because of their relationship to the Son. But God the Father is also an impartial judge. So, God’s children are to live “in reverent fear” of their benevolent Father, who will judge all people according to their deeds, beginning with the household of God (1:17; 4:17).

What does it mean to “live in reverent fear during the time of your exile”? It means that Christians voluntarily embrace an exilic orientation toward the world. The behaviors and beliefs that once felt familiar to them must now feel foreign as they disengage from the “desires that wage war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11). It means that Christians not withdraw from the dominant culture but engage those in it while maintaining their social and moral difference.

1 Peter presumes in 1:18-19 that Christ’s blood has redemptive power to liberate Christians from their pasts, making it possible for them to live a radically transformed existence. This transformation had already been inaugurated when they were born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (1:3).

Notice how the focus of redemption here is not on individual sin but rather on the very basis of a person’s social identity: one’s ancestral traditions and lineage. The ransoming blood of Christ gives Christians the freedom to reevaluate and renounce the “futile ways inherited from your ancestors” (1:18-19). To dismiss as “futile” or “dead-end” the entire way of life handed down from the fathers is to reject the very values, commitments, and norms that gave them meaning and coherence. 1 Peter essentially encourages the kind of non-conforming behavior that threatens the stability of the family and society as a whole.

In light of this disruption to family values that 1 Peter assumes will cause social and domestic conflict (see 1 Peter 2:13-3:7), the letter’s use of familial and affectionate language is all the more important for constructing what it means to be Christian. Believers have been liberated by Christ from the ways of their ancestors that alienated them from the ways of God, but this does not leave them orphaned and homeless.

Rather, as obedient children of God the Father, who have been “born anew,” they can have “genuine mutual love” among fellow Christians because they share a new patrilineage (literally “seed”) and find their meaning and coherence in “the living and enduring word of God” (1 Peter 1:22-23).

The exilic ethic offered by 1 Peter is not one that directly relates to all Christians today. For those who live in countries where the civic religion is based on Judeo-Christian teachings and where appeals to “God and Country” are thought to be one and the same, it is possible to conflate following Jesus with following the ways of the homeland. For those who have grown up in a Christian household, the idea of voluntarily disinheriting oneself from the values and traditions passed down to you might seem unnecessarily subversive and disruptive.

However, for many believers in the majority world, the decision to become a Christian has costly social and familial consequences. 1 Peter’s words offer consolation for believers who are beleaguered by the social hostility, conflict, ostracization, and persecution they face for following Jesus. In the U.S., Christians often feel very much at home in the dominant culture and have a lot of skin in the game when engaging in culture wars and making concerted efforts to exclude those who are foreign, alien, or undocumented.

First Peter neither makes an enemy of the state nor completely affirms its values and traditions. Nor does it encourage Christians to hope for the day when their country becomes one nation under God. Rather, the letter offers an eschatological orientation to the world that puts present sufferings for the sake of Christ in their proper temporal perspective. Christians are to be forward-looking, having “set all [our] hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring” (1 Peter 1:13).

So, we don’t need to be anxious about whether we are keeping our “social distance” from non-believers in order to avoid secular contamination nor be hell-bent on bridging the distance between church and state. We do, however, need to keep our Christian distinctiveness.

This does not necessarily translate to “safe distance.” To live as foreigners is an immersive, often uncomfortable, and sometimes even a conflictual experience. To be the holy church is to do good in the world and among non-believers, including members of our own household, not so that they are converted but because such conduct glorifies God, despite the presence of praise or condemnation.