In Luke’s resurrection account, women go to the tomb on Sunday morning.
The stone is rolled back, and two men in dazzling clothes announce that Jesus was raised. The women return and report the news to the disciples and the rest, but their report seemed to be an “idle tale” and was not believed. Peter, however, ran to the tomb and confirmed that it was empty.
On that same day, two from the group of followers of Jesus were going to Emmaus when they encounter, but do not recognize, Jesus. They express their disappointed hope that Jesus would be the one to redeem Israel, but Jesus explains how everything that happened was necessary according to Scripture. The two invite Jesus to spend the night with them. During the meal, when Jesus blessed and broke the bread, their eyes were opened, and they recognized Jesus, but he vanished from their sight. They rush back to Jerusalem and report to the gathered believers what had happened and discover that Jesus had already appeared to Simon.
“While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you’” (Luke 24:36). We find Jesus greeting the disciples identically in John 20:19, 21, 26, and it is appropriate considering the disciples’ fear. More than just a greeting, “peace” is a repeated theme in Luke beginning in the hymns of Zechariah, the angels, and Simeon in 1:79; 2:14, 29. As the first words of the risen Jesus in Luke and John, it promises not only the immediate relief of fear but also the larger program of the post-Easter life in Christ.
This sublime moment is interrupted, however, by the disciples’ ongoing doubts and terror since they think they are seeing a ghost. To convince them that he is indeed really present, Jesus shows them his hands and feet. This confirmation has usually been understood as a reference to nail marks in Jesus’ hands and feet. It is often connected to Psalm 22:16 and taken as a messianic prophecy anticipating the crucifixion of Jesus. Neither the ancient Hebrew nor Greek support such a reading, however, and Psalm 22 was not understood to be a messianic psalm in the pre-Christian period. What is happening is that Jesus is providing proof that he is not a ghost.
Among the ghost tests in antiquity, one could check extremities where bones were evident (namely, hands and feet), make sure that a person’s feet were touching the ground, and show one’s teeth and eat food. (See also Epistula Apostolorum 11-2 and Tertullian, Against Marcion 4.43.) More significant than his hands and feet, however, is Jesus’ theophanic statement: “I am (ego eimi) myself” (Luke 24:39). So it is that, “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, [Jesus] said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’” (Luke 24:41) After eating the broiled fish they gave him, he once again reminds them that everything that happened to him happened in order to fulfill Scripture. The result, Jesus says, is that “repentance for the forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”
In the appointed passage, the following themes are most prominent:
On the third Sunday of Easter, how does one go about preaching this text? The point about “peace” in the face of death is certainly an Easter theme, but it is only mentioned in passing in this text. As for the second and third points, my sense is that they are better suited as topics for a Bible study session than the basis for a sermon. The nature of the resurrection body is a complicated topic (see also 1 Corinthians 15!), and demonstrating Scriptural fulfillment can devolve into a tedious task of finding proof-texts. How does this become vital in preaching?
With the emphasis on the physicality of the resurrected Jesus, Luke clearly wishes to demonstrate a flesh-and-bones Jesus, not a mere spiritual presence or apparition. Still, Luke, like us, has never seen a physical Jesus, so that can’t be the key. The point is, in modern parlance, that Jesus is really real and truly alive! That is still worth preaching, and it is worth considering how Jesus is really real and alive in our world today. How do our eyes need to be opened to perceive Jesus? Where do we touch the hands and feet of Jesus? How can we provide food for the world that makes Jesus’ reality experienced?
In Luke’s account, however, confirming the physical reality of Jesus is not the ultimate goal. Here is where the attention to Scripture is important. Scriptural fulfillment may be interesting and informative, and it may help confirm what we believe about Jesus. What is more significant, however, is how the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus help us understand what God has been accomplishing throughout all human history. In the reality of Jesus, the reality of God’s plan is revealed.
As important as this is, Jesus’ life does not simply help us comprehend ancient Scripture’s true meaning, it also moves us forward into the future. That’s why Jesus concludes with the charge to his disciples to be witnesses, proclaiming repentance and forgiveness to all nations in his name. In the Apostles’ Creed, we confess that we believe that Jesus rose from the dead and that we believe in the resurrection of the body and the forgiveness of sins. Like the first disciples, we have also experienced Jesus’ real presence, and so these statements are not just doctrines we affirm but the basis for our calling also to be witnesses of these marvelous things.
The Revised Common Lectionary’s selection of readings from Acts invites us to ask, “What does an Easter church look like?”
Acts argues that the ministry of an Easter church looks very much like the ministry of Jesus. There’s healing, there’s proclamation, and sometimes there’s confrontation. With those things in mind, perhaps the Easter church can emulate the Parkland, Florida students. With Peter we might shout in unison: “This is what an Easter church looks like.”
Not a solo operation
Peter’s sermon follows a dramatic healing. Although Peter does all the talking to this point, the narrative includes John. Peter and John together fix their eyes on this man who cannot walk and who seeks money from those who enter the temple (Acts 3:4). Not only does this man receive healing, we observe him “walking and leaping and praising God” (Acts 3:9). Our Lectionary reading does not include Acts 3:11, where the healed man still clings to Peter and John and “all the people” run — we can’t overstate Luke’s vivid description — to the site. We don’t know exactly why, but Acts makes sure we remember John’s participation. Although he does not speak yet, he will go to jail with Peter, demonstrate boldness alongside Peter (Acts 4:13), and argue his case alongside Peter (Acts 4:19). We might easily overlook John’s role, but this story is about the Easter church, not Peter’s heroism.
Luke is fond of presenting the gospel through speeches, and this is the second. Interpreters debate how much weight these speeches should bear in our assessment of Acts’ message. I would suggest that the speeches contain Acts’ clearest expression of the gospel message. Luke has many ways of communicating theology, but we should distinguish between gospel and theology. Gospel is an announcement, a proclamation. Theology involves the work of sorting through what that gospel proclamation entails.
Careful attention to the speeches in Acts presents us with several important lessons. First, they generally sound alike, touching on similar themes. Luke varies these speeches to fit their narrative contexts and their audiences, but much of the basic structure remains. This suggests that Luke, like other historians of the era, uses speeches not to convey the exact words of the speakers but their significance. Second, the sermons drop into climatic moments in the story. Peter’s speech in Acts 2 follows the crowd’s confusion regarding the Pentecost miracle: how could it be that the disciples communicate in languages they don’t even know? Peter’s speech here responds to the people’s amazement. Third, the speeches ground themselves in the story of Israel. Here Peter presents Jesus as having been “glorified” by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
The gospel proclamation is a story. When it addresses Jesus, it rehearses Israel’s history to a greater or lesser degree. We only hear part of this speech through the Lectionary reading, but it continues to ground the gospel in the testimony of Moses and returns to the promise to Abraham. When addressing other Jews, the speeches always include condemnation for Jesus’ death, a point to which we must return later. They also insist upon the resurrection: for Luke, the resurrection — even more so than the cross — is the high point of the gospel.
One fascinating point about Peter’s speech involves his references to Jesus. To call Jesus “the Holy and Righteous One” is a fairly conventional way of indicating his messianic identity. But Peter also identifies Jesus as “the Author of life.” That is a far bigger claim. It invokes Jesus’ divine identity and identifies Jesus as the true source of healing. The Author of life has power to heal.
Peter is absolutely clear as to the source of healing power. His healing command is, “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk” (Acts 3:6). Here in this speech Peter is emphatic, “By faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong” (Acts 3:16). The faith that comes through Jesus has given health to this man.
Peter’s insistence upon Jesus’ name will get him and John into trouble. The authorities arrest the two disciples, interrogating them the following day. The authorities themselves insist upon the question of authority. “By what power or by what name did you do this?”, they demand (Acts 4:7). Peter’s response returns to the same theme: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
Having determined that they cannot suppress the healing work performed by Peter and John, not to mention witnessed by a large crowd, they send them away with one condition. The disciples much not “speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:18). The two disciples hardly give the authorities any assurances. Indeed, the authorities will arrest the apostles still another time, reminding them of the stipulation that they must not teach in Jesus’ name (Acts 5:28). Good luck with that. Peter and the others remain steadfast, enduring a beating and once again being admonished not to speak in Jesus’ name (Acts 5:40).
As they left the council, they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name. And every day in the temple and at home they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah. (Acts 5:41-42)
This is what an Easter church looks like.
Meanwhile, Luke notes, many of those who heard Peter come to faith, so that the church has grown significantly (Acts 4:4). Apparently it is impossible to suppress the power of Jesus’ name. This is what an Easter church looks like: healing, proclaiming, and persevering.
No sermon can say everything that’s worth saying. Nor are sermons auspicious sites for academic lectures. However, many speeches in Acts present a significant problem, and this passage is no exception. Without rehearsing the details, Luke tends to blame Jesus’ death upon the Jewish authorities, even the Jewish people. Peter does exactly that in this passage.
Preachers do well to inform themselves about the anti-Jewish potential of Luke and Acts.1 Not only is it dangerous, great harm has been done. At a minimum, we should remind ourselves of the countless ways in which we still reject Jesus even, or especially, in the church. With respect to this passage, whenever we resist God’s healing work, whenever we seek to conform the spirit of healing to our own structures and expectations, we audition to play the authorities who imprison Peter and John.
Psalm 4 is good for what ails you.1
People are troubled about many things, but God ‘puts gladness in our hearts.’ Psalm 4 makes a good preaching text any time of year because it offers wisdom and imparts faith. But on the Third Sunday of Easter, it has a special job to do.
Psalm 4 deals honestly with unbelief: outside the church, inside the church, or even within preachers. At Easter time, the words “Christ is Risen!” are answered with “Alleluia, he is risen indeed.” But unspoken responses might include: “Oh really?” or “I doubt it;” or “I wish I believed that;” or even “You’ve got to be kidding.” Even preachers may privately wonder if Easter is too good to be true.
But God has heard all this before. In the Gospel for the Third Sunday of Easter, Jesus tells his frightened, doubting disciples, “Peace be with you” (Luke 24:36). Likewise, Psalm 4 offers peace to troubled hearts and trust to doubting minds.
To use Psalm 4 on the Third Sunday of Easter, it is helpful to note that the other texts for this day all address the problem of unbelief. Preachers would like the message, “Christ is arisen!”, to prompt a worldwide chorus of Alleluias. But from the first Easter down to the present, the good news that Jesus lives brings different responses – even among his followers. Some people receive the message with joy. Others are skeptical or fearful, and still others reject the message out of hand.
The epistle lesson, 1 John 3:1-7, draws a sharp line between believers and unbelievers, with no middle ground. Believers are to have nothing to do with unbelievers.
Things get messier in Acts 3:12-19. Here Peter preaches to people who, like him, believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But they rejected Jesus. They killed “the Author of Life” (Acts 3:15). Peter’s hearers have just seen a lame man healed in the name of Jesus. They are amazed to see the formerly lame man leaping and praising God. Peter seizes the moment to confront them with their sin. He preaches Jesus as the fulfillment of all their hopes, based on the prophets. Thus in the Acts 3 text, Peter invites his own people to believe in Jesus and come into the household of faith, and a great many believe.
The Gospel lesson addresses the problem of unbelief within the inner circle itself. The disciples have just heard two of their own members say that Jesus is risen, yet they are “startled and terrified” and “doubts arise in their hearts” when Jesus appears (Luke 24:37-38). Even some of the disciples find it hard to believe, yet Jesus offers peace.
In this Easter context of faith and doubt, and hoping against hope, Psalm 4 begins with a prayer for help. “Answer me when I call, O God…” (4:1). And it ends with a statement of faith. “You have put gladness in my heart…You alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety” (4:7-8). Beginning and ending with God – always a good idea for the preacher.
But the middle part of the Psalm addresses other people, and these people have various responses to God’s grace. Some believe in God, and some do not. Among the believers, some are so anxious they can’t sleep at night, even with a “Sleep Number” bed. Still others seem to be wondering what God has done for them lately: “There are many who say, ‘O that we might see some good!'” (4:6). Thus, the Psalmist has some choice words to each of these groups of people.2
The Psalm ends on a note of peace and confidence. “I will both lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety” (4:8). In an Easter context, combine Psalm 4 with the hymn “All Praise to Thee, My God, This Night:”
“Teach me to live that I may dread the grave as little as my bed. Teach me to die, that so I may rise glorious at the awesome day.”3
1 Commentary first published on this site on Apr. 26, 2009.2 New Interpreter’s Bible, 696. 3 Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), #565 verse 3.
The relationship between 1 John and the Gospel of John becomes evident across the first verses of the letter.
The Evangelist’s language of love, knowledge, and the gift of truth for the children of God permeates these pages but culminate in a more grounded and direct plea for, scholars suggest, the same general community.
Most scholars suggest the letters are written about a decade after the Gospel to address a later threat that was fracturing the Johannine community of churches. Additional details of the world behind these texts must be gleaned from the expressed concerns. First John 2:19-23 indicates a schism has occurred in the community that is based in the denial of Jesus as the Christ. Second John 7-9 clarifies the christological crisis in terms of incarnation: those who have left reject the claim that Jesus was fully human. In distress, the author calls them antichrists — that is anti-Christian in that they are falling for these “new-fangled” ideas and not adhering to the tradition they received. This suggests some members of the community have been attracted to Gnosticism, a Hellenistic form of Christianity developing in the early second century and eventually deemed heresy.
The author’s overarching purpose in writing these epistles, therefore, is to root out these splintering notions and urge unity in the community. Further exploration of 1 John’s structure reveals a prologue that mirrors that of the Gospel (1:1-4), while the final verses likewise echo the Gospel’s concluding sounds (5:13-21). Within this theological frame the author makes three resounding appeals to the new community in terms of the characteristics of God that form the heart and soul of God’s children: light (1 John 1:5-2:27), justice (1 John 2:28-4:6), and love (1 John 4:7-5:12). They warn the community of the dangers of the world, while instructing on the power of faith to conquer all for those who abide in Christ and thus remain in the new covenant community. Today’s passage covers the heart and the first segment of the central appeal (1 John 3:1-7).
The mark of the true children of God
The central appeal to the new community emphasizes that God is just in terms of the mark of the true children of God (1 John 2:28-3:10) who are known by their keeping of the new commandment given by Jesus Christ (1 John 3:11-24) and their ability to discern and test spirits (1 John 4:1-6). First John 3:1-7 presents the summons for the children of God to act righteously. The prologue of the Gospel of John presented the mission of the incarnate Word to be “to give authority” to those who receive and believe in him “to become children of God” (John 1:12). Although the world may not recognize them, it is only because it first did not recognize Jesus as Christ and Son of God (1 John 3:1).
Indeed, the culmination of his sacrificial death was “to gather into one the dispersed children of God” (John 11:52). Through the love of God the Father, Jesus the Son is able to create a new family of God through this adoption (1 John 3:2). The challenge for the children now is to live in this world in the hope of the full revelation of who we will become in this new relationship. It is this hope that leads to right action in the world (1 John 3:3).
The author goes on to contrast the behavior of the children of God with those of lawlessness, reflecting Jesus’ teaching in John 8 (1 John 3:4-5). The theme of revelation remains strong, reflecting John 1. There John the Baptist proclaimed Jesus to be “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29, 36). Through his death, lives of righteous living were made possible for the children of God. Here, as across the Gospel’s last discourse, believers are summoned to remain in him by dwelling in and nurturing this relationship (1 John 3:6-7; see John 13-17). The justice, or righteousness, of God, therefore, will manifest in the children of God as a strong sense of ethics.
Indeed the hope of the children of God is union with God in his image and likeness. This ethic is once again based in the commandments of the new covenant to believe in the name Jesus Christ and to love one another — and be known by this way of life (1 John 3:23). This abiding reality is expressed in the heart of this central appeal, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 John 3:18). Abiding by this ethic brings the Spirit of God into the fellowship of the community and both empowers and emboldens the community to stand fast against the spirits of the world. The author can thus conclude this appeal with the consoling security of eternal relationship with God: “Little children, you are from God, and have conquered them; for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).
The collective summons of 1 John punctuates the Gospel’s teaching on believing in God as revealed through Jesus, the human Christ who is also God incarnate, and on loving one another as the ethic that naturally follows from living as authentic children of God. One’s relationship with God through believing in Jesus Christ empowers, enlivens, and sets parameters for the ensuing relationship with other people who are likewise struggling to live in an often-difficult world. The letter gives testament both to the powerful self-giving love of God through Christ in relationship with humankind, as well as to the profound frailty of the nature of that same humankind.
The open call for a community to live in equal fellowship through believing in Jesus as the Christ and Son of God and love of both God and one another is a vocation that every Christian can agree upon. This summons to relationship is never in question. The ability of humankind to live in this ideal, if unstructured, relationship in an imperfect world is. This is the ongoing challenge of living in community as children of God.