Lectionary Commentaries for April 1, 2018
Resurrection of Our Lord

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 20:1-18

Mary Hinkle Shore

Christ is risen, and Mary is weeping: John’s account of the disciples’ discovery of the resurrection has this tension at its heart.

In his telling of the story, John stretches out the interval between the event of Christ’s resurrection and the time when his closest friends recognize it.

That interval holds two disciples’ footrace to the tomb, where they see the emptiness of it, and where one of them believes something, but then they both wordlessly return home, as if someone had said to them, “Move along. Nothing to see here.” Mary stays, weeping outside the tomb. All she can see is that the body has been taken, and what she wants is to control the damage: “Tell me… I will take him” (John 20:15).

As with the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, readers who are outside the bounds of the story know that it is the risen Lord speaking. Inside the story, Jesus is hidden from those closest to him. Paul Duke makes the point that identifying Jesus to the reader before Jesus is known to the characters aligns the reader with the risen Jesus.1 We see Mary or the two on the road, and we want ourselves to proclaim the resurrection to them: “He’s right there! In front of you!” Readers are able to testify to the resurrection even before Mary or Cleopas and his companion can.

Of course, eventually, to the characters’ surprise and the readers’ delight, Jesus makes himself known. To Mary, he does so by speaking her name. Readers recall John 10:3, “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.”

After Mary hears her name, she is able to see Jesus. We infer that Mary embraces Jesus because the next thing he says to her is, “Do not hold on to me.” Both grammar and context argue for “do not hold me” (New Revised Standard Version, New International Version) rather than “do not touch me” (King James Version, New English Translation). First, the present tense imperative communicates continuous action, not a mere touch. Secondly, touching Jesus would not hinder his ascending to the Father, but clinging to or holding onto him could impede his going forth. Mary can — and presumably does — touch Jesus. What she cannot do is to hold onto him because he has somewhere else to be, and when he finishes speaking to her, so does she.

Jesus’ commission to Mary earns her the title of apostle to the apostles. Jesus sends her to his brothers, or, if more than the twelve are in view, the translation of adelphous should be, “brothers and sisters.” The message to be relayed is that Jesus is “ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20:17). In a prepositional phrase (“to my Father and your Father…”) Jesus speaks the whole purpose of his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. The one he calls, “Father” is not his abba alone. In his ministry, and in his death, resurrection and ascension, Jesus is opening the way for humanity to have the same relationship with God that he has.

We heard of this goal of Jesus’ work first in the prologue. At the center of the chiastic-structured prologue is the phrase, “he gave them power to become children of God.”2 The mission of the Son is to offer those who receive him a relationship with God just like the one he has. This is also part of what it means for Jesus to tell the disciples in the farewell discourse that he is going to prepare a place for them, “that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:3). He is opening his home and his family to them.

It may help to think of someone bringing his friends home after school. The house, the food, the video games: all of them are shared as if all the kids belonged to the same family. Jesus says he is going “to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20:17). Like that kid bringing his friends home, Jesus means to share the relationship he and God share with his brothers and sisters. Being sons and daughters of God: this relationship is open now to everyone the Son brings home, and he wants lots of brothers and sisters (see also John 17:24 and Romans 8:29).

To some, the masculine imagery for God has severe limitations in terms of the extent to which it can speak good news. But the point should not be sacrificed because language for it is hard to find. The way Jesus knows God and is known by God — even the way Jesus is one with God — this “at-one-ment” is for us. Jesus’ relationship with God is ours. To borrow from Paul, “Jesus is the firstborn within a large family.”

Mary fulfills her mission. She announces, “I have seen the Lord.” In John, to see (horao) the Lord is to know, believe in, receive and trust the Lord. It is to have power to become a daughter of God.

Perhaps the sermon will open for hearers the interval between God’s work to raise Jesus and the time when it (finally!) makes a difference for Mary. Hearers could follow Mary’s experience and think of our own times of not knowing and not seeing how life could ever come out of the death that surrounds us. Yet Jesus appears. He knows his own, and he makes himself known to them. Or the sermon might marvel at the forthright way Jesus claims for his followers the relationship he has with God. Jesus’ life before his death was not for himself alone; nor is his risen life for himself alone. The love between the Father and Son is enlivened in the resurrection so that it may be shared with many more brothers and sisters.


Notes:

  1. Irony in the Fourth Gospel (Nashville: John Knox Press, 1985), 105.
  2. See also R. Alan Culpepper, “The Pivot of John’s Prologue,” New Testament Studies 27/1 (Oct 1980):1-31.

Alternate Gospel

Commentary on Mark 16:1-8

Philip Ruge-Jones

The ending of Mark’s gospel is notoriously odd. While Jesus is mentioned and his promise is invoked, he does not even come by for a cameo.

Throughout the gospel Jesus has begged people to keep quiet about his activities, but the more he urges them, the more they insist on announcing what he is up to. In the empty tomb, we finally hear a word sent by him that the followers are authorized to speak, but this time they keep quiet. Add to all this the feeling that the story ends midsentence and you have plenty to process with the faithful and those who were asked to accompany them on this high holy day.

Much that is familiar

Much of the story agrees with the accounts found in the other gospels. All of them place this story at the tomb; the time is early in the morning on the day after the Sabbath. Unlike Jesus, Mary Magdalene shows up in all the accounts.

In the three synoptic accounts, the rolling back of the stone gets play and at least one messenger announces that Jesus is not here but has been raised. Matthew, Luke, and John give clear indications that those speaking are angels. Mark leaves it for us to decide, declaring him to be a “young man (neaniskos) dressed in white.” Are we to recognize this as angelic apparel or something else? The word translated as young man makes only one other appearance in Mark’s gospel. When Jesus is arrested a neaniskos flees the scene naked (Mark 14:51).

I’m inclined to think this odd little detail is the author’s signature and confession. He tells us that as Jesus goes through death and resurrection, he too is reborn. The young man is like a baptismal candidate who enters the rite naked and afraid, but comes out of the waters rising with Jesus, robed in a fresh gown, to proclaim Jesus’ story of promise.

Where resurrection might be found

The story leaves many wanting more resolution, but has the restraint not to give it away cheaply. If you want to experience the risen Jesus, you have to go back to Galilee where he promises to meet us. Going back to Galilee means going back to the margins where Jesus ministered and encountering him again feeding the hungry, driving out the demons that torment people, preaching words of hope to the broken-hearted, healing those in distress, and breaking down the barrier walls that separate people. Entering into the power of God’s coming kingdom, we experience the resurrected Jesus meeting and leading us into newness.

What does resurrection newness look like? Throughout the gospel there have been numerous clues. As a storyteller who has told this whole gospel, I cannot help but notice all the times that people are “raised” (usually, egeiro). When the word is performed and combined with a gesture, it is all the more strikingly present.

Sown throughout Mark’s gospel, are stories that explain what baptismal resurrection looks like in daily life. Peter’s mother-in-law is raised out of a fever and freed to serve (1:31). A man who is paralyzed is restored to movement (2:9-12).* Levi rises up to follow Jesus leaving his tax booth behind (2:14, different verb this time, anastas).* A man marginalized by a withered hand is raised to the center of his community’s attention and is healed (3:3).* God brings about growth as people go about the rhythms of sleeping and rising (4:27).* Jesus rises in a storm to still the clattering chaos (4:38). A young girl is awakened from a deadly slumber to new life (5:41). A boy threatened with fire and water by a demon is raised into freedom from torment (9:27).* A blind beggar rises up to have Jesus restore his sight and follows Jesus on the way (10:49).

Clearly, the resurrection does not wait until the end in Mark’s gospel; it appears over and over again in Galilee as God’s kingdom breaks in with its transforming power. It also arises when Jesus invites the disciples to face their enemies with courage as Judas comes toward them with clubs and swords (14:42).* There are enough pericopes from this group that may not have been used in the RCL B year that one could preach on a different rising text for each Sunday of Eastertide.1

Promise in precarious places

What has the evangelist given us and what has he denied us? The evangelist gives us a promise that is trustworthy from the mouth of Jesus. He points us toward the location that Jesus has promised to show up and gives us clues to the pattern that a resurrected life will take. Yet he refuses to give us Jesus as a possession. I sense that Mark has learned that those who believe they have the Christ in hand will use that possession as a weapon against others who do not believe. So Mark denies us that possession. Mark’s gift is too slippery to hold in a clenched fist. As one who has never seen the risen Christ unveiled before my eyes, I appreciate the evangelist’s subtle gift. We are put between the promise and its fulfillment and invited to remain there with others who know the precariousness of life.

Those in 70 CE who had seen Jerusalem destroyed might find this place the necessary place to be. Resurrection was not obvious to them as smoke rose from the ruined temple and the people they cared about were profoundly dispersed. Perhaps some who are brought to church this Easter might also find Mark’s muted message more credible than trumpet blasts with unrestrained celebration. Perhaps the same will be true for the fallible faithful who show up every week. I know it is for me.


Notes:

  1. I’ve marked those not assigned as the recommended gospel reading with *

First Reading

Commentary on Acts 10:34-43

Greg Carey

The Easter message humbles a culture that continually debates human worth.

Who is worthy to reside in our country, and who isn’t? Who is worthy to enjoy the assurance of medical care, and who is not? To whose education do we devote our best resources, and who is left under-served? Who gets to be anxious that no one is protecting their drinking water, and who can sleep soundly?

The Easter message is not “about” immigration, refugees, health care, education, or public services. But Peter learns that the Easter proclamation is very much about the boundaries of God’s care. Through unclean food Peter’s vision has abolished the notion of unclean people. If we take the vision only metaphorically, we miss the point: an observant Jew responds to unclean food with disgust. We all know the experience of disgust before certain kinds of food. We also confess that we know what it is to feel disgust toward people.

The Holy Spirit can humble a preacher. Peter begins his sermon, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality” (New Revised Standard Version [NRSV]). A better translation would begin, “Truly, I get it.” He didn’t get it before, but now he does. For this reason many commentators identify Peter, not Cornelius, as the primary convert in this story. His insight is as much affective as it is intellectual, for theology involves our whole selves.

Beyond the boundaries of our lectionary reading we see that Peter’s learning curve continues. The Spirit cuts him off before he finishes his sermon. Just as he’s ready to deliver the altar call — “everyone who believes” in Jesus, he is saying — the Spirit “falls upon” his audience, who begin speaking in tongues and praising God.

The Holy Spirit will humble faith communities as well. Luke’s Gospel majors on salvation coming to sinners; in Acts the already-righteous tend to receive the gospel. This first generation of Jesus followers is not yet ready to welcome Cornelius and his household into their community, and for good reason. When Gentiles enter the church, the church must negotiate what it means to fellowship with persons who do not share the markers of Jewish identity: diet, Sabbath, and circumcision. But we might overstate this distinction.

Preachers have long ridiculed ancient Judaism as exclusive and legalistic. Luke’s account demonstrates that Jewish communities had already developed ways to embrace Gentiles, even without requiring their conversion. Luke identifies Cornelius as “devout” before his encounter with Jesus. Cornelius’ entire household, we are told, fears God; that is, they already worship the God of Israel. Sometimes the Spirit has to undermine churches’ smug self-righteousness by showing us that the “righteous” do not all reside on our membership rolls.

The Spirit will also humble our Reformation-grounded theologies. Peter’s sermon does so in two important ways. First, he acknowledges that God does not need a label — like Christian? — to recognize the righteous. Moreover, God honors right conduct. It matters how people behave. Often those who behave most righteously reside outside the church.

None of this is to suggest that Peter’s gospel lacks grace. Peter does proclaim that even the righteous stand in need of forgiveness, a grace that extends to everyone who believes in Jesus (Acts 10:43). In this respect Peter is truly Jewish, honoring a God who requires and expects righteous behavior and extends forgiveness to all. The Psalms attest to this tension: the LORD indeed watches the path of the righteous (Psalm 1:6), and “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven” (Psalm 32:1). Only in a popularized form of Protestantism do we separate alienate grace from righteous conduct.

Where the gospel humbles us, wise preachers know better than to scold our congregations. I write this as one who has sat through far too much scolding. If we preachers are on a journey like Peter’s — and none of us have arrived — we preach in the mode of testimony and invitation. We name the moments that open our assumptions regarding where God’s favor resides. We invite hearers to observe the righteousness that resides outside the boundaries of the church. If Peter is humbled, we speak from humility as well.

Our passage contains the first sermon in Acts directed to a Gentile audience. Perhaps we go too far in mining Acts’ summarized speeches for preaching wisdom, but all of Acts’ preachers begin by acknowledging both their audience and their moment. Peter opens by acknowledging that a Gentile audience requires a gospel, even a God, who shows no partiality. Peter further assumes that Cornelius and his household already know “the message” (literally, “the word”) concerning Jesus (Acts 10:36). This assumption is puzzling because the narrative has provided no hint that Cornelius and his household have already heard the message about Jesus and because Peter himself asks why he has been invited (10:29). Peter’s speech remains unfinished. The Holy Spirit interrupts before he delivers his call for repentance and belief.

Peter’s speech contains distinctive Lukan nuggets: the story of Jesus is incomplete apart from his ministry and his resurrection. Preachers who major only on the cross miss Luke’s message. Jesus’ ministry, “doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil” (Acts 10:38), is essential to Peter’s message. Indeed, a close look at Luke’s passion narrative reveals that for Luke — and only for Luke — Jesus died just as he lived, looking out for the salvation of others. Luke also tends to refer to the resurrection, even more so than the cross, as proving Jesus’ identity. According to Peter, we know that Jesus is judge of both the living and the dead (10:42) because God raised him from the dead.

This point is essential for Easter Sunday preachers: We might recall that Luke characterizes the passion as Jesus’ “exodus” (Luke 9:31; NRSV: “departure”) and as his being “taken up” (9:51). For Luke, apart from the resurrection, the crucifixion amounts only to an unjust execution.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

Amanda Benckhuysen

It is easy to see why Psalm 118 is the psalm selection for Easter for all three lectionary years.1

The psalm is bursting with exuberance and joy, the language barely adequate to the task of conveying the wonder of what God has done. For the psalmist was as good as dead and now is alive. “I give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever (Psalm 118:1),” the psalmist declares. It is not surprising, then, that the New Testament writers heard the events of the passion and resurrection of Jesus captured in the language of this psalm. “The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes (vv. 22-23, cf. Matthew 21:42, Acts 4:11, 1 Peter 2:7).” “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord (v. 26a, cf. Matthew 21:9, Luke 19:38).”

Today, however, this psalm becomes our own prayer of thanksgiving. For insofar as we are found in Christ, dying and rising with him, this psalm lends language and shape to our expressions of joy and gratitude for what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. “I shall not die but I shall live and recount the deeds of the Lord (v. 12).” This psalm, then, not only provides an interpretive lens for Christ’s death and resurrection, it instructs us in how to respond appropriately to God’s mighty acts on our behalf.

Psalm 118 is an individual psalm of thanksgiving that gives praise to God for a specific act of redemption in the psalmist’s life. In this case, the psalmist speaks of nations that had surrounded him, pressing in on him like bees ready to attack or like a fire of thorns that encircles and traps its victim, leaving no escape. The political nature of the threat makes it likely that the psalmist is a king, perhaps King Hezekiah who surely felt such helplessness and distress as the army of Sennacherib laid siege to Jerusalem (2 Kings 18-19). In any case, the psalmist believed he was as good as dead. Yet the psalmist cried to Lord, and the Lord answered his prayer (v. 5).

The entire psalm hinges on this characteristic activity of God of hearing and answering the cries of his people, turning mourning into dancing, and the night into day. This is Israel’s most foundational experience of God. The Israelites groaned under their slavery and hearing their groaning, God brought them out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage (Exodus 2:23b-24). The language of the psalm taps into this defining story of Israel’s life with God, extolling God’s power that can overcome even the most menacing and threatening forces of our world. “The Lord is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation (v. 14, cf. Exodus 15:2a).”

It is not incidental that these verses fall at the center of the psalm. In fact, the entire psalm is structured in such a way as to draw attention to this defining relationship between Israel and God. Four times at the beginning of the psalm and one time at the end, the psalmist calls the community of faith to praise God for God’s steadfast love, his chesed. It is indeed God’s covenant loyalty, his unwavering commitment to his people and his world that compels God to act for the sake of his people, even at his own expense. Salvation, then, for the psalmist as for us, is not based on his own righteousness or sense of deserving, but rather is rooted in God’s self-giving, long-suffering, love. “The Lord has punished me severely,” the psalmist testifies, “but he did not give me over to death (v. 18).” Though things got bad, the psalmist knew that in the end, God’s steadfast love would win the day.

The remainder of the psalm (vv. 21-28) alternates between the voice of the psalmist and that of the community of faith as the king leads the people in giving thanks to God for restoring him. “I thank you, Lord, that you have answered me (v. 21) … this is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes (v. 23).”

Just as the psalmist’s suffering is political in nature, so is the resulting praise. As Rolf Jacobson notes in his article, “The Costly Loss of Praise,”2 praise is not simply an act of piety, but a polemical and political assertion. Praise evokes a worldview, one in which God is an active agent in daily life. In other words, praise declares, in the face of alternative conceptions of reality, that the source of Israel’s salvation and the hope for the world is God and God alone.

In the context of Easter, praise is particularly crucial. For ours is a world which increasingly looks for salvation from evil in the building of walls, the carrying of weapons, and the hoarding of resources. It is ours, then, as the people of God to posit an alternative way forward rooted in the hope we have in Jesus Christ, to assert that we live in a world where a resurrection really did happen. That God really is on the move, redeeming and restoring the world to himself in Jesus Christ. That Christ really did inaugurate a kingdom that has taken root in our hearts and that compels us to new ways of being and behaving characterized by justice, righteousness, and shalom. Ours is the task of directing people’s attention once again to the God who loves us, whose steadfast love endures forever, who is at work in our lives and in our world making all things new, who alone is our hope and our salvation. So today, we join the psalmist in praise and declare, “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever (v. 29).”


Notes:

1 Commentary first published on this site on March 27, 2016.

2 Rolf Jacobson, “The Costly Loss of Praise,” Theology Today, 57:3, Oct 2000:375-385.


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 15:1-11

C. Clifton Black

Today’s Gospel lection again competes for the preacher’s attention with another of the New Testament’s choice epistolary texts.1

1 Corinthians 15:1-11 is the oldest of all testimonies to our Lord’s resurrection by one among many eyewitnesses, the apostle Paul.

Here or elsewhere, Paul says nothing of the place and people predominant in the Gospels, namely, the women’s discovery of the empty tomb (Matthew 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-11; John 20:1-18). It’s easy to suppose that Paul knew these traditions familiar to us from the Gospels, committed to writing two to five decades after his letter to Corinth. However, writing in A.D. 54, he may not have known them. Indeed, the point at which 1 Corinthians 15 stands closest to the Gospels is the identification of Simon Peter (Cephas: verse 5) as among the first to whom the risen Lord appeared (cf. Mark 16:7; Luke 24:34; John 21:1-8).

1 Corinthians 15:1-7 presents rudiments that another lection, Acts 10:34-43, elaborates:

  • A reminder of the gospel’s original terms (1 Corinthians 15:1, Acts 10:36)
  • The necessity of preaching (1 Corinthians 15:1, Acts 10:42)
  • The faith in which the church stands (1 Corinthians 15:2, Acts 10:43)
  • Handing down the tradition and story of Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:3, Acts 10:37-39a)
  • Christ’s death (1 Corinthians 15:3, Acts 10:39b)
  • The forgiveness of sins (1 Corinthians 15:3, Acts 10:43)
  • The connection to the scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3-4, Acts 10:43)
  • Christ’s resurrection on the third day
  • Christ’s appearance to Cephas, the Twelve, and many others (1 Corinthians 15:5-8, Acts 10:41)

These parallel testimonies of Christ’s resurrection may be largely independent of each other, approaching something like bedrock of the primitive church’s formative Easter witness. It would be no small thing this Easter Sunday for the preacher simply to remind the church in what terms it first received the gospel by which it still is saved (1 Corinthians 15:1-2).

1 Corinthians 15:1-2 set the stage for Paul’s preoccupation in 15:12-58: how to answer those who say there is no resurrection of the dead. Although logically implied by that issue (see 15:13-19), that’s not the problem Paul addresses in 15:3-11. I doubt that’s the problem most preachers would or even should tackle from the pulpit on Easter Sunday. 1 Corinthians 15:3-11 has other concerns. Today is the day for congregants to examine them.

Verses 3-7 articulate the heart of the Christian gospel–“Christ died for our sins”–and the primary means by which Christians have considered that claim substantiated. After having really died (“he was buried” for “three days”), Christ was raised from death into new life. God was the one responsible for that raising. And if this Jew was raised and no one else, then by that resurrection God irrevocably committed himself to Jesus, who likewise had held back nothing for the sake of God’s kingdom.

This happened “in accordance with the scriptures.” Jesus’ death was so momentous that it dealt with human sin against God, and it was validated by the only God capable of undoing that death and bestowing life. Accept that, and such a death and resurrection had to accord with the character and intentions of the God whom we meet on the pages of the Old Testament. The Chief Justice has decided the case in favor of Jesus, consistent with Israel’s Constitution, in a verdict corroborated by competent witnesses.

The risen Christ appeared to Cephas, to the Twelve, to over five hundred disciples, to James the brother of Jesus and to the rest of the apostles (see Galatians 1:17-18; 2:1-10). Paul is adamant that he didn’t make all this up. In good rabbinic fashion, he delivered to others what he had first received. This is the church’s common legacy. Following the apostles’ lead, the church is responsible to hand it down to a new generation.

“Last of all, in miscarriage [to ektromati] as it were, he appeared to me, too” (1 Corinthians 15:8). This is the lection’s transitional hinge. We move from the caravan of witnesses (verses 5-7), to the last witness (verse 8), then to Paul’s self–assessment of his own apostleship (verses 9-11).

Now Paul speaks of the resurrection’s personal impact. Like the autobiographical flashes in other letters (2 Corinthians 11:21b–12:10; Galatians 1:11–2:14; Philippians 3:4b-11), 1 Corinthians 15:9-11 is an all too human mixture of self–recrimination (“unworthy of being called an apostle”), vanity (“yet I toiled more than any of them”), second–guessing (“though not I but God’s grace with me”), shrugging (“whether I or they”), and confidence (“so we preached and so you believed”).

By his own admission, Paul was the unlikeliest of apostles, not because he considered himself inadequately religious (quite the contrary: 2 Corinthians 11:22; Galatians 1:14; Philippians 3:4-6), but rather because he had tried to destroy God’s church (1 Corinthians 15:9; Galatians 1:13; Philippians 3:6). That venture’s monstrosity may lurk behind his self–caricature as “a deformed fetus.” “But by God’s grace I [now] am what I am; and his grace, which is in me, wasn’t in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:10).

Between these poles, the communal and the personal, swings the message of Easter. If it’s only a creed that never touches us, or merely a “me and Jesus” project untouched by the church, then a gestation has not yet proceeded to term. Those untimely born stir in our pews and, on occasion, from our pulpits.

On the Day of Our Lord’s Resurrection, we may be surprised to realize in faith that no longer is it we who live but rather Christ who lives in us; a life transfigured by God’s Son who loved us and gave himself for us (Galatians 2:20).


1. This commentary was first published on this site in conjunction with texts for April 12, 2009