Lectionary Commentaries for April 19, 2015
Third Sunday of Easter
Commentary on Luke 24:36b-48
Commentary on Psalm 4
The Gospel reading for this Sunday picks up the story of Jesus after the resurrection.
The disciples are gathered together somewhere in Jerusalem. Suddenly Jesus is in their midst. He greets them saying “Peace be with you! Most likely he greeted them in Hebrew, saying, “Shalom Aleichem!” That “shalom” word comes up at the end of the psalm for this Sunday and furnishes the connection between the psalm and the Gospel text.
If you travel to Israel, you will hear “shalom” all over the place. Walk into a shop in Jerusalem, or walk out, and the clerk will say “shalom.” Visit a synagogue anywhere in Israel, or anywhere in the world, and after the service you can say to the person next to you, “Shabbat Shalom” (Have a good Sabbath!) and that person will return the greeting.
The word is all over our worship services, too, though it you may not notice it because we use the translation, “Peace.” During the service the pastor will say, “The peace (shalom) of the Lord be with you always” and you respond, “and also with you.” Or you hear the benediction at the close of the service, “Go in peace (shalom)” and you respond” “Thanks be to God!”
The greeting is an ancient one, going back to Old Testament times. For example: Gideon was out in the fields working and met a stranger. The stranger touched a bowl of stew with his staff and it burst into flame! Gideon was scared to death. Then the stranger said, “Don’t be afraid! Peace be with you! (shalom aleichem)” (Judges 6:23)
Another example: An old man sees a stranger walking around in the town square. He says, “Where are you from? And where are you going?” The stranger says, “I’m from Bethlehem and am heading home. But I don’t have a place to stay tonight.” The old man says, “Peace be with you! (Shalom Aleichem). Come and stay at my place!” (Judges 19:16-21).
Finally, when Paul writes a letter he begins “Grace to you and peace (shalom)”; note Romans, I and II Corinthians, Galatians, etc.
The psalm for today ends with the word shalom in Hebrew, again translated “peace” (v. 8). The psalm is a prayer for help. “Answer me … be gracious to me … hear my prayer” says the psalmist (v. 1). Apparently some in the community were spreading lies about him, ruining his reputation. He can’t take it much longer and asks the people, “How long are you going to keep this up!” (v. 2) He tells them that the Lord will hear his cries for help. He invites them to join him in a worship service and then leaves things in the hands of the Lord (vv. 3-5).
In verse 6, the psalmist brings the prayers of the congregation to the Lord’s attention by quoting them: “Let the light of your face shine on us, O LORD” means “show favor to us!” (see also Numbers 6:25).
With verses 7-8 the mood changes. Something has happened to the one who was praying so desperately. Did the psalmist himself take the advice he recommended in vv. 4 and 5? Maybe he has withdrawn from the difficult situation, pondered the problem in silence, gone to worship, and decided to leave things in God’s hands. Once again there was joy in his heart. And he can lie down and sleep in peace (shalom).
On Not Trying to Babysit the World
Psalm 4 is often labeled an “evening psalm” because the whole psalm drives toward what is said in the last verse: “I will both lie down and sleep in peace (Hebrew, shalom); for you alone, O LORD, make me lie down in safety.” That shalom word is what links the psalm to Jesus’s greeting in the Gospel, “Peace (shalom) be with you.” But what does this psalm mean for us? For the evening, at the end of the day, when one is about to drift off to sleep?
One of my teachers, Gerhard Frost, once made a comment that has stuck with me. He remarked, “It was one of those nights when I was lying awake, babysitting the world.” Babysitting the world indeed. Maybe you’ve had such nights. You are worried about the kids, the grandkids, the bills, your health, not to mention Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and climate change! So you can’t get to sleep. But this psalm says “Shalom be with you. Relax. Let God run the world for a while. Have a good sleep!”
This same teacher told a story which I’ve remembered. Once a grandmother accepted her grandson’s invitation to take her first airplane ride in his small plane. She screwed up her courage and climbed in. She marveled at seeing her family farm and her hometown from the air. The grandson became concerned, however, when he noticed that her knuckles were white, as she hung on to the arms of the seat. So they landed. A crowd of relatives met them to ask, “How did you like it, Gramma?” “Oh it was fine,” she said, “but I’ll tell you a secret. I never let all my weight down!” This psalm invites you to lie down each night and let your weight down, trusting in the LORD (v.5) to take you through the night and into another day.
The same imagery occurs in Psalm 131. In The Message translation:
God, I’m not trying to rule the roost
I don’t want to be king of the mountain.
I haven’t meddled where I have no business
Or fantasized grandiose plans.
I’ve kept my feet on the ground
I’ve cultivated a quiet heart
Like a baby content in its mother’s arms,
My soul is a baby, content.
God is like a loving mother, says this psalm. You are like a baby that has just finished nursing and is lying in its mother’s arms. Think of that picture, says this psalm. And lie down and sleep, in peace.
Commentary on 1 John 3:1-7
In the overture (John 1:1-51) of the symphonic Fourth Gospel, a clear chord is struck that emphasizes the welcoming and adoption of those who embrace Jesus Christ, Son of God: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13).
The gracious inclusion of believers-in-Jesus is in contrast here to those who refused and rejected him (John 1:11). Ironically, and tragically, those who turned Jesus away are called (by John) Jesus’ “own people” (John 1:11).
Seven chapters later in the Gospel of John this theme reappears, this time in a conversation between Jesus and some of his disputants. Jesus speaks of freedom for those who follow his teachings. The Jews immediately deny needing freedom and establish their security as progeny of Abraham. Jesus offers to them a startling analogy: “everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the son sets you free, you are free indeed” (John 8:34-36).
No doubt 1 John draws from the same pool of images, or — to continue a music analogy — plays the song of redemption in the same key. The focus of 1 John 3:1-7 is on adoption and the hospitality of God — See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are (1 John 3:1)! While many of the background details about why the Elder1 wrote 1 John are lost to history, we have some clues in the text that certain dissenters were trying to lead the Elder’s own community astray (see 1 John 2:26). And perhaps these dissenters were trying to get them to turn their attention away from Jesus and to safeguard their identity in something or someone else, even to the point of forsaking Jesus (see 1 John 2:28). But, as is clear in both the Gospel of John and 1 John, there is no safer place to be than in the family of God, and there is no other way to enter this family than through Christ the Son.
The Elder offers support for why this community might face rejection from others (including the dissenters) — “The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him” (1 John 3:1b). Where is your attention?, the Elder inquires. Is it constantly looking to the world for legitimation, security, and accolades? Are you just trying to “fit in”? Do you simply want to be like everyone else? Follow their regulations for acceptability? If you do that, you will miss what is happening right in front of you — God is calling out, the God, calling out to you, saying you are Mine. And God says this not as demand unto slavery, but rather the opposite, with overflowing love.
The NRSV translates the “what” of “what love” in 1 John 3:1 based on the Greek word potapen, which has a literally meaning “of what country?” In that sense the Elder is saying — from what foreign country did this strange, amazing love come, that we could be called children of God? Possibly the Elder used potapen in its more generic sense of “what type” or “what kind” — in this case it would mean something like, what type of love is this — what amazing love that calls us children of God? In either case, the Elder shows wonder, joy, and bewilderment that God would treat sinners so graciously. Any one of us with difficult guests or acquaintances will know that it is one thing to tolerate them, something kinder to lend a bit of help. But to actually welcome them into your home and life as family? What sort of love could this be and who is sufficient for these things?
Transformed by adoption
According to the Elder, it is not enough simply to be called a son of God, if there is no real substance behind this (perhaps poking at the empty promises of the dissenters). St. Augustine raises this matter quite poignantly: “For those who are called sons, and are not sons, what profit them the name where the thing is not? How many are called “physicians” but know not how to heal! How many are called “watchers,” but sleep all night long! So, many are called “Christians,” and yet in their deeds are not found to be; because they are not actually what they are called, this is, in life, in hope, in charity” (Homilies IV on the First Epistle of John). Augustine’s point is that the divine adoption of believers-in-Jesus is not simply words — adopted, saved, redeemed. Believers go through a transformative process. We can easily relate the Elder’s language of adoption to Colossians 1:13-14 — “He has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”
In the Roman world adoptions took place, but it was not about compassion for orphans. In fact, many people were adopted as young adults or adults. Adoption was about inheritance and name. Often a man was adopted to carry on the name of a childless family. The adopted son would sever ties to the old family and this would include relief of any debt owed under the name of the old family. He would become a whole new person, in a new context, with a new inheritance and name.
And so it goes with spiritual adoption through Jesus Christ! The Elder’s vision is not just about the past (a clean slate), or the distant future (going to heaven), but also the present and progress. As the Elder notes, redemption is illusory if it is not transformative unto righteousness. Sin cannot be ignored or redefined as an evasive tactic (perhaps a tactic the dissenters were using). Christ came to deal with sin, and abiding in him, entering into the family of God through Christ’s own Sonship, is the only way to sever the bondage to sin.
1 The author of 1 John is conventionally called “the Elder” in scholarship.
Have you ever read the book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten by Robert Fulghum?
Even though the title is hyperbolic it points incisively to core ways of being with others in the world. If you can share, refrain from hitting, clean up after yourself, apologize when you hurt someone, etc. you will be well on your way to becoming a kind and productive citizen.
How would you respond if I told you that everything you need to know about Jesus Christ is found in Luke 24:36b-48? Though equally hyperbolic to Fulghum’s classic book, this pericope functions as a sort of précis of Jesus’ life and ministry. It is also catechetical, pointing to key doctrinal truths about Jesus with which the early church struggled. Let’s take a closer look.
This text flows directly from the Road to Emmaus narrative (Luke 24:13-35). In today’s Scripture lesson, Jesus appears to a group of people that we know to be the eleven disciples and their companions (cf. Luke 24:33), which include the two unnamed Jesus-followers who had journeyed from Jerusalem to Emmaus, and in all likelihood Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and a coterie of other women. So far, news of Jesus has been nebulous: two men in dazzling clothes appear to the women proclaiming resurrection (Luke 24:4-7); Jesus himself appears though he is unrecognizable (Luke 24:16). Anxiety was high. Jesus’ first words to his followers were “peace to you.” Jesus inaugurates a peace that arises out of — and sometimes in the absence of — faith.
When Jesus appears to his followers, they think they are seeing a ghost (Luke 24:37). They are “terrified” and “filled with fear.” This is completely understandable: dead stuff is supposed to stay dead! And yet here Jesus is, resurrected. In another sense, Jesus’ resurrection means that what he said was true, and if he was not bluffing about his resurrection we need to assume that Jesus really meant what he said about how his followers are to treat others, especially the marginalized.
Jesus’ bodily appearance, and the narratological lengths Luke takes to assert this fact, makes all Gnostic and Docetic beliefs untenable. The resurrected Christ was no disembodied spirit. Nor was Jesus merely a resuscitated corpse. Jesus is not a ghost; he is a real person. The resurrected Christ has a body, and even if contemporary believers cannot embrace Jesus as his disciples did, we bear witness to more than a spiritualized, demythologized Christ when we preach about Jesus’ resurrection.
Even resurrected, Jesus’ body bears witness to a way of being for others. He embodies love. As Fred Craddock observes,
This identification [between Jesus and eternal Christ] is critical, not just for theology but also for defining the nature of Christian life. If the Jesus who died belongs to the historical past but the one disciples now follow is the eternal Christ, then the Christian life can take on forms of spirituality that are without suffering for others, without a cross, without any engagement of issues of life in this world, all the while expressing devotion to a living, spiritual Christ.1
Jesus says, “Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself.” His pierced body bears witness against a mode of discipleship that does not endure scars on behalf of others.
The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ. As Luke Timothy Johnson avers, “It is the risen Lord who teaches the Church to read Torah properly.”2 It is impossible for Christ-followers to understand the Hebrew Scriptures apart from Jesus’ life, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection. This does not mean that Christians have a monopoly of biblical hermeneutics, but that a properly Christian hermeneutic demands a Christocentric horizon of interpretation.
What then shall we do? Jesus tells us. Christ followers are to proclaim “repentance and forgiveness of sins” and to serve as “witnesses” to the life, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus vis-à-vis the Scriptures (Luke 24:46-48). Inasmuch as we participate in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ through our reading of Luke’s Gospel, we too are witnesses to what God has done for us in Christ. It’s not fancy, nor is it complicated. We are to tell the story of Jesus, which leads to a change of mind (metanoia) and a proclamation that in Christ we find forgiveness.
Luke’s Jesus is clear on the fact that “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” This is the narratological hinge that connects the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. We must remember that the good news of Jesus Christ follows a centrifugal trajectory. It is universal in its scope and particular in its articulation. The Church today must remember that the blessings of God in Jesus Christ transcend racial, ethnic, gendered, and heteronormative prejudices. It is good news for everyone without exception.
In today’s lection, we find the good news of God revealed in Jesus Christ laid out in miniature. It offers the contemporary preacher an angle of vision on the essence of Jesus’ life and ministry and as such it provides an opportunity for catechetical proclamation that arises out of a discrete pericope.
1 Fred Craddock, Luke. Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 290.
2 Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke. Vol. 3. Sacra Pagina (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991), 405.