Lectionary Commentaries for May 4, 2014
Third Sunday of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Luke 24:13-35

Richard Swanson

This is an odd scene.

Only Luke reports it, and only Luke needs it: Luke’s whole story is built around going to Jerusalem and coming back home (“every year … as usual” Luke 2:41f). This time people try to leave the Holy City, the center of the Jewish universe, only to be pulled back in.

The vocabulary in this scene is also odd, though that is normal for Luke, who frequently uses words found in no other gospel. For instance, the women who report the resurrection are dismissed when they speak to the male disciples. The NRSV says that the men dismissed it as an “idle tale” (Luke 24:11). The word in Greek implies that they dismissed the story as being no more important than “women’s trinkets.” Odd, and a little offensive.

And now, Luke tells us that the travelers (previously unmet and otherwise unknown) were “talking and discussing” about the things that had happened. The Greek implies that they were not only talking; they were “examining evidence together.” This picks up a theme that has been prominent in Luke’s story ever since we met Mary talking with Gabriel: she was confused to have encountered an angel, but not so confused that she couldn’t debate the issue back and forth. And when Jesus stays behind in the Temple, talking with the teachers, he (just like his mother) asks and answers analytical questions. This is a story loaded with rational discourse. The disciples walking to Emmaus fit right in.

But the most important aspect of this odd (yet familiar) scene, at least in this reading for me, is a small, utterly ordinary verb in the imperfect tense: hlpizomen (Luke 24:21). The NRSV translates this word as “we had hoped,” which is a perfectly good way to read this ordinary little verb.

The Greek imperfect tense suggests continuous action, perhaps because it took numerous attempts, or took a long time to complete, or was simply an old habit. To this is added a temporal augment (in this case, the lengthening of the initial vowel), which indicates that the action flows from the past. But is this action still going on? Or were the efforts, despite repeated attempts, finally abandoned? The tense doesn’t tell you, at least not so that the matter is fully settled. The storyteller helps make sense of this: they had been hoping that Jesus “was the one to redeem Israel,” but the events of the past days had brought an end to that habit of hoping.

For this, Jesus calls them “foolish and slow to believe.” Older commentators often pile on and blame them for imagining that the messiah would actually make a difference in the world, that the messiah, at a minimum, would be able to stand up against Rome, the representation of all that was wrong with the Jewish world in the 1st century. In this, older commentators are wrong. That’s a little like blaming a baseball manager for imagining that a shortstop would field grounders and throw the ball to first base. It’s a little like blaming a bereaved family for being astonished to discover that a surgeon played mumbley-peg on a patient instead of performing a proper operation.

You can extend these outrageous examples as far as you like, and it all comes down, in the end, to oddity. Shortstops field and throw. Surgeons excise tumors. And messiahs make a difference in the face of imperial violence. The walking disciples know that, and they are analyzing the situation carefully.

The scene, to be sure, ends with joy and excitement. It ends with them thrilled to discover that death and resurrection are deeply rooted in both Jewish Scripture and Jewish tradition, so that Jesus’ crucifixion actually fits into a pattern that can arguably be seen throughout God’s dealings with the Jewish people.

But the thing that catches my eye is that little imperfect tense verb: “we had hoped.” I have heard families use that phrase when they were packing up the things they had brought with them to the ICU. “We had hoped … ,” they say, and then they go home alone. I have heard families use this phrase when addictions return, or jobs go away. Although theologies of hope focus on a dawning future, the moment that catches me is that moment of deep disappointment, when only a painfully imperfect verb tense will express what needs to be said.

We like to hear future tenses. We like it when families say that everything will be okay, that they will go on, that they will get everything back to normal. We like future tenses so much that we reward people in deep grief for reassuring us that the sun will rise tomorrow and that life will go on. But in this unguarded moment, the walking disciples give voice to a discovery that every adult shares: very often, often when it matters most, we find ourselves speaking of matters of hope (and faith) in the imperfect tense: we had hoped … We can rally ourselves and polish up our future tenses when we must, but often that involves skating on thin ice over the shifting, flowing waters of past imperfections, confounding disappointments.

This is one of the things I love about the gospels: they know what we sometimes don’t dare to say. Crucial hopes have collapsed. Any congregation that gathers to hear a sermon will contain people who will hear the imperfect tense and will recognize it as a true statement of their current situation: we had hoped …

Those people will be waiting, listening to hear whether the preacher dares to acknowledge the reality of disappointment. If she does not, they will notice, and remember. They are listening also to hear whether the preacher simply uses that disappointment as a cheap set-up for the knockout punch of the gospel. If the preacher pretends that the resurrection easily and automatically overcomes all disappointment, they will notice, and conclude that the preacher doesn’t get it. They may even resent the preacher’s willingness to use their pain as a pretext for a cheap gospel sales gimmick.

The joy at the end of the scene is real, as is the racing report of the resurrection in the scene immediately prior to this one. Death and resurrection do indeed fit into a long-established pattern of the way God works in a world as unrelentingly real as this one is. But truthful preaching on this text requires an honest recognition of the reality of deep disappointment.

Don’t pretend to talk about resurrection unless you are willing to acknowledge the depths of deadly disappointment that make it necessary. Find something else to preach on, or find another (easier) way to make a living. Preaching resurrection requires honesty, and the truth is that “we had hoped … ” Maybe we still do. Some of us (sometimes) don’t, or can’t, or won’t hope, at least not yet. But we had hoped that you, as a preacher, would understand that.


First Reading

Commentary on Acts 2:14a, 36-41

Scott Shauf

This week’s passage includes the brief introduction to Peter’s Pentecost sermon (2:14a), the concluding statement of the sermon (2:36), and the subsequent response of his audience (2:37-41).

It both provides us with the story of the early church’s first moment of growth and models for us the way to respond to the proclamation of the gospel of Christ’s resurrection.

The opening of our passage (2:14a) is simply the introduction to the sermon Peter delivered following the bestowal of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost; a portion of this sermon formed last week’s Acts text. The sermon has two main points to it: first, that the Pentecost experience was the fulfillment of the prophetic promise of the end-times gift of God’s Spirit; and second, that Jesus’ resurrection was likewise a fulfillment of prophecy and hence a proof of Jesus’ exalted and messianic status, and thus further that Jesus’ resurrection was a necessary precursor to the giving of the Spirit.

The single, concluding verse from the sermon included in our passage restates the key point about Jesus: God has made him “both Lord and Messiah” (verse 36). Both titles refer back to specific arguments made earlier in the sermon. The title “Lord” reflects the sermon’s use of Psalm 110:1 (verses 34-35) as a prophecy about Jesus, referring to Christ’s exalted status resulting from his resurrection and ascension.

The title “Messiah” (or “Christ,” as in most translations) picks up on Jesus’ status as David’s heir (verses 29-31), David being the prototype of the Messiah in most Jewish thinking of the day. That Jesus is identified with both titles is contrasted in verse 36 with his treatment by Peter’s own audience members: Jesus is the one “whom you crucified.”

It is this contrast between Jesus’ exalted status and the audience’s treatment of him that forms the basis for the subsequent response of the audience. Clearly convicted of the identity of Jesus, the audience is “cut to the heart,” a depiction of their deep anguish (verse 37). Unsure of the proper response, they ask Peter what to do. Peter gives them two actions to perform and two ensuing results (verse 38):

First, they are to “repent” (Gk metanoesate). This word will no doubt sound rather old-fashioned to many, if not most, Christians today, since it is not a part of our day-to-day vocabulary. It is perhaps used as often as not today in parody of old-time revival preaching. Here, however, the concern is not for any particular sins the audience may have committed — there is no suggestion that they are especially immoral or otherwise bad sinners — but rather for a basic reorientation of their lives with respect to Jesus.

Formerly, they were involved in putting Jesus to death; now they are to base their lives on his identity as Messiah and Lord. This repentance, this reorientation is more than just saying they are sorry. In fact, as verses 42-47 (the passage for next week) will make clear, it entails a complete change of lifestyle, a life in accordance with Christ’s true status and the activity of the Spirit.

Second, they are to be baptized “in the name of Jesus Christ.” Baptism is usually narrated in Acts as the normal response to acceptance of the gospel message, constituting the believers’ transition to the Christian community. Here it is the natural concomitant sign of repentance, the concrete act marking the reorientation of their lives to Christ and the Spirit.

The first result of their actions is the forgiveness of their sins. This is a common topic in Luke and Acts (see especially the last words of Jesus in Luke 24:46-49, a passage with quite a few connections to Acts 2). The message began with John the Baptist’s preaching (Luke 3:3) and thus carries with it a certain eschatological (end-times) urgency — while forgiveness of sins relates to one’s present status before God, it is especially important as preparation for the coming Last Judgment (repentance is also associated with the importance of the coming Last Judgment in Acts; see especially 17:30-31).

The second result is the gift of the Holy Spirit. This, of course, is the whole point of Pentecost, and the Joel prophecy used in Peter’s speech had declared that God’s spirit was to be poured out on “all flesh,” including old and young, female and male, and servants alongside the more usually esteemed (2:17-18).

Here, Peter makes clear that the Spirit is indeed to be given to all — it was not a special gift only for the original community or its leaders. Verse 39 continues this thought, where he adds that “the promise” (a reference to the Spirit; see verse 33) is to be extended to “all who are far away,” a hint of the spread of the Christian message and community to be narrated in the rest of Acts — the Spirit will be given to all those who become part of the church.

Verse 40 follows up these words of Peter with a summary that Peter said many other things, summarizing his message as, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” The identity of what one is saved from is striking here. As verses 42-47 will make clear, the repentance called for entails a clear distinction of the church from the rest of the world — again a reorientation of life in light of the recognition of Christ’s status and the work of the Spirit. The concluding language of verse 41 emphasizes this further: Three thousand souls were “added” to the community. Salvation and Christian community go hand in hand.

Some of the chief points for preaching this passage are hopefully clear: Surely today we still need a type of repentance that involves reorienting our lives towards Christ. Surely today we need the gift of the Spirit as much as the first Christians did. And surely today we need to understand that salvation entails being added to the Christian community and living lives that distinguish us from the corruption of the world.


Psalm

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

J. Clinton McCann, Jr.

Like Psalm 118, Psalm 116 is a psalm of thanksgiving that is part of the Egyptian Hallel (see essay on Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, Resurrection of Our Lord).

Typical elements of a thanksgiving psalm are present — expression of gratitude and/or trust (verses 1-2, 5-7, 10-11, 15-16), description of prior distress and deliverance (verses 3-4, 8-9), and the announcement of intent to offer sacrifice and/or make vows to God (verses 12-14, 17-19).

These elements are arranged in no apparent order, although it is noticeable that there is, according to Hossfeld and Zenger, a “saturation … with confessional expressions of trust.”1 More so than is the case with most psalms, it seems possible to identify an original life-setting for Psalm 116 — that is, the offering of a thanksgiving sacrifice (verses 13, 17) in the Temple (verse 19), accompanied by vows or promises (verses 14, 18; see CEB, “I’ll keep the promises I made to the LORD”).

Somewhat surprisingly, direct expressions of love for God, as in 116:1, are unusual in the Psalter (see elsewhere only 18:1, where the Hebrew verb differs). Robert Alter points out that the Hebrew syntax also permits the translation, “I love when the LORD hears,”2 but this would be quite unusual as well. In any case, verses 1-2 set the tone of trust that pervades the whole psalm.

References to Sheol (verse 3) are frequent in the Psalms. While Sheol is sometimes a place — the realm of the dead — to which even God has no access (see Psalm 6:5; 30:9; 88:3-7, 10-13), here Sheol seems more metaphorically to represent a deadly threat, in the midst of which God is able to help (see Psalms 30:3; 49:15; 56:13; 86:13).

And in this case, God has helped! The one threatened with death will live, as verses 8-9 make clear (see Psalm 118:17). The impact on the psalmist lasts a lifetime — “I will call on him as long as I live” (verse 2). In short, the psalmist’s love for God will be evident as he or she prays “without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).

The psalmist’s prayerful existence is reinforced by the repetition of “call” in the final section of the psalm (verses 13, 17; see “call” also in verse 4 for a total of four occurrences — verses 2, 4, 13, 17). Verses 13 and 17 make it clear that prayer is not a passive or a private matter. In both verses 13 and 17, calling on the name of the LORD is accompanied by an action, and another public action is mentioned in the identical verses 14 and 18. The three actions are as follows:

“I will lift up the cup of salvation” (verse 13): As verse 12 has suggested, the psalmist’s actions are a way of giving back to God — not out of obligation, but rather out of gratitude. The psalmist has been “saved” (verse 6), so “the cup of salvation” is an appropriate response. Although it is not entirely clear, the cup is probably related to some sort of sacrificial offering — perhaps a drink offering (see Exodus 29:40; Numbers 28:7), or perhaps it was a cup raised (something like a toast?) in a celebratory meal. In this latter case, “the cup of salvation” could have been related to “a sacrifice of thanksgiving” (verse 17; see below).

“I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice” (verse 17): This action is more clearly a liturgical response that would have taken place at the Temple. Thus, it would have had a public character, all the more so since portions of thanksgiving sacrifices (unlike whole burnt offerings) were eaten. Priests got a share, as did the worshiper who brought the sacrifice (and perhaps others whom the worshiper invited; see Leviticus 7:11-18). Thus, a thanksgiving sacrifice involved something like a communal meal (see above on “the cup of salvation”).

“I will pay my vows to the LORD” (verses 14, 18): This action may be related to the previous two (note that verses 14 and 18 follow immediately each of the two above actions) — that is, in the midst of earlier distress, the psalmist may have vowed or promised to thank God tangibly when he or she is delivered. If so, verses 14 and 18 affirm that the psalmist is keeping the promise. In any case, vows and their fulfillment are mentioned in other thanksgiving psalms as well (see Psalm 22:25, where a meal seems to take place in the next verse; 61:5, 8; 65:1).

Verses 15-16 are embedded in the series of verses that describe the psalmist’s three actions of gratitude. The NRSV of verse 15 is problematic, because it seems to suggest that God welcomes “the death of his faithful ones.” But just the opposite is true — that is, God wants the faithful to live, and God has acted to save the psalmist’s life.

Thus, the CEB is better: “The death of the LORD’s faithful is a costly loss in his eyes.” In response to God’s life-saving deliverance, the psalmist adopts a posture that coheres with the actions of gratitude — he or she will be God’s “servant.” The phrase “your servant” occurs twice (and in the Hebrew syntax, it occurs consecutively); the repetition and the syntax emphasize the point. True gratitude, and the actions that express it, ultimately take the form of servanthood.

If we contemporary faithful ones believe what we say we do — that is, that we are saved by grace — then we will hear Psalm 116 as an invitation to practice gratitude. We no longer bring animals to offer. Rather, we bring our whole selves, committed to God’s service (see Romans 12:1-2).

In a society that encourages us to be self-serving and all-deserving, gratitude and servanthood will take lots of practice. Like the ancient thanksgiving sacrifice, our practice involves a communal meal that we sometimes call the eucharist (=thanksgiving). Jesus told us to do it, and he is the host. Because no one deserves to be at Jesus’ table, all are welcome. This is pure grace, and to accept the invitation is an opportunity to practice true gratitude.


Notes:

Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 3: A Commentary on Psalms 101-150 (Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 215.

Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2007), 411.


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Peter 1:17-23

Karl Jacobson

In his explanation to the second article of the Apostles’ Creed, Luther writes,

I believe that Jesus Christ — true God, Son of the Father from eternity, and true man, born of the Virgin Mary — is my Lord. At great cost he has saved and redeemed me, a lost and condemned person. He has freed me from sin, death, and the power of the devil — not with silver or gold, but with his holy and precious blood and his innocent suffering and death.”

Luther’s understanding of what is at stake in the person of Jesus is based, in no small part, on the description in 1 Peter 1:18-19, of what “you know.”

“ … that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors (me, a lost and condemned person), not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ (quoted directly), like that of a lamb without defect or blemish.”

1 Peter goes on to say that it is because of this, that which God has done in Christ Jesus, that we come to trust God. God raised Christ, gave him glory — life out of death. This promise that creates in us trust in the God who is not just God but “my Lord” is as Luther put it, liberation from “sin, death, and the power of the devil.”

Here again, 1 Peter speaks of a new birth. In 1:3 the new birth is to a “living hope” that is ours through the resurrection of Jesus. In 1:23 the promise, founded on the trust established in us by the resurrection, is of being born anew here and now by that promise. 1 Peter calls upon a critical contrast found in both the writings of Paul, and in the Old Testament: the perishable becoming imperishable. Being born anew, means being reborn imperishable, in one’s life, and in one’s faith. As Paul puts it,

So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:42-44).

1 Peter claims the promise, “the good news that was announced to you” (1:25), as the imperishable promise that ours in Christ. This word is an “imperishable seed,” and the new life we have through that word, is equally imperishable. Because God through Christ Jesus says so. The Revised Common Lectionary ends the reading in verse 23, but the metaphor of God’s Word as an imperishable “seed” calls upon the contrasting metaphor of Isaiah 40:8, which is quoted in verses 24-25:

All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord endures forever.”

Trust in God, through Christ, again means something for us in the here and now — something which means a great deal in 1 Peter. 1 Peter defines the Christian life, speaks it into being through the imperishable Word, and this life, means love. Love; genuine, mutual, deep, from the heart. It’s not too much to ask, is it? Love that is genuine — passionate, joyful, full; love that is mutual — not self-serving; love that is deep — not passing, frail; love that is from the heart. As with the hope Peter speaks of earlier, hope that is living — i.e. life-giving, on-going, a hope that leads to life and is also lived. The love proclaimed here is the same; this love is life-giving, and it is a way of life. Love, the love that is ours in Christ Jesus is not merely to be felt, it is to be lived.

Because of what the good news, the living and enduring word of God that has been announced to us; the good news of what Christ Jesus has accomplished for us — ransoming us from our “futile way,” cleansing us of sin — all through his resurrection from the dead (1:21). All of this was accomplished for a purpose.

To return to Luther,

All this he has done that I may be his own, live under him in his kingdom, and serve him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as he is risen from the dead and lives and rules eternity.”

For 1 Peter, this is most certainly true.