Lectionary Commentaries for March 31, 2013
Resurrection of Our Lord

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 24:1-12

Arland J. Hultgren

Each of the four Resurrection narratives goes its own way in details, but there are three elements that they all have in common: (1) the discovery of the empty tomb takes place on a Sunday morning; (2) Mary Magdalene is present at the tomb; and (3) the tomb is found to be empty.

Beyond that there are differences, and some of the differences are worth noting.

In the case of Luke’s Gospel one of the most notable features is that it has the most women on the scene. Luke puts it this way: “Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them” (24:10). Three are named but others are not. Consequently we have to conclude that, for Luke, at least five are present (three plus “other women,” plural); perhaps more than five is intended.

Two of those named are mentioned back in 8:2-3 (Mary Magdalene and Joanna) and belong to the company of those who provided for Jesus’ ministry out of their means. We are no doubt supposed to think of that company as the ones who were at the crucifixion (23:49), were subsequently at the tomb (23:55), prepared spices and ointments (23:56), and arrived at the tomb in the early dawn on Sunday (24:1).

A second distinctive feature of Luke’s Resurrection narrative is the inclusion of a reminder to the women in 24:7, in which the two men recall the passion predictions of Jesus, which appear at 9:22 and 18:31-33 (plus a shorter version at 9:44 and a hint of the passion in 22:22). As the text stands, we must assume that, according to Luke, the women being addressed were themselves among the followers of Jesus in Galilee who heard Jesus’ predictions. That is possible, since they are among the retinue at 8:2-3, prior to the first prediction in Galilee (9:22).

Distinctive to the saying itself is that here, but not previously, the word “crucified” appears. After the reminder is given, the women do indeed remember (24:8), meaning by implication that they were believers. That must be so, because the reminder includes not only a prediction of the passion, but also of the resurrection. It is on that basis that they go and tell “the eleven and to all the rest” what they had witnessed (24:9).

Finally, Luke includes a brief narrative about the response to what the women reported. The eleven (and others) considered it “an idle tale” and did not believe the report at all (24:11). They were not moved to do anything about it. There was one exception, however, and that was Peter. He ran to the tomb (as in John 20:4), inspected it, and went home “amazed at what had happened” (24:12). Luke does not say that Peter was a confirmed believer at this point.

Later the same day, after the appearance of the risen Christ to Cleopas and another traveler on the road to Emmaus (24:13-32), “the eleven and their companions” are gathered together. It is then that they say, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon” (i.e., Simon Peter, 24:34). They make the Easter confession as a chorus of believers, based on the testimony of one of their own. Yet that is still not the end of the drama of the struggle between belief and disbelief. Jesus suddenly appears among the disciples. He chides them for their doubts (24:38), for “they were disbelieving and still wondering” (24:41). It is not until Jesus commissions them as his witnesses and blesses them that the disciples actually worship him (24:48-53).

The way that Luke reports the Easter story takes us back to the way he tells the story of Jesus all along. The opening scenes of his gospel are about women who have a major role to play in the entire drama of redemption, including Elizabeth (1:41-45), Mary (1:38-56), and Anna (2:36-38). Each is a prophetic figure, speaking of the wondrous works of God. There are additional vignettes that feature women as persons of faith throughout the story (7:1-17, 36-50; 8:2-3; 10:38-42; 11:27-28; 13:10-17; 15:8-10; 18:1-8; 23:27-28), all of which are distinctive to Luke. In addition, frequently in the story that Luke tells, Jesus associates with people considered to be sinners (5:30-32; 7:34; 7:36-50; 15:1-2; 18:9-14; 19:7; 23:39-43).

Both of these threads through the story appear in Luke’s post-resurrection accounts. The good news of Easter is announced first to women by angels (called “men in dazzling clothes” in 24:4, which means they were angels; and if we have any doubt, they are called “angels” in 24:23), just as an angel announced the news to Mary that she would be the mother of Jesus (1:26-38).

Then, although it appears much later in the post-resurrection accounts (not in 24:1-12 itself), there is the scene of the risen Jesus who declares that “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (24:47). Jesus’ fellowship with sinners lives on.

Some thoughts can be developed out of the story that Luke tells, but one need not be confined to Luke’s account. It shares and coheres with other affirmations of the Easter gospel in the New Testament.

            (1) Easter is perplexing, and to believe in the resurrection is not easy. The women who come to the tomb are perplexed from the beginning, and the apostles, when they hear the report of the women to them, consider it an “idle tale.” It is only later on that the apostles come to faith, and that is after Jesus appears to them as the story unfolds.

To believe in the resurrection of Jesus takes a lot of faith and courage. But it is more than saying yes to the claim made by the women and, eventually, the men in the Easter story. It is at the same time saying “no” to the power of death and destruction that surrounds us. In place of the bad news we hear and the bad experiences we have, we make the claim that there is a sustaining power, God, who brings life out of death and reconciliation out of conflict, as the Bible tells us. There has been marvelous testimony through the ages that that is so, beginning with the earliest witnesses of Easter. To commit ourselves to their claim opens the door to new life for ourselves and for acts of love and reconciliation in the world.

(2) Easter marks a moment in time when God raised the lifeless body of Jesus from death to life, thus vindicating all that Jesus taught and did in his earthly ministry. That was a ministry of inclusion, not only of women (so prominent in the story), but also of Gentiles (2:30-32; 13:29; 14:15-24) and persons regarded by the majority as sinners.

The tendency exists for people to divide the world up along racial, ethnic, and gender lines and more. Some of that is inevitable and can be for good purposes. But there is a downside to it too. The divisions that people make between the respectable and the disgraceful, the good and the bad, or saints and sinners can be particularly troublesome. Such judgments are often unfair. The problem that Jesus faced was that some people were written off as sinners, because they did not measure up to standards that those who thought of themselves as righteous had set up. They were therefore to be avoided. Jesus sought to break down the false barriers and became a friend of those considered to be sinners. Respect for all, and a welcome for all, is the legacy that Jesus has given to his church.

            (3) Easter also marks the beginning of a new creation. It begins with the resurrection of Jesus, and it continues in the passing of time where the gospel is proclaimed and people come to faith. As the apostle Paul put it, “whoever is in Christ is a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

The church at its best continues to be the community of the new creation in a world that is too often headed for dissolution by violence, abuse, death, and destruction. Being people of the resurrected Lord Jesus, the church is in the business of praying for the renewal of the world and seeking to renew it.

In Evangelical Lutheran Worship there is a service for Morning Prayer (pages 304-308). It contains a prayer that reminds us that we are people of the resurrection. In one of its petitions the congregation prays:

Mighty God of mercy, we thank you for the resurrection dawn, bringing the glory of our risen Lord who makes every morning new.

And then, shortly after that, the congregation prays:

Merciful God of might, renew this weary world, heal the hurts of all your children, and bring about your peace for all in Christ Jesus, the living Lord.

In the life of the church, Easter is a once a year event, strictly speaking, but every Lord’s Day throughout the year is a “little Easter,” the weekly celebration of the day of resurrection, “the eighth day” of creation,1 the day of new creation. It is also an occasion for the church to claim the resurrection promise that God is making all things new, beginning with the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. As the body of believers who belong to the risen Christ, the church is the community of the new creation.

1Epistle of Barnabas 15:8-9 (early second century): Further, [God] says to them, “Your new moons and your Sabbath I cannot endure.” Ye perceive how He speaks: Your present Sabbaths are not acceptable to Me, but that is which I have made, namely this, when, giving rest to all things, I shall make a beginning of the eighth day, that is, a beginning of another world. Wherefore, also, we keep the eighth day with joyfulness, the day also on which Jesus rose again from the dead. And when He had manifested Himself, He ascended into the heavens.

First Reading

Commentary on Acts 10:34-43

Kyle Fever

How does the resurrection change things?

One scholar states that Acts tells the story of the early church carrying forward “divinely initiated social change” that results from their witness to the resurrected Lord.Peter’s speech in Acts 10:34-43 witnesses to no mere social change; it witnesses to a tectonic shift that disrupts the landscape. Peter expresses the issue in Acts 10:28 — “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile.” This reality is about to change for Peter. When Christ takes place as Lord of all, other things are decentered — even what we once knew as normative and “lawful.”

More than Limitless Love and Acceptance
Peter’s initial statement in verses 34-35 has two parts, a negation and an affirmation. Most interpreters’ eyes are drawn to the first part — the negation — but not always the second — the affirmation. However we interpret the statement about God’s impartiality, it is important to allow it to challenge our own presumptions, and important that we do not isolate it from the rest of Peter’s statement in verse 35.

In Peter’s speech, God’s impartiality has very little to do with God’s loving acceptance of all people. This is not to say that God does not love, but we do not want to turn Peter’s statement in Acts into something particularly Johannine or Pauline. Indeed, one mines Acts in vain to find support for mention of God’s love. One can try to put this into the sphere of God’s love, but that would risk emphasizing a component of God’s acceptance that Acts does not emphasize.

It is important to continue with Peter in verse 35: “but in every nation anyone who fears (God) and does what is right is acceptable to (God).” Taken together with verse 35, Peter’s point is that ethnic identity cannot define who can rightly fear God and work justice (“work dikaiosune” or “do what is right”).

Peter’s realization finds its meaning amid first century life that thrived on ethnically defined distinctions. It was common to define God’s favored in terms of ethnic association and demarcate the “ethical” and the “just” along the same lines. Non-participation in Greek life and culture revealed one as unlearned in divine things and unvirtuous; those who were not yet graced by Roman life, law, and order remained theologically misguided barbarians.

Several Second Temple Jewish writings equate participation in Judaism (keeping the law and worship of the one God) with the pursuit of virtue and working of justice (dikaiosune). In other words, right living in relation to all things divine and human was found within Judaism. Gentiles, because they are not of Abraham’s seed, cannot participate — either experience the benefits of God’s blessing or be among those who brings God’s light to the world.

Peter’s divinely initiated realization significantly reframes the understanding of divine acceptance in the first century. Peter’s speech concerns not the extent of God’s love, nor how one can be saved (“faith vs. works”), but who can participate in the community that witnesses to God’s salvation. Salvation in Acts means the establishment of God’s peace and justice on earth. In other words, Peter’s new realization addresses the locus and nature of God’s salvific activity in a context where this is usually defined by ethnic group participation.

Peace through Jesus Christ
Peter’s summary of the logos about Jesus in verses 36-43 functions as the replacement narrative to this ethnically constructed way of evaluating humanity. This logos concerns peace through Jesus Christ, Lord of all, who was empowered by the Holy Spirit and who worked good deeds, healing all those oppressed by the devil. According to Peter, it is “because God was with him” that Jesus was compelled to do these things. This calls to mind Jesus’ mission in Luke 4:18-19:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
Because he has anointed me
To bring good news to the poor;
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
And recovery of the sight to the blind,
To let the oppressed go free,
And to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

If, as Acts emphasizes, Jesus calls his followers to be his witnesses, then Peter’s summary and Jesus’ citation of Isaiah 61 in Luke 4 provide the essential skeleton of that witness. The locus and nature of God’s work are defined by Jesus’ mission and community of disciples bearing witness to it, not by participation in one particular ethnically defined existence.  

Reevaluating Life
Because expressions of ethnic identity in the ancient world involved claims to ethical superiority, we cannot draw the line of this text’s significance at God’s acceptance of all races and ethnicities. We must go further. Why is it no longer “unlawful” for Peter to eat with Gentiles? Because Gentiles’ value before God and ability to witness to Jesus is no longer determined by participation in ways of living particular to certain ethnic or social groups, but by Christ’s mission. As Paul puts it, we no longer evaluate “from a human point of view” (2 Corinthians 5:16).

God’s initiative challenges us to live and think as if others’ ways of living — not just of different ethnic groups, but of those less educated or of a different political persuasion — can display the fear of God and working of justice in their own ways and contexts, without thinking they need to be informed about the correct ways to do it by “us” who think we might have the upper hand on understanding God’s ways. We are forced to consider the narrowness and short-sightedness of our own vision and the breadth and depth of God’s.

It is also important to recognize that Peter’s speech does not serve to relativize ethnic identity and manner of life so that they become arbitrary or insignificant. Peter’s speech actually confesses the value of ethnic and social particularity in service to God’s mission in Christ. The “other” need not become like me; likewise, I should feel no compulsion to change. In Peter’s speech, the resurrection brings a new reality where Jew and Gentile as themselves contribute to a diverse witness to God’s mission in Christ.

Jesus is risen indeed! This message gives eternal hope. In this week’s text, however, the resurrection also shakes the present world, bringing a new outlook. As we proclaim the promise of the resurrection, let us also proclaim the power of the resurrection, a power that changes how we evaluate who can fear God and work justice in Jesus’ name.

1Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 21.


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

James Howell

Psalm 118 is a bounty of riches. Scholars debate whether the imagined speaker is a solitary individual or a great throng.

Of course, we live our lives before God as both. The Psalm’s rousing invitation to give “thanks” should stimulate much thought. Our culture breeds us to be takers, achievers, people who feel entitled or deserving, but the Psalm tutors us in gratitude, declaring our dependence, and glorying in it.

It is sobering to recall that the Hebrew word for “thanks” (todah) never means a mere verbal expression of thanks. A todah was something tangible, something you valued and needed — your best sheep, the first ripened grain. Since God was the giver of all good things, “thanks” was a costly, precious offering to God. Churches today devise clever stewardship campaigns, but the secret of joyful giving and proper funding of religious life, is in learning to give todah-style thanks to God, not grudgingly parting with what we foolishly think we’ve achieved and is ours, but with what we humbly understand is sheer gift from God’s largesse. The grateful give generously, and it only appears to be costly to outsiders who don’t understand dependence.

Psalm 118 also features that intriguing “stone which the builders rejected becoming the cornerstone,” often quoted in the New Testament. God uses the unlikely, what the world would toss aside as useless — including you, and me and the church. Martin Luther allegedly said that God can “carve the rotten wood and ride the lame horse.” God’s glory was in a brutally executed teacher whom everybody turned away from, yet one whose grave was sealed with a stone that proved useless in keeping him dead.

The Psalm draws us into a dramatic scene on some day back in the Iron Age with worshippers crowding around the temple gate and an unforgettable cry: “This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” How important can a single day be? Life is a continuous blur of days and yet everything can turn on what unfolds in a single day. That was the day my father died. That was the day she said “yes.” That was the day the doctor uttered the word “malignant.” That was the day my son came back home.

Americans are prone to say 9/11 was the day that changed history and that 9/11 is the day we will never forget. But 9/11 is like 12/7/41, or the day my grandfather died, or the day a tornado touched down and killed a friend, or a shooter rampaged through Virginia Tech — tragic days, solidly and thankfully in the past. Evil probably loves so much attention being lavished on such a dark, violent day.

More crucial and hopeful world-changing days in the past for us Americans might be not 9/11 but 7/4, when the good of independence was declared, or 1/1/1863, when the unjustly enslaved were emancipated. My children’s birthdates merit pomp and circumstance, for they are days that celebrate life, not death. Is Ground Zero sacred ground — a place where evil pumped its fist? Or is it the labor and delivery room? Or our sanctuaries where we pray and hope? Or the classroom where a student gets a bold idea? ?What dates changed history?

Christians point to Easter — when we read Psalm 118. Jews think of the Passover liberation from bondage in Egypt. In fact, Psalm 118:24 might best be translated, “This is the day on which the Lord has acted.” The Lord acted definitively in the exodus, on Christmas morning, Easter morning, and the day of Pentecost. These are the days that define both history and us.

In Israel, Psalm 118 was read on the Feast of Tabernacles, when Jews to this day build temporary little shelters, and recall their transient path through the wilderness. We have not arrived. We are on pilgrimage here; this is not our final destination. We are headed someplace, and the dawning of all that is of God is not yet.

And so how do we live in the meantime? Psalm 118 says the Lord is “my strength and my song” — not one or the other, but both. The Psalms suggest that “to live is to praise” and we think of John Wesley’s deathbed testimony: barely alive, he sang an Isaac Watts hymn he loved. “I’ll praise my Maker while I have breath.”1

Psalm 118 didn’t intend to speak of the Lord crafting each individual day. But the Christian life would be immeasurably enriched if, when the alarm clock tolls in the morning, you could hit the off button, swivel your feet to the floor, stand up, take a good breath, and say “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!” and perhaps reiterate this most faithful thought throughout the day.

A day can feel onerous, or perhaps like a leaky sieve, minutes slipping away, too much to do, rushing. But the day is God’s. Each day is a precious gift, not for you to consume or cram full, but to delight in God the giver of the day, to serve the God who gave you the time. Mother Teresa urged us, “Try to feel the need for prayer often during the day.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was right: “The beginning of the day should not be oppressed with besetting concerns for the day’s work. At the threshold of the new day stands the Lord who made it. All the darkness of the night retreats before the clear light of Jesus Christ. All unrest, all impurity, all care and anxiety flee before him. Therefore at the beginning of the day, let the first thought and the first word belong to him to whom our whole life belongs.” The ultimate outcome of this day has already been long settled because of the day the Lord acted centuries ago and so this day can become a preview, a joyful glimpse of that great day when God will bring all things to their good end.

1Richard P. Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodists (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), p. 308.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 15:19-26

Susan Hedahl

At centuries’ distance from the Corinthian community, it is difficult to initially grasp why there would be disputes of basic faith questions such as described in chapter 15.

Yet, Paul is alert to what the areas of debate are among the Corinthians and thoroughly engages them. And indeed, Christians today still dispute their beliefs. What does that fact mean for Easter proclamation?

In order to get the flavor of what Paul is arguing about overall, the preacher should read chapter 15 in its entirety prior to any homiletical choices on this appointed epistle text for the day. This chapter is unique in the New Testament since no other section of the Bible so clearly works out with such depth the several related faith issues of a Christian community which is dealing with death, resurrection, and the way Jesus functions in these realities.

From Paul’s words, it is evident that the Corinthians are confused about the varied connections among death and dying, Jesus’ death, and the ways Jesus and his salvific work affect them and all of humanity. One thing this text does implicitly is look at the many fears believers have regarding life and death. Paul’s words seem to be addressed to those who are experiencing significant spiritual anxiety.

Studying the Text: Major Themes
This Epistle selection leaves no doubt that the way Jesus, as God’s beloved Son, works on behalf of humanity is part of God’s promise for the conclusion of all things that will signify the completion of God’s plan for humanity. This necessitates the unfolding of the salvation story through Jesus’ presence and actions, including the destruction of death, humanity’s major enemy.

This excerpt from chapter 15 is part of an extended Pauline challenge to the Corinthian community about their disputes over the nature of Christ and his relationship to their dying and salvation. The nature and object of Paul’s description of Christ’s place in humanity’s story moves through Jesus’ death to his assumption of power because of God’s work through him. In preaching this passage, the order in which Paul presents these issues should be followed to make sense of his line of reasoning.

For example, Paul’s description of the process of Jesus coming in glory with those who belong to him, and then the destruction of death and Christ’s reign with God, clearly sounds like an eschatological invitation to all listeners in every place and time to think about Jesus’ salvific work over the span of eternity. Focusing on the meanings of the person and works of Jesus Christ, with Christological depth, Paul addresses the Corinthians’ issues with resurrection, including their misunderstandings, fears and disputes. Paul chides them about several misunderstandings; including the central problem of those who had reservations about Jesus rising from the dead at all and what is at stake for them eternally in believing Jesus was resurrected.

The question that immediately comes to the fore with this text is: What is about it that recommends itself for proclamation on Easter Sunday? In some details, this Epistle selection indirectly raises topics similar to those implied in the Gospel for the day, but it does so in a more argumentative fashion, given the difference in the narrative structures of each text.

Resources on the Text
Even though the pericope for this day is contained within a thirty-eight verse chapter, of which main topic is the resurrection, the preacher should read about all of chapter 15 in a number of commentaries, given the text’s complexity. One commentary that can offer substantial sermonic insights is Martin Luther’s own commentary on 1 Corinthians 15.

Crafting the Sermon and Sermon Structures
There are many possible topics for preaching within this text. Sermonic structure can reiterate and reflect the major points Paul is making in the text. Some of the issues Paul addresses in this passage can be put in interrogatory form as a way of planning sermon structure. For example,

  • What does it mean to be among the “first fruits of those who have died”?
  • Why are Adam and Jesus paired in this text? What is the “last enemy” and why? (15:16)
  • Will people be raised from the dead or once a person dies, do they remain dead?
  • Was Jesus raised from the dead and why? If so, by whom?

Sermon preparation on this text must also take into consideration the reservoir of meanings attached to the Old Testament allusion to Adam in verse 22. A sermon section on the meaning of Adam in relationship to Jesus would further assist listeners in trying to make the Christological connections between the Old Testament figure of Adam and Jesus. Furthermore, discussing the relationship theologically and typologically would be good for naming the resurrection as the divine response to the fallibility of humanity, which is tied to the “old Adam.”

The Adam/Jesus pair can also be used to discuss the human condition since the mention of this comes naturally on Easter Sunday given the aegis of sin and the reality of the atonement, of which Easter is the central festival to proclaim these realities through the lenses afforded by the saving Cross.

The time difference between the Corinthians’ community and any contemporary Christian community has not necessarily alleviated the spiritual questions and fears people have about their salvation. These fears are met by the Easter resurrection reality, and preachers should never cease raising them. As with Paul’s case, theological and scriptural responses are always needed for good spiritual care as people grapple with God’s workings among them.

Humanity is haunted by death. The Corinthians’ issues about the processes of salvation raise questions for people today both spiritually and educationally. The Easter Sunday preacher should not underestimate questions and spiritual struggles experienced by many today. We all wonder “what role does Christ have in the death of each person?” and “how does Jesus’ death affect the event of my death?”

These are typical questions and Easter proclamation on some of these questions offers the heart of what the resurrection means for Christians in view of the hope Easter offers to humanity. In a sermon, it is this hope that people yearn to hear on Easter — and it is spelled “R-e-s-u-r-r-e-c-t-i-o-n!”