Lectionary Commentaries for April 4, 2010
Resurrection of Our Lord (Year C)

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 24:1-12

Craig R. Koester

Preaching at Easter has its unique challenges and opportunities.

A typical Easter worship service is often a bit chaotic. Family members who have been away may be home for the holiday. People who rarely worship may come to church for the sake of tradition. The Easter story itself may seem all too familiar, yet those who try to preach it may wonder how anyone could possibly believe it. This challenge is precisely the opportunity. No preacher can make a listener believe that the dead rise. But God can and does work through the Easter message to evoke Easter faith.

The account that is given in Luke 24:1-12 lends itself to a sermon in four steps.

1. The story begins with the obvious: Jesus is dead, and his followers assume that he remains dead (24:1-3). The women come to the tomb because that is where the saw the body of Jesus was placed after his crucifixion (23:55-56). They bring the spices along to anoint the body of Jesus, to show proper respect for the dead. The discovery of the empty tomb does not lead to an easy change of perspective. It brings confusion, not clarity. Bodies that are dead presumably remain dead. The best one can do is to treat them with respect.

Many modern readers of the gospel might be content to do the same. We, too, assume that death is death, and that our proper response should be to enshrine the dead Jesus in the tomb of memory. We might recall that he was an insightful teacher, a fiery prophet, and a compassionate healer. But he died. So we imagine ourselves called to hallow his memory with praise for his legacy, much as the women imagined themselves called to honor his dead body with spices and ointments. One would think that would be enough.

2. The women receive a word that runs counter to what they know to be true. “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen” (24:5). One might be tempted to linger over the description of these angelic messengers, but they are not the point. The focus in this section is on the message, not the messengers (24:4-7). What is most striking is that the women encounter the resurrection through this message. They are told that Jesus has risen, but they do not see the risen Jesus himself. What they have is a word, a message.

This brings the Easter experience uncomfortably close, because this is precisely what we have–the word of resurrection. One would think God would work differently. It would seem so much easier to have the women come to the tomb and watch Jesus walk out into the light of a new day. And it would seem much easier for Jesus simply to appear in dazzling glory to us, who gather on an Easter morning generations later. And this is precisely where our situation is like that of the women on the first Easter: we are all given a message of resurrection, which flies in the face of what we know to be true.

3. The only logical response to such a message is unbelief. Experience teaches that death wins. The Easter message says that Jesus lives. When such contradictory claims collide, it only makes sense to continue affirming what we already know. This is what Luke reports in the next section (24:8-11). The women bring the message of resurrection to the others, and they respond as thinking people regularly respond: they thought that the message was “an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (24:11).

Unbelief does not mean that people believe nothing. Rather, it means that they believe something else. People say “I don’t believe it” because there is something else that they believe more strongly. Yet here is where the Easter message begins its work, by challenging our certainties. Experience teaches that death wins and that even the strongest succumb to it. Experience teaches that life is what you make it, so get what you can while you can because it will be over soon enough. And the Easter message says, “Really? How can you be so sure?” Death is real, but it is not final. In Jesus, life gets the last word.

4. The Easter message calls you from your old belief in death to a new belief in life. The claim that the tomb could not hold Jesus, and the idea that the one who died by crucifixion has now risen is so outrageous that it might make you wonder whether it might–just might–be true. The apostles seemed convinced that the message was nonsense, nothing more than “an idle tale” (24:11). Death was death. Yet the message was so outrageous that Peter had to go and take a look for himself (24:12). He had to wonder, “What if it is true?”

Those who gather for worship on Easter Sunday follow in the footsteps of Peter. They have heard the rumor that Jesus is alive and come to hear again for themselves: “What if it is true? What if death is real, but not final? What if Jesus is not merely past but present? What if Jesus were to meet me here? What would life be then?”

The Easter reading stops with Peter’s amazement, but the Easter story continues far beyond, as God continues to challenge the certainty of death with the promise of life. Go ahead and tell God that you think it is outrageous to expect anyone to believe that Jesus has risen. Go ahead and tell God that you believe that death gets the final word. None of this is news to God. He has heard it all before. He simply refuses to believe it. “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” God wonders. “Through the living Jesus I give you the gift of life. Why would you think that I would offer you anything less?”

First Reading

Commentary on Acts 10:34-43

Eric Barreto

Acts 10 narrates a significant change in Peter’s own life but also a massive shift in the trajectory of the church’s mission in its earliest days.

For Luke, this moment is significant well beyond Peter’s life. This story is a powerful symbol of a promise enunciated from the beginning of Luke’s gospel and throughout Acts, a promise represented most powerfully in the resurrection of Jesus. Without question, God’s spirit is moving. The only question is whether Peter, as well as the church, will sense the winds of change and follow God’s lead.

Peter’s speech emerges in the midst of the rather long narrative around the encounter between Peter and Cornelius the centurion. Twin visions granted to Cornelius and Peter reveal the not-so-subtle hand of God moving to bring these two individuals together and thus precipitating a critical moment of decision. Typically, we assume that it is Cornelius who is brought to that moment of decision. After all, isn’t Cornelius the convert in this story? Perhaps not.

At the core of this encounter is the presence of social boundaries that prevented Peter from “associat[ing] with or . . . visit[ing] a Gentile” (Acts 10:28). The vision of unclean and clean animals begins to persuade Peter otherwise (Acts 10:9-16), but the narrative suggests that Peter remains cautious until the very end of this critical encounter.

Though Peter finally comes to this insight in the dramatic story of Cornelius and his household, Luke has long been heralding this inclusive impulse. After all, Jesus’ commission in Acts 1:8 declares that geographical bounds would not constrain the gospel. Peter himself proclaims anew the prophecy of Joel that the Spirit would dawn upon “all flesh” (Acts 2:17). An Ethiopian eunuch has already received baptism (Acts 8:26-40). Even more, these promises began with the opening of Luke’s gospel. Simeon declares that Jesus would be both “a light of revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:32). Jesus’ first sermon ends rather inauspiciously when he reminds his neighbors that Elijah shared the goodness of God beyond the bounds of Israel. In other words, the Spirit long preceded Peter’s realization. Peter only came to realize the radical scope of this movement well after the Spirit had begun working.

Peter’s speech starts with a formal opening (“Peter opened his mouth and said”) that marks its solemnity and seriousness. Luke thus portrays this as a monumental speech. His thesis is a brief but powerful theological insight: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality” (cf. Romans 2:11). No matter our place of origin, the same God reaches out to us; the same gospel calls us home. Social boundaries and ethnic differences are no obstacle to the gospel. Such differences are not an irritant in need of remediation or a problem for God’s church.

In the eyes of God, all of us in our wonderful particularity equally receive the invitation to “fear” and receive God (Acts 10:35). Fear is not often a way to relate to God that we stress in our churches, especially in a culture wherein fear leads us to isolate and protect ourselves from any encroachment. The fear of God differs from the fears that can so easily immobilize us.

In Luke and Acts, fear is often associated with the appearances of angels (Luke 1:12-13; 1:30; 2:9-10; 5:10; etc.); the natural human reaction is to quiver before such appearances, but rather consistently these messengers of God instruct those to whom they appear not to fear. That is, the fear of God is not terror or panic, but a profound acknowledgement that God’s holiness, power, and love are simply beyond our comprehension. It is such fear linked with doing “what is right” which marks off the people of God (Acts 10:35).

In the next few verses (36-43), Peter proclaims the gospel in short form. In theologically dense and significant language, Peter summarizes the whole of the Christian message in a story about God’s action through Jesus, culminating in his resurrection and its proclamation by those who now bear witness to it. Notice what highlights Peter stresses. The exclamatory “He is Lord of all” encapsulates Peter’s declaration. The story of Jesus begins in Galilee and Judea. There, Jesus gains the sanction and power of the Spirit to do good and heal those over whom demons exerted power. His life seems to end on a “tree” (cf. Acts 5:30 and Deuteronomy 21:22-23), but his resurrection and his appearances to select witnesses demonstrate the futility of his execution. His resurrection then results in the command that his witnesses proclaim that he alone is “judge of the living and the dead,” and that the prophetic word has come true in the one who can forgive the sins of all who believe.

At least at this particular moment, this is the essence of the gospel for Peter: the local efforts of Jesus to heal amongst his neighbors take on a universal significance with his resurrection. In this way, Jesus shatters the distinction between the local and the universal, the provincial and the all-encompassing.

Were we to compress our faith, what theological elements would remain as most essential? Were we to tell a simple story of Jesus’ deeds and his person, what would we say?

Of course, our answers may depend on the context of our confession of faith. Peter’s gospel epitome emerges from a specific series of experiences rife with significance. From the three-fold vision (Acts 10:9-16) to the miraculous outpouring of the Spirit, Peter must express the gospel in a world radically changed before his eyes. This sounds familiar to those of us who have had to grapple with change, whether tragic or wonderful. Whether as an effect of loss or gain, our lives change, and the gospel must respond. This text reminds us that in the midst of change, the Christian’s instinct ought to be to restate anew the living word of God.

No liturgical date is as apt a reminder of this Christian imperative as Easter Sunday. Jesus’ resurrection violates the natural order of life and death, contradicts expectations that the Messiah would bring a swift end to the political powers, and continually challenges us to examine our faith anew. For Peter, the implications of the resurrection include the shattering of ossified social boundaries, for “he is Lord of all!”

Often, the wider narrative within which we find this brief but powerful speech is labeled as the conversion of Cornelius. Beverly Gaventa has argued persuasively that the typical indications of conversion are absent in this story; in fact, we even mislabel this narrative if we center it around the actions of Cornelius or Peter.1 Conversion requires the selection of a new path in life. In the end, Cornelius’ life does not change as dramatically as Peter’s and by implication, the church’s. In the end, God is the ultimate actor. God has moved ahead of the church to embrace all the world’s people. Indeed it is God’s initiative that sets Peter, Cornelius, and the church to this monumental juncture.

Peter and the church are only playing catch-up at this point in the narrative of Acts. In fact, Peter “was still speaking when the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word” (Acts 10:44). Those who were circumcised were amazed, and Peter finally fully understands the gravity of his speech’s implications. “God shows no partiality,” means that no one ought to “withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have” (Acts 10:47, italics added).

On the day when we celebrate the resurrection of Christ, it may therefore be particularly appropriate for the church to consider how the Spirit may be moving amongst us in unexpected and challenging ways and to ask how the reverberations of the resurrection continue to be manifest around us.

1Beverly Gaventa, The Acts of the Apostles (ANTC; Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), 173-5.


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

Nancy Koester

On Easter Sunday, the church proclaims, “O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!” (Psalm 118:1).

Jesus Christ is risen. And in Christ, we too shall rise.  God’s steadfast love endures forever!  The words of Psalm 118 have long been used to herald Easter. “This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!” (118:24).

In its ancient Jewish context, Psalm 118 was most likely an entrance liturgy to the Temple, used at the festival of Passover. It proclaimed God’s deliverance from Egypt and, later on, from the Exile. The Psalm was a liturgical script, complete with speaking parts for leaders and congregation. One can hear the jubilant call and response in 118:2-4: “Let Israel say, ‘His steadfast love endures forever.’ Let the house of Aaron say, ‘His steadfast love endures forever.’ Let those who fear the LORD say, ‘His steadfast love endures forever.'”

With this Psalm on their lips, the priests and people processed into the Temple. The approach to the Temple culminates in verse 19, “Open to me the gates of righteousness…” and the condition for entrance is given in verse 20, “The righteous shall enter through it.”  Then the festival procession proceeds up to the altar, to adorn it with signs of victory (verse 27). The physical movement begins outside the Temple, progressing inside and all the way to the altar. The people express their faith that since God has saved them in the past, he can be trusted in the future (verse 25).1

The spiritual movement is just as dramatic. Biblical scholar Richard Clifford notes that “Christians will see in the movement from humiliation to exaltation a foreshadowing of Jesus… His rescue from death is a new exodus and a fresh sign that God’s steadfast love endures forever… His exaltation means [our] own. The Psalm is therefore a wonderful song for the Easter Season.”2  It recalls God’s deliverance of the people, and expresses their joy and gratitude.

Since New Testament times, Psalm 118 evokes for Christians the story of Easter.

“Out of my distress I called on the Lord;
the Lord answered me and set me in a broad place. 
With the Lord on my side I do not fear.
What can mortals do to me?” (118:5-6).

This confidence – what can mortals do to me? – anticipates Paul’s great resurrection chapter in 1 Corinthians 15. But instead of taunting mere mortals, Paul addresses death itself: “Death, where is your sting? Grave, where is your victory?” (1 Corinthians 15:54, 55).

New Testament writers used Psalm 118 “as a means of understanding and articulating the significance of Jesus.”3 (See Matthew 21:42; Acts 4:11; 1 Peter 2:7.) Christians have long read this Psalm with Jesus in mind.

“The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. 
This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118: 22-24).

The ancient church relied on the words of the New Testament writers, and during the Middle Ages, Psalm 118 continued to inspire Christian worship. For example, here are two hymns which appear in  Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Both are translated from the Latin and set to music worthy of choirs, trumpets and organ.

The first hymn is “Christ is Made the Sure Foundation.”4 

Christ is made the sure foundation,
Christ our head and cornerstone,
chosen of the Lord and precious,
binding all the church in one.

In the second verse, the hymn echoes the Psalm’s original setting as Temple entrance liturgy. 

To this temple, where we call you,
come, O Lord of hosts, and stay.
Come with all your loving-kindness,
Hear your people as they pray
And your fullest benediction
Shed within these walls today.

A second hymn, “The day of resurrection!,” is explicitly an Easter hymn. Again the Psalm’s original Passover setting gets translated into Easter. Exodus, when God ‘brought the people over’ the Red Sea, becomes Resurrection, when Christ ‘brings us over’ from sin’s dominion. 

The day of resurrection! Earth tell it out abroad,
the passover of gladness, the passover of God.
From death to life eternal, from sin’s dominion free,
our Christ has brought us over with hymns of victory.5  

Martin Luther made another strong connection with Psalm 118.  While Luther had several favorite Psalms, he had a passion for 118.  While in hiding in the Coburg Castle during 1530, he wrote (among other things) an extensive commentary on Psalm 118.  On the wall of the room where he worked was written his personal motto: “I shall not die, but live, and recount the deeds of the Lord” (118:17).6  This is the central message of the Psalm. It applies to Jesus and, through him, to all believers.  “I shall not die but live, and recount the deeds of the Lord,” inspired Luther’s militant faith. 

Of all people, Martin Luther certainly had cause to fear what mortals might do to him. Of this Psalm he wrote, “the dying live; the suffering rejoice; the fallen rise; the disgraced are honored. It is as Christ says, ‘He who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.'” Luther further declared that whenever the scriptures “deal with God concerning comfort and help in their need, eternal life and the resurrection of the dead are involved.”7 

Just as the Psalmist was delivered by God, so now Christ empowers us, comforts us, and snatches us out of the realm of death. All this is done, says Luther, so that we might proclaim the deeds of the Lord. Easter is the day which the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it! (118:24).

1See New Interpreter’s Bible volume IV (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 1153.
2Richard Clifford, Psalms 1-72 (Nashville: Abingdon), 208-209.
3NIB, 1156.
4Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), #645.
5ELW, #361.
6James Limburg, Psalms, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2000) 402; see also Luther’s Works  14:45 n. 4.
7Luther’s Works 14:86, 87.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 15:19-26

Sharon H. Ringe

“Christ is risen!”
“He is risen indeed!”

The Easter greeting and response have conveyed Christians’ joy at the resurrection since the earliest days of the Christian church. Today’s reading from 1 Corinthians stretches our Easter proclamation beyond the excitement of Easter morning, to consider that always troubling question, “So what?” What difference could that long-ago event make for us and our lives? What was the issue when Paul addressed the Corinthian believers, and what is it for us?

The Corinthians, like us, had a hard time getting their minds around the event of the resurrection. They, like many in the modern world, thought not of a “resurrection” that involved the entire person, body and spirit alike, being raised from death to everlasting life. Instead they translated that notion based on a Jewish understanding of the human being as a unified whole, into the Greek view of a body/spirit dualism. They understood that at death, those two aspects split, with the body simply decaying and the soul living on eternally. The body was scorned, in Socrates’ view, as a sōma sēma, a “body prison,” from which death gave one blessed freedom. The notion of the body itself participating in the glory of eternal life was beyond comprehension: better to be rid of it!

The Easter proclamation was translated into the affirmation that for Jesus the transition had already happened. Through our attachment to him by faith, we too can share in the same spiritual eternity, only now already, in this life. They could point to ample evidence that they were already living the spiritual life through the abundance of charismata, “spiritual gifts,” evident in their lives. What more could there be?

Paul affirmed the power of their experiences of those gifts (1:7), even while having to address the wreckage caused in the community when the gifts became a point of competition and boasting (chapters 12-14). His challenge was to help the Corinthians realize that God has yet more in store for them, beyond this life. The transformation encompassed by the term resurrection was a past event for Jesus Christ, but something still in the future for them. They could experience it only on the other side of death, just as Christ did.

Human language is stretched beyond its limits when dealing with things like resurrection. In today’s lection Paul tries to expand the elasticity of language to help the Corinthians grasp that foreign concept by using hyperbole, metaphor, and a double appeal to ancient tradition. The three literary techniques are interrelated–different doors, as it were, through which the Corinthians might enter the holy space of resurrection faith.

Verse 19 carries the hyperbole: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” Clearly that would truncate the audacious claim Paul is making, namely, that through Christ our hope extends to eternity. To say that that would leave “us”–and Paul is identifying himself with the Corinthians as fellow Christians–most to be pitied is equally clearly an overstatement. It was a statement calculated to get the Corinthians’ attention, though, because that is precisely their claim and their boast. Already in this life they are fully “spiritual” people.

Paul’s second rhetorical move is into a metaphor drawn from agriculture. Christ in being raised is the precious “first fruit” of the harvest that will continue to include all believers (verse 20). The image is vivid to anyone familiar with the provisions in Torah and in many other religions that the precious first product of a crop is to be given to God or to the appropriate gods. It would even be vivid to anyone who has watched eagerly till the first berries, or tomatoes, or fruit ripens. What a treasure it will be! (But heaven help us when all of the zucchini squash ripen at once!)

The first appeal to ancient tradition takes us back to the story of God’s creation of the world, and of Adam, the first human being (verses 21-23). According to the tradition, it was by eating of the fruit of the tree of life that Adam introduced death into human reality. Just as since Adam, we all follow him into death, so also in the “new Adam”–Christ –all who belong to Christ will be made alive when Christ returns.

That lovely symmetry dissolves in an invocation of the tradition that even the resurrection is not God’s final word (verses 24-26). What comes after Christ’s return is “the end.” The Greek word telos can mean the last in a series or the terminal point, but it also means the goal or purpose toward which everything that has preceded it has been moving. In that sense the “end” of the story comes when Christ hands over to God the rule (basileia) over all the creation.

The word “kingdom,” which is so central to the teaching of Jesus as recorded in the first three Gospels, occurs seldom in the letters of Paul. Here it clearly means not a place, but the ruling authority that belongs to God. That authority can come to expression and be restored to God’s hand only after Christ has destroyed every competing “authority” and “power.” In the cosmology of Paul’s time, mediating forces were understood to have been charged with the everyday management of the creation. They are not evil in themselves, but they need to be destroyed when their “management” impedes the purposes or aims of God.

Death is the last of these powers to be conquered–after all, it has been part of the order of things almost from the beginning, as a consequence of human defiance. But in Christ’s death and resurrection, that too has at last been conquered. The celebration of Easter is the victory parade for this ultimate triumph. God’s will for life, eternal and abundant, has carried the day!

“Christ is risen!”
“He is risen indeed!”