Lectionary Commentaries for March 27, 2016
Resurrection of Our Lord

from WorkingPreacher.org

Alternate Gospel

Commentary on John 20:1-18

Barbara Lundblad

Some congregations may read John 20 at the Easter Vigil — a good choice because Mary came to the tomb “while it was still dark.”

[Looking for commentary on Luke 24:1-12? See this Easter Vigil commentary by Michael Joseph Brown.]

But many welcome this text on Easter morning for it is the most personal resurrection story. We can hear John 20 as a drama in two scenes and there are good reasons to watch the whole play, not just the last half.

Scene 1: Mary, Simon Peter, and the Other Disciple
Darkness and light are important themes in John from the prologue to Nicodemus visiting Jesus at night to Jesus’ claim, “I am the light of the world.” Mary came to the tomb while it was still dark — perhaps she simply couldn’t wait until daylight. There is no indication that she brought ointment to anoint Jesus’ body, but she knew he wasn’t alive. She had been there when he died (John 19:25). When she saw the stone rolled away she didn’t shout, “Christ is risen!” She didn’t assume resurrection, but ran to tell Simon Peter and the other disciple, “the one whom Jesus loved.” We last saw this unnamed disciple at the foot of the cross with Jesus’ mother. He is the only disciple who stayed with Jesus through the crucifixion (John 19:26-27).

The two disciples ran a foot race to the grave, the “other disciple” getting there first. Was this an attempt to diminish the stature of Peter? One of the church fathers had a more delightful explanation: “Ishodad of Merv traces John’s greater speed to the fact that he was unmarried.”1

Whatever the explanation, the other disciple looked into the tomb, but didn’t enter. Peter, panting a bit, reached the tomb and went inside. Why does John include so many details about the grave cloths and their positions? (John 20:5-7) Chrysostom was not alone in saying the reason was plain: “If anyone had removed the body, he would not have stripped it first; nor would he have taken the trouble to remove and roll up the soudarion and put it in a place by itself.”2 The soudarion was a cloth covering the face of the deceased. Lazarus came out of the tomb, “his face wrapped in a cloth” (John 11:44) With the grave cloths left behind some might wonder what Jesus was wearing if he was alive!

Simon Peter saw all these details, but gave no response. When the other disciple went in, “he saw and believed.” Is this another attempt to diminish Simon Peter? Both disciples returned home. There’s no indication that they ran to tell anybody.

As Scene One ends I think of a poem by R. S. Thomas. He was an Anglican priest whose poems are often as bleak as the Welsh landscape where he ministered. In this excerpt from his poem “The Answer” we hear a glimmer of resurrection breaking through:   

… There have been times
when, after long on my knees
in a cold chancel, a stone has rolled
from my mind, and I have looked
in and seen the old questions lie
folded and in a place
by themselves, like the piled
graveclothes of love’s risen body.3

Scene Two: Mary Magdalene and Jesus
Scene Two begins as Mary weeps alone outside the tomb. There’s little connection to the previous scene. It’s likely that John combined several sources in his story. Some parts echo the other gospels: the stone rolled away, the angels, Mary Magdalene’s presence. She is the only person at the empty tomb in all four gospels. Scene Two is unique to John. When Mary looked into the tomb the grave cloths had been transformed into angels. They didn’t faze her; she treats them like orderlies stripping a hospital bed where you were looking for someone you love. She turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but assumed he was the gardener. Only John locates the tomb in a garden. She asked him the same question she asked the angels, not expecting news of resurrection from either. Was it a mistake to think he was the gardener? In Chapter 12 Jesus had taught a gardening lesson: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24) Now the gardener has come again.

“Mary” — only her name. We remember what Jesus said before: “[The shepherd] calls his own sheep by name … they know his voice.” (John 10:3, 4) Hearing her name, Mary cried out, “’Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher).” With this particular name Mary claims her place as Jesus’ rabbinical student. “Do not hold on to me,” Jesus said. We may try to hold onto Jesus with our creeds and confessions, our denominations and doctrines. “Go and tell,” Jesus said. His personal word to Mary could not stay private. Jesus’ words are also for us: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Believers are granted the same relationship with God as Jesus has. We have come full circle from the prologue’s promise that all who receive the Word are given power to become children of God. (John 1:12) So Mary went and told the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” She was the first resurrection preacher in the Bible.

Three disciples. One sees the grave clothes neatly folded and believes. One sees the same thing and there is no indication that he believes anything. One is surprised into believing by hearing the sound of her name. To all and each of these we preach. In each of these we find ourselves at one time or another. John could have written a less complicated story. “Mary Magdalene, Peter and the other disciple went to the tomb. They saw the linen wrappings lying there and believed Jesus had risen from the dead.” John leaves room for each of us — for one who sees and believes, another who sees and leaves uncertain, and one who needs to hear her own name.


Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel according to John XIII – XXI (New York: The Anchor Bible,

 Doubleday, 1970) 985

Raymond Brown, 1007

R. S. Thomas, Poems of R. S. Thomas (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1985) 128

First Reading

Commentary on Acts 10:34-43

Matt Skinner

Nothing about Easter is routine or predictable.1

The same can be said about preaching the Easter story. When we view Christ’s resurrection with an understanding that God continues to be concerned with our world, then our situations lead us to perceive that event with new significance. Because our lives and our encounters with God continually provide possibilities for grasping the implications of the resurrection in new — and renewed — ways, we must not assume that the Easter story always communicates the same message. Rather, it accumulates new meaning whenever it is preached, because it continues to say something about God’s intentions for humanity with fresh and vital connections to our lived existence.

The short sermon Peter delivers to Cornelius’s household illustrates how the proclamation of the resurrection can work. Peter’s words are important insofar as they summarize the story of Jesus, but their deeper significance resides in the way that they reflect and inform Peter and Cornelius’ enlarged understanding of the gospel and its capacity to transform how they both comprehend God. For these men, the significance of Jesus’ resurrection does not consist in merely knowing or reciting details about an empty tomb, as vital as such details may be. More important, the resurrection provides them evidence of God’s commitment to all humanity — a commitment that Peter, thanks to his recent experiences, has just come to perceive in a new light. The resurrection, he tells Cornelius and others, provides the foundation for the pivotal new realities that God has revealed to them.

A cursory glance at Acts 10:34-43, when unglued from the wider context of Acts 10:1-11:18, gives the impression that Peter’s sermon offers a generic summary of Jesus’ history: he lived, did good, died, and rose. But grasping the sermon’s purpose and the significance of its emphases requires, first, taking a broader view of Peter and Cornelius’s encounter and, next, considering the sermon’s details in light of that encounter.

First, why does Peter speak to Cornelius? Peter begins his message in verse 34 having just navigated a surprising set of circumstances, which finally convinced him that his previous assumptions about God were no longer valid. The whole sermon proceeds from what is a new confession: “God shows no partiality.” This does not describe God as indifferent or detached; Peter means that God does not play favorites among people. Put positively, God has concern for all humanity and welcomes all peoples. This would not have been an entirely new theological insight for Peter and his Jewish contemporaries, but Acts indicates that God declared this truth in shocking ways, for its implications invalidate longstanding standards (see 10:28; 11:2-3). Peter has derived his new understanding of God’s impartiality from recent visions and their interpretation (10:9-16), the story relayed to him by Cornelius’s men (10:17-23a), Cornelius’s own report (10:30-33), and the hospitality that both men extended in response to what God was orchestrating in their midst. Peter therefore describes Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for the explicit purpose of grounding and substantiating his conviction about God’s impartiality. He talks about Jesus from the perspective of one who has only just recently come to realize God’s embrace of all peoples — including a Roman soldier — in a tangible way.

Second, what details emerge as emphases when we focus on the fact that Peter is testifying about God’s bringing salvation to gentiles? Peter describes the gospel story and his own ministry by accenting the universal scope of that story and ministry. Jesus is Lord of all (verse 36). Because God was with him, he healed all who were oppressed (verse 38). Release from sins now comes to everyone who believes in him (verse 43).

At the same time, the source of this salvation for all remains very particular, being rooted in God’s actions through Jesus Christ, who was sent specifically “to the people of Israel” (verse 36) and proclaimed his message only in Galilee and Judea (verses 37, 39). Subsequent encounters with the risen Christ were also somewhat circumscribed, limited to Jesus’ followers in the days after the resurrection (verses 40-41). But the particularity of the Christ event within the history of God’s relationship with Israel does not limit the event’s effects. Instead, Jesus’ particularity remains the basis for salvation’s universal reach. (For if God were not faithful to Israel, why should any other peoples trust God?)

Throughout the sermon Peter emphasizes God as the agent behind all aspects of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Because God was active through Jesus, Jesus’ story attests God as welcoming of all, as refusing to make distinctions among people. Peter sees in Jesus’ story evidence that confirms what he has come to learn about God. To borrow Simeon’s words from Luke 2:29-32, God, through Jesus Christ, has prepared salvation “in the presence of all peoples.”

Perspective matters. Few people in churches this Easter will be surprised to hear that Christ is risen. But most people will want to know what that claim means, from the perspectives of their own lives. They will be looking, not for dry doctrinal statements or rote storytelling, but for a message that tells how the resurrection matters for their particular experiences — their understandings of their selves, their lives, their neighbors, and their world, and the God who raised Jesus on the third day.

Because Peter’s message to Cornelius is not a canned summary of the gospel, preachers should resist the temptation to deliver a canned Easter sermon that treats the biblical text superficially or uses it as a launching pad to discuss the resurrection in abstract terms. About Easter some say, “Just preach the resurrection, don’t worry about the text.” But that utterly fails to respect how this biblical text prompts us to consider Jesus’ resurrection in light of all that we have come to know about God — whether that be what the Bible tells us about God’s leading the early church to understand that the gospel extends to gentiles, or what Christians cooperatively discern to be God’s activity or presence in our experiences today.

In Acts 10:34-43 Peter preaches to a gentile soldier whom he might have previously dismissed as “profane or unclean” (10:14, 28). He preaches, then, as one attentive to God’s leading and God’s presence. This attentiveness allows him to do more than recite the details of an already familiar story (verse 36); it creates an opportunity to consider the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the light cast by the fresh and surprising work of God in their midst. We ask: where (else) is God extending salvation today, within our world? How might our answers to that question lead congregations to discover new, corresponding meaning in the Easter story?


1. This commentary was first published on this site on March 23, 2008.


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

Amanda Benckhuysen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just as the psalmist’s suffering is political in nature, so is the resulting praise. As Rolf Jacobson notes in his article, “The Costly Loss of Praise,”1 praise is not simply an act of piety, but a polemical and political assertion. Praise evokes a worldview, one in which God is an active agent in daily life. In other words, praise declares, in the face of alternative conceptions of reality, that the source of Israel’s salvation and the hope for the world is God and God alone.

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


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

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 15:19-26

Richard Carlson

1 Corinthians 15 is Paul’s most extensive presentation of Christ’s Parousia and our bodily resurrection as a result of Christ’s future coming.

That is because some of the Corinthians have rejected the notion of our bodily resurrection. We do not know for sure why this is the case. It could be that they view the soul as the immortal entity of human existence which is housed in a mortal, disposable body. Or perhaps they hold a realized eschatology which sees Christians as already participating in Christ’s resurrected reality. In any case, throughout this chapter Paul mounts a sustained argument that presents the resurrection of Christ as the foundational basis for our future bodily resurrection.

1 Corinthians 15:19 is not the opening of a new section but the closing of a unit begun in 15:12 wherein Paul draws out the logical inferences to the proposition that there is no resurrection of the dead. If indeed there is no resurrection of the dead, then:

  • Christ has not been raised (15:13);
  • Apostolic preaching is in vain since Christ’s resurrection is a central component of such proclamation (15:14a recalling 15:4);
  • The Corinthians’ faith is in vain (15:14b, 17a);
  • The apostles are thus false witness about God (15:15);
  • We are still in our sins (v. 17);
  • Dead Christians are non-existent entities (v. 18)

In 1 Corinthians 15:19 Paul then presents the concluding implication of this argumentative chain. If Christian hope is limited by the boundary of mortal existence and does not extend to the hope of the resurrection, then Christians are the most pathetic of people since their hope is based on a mere illusion of life beyond death.

Beginning in 15:20, Paul flips around his argument. He opens with the emphatic temporal marker, “but now,” to present divine reality: Christ has been raised from the dead. His intentional use of the perfect, passive verb, “had been raised” highlights how Christ was raised by God in the past and remains resurrected into the present and future. Christ’s resurrection is the first fruit of those who have fallen asleep (a euphemism for death as a transitory but not permanent state of existence). First fruit was the first of the harvest offered to God as its choicest portion which also vouchsafes the rest of the crop. In his resurrection, Christ is the choicest portion of the eschatological harvest which also vouchsafes the rest of the eschatological harvest (an image he will repeat in 15:23a).

Most English translations of 1 Corinthians 15:21 do not quite capture what Paul is highlighting. There is no verb in the parallel clauses of v. 21a and v. 21b. Our translations seek to solve this dilemma by inserting the verbs “came/come” as if Paul is presenting the means by which death and resurrection arrive. Actually, the assumed verb should be “is” as Paul presents the reality of death and resurrection, i.e., through a human is death and through a human is resurrection of the dead.

In 1 Corinthians 15:22 Paul elucidates this reality claim. In Adam, all die. Here Paul is reflecting his broader theological perspective that Sin and Death invaded creation and enslaved humanity through Adam’s disobedience (see Romans 5:12-21). On the one hand, in baptism we were incorporated in Christ’s death and thus died to Sin so that Sin is no longer our enslaving lord (Romans 6:1-14). Nevertheless, Death still holds sway over our mortal existence so that our Adamic reality means we all die. This, however, is not the last word or our final destiny because all humanity defined by Christ will be made alive. Paul’s intentional use of the future, passive verb, “will be made alive” shows that this is a divine future event occurring at Christ’s Parousia. We do not have a mortal soul which will continue to live on after we die. Rather, we are mortal bodies who die, but through the resurrecting power of God we will be made alive.

Paul then goes on to present the culminating chain of events which will unfold at Christ’s Parousia as the end of created time and space. Christ will obliterate every antagonistic power and rule which stands in opposition to God and God’s salvific plan (1 Corinthians 15:24b, 25b). For Paul, these malevolent powers are both human and non-human. This recalls his prior claim in 1 Corinthians 2:7-8 that the rulers of this age did not comprehend God’s hidden plan and so crucified Christ. Ironically, they inadvertently began the divine sequence of events which will result in their own destruction because God has raised Christ from the dead, and his future coming will involve their annihilation. The final and ultimate enemy which Christ will obliterate is Death itself (15:26). In Paul’s theological perspective, Death is not simply the powerful ally of Sin. Death is the cosmic dark lord who has attempted to have final say over everything which God had created. Thus Paul is not thinking about death in existential terms, though he does understand that all of us feel the sting of death in our own mortal, bodily existence. Instead, Paul is thinking on a cosmic scale. In this regard, the ultimate theological question for Paul is not: “What happens to us when we die?” Rather, the ultimate theological question is, “Who has final say regarding the existence of everything in the cosmos, Death or God?” Paul’s answer is clear: At Christ’s Parousia the final victory will belong to God as humanity marked by Christ will be raised; Christ will destroy all that stands in opposition to God; and Christ will hand over everything he has liberated back to God so that God will be the everything in everything (1 Corinthians 15:24-28).

Here we discover that Easter is much bigger than Easter. On the first Easter, God established the course toward which God is drawing all reality. On that day, God did not simply change the existence of Jesus from being dead to being alive. God changed the destiny of the cosmos in the first fruit defeat of Death by raising Christ from the dead. The divine victory at Christ’s future coming will culminate in the ultimate obliteration of the ultimate enemy of God coupled with our bodily resurrection into eternal life.