Lectionary Commentaries for April 12, 2009
Resurrection of Our Lord (B)

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 20:1-18

N. Clayton Croy

John’s gospel is noteworthy for the confident and triumphal demeanor of its central character.

In John’s gospel, Jesus is a victor, not a victim. But the evangelist cannot avoid the historical fact that Jesus was crucified and buried. Even in John’s triumphal gospel, there is a period of despair, an interlude of darkness.

The structure of the text is clearly twofold:

  • Mary Magdalene, and later Simon Peter and the Beloved disciple, gather at the empty tomb (verses 1-10)
  • Jesus appears to Mary outside the tomb (verses 11-18)

All three disciples see the empty tomb, but Mary tarries long enough to meet the risen Lord.

The timing of the encounter is significant: “While it was still dark…” (John 20:1). There is a minor discrepancy here between John and the Synoptics: “still dark” vs. “at dawn,” pointing to a symbolic difference. In the Synoptics, the women hear an angelic announcement of the resurrection, so light is appropriate. In John, at first Mary only finds an empty tomb, so darkness is apt.

Later, the visit occurs at twilight, a term that refers to an intermediate state, either between nighttime and sunrise or between sunset and nighttime. Symbolically, the light of Jesus seems to have gone out  it appears to be a twilight preceding darkest night. In fact, it is a twilight preceding a new sunrise, and the dawn is imminent.

The footrace to the tomb is a lively but perplexing detail. What is the evangelist saying? Is this just an odd memory or is it symbolic? Is one disciple subordinated to the other by arriving at the tomb first or by entering first?

Some interpreters have seen a contrast between Peter and the Beloved Disciple. Peter’s priority in entering the tomb is cited by some Catholic interpreters, whereas the priority of the Beloved Disciple’s faith is cited by some Protestant interpreters. Both are probably misguided. The Fourth Evangelist’s aim is to elevate the Beloved Disciple, not to denigrate Peter.

The disposition of the wrappings (verse 5) may serve an apologetic purpose. The fact that the linens and the facecloth were neatly disposed argues against the theft of the body. Thieves would have left the body wrapped or, if they removed any linens, would not have done so in a tidy fashion.

Verse 8 is odd: “He saw and believed.” The faith of the Beloved Disciple does not jive with the very next clause: “For as yet they did not understand the scripture.” In addition, it is strange that this disciple did not inform Peter or Mary about his insight. As in a few other places in John, one wonders if the text was supplemented in the process of composition, and such infelicities were never edited out.

At first, Mary does not know that Jesus stands before her. Scholars call this the “non-recognition” motif, i.e., the disciples’ inability to recognize Jesus in his glorified state (cf. Luke 24:15-16). John 20:14 may be another example. Alternatively, more ordinary reasons could account for Mary’s failure to recognize Jesus: emotional distress, tears, darkness, etc. Weighing in favor of a theological motive is the significance of Mary’s being called by name.

Jesus tells Mary, “Do not hold on to me!” (cf. the King James Version’s “Touch me not!”) The Greek implies, “Stop doing what you are doing.” Varied explanations have been given to explain Jesus’ words here. They range from the absurd (Jesus’ wounds were still sore) to the fanciful (Having heard of the Eucharistic meal, Mary was wanting Jesus to serve her Holy Communion) to the risque (Jesus’ risen body was naked, so touching was inappropriate!).

Yet Jesus’ explanation is simple: he must ascend to the Father. His words imply an action in progress though not yet complete. John seems to understand the ascension as occurring immediately after the appearance to Mary. Later appearances would then be appearances from heaven.

Jesus’ final words in the scene have perplexed interpreters: “To my Father and your Father, to my god and your God” (John 20:17). Some have thought that Jesus’ words here are meant to differentiate between the relationship he has with God and the one the disciples have with God. It may, however, be a statement of identification, not of difference. In other words, Jesus’ departure (to the Father) and sending of the Spirit will enable his disciples to have a similar relationship to God.

There are several angles that the preacher might take to draw out the significance of this text:

  • The appearance of the Beloved Disciple suggests that love for Jesus enables one to have special insight. The intimacy that this disciple has with Jesus (John 13:23-25; 19:26-27; 21:7) makes him the ideal follower of the Lord. Whether the faith of the Beloved Disciple in 20:8 is a historical fact or a literary/theological motif, the lesson for the reader is that closeness to Jesus confers a special kind of understanding.
  • Mary’s moment of recognition comes with the mention of her name. She thus acts out the truth of John 10:3-4: “He calls his own sheep by name… and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” Using someone’s name, especially a first name, assumes familiarity, intimacy, and closeness. Jesus’ followers have a relationship with their Lord that goes well beyond a formal or institutional connection. The preacher might consider the various modes of perception. Mary fails to recognize Jesus visually. Moments later she recognizes him aurally. Does the Lord sometimes communicate in ways or forms that we do not expect and thereby fail to notice?
  • Finally, one might deliver a 1st person sermon in the guise of the gardener (vs. 15). “Hi, I’m Ezekiel; you know, the gardener at the cemetery just outside of Jerusalem. Do I look familiar? If you detect a resemblance between me and Jesus, I wouldn’t be surprised. We’ve been confused before! Let me tell you about it.”

First Reading

Commentary on Acts 10:34-43

F. Scott Spencer

“This one (touton) God raised from the dead on the third day” (Acts 10:40).

We appropriately turn this Easter season to the book of Acts, as it narrates the early church’s pioneering witness to the resurrection across the eastern Mediterranean world.

In the present text, the apostle Peter proclaims the resurrection in an unconventional setting.–not in synagogue or church, religious temple or philosophical forum–but in the home of a Gentile, a Roman officer named Cornelius, whom a scrupulous Peter would normally avoid like the plague (10:28).

In Peter’s mind, this was off-limits, “unclean” territory, until God convinced him otherwise through a dramatic power-point display of “unclean” animals. They are flashed on a screen, punctuated by a threefold command, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat,” and the commentary, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (Acts 10:9-16). Slowly but surely it dawns on Peter that “God shows no partiality, but in every nation (ethnei) anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34). And that includes a centurion from the imperial Roman nation that had recently crucified Jesus.

Peter’s sermon in Cornelius’ house focuses on the singular, seismic resurrection of Jesus Christ that theologians and biblical scholars often refer to as eschatological–that is, world-shattering and history-shaping in the overall “plan” (boulē) of God for God’s people and, indeed, all creation.

Peter wastes no time setting the stage with other, lesser resuscitations, however marvelous they might have been at the time.

Nothing is said about Elijah or Elisha’s restoring deceased sons to their mothers (1 Kings 17:17-24; 2 Kings 4:8-37). There is no mention of Jesus’ raising other dead persons to new life, such as the son of the widow at Nain (Luke 7:11-17), Jairus’ daughter (Luke 8:49-56), or Lazarus (John 11:38-44). Peter remains silent about his recent experience of reviving Tabitha’s lifeless body (Acts 9:36-43). Popular redivivus myths surrounding Greek and Roman heroes are ignored. Such stories pale in significance to the climactic resurrection of “this one” (houtos) named Jesus whom God raised from death on a cross (“hanging on a tree,” Acts 10:39) and vindicated as the living “Lord of all” (Acts 10:36).

Peter does not simply announce, however, the epochal event of Christ’s resurrection as a datum of belief: “Christ is risen”–period, end of report.

As important as that confession of faith is, it derives its full import from the larger theological narrative surrounding the resurrection centerpiece. Peter ultimately proclaims God’s story, especially highlighting God’s purposeful work in Jesus Christ, first leading up to, and second flowing out of, God’s raising him from the dead.

First, “God anointed (echrisen) Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power” (Acts 10:38) to do certain things throughout his life and ministry. This “christ-ening” harks back to the baptism of Jesus when God poured out the Holy Spirit on his Beloved Son (see Luke 3:21-22).

As his ensuing temptation by the devil proved, however, Jesus’ privileged, powerful relationship with God was not to be exploited for his own benefit, but rather for God’s glory and others’ good (Luke 4:1-13). Indeed, as Peter aptly summarizes, the divinely anointed Jesus “went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil” precisely “because (hoti) God was with him,” guiding and energizing his mission (Acts 10:38).

Luke’s gospel narrative, the prequel to Acts, is replete with examples of Jesus’ mediating God’s beneficent, curative, and liberating grace. This continues all the way through to his final moments on the cross when he forgives his executioners and ushers the criminal hanging next to him into paradise (Luke 23:32-43). God’s raising “this Jesus” from the dead three days hence thus functions both to vindicate Jesus’ dynamic, redemptive ministry up to his last breath and to certify its continued efficacy in the future.

The crucified Jesus lives still to lavish God’s powerful love on the sick, the enslaved, and the sinful “through his name” and through God-chosen witnesses like Peter (Acts 10:41-43).

Second, the resurrection of Jesus confirms that God appointed him “as judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42; cf. 17:31). This designation of Jesus as Chief Justice of the universe, along with “Lord of all,” marks an astounding claim before a Roman centurion accustomed to acknowledging Caesar’s supreme authority and judgment throughout the world (empire).

Of course, as is typically the way with worldly political powers, Caesar’s iron-hand rule often served elite, imperial interests rather than those of the poor and disadvantaged. Justice was skewed toward the top of the social pyramid. Might made right, and if some unfortunate innocent folk had to be crucified to sharpen the point and keep the peace, so be it.

But the resurrection of the crucified Jesus establishes a new order, a new realm  nothing less than God’s kingdom of righteousness and justice for all (“God shows no partiality,” Acts 10:34). This one who went about doing good and delivering all from oppressive injustice himself ultimately bore the full brunt of that injustice in his unmerited suffering on the cross.

Another centurion came to this same insight: “Certainly this (houtos) man was innocent (dikaios [‘just’, ‘righteous’])” (Luke 23:47). By raising this innocent one from the dead and appointing him as Supreme Lord and Judge of all, God says, “Enough already!” A resounding “No!” is proclaimed to the ravages of self-promoting power and death-dealing injustice, and an emphatic “Yes!” to God’s good purposes for all humanity and creation.

May we live and work in our challenging world today–still beset by overwhelming poverty, oppression, violence, death, and much that defies God’s goodness and grace–in the Easter hope of Christ’s resurrection and restorative justice for all.


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 15:1-11

C. Clifton Black

Today’s Gospel lection again competes for the preacher’s attention with another of the New Testament’s choice epistolary texts.

1 Corinthians 15:1-11 is the oldest of all testimonies to our Lord’s resurrection by one among many eyewitnesses, the apostle Paul.

Here or elsewhere, Paul says nothing of the place and people predominant in the Gospels, namely, the women’s discovery of the empty tomb (Matthew 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-11; John 20:1-18). It’s easy to suppose that Paul knew these traditions familiar to us from the Gospels, committed to writing two to five decades after his letter to Corinth. However, writing in A.D. 54, he may not have known them. Indeed, the point at which 1 Corinthians 15 stands closest to the Gospels is the identification of Simon Peter (Cephas: verse 5) as among the first to whom the risen Lord appeared (cf. Mark 16:7; Luke 24:34; John 21:1-8).

1 Corinthians 15:1-7 presents rudiments that another lection, Acts 10:34-43, elaborates:

  • A reminder of the gospel’s original terms (1 Corinthians 15:1, Acts 10:36)
  • The necessity of preaching (1 Corinthians 15:1, Acts 10:42)
  • The faith in which the church stands (1 Corinthians 15:2, Acts 10:43)
  • Handing down the tradition and story of Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:3, Acts 10:37-39a)
  • Christ’s death (1 Corinthians 15:3, Acts 10:39b)
  • The forgiveness of sins (1 Corinthians 15:3, Acts 10:43)
  • The connection to the scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3-4, Acts 10:43)
  • Christ’s resurrection on the third day
  • Christ’s appearance to Cephas, the Twelve, and many others (1 Corinthians 15:5-8, Acts 10:41)

These parallel testimonies of Christ’s resurrection may be largely independent of each other, approaching something like bedrock of the primitive church’s formative Easter witness. It would be no small thing this Easter Sunday for the preacher simply to remind the church in what terms it first received the gospel by which it still is saved (1 Corinthians 15:1-2).

1 Corinthians 15:1-2 set the stage for Paul’s preoccupation in 15:12-58: how to answer those who say there is no resurrection of the dead. Although logically implied by that issue (see 15:13-19), that’s not the problem Paul addresses in 15:3-11. I doubt that’s the problem most preachers would or even should tackle from the pulpit on Easter Sunday. 1 Corinthians 15:3-11 has other concerns. Today is the day for congregants to examine them.

Verses 3-7 articulate the heart of the Christian gospel–“Christ died for our sins”–and the primary means by which Christians have considered that claim substantiated. After having really died (“he was buried” for “three days”), Christ was raised from death into new life. God was the one responsible for that raising. And if this Jew was raised and no one else, then by that resurrection God irrevocably committed himself to Jesus, who likewise had held back nothing for the sake of God’s kingdom.

This happened “in accordance with the scriptures.” Jesus’ death was so momentous that it dealt with human sin against God, and it was validated by the only God capable of undoing that death and bestowing life. Accept that, and such a death and resurrection had to accord with the character and intentions of the God whom we meet on the pages of the Old Testament. The Chief Justice has decided the case in favor of Jesus, consistent with Israel’s Constitution, in a verdict corroborated by competent witnesses.

The risen Christ appeared to Cephas, to the Twelve, to over five hundred disciples, to James the brother of Jesus and to the rest of the apostles (see Galatians 1:17-18; 2:1-10). Paul is adamant that he didn’t make all this up. In good rabbinic fashion, he delivered to others what he had first received. This is the church’s common legacy. Following the apostles’ lead, the church is responsible to hand it down to a new generation.

“Last of all, in miscarriage [to ektromati] as it were, he appeared to me, too” (1 Corinthians 15:8). This is the lection’s transitional hinge. We move from the caravan of witnesses (verses 5-7), to the last witness (verse 8), then to Paul’s self–assessment of his own apostleship (verses 9-11).

Now Paul speaks of the resurrection’s personal impact. Like the autobiographical flashes in other letters (2 Corinthians 11:21b–12:10; Galatians 1:11–2:14; Philippians 3:4b-11), 1 Corinthians 15:9-11 is an all too human mixture of self–recrimination (“unworthy of being called an apostle”), vanity (“yet I toiled more than any of them”), second–guessing (“though not I but God’s grace with me”), shrugging (“whether I or they”), and confidence (“so we preached and so you believed”).

By his own admission, Paul was the unlikeliest of apostles, not because he considered himself inadequately religious (quite the contrary: 2 Corinthians 11:22; Galatians 1:14; Philippians 3:4-6), but rather because he had tried to destroy God’s church (1 Corinthians 15:9; Galatians 1:13; Philippians 3:6). That venture’s monstrosity may lurk behind his self–caricature as “a deformed fetus.” “But by God’s grace I [now] am what I am; and his grace, which is in me, wasn’t in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:10).

Between these poles, the communal and the personal, swings the message of Easter. If it’s only a creed that never touches us, or merely a “me and Jesus” project untouched by the church, then a gestation has not yet proceeded to term. Those untimely born stir in our pews and, on occasion, from our pulpits.

On the Day of Our Lord’s Resurrection, we may be surprised to realize in faith that no longer is it we who live but rather Christ who lives in us; a life transfigured by God’s Son who loved us and gave himself for us (Galatians 2:20).