Lectionary Commentaries for April 26, 2009
Third Sunday of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Luke 24:36b-48

Richard Carlson

When viewed within the confines of Luke 24, this text presents the third of three resurrection appearances.

Prior to this, there had been the resurrection appearance to Cleopas and an unidentified disciple on the way to and at the meal in Emmaus (Luke 24:13-29a, 29b-32), and an off-stage resurrection appearance to Simon (Luke 24:33-34).

In our verses, the risen Jesus suddenly appears in the midst of his disciples, bidding them peace and demonstrating that he was not some sort of ghost but had a physical resurrected reality (Luke 24:36-42).

He then calls attention to what he had previously spoken regarding the fulfillment of God’s plan rooted in Scripture concerning the Messiah’s suffering, resurrection, and the preaching of repentance and forgiveness in his name with the disciples as witnesses (Luke 24:44-48).

The text closes with a promise regarding power from on high and a command to remain in the city until the promise is fulfilled (Luke 24:49).

From this perspective, the text may seem reasonably benign and fairly self-contained.

But, when viewed within the context of Luke’s meta-narrative, this text marks the midway point in the divine drama. It is akin to closing scenes in such episodic narratives as The Revenge of the Sith or The Two Towers or Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. At one and the same time, our text serves as the closing arch for some central components of the larger story, while immediately establishing the opening framework for newly enacted facets of the grand story.

The text also presents three interlocking hermeneutical circles. These circles become the key to missional outreach throughout Acts (the next episode within the divine drama), and for our missional outreach as Christ’s witnesses (the contemporary episode within the divine drama).

The first hermeneutical circle signaled in the text is the dynamic interplay between Scripture and Jesus.

From the start of Luke’s gospel, divine prophecies and promises embedded in Scripture find their fulfillment in Jesus (cf. Luke 1:31-33, 46-55, 68-75; 4:18-21, etc.). Of these, the most important is the Messiah’s passion and resurrection (Luke 24:6-7, 26-27, 46).

Three significant points should be noted regarding Luke’s understanding of the prophecy/promise-fulfillment scheme involving Jesus’ death and resurrection.

First, this is not the first time Jesus has spoken about his death and resurrection as divine necessity (see Luke 9:22, 44; 18:31-33; etc.). Prior to the enactment of his death and resurrection, however, the disciples were completely incapable of comprehending Jesus’ passion prophecies (Luke 9:45; 18:34). Only now, as the crucified and resurrected Christ stands in their midst interpreting these things via Scripture, are the disciples capable of comprehending (Luke 24:44-45).

Second, at this point in the story Luke’s main intention is not to establish which particular scriptural passages are being fulfilled but to demonstrate how all Scripture finds its ultimate meaning in Jesus, particularly in his passion and resurrection.1

Third, the hermeneutical circle between Scripture and Jesus is complete precisely because the one who is interpreting Scripture is Jesus. For Luke, Scripture finds its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus, and Jesus is the ultimate interpreter of the meaning and thrust of Scripture.

The text’s next hermeneutical circle involves Jesus and his disciples.

On the one hand, Jesus is telling them about their mission as witnesses or testifiers to the divine salvific scheme established in Scripture and fulfilled by Jesus (the “these things” of verse 48). On the other hand, the testimonial mission of the community entails preaching, repentance and forgiveness in Jesus’ name (cf. Acts 2:21, 38; etc.).

Hence, Jesus presents the community of disciples with its mission, and the core of missional outreach returns to God’s salvation emanating in Jesus’ name.

The final hermeneutical circle involves Scripture and the disciples’ mission.

The Greek construction of Luke 24:46-47 clearly presents Scripture’s core prophetic promise involving the Messiah’s suffering, rising, and repentance and forgiveness of sins being preached in his name to all nations. The community’s evangelical outreach to the world is not an option, but an indispensible component of the divine salvific plan embedded in Scripture itself. From Acts 1 through Acts 28, the interpretive circle continuously flows from the community to Scripture. Events at hand are always interpreted in light of Scripture (cf. Acts 1:15-20; 2:14-36; etc.).

Thus our text presents Scripture, Jesus the Messiah, and Communal Outreach as the intertwining and indispensible components within God’s worldwide plan of salvation. Nevertheless the text also recognizes that something is missing: the Holy Spirit which empowers God’s salvific plan involving Scripture, Jesus, and communal outreach.

The promise of being clothed with power from on high in verse 49 immediately moves backwards and forwards in Luke’s divine drama.

It recalls Gabriel’s explanation to Mary regarding her virginal conception in Luke 1:35, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” Thus, the Holy Spirit which empowered the impossible, a virgin conceiving God’s Son, will empower the community to do what is otherwise impossible, testifying to God’s salvation flowing to all nations in the name of God’s Son.

At the same time, this promise anticipates the incredible events and proclamation empowered by the Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-42), as well as the Spirit coming upon Gentiles to demonstrate how God’s salvation involves all nations (Acts 10:1-11:18).

When understood in relationship to this grand divine drama, the Gospel lesson for the third Sunday of Easter presents much more than Jesus’ final resurrection appearance. It presents the vision of our inclusion within God’s salvific plan involving Scripture, Jesus, and Communal Outreach fueled by the Holy Spirit.


1Thus the pervasive description, “everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms” in Luke 24:44.


First Reading

Commentary on Acts 3:12-19

F. Scott Spencer

When the risen Jesus was exalted to God’s right hand, he poured out the Holy Spirit upon the early believers at Pentecost.

The dynamic result included, among other things, that “many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles” in Jesus’ name (Acts 2:42). The same Divine Spirit that animated Jesus to do God’s work of healing and liberation now lives within his followers, enabling them to carry on Jesus’ mission–or, more accurately, to mediate Christ’s life–giving power in the world.

The first reported resurrection “sign” involves the healing of a forty-something man who had been lame from birth (Acts 3:2; 4:22).

As Peter and John enter the temple area for prayer for one day, they meet this disabled man begging for alms by the Beautiful Gate. Only instead of giving him money (which they don’t have), Peter offers him something much better. Announcing, “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up (egeire) and walk,” he takes the man’s hand and “raises (egeiren) him up” (3:6-7).

The response is even more dramatic than expected. Not only does the congenital cripple stand and walk; he also hops us, goes into the temple precincts with Peter and John on his own two feet, and proceeds to leap about “praising God” (3:7-8).

Our text begins with the temple audience’s reaction to this extraordinary event. They rush together in amazement, converging on the healed man who, now in shock and awe himself, is huddled around Peter and John.

The spellbound crowd fixes its gaze, however, not on the restored man, but on the miracle-working apostles. The verb describing their rapt focus on Peter and John (atenizō, 3:12) previously characterized Peter’s “looking intently” at the lame beggar before raising him up (3:4). The term is commonly used in Acts for an almost trance-like encounter with transcendent glory (see 1:10; 3:4, 12; 6:15; 7:55; etc.).

In the present case, while the man’s healing certainly marks an attention-grabbing manifestation of supernatural power, Peter insists that such attention be properly directed, meaning not toward him and John.

He implores the crowd: “Why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare (atenizete) at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk?” (3:12). In short, we are not the story here. And for that matter, neither really is the restored cripple – he’ll happily take his healing and forego the headline.

So then, who is responsible for this miraculous deed? No one less than God, Peter makes clear, and follows up with expounding just who this God is.

First, this is not some newly discovered deity or spiritual force. The venerable God of Israel–the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob–remains at work here, restoring God’s people to wholeness (3:13).

During this lectionary period, readings from Acts “replace” Old Testament selections, but fortunately, Acts consistently reminds us of the early church’s deep roots in ancient Israel’s faith and scripture. The fact that Jesus’ followers continue to pray and worship at the Jerusalem temple (2:46; 3:1; 5:42) confirms their devotion to Israel’s Creator-Redeemer God.

It comes as no surprise, then, that in the temple area Peter gives God full credit for healing the lame man, just as the man himself did, leaping about and “praising God.” Somewhat ironically, the same God who “blessed” Jacob (Israel) by dislocating his hip, causing him to limp thereafter (Genesis 32:24-31), now strengthens the feet and ankles of a lifelong paralytic. As God’s people, we walk and wrestle with God on a miraculous and mysterious journey.

Second, Peter announces that the God of Israel is also the God of Jesus–God’s “Servant/Child (pais), who lived on earth in the closest possible union with God as “the Holy and Righteous One” and “Author of life” (Acts 3:13-15).

This cluster of notable names for Jesus, stressing his faithful service, just character, and life-giving power, magnifies his reprehensible rejection (in favor of a “murderer”–Barabbas) and crucifixion by hostile forces. Can one imagine a starker contrast or more heinous crime than “killing the Author of life?”

God cannot tolerate such a travesty of justice, and so God responds, not by punishing Jesus’ killers, but by raising (egeirō, 3:15) Jesus from the dead and renewing God’s indomitable commitment to life in Jesus’ name.

Accordingly, on the basis of this strong, authorial (life-giving) name, God strengthens the limp limbs of the lame man. As God raised Jesus, so God, through the apostles, raises the lame man in Jesus’ name (egeirō, 3:6, 12). God is the faithful God of Resurrection.

Finally, our text returns to Old Testament theology. The God of the patriarchs and Jesus is also the God of the prophets, who previewed God’s purpose to redeem God’s suffering people through a suffering Messiah (3:18).

All along God has come to Israel in the midst of her struggles. Now, in the crucified-resurrected Messiah Jesus, God has entered into the pain of Israel and the world to the fullest extent and prepared the way for final deliverance. Although Acts cites no particular prophetic texts God has “fulfilled” in the present story, it’s hard not to imagine Isaiah 35 ringing in the background:

“Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God. …He will come and save you.’
Then the lame shall leap like deer
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert” (Isaiah 35:3-6).

Our leaping lame man, invigorated by God’s resurrection life, begins a fresh procession in Acts not only through the temple, but also through the “wilderness.” He presses forward to the climactic “times of refreshment” and “universal restoration” of all creation realized at Christ’s re-appearing (Acts 3:19-21).


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 4

Nancy Koester

Psalm 4 is good for what ails you.

People are troubled about many things, but God ‘puts gladness in our hearts.’ Psalm 4 makes a good preaching text any time of year because it offers wisdom and imparts faith. But on the Third Sunday of Easter, it has a special job to do.

Psalm 4 deals honestly with unbelief: outside the church, inside the church, or even within preachers. At Easter time, the words “Christ is Risen!” are answered with “Alleluia, he is risen indeed.” But unspoken responses might include: “Oh really?” or “I doubt it;” or “I wish I believed that;” or even “You’ve got to be kidding.” Even preachers may privately wonder if Easter is too good to be true.

But God has heard all this before. In the Gospel for the Third Sunday of Easter, Jesus tells his frightened, doubting disciples, “Peace be with you” (Luke 24:36). Likewise, Psalm 4 offers peace to troubled hearts and trust to doubting minds.

To use Psalm 4 on the Third Sunday of Easter, it is helpful to note that the other texts for this day all address the problem of unbelief. Preachers would like the message, “Christ is arisen!”, to prompt a worldwide chorus of Alleluias. But from the first Easter down to the present, the good news that Jesus lives brings different responses – even among his followers. Some people receive the message with joy. Others are skeptical or fearful, and still others reject the message out of hand.

The epistle lesson, 1 John 3:1-7, draws a sharp line between believers and unbelievers, with no middle ground. Believers are to have nothing to do with unbelievers.

Things get messier in Acts 3:12-19. Here Peter preaches to people who, like him, believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But they rejected Jesus. They killed “the Author of Life” (Acts 3:15). Peter’s hearers have just seen a lame man healed in the name of Jesus. They are amazed to see the formerly lame man leaping and praising God. Peter seizes the moment to confront them with their sin. He preaches Jesus as the fulfillment of all their hopes, based on the prophets. Thus in the Acts 3 text, Peter invites his own people to believe in Jesus and come into the household of faith, and a great many believe.

The Gospel lesson addresses the problem of unbelief within the inner circle itself. The disciples have just heard two of their own members say that Jesus is risen, yet they are “startled and terrified” and “doubts arise in their hearts” when Jesus appears (Luke 24:37-38). Even some of the disciples find it hard to believe, yet Jesus offers peace.

In this Easter context of faith and doubt, and hoping against hope, Psalm 4 begins with a prayer for help. “Answer me when I call, O God…” (4:1). And it ends with a statement of faith. “You have put gladness in my heart…You alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety” (4:7-8). Beginning and ending with God – always a good idea for the preacher.

But the middle part of the Psalm addresses other people, and these people have various responses to God’s grace. Some believe in God, and some do not. Among the believers, some are so anxious they can’t sleep at night, even with a “Sleep Number” bed. Still others seem to be wondering what God has done for them lately: “There are many who say, ‘O that we might see some good!'” (4:6). Thus, the Psalmist has some choice words to each of these groups of people.1

  • To the unbelievers: (4:2) “How long, you people, shall my honor suffer shame? How long will you love vain words and seek after lies?” This sounds like Peter’s sharp rebuke of his listeners in Acts 3:14-15. But quickly Peter changes his tone and calls these people “friends,” so that they might listen to his proclamation. Psalm 4 is a good vessel for this proclamation. Verse 1 says that ‘God gave us room when we were in distress.’ Easter means that God sets us free from the fear of death – God ‘gives us room.’ In the Psalms, this language means that God lifts us out of a tight spot. What could be tighter than the grave! To the unbelievers (and we all have our moments), God gives “room.” Room to rise from the grave of unbelief, room for faith.
  • To the sleep deprived believers: (4:4) “When you are disturbed, do not sin; ponder it on your beds, and be silent.” The fear of death, our own or a loved one’s, is enough to keep anyone awake at night and tempt us to find relief anywhere we can. But the Psalmist exhorts us to pray and trust. For insomniac believers, who believe but have trouble trusting, the Psalm ends up with these wonderful words: “I will both lie down and sleep in peace” (4:8).
  • To the folks who wonder if God has done anything good for them lately: (4:6) the Psalm says that God’s life giving power is our true wealth. It’s Easter, but we’ve been in one of the worst economic slumps since the 1930’s. People in the congregation might be thinking, “Okay, so Jesus rose from the dead, but can you say the same for my pension?” Perhaps this is irreverent talk, but it gets at the issue of where we put our trust. Verse 7 says that God’s presence puts gladness in our hearts “more than when their grain and wine abound.” A preacher might have a bit of fun coming up with current versions of ‘grain and wine abounding.’

The Psalm ends on a note of peace and confidence. “I will both lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety” (4:8). In an Easter context, combine Psalm 4 with the hymn “All Praise to Thee, My God, This Night:”

“Teach me to live that I may dread the grave as little as my bed. 
Teach me to die, that so I may rise glorious at the awesome day.”2


Notes

1 New Interpreter’s Bible, 696.
2 Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), #565 verse 3.


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 John 3:1-7

David Bartlett

For the six Sundays of Eastertide, the lectionary gives us the opportunity to examine some of the key themes of the First Epistle of John.

Two preliminary words: first, this epistle probably was not originally an epistle. It has all the marks of a sermon and does not begin with a salutation or end with a farewell as traditional letters do.

Second, we do not know who wrote this epistle. It is traditionally attributed to “John,” but we do not know whether that “John” is the same person who wrote the Fourth Gospel.

A reasonable guess is that 1, 2, and 3 John emerge from the same community as the Fourth Gospel does, and they reflect theological and ecclesiological developments in that community.

Indeed, it seems quite possible that the theological debates in the community of 1 John are debates about how they were interpret the Gospel of John, which was likely their central scriptural guide.

Early on, some Christians maintained that the Jesus of the Fourth Gospel was barely human, not so much the Word become flesh as the Word pretending to be flesh. I John was written in part to combat that interpretation. “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God. For many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God” (1 John 4:1-2).

In this week’s passage, the author may be interpreting the nature of Christian hope in the light of John’s Gospel.

Sometimes John’s Gospel indicates that Christian hope is entirely realized in the present. When Jesus says to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25), the present tense of the verb is crucial to the Gospel’s claim. Now is resurrection. Now is life.

At other times, however, John’s Gospel points to a future hope. Sometimes that is a kind of individual future hope: “In my Father’s house are many dwelling places… I will come and take you to myself” (John 14:2-3). At other times, there seems to be hope more like what we find in 1 Thessalonians, i.e., hope for a general resurrection at the end of time. “Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out — those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation” (John 5:28-29).

Recognizing these tensions about the nature of Christian hope, 1 John tries to resolve them in two ways.

First, the epistle provides a word about now and then.

The author of his “letters” is very honest about what we know and what we do not know.

And the truth is, we do not know very much about then. From the beginning of the Church, books have been written about what heaven looks like, or how to get along with angels, or the Five People You Will Meet in Heaven.   For the most part they do no harm, but they lack St. John’s honest reticence: “What we will be has not yet been revealed.” That is exactly what we don’t know.

Here is what we do know now. “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God” (1 John 3:1).

We do not know for sure what God gives us at the end of life and what God gives those we love. But we do know for sure what God has given us now: astonishing love−love that makes us God’s own children.

And having loved us to the end, surely we can believe that God loves us beyond the end as well.

We get Christian hope confused when we think that our hope is based on now nice we are, or how well we behave, or on some hidden piece of us called “the soul” that will survive through death and destruction.

We come closer to Christian hope when we contemplate the love of God that has made us and those we love, which is strong enough to keep us with God even in the face of death.

Second, our text also contains a word about hoping and seeing.

Saint John promises in his epistle, “Beloved, what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed … we will see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

The verse echoes Paul in 1 Corinthians 13: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

The epistle brings the two promises together to make it clear what we shall see face to face and whom we shall see. We will see God.

There is one further theme in our passage: the theme of sin and righteousness. 1 John can be a bit confusing when it comes to sin. The author insists: “If we say that we have not sinned, we make him [Christ] a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:10). Yet it also claims in the passage for today that “no one who abides in Christ sins” (1 John 3:6). Here, the identity of the believer with Christ is so strong that the believer takes on Christ’s sinlessness as part of her own identity.

In that case, our letter may sound a bit like the apostle Paul who sometimes suggests that the idea of a sinful believer is a contradiction in terms. In addition, Martin Luther thought that the believer was at once justified and sinful.

1 John does not put the two claims in the same sentence, but with something of the same paradoxical imagination, puts both claims in the same epistle.