Lectionary Commentaries for May 8, 2011
Third Sunday of Easter
Commentary on Luke 24:13-35
Commentary on Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Mitzi J. Smith
According to the prologue to Luke’s Gospel,
Luke-Acts constitutes an orderly written account addressed to “Theophilus” so that he might know the surety (asphaleia) of the matters he received by word of mouth (Luke 1:3-4). Luke combines these two words surety and know again at Acts 2:36. As Peter continues speaking plainly (apophthengomai) at Pentecost, in one oral stroke he informs his audience about God’s act concerning Jesus and their culpability: “Assuredly (asphalos) therefore let all the house of Israel know that God made this Jesus whom you yourselves crucified both Lord and Messiah.”
Luke (or Peter through Luke) declares what God did in Jesus as a certainty; it is a truth they themselves have already accepted by faith. Peter has no doubt that God has raised Jesus, and therefore he can preach it with surety despite the reality of the crucifixion. The disciples’ faith in Jesus’ life beyond the crucifixion and the grave stands face-to-face with the people accused of perpetrating and witnessing Jesus’ ignominious death. God raised and anointed this same Jesus. God subverted and reversed humanity’s act of humiliation and annihilation. Faith confronts and transcends reality with a surety of knowing existentially what God has done.
Convinced of their culpability in Jesus’ death the audience seeks the appropriate response. They ask their “brothers” the apostles what they should do. Luke first tells us how the audience felt about their guilt. They experienced a remorse manifested in physical pain (2:37). Second, they responded to the pain with a desire to act. We can feel tremendous grief about our participation (passive or aggressive, intentional or unintentional) in creating the suffering of others, but unless we act to make things better or right, we have yet to respond appropriately.
Peter prescribes repentance for the forgiveness of their sins (2:38). The killing of Jesus has not created an impasse between the guilty and God; their sin is not unforgivable. How easily and quickly we act to burn the bridge between guilt and forgiveness. Yet feelings of pain and expressing a desire to alleviate the situation do not constitute repentance. Metanoia results from hearing, feeling, and a conviction to act (2:37; Luke 16:19-31). Here, metanoia signifies a change of mind about the wrongfulness of the suffering and death of Jesus and how one should move forward in light of this recognition and acceptance.
The Greek verb translated repent is metanoeo, which is a combination of meta meaning with or after and noeo meaning to perceive or think. It means to have an afterthought or to think critically about something or someone and come to a reasonable decision that involves changing one’s perception or thinking. Right acting or doing is preceded by right perception or thinking. Our actions are the clearest indicators of how we think. Peter is asking the Pentecost audience to change their minds about who they believe Jesus to be. The new believers should follow up their new perception by being baptized in the name of Jesus the Christ (2:38). Participation in this intentional and visible act becomes initially the clearest manifestation of their repentance. The need for repentance is sometimes made evident through preaching or teaching, reading, meditation, or in open dialogue with fellow human beings, etc.
Our text associates the promised gifting of the Spirit with baptism. The promise of the Holy Spirit is God’s gift. God gives the gift to whom, when, and how God chooses. Instructively, 2:41 states, “Those who welcomed the word were baptized and about 3,000 were added in that day.” But no mention is made of a visible manifestation of the Holy Spirit upon those whom the disciples baptized that day. Throughout Acts, we find diverse relationships between the Holy Spirit and baptism. Sometimes the Spirit is given prior to baptism (10:44-48); at other times we find no explicit relationship between the Spirit and baptism (8:36-48; cf. 8:12-16). But God is no respecter of gender, ethnicity, or nationality (2:1-21; 15:6-11) in the gifting of God’s Spirit.
God promised the gift of God’s Spirit to their generation and to their children’s generation. But the promise is also for all those who have yet to hear the promise and/or are still distant or estranged (pasin tois eis makran) from God, and for whomever God invites to receive the gift of the Spirit (2:39). The father of the prodigal son saw and welcomed his son when he was still at a distance (makran) (Luke 15:20). So God’s promises are also for those who are yet estranged or far off–some may be coming and others may be still stuck in the gutter.
Even when it comes to giving God’s Spirit, God is inclusive and not exclusive. While humans have their own ideas of who is far and near and would favor those who we deem nearest God, God’s judgments are not our own. So even when we determine people to be far or farther from God than others, lack of proximity does not eliminate them from access to God’s promises. When denominations, churches, or individuals judge persons to be far from God’s gifts and promises by virtue of their gender, ethnicity, race, class, sexual orientation, or age, etc. such evaluations are not divine but specious.
“And with many other words [Peter] witnessed thoroughly (diamartyromai)” (2:40). These words remind us that Luke (and other biblical authors) did not write everything down; that God’s Spirit sometimes inspired and inspires words that we do not have access to; and that while humans are limited by pen and ink and other mortal and fallible boundaries, God is not contained. God is not limited by the content or length of our sermons and monographs. God is not constrained even by the many words in the Bible.
God always has more to say than what humans can express or capture. The resurrection of Jesus serves as a perennial testimony of how God’s acts are not our acts and are at times diametrically opposed to our acts¬. When God raised and exalted Jesus, God defied the boundaries of human knowledge and experience, not by solving the mystery of life and death but by reasserting, in a new way, God’s power over both.
Commentary on Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19
Psalm 116 is sung or read each year at Passover celebrations in Jewish homes to this day.
Don’t Give Up On Prayer!
The psalm is a part of the collection of psalms running from 113 to 118, called the “Egyptian Hallel” (Egyptian praise), centering on the story of the deliverance from Egypt. Psalm 113 is a hymn. Psalm 114 is the centerpiece of this collection, reporting the event of the exodus. As the central act of God’s saving activity, the exodus is to the Old Testament what the cross-resurrection is to the New Testament. Psalm 115 then celebrates this event with a call to praise. Psalm 114 thus tells the story of the nation’s deliverance from bondage and is followed by words of praise (Psalm 115:1, 18). Psalm 116 now tells the story of an individual’s deliverance from death, and again is followed by words of praise, in Psalm 117.
Psalm 116 also plays a part in the yearly biblical readings of Christian churches, appearing in the ABC lectionary readings and also a text for Maundy Thursday. Luke 22:14-23 and the parallels tell of Jesus celebrating a meal with his disciples at Passover time. Psalm 116 would have been sung as part of their Passover celebration.
I suggest taking Psalm 116 as a whole as the basis for the sermon, putting it in the contexts of the celebration of the deliverance from Egypt and also the celebration of deliverance from sin and death as achieved by the Messiah suffering on the cross (Luke 24:26). The language of 24:30 points to the language of the institution of the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:19). The psalm itself tells the story of the deliverance of an individual from sickness, and of the life of a people as a praying and praising people.
Report of Deliverance from a Near-Death Experience (116:1-11)
The psalm begins with a member of the congregation giving a testimony. In the presence of the gathered people (verses 18-19), this person reports on an answer to prayer. (An aside: in the congregation to which I belong we pray for those who are sick or mourning or otherwise in need of prayer each Sunday. But so far as I can remember, I’ve not heard anyone stand up and say, “Let me tell you all how my prayers were answered.” As Lutherans, it seems to me, we ordinarily leave the giving of such testimonies to our sisters and brothers in the Baptist church down the street!) “The Lord has answered my prayer,” says the one giving testimony, “and I’m going to keep calling on the Lord for help for the rest of my life,” (verses 1-2 paraphrased).
The speaker does not give the specifics of the situation out of which deliverance came. It was what we would call a near-death experience (verse 3). As a friend of mine who has survived a brush with death because of cancer said to me recently, “I have stared death in the face!” My friend, like the psalmist, had prayed, “O Lord, I pray, save my life!” (verse 4)
We are to assume that this psalm was composed some time after the psalmist had experienced this extraordinary deliverance. Upon reflection, the writer tells what he has learned about God from this experience. He makes some general statements: the Lord is gracious, righteous and merciful and watches over ordinary people. Then he summarizes his own experience: “When I was brought low, [God] saved me.” (verse 6)
With verse 8, the speaker addresses God directly and in verses 9-10 resolves to continue the walk of faith. According to verse 11 it appears that some in the congregation were not supportive of this individual during the time of trouble!
Hallelujah! Praise the Lord! (116:12-19)
This last section of the psalm fulfills the promise to pray and praise the Lord as it was made in verse 2. Addressing the entire congregation, this individual gives thanks to the Lord who has rescued him (verses 12-14). Verse 15 affirms the value of each of the Lord’s people. Finally, the psalmist promises to take up a servant role, to fulfill promises made (verses 16-19).
Don’t Give Up On Prayer!
This psalm was written because one of our brothers or sisters in the faith had experienced deliverance from death as an answer to prayer.
But we all know that the Christian life is not always so simple. A mother or father may pray for years for a rebellious child, with no results in sight. I’ve often thought of Samson’s parents who must have spent many a restless night grieving about the shenanigans of their son — but all along, God was working through that boy! (Judges 14:4). We all know of times when we’ve prayed alone or with others at a sickbed, and the one for whom we are praying is not healed.
In these situations we ought to remember the prayer of another psalmist who addressed God, saying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And we recall that even Jesus asked that “Why” question from the cross (Matthew 27:46). The psalmist is never given an answer to that “Why?” question. Nor does Scripture report an answer to the question of Jesus. “As Christians, we need to learn to live with mystery,” one of my teachers used to say. “Or with unanswered questions,” we could add.
So how then should we live? What should we do? The whole Bible is clear on that one: Keep on praying anyway! The psalms provide a whole collection of prayers. Look at the example of Jesus (Luke 22:39-46). “Pray without ceasing,” says Paul (1 Thessalonians 5:17). “Are any among you suffering? They should pray” says James (James 5:13-18).
Finally, the person who told the story of his own experience wanted others to learn that prayer does change things. After all, that believer had looked death in the face and prayed, “Lord save me!” And there he was, standing with them, alive. Hallelujah!
Commentary on 1 Peter 1:17-23
Daniel G. Deffenbaugh
Old habits die hard, especially when they have had a lifetime to reach their roots deep into the human psyche.
We can understand, then, why Peter chooses the imagery of the exodus to impress upon his readers the overwhelming implications of the new life that has been bestowed on them through their baptism. Drawing on the symbolism of the Hebrews’ urgent flight from bondage he implores them to “gird up their minds” (1:13) and to rely fully on the grace of God as they hasten toward the land prepared for them. Peter knows how difficult this journey must be for these recent converts and how likely it is that many in their persecution will fall back on the lament of their predecessors at Sinai: “…you have brought us out into the wilderness to kill this whole assembly…” (Exodus 16:3b).
Such is the plight of the resident alien. The Greek term, paroikos (1:17), emphasizes all the more the poignancy of the experience: the newly baptized Christians are now a people “beside or outside the house,” strangers on the margins whose temptation to return to the “passions of their former ignorance” (1:14), futile though they may be (1:18), will at times be overwhelming. They have been called to be holy, set apart, to live a new commandment of love toward one another, a love founded on the blood of an unblemished lamb. Their experience of exile is therefore twofold: they are at once reliving the estrangement of God’s people in the wilderness and enduring the persecution of God’s son at the hands of the domination system.
In a society where new movements so frequently invite us to seek out novel paths and experiment with new identities, we have little sense of how difficult it must have been for these Gentile converts to turn their backs on everything they had held dear from the day of their birth. In their first-century Greco-Roman context, antiquity was the fundamental criterion for authenticity. The further into the past one could trace the origin of a tradition the more legitimate it became. So for men and women to relinquish all that their culture had emphasized as good and true — and this for the values of a new community featuring a savior executed at the hands of the authorities — would have been regarded as sheer lunacy in the minds of those living “inside the house.”
Knowing this, Peter emphasizes all the more that the truth he is proclaiming precedes the establishment of any human institution. In the epistolary prescript he addresses his readers as “the exiles of the Diaspora… chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit” (1:1-2). And in case anyone missed it in the preface, he repeats as much in the pericope we are now considering: Christ, in whose blood they were ransomed, was “destined before the foundation of the world… (1:20). Further, their new life can be attributed to the imperishable seed of God’s Word. This is the inheritance that was spoken through “Moses and all the prophets” (Luke 24:27) and will soon come to its final fruition in the revelation of Christ. Surely every human institution must pale by comparison. Old habits must therefore be set aside for the seemingly irrational wisdom of God that purifies the soul.
Old habits die hard for modern theologians as well and our lectionary passage for this week offers a case in point. I think most of us when we see the term “ransom” tend to fall back easily on Anselm’s doctrine of substitutionary atonement, or perhaps we will turn to Charles Hodge’s more recent notion of penal substitution. It’s a sermon slam-dunk. Our congregations will be reminded that God’s justice demanded a perfect sacrifice in restitution for what had been lost in the Garden. Knowing that humans in their fallen state could not offer such a gift, God in God’s mercy provided the unblemished lamb in the person of God’s Son. Jesus dies an excruciating death and we are thereby reconciled to God through the spilling of his blood.
Recent critics of penal substitution have pointed out that, tragically, the doctrine has only served to justify and perpetuate the redemptive violence that Jesus so vehemently opposed in his every word and deed. In light of this, we have to ask ourselves whether this theory would have resonated in the ears of Peter’s audience. We especially need to be aware of the fact that in the context of the exodus from Egypt the unblemished lamb was not seen as a sacrifice at all but as a divine invitation to a meal. Its blood was offered not as an appeasement to God but as a symbol of Yahweh’s favor. Seeing it, the Angel of Death would pass over the households of the chosen.
What we too often fail to acknowledge, however, is that in order for the Hebrews to embark on their journey of liberation, they also had to pass through this same blood as they abandoned their homes for the freedom of the desert. It was therefore not seen solely as the means of their escape from bondage but also as a symbol of their acceptance of new life in God’s grace. While our theological sophistication may try to persuade us that Peter’s audience would be conversant with the later doctrine of substitution, we should emphasize here a more likely alternative: that baptism in the blood of Christ marked their complete separation from the futile inheritance of their ancestors. It signified that Christ’s sacrifice would indeed be their sacrifice. In their new life in exile they could expect, like their savior before them, to remain for a short time “outside the house.” Yet their ultimate hope lay not in the blood but in the resurrection, the affirmation that, despite present circumstances, they would soon inherit the glorious home of the New Jerusalem.
This passage ‘R Us.
It’s all about what happened on the road or, on the way if you prefer (verse 35), the place where many of us spend a lot of time literally and figuratively. It’s about us in other ways too. We’ll consider three aspects of this text and then weave them together. The aspects? Time, characters, and dynamics.
Let’s start with time. This passage specifies time at a number of places. The length of the day itself is highlighted, from the women’s going very early in the morning to the tomb (verse 22, cf. verse 1). By verse 29 evening has come and “the day is almost over.” What has happened in this long day? We shall look at that when we tackle the “dynamics of the passage.” Before we move on, there are two other time references that frame this passage. The first (verse 21) mentions that the three day period prophesied by Jesus is now over without the reappearance of Jesus that Cleopas and his companion had been hoping for. They had waited for the long walk home as long as it made sense according to Jesus’ own words. Now, that time period was drawing to an end and there was nothing much left to do but go home. In verse 33, after they have recognized Jesus, Cleopas and his companion are themselves raised as if from the dead (note the use of anastantes) and in that very hour they rush back to Jerusalem! They discover that the third day had not quite ended, the prophecy had not been wrong. Their own timing had been a little rushed. So who are they? Let’s look at the characters in this vignette.
There are three central characters, Cleopas, his unnamed companion, and their unrecognized companion Jesus. We do not know Cleopas from any other biblical reference. Clearly he and his companion had been followers of Jesus who knew Jesus as a prophet mighty in deed and word whom they had hoped would be the Messiah, the one to redeem Israel. His death had not made them hopeless. They waited, trusting in his prophecy about resurrection on the third day. It was the coming of the third day and not Jesus that had dismayed them.
These two were also familiar to the other disciples and knowledgeable about what went on in that group, as we can see from their accurate telling of the events of the discovery of the empty tomb and their later welcome back among the eleven and the others in Jerusalem (verse 36). They were neither faithless nor uninformed. They were busy talking, trying to understand what had happened. They were people who both knew the need for and had hope for the coming of a Messiah who could redeem God’s people. They also were people who were concerned for others–or at least for this traveling companion of theirs who thought he’d press on in the evening. Cleopas and his friend knew how unsafe the roads were. Surely the man who had spent so much time with them talking about Scripture would be better served by a simple meal and safe accommodations for the night.
Now to the dynamics. What happened during this long day on the road? Luke’s tale is framed by contrasts. Movement is part of the framing. While it takes them all day to plod out to an inn near home, they get back to Jerusalem a lot faster. The passage begins with Cleopas and his companion simply going along (poreuomai) and then walking (peripateo). As we near the end, they turn back (verse 33) and immediately seem to be in Jerusalem. Time takes on new meaning here. Did they run? Fly? They certainly moved faster on the return trip.
Another part of the framing of this story includes the information that Cleopas and his companion simply stop in the road when Jesus asked what they were talking about (verse 17). They are stopped by the sheer sadness of the response they will make (skythropos, verse 17). As they hasten back to Jerusalem, they remember not sadness, but burning hearts (verse 33).
Through all the talking and walking that frame and shape this text–and there is lots and lots of both–there is a major change in these two men. They move from tellers of a sad story, conversation partners about what has been and what has happened and what hopes they had held to tellers of a story about having seen the Lord in the breaking of the bread. They become people whose hearts are burning, perhaps as the hearts of the women burned when they put two and two together and came up with resurrection in Luke 24:6-8. Instead of leaving Jerusalem, the city where the Messiah ought to show himself, they came back to it and to Jesus’ other followers with new hope. They had seen the Lord: he had prophesied truly; there was hope again that Israel might be redeemed. What happens next is a text for another Sunday, but let’s look again at all that happens in 24:13-35 and re-weave the time, the characters and the dynamics.
I began by saying that this text is truly one for us. It’s a text that takes people on the road, going home, back to ordinary life, who are saddened that their greatest hopes have not come to pass. In spite of all they knew, all the stories they could rehearse, in spite of the witness of others, they simply had not seen Jesus–nor had anyone else they knew. The prophecies of Jesus and hope of redemption grew cold and were not able to sustain them any longer. They began to suspect that the whole thing had been a mistake, a worthy hope and one unlikely ever to be realized. For them, Good Friday had not been Good. Time had passed and there was no change, no resurrection, no Jesus.
Does not time also pass for us, as we go our many ways “back”? We “outgrow” our hopes or become more realistic and we no longer expect anything real to happen. We know the stories. We’ve heard the biblical word. Notice that even when Jesus propounds all of Scripture to the two travelers in the story, they do not recognize him!
Like Cleopas and his companion, we talk endlessly. How many library shelves are filled with the words of theologians? How many blogs bandy about words about God, Jesus, religion, faith–both pro and con? Our talk does not always lift our sadness or our lowered expectations of what God could do or would want to do. There is a kind of resignation in all this, both Luke’s story and often our own lives. Get real. Grow up. Back to work. I can only imagine how the families and friends of Cleopas would offer advice and opinion when the two got home to long untended work and family obligations.
But, they don’t go home, or at least not right away. The heart of this passage, the place where the dynamic changes, is the meal in Emmaus. This is a strange little story in its own right. The two travelers have to nearly force Jesus to stay with them. The verb (parabiazo) is used only one other time in the New Testament. Luke uses it in Acts 16:15 where Lydia has to practically force Paul and Timothy to stay at her house. The verb means to “twist someone’s arm,” to “compel.” The two were so eager for Jesus to stay with them that they would have almost forced him. But it did not come to that, of course. Jesus was planning to stay the whole time. In fact, Jesus was there the whole time.
It was in Jesus’ characteristic behavior of giving, of feeding, of caring for his sheep–whatever way you want to describe the blessing and distributing of bread–that they knew him. Suddenly. Fully. Jesus spent a lot of time in Luke’s gospel eating with people of all sorts. He described a wise and faithful disciple as one who makes sure others have what they need to eat at the right time (Luke 12:23-24).
In feeding others at the right time and in receiving the bread broken for us with thanksgiving, we are given Jesus. Stop talking, stop everything, and pay attention as you reach out to receive what is blessed. A glimpse of the Lord may propel you new confidence, new hope, even a new way of remembering.
Cleopas and his companion are us. They know a lot. They care a lot. They think about things and are saddened by their diminished hopes. More important, they don’t even know that their eyes have been closed until suddenly they are opened. We can’t control the One who opens and closes eyes. But from this story, we might find hope that Jesus walks with us. We do find hope that in the breaking of the bread (24:35), we catch a glimpse of our Lord.