Lectionary Commentaries for April 22, 2012
Third Sunday of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Luke 24:36b-48

Lucy Lind Hogan

“Witnesses of these things . . .”

Lectionary-based preachers will tell you that there are both pluses and minuses to following that method of sermon preparation. One never has to scramble for a sermon topic nor plan out a year’s worth of sermons. Each week one is given a super abundance of topics and directions. However, there are some occasions that present the preacher with a challenge; the repetition of stories. This Sunday is a case in point.

During the Sundays after Easter the gospel texts assigned, understandably, recount the stories of Jesus’ appearances to the disciples. It means, therefore, that the gospel story for the Third Sunday of Easter taken from Luke’s gospel bears a striking resemblance to the gospel narrative proclaimed the previous week. In each text Jesus appears to the disciples; they are afraid and unbelieving, he convinces them that he is, indeed their teacher and friend raised from the dead.

And that they, believing in him, are to continue his mission in the world. For our biblical scholar side these two narratives offer significant differences. But for the average listener in the pew, it may sound as though we are repeating ourselves. The challenge, then, is to help our listeners appreciate that there is always new grace found in all of these stories, even when we appear to be telling the same story once again.

Scholars believe that one reason for the similarity between Luke and John’s accounts is that both reach back to an earlier traditional account of what happened. 

Before Luke describes the meeting of Jesus and the disciples the evening of that first day, he is the only one who tells the story of an encounter between Jesus and two dispirited disciples. Cleopas and an unnamed companion (perhaps his wife) have left Jerusalem and are returning to Emmaus. Since this story is not read during Year B, and because Luke 24:36-48 intentionally parallels the Emmaus narrative, the preacher may find it helpful to tell the two stories together focusing on the key similarities that link these two important resurrection accounts.

The stories each follow the same pattern:

  • Encounter — failure to recognize
  • Explanation — interpreting the resurrection through the lens of the scriptures
  • Eating — Jesus breaks bread or eats fish
  • Enlightenment — the disciples eyes are opened, hearts burn, and recognize
  • Exit — Jesus departs

In the first story two people from Emmaus, returning home, continue to believe that the women’s report was an idle tale. They encounter a stranger on the road and tell him what has happened in Jerusalem. They report the news of what happened to Jesus and how the tomb was supposedly empty. But, as this stranger observes, they are foolish and “slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!” (Luke 24:25) Jesus then tries to explain to them connecting the dots between what happened and is happening to him and what the scriptures had told. They invite this stranger to eat with them and it is in the breaking of the bread that they are enlightened; their eyes opened, hearts burn, and they realize that they have been speaking with their risen teacher. Instantly Jesus exits.

The two disciples hurriedly return to Jerusalem (remember, this is a distance of 20 miles). They excitedly tell their companions what happened to them. It is at this moment that today’s text begins and the pattern repeats itself; this is “what they were talking about.” (Luke 24:36). The gathering of disciples encounter Jesus but again they do not understand what is happening. They appear to connect this figure with their crucified teacher, but they think that he is a ghost. They are filled with confusion and doubt. Jesus then seeks to explain what is happening by offering them his body, showing them the wounds of the cross.

Next, as he did at the table in Emmaus, he eats a piece of fish. After all, ghosts do not eat, do they? He continues his explanation by opening to them the scriptures to show that everything they have learned and taught before his crucifixion led them to this very moment. Interestingly, Luke does not tell us if all of the disciples finally believed. Did their hearts burn as well?

There is one significant addition to this story. Although Jesus did not send Cleopas and his companion out as witnesses, that was exactly what their encounter caused them to do. But in this second, parallel narrative, Jesus directly tells the disciples that they are to be witnesses. Here, also, is a significant difference with John’s account. There is no infusion of the Spirit. Luke makes a significant separation between what happened in that room at the end of the “first day of the week” and what was to happen in an upper room fifty days hence. The Spirit will come, but for now the disciples are given the content of their message. They are to tell of repentance and forgiveness that will come in Jesus’ name.

Finally, as he did in Emmaus, Jesus does make his exit. However, we do not read this portion of Luke’s gospel for it is his account of the ascension. That night Jesus led his followers out of that upper room to Bethany, blessed them, and “withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” (Luke 24:51)

Today’s reading ends with the commissioning of the disciples. One will be able to make the connection with today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles. There Luke begins to paint the picture of what it looked like when the disciples fulfilled their calling as witnesses. We read Peter’s proclamation of what God had and is doing in Jesus Christ.

It is here where we are able to enter the story. We come with our doubts, confusions, fears and misunderstandings. We, each week, through worship we encounter the risen Christ. In the reciting of the scriptures and the preached word we are offered explanation, proclaiming the good news of what God has and is doing. We may eat with Christ, breaking the bread of the resurrection in the Eucharist.  (Perhaps like the early Christians we should share fish as well?) The Spirit brings enlightenment, opening our hearts and minds, setting our hearts afire. Finally, the exit should be ours for Christ has sent us out into the entire world to be witnesses to this amazing news.


First Reading

Commentary on Acts 3:12-19

Mitzi J. Smith

In Acts, the apostles perform miracles by the power of the God of the living, the one who created the world.

Peter’s words, “Why do you marvel at this or why do you stare at us as if by our own power or religiosity we have caused him to walk?” (3:12) are indicative of the apostles’ continued attempts to deflect praise from themselves and onto God as the source of miracles. The miracle that Peter and John perform is very similar to, but precedes, the story of Paul and Barnabas in Lystra. Paul and Barnabas had healed a man who had been born crippled (13:8). The man’s faith in Jesus prompts Paul to stare at (atenizō) and heal him.

Consequently, the Lycaonians declare that the gods, Hermes and Zeus, have visited them in human form, namely as Paul and Barnabas (13:11-12). The ancients knew the names of the gods, and they believed that humans could take on the form of the gods or be inhabited by them. Paul and Barnabas, like Peter and John in our text, reject this interpretation of the events and the peoples’ subsequent attempt to worship them. 

As Peter and John enter the Temple through the gate called Beautiful, they notice a man lying at the door of God’s house. And yet this man never experienced God’s healing power before that day. The man has no new words but recites his usual request for alms. His voice diminished and flattened over the years, drowned out by the sound of feet moving back and forth over the threshold, in and out of God’s presence, people participating in rituals symbolical of restoration. But this man crippled from birth will find wholeness on the outside of the God’s house. “God’s house” is an incomplete and imperfect metaphor for how, when and where God visits; it is neither a boundary circumscribing God nor a barrier to God’s power. Stephen testified that the Most High God does not live in buildings, 7:48.

A particular Greek verb describes the interaction between the apostles and the lame man and between the apostles and the people. Peter and John stared (atenizō) at the lame man (3:4). And Paul gazed (atenizō) at the man he healed, as noted above. Peter and John’s gaze at the man anticipates God’s healing of the man from a birth defect. He had never known life from the position of his feet, but only from the ground up. Peter and John took his hands and raised (egeirō) him up. God raised (egeirō) Jesus. The man danced and strutted demonstrating how life flowed through his limbs (3:7-8).

This is why the people (laos) marveled and stared intently (atenizō) at Peter and John, 3:12. The lame man stared because he expected no more from Peter and Paul than he had gotten (or not gotten) from others going to God’s Temple. The people stared at Peter and Paul not having anticipated or imagined God healing the man.

“Why do you stare at us as if we caused him to walk by our own power or religiosity?” This is a strategic question creating an opportunity for Peter to testify about what God did in Jesus. The mention of God in connection with Moses, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would be familiar to Peter’s Jewish audience (who constitute the people or laos of God, verse 12) and provides a historical frame of reference. This was the name YHWH gave to Moses (Exodus 3:15). What God did through Moses, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is that which gives imaginable substance to God’s name. What God did through the patriarchs (and matriarchs) translates God’s name into human language. The black slaves sang, “Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel, then why not deliver poor me.” This invoking of names in relation to divine deliverance constitutes a hermeneutics of historical memory based on God’s extraordinary intervention in human lives and predicaments. This God raised and “glorified his servant (pais) Jesus,” 3:13. 

The idea of God having a servant is not novel. God chose and anointed servants/ministers like Moses, King David, King Cyrus, and others to perform the unimaginable, breaking human oppressions and establishing divine precedents. Jesus was God’s servant and child (pais), a human instrument anointed and chosen by God (3:19). The story of YHWH choosing, anointing and exalting his servant is nothing new; it is well known throughout the Scriptures (Isaiah 52:13). The murder of God’s servant was no surprise; it was expected according to the prophets.

God’s anointed one would suffer. But this pais named Jesus, God raised up from among those servants whose bones remained buried. Even David’s body decayed in the grave (13:36-37).  It was the author of life (archēgon) that was murdered and buried. How can the murdered servant/child (pais) be the “author of life”? What a paradox. A child is by nature not the author of life but the recipient of life from his parents. God gave Jesus life and brought Jesus to life. It is God’s glorification and/or raising of Jesus that makes him the “author of life.” Because God raised Jesus, God has authored a new story. Consequently, our stories can be rewritten, revised, and told from a new point of view, because of the power of God who resurrects. Through the name of Jesus whom God raised up, Peter and Paul raised up the lame man giving him a new “Once upon a time.”

The one whose life was swapped for that of a murderer, God determined to be holy and just. God reversed the actions of human beings. The life they took was the life God raised. If God can repeal death, surely God can reverse a man’s birth defect. Of these great reversals, the apostles are witnesses. And their witness is not just rhetorical; their testimony is wrapped up in human flesh once lame. They are actively lifting up people. We obviously should not neglect to share our “silver and gold” with others in need, as demonstrated by the communal sharing in Acts (2:45). But we need also seize opportunities to stop and gaze into human eyes sharing the human touch by which God might restore a human life and record on the history books a new “once upon a time.” 


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 4

Shauna Hannan

[Thank you to the members of the South Carolina Synod (ELCA) Commission on Inclusiveness for your reflections on this Psalm. Your shared wisdom is embedded in these comments.]

You know what it is like to have one of those nights when you are pacing the room, carefully crafting your retort, trying with all of your adult reasoning to convince your emotions (which you have subconsciously personified) to calm down. This level of distress is not foreign to the Psalmist who struggles to reign in his unfocused adrenaline. One moment he talks to God, another to himself, and yet another to his perpetrators (who, by the way, are not in the room).

The Psalmist is truly distressed. By what? We know there are those who have blemished the Psalmist’s honor to the point of shame. There are also those who “love vain words and seek after lies” (could they be the same people?).

Some have suggested that the Psalmist’s adversaries have eschewed God for not producing abundance as promised and taunted the Psalmist for still believing in his God. Given this scenario, there are three (at least) possible ways to interpret the main trajectory of this Psalm. First, the Psalmist is lamenting the shame he feels. Second, the Psalmist desires to counsel his adversaries against placing their trust in false gods.

While I do not wish to disregard these two interpretations, I think the primary trajectory of the lament is the third possibility; that is, the Psalmist’s self-doubt that emerges in the face of conflicting beliefs. The hysteria of the moment yields an inconsistency of addressee: the Psalmist petitions God (verses 1, perhaps 6, 7, 8), rehearses the speech he might give to his adversaries (verses 2, 3), and convinces himself to resist the temptations of a superficial religiosity and to lash out at others (verses 4, 5 and, perhaps, 6). This Psalm is a “pep talk” in which the Psalmist hears out loud his own convictions.

This Psalm is a companion for our times of doubt. Even more, the Psalmist is a teacher who models for us 1) a way out of distress by articulating who God is and how God is for us, and 2) a way of responding to God. Regarding the first, the Psalmist rehearses all that he trusts to be true about God. Clearly the Lord is one who is in conversation with those who believe in him (verses 1, 3). Moreover, claiming that the Lord sets apart the faithful for himself justifies the distance the Psalmist feels between himself and others (verse 3). The Lord is trustworthy (verse 4) and provides peacefulness and security (verse 8).

Two other descriptions are noteworthy. First, God gives room when we are in distress (verse 1). This is a curious phrase which may become a central theme in your preaching this week. To “give room” originally alluded to “release from a tight noose at the neck (cf. Psalms 18:19, 118:5).” It was “a symbol of freedom before wide horizons (Genesis 26, Psalm 31:9, and Isaiah 60.5).” This is opposite of the distress mentioned in verse 1, a word which is used for “a constricted larynx.”1 The Psalmist is acknowledging the Lord’s willingness not to micromanage, to give him room to question, to let him work out the insecurities surrounding his belief. 

A second noteworthy description of God is articulated in verse 7. The Lord puts gladness in the Psalmist’s heart “more than when their grain and wine abound.” In other words, the Lord is better than the best harvest. It is one thing to say the Lord is better than our bad days, but it is a whole other thing to say that the gladness of heart that comes from the Lord is better even than the most abundant crop. [It is unavoidable to think of eucharist (giving thanks) in reference to wheat and wine.] 

Preachers, it might be worth encouraging your hearers to consider whether or not the Psalmist’s list coincides with their own. Does it coincide with yours? How do you speak about who God is when you are up against people who do not share your convictions? How do you convince yourself that your beliefs are true? How has God given you room? Do you understand God to be better even than your best days?

As mentioned above, the Psalmist also offers a way to respond. He prays to the one he knows will hear him. He speaks (or at least prepares to) the Lord’s faithfulness to those who do not believe. He refrains from lashing out (verse 4). The Psalmist also reminds himself of the Lord’s trustworthiness (verse 5), remembers what the Lord has done (verse 7), and rests secure in the Lord’s faithfulness (verse 8).

Are these your responses when others question your beliefs? When you question them? While I can see how some might think the psalmist desires to rebuke those who cause him trouble or convince them to believe in his God, this Psalm is about convincing ourselves. It does not allow us to see others as the doubters, but puts us squarely in the place of those who doubt they are in the presence of the resurrected Lord.

Finally, the battle in this Psalm between silence and speaking is palpable. Isn’t that the way it is when we doubt? In one moment we yell out and in another we convince ourselves to be silent. The battle leads to an “opening up of the larynx” which is God “giving room.” Ultimately, trusting in the Lord is the Psalmist’s sleep aid.

The tantrum subsides and the Psalmist “exults softly”2, “I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you, O Lord, make me lie down in safety” (verse 8). Oh that we all would find such security and rest in God at the end of each day.


1Terrien, Samuel. The Psalms: Strophic Structure and Theological Commentary. Eerdmans Critical Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003.
2Terrien, 100.


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 John 3:1-7

Brian Peterson

The closing lines of chapter 2 reminded the readers of Jesus’ expected return, and called for a life of righteousness that will allow “boldness” when he comes.

The first two verses of chapter 3 root this confident hope in what God has already done. The text begins where we must always begin, with the love of God given to us.

The content of that love (or perhaps its result) is that we are called “God’s children”. This is not just wishing or pretending; we are what God declares us to be. The implicit imagery here is one of adoption. God lovingly calls us God’s children, and that declaration makes it so. We are God’s children not by our choice or by our accomplishment, but by the Father’s love.

One might reasonably conclude that being God’s children must be the ultimate goal; after all, what could be better? However, verse 2 points ahead to a greater, still unrealized fulfillment. The fullness of what it means to be God’s children will be revealed only at the apocalyptic appearing. But it is not as though we have no idea what God has in mind. Jesus himself is our future, and God intends to transform us to be like the Son.

There is no other pattern or goal than Jesus himself. The good news is not that Jesus helps us to be “more ____”, with the blank filled by whatever value, virtue, or ideal we choose to adopt. Rather, the good news is that Jesus himself is the goal and the gift. Jesus is not only the shape of God’s past love toward us through incarnation, cross, and resurrection; Jesus is also the shape of God’s final gracious gift: to conform our lives to God’s perfect love in the Son.

That hope for the future shapes life now. Faithful discipleship means living along the grain of God’s promise and intent. Thus those who are God’s children will be “pure” (verse 3) and “righteous” (verse 7), “just as he is.” The phrase “just as” can be taken to mean “in the same way as” or “because,” and in this case we ought to hear both. “What we will be” may not be known in its fullness yet, but by God’s grace we see our future in Jesus, and this future already has a transformative effect in the present for those who are God’s children.

The most problematic part of this text is the claim made in verse 6 that those who “abide in him” do not sin. It is difficult to understand how this is not a blatant contradiction to much of the rest of the biblical witness, and even to what 1 John says elsewhere (see 1:8-2:2). Some have suggested that the present tense of the verb “sins” in verse 6 indicates that the author is denying only a constant habit of sinning. While the author of 1 John would certainly consider habitual sinning to be out of bounds for those who claim to be God’s children, the verse cannot be tamed quite so easily. Are we to imagine that the author is willing to excuse occasional sins?

Furthermore, 5:16 expects that one may see one’s brother or sister “sinning”, also expressed with a present tense verb; there, such sinning within the church is possible and perhaps even expected. So, the difficulty of how 3:6 fits into 1 John cannot be solved by the tense of the verbs. Alternatively, some have suggested that the author means that as long as, and only insofar as, we remain in Christ, we cannot sin; it is when we step out of being “in him” that we find ourselves sinning. However, this solution is hardly satisfying. Imagining such constant stepping in and out of relationship with Christ hardly does justice to the Johannine tradition’s deep sense of “abiding in him.”

No solution to the puzzle of 3:6 has won a consensus. There is a genuine tension, both within the text of 1 John and within the experience of the church, regarding the reality of sin on the one hand, and life as God’s children on the other.  What is clear is that the author will allow neither self-delusions of sinlessness nor a casual acceptance of sin within the lives of God’s children. Perhaps those who left the community of 1 John were claiming that they did not “really” sin, regardless of their actions, since the Gospel of John defines sin primarily as unbelief; perhaps they appealed to their belief in Jesus as proof that sin was no longer even a possibility for them.

This position, then, would be what the author rejects early in this book (1:8-2:2), cutting off all claims to sinlessness. In our text, as further response, the author says that one’s actions really do matter. Being a child of God does not make all behaviors un-sinful for you. Sin within those who hope in Jesus is both a real possibility, and a profound contradiction. That contradiction is not to be glossed over.

Verses 3-7 are implicit exhortation: If we remain in Jesus, and he has no sin, then we must not sin either. 1 John cannot imagine being a child of God, trusting and hoping in Jesus, and not reflecting the character of Jesus in one’s own life. But we must not get confused at this point.  All discipleship rests on the declaration of what we already are: loved by God, children now, promised that we will be like Jesus when he appears.

It may be significant that this text is full of indicative verbs, not imperative. The readers are not simply told to be better, to try harder, or to get rid of their sin. That’s what Jesus came to do (verse 5). Perhaps the tension of this text regarding sin finds its resolution only in the conviction that by God’s grace we will be made like Jesus in the end. Here in Easter season, we have a new identity because of Jesus’ resurrection, and yet we hope and look for that day when the risen Jesus will return and transform us all into his image.