Third Sunday of Easter (Year B)

In Luke’s resurrection account, women go to the tomb on Sunday morning.

"Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is myself." - Luke 24:39 (Public domain image; licensed under CC0)

April 15, 2018

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Commentary on Luke 24:36b-48

In Luke’s resurrection account, women go to the tomb on Sunday morning.

The stone is rolled back, and two men in dazzling clothes announce that Jesus was raised. The women return and report the news to the disciples and the rest, but their report seemed to be an “idle tale” and was not believed. Peter, however, ran to the tomb and confirmed that it was empty.

On that same day, two from the group of followers of Jesus were going to Emmaus when they encounter, but do not recognize, Jesus. They express their disappointed hope that Jesus would be the one to redeem Israel, but Jesus explains how everything that happened was necessary according to Scripture. The two invite Jesus to spend the night with them. During the meal, when Jesus blessed and broke the bread, their eyes were opened, and they recognized Jesus, but he vanished from their sight. They rush back to Jerusalem and report to the gathered believers what had happened and discover that Jesus had already appeared to Simon.

“While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you’” (Luke 24:36). We find Jesus greeting the disciples identically in John 20:19, 21, 26, and it is appropriate considering the disciples’ fear. More than just a greeting, “peace” is a repeated theme in Luke beginning in the hymns of Zechariah, the angels, and Simeon in 1:79; 2:14, 29. As the first words of the risen Jesus in Luke and John, it promises not only the immediate relief of fear but also the larger program of the post-Easter life in Christ.

This sublime moment is interrupted, however, by the disciples’ ongoing doubts and terror since they think they are seeing a ghost. To convince them that he is indeed really present, Jesus shows them his hands and feet. This confirmation has usually been understood as a reference to nail marks in Jesus’ hands and feet. It is often connected to Psalm 22:16 and taken as a messianic prophecy anticipating the crucifixion of Jesus. Neither the ancient Hebrew nor Greek support such a reading, however, and Psalm 22 was not understood to be a messianic psalm in the pre-Christian period. What is happening is that Jesus is providing proof that he is not a ghost.

Among the ghost tests in antiquity, one could check extremities where bones were evident (namely, hands and feet), make sure that a person’s feet were touching the ground, and show one’s teeth and eat food. (See also Epistula Apostolorum 11-2 and Tertullian, Against Marcion 4.43.) More significant than his hands and feet, however, is Jesus’ theophanic statement: “I am (ego eimi) myself” (Luke 24:39). So it is that, “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, [Jesus] said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’” (Luke 24:41) After eating the broiled fish they gave him, he once again reminds them that everything that happened to him happened in order to fulfill Scripture. The result, Jesus says, is that “repentance for the forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”

In the appointed passage, the following themes are most prominent:

  1. Jesus’ peace counters the disciples’ fear.
  2. Jesus’ resurrection was real, not a ghostly apparition. This is a central feature of this passage, taking 7 verses to confirm.
  3. Scripture is the key for understanding what happened to Jesus as Messiah, including his suffering and rising from the dead. The fulfillment of Scripture is a key part of this scene just as it was in the Emmaus account preceding it.
  4. The disciples, as witnesses of Jesus, are now called to proclaim repentance for the forgiveness of sins in his name to all nations, a theme that will be traced further in Acts.

On the third Sunday of Easter, how does one go about preaching this text? The point about “peace” in the face of death is certainly an Easter theme, but it is only mentioned in passing in this text. As for the second and third points, my sense is that they are better suited as topics for a Bible study session than the basis for a sermon. The nature of the resurrection body is a complicated topic (see also 1 Corinthians 15!), and demonstrating Scriptural fulfillment can devolve into a tedious task of finding proof-texts. How does this become vital in preaching?

With the emphasis on the physicality of the resurrected Jesus, Luke clearly wishes to demonstrate a flesh-and-bones Jesus, not a mere spiritual presence or apparition. Still, Luke, like us, has never seen a physical Jesus, so that can’t be the key. The point is, in modern parlance, that Jesus is really real and truly alive! That is still worth preaching, and it is worth considering how Jesus is really real and alive in our world today. How do our eyes need to be opened to perceive Jesus? Where do we touch the hands and feet of Jesus? How can we provide food for the world that makes Jesus’ reality experienced?

In Luke’s account, however, confirming the physical reality of Jesus is not the ultimate goal. Here is where the attention to Scripture is important. Scriptural fulfillment may be interesting and informative, and it may help confirm what we believe about Jesus. What is more significant, however, is how the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus help us understand what God has been accomplishing throughout all human history. In the reality of Jesus, the reality of God’s plan is revealed.

As important as this is, Jesus’ life does not simply help us comprehend ancient Scripture’s true meaning, it also moves us forward into the future. That’s why Jesus concludes with the charge to his disciples to be witnesses, proclaiming repentance and forgiveness to all nations in his name. In the Apostles’ Creed, we confess that we believe that Jesus rose from the dead and that we believe in the resurrection of the body and the forgiveness of sins. Like the first disciples, we have also experienced Jesus’ real presence, and so these statements are not just doctrines we affirm but the basis for our calling also to be witnesses of these marvelous things.