Third Sunday of Easter

Jesus, the early church, and the stories of Israel are interwoven

Christ Appearing to the Apostles after the Resurrection, William Blake, c.1795

April 14, 2024

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Commentary on Luke 24:36b-48

“They thought they were seeing a ghost” (Luke 24:37 Common English Bible). In this passage, Luke describes how the conversation among Jesus’ followers continues from the previous scenes on the road to Emmaus and the ensuing meal (24:13–35). The same characters are present, including Jesus’ remaining followers in Jerusalem. They discuss the evidence of the risen Lord and the coherence between what they perceive to be the messianic pattern provided by Moses and all the prophets. They also talk about the prophetic witness of the Scriptures to the Messiah who suffers and enters into his glory, the ministry of Jesus as this has focused on table fellowship, and the experience of the resurrected Jesus.

During their discussion, they see what they think is a ghost or a phantom. They recognize the person before them as Jesus but are not ready to accept that he could have any form other than an incorporeal or intangible one. At this point, the shape of Luke’s account might seem like that of an angelic appearance, which is similar to the appearance of Gabriel to Zechariah back in 1:11–13.

In an early Christian context, it is expected to greet someone with the word “peace.” This greeting communicates a wish for communal well-being, also related to the Hebrew notion of shalom. (See the RCL Gospel commentary on April 7, 2024.) In the Third Gospel, “peace” is used as a substitution for “salvation.” Therefore, when Jesus greets someone with “peace,” it has an enhanced meaning. 

The travelers to Emmaus believed that Jesus’ rejection and crucifixion had made him incapable of serving as Israel’s redeemer. However, this passage demonstrates that Jesus continues communicating or transmitting salvation to those gathered after his death. This causes conflicting responses, as some may feel a sense of shalom while others may feel trepidation or even panic. This sets the stage for what is to come next in the text.

Luke describes the encounter between Jesus and his followers, which is very important and even intense. The word “frightened” was used before in the Gospel to describe Zechariah’s reaction to a divine messenger, and now it is used to describe Jesus’ followers. “Doubt” is a familiar feeling among Jesus’ opponents or disciples when they fail to understand his message. 

The word “heart” has been used multiple times in this passage, indicating the importance of the inner commitment of these people to be transformed by the resurrection of Jesus. They must change their attitude, behavior, and thinking to understand Jesus’ new message better. However, they struggle to understand and interpret this new experience, just like Jesus’ companions on the road to Emmaus, who were slow to comprehend.

Jesus provides two proofs of his bodily or material existence as evidence of his resurrection. Luke shows that Jesus’ disciples don’t mistake him for a revived corpse, and Jesus is not an “immortal soul” free from bodily existence. Jesus is represented as an embodied person, alive beyond the grave. Luke’s affirmation is emphatic, indicating continuity between Jesus’ life before the crucifixion and his existence after the resurrection. This is demonstrated by his hands, feet, flesh, and bones and his ability to eat food. The repeated references to “seeing” and the claim that Jesus ate “in their presence” signify the authentic witness upon which the disciples would be called to testify.

The passage highlights the limitations of material demonstrations, as they are not enough to produce the desired effect of faith. The chapter emphasizes the inherent ambiguity of an experience and the necessity of its interpretation. Even incontrovertible evidence of Jesus’ existence is not enough to produce faith. 

Actual resolution will occur only when scriptural illumination is combined with material data. Before this, the disciples respond to the extraordinary events with wonder. However, their “disbelief and wonder” response indicates how little their understanding of Jesus’ message concerning his death and resurrection has progressed. Luke attributes their disbelief to joy, suggesting they found what they were experiencing too good to be true. Later, their disbelief will be replaced by great joy, in association with praise and obedience.

Jesus, the early church, and the stories of Israel are interwoven in this passage. Jesus connects his story as the suffering and resurrected Messiah to the Scriptures. He also ties the early church’s story to his story and the Scriptures. By doing this, he emphasizes the truth of the resurrection and the importance of God’s plan. This revelation helps the disciples understand how God’s past, present, and future work together for salvation. As a result, the disciples can effectively spread the message as witnesses. This pivotal moment marks the story’s transition into the book of Acts.

Jesus’ opening words correspond roughly to the angels’ message to the women at the tomb (24:6–7) and Jesus’ utterance on the Emmaus journey (24:25–27). Included among the parallel elements are the following: (1) the continuity of Jesus’ message before and after the crucifixion and resurrection, (2) the necessity of messianic suffering, (3) the promise of the resurrection on the third day, and (4) the emphasis on fulfillment. 

“Divine purpose,” a pervasive Lukan motif, surfaces in Luke’s terminology—“it is necessary” and “fulfilled”—and in the all-encompassing reference to the Scriptures. The latter is highlighted by the unusual reference to “the Psalms” alongside “the law of Moses and the prophets,” a consequence of the critical role of the Psalms in Luke’s interpretation of Jesus’ passion. Isaiah (22:37) and all of the Scriptures speak of Jesus and have their fulfillment in him. Equally reminiscent of the Emmaus episode is Luke’s observation that Jesus “opened their minds to understand the scriptures” (24:31–32, 45); this parallelism accentuates again how the career of Jesus and the message of the Scriptures are mutually informative.

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Festival of Homiletics 2024

May 13-16 | Pittsburgh (or digitally from anywhere)

The 2024 Festival of Homiletics is an invitation to lean into a little self-love. Hear from some of the voices of our time, including Grace Ji-Sun Kim, Pádraig Ó Tuama, Neichelle Guidry, Brian McLaren, and Angela Dienhart Hancock, and more! Experience inspiring worship along with time for reflection, renewal, and remembering – to recall once again the why for what we do.