3rd Sunday of Easter

April 14, 2002
Reading 2: 
Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19
Reading 3: 
1 Peter 1:17-23 or Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Reading 4: 
Luke 24:13-35
By Ronald Farmer

Today’s first lesson records the crowd’s response to Peter’s message on Pentecost. (The sermon itself is divided into lessons for the Second Sunday of Easter and Pentecost Sunday.) In a manner reminiscent of today’s Gospel lesson (Luke 24:25-27, 32), Peter had used the Scriptures to interpret both the Pentecostal gift of the Holy Spirit (2:27 -21) and the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus (2:25 -28, 34-35).  He then concluded his sermon with a proclamation of divine vindication: “God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified” (v. 36).

His sermon had a profound impact on the crowd (“they were cut to the heart”) such that they cried out, “What should we do?” (v. 37). The wording of the question is the typical Lucan way to portray a penitent response to the gospel message (Luke 3:10 , Acts 16:30 , 22:10). Echoing the earlier message of John the Baptist, Peter replied that they should repent and be baptized.

Repentance clearly involves a change on the part of the crowd’s perception of the crucified Jesus as well as remorse for his death, but the word implies much, much more. The colorful, biblical word “repent” pictures a return to the way of life set forth in the covenant between God and Israel. Hence, the hearers would have understood that they were being called to a reorientation of life toward God that manifested itself in righteous living (cf. Luke 3:8-14; Acts 3:19). (Today’s epistle lesson elaborates on the nature of righteous living.)

Like John’s baptism, Christian baptism is connected with “the forgiveness of sins.” There are, however, two significant differences between Christian baptism and that of John. First, Peter called for baptism to be done “in the name of Jesus Christ.” As the Acts narrative demonstrates (e.g., 8:16 , 19:5), this was the earliest Christian baptismal formula, predating Matthew’s trinitarian formula (Matt 28:19). Second, in fulfillment of John’s prophecy (Luke 3:16), which Jesus reaffirmed (Acts 1:4-5), baptism is now accompanied by “the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Joel’s prophecy of an outpouring of God’s Spirit upon all flesh in the last days (Joel 2:28 -32; Acts 2:17 -21) is about to receive further fulfillment in that the crowd is made up of Jews “from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5).

Although the crowd is composed of Jews, Peter’s words in v. 39, “for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him,” can be read as anticipating the expansion clearly outlined in Acts 1:8. This is especially true when one observes that the summaries of early Christian preaching in Acts are the creation of the author rather than exact transcripts.This does not deny the possibility that they are based on eyewitness memories, but the accepted practice among Greek historians was for the author to shape speeches in such a way that they fit the narrative context. Indeed, v. 40 states that the sermon is actually a summary of what transpired, not a transcript. That being the case, an expression like those “who are far away” lures the reader to anticipate the expansion already outlined in 1:8 (cf. Eph 2:11 -13 for similar use of the far/near imagery in reference to Gentiles).

As Timothy B. Cargal (Lectionary Homiletics 10/5 [April 1999]:18-19) argued, the lectionary reading should be extended one verse to include v. 42. From a textual viewpoint, many translations (e.g., NRSV, CEV, REB) and the Greek texts of the United Bible Society (3rd ed.) and Nestle-Aland (27th ed.) take the verse as the conclusion of the paragraph containing v.41. From a thematic viewpoint, the expression “the breaking of bread” links this lesson to today’s Gospel lesson (Luke 24:30-31): the Risen Christ is especially present in the Eucharist. With the addition of this verse, this reading stresses the importance of the proclamation of scripture, baptism, and communion for the Christian life.

Psalm 116 1-4, 12-19
Today’s reading from the Psalter is a psalm of thanksgiving for deliverance from death; the psalm does not speak of resurrection, as a few interpreters have erroneously thought. Although the text does not specify the circumstance that occasioned this outpouring of thanksgiving, many commentators assume that it was a serious illness. “The snares of death” encompassed the psalmist and “the pangs of Sheol” laid hold of the supplicant, but God “heard” and “saved.”

The public service of thanksgiving (in fulfillment of a vow) described in vv. 12-19 took place in the Temple in Jerusalem. At such a service, the animal sacrificed would provide a bountiful feast for the worshiper and the worshiper’s family and friends participating in the ritual. The “cup of salvation” was either a cup of wine poured out as a libation or a cup drunk during the course of the joyful meal.

The beautiful expression “precious . . . is the death” has evoked two different understandings. Focusing on the word Sheol as the interpretive key, most commentators understand the meaning to be that the death of a “faithful one” is costly or painful to God. Sheol, the realm of the dead, was conceived of as a place of complete weakness and inactivity. There was no soul that lived on; rather, the shade, a shadowy copy of the deceased, had only the barest and weakest form of existence. Because death effectively severed meaningful contact between God and the faithful ones, their death was precious, costly, or painful to God.

Other commentators focus on the word precious.  Understanding it to mean “rare,” they understand the sentence to mean that the death of God’s faithful ones is a rare thing.  Of course, this would have to refer to an untimely death, not to death in general.

1 Peter 1: 17-23
Based on several of the author’s comments (1:14 , 18; 2:10 ; 4:3), it appears that most of the readers of this letter were Gentile Christians who formerly had no connection to Judaism (that is, they had not been proselytes or God-fearers). Certainly it would be unfair to state that all such Gentiles were immoral; there were many Gentiles of high moral fiber, both the famous, such as Plutarch, and the common person. Rather, these phrases probably reflect the common Jewish and Jewish Christian attitude of moral superiority in light of the well-known cases of Gentile immorality. Doubtless, some of the readers had come from such a background. It was imperative, then, for the author to engage in ethical instruction and exhortation.

Today’s epistle lesson is an excerpt from a larger passage (1:13-2:10) exhorting the readers to “be holy . . . in all your conduct; for it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1:15 -16).  As the quote from Leviticus demonstrates, in Jewish and Christian moral teaching the indicative precedes the imperative. That is, description of the basis for moral behavior precedes specific moral exhortation and instruction. Indeed, today’s lesson primarily focuses on the indicative. The basis for moral behavior set forth in this passage is threefold: the nature of God, the nature of Christ’s saving work, and the nature of the Christian life.

(1) The nature of God. The author highlights two aspects of God’s nature: God is fatherly and impartial (v. 17). Calling God Father is not unique to Christianity. In the Hebrew Scriptures God is addressed as Father (e.g., Isa 63:16; 64:8; Ps 89:26). Jesus continued the practice, even deepening the intimacy of the relationship by using the Aramaic word Abba, “Daddy” (Mk 14:36). This term of address was adopted by the early Church (Rom 8:15). Experiencing this tender, intimate relationship with God should result in a holy lifestyle.

Although God is fatherly, God is also impartial. Everyone, without exception, will be judged on the basis of his or her deeds. Knowing that God does not show favoritism should guard readers from assuming on their intimate relationship with God.

(2) The nature of Christ’s saving ministry. The author highlights two aspects of Christ’s ministry: ransom (vv. 19-20) and resurrection (v. 21). The basis for Christian faith and hope in God is the resurrection of Christ.  As v. 23 states, believers experience new life as well.

The word ransom (or redemption) refers to the activity of paying a price to set free a slave or prisoner of war. As the context makes clear, the author was referring to the death of Jesus, who was likened to a sacrificial lamb. It was only natural that his death would be interpreted against the backdrop of sacrifice, given the fact that sacrifices were so common in both Judaism and the larger Mediterranean world. But this was not the only way it could be interpreted. Ransom/Redeem is but one among many metaphors the New Testament writers used in attempting to explain the significance of Jesus’ death.  When reflecting on the metaphor, it is wise to recall the old adage: “Metaphors have sharp eyes, but weak backs.” Metaphors can help us see things more clearly, but they break down when they are pressed too far. Unfortunately, this biblical metaphor has been pressed much too far. For many people, it has become the central metaphor of the Christian faith; indeed, it has been transformed into a full-blown doctrine, the doctrine of the vicarious atonement. Not only is this untrue to the rich, multifaceted biblical witness, but it has also resulted in considerable harm to countless individuals.  For a remarkably candid and insightful indictment of this doctrine, see Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001).  For a process interpretation of the death and resurrection of Christ, see Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, God, Christ, Church: A Practical Guide to Process Theology, rev. ed. (New York: Crossroad, 1989) 103-25.

(3) The nature of the Christian life. The author highlights two aspects of the Christian life: it is a purification of the soul (v. 22) and a new birth (v. 23). As a result of their “obedience to the truth” (not merely intellectual assent to the good news, but obedience, a moral term), the readers have purified their souls.  This purification manifests itself in genuine or sincere love for one another. If love is the operating principle of life, a person will necessarily lead a moral life.

The Christian has been “born anew . . . through the living and enduring word of God.”  These themes, new birth and word of God, typically associated with the Gospel of John, also link the passage to today’s Gospel lesson.

Luke 24: 13-35
As was noted in last week’s commentary, the disciples’ first reaction to the news of the resurrection was skepticism. As Luke colorfully portrays it, they regarded the report of the women as “an idle tale” (24:11).  In today’s Gospel lesson, two of those who had heard the women’s report later set out on the short journey to the village of Emmaus—a walk that began in sorrow, disillusionment, and confusion, but ended in great joy. A helpful way to approach today’s text is to ask two questions: (1) What prevented (v.16) Cleopas and his traveling companion from recognizing Jesus?  (2) What opened their eyes (v. 31) so that they recognized him?

In answer to the first question, a close reading of the text reveals that the two disciples had thought that Jesus was the long awaited Messiah. Two of their expressions—“a prophet mighty in deed and word” (v. 19) and “the one to redeem Israel ” (v. 21)—indicate that they, like many first-century Jews, eagerly anticipated the coming of a conquering Messiah, one who would drive out the Roman soldiers occupying Israel and reestablish the throne of his ancestor King David. To be sure, Jesus regularly avoided the spectacular and repeatedly rejected the request of the religious authorities to give them a sign of power, but his disciples remained hopeful nonetheless.  And then, as the ultimate scandal, he died on a Roman cross. Clearly, they had been mistaken.  Jesus had been a godly person, perhaps even a prophet, but he could not possibly have been the Messiah (see the commentary on last week’s reading from Acts). Their expectations had been utterly dashed. They had pinned their hopes on the wrong person.

The disciples’ inability to move beyond the “orthodox” understanding of Messiahship blinded them from seeing Jesus for who he was during his earthly ministry. And in today’s lesson, it prevented them from recognizing him when he joined them on the road to Emmaus. All too often the same is true today. We look for God in the spectacular and miss the Savior who is ever present. Jesus’ notion of Messiahship calls for a radical reversal of the typical human understanding of power. The power of God is not seen in brute force or coercion, but in the persuasive power of love, in the power which empowers others.

The second question—What opened their eyes?—has a twofold answer. First, the text reveals that Jesus’ teaching from the Hebrew Scriptures “warmed their hearts” (vv. 25-27, 32). Apparently Jesus used a typological hermeneutic to disclose that it was “necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things.”  Clearly, “Moses and the prophets” (the first and second divisions of the Hebrew canon; see v. 44 for a reference to the third division, which was in flux during the time of Jesus) do not prophesy such things about the Messiah. Christians need to admit this. The Hebrew Scriptures do not say these things about the Messiah with the foresight of prophecy; rather, the Christian reader discerns these parallels with the hindsight of typology. Jesus used, and later taught his disciples (vv. 44-47), a typological hermeneutic for reading the Hebrew Scriptures.

The second part of the answer to the second question is that their eyes were opened “in the breaking of the bread” (vv. 31, 35). The Eucharistic quality of the description of the meal is evident (compare v. 30 with 22:19 —he took bread, gave thanks, broke it, gave it to them). According to Lucan theology, one encounters the Risen Christ in the intimacy of the community gathered at the Lord’s Table, after one’s heart has been warmed by the Word revealed in the Scriptures.

A footnote:  Just as Jesus used a typological hermeneutic to enliven the Hebrew Scriptures, so also preachers should use a hermeneutic that enables the Bible to become “living Word” for today’s hearers.  Those wishing to explore a process hermeneutic are referred to my book, Beyond the Impasse: The Promise of a Process Hermeneutic (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1997). Later this year, Chalice Press plans to release the first volumes of a new ecumenical Bible commentary series for pastors and lay leaders entitled A Commentary for Today. The series will feature commentaries by process-informed writers and writers sympathetic to the concerns of process thought.