April 12, 2020
|Reading 1||Reading 2||Reading 3||Reading 4||Reading 1 Alt||Reading 2 Alt|
|Isaiah 25.6-9||Psalm 114||1 Corinthians 5.6b-8||Luke 24.13-49|
by David J. Lull
For Easter Season and the Day of Pentecost in the Year A, readings from the book of Acts replace readings from the Old Testament (although I have included them when they are offered as alternative readings), and Gospel readings are mostly from John (although readings for the rest of Year A are mostly from Matthew). Epistle readings are mostly from 1 Peter, with occasional readings from the Pauline letters.
Unless otherwise noted, biblical quotations are from the NRSV.
Easter Evening Themes:
- Isaiah promises that God will provide exiled people a feast to celebrate the end of exile, which brings an end to a kind of “death.”
- The psalmist celebrates a people’s freedom from slavery in a strange land.
- Both remind us that Easter is not just about God’s “Yes!” to Jesus, but also about God’s “Yes!” to freedom and life for all people and nations.
- Paul’s application of the metaphor of the Passover Lamb to a specific conflict in the Corinthian community reminds us that Easter is not just about an “afterlife,” but also about the power of Jesus’ death to bring about transformation in life here and now.
- Luke’s Easter story reminds us that God’s resounding “Yes!” to Jesus is at the same time God’s resounding “No!” to imperial powers. It is a story that leads to Jesus’ commissioning of his followers to proclaim forgiveness in his name to all nations.
[For the following, I have leaned on Gene M. Tucker, “Isaiah 1-39,” pp. 35-37, 216-18 in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 6 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001).]
The historical context sheds light on the metaphors in this passage: Three times in the second half of the 8th century bce, the prophet Isaiah vigorously spoke out against Judah’s relying on foreign alliances and military action to deal with Assyrian aggression. Military resistance by Syria and Israel, the northern kingdom, ended in defeat and the destruction of Samaria, the capital of Israel. With that and the dispersion of all the people—the whole nation—throughout the Assyrian empire, the northern kingdom came to an end—that was a kind of death. Egypt’s rebellion against Assyrian aggression also failed. Assyrian armies destroyed Judah’s cities and towns—that was a kind of death. Assyria remained the dominant empire in the region until one of its provinces, Babylon, took over in late 7th century and early 6th century and Judeans were exiled to Babylonia—that was a kind of death. Beginning in the second half of the 6th century, the region was dominated by the Persian empire, whose king, Cyrus the Great, liberated the Judeans from exile and allowed them to return to Judah and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem—that brought an end to a kind of death.
That ends the period of the book of Isaiah. But the history of imperial domination of Judeans continued up to the Judean revolt against the Romans that ended with defeat in 70 ce, the destruction of the Temple, and dispersal of Judeans throughout the diaspora—that was a kind of death from which Judeans would not “recover” until 1948. Ironically, from the perspective of Isaiah, that “recovery” would not have been possible without the support of a coalition of foreign powers (namely, the imperial powers of Great Britain, France, and the United States), who provided the emerging modern state of Israel with a superior military. For descendants of ancient Israel, 1948 meant the end of a kind of death. However, for indigenous non-Jews in Palestine, it was a victory for death—not just metaphorically, but actually!
Within this historical background, key phrases in Isaiah 25.6-9 are rich with meaning. “All peoples” and “all nations” could refer exclusively “all peoples” of the northern and southern kingdoms, Israel and Judah, and envision the reunification of these “nations” with Jerusalem (“this mountain” in vv. 6, 7, and 10) as its capital. The phrase and “his [God’s] people” might support that reading. But “all nations” seems to imply more than two nations; and, in this context, “God’s people” seems to be parallel to “all nations,” that is, to all humankind. For instance, according to vv. 1-5, the strong and ruthless nations, whose ruthlessness and pride God defeated, came to revere God. In other words, vv. 1-5 suggest that all peoples and nations who come to revere God are “God’s people,” despite their former ruthless and prideful aggression against Israel and Judah. God is the God of all people, both oppressors and the oppressed, who revere God and repent of their aggression.
What about the end of this chapter, which returns to the theme of punishment, specifically of Moab, Israel and Judah’s neighbor to the east? Moabites are portrayed as raising their hands to petition for mercy, like swimmers in a pool of manure (vv. 10-11). Instead, the protective walls of their cities will be destroyed (v. 12). Evidently, Israelites and Judeans could not get over their hostility toward Moabites. On the other hand, the book of Ruth is named after a Moabite woman who revered Israel’s God and chose to identify Israelites as her people. From a canonical perspective, the book of Ruth is in tension with Isaiah 25.10-12 and mitigates its exclusion of Moab from “all peoples,” “all nations,” and “God’s people” (Isaiah 25.1-9).
The “shroud” and “sheet” in v. 7 could refer to the cloths in which the dead were traditionally wrapped. That would be consistent with taking “death” in v. 8a as the cessation of life that comes to all mortals. On the other hand, they could also be metaphors for what shields humans from God’s face. In that case their destruction would imply a time when God would no longer be hidden, and all people and all nations would see God’s face—and it would no longer mean they would die if they saw God’s face.
In the Bible, God cannot be seen, but God could be heard. The question during the periods of exile, would not have been “where can we see God,” but “what is God saying.” The role of prophets was to speak what they heard God saying. Without prophets, God would be silent. To use metaphors that signify that God’s “face” is hidden would imply not only that God was invisible and aniconic (that is, cannot be made into a visual image); in some contexts, it also would mean that God was absent, which is to say, God was silent or people were unable or unwilling to hear what God was saying.
Many people experience God’s absence or silence when a loved one dies, or when they come face to face with their own mortality, for example, at times of war, or in a life of unrelenting poverty and hunger, or on receiving a diagnosis of a terminal medical condition. Under such circumstances, God’s loving face and loving word would be comforting! That is part of what Isaiah 25.6-9 promises: barriers to experiencing God’s comforting presence will be removed.
Isaiah 25.7 and 8a also seem to promise an end to death “forever.” However, the text’s emphasis is less on death itself than on the effect it has on survivors. Instead of any hint about what will happen to the dead, the focus is on a grand feast for survivors, comfort for mourners, and the removal of “disgrace.” (Compare Isaiah 26.19 and Daniel 12.1-4, where the dead are revived but death remains a human reality.) What ceases are the pain and disgrace of death, and in their place comfort (a feast!) is offered to those who grieve, mourn, and shed tears. Death is a normal experience for mortals. So are grieving, mourning, and shedding tears. Anything that diminishes life is not of God. God is on the side of life, especially life in the face of death.
1 Corinthians 15.54-55, which cites Isaiah 25.8a, is different. There Paul describes what he thinks will happen to those who not only die “in Christ” but also who live “in Christ”: all will be changed “in the twinkling of an eye” (15.51-52). What Paul was talking about is how all “in Christ,” whether they have died or are living, “at the last trumpet,” will be changed into an imperishable, immortal body like that of the risen Christ (15.47-57). This is not only about an “afterlife” for the dead but also, and primarily, about transformation of the living. (See my commentary on 1 Corinthians 5.6b-8 below and, for example, David J. Lull, 1 Corinthians [St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2007], 130-47.)
Psalm 114 is about how God helped ancient Israel’s Hebrew ancestors escape from slavery in Egypt (see Exodus 14.19-31). The story of God’s liberation of the Hebrews from slavery is at the same time the story of God’s fierce destruction of Egypt’s armies. That means that this God is a powerful liberator, but it also means this God is a powerful destroyer of human life.
The rest of this story is about how God gave to the Hebrews a land that belonged to others, which they would occupy and which they would establish as the land of Israel (Exodus 23.20-33). That means that it is the story of God’s providence for Israel’s Hebrew ancestors at the expense of “the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites” (Exodus 3.8), whose land God gave to the Hebrews. In time, they and this land became Israel. In short, we might say that ancient Israel’s narrative is a story of how many people paid the price of God’s providential care for “God’s chosen people” by giving them a land that God promised to give to them even though it belonged to others!
After reading Biblical Hermeneutics and Black Theology in South Africa (Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1989), by Itumeleng Jeremiah Mosala, a black South African biblical scholar, I can no longer ignore or be silent about these elements of the “Exodus” story. Mosala points out that the theology of this narrative was the foundational narrative that justified apartheid in the Republic of South Africa. His thesis is that supporters of apartheid South Africa read this story correctly as a story of God’s granting Israel land that belonged to others. The white, European settlers/occupiers believed they were prefigured in the ancient Israelites of this narrative.
In the same way, this narrative played a role in the expansion of the American colonies south and west across lands that belonged to others. The early Americans played out the “conquest of Canaan” by purging the land of most of its original inhabitants. Then they sequestered the remnant people of the first nations into reservations. Again, it seems like God showed favor to immigrants who claimed land belonging to others for the United States of America. Again, it seems like God exacted a price from the people of the first nations for the sake of “God’s [newly] chosen people.”
The same drama is playing out on the ancient land of “the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.” In the early decades of the 20th century, Palestinians resisted the attempts of European nations to give land belonging to thousand-year Arab inhabitants to Jewish immigrants from Europe and elsewhere. After the French and British mandates following WWI, and then after the U.N. plan to partition Palestine in 1947 (U.N. res. 181), Jewish immigrants declared the independence of Israel in 1948. The narrative from 1948 to the present has been the story of Israel’s expansion into occupied Palestinian territories and the flourishing of Israel’s economy—on the backs of Palestinian laborers and with the aid of the United States, Israel’s strongest military and economic ally. At the same time, it is a story of the price that Palestinians have had to pay for Israel’s success: the loss of land, the inability to travel within and between their territories, and the consequent, intentional, catastrophic collapse of their economy. Unless “facts on the ground” change dramatically, it looks like God will again show favor to immigrants who established the state of Israel. Again, it looks like God will exact a price from the land’s indigenous people for the sake of “God’s chosen people.”
What can — what should — we say about these ancient and modern narratives? The biblical story is about God’s fierce opposition to the oppressive actions of an empire, in this case Egypt. Its purpose was to instill, in ancient Israel, “fear of God” and “faith” in God and God’s servant Moses (Exodus 14.31). In this narrative, the “fear of God” is not just synonymous with “faith in God”: it is fear of a fierce God! Faith in God is faith in God’s power and will to act fiercely to protect ancient Israel from its enemies. As such, this story is about God’s liberation of fledgling, rag-tag tribes, with no military and little or no economic power. As such, it is a story about God’s preferential care to protect the powerless from a world power. It is not about God’s fierce protection of world powers with superior military and economic power, like the modern United States, South Africa, and Israel!
This “exodus” narrative also foreshadows the return of Israelites and Judeans from exile. In ancient Israel’s history, God’s protection of Israel was temporarily successful, after repeated setbacks. At the time of the psalmist, the return of Israelites and Judeans from exile (a major ancient “setback”) was understood in the light of this “exodus” narrative. (Compare Marti J. Steussy, Psalms [St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2004], 180.) The longest setback was from the catastrophe of the Judean revolt against the Roman Empire in 66-70 ce until 1948. Now that the modern state of Israel is a Middle East superpower, and the Palestinians are virtually powerless to determine their own future, this biblical story could be a warning to Israel, calling it to “fear God” in its new status as a world power capable of controlling the future of the militarily weaker Palestinians. That was a warning that South Africa failed to heed. So too it is a warning to the United States, confident in its superpower status and assets!
1 Corinthians 5.6b-8
- Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), 215-20.
- Joseph A. Fitzmyer, First Corinthians, Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries, 32 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008), 240-42.
- Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 83, 86, 90-91.
- David J. Lull, 1 Corinthians, Chalice Commentaries for Today (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2007), 43-48.
- Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000), 400-08.
By excising v. 6a (“your boasting is not honorable”), the Lectionary diverts us from its context in chapter 5 to which paul applies these metaphors. These words are applicable to many contexts, not just the one Paul addressed here. But the interplay of the indicative and imperative (“become what or who or whose you are”) requires us to consider their application to some context.
We would do well to begin with Paul’s context—namely, sexual conduct that violated moral standards Paul considered essential to a community gathered “in the name of [our] Lord Jesus” together “with the power of our Lord Jesus” (5.4). Through this “name” and “power” they became “members of Christ” (6.15) and were transformed: they became “unleavened” (5.7), which, as Paul explained in the next chapter, they “became pure, holy, and righteous by the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and the Spirit of our God” (6.11, my own translation). The metaphor Paul used for this power of transformation is that of “our pascha” (πάσχα, 5.7b), which refers to the Passover festival, the meal, and the lamb sacrificed for the Passover meal. With this metaphor, Paul called to mind the story in Exodus about the liberation of ancient Israel’s Hebrew ancestors from slavery and their entry into land God promised to give them. The blood of the lamb smeared on the lintels was a sign that distinguished Hebrew slaves from Egyptian slaveholders—that is, as people to be liberated. In short, Paul reminded the Corinthians that Christ crucified identified and purposed them for liberation from “evil and wickedness,” with the result that they became “unleavened” (5.7).
That did not mean, however, that their liberation created a freedom without boundaries, or that they could not “backslide.” On the contrary, because they lived in community with the “name” and “power” of Jesus and of the Spirit of God, they should not revert to or continue living as if they were still swayed by “leaven that produces evil and wickedness” (5.8). For Paul, the moral life was based on an indicative — what, who, and whose they were — but it was also something that they had to work at with intentional practice.
As you reflect on applying Paul’s reasoning based on these metaphors, keep three things in mind. First, Paul assumed the sexual conduct at issue was immoral, so that required no argument. What sexual conduct is considered immoral has changed over time. We need to give thought to what constitutes immoral sexual conduct today.
Second, although sexual conduct was the presenting issue in chapter 5, only one of the ten immoral acts listed in 5.10-11 has to do with sex. In chapter 6, the presenting issue seems to be lawsuits over financial fraud (6.1-7); and again, only three or four of the nine or ten immoral acts listed in 6.9-10 have to do with sex. It is right for our churches to address issues of sexual conduct, but it is also time for our churches to end its silence—peculiar to modern times—about idolatry, greed, excessive drinking, abusive behavior, and theft.
Third, Paul focused, not on one individual’s sexual conduct, but on the community’s “arrogance” and “boasting.” It seems the community had been proud of its new-found freedom for “anything goes.” Paul found that as troubling as the individual’s immoral conduct, if not more troubling. Misunderstanding freedom in, with, and through the power of Jesus was more serious than a one-off act of sexual misconduct. At stake was loss of the community’s identity as a place for transforming individuals through the power of Jesus and the Spirit of God.
Finally, it is also worth noting that Paul used the metaphor of the Passover Lamb for the transformative power of Jesus in life here and now. It’s as if the resurrection life to come with the sound of “the last trumpet” (15.52; compare 1 Thessalonians 4.16), in some sense, is already a possibility. As Paul would want us to say, yes, but partially, imperfectly, and always as a gift and a challenge—as a call to be who and whose we are.
[For additional commentary on Luke 24.13-35, see the Gospel reading on The Third Sunday of Easter (April 26); and for additional commentary on Luke 24.44-53, see the Gospel reading on The Ascension of our Lord (May 21 or 24).]
The first disciples had a hard time understanding their experience of Jesus after he died. Why shouldn’t they? Jesus didn’t just die; he was brutally executed—with the help of Temple authorities—by the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, who represented the imperial power of Rome. Of course they would be “terrified” and “frightened”! Their “doubts” also would not be surprising. Imperial execution on a cross had crushed their hope that Jesus “was the one to redeem Israel” (24.24). They might well have asked: Was he the “Messiah” or not? Besides, dead is dead! So, who is this stranger? If it is Jesus, how can he be alive again? And, if he is alive again, is he a “ghost”? In this story, they don’t discover the stranger was Jesus until they shared a supper with him (Luke 24.30-35). This part of the story, which sounds like it is about the Lord’s Supper, suggests that “Easter faith” originated in the common meal shared in communities of Jesus’ followers.
How, when, where do you experience Jesus’ living presence? For most people who experience Jesus’ living presence, it is an experience filled with joy and gratitude. But it could also be filled with doubt for those who don’t believe someone who died a very long time ago can be experienced as a living person today. It could also be an experience filled with fear, especially for those who have never experienced the living presence of someone who died and are uncertain as to the person’s identity.
Some Christians experience the living presence of Jesus in the community of faith, for example, in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, or simply in community with other Christians. Others, including non-Christians, might experience the effect of Jesus on those who engage in the church’s mission of service to the poor, the incarcerated, immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers.
Early in this Gospel, Jesus promised to send the same Spirit to dwell in his disciples that God sent to dwell in Jesus at his baptism (3.21-22). The story of the fulfillment of this promise comes at the end of this Gospel (24.49) and in the Acts of the Apostles (1.1-11 and 2.1-4). With echoes and allusions to the story about Elijah’s passing his spirit on to Elisha (2 Kings 2.9-15), this is a story signifying Jesus’ commissioning his disciple to continue his mission. Their mission was to proclaim “repentance and forgiveness of sins” to all nations (or peoples), “beginning from Jerusalem.” Luke’s second volume, the book of the Acts of the Apostles, tells the story of how they did just that.
Their mission, like Jesus’ life, wasn’t without controversy! Although the first disciples were all Jews, the majority of Jews in Jerusalem didn’t buy their message. When some of the disciples reached out to non-Jews, the leadership circle within the disciples objected and exiled those who opened their hearts, minds, and doors to gentiles (Acts 6-7). Ironically, the mission to Jews ran out of gas by the 5th century, but the mission to gentiles took off like wildfire until it reached every corner of the world.
What can we learn from that? How should we respond to the risen Jesus calling us to spread repentance and forgiveness to all peoples? How expansive is this “all”? If “all” means “all without exception,” no one is excluded, not even those who have been called our “enemies.” Whenever and wherever Jesus’ gospel of repentance and forgiveness is proclaimed, Jesus is risen indeed!
David J. Lull, an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and Emeritus Professor of New Testament, Wartburg Theological Seminary, is a resident of Pilgrim Place in Claremont, CA. He also taught New Testament at Yale University Divinity School, was the Executive Director of the Society of Biblical Literature, and the director of the Bible Translation and Utilization unit of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. His publications include commentaries on Romans (with John B. Cobb, Jr.) and 1 Corinthians (with William A. Beardslee).