The Third Sunday of Easter (Year A), 26 April 2020


April 26, 2020

Reading 1Reading 2Reading 3Reading 4Reading 1 AltReading 2 Alt
Acts 2.14a, 36-41Psalm 116.1-4, 12-191 Peter 1.17-23Luke 24.13-35

by David J. Lull

Unless otherwise noted, biblical quotations are my own translations.

 

Themes:

  • God will save all Israelites from the generation of those in Jerusalem who were responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion at the hands of the Romans.
  • Through his resurrection, the crucified Jesus, sitting “at God’s right hand” (2.34, quoting Psalm 110.1), is God’s representative, with authority to speak and act for God. This crucified Jesus is the Word of God—God’s word of forgiveness.
  • When bad things happen to us, they are grievous to God, because we are dear to God!
  • Now more than ever the need is for the revelation of the transforming power of Christ, proclaimed in the gospel, to liberate this world from futility!
  • The Easter Jesus is present in Christian communities, especially through the sacraments and proclamation of the gospel.
  • The Easter Jesus is present in wherever and whenever Christians engage in the church’s mission of service to the poor, the incarcerated, immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers.
  • The Easter Jesus calls his followers to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations.

 


Acts 2.14a, 36-41
For a second time Acts 2 blames all Jews for crucifying Jesus (v. 36). At least vv. 22-23 also indicts gentiles (see April 19, Second Sunday of Easter), presumably Pilate and Roman soldiers (διὰ χειρὸς ἀνόμων, dia cheiros anomōn, “through the hands of those who do not live by the law”). Moreover, vv. 22-23 and 4.27-28 (which names Herod and Pilate, with gentiles and “people [λαοῖς, laois] of Israel”) add that what they did God “predestined.” As I said in my commentary on 2.23 (see April 19, Second Sunday of Easter), the assumption is that everything happens is within God’s “plan” and “foreknowledge.” That does not mean that God is the sole actor or cause in whatever happens. In fact, Acts 2.22-23 and 4.27-28 identify other actors. These verses say God “foresaw” and “predestined” what “Herod and Pilate, with gentiles and people of Israel” did, but they do not say God was one of the actors, let alone the sole cause of the events human actors set in motion. Luke-Acts (and the rest of the Gospels) present God’s “plan” as foreseen/foretold in “scripture,” and these events as “fulfilling scripture” (see, e.g., Luke 22.37; 24.44-47; Acts 1.16; 3.20-21; and 17.2-3). In the absence of any other explanation in Luke-Acts of the “necessity” that the Messiah suffer, die, and be raised from the dead (Luke 9.22; 17.25; 24.7, 26, and 46; and compare 13.33), these events were “necessary” to “fulfill scripture.” 

In v. 36, however, the second person plural pronoun in “this Jesus you crucified” refers to “all Israel” (πᾶς οἶκος Ἰσραὴλ, pas oikos Israēl, “the whole house of Israel”). The accusation that “all Israel” crucified Jesus, even if it was meant to indict only all Israelites or Jews in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus, is false. All four Gospels identify “Israelites” who followed Jesus and were in no way accomplices in Jesus’ crucifixion. I could cite many examples—not the least of which are Jesus’ eleven Jewish disciples—but John 11.45 says “many Jews” believed in Jesus.

A correction of the record is long overdue! First, crucifixion was a Roman penalty; second, only (the or some?) Temple authorities collaborated with Pilate and Roman soldiers in Jesus’ crucifixion; third, “crowds” in the Gospels’ passion narratives consist of Judeans, specifically those in Jerusalem, which leaves out Jews in Galilee, whom Luke portrays as friendly to Jesus (see, e.g., Luke 4.14), including Herod (23.7-16; despite 13.31-32); they also leave out Judeans outside Jerusalem, and Jews in the diaspora; fourth, and most importantly, the historical, social, and political context in which Jesus was crucified was that of the Roman military occupation and taxation in Judea.

The Torah and prophets assigned guilt to all the people of Israel when only one or a few were responsible for a person’s death (see, e.g., Deuteronomy 21.1-9; and compare 1 Samuel 15.2-3 and 2 Samuel 21.1). Because means of restitution were always available, the “bloodguilt” of the whole nation was never permanent. Acts 2.37 begins the process of restitution. It says that those Israelites who were listening to Peter, to whom Peter addressed v. 36, were “deeply pained” (κατενύγησαν τὴν καρδίαν, katenygēsan tēn kardian, “cut to the heart”) and, as a result, asked, “What should we do?” The means of restitution for “the entire house of Israel”—Pilate and Roman soldiers (“those who do not live by the law”) are left out—are repentance, baptism, forgiveness, and the gift of the Holy Spirit (v. 38). The statement that 3,000 persons accepted this message and were baptized, removed the “bloodguilt” of “the whole house of Israel”! As v. 39 says, this promise was not just for Israelites in Peter’s audience, but also for their children and “all who are far away”—spatially, as in the diaspora, and temporally, for ages to come—that is, for “everyone whomever the Lord our God should invite!”

The translation in the NRSV and most other English versions of “save yourself” (for the Greek verb σώθητε, sōthēte) in v. 40 implies they are agents of their own salvation. However, this verb is a passive imperative that implies consent and/or is a performative declaration (compare Wallace 440-41), so that better translations of this verb are “Let yourself be saved” or “Be saved” (the CEB and NAU), so that it is clear that God is the implied agent. To paraphrase: “With many other speeches, Peter warned and urged them to let God save them from this corrupt generation.”

This could be a reference to Deuteronomy 32.5 (in Moses’ “song,” 31.30-32.47)—that is, a generation that has turned against God, or to other gods. Or, more generally, it could refer to an immoral generation in need of repentance (see, e.g., Luke 7.29-32; 9.41; and compare “at the last days” in 1 Peter 1.20) Or, more specifically, it could refer to a generation that killed prophets in Jerusalem, as they did to Jesus (see, e.g., Luke 11.50-51; 17.25-35; Acts 8.32-35). The latter fits this context: God’s promise is that God will save them, their children, and all Israelites in faraway lands and ages—all Israelites whom God calls—from the generation of those in Jerusalem who were responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion at the hands of the Romans.

The Lectionary skips vv. 33-35. That leaves dangling the inferential conjunction “therefore” (οὖν, oun) at the beginning of v. 36. The reason why “the whole house of Israel” can “know with certainty that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah” is that God exalted this Jesus to sit at God’s right hand and gave him the promised Holy Spirit, which this Jesus poured out on his disciples, creating the scene all in Jerusalem saw and heard (vv. 33-35; see vv. 1-21).

From vv. 33-36, we see the variety of ways Jesus’ earliest followers described God’s act on behalf of the crucified Jesus. Verse 33 begins with “therefore” (οὖν, oun), which implies that Jesus was “exalted at God’s right hand” as the result of his being “raised up” (v. 32), or that these are two ways of saying the same thing. When v. 36 says “God has made him Lord and Messiah,” which is another way of saying God put him on David’s throne (v. 30), that implies God did so through or as a result of his resurrection. In other words, it is not as though this is a series of acts of God; rather, they are various ways of proclaiming God’s affirmation of Jesus’ representation of who God is—the God who forgives sins.

The proclamation that “this Jesus,” through his resurrection, is sitting “at God’s right hand” (2.34, quoting Psalm 110.1), identifies this crucified Jesus as “Lord and Messiah,” God’s representative, with authority to speak and act for God. This crucified Jesus is the Word of God—God’s word of forgiveness. This crucified Jesus has this authority because, by raising him from the dead, “God has made him Lord and Messiah” (2.36). That probably means that God confirmed who Jesus proved to be in his life and death, and that God approved Jesus’ followers’ gospel proclaiming he was “Lord and Messiah.”



Psalm 116.1-4, 12-19
Marti J. Steussy, in her Psalms, Chalice Commentaries for Today (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2004; 181-82), has this to say about v. 15, which is the heart of Psalm 116 (compare 1 Peter 1.19): “Dear to God is the death of those who are faithful to God” (my own translation).

… Perhaps the “royal” voice speaks on behalf of the community, or more likely, we have here an example of the way in which the intimate relationship between the king and God became the model for other individuals’ worship.

 Our thinking about this [namely, how God acts in life] might be helped by a theological framework that can imagine constraints on God’s actions … and also by recognition that God’s help may take a variety of forms in addition to the ones (such as complete healing) for which we usually pray. For instance, in Psalm 116:15, the psalmist probably meant to say that God does not take a servant’s death lightly and has therefore intervened to prevent it. But later interpretation has applied the verse to martyrs, understanding it to say that even in death they remain precious and present to God. If we grant that God is always at work to bring the most out of the potentials of the situations into which we creatures place ourselves and one another, we can credit God for the good that comes to us without necessarily implying that the lack of an obviously good outcome in some other situation is due to God’s lack of care or choice of inaction. Unlike the speaker in Psalm 115:17, who cannot image that the dead praise God, we trust in a God who is faithful even beyond the life of this earth.

This verse could be interpreted to mean that God desires and is pleased with the death of those who are faithful to God. However, as the note in the NAB says, “the meaning is that the death of God’s faithful is grievous to God, not that God is pleased with their death” (my italics). The note in the NET makes a similar point: “The point is not that God delights in or finds satisfaction in the death of his followers! The psalmist, who has been delivered from death, affirms that the life-threatening experiences of God’s followers get God’s attention …” (NET n. 19 tn, my italics).

That’s good news indeed! When bad things happen to us, we might not know whether, when, or how God will “save” us. But we can know that God does not desire bad things to happen to us or find pleasure in them! We can also know that, when bad things happen to us, they are grievous to God, and that we are dear to God!

We know this, not just from the psalmist’s words, but from Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus’ death was grievous to God. Although God did not prevent his death (and could not, at least from a “process” perspective), God did not let death have the last word. Therefore, we will praise God for him with our Easter acclamations of “Alleluia! Christ is risen indeed!”

 


1 Peter 1.17-23
Verses 17-21 consist of one sentence! Verses 22-23, which also consist of one sentence, are the first part of the next section of the letter (vv. 22-25). Compare the NRSV, NET, CEB, NAB, and NIV with the following, which is my own translation, in which I have embedded some brief comments.

17 Because you call upon the Father [i.e., God, the creator of all people and all creation, and the source of your new life in Christ], who judges without favoritism according to each person’s deeds [i.e., deeds matter, as Luther said, although there are no good deeds apart from faith, faith without good deeds is no faith], conduct your life with fear [i.e., with fear because you know you are accountable to God, but also with reverence for God’s fairness and compassion] during your time in a strange land [i.e., you are living no longer in your ancestral way of life but in Christ and in a Christ-oriented community], 18 since you know [i.e., it is common knowledge among those who have heard the gospel] that you were liberated [i.e., “ransomed,” released like a slave] from your futile, ancestral way of life [i.e., a way of life based on false gods, which are unable to lead you to a holy way of life], not by perishable things, like silver or gold [i.e., in contrast to Christ’s “precious” life and death, which God knew from the beginning of the world and has been revealed (v. 20), and which God has made imperishable by raising him from the dead; compare vv. 24-25, which describes “God’s word proclaimed to you” as a word that “endures forever”], 19 but by precious blood [i.e., Jesus’ death, which was “precious” to God: see Psalm 116.15], like that of an unblemished and spotless lamb [i.e., one without moral faults, someone who is innocent, like an animal suitable to offer as a sacrifice to God], namely, Christ, 20 who was known [by God] before the beginning of the world, but was revealed [by God] in these last times [i.e., at the end of a series of ages marked by God’s redemptive acts] for the sake of you 21 who, through Christ, have become faithful to God [i.e., outwardly, in the way you live your life, as well as inwardly, with faith, trust, and hope in God], who raised him from the dead and gave him glory [i.e., glorified and exalted him, by raising him from the dead and elevating him to God’s right hand, as God’s representative and agent with power and authority to speak and act on God’s behalf], so that your faith and hope are directed to God.

22 Because you have made your life holy by obedience to the truth [i.e., the gospel and your faithfulness to it], whose goal is to produce genuine mutual love, love one another always from a [pure] heart, 23 as those who have been born anew [i.e., from God, who is the source and origin of your new life in Christ (see 1 Peter 1.3, Second Sunday of Easter)], not from perishable seed [i.e., your biological parents and/or your former way of life oriented to false gods] but from an imperishable one, through the living and enduring word of God [i.e., according to v. 25b, “the enduring word of God … the word proclaimed to you”].


The following are some possible preaching themes:

  • 1 Peter says that liberation from a “futile” way of life (v. 18) comes from Christ’s “precious blood” (v. 19). Here “blood” refers to Jesus’ life poured out at his death. Medieval atonement theories interpret Jesus’ death in terms of ritual, cultic blood-sacrifice. If this text alludes to the Passover story in Exodus, however, lamb’s blood marked the houses of those identified for liberation by God. According to 1 Peter 1.21-25, this liberation is made available through the “living and enduring word of God.” In v. 25, God’s word is the proclamation of the gospel, the content of which is Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. In later tradition, “God’s Word” (capitalized and singular) is the person of Jesus Christ.
  • The revelation of Christ “in or at the last days” (v. 20) characterizes the present time as belonging to the last “age” within the series of God’s saving acts in history. It was the time when God was completing the liberation of all things from “futility,” which God began at the foundation of the world. But why in those days? The assumption is that this was a “corrupt generation” (compare Acts 2.40) and that God was cleaning it up. In one sense, every generation is corrupt, but some generations have earned the right to this title! To some of us, our present time seems to be especially corrupt, due, for example, to its endless wars, the ever widening wealth gap, and the threat to the very survival of human life on this planet. Now more than ever the need is for the revelation of the transforming power of Christ proclaimed in the gospel to liberate this world from futility!
  • One of the ways to liberate this world from futility is the formation and cultivation of Christ-oriented communities. In its own way and in its own time, that’s what 1 Peter aimed to do, with its primary focus on a community of individuals living “holy” lives. As important as that is as the first step, something else is needed today: namely, communities whose practices, instead of depleting the world’s capacity for life, care for this planet and sustain life; whose practices, instead of continuing to support wealth inequality, strive to create a sustainable economy that benefits everyone; and whose practices provide quality healthcare for all. Imagine what a Christ-oriented community would be like in your corner of the world.

 

Luke 24.13-35 [Also see the Gospel reading for Easter Evening (April 12).]
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 by Roman soldiers as the result of collaboration between one of Jesus’ disciples, the Temple authorities, and Pontius Pilate, the regional imperial agent of Rome. Of course they would be “terrified” and “frightened”! Also, not surprisingly, had grave “doubts”! Imperial execution on a cross had crushed their hope that Jesus “was the one to redeem Israel” (v. 24). They might well have asked: Is he the “Messiah” or not? Besides, dead is dead! So, who is this stranger? If it is Jesus, how can he be alive again? 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 (vv. 30-35). This part of the story, which seems to refer to a “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, 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 filled with doubt. It could also be an experience filled with fear, especially if the person’s identity is not clear.

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 the 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 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 (or because?) 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).

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