THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, your Son makes himself known to all his disciples in the breaking of bread. Open the eyes of our faith, that we may see him in his redeeming work, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Rightly or wrongly, the lectionary makers have aligned the Easter resurrection accounts from the gospels with our earliest testimony to the infancy of the church recorded in the Book of Acts. This blurring of the lines between the seasons of Easter and Pentecost is perhaps a good thing. It reinforces the New Testament insistence that the resurrection of Jesus Christ makes a difference. In today’s reading from Acts, the consequence of conversion on the part of those who heard Peter’s Pentecost sermon was that “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Acts 2:43. The word translated “devoted” in the English Bible is the Greek word, “proskartereo,” meaning “to continue in or with.” Thus, the believers who responded in faith to Peter’s preaching did not simply shake his hand, tell him he had preached fine sermon and then go home to chow down on buffalo wings and watch the game. They stuck around. They continued to engage with the apostles by learning the scriptures, strengthening their fellowship through Eucharistic meals and praying together. They grew together as church by engaging together in these ancient disciplines of study, common meals and prayer. That is because conversion is a lifetime project that involves weaning oneself away from social, political and moral norms governing the culture in which we are born and being formed by and within the culture of God’s reign into the image of Christ.
The word “conversion” has taken on unsavory overtones in recent years. In common parlance it is almost synonymous with “brain washing.” Only fanatical cults seek to convert people. Legitimate religious organizations employ civil and logical presentations of their beliefs in a spirit of openness-or cool programming for youth, cheap bus trips to Amish country for seniors and free coffee and donuts for all. To some extent, I agree with the mainline churches’ general reluctance to use the term “conversion” in describing the church’s mission to make disciples of all nations. Conversion is a violent and manipulative process when it involves one person seeking to convert another to his or her faith. I suspect that most of us have at one time or another encountered someone who has tried to “save” us. But that is not the sort of conversion we see in the New Testament church. It is not the apostles, but the Lord who converts people to faith in Jesus. Acts 2:47. Moreover, conversion is not a matter of one person’s making up his or her mind about whether to be a disciple of Jesus. Conversion is the lifetime process, communal and individual, undergone by persons called by the Spirit through the preaching of the word to the life of discipleship. As Paul says, “Do not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind…” Romans 12:2. To be sure, we invite enthusiastically everyone we meet to join us in this process of conversion, but it is the Spirit alone who decides whether a person accepts that invitation-or not.
According to the Book of Acts, effective preaching (and all aspects of the church’s mission for that matter) is necessarily grounded in the same faithful practices of study, Eucharist and prayer that sustained the initial converts in the second chapter of that book. Before the launch of the mission on Pentecost, the disciples themselves had been fully and faithfully engaged in these practices. Acts 1:14. In other words, the disciples were undergoing the very process of conversion to which they would soon be inviting the rest of the world. These practices, along with a communal lifestyle intolerant of poverty, selfishness and deceit formed a community reflecting an alternate reality, a radically different culture, a new way of living that proved irresistible and lent credibility to the apostles’ preaching. Of course, the community was hardly perfect. Like the church in every other age, the New Testament church had members who were less than fully committed, members that gamed the system and took more than they contributed, members who deserted when the going got tough and members who saw the church as an opportunity to gain power and control over others. But in spite of all that, the world could still see the reign of God for which the church longed and to which it witnessed. To sum it up, people were drawn to the church as much by what they saw as by what they heard.
That might go a long way toward explaining why us mainliners are bleeding out rather than growing. Understand that I am not concerned here with numbers. Jesus never promised and never envisioned a large church with unquestioned cultural support. It would hardly be a setback for the reign of God if the church were to shrink by 90% or more in membership, as long as the remaining 10% continue to be shaped by study of the scriptures, Eucharist and prayer. But therein lies the rub. I fear that too much of our evangelical outreach is aimed at recapturing our market share, preserving institutions we built in the age of our cultural dominance and protecting our real estate assets and professional turf. Too often our evangelism appears to be “market based” and designed to appeal to the demographic we are trying to reach, i.e, millennials, families (however defined), ethnic groups, etc. Of course, the gospel invitation goes out to all of these groups, but tailoring our mission to their needs, wants and preferences results in precisely the opposite of what Paul calls for in his letter to the Romans: be transformed, not conformed.
Notwithstanding my church’s (ELCA’s) production of many fine adult Bible Study resources, our adult population is, in my own experience, woefully ignorant of the scriptures generally. To be clear, this is not an affliction solely of the younger generations. I am finding increasingly among my own contemporaries and older church members people who cannot retell iconic biblical stories, remember parables of Jesus or even recite the Ten Commandments with any degree of accuracy.
Maybe that explains why 81% of those who identify as evangelical Christians managed to vote for and continue to support a president who bragged about criminally assaulting young girls, systematically discriminated against people of color in his real estate business, bullied, insulted and encouraged violent attacks against his critics throughout his campaign. Perhaps that is why people who identify as Christians can call for mass deportation of “aliens” whom the Bible tells us we must treat compassionately and love as we love ourselves. Leviticus 19:34. The vast majority of self-identified Christians have lost the capacity to distinguish between a bland American middle class morality designed to protect white male privilege and the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount. Either these folks have no clue what is actually in the Bible or they just don’t care. No wonder they fall prey to halfwits like Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, Jr., Mike Huckabee and the sick religion they peddle as Christianity.
But let’s not get too carried away pointing our fingers at the ignorant masses. All of this begs the question: why are they ignorant? It seems to me that those of us who have been called to preach, teach and administer the sacraments have some explaining to do (particularly, those of us who have been at it for the last thirty-five years!). After all, as I have said many times before, the Bible is a complex and layered book. It isn’t self-explanatory. It can only be understood rightly when preached and taught out of a community formed under its influence. If there were no Israel and no church, the Bible would be only another literary curiosity of interest to historians, archeologists and professors of ancient religion, but no one else. The sad fact is that most of our churches are not sufficiently formed by biblical preaching and teaching to be effective witnesses. Or, in the words of one of our seminary presidents, “most of our people remain unconverted.” That is our true existential threat, not loss of members. The church doesn’t need more members. It needs disciples. For the most part, our churches are neither producing nor attracting disciples.
I honestly don’t know how we get ourselves off the corporate self-preservation track and back onto the conversion track. I don’t believe the answer lies in rolling out a new worship leadership program, a new Bible study curriculum or (God forbid!) a new hymnal. I am not convinced that the answer lies with us and I don’t know where else to look for it. But I think that a return to earnest study of scripture, frequent Eucharist and constant prayer is likely the best place to begin. It would at least give the Holy Spirit some room to work with us and forge us into a Body.
Here’s a poem by Wendell Berry. It reflects, I think, the quality and depth of relationship generated by the church’s faithful practices and absolutely required to sustain a witnessing community.
The Handing Down
Speaker and hearer, words
making a passage between them,
begin a community.
in succession, grandfather
and grandson, they sit and talk
on the enclosed porch,
looking out at the town, which
takes its origin in their talk
and is carried forward
Their conversation has
no pattern of its own,
but alludes casually
To a shaped knowledge
In the minds of two men
Who love each other.
The quietness of knowing in common
is half of it. Silences come into it
easily, and break it
while the old man thinks
or concentrates on his pipe
and the strong smoke
climbs over the brim of his hat.
He has lived a long time.
He has seen the changes of times
and grown used to the world
again. Having been wakeful so long,
the loser of so many years
his mind moves back and forth,
sorting and counting
among all he knows.
His memory has become huge,
and surrounds him,
and fills his silences.
He lifts his head
and speaks of an old day
that amuses him or grieves him
Under the windows opposite them
there’s a long table, loaded
with potted plants, the foliage
staining and shadowing the daylight
as it comes in.
Source: Poetry Magazine, (c. 1965 by Wendell Berry). Wendell Berry is a poet, novelist, farmer and environmental activist. Born in 1934, Berry lives in Port Royal, Kentucky near his birthplace, where he has maintained a farm for over 40 years. He holds deep reverence for the land and is a staunch defender of agrarian values. He is also the author of over 40 books of poetry, fiction, and essays. You can read more about him and his many works at the
This week’s lesson is a continuation of Peter’s Pentecost sermon, part of which we heard last week. For an outline of Peter’s argument, see my post of April 23rd. The sermon concludes with the bold declaration: “Let all the house of Israel therefore know assuredly that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Vs. 36. The crowd responds in the only way possible where credence is given to such a message: “What shall we do?” vs. 37. What is left to be done when you discover that God has offered you his best and you have rejected it? Repentance might seem like the natural response, but it is hardly that. How can one repent after having thrown God’s greatest gift back in God’s face? You have passed the point of no return and now there is no going back-unless God makes a way of return. That is the gospel: God responds to the crucifixion of Jesus by raising him up and offering him back to us, the same people who murdered him.
Again, care must be taken to avoid giving this text an anti-Semitic slant. Peter does not lay responsibility for the crucifixion solely on his fellow Jews. Though Jews, to be sure, this group is made up of pilgrims from all nations. Acts 2:5-11. They may or may not have been in Jerusalem for Passover when Jesus was tried, convicted and executed. More to the point, their diversity foreshadows the church’s worldwide mission soon to include the gentiles. The gentiles are no less in need of the gospel than are the Jews. It is the sin of the world that put Jesus on the cross and the sin of the world that is overcome by the cross. All people are implicated in Jesus’ death on the cross just as all people are so reconciled. The Jews bear no more guilt than the rest of us for what transpired in Jerusalem two thousand years ago. We would be naïve to assume that Jesus would have fared any better had he come to the United States of the 21st Century rather than 1st Century Palestine. (Though, of course, we would put him down by lethal injection rather than by crucifixion and so to that extent, I suppose we can say that we have progressed a little over the ways of Rome.) Repentance, then, is a gift of the Holy Spirit poured out upon all flesh. It is freedom to turn away from our death dealing ways to the alternative life Jesus offers to us.
“…be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Vs. 38. Much energy has been expended in speculation over how baptism might have been practiced in the early church and whether a Trinitarian formula was used or merely the name of Jesus. I am not particularly interested in those arguments. What we know is that the Trinitarian baptismal formula was around from at least the writing of Matthew’s gospel toward the end of the 1st Century. There isn’t a scrap of textual evidence to support the spurious supposition that this formula was a later addition to the text. Moreover, the church has consistently spoken of “baptism into Christ” throughout history without implying anything less than fully Trinitarian baptism. There seems to me no sound theological reason to baptize in anything less than God’s Trinitarian Name. As to Peter’s call for his hearers to be baptized “into the name of Jesus,” I agree with St. Basil:
“Let no one be misled by the fact of the apostle’s frequently omitting the name of the Father and of the Holy Spirit when making mention of baptism, or on this account imagine that the invocation of the names is not observed. As many of you, he says, as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ; and again, as many of you as were baptized into Christ were baptized into his death. For the naming of Christ is the confession of the whole, showing forth as it does the God who gave, the Son who received, and the Spirit who is, the unction.” De Spiritu Sancto, 12:28.
“For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him.” Vs. 39. This declaration echoes Isaiah 57:19 and Ephesians 2:13-17 emphasizing the breadth of the promise which, referring back to the citation to Joel 2:28-32 at Acts 2:17-21, is the promise of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Something more than terror, sorrow and regret is required for true repentance. In the end, the penitent must cry out, “create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” Psalm 51:10. Pentecost is God’s affirmative response to that petition. As Peter points out, his hearers are witnesses to God’s pouring out his Spirit “upon all flesh.” Vs. 17. As Peter will soon learn in Acts 10, “all flesh” is a category far broader than he now imagines.
The prominent Hebrew Scripture scholar, Walter Brueggemann would probably call this a psalm of “new orientation” described in this way: “…the psalms regularly bear witness to the surprising gift of new life just when none had been expected. That new orientation is not a return to the old stable orientation, for there is no such going back. The psalmists know that we can never go home again. Once there has been an exchange of real candor, as there is here between Yahweh and Israel, there is no return to the precandor situation.” Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms-A Theological Commentary, (c. 1984 by Augsburg Publishing House) pp. 123-124.
Our psalm for Sunday fits this description to a tee. Formally, it is a prayer of thanksgiving offered by a person who has just come through a very difficult time in his or her life and has reached a level of recovery. It might well be sung by someone who has endured a long and difficult tour of cancer therapy and received news that he or she is finally “cancer free.” Or it might be heard on the lips of someone who has gone through a difficult divorce that brought to an end a relationship that was supposed to last until death, and thereafter found the way back from heartbreak and despair to a healed life of love and trust. This psalm could be the song of a recovered alcoholic or the survivor of an abusive relationship.
The psalm does not explain what caused the psalmist’s suffering. Nor does it suggest that the psalmist is somehow at fault or that his or her suffering is part of some greater plan. Sometimes suffering just is. There is no explanation for it, but one thing is clear. The psalmist knows that God has not deserted him or her throughout the dark times. God has been present all along the difficult journey from darkness into light. It is important to understand, as Brueggemann observes, that this journey does not take the psalmist back to “the way things were.” The scars of surgery remain even after a full recovery. Life after divorce can be filled with love, life and hope-but it does not restore the relationship that was lost. There is no way back to the way things were. There is only the way forward into a better future that God promises. That promise lies at the core of our Easter faith.
The “cup of salvation in verse 13 likely refers to the thank offering given in response to God’s answer to his/her cry for salvation. See Numbers 28:7. It could also simply be a metaphor describing the psalmist’s experience of salvation. Either way, it is a graphic expression of thanksgiving.
“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” Vs. 15. The Hebrew is difficult, but the meaning appears to be that God protects his “saints” (righteous ones) from an untimely death. Such persons must die eventually, but God experiences acutely their passing.
The dating of this psalm is difficult and scholars are divided over whether it was composed before or after the Babylonian Exile. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 101-150, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 81. As I have often said before, these psalms have undergone a lengthy history of editing and revision to make them relevant to each succeeding generation. Consequently, the pre or post-exilic dating controversy may be one of degree. Perhaps it is a matter of both/and rather than either/or.
The opening verse is a little off setting. The reference to God as one who judges everyone impartially according to deeds rubs my Lutheran sensibilities the wrong way. I believe, however, that it was probably heard altogether differently by slaves, women and the poor living in a strictly hierarchical society where class distinctions, the privileges they confer and the burdens they impose went largely unquestioned. A God whose eye is blind to class distinctions, but sharply focused on justice and righteousness offers hope to the oppressed even as he threatens the position of the oppressor. Furthermore, a community that values slaves and free, men and women, rich and poor as indispensable members of the one Body of Christ cannot help but undermine the hierarchical culture in which it exists. Not surprisingly, then, the powers that be eyed this odd community with suspicion.
“You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” Vss. 18-19. The Greek word rendered “ransomed,” was used for the manumission of slaves in Greco-Roman culture. The slave’s price could be deposited by the person wishing to redeem him/her in the temple of the local god or goddess. The temple, in turn, would pay the slave’s owner and the slave would henceforth be regarded as free from his/her master, but a slave to the god whose temple paid the manumission price. Beale, G.K. and Carson, D.A., Commentary on the New Testament use of the Old Testament, (c. 2007 by G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson; pub. by Baker Academic) pp. 1018-1019. So also these believers to whom Peter writes have been bought with the blood of Christ from the tyranny of “futile ways inherited from your fathers.” Vs. 18.
Peter’s reference to “futile ways” suggests that the churches to which he writes are primarily gentile in composition. The Greek adjective translated as “futile” is used throughout the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) to modify words for pagan idols and temples. Ibid. 1019. Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that the pre-Christian lifestyle of these believers was pagan rather than Jewish. Nonetheless, it is worth remembering that the cultural line of demarcation between Jew and gentile was not as sharply drawn throughout the far flung regions of the empire as it was in Palestine. Certainty about the composition of these churches, therefore, is impossible to establish.
Redemption by the blood of a lamb is deeply rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures. While it is impossible to link this assertion to any particular text, it seems to me that Peter must have the Exodus/Passover narrative in mind. Although the Passover meal does not have anything to do with the remission of sin, that does not seem to be Peter’s emphasis here. The point he makes is that the believers to whom he writes have been rescued from slavery to their “futile” and destructive lifestyles by God’s costly act of deliverance. Like the Exodus of old, this redemption of the church was not in any sense her own doing. It was brought about by the victory won for her through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The story of Jesus’ appearance to Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus is found only in Luke’s gospel. There are two towns identified in the literature of antiquity as “Emmaus.” One is twenty miles from Jerusalem and the other is about four miles away. Given that the two disciples made the round trip in a single day, the latter is almost certainly the one to which Luke refers. Travel was hazardous along country roads connecting cities and villages in 1st Century Palestine. Bandits frequently attacked lone travelers as Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan illustrates. It would not be unusual for travelers to seek safety in numbers and quite natural that a single traveler would join a group of two for that reason.
It is evident that these two disciples have discounted the testimony of the women concerning the message of the angels at Jesus’ tomb. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” Vs. 21. The cross represents for these two disciples a ruined hope. Jesus begins employing the scriptures to place the cross in a new context for them. He argues from the scriptures that, so far from signaling defeat, the cross represents the fulfilment of God’s redemptive purpose. It was “necessary” that the messiah should suffer. As I indicated last week in connection with Peter’s Pentecost sermon, we need to take care in discussing the “necessity” of Jesus’ crucifixion. Once again, the crucifixion was not necessary to satisfy God’s need to see sin properly punished. The necessity arises from Jesus’ determination to be genuinely human in a violent and inhuman world. The cross was the cost of Jesus’ faithfulness to his Father’s will in the midst of a sinful world. It is a cost shared by all who follow Jesus.
We are not told what the disciples expected in terms of Israel’s redemption. Whatever those expectations were, they were too small. We can hear echoes here of Isaiah where the Lord says of Israel and his prophet, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the preserved of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6. That, indeed, will be the theme throughout the Book of Acts as the church breaks out of its ethnic shell to embrace the ends of the earth. One cannot read the Gospel of Luke without encountering at every turn premonitions of its sequel.
This narrative again reinforces the nature and purpose of the Bible as faithful testimony to Jesus as Messiah and God’s Son. Jesus and only Jesus can interpret the scriptures for the church and the scriptures are rightly interpreted for the church only as testimony to Jesus. I cannot overstate the importance of making this point at every available opportunity because the Bible is probably the most misunderstood, misused and blatantly abused piece of literature on the face of the earth. It has been claimed as the source of moral norms for the western world; a full proof guide to financial planning; a handbook on marriage/child rearing; a political/social manifesto for America; an oracle for divining the end of the world and probably much more. The Bible does not claim to be any such thing and whoever asserts that it does obviously has never read it. But don’t get me started on that.
“Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” Vs. 30. There is something so pure, so innocent and so beautiful about this simple request. It is hardly surprising that it has found its way into our liturgy for evening prayer. See Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 309. That Jesus is finally made known to these disciples in the breaking of the bread is of course pregnant with Eucharistic imagery. Not only the identity of Jesus, but also the meaning of the scriptures becomes clear to the disciples as they recall how their “hearts burned” as Jesus interpreted them. Vs. 32. Although meal fellowship is important in all of the gospels, it is particularly emphasized in Luke. In Luke’s gospel Jesus seems always to be coming from or going to a meal. He dines with outcasts and tax collectors as well as with distinguished religious leaders. Jesus’ practice of meal hospitality extends to crowds of five thousand. It is fitting, then, that the disciples should finally connect the dots at the table where Jesus presides.