Divergence on the Lectionary – Third Sunday of Easter, Year B

First Reading

Acts 3:12–19

And when Peter saw it he addressed the people: “Men of Israel, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we have made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him. But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And his name—by faith in his name—has made this man strong whom you see and know, and the faith that is through Jesus has given the man this perfect health in the presence of you all.

“And now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled. Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, (ESV)

Second Reading

1 John 3:1–7

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.

Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. (ESV)

Gospel Text

Luke 24:36–48

As they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, “Peace to you!” But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit. And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate before them.

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. (ESV)

Comments and Questions for Discussion

First Reading

Our reading from Acts this week comprises the second of Peter’s great speeches following Pentecost. This one considerably shorter than the speech on the day of Pentecost, but it bears a marked resemblance even so. It is occasioned by an astounding event, so it begins with an explanation of the phenomenon. In this case the event is the healing of the man lame from birth at the Portico of Solomon. Peter begins by disabusing his hearers of their (assumed) initial notion that the healing was done by him. On Pentecost he contradicts the crowd’s assumption that the disciples were drunk. In this week’s reading Peter then recites recent history concerning Jesus in phrases very similar to those he used at Pentecost, laying the death of Jesus at the feet of his hearers and declaiming His resurrection. In this case, however, there are no lengthy expositions of the Scriptures that prophesied these events. Peter then concludes with his call to repent. At Pentecost he answers the peoples’ request “What shall we do?” with “repent and be baptized.” In this case, because their is not yet any change of heart, Peter says, “repent and turn around.” 

In the book of Acts, Peter and Paul have remarkably parallel careers. Peter’s first great speech  on the Day of Pentecost has its own counterpart in Acts 13, verses 16-41. In order to save you a search, I’ll copy that text here:

Acts 13:16–41

So Paul stood up, and motioning with his hand said:

“Men of Israel and you who fear God, listen. The God of this people Israel chose our fathers and made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt, and with uplifted arm he led them out of it. And for about forty years he put up with them in the wilderness. And after destroying seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance. All this took about 450 years. And after that he gave them judges until Samuel the prophet. Then they asked for a king, and God gave them Saul the son of Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin, for forty years. And when he had removed him, he raised up David to be their king, of whom he testified and said, ‘I have found in David the son of Jesse a man after my heart, who will do all my will.’ Of this man’s offspring God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised. Before his coming, John had proclaimed a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel. And as John was finishing his course, he said, ‘What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. No, but behold, after me one is coming, the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to untie.’

“Brothers, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you who fear God, to us has been sent the message of this salvation. For those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers, because they did not recognize him nor understand the utterances of the prophets, which are read every Sabbath, fulfilled them by condemning him. And though they found in him no guilt worthy of death, they asked Pilate to have him executed. And when they had carried out all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead, and for many days he appeared to those who had come up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people. And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus, as also it is written in the second Psalm,

“‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you.’

And as for the fact that he raised him from the dead, no more to return to corruption, he has spoken in this way,

“‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David.’

Therefore he says also in another psalm,

“‘You will not let your Holy One see corruption.’

For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers and saw corruption, but he whom God raised up did not see corruption. Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses. Beware, therefore, lest what is said in the Prophets should come about:

“‘Look, you scoffers,

be astounded and perish;

for I am doing a work in your days,

a work that you will not believe, even if one tells it to you.’” (ESV)

You won’t have any difficulty recognizing the similarities or seeing that Paul, an educated Pharisee speaks with no greater eloquence than Peter, an ill-educated fisherman. Our speech for this week and these others are Luke’s compositions. They may well reflect the general outline of the preaching of the first generations of Christians, but they aren’t meant to be word-for-word recreations. 

What does this tell us about Luke’s purpose, his goals? First, it seems likely to me that he is writing for an audience that will recognize these rhetorical forms. Of course those are people living as part of the Greco-Roman culture. But beyond that, I find that Luke’s adaptation of another familiar genre in Acts, the historical romance/adventure novel, tells us that he believed his audience to be among those who could afford and actually read fictional books. Not that Luke was writing fiction, but he wrote Acts so as to redefine some of the categories in these historical novels. In the same way that Luke has Paul speak to the Athenians about the altar to the “unknown” god, Luke speaks to his Greco Roman audience and says, “This narrative structure that you like so much, (usually governed by fate) you have the right of it, only the force governing our stories is the Holy Spirit.” 

Luke’s other great project in writing his own Gospel and the second book, Acts, is the bridging of a growing chasm between Jewish and Gentile believers. That goal of his is less evident in our reading this week, but I’m sure it will pop up during other Acts readings during Eastertide.

Second Reading

“Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.”

That’s the song I heard in my head as I contemplated this reading from 1 John.

Some will read it as “Quit sinning or you can’t really love Jesus.” But what John’s saying is, “Cast your eyes on Him, and the rest will follow.” Read again, “…but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” We become like Him because we see Him as He is. The looking is the cause, and it changes us. Like Paul, “… beholding the glory of the Lord… being transformed into the same image, from glory to glory.” 

The author of the epistle is not saying that believers never sin. Obviously. He said earlier that “if we sin, we have an advocate with the Father, etc.” He is saying that someone for whom sin is a way of life simply does not know Jesus. To know Him, to see Him as He is, that makes us like Him, righteous as He is righteous. And then the inclination to sin no longer natural to us. We may still sin out of habit, but this is now an aberration for us, not a way of life. 

In context, it seems likely that the group that has “gone out” from the Johannine community that wrote this letter is living with some kind of “sin” that is evidence that they do not really know the Jesus they think they follow. But this isn’t a condemnation, it’s an explanation. They sin because they don’t look on Him. They don’t know Him.

Gospel Text

The resurrection appearance that we find in our reading for this Sunday is singular in that in it the Risen Jesus goes to considerable lengths to prove that He is not a “spirit” but has “flesh and bones.” Luke’s inclusion of these details has purpose, and that purpose has caused a good deal of scholarly comment, it turns out.

For a good while many thought that in this story Luke is making clear that Jesus did not appear to the disciples as a “ghost.” Belief in ghosts was common in that age, and Luke might have wanted to be clear that this was not such a sighting. It’s been shown, though, that the current language for “ghosts” (phantasma, daimon) differed from the word Luke uses for “spirit” (pneuma), so that is unlikely to be Luke’s concern.

Others have suggested that Luke’s language was specifically designed to contradict teachings of early docetists (who taught that Jesus’ existence was never really physical, but entirely spiritual, he only appeared to be human, dokeo being the word for appear) or Marcionists (who taught that Jesus was an entirely spiritual being sent from the true God in contradiction of everything thought about the Hebrew God, who was violent, inconsistent and jealous). In the case of the docetists, this seems unlikely because Luke’s focus is on Jesus resurrection corporeality, not his entire life, and in the case of the Marcionists it is difficult to maintain because Marcion’s own teachings suggest that during His lifetime, Jesus could be touched, experienced physically. Still, the emphasis on “flesh and bone” in Luke is specifically contrary to Marcion, so that might be correct.

Except that Marcion’s teachings were based on a much shorter, heavily edited version of Luke and ten letters of Paul, including Marcion’s understanding of 1 Corinthians 15. In 1 Cor. 15, Paul goes into great detail about his understanding of the resurrection body, and sets Christ’s resurrection reality as the prototype of our own. In 1 Corinthians Paul argues at length that the resurrection body is “spirit” (pneuma) not “flesh” (sarx). Without getting into too much sleep-inducing detail, the contrast between Luke’s understanding of Jesus’ resurrection body (and therefore ours as well) and Paul’s is stark. For Luke, resurrection includes “flesh and bone,” for Paul it is about “spirit.” 

This is where I would still be unclear about Luke’s primary concern (Was Luke more worried about Paul, or about Marcion’s use of Paul?) except that the author whose article I read went on to show that Luke’s treatment of Paul throughout places him in a position secondary to Peter and the Apostles. It is clear that Luke knew some or many of Paul’s letters, and yet he never assigns the title “apostle” to Paul that Paul assigns to himself. In this resurrection appearance, Luke also seems to be putting Paul’s Damascus experience as somehow secondary to that of Peter and the others of the Eleven. 

I suppose that it could be argued that for Luke, Peter’s is pre-ascension and Paul’s post-ascension, but that seems to be more an explanation of why Luke thinks Paul “got it wrong.” While Paul functions as Peter’s parallel in many ways in Acts, Luke draws a clear distinction between them here. Peter’s experience of the Risen Lord is to be chosen over Paul’s and his explanation of our own resurrections. 

What this means for my understanding of Luke’s concern for the relationship between Jewish and Gentile Christianity is something I’ll be working out, especially once we get into Year C. For the present moment, I am confronted with the reality that Luke and Paul really disagree on the nature of resurrection, and that leaves me the question, where do I fall? Where do you?

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