Apr 15, 2018: 3rd Sunday of Easter (B)

1st Reading – Acts 3:13-15, 17-19

Peter said to the people:
“The God of Abraham,
the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,
the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus,
whom you handed over and denied in Pilate’s presence
when he had decided to release him.
You denied the Holy and Righteous One
and asked that a murderer be released to you.
The author of life you put to death,
but God raised him from the dead; of this we are witnesses.
Now I know, brothers,
that you acted out of ignorance, just as your leaders did;
but God has thus brought to fulfillment
what he had announced beforehand
through the mouth of all the prophets,
that his Christ would suffer.
Repent, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be wiped away.”

One of the distinctive features of Easter season is the absence of the Old Testament from the first readings.  Selections from the Acts of the Apostles replaces them. During the Sundays following Easter, the readings from Acts describe the transformation that took place within the community of believers following the Resurrection.

Today’s reading is part of an impromptu speech that Peter gave in Jerusalem.  Peter has just healed a crippled beggar that he and John encountered on their way to the temple area; this event has attracted an astonished crowd.  It is to this Jewish audience that he speaks.

Peter said to the people: “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,

Peter uses these rich, ancient titles of God (Exodus 3:6, 13, 15) partly to distinguish from the gods of the Gentiles, and partly to show his regard to the God of Israel, the one, only true, and living God.

the God of our ancestors,

Peter and his fellow apostles were preachers of Christ, they were not setting forth another deity; they believed in the same God their forefathers did.

Peter is also identifying with his hearers by referring to the God of their common ancestors.  Later in this passage, he will refer to them as “brothers.”

has glorified his servant Jesus

The same God who first promised descendants and land to the ancestors and who then chose Moses to lead the people to freedom from slavery has now, by means of the resurrection, glorified the crucified Jesus.

The image of Jesus as a glorified servant is a direct reference to Isaiah 52:13-53:12, which would have been seen as a fulfillment of prophecy.  Peter is demonstrating that his christology is rooted in the prophetic tradition of ancient Israel; however, he is simultaneously and radically reinterpreting the earlier traditions and making direct connections where none existed before (for example, connecting the suffering servant tradition with messianic expectations).

whom you handed over and denied in Pilate’s presence, when he had decided to release him.

Three times in Luke’s gospel, Pilate asserted Jesus’ innocence (Luke 23:4, 14, 22).

You denied the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you.

“Holy and Righteous One” is a messianic title. The Messiah they had been hoping for had finally arrived, and the Jews tragically put him in the hands of Pilate, a foreigner.

The author of life you put to death,

The Greek word translated here as “author,” archegos, is translated elsewhere as “prince” or “leader.”

There is a constant play here between the themes of life and death.  Jesus is called the author of life, and yet he was put to death.  Pilate wished to release him, yet instead they pressed him to release one who had taken the life of another.

Peter’s attitude toward the Jews of his time is not a case of anti-Judaism.  He is opposed to those who refuse to accept Jesus as Messiah, not to the religion as a whole.

but God raised him from the dead; of this we are witnesses.

The apostle offer themselves as personal witnesses to the resurrected Christ.

Now I know, brothers, that you acted out of ignorance, just as your leaders did;

Peter identifies with the Jews (“brothers”), but he has dissociated himself from them and their leaders when he accused them of putting Jesus to death.

While Peter places blame for the death of Jesus on his hearers, he also acquits them of some of the guilt that accompanies the deed, ascribing their offense to ignorance.  He seems to be implying that if they had known better they would have acted better (see Luke 23:34).

but God has thus brought to fulfillment what he had announced beforehand through the mouth of all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer.

God’s plan was fulfilled despite of, and even through, their ignorance.

This was foretold long previously by the prophets, but the Jews did not anticipate a suffering Messiah, they usually understood the Suffering Servant Song in Isaiah 52:13-53:12 to refer to their own suffering as a people.

Repent, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be wiped away.”

This is a very interesting pastoral strategy.  As a result of Peter’s acknowledgement of their ignorance, while simultaneously witnessing to the resurrection and his preaching of the good news, they now do know better, and so they should reform their lives.  Now they have no excuse.

It should be noted that repentance does not cause our sins to be pardoned — forgiveness is entirely owing to the free grace of God and the blood of Christ.  Peter is pointing out that such grace can only flow to those who repent and convert.

Responsibility for the death of Jesus, as presented here, is a complicated matter.  From a human point of view, the ignorance of those involved is a mitigating circumstance.  From God’s point of view, Jesus’ suffering and death bring to fulfillment some of the messianic expectations found in the prophetic tradition.  The point of the passage is the power of God to bring life out of death, not the assignment of blame for the death.  The same power that raised Jesus can erase the sin of the offenders, thereby raising them to new life as well.

2nd Reading – 1 John 2:1-5a

My children, I am writing this to you
so that you may not commit sin.
But if anyone does sin, we have an Advocate with the Father,
Jesus Christ the righteous one.
He is expiation for our sins,
and not for our sins only but for those of the whole world.
The way we may be sure that we know him is to keep
his commandments.
Those who say, “I know him,” but do not keep his commandments
are liars, and the truth is not in them.
But whoever keeps his word,
the love of God is truly perfected in him.

We continue our six-week study of John’s first apostolic letter. Today’s reading promotes righteous living and offers encouragement for believers for those times when they stray from righteousness and commit sin.

My children,

The diminutive teknia, translated as “children,” expresses endearment rather than smallness or youth.  In the Scriptures, it is found only in Saint John’s writings.  This address has been considered evidence of the author’s affection for those to whom he writes; and while this may be true, it is also a common address used by teachers in the wisdom tradition for their students (Proverbs 4:1, 5:7).  The message contained in this passage suggests that it should be understood within this context.

I am writing this to you so that you may not commit sin.

Just before this passage, in 1 John 1:9, John wrote: If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing.

Here, he is precluding any abuse of the forgiving grace he has described.

But if anyone does sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ

Believers should take heart.  Try as they might to live righteously, the proclivity to sin is universal.  If they do sin, they have a worthy advocate in Christ, who is in a position to intercede before God on their behalf.

the righteous one.

Christ is described as righteous, despite the fact that he was condemned to death as a criminal.

“There is a problem here. A righteous advocate never takes unrighteous cases, which ours of course are. What can we do, dear brothers? The only way to get around this is to follow what Scripture says: ‘The righteous man accuses himself first of all’ (Proverbs 18:47 in the Septuagint form). Therefore a sinner who weeps over his sins and accuses himself is set on the path of righteousness, and Jesus can take up his case.” [Saint Pope Gregory I the Great (A.D. 593), Homilies on Ezekiel 1,7,24]

He is expiation for our sins,

The shedding of Christ’s blood was, both at the time of his death and throughout time, the sacrificial offering (hilasmós) that atones for sins.

and not for our sins only but for those of the whole world.

The universality of this intercession is clear: the atonement is for the whole world, the entire inhabited world that is subject to sin.

The way we may be sure that we know him is to keep his commandments.

Although knowledge of God is emphasized, this is not an example of Gnosticism, a theory that claims that knowledge itself is salvific.  On the contrary, the passage may actually be a denunciation of the Gnostic point of view, for it insists that the knowledge it champions leads one to observance of God’s commandments.

“Often in the Scriptures the word ‘know’ means not just being aware of something but having personal experience of it. Jesus did not know sin, not because He was unaware of what it is but because He never committed it Himself. For although He is like us in every other way, He never sinned (see Hebrews 4:15). Given this meaning of the word ‘know,’ it is clear that anyone who says that he knows God must also keep His commandments, for the two things go together.” [Didymus the Blind (ca. A.D. 390), Commentary on 1 John]

Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him. 

John goes on to state that anyone who claims knowledge but does not keep the commandments does not possess the truth.  This knowledge of God is an experiential knowledge, a knowledge that results in a relationship with God.  This teaching is in accord with the wisdom tradition, which promotes righteous living.

But whoever keeps his word, the love of God is truly perfected in him.

Although there is some ambiguity regarding the meaning of “the love of God is truly perfected in him,” the context suggests that it refers to the believers’ love for God rather than God’s love for the believers.

There is an eschatological character to this love.  While the instruction clearly urges obedience to God’s commandments in the present time, because human frailty enters in, there is always the all to a more perfect obedience in the future.  This means that the believers’ love of God is being made more and more perfect as they become more and more obedient.

Love is constantly being brought into fulfillment.

Gospel – Luke 24:35-48

The two disciples recounted what had taken place on the way,
and how Jesus was made known to them
in the breaking of bread.

While they were still speaking about this,
he stood in their midst and said to them,
“Peace be with you.”
But they were startled and terrified
and thought that they were seeing a ghost.
Then he said to them, “Why are you troubled?
And why do questions arise in your hearts?
Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself.
Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones
as you can see I have.”
And as he said this,
he showed them his hands and his feet.
While they were still incredulous for joy and were amazed,
he asked them, “Have you anything here to eat?”
They gave him a piece of baked fish;
he took it and ate it in front of them.

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 in the prophets and psalms must be fulfilled.”
Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.
And he said to them,
“Thus it is written that the Christ would suffer
and rise from the dead on the third day
and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins,
would be preached in his name
to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
You are witnesses of these things.”

Today’s gospel reading is the second encounter of the resurrected Jesus in Luke’s gospel.  The first was the Emmaus event (24:13-32), which is briefly mentioned at the opening of this passage.

The two disciples recounted what had taken place on the way and how he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Luke succinctly states that the two disciples in that story recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread.  Though the details are different, this sets the context for the story that follows; the general movement of both accounts that follows are similar.

While they were still speaking about this, he stood in their midst

The text does not clearly identify who is present for this experience of the risen Lord, but it is presumed to be a relatively large group of both women and men (Luke 24:33).

and said to them, “Peace be with you.”

Jesus addresses them with the customary Jewish greeting: shalom.

According to Jewish Prayer: The Origins of Christian Liturgy by Carmine DiSante (Paulist Press, New York, 1985), shalom means much more than mere absence of conflict; it also indicates a wish for welfare, blessing, grace, lovingkindness and mercy.

But they were startled and terrified and thought that they were seeing a ghost.

Did they recognize Jesus, but didn’t know what to make of his appearance, since they knew he had been killed?  This is very different than the Emmaus event, where the two disciples walked with the Lord, listened as he explained the Scriptures, yet did not recognize him until the breaking of the bread.

Then he said to them, “Why are you troubled? And why do questions arise in your hearts?

Jesus rebukes them for having doubts.

Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself.  

He dispels any question of his identity.  It is really the same person whom they had known before, the one who was crucified and died on the cross.

Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have.”  And as he said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 

He also removes any doubt that he is actually alive.  He is not a ghost; his body is real.

While they were still incredulous for joy and were amazed,

Literally, “they disbelieved for joy.”

They had been prepared for the belief of resurrection by the report of the women, the relation of Simon Peter, and the account of the two disciples that came from Emmaus; yet such was their joy upon seeing the evidence for themselves, the news was so good that they could scarcely believe their own senses.

he asked them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of baked fish; he took it and ate it in front of them.

In his glorified state, Jesus didn’t have a need for food.  He did this to provide further proof that he was not a ghost; he truly was risen from the dead in a real body which was capable of eating.

He said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, 

Jesus again asserts that he is the same person who was their companion before the crucifixion.

that everything written about me in the law of Moses and in the prophets and psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.

Having assured the disciples of his bodily resurrection, Jesus proceeds to explain his suffering and death by turning to the Scriptures.

He reminds them of what he told them previously, maintaining that all three major parts of the Bible (the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms) contain traditions that he fulfills.

And he said to them, “Thus it is written that the Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, 

Their eyes have beheld the risen Lord; now their minds are opened to the profound meaning of their religious tradition.  Jesus shows them how his own story fulfills the story found in the Scriptures.

would be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.

Jesus underscores the universality of his message of salvation and the privilege that Jerusalem enjoys as the place from which this salvific preaching will be launched.

You are witnesses of these things.

Jesus then announces that those present will be witnesses to these marvels.

Connections and Themes

Easter. The readings during the Easter season all geared toward the mystagogical catechesis, the instruction that unpacks the hidden mystery experienced in the sacraments of initiation received or renewed on Easter. The chosen readings provide us an extended meditation on the mystery of the resurrection and on our own incorporation into that resurrection through the mysteries of initiation.

The first sentence of the Gospel reading sets the context for the themes of today: they recognized him “in the breaking of the bread.”  Like the first disciples, we too recognize him in the breaking of the bread.  But who is it that we recognize?  And what does this recognition require of us?

Who is he?   Jesus is situated at the heart of Israel’s most cherished traditions.  He is the servant of the God of the early ancestors, the long-awaited Messiah, the innocent sufferer portrayed in the prophetic tradition.  He is a real person, rooted in the religious history of a real people.  He is the fulfillment of their deepest aspirations.  When the disciples, who themselves were rooted in these traditions, recognized the risen Lord in the breaking of the bread, their eyes were opened to the meaning of this heritage.  For them, the sacramental meal was an occasion of mystagogical catechesis.

When we gather around the table for the same sacramental meal, we too encounter the risen Lord.  There the sacred traditions of our religious heritage are opened for us and we too are enabled to recognize him in the traditions and in the breaking of the bread.

What is required?   In order to encounter the risen Lord in the breaking of the bread in the breaking open of the word, we need docile hearts ready to embrace the deepest meaning of our religious heritage.  We need hearts that have been purified in the love of God; hearts that have been totally transformed.  If we profess faith but are not truly faithful, we are liars.  What does it mean to be faithful today?  What does the commandment of love require of us?  Jesus did not turn away from those where closest to him yet who did not understand him.  Instead, he invited them to an even more intimate communion.  The commandment of love requires nothing less from us.  We must love those who are distant and those who are close, those who might reject us and those who misunderstand us.  We must love totally, as God loves.

Having recognized the risen Lord, we, like the people described in the first reading, must live reformed lives.

Having recognized the risen Lord, we, like the people addressed in the second reading, must be obedient to God’s commandment of love.

Having recognized the risen Lord, we, like the disciples portrayed in the Gospel, must preach the good news of God’s forgiveness to all nations.

Easter faith assures us that all of this is possible.  God has looked favorably upon us; the Easter mystery now unfolds in our midst.

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