Third Sunday Of Easter
The post-Easter series of readings from Acts of Apostles continues. On Easter Sunday the Lectionary presented us with a sermon (speech, homily) which Luke attributed to Simon Peter. The context was the conversion of the first Gentiles (non-Jews) to the Christian faith. Today the Lectionary offers us a different sermon attributed to Simon Peter. The context is this. Peter and John went up to the temple at 3:00 p.m. This was one of the set times for prayer. It was also the time for the priests of the temple to offer the evening sacrifice of a lamb. The two disciples encountered a man lame from birth. He was placed daily at a gate of the temple to beg for a living. Peter explained his lack of funds but commanded the man to stand up and walk. In great joy, the formerly handicapped beggar, walking and leaping, entered the temple with Peter and John. This caused a great commotion of people running together and forming a crowd.
Peter addressed the crowd as “Men of Israel,” therefore directed to Jews in the Court of Israelites in the temple. The miracle was accomplished “in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.” Luke’s genius shines in the composition of this speech as he connects the power of Jesus Christ to its source, “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” three Old Testament titles of God. This was an approach devout Jews could understand and could fit into their system of belief. It was that same ancestral God, whom they worshipped, who worked through Jesus Christ to cure this man. Luke depicts Simon Peter blaming the audience of Jewish men for betraying Jesus to Pilate and “sparing a murderer (Barabbas) but killed the Author of Life.” He excuses Pontius Pilate, “who had decided to release him.” (If things had only been that simple!) Luke was clearly appealing to Roman authority to understand that Christians were no threat to the Roman State. This was not many years after the horrendous persecution of Christians in Rome under Nero in the mid-sixties.
That was the bad news. Now the good news. God raised Jesus from the dead. Besides that, “You and your leaders,” (the high priestly families), “acted out of ignorance.” It was all in God’s plan, writes Luke, a plan announced through the mouth of all the Old Testament prophets ( a bit of hyperbole there), “that his Messiah (Christ) would suffer.” Luke intends a reference to the Servant Songs embedded in the second part of the oracles of Isaiah, as was explained in this column for Palm Sunday. The final message to the “Men of Israel”: Repent! The Responsorial Psalm (4), otherwise part of the Church’s official night prayer, assures us that God sees our distress and answers our prayer by “letting his face shine upon us,” (people’s response).
The second reading is taken, as last Sunday, from the First Letter of John. This document was written to a troubled Community in which some denied the divinity of Jesus, while others denied his humanity, as explained in last week’s column. The author instructs his people. He writes “so that you may not commit sin.” But if they do sin, “We have a Paraclete, “ (lawyer for the defense), “with the Father.” Now a profound teaching, Jesus Christ is the expiation (atonement) for our sins and the sins of the whole world, an echo of the Baptizer’s proclamation, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” These Christians had more problems. Some said, “I know him,” but did not keep the commandments. The author brands them as liars. What commandments? Surely what the Gospel of John and the First Letter of John keep emphasizing – the commands of Jesus “to love one another as I have loved you. The symbol of that love in John’s gospel – Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, a servant’s or slave’s duty.
The gospel reading of this Sunday is a sequel to the story of Jesus walking as a stranger with two disciples of his who were returning to Emmaus from their Passover pilgrimage in Jerusalem. Jesus’ sense of humor is evident as he teased them by feigning ignorance about what happened to Jesus of Nazareth in Jerusalem. They invited him to stay with them overnight. At supper, “He took bread, blessed it and broke it and gave it to them.” Then they knew him “in the breaking of the bread,” an early name of the Eucharistic action. The two Emmaus folks returned to Jerusalem and reported the incident to the apostles. At that very moment, Jesus stood among them and said,
“Shalom alachem!” (Peace be with you!) The narrative is not that different in its beginning as last Sunday’s story of Jesus’ first appearance to the apostles hiding behind locked doors. Their reaction was as normal as that of any group seeing among them someone whose execution they had recently witnessed. They were terrified!
Jesus invites them to touch him, check out the wounds in his body. Luke comes up with one of his incompatible expressions. They were “unbelieving out of joy.” This is Luke’s parallel to John’s Doubting Thomas. Jesus eats a piece of baked fish to prove that his body was real. Luke decides that this is a good place to add a catechesis. As the first reading today emphasized the agreement of the oracles of Old Testament prophets with what happened to Jesus, Luke pulls in as witnesses not only the prophets, but all three parts of the Hebrew Old Testament, the Torah (laws of Moses), Prophets, Psalms, (more correctly, the Writings, of which the Psalms are a major part). The Teacher of teachers takes over. “He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.” A list follows of how earliest Christians interpreted their Scriptures as predictions about Jesus. These things had to happen because the Scriptures foretold them – Jesus’ suffering, death, resurrection. And what should they do about it? Proclaim repentance and forgiveness in Jesus’ name throughout the world. It is noteworthy that in both John and Luke the first post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to the disciples proclaims forgiveness.