Resurrection of the Lord
March 31, 2013
Easter Morning Service:
Easter Evening Service (not Vespers):
Commentary on the Texts
Since this 24th chapter of Luke is so well used in the Lectionary, some of the commentary is repeated from other readings. However, each reading contains a different emphasis, so additional and more detailed information on some aspects is available in the other commentaries listed above.
The resurrection narrative in Luke 24 consists of five smaller stories:
(1) the discovery of the empty tomb by the women (vv. 1-12)
(2) appearance of Jesus to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (vv. 13-35)
(4) the commissioning of the eleven (vv. 44-49)
(5) the ascension of Jesus (vv. 50-53).
There are several parallels between the resurrection narrative in Luke 24 and the birth narrative in chapters 1 and 2. The most noteworthy is the fact that both narratives are situated in Jerusalem. On several occasions the importance of Jerusalem in the Lukan account has been noted in the Lectionary readings from Luke.
The historic significance of Jerusalem is of great concern for Luke. Luke cannot tell the story of Jesus and the early church without setting it within the context of Jerusalem, thus tying Jesus and the church to the story of God's redemptive work in Israel symbolized by the city of Jerusalem. In the commissioning of the disciples (24:44-49) Jerusalem is specifically mentioned as the place where the proclamation of the gospel is to be launched (v. 47). The city with so much history and the place where Jesus was executed was to become the center from which the missionary activity of the church was to originate and spread in ever-widening circles (Acts 1:8).
Another significant parallel between the birth and resurrection narratives is the role of women. Elizabeth, Mary, and Anna have primary roles in the birth narrative. In the account of the resurrection, it is again women who have primary roles in the divine drama.
Luke tells us that these women followed Jesus from Galilee and watched him die on the cross (23:49). The Greek word for "follow" is the usual word used for a disciple, except that Luke adds a prefix to the verb. It seems that Luke wants the readers to understand these women to be disciples of Jesus. The women are not named in chapter 23, but in 24:10 we learn that it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, the mother of James, and some others. In 8:1-3 several women are mentioned who provided financial support to Jesus and the apostles: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, "and many others." A textual variant in 8:3 using the singular pronoun instead of the plural implies that they were supporting Jesus rather than the apostles. In the final chapter of the Gospel it is the women who first discover the empty tomb and receive the message of the angels that Jesus has been raised. Even though the apostles were to be witnesses to the resurrection (Acts 1:22), they seem to be in disarray while the women disciples are on hand to receive the joyful news.
Discovery of the empty tomb by the women (Luke 24:1-12)
The story of the empty tomb begins with a reference to the spices that the women had prepared. The previous passage, the account of the burial of Jesus (23:50-56), ends with the note that the women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph of Arimathea and saw the tomb and how the body of Jesus was laid. This comment is intended to demonstrate that the women knew the exact tomb where Jesus was placed. There was no possibility of mistaking the tomb. Having prepared spices and ointments, they rested on the Sabbath according to the commandment and as soon as the Sabbath was over they came to embalm the body of Jesus for proper burial.
It is puzzling that no one expected a resurrection even though Jesus is reported to have predicted his death and resurrection on several occasions (9:22; 18:33). Luke explains in 18:34 that Jesus' followers "understood nothing about all these things; in fact, what he said was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said." Here is a good example of the nature of prophecy and fulfillment. The disciples come to understand the full significance of what Jesus foretold only after the events have happened. The gospels were written from the perspective of the faith of the disciples after they experienced the actual events of Jesus' death and resurrection, and that faith informed and shaped the gospel story as we have it. There is a dynamic interplay between event, faith, and the final shape of the biblical text.
While the women were perplexed about their discovery that the stone had been rolled away, two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The reference to the two men is reminiscent of the transfiguration story (Luke 9) which tells of the appearing of Moses and Elijah, except that in that story it is Jesus who is in dazzling clothes. In the story of the resurrection, Jesus is not even present. In Acts 1, Luke will tell the story of Jesus' ascension, at which time there is also the appearing of two men in bright clothes. In both the resurrection and the ascension accounts, the two men pronounce a mild reprimand in the form of a question that starts with "why?". To the women at the tomb they say, "Why do you look for the living among the dead?" To the apostles in Acts 1 they say, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?" In each case the human characters are chided for looking for Jesus in the wrong place. Jesus is not in the tomb, and he is not to be sought by gazing into the sky. He is alive and present in ways that these followers of Jesus will soon discover in the events that are about to transpire.
The good news that these angelic beings announce is that Jesus is not in the grave. That was of course obvious to the women. The more significant word of the angels is their admonition that the women remember what Jesus had said while he was in Galilee, namely, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again. The act of remembering is all-important in the biblical tradition. Throughout Scripture, there is repeated admonition to remember words and events from the past. In fact, one of the pitfalls of humankind is that too quickly they forget what God had said or done. God on the other hand does not forget. God remembers and is faithful to His covenant. Psalms 105 and 106 represent a stark contrast between God's act of remembering and Israel's tendency to forget. The empty tomb will mean nothing unless the women and the other disciples remember what Jesus had said while he was in Galilee. The event of the empty tomb can be understood and interpreted only in light of what the message of Jesus had been throughout his life. The death and resurrection of Jesus are not isolated events. They are part of the ongoing activity of God in history. Each new event in this story must be understood in the context of earlier events and words.
Note the word "must" in verse 7: "the Son of Man must (emphasis mine) be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again." The death and resurrection of Jesus are not accidents of history. The death of Jesus was not merely the result of human decisions, even though human decisions played a crucial role. There was a divine purpose at work. "Must" implies divine necessity. Herein lies a great mystery. On one hand, human beings brought about the death of Jesus. Yet, in that very death the purposes of God were accomplished. Human beings are responsible for the death of Jesus. It is not God who brings about the death of His Son. Yet, when Jesus is crucified by the hands of sinners, God has not ceased His activity in the events of history. Even this awful death becomes the arena of God's work in the world. This is so because the story does not end with the death of Jesus. There is a sequel. God raises Jesus from the dead and thereby writes another chapter in the history of salvation. There will be a tomorrow because the grave is not the end.
"Then they remembered his words" (v. 8). The women respond in faith by remembering the words of Jesus. They believe the message of the angels by remembering what Jesus said and they go to tell the eleven and the others the good news. But, alas, their words "seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them" (v. 11). The women believe, but the eleven apostles do not! Luke, who gives so much prominence to the apostles in the Gospel and in Acts, is candid enough to point out the failure of human leaders in the story. Sometimes commentators take the position that the apostles did not believe the women precisely because they were women, as if the result would have been different had the report of the resurrection been brought by men. The problem is not that women were involved. The problem is that the apostles did not remember what Jesus had said.
In spite of their disbelief, Peter apparently believes the women enough that he runs to the tomb and sees the linen cloths and goes home amazed at what had happened. His response is still less than genuine faith. Amazement falls short of authentic faith. The crowds who saw the miracles of Jesus could be amazed but still not become disciples. Discipleship requires commitment, trust, and obedience; amazement does not.
Appearance of Jesus to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35)
The story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (vv. 13-35) raises several issues about the resurrection of Jesus that are significant for our understanding of the nature of Christian faith. Jesus walks with them but they do not recognize him at first. How will the resurrected Lord be recognized and faith arise in the disciples?
Two things happen in the story that lead the two disciples into faith. First, Jesus opens the Scriptures to them and interprets the events of his death and resurrection in light of the Scriptures. Reflecting on that experience, the two disciples later say to each other, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?" (v. 32). The new events of the death and resurrection of Jesus are understood in light of the earlier biblical tradition. Likewise, when Jesus appears to the eleven and commissions them (vv. 36-49), he opens their minds to understand the Scriptures. "[E]verything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled" (v. 44). When we encounter new movements and events in our life as individuals or as the corporate body of the church, it is essential that we bring biblical perspectives into the picture to understand and evaluate what is happening. The initial step for the two disciple on the Emmaus road and the eleven apostles was to have their understanding of the events of Jesus' death and resurrection brought into the light of Scripture.
The resurrected Jesus is experienced and understood not only in light of Scripture, but also in the breaking of bread. "When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight" (vv. 30-31). There is here a clear allusion to the Lord's Supper. In the Eucharist, the presence of Jesus is recognized. So also in the early church, believers devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers (Acts 2:42). The presence of the resurrected Lord is experienced and nurtured through regular participation in the breaking of bread. Holy Communion is the means of grace whereby we share in the resurrected life of Jesus.
It is also significant that when the two disciples in Emmaus recognize the Lord, he vanishes from their sight. When they recognize him, they no longer see him. They must understand and live by the power of the presence of Jesus, not through physical eyes and tangible experiences, but through the eyes of faith, the proclamation of the gospel, and continued faithfulness to the mission of Jesus in the world.
Appearance of Jesus to the eleven and their companions (Luke 24:36-43).
In the third episode in Luke 24, Jesus appears to the eleven and bestows his peace on them (vv. 36-43). In the midst of their terror, uncertainty, failures, and doubts, the presence of Jesus meant peace. The main thrust of this passage, however, lies elsewhere. The point of this story seems to be about the nature of resurrection. Jesus assures the disciples that he is not a ghost, that he has flesh and bones. To prove the point, Jesus eats a piece of broiled fish. It is important to understand the significance of this story. The resurrected Jesus is not simply a spiritual entity. He is the one who suffered and was crucified.
The resurrection does not divorce Jesus from his previous life on earth. There is continuity between the earthly Jesus and the resurrected Lord. The body of Jesus that was subjected to torture and death has been brought back to life by God's power. And it is this very body that has been raised from the grave. Luke may be counteracting a Greek philosophical dualism that thought of humanity in terms of body and soul (see Body and Soul). The body is evil, but the soul is good. In this conception, the soul of Jesus escaped death and returned to immortality. There was no physical resurrection. Luke demonstrates that the resurrection of Jesus was not merely the immortality of his spirit or soul. His resurrection was the reversal of all that sinful humanity has done. Luke affirms the bodily resurrection of Jesus. This is not a mere resuscitation, however. God acted decisively in history by raising Christ from the dead, thereby doing something new in history. The resurrection of Jesus is victory over the power of death and sin. In the name of Jesus who died and was raised forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed to all nations (v. 47).
Where are we to look for the living Christ? How do we find him? On what basis do we proclaim that Jesus is risen? Luke 24 offers some answers to these questions. Some Christians want to build their faith on solid proofs. For them, the empty tomb offers one such proof. But if that is the sole basis of faith, it is not enough. Early on, there were other ways to explain the empty tomb, such as the suggestion that his disciples stole the body (Matthew 28). While the empty tomb has certainly become a significant piece of the story in the gospels, it alone is not enough to bring certainty, meaning, and understanding needed for Christian faith and life. The resurrection of Jesus must be understood as part of the totality of God's activity through Jesus. The angels tell the women to remember the word of Jesus. In word and sacrament, the church finds ways to remember what Jesus said. Without the word of Jesus about the kingdom of God and his call to us to take up our cross and follow him as disciples, the message of the resurrection loses much of its power and significance.
The resurrection was God's vindication of Jesus. His rejection, humiliation, and death at the hands of the Jewish and Roman hierarchy are not the final chapter. God has acted to reverse all that humanity has done to silence Jesus. The proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus is in effect a claim that his message and earthly life have divine approval and therefore must be heeded. That becomes the basis of Christian faith and life.
The resurrection of Jesus was a new beginning for the disciples. Their hopes and understanding had been dashed to pieces when they saw their master delivered into the hands of Roman authorities and executed. "We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel," they said (v. 21). They were filled with uncertainty, misunderstanding, and hopelessness. They could not even believe the witness of the women that the tomb was empty and that Jesus had been raised. Their life was shattered. Their assumptions about Jesus and about God had fallen apart.
What do we do when all the things we have thought and said and believed about God are contradicted by the things we actually experience in life? Will the disciples still be able to believe that Jesus was indeed the Messiah? The only way that could happen would be through a new beginning. It is in the midst of such uncertainty, questioning, and hopelessness that Jesus comes to them, walks along with them, stands beside them, and opens up for them the possibility of renewal.
When life has been shattered through tragedy and heartache, the only hope for the future lies in what God alone can do and our response to Him. The disciples cannot even believe the good news brought by the women. Their hope for the future does not lie in their ability to muster up enough faith to believe the unbelievable. The turning point for them comes when they encounter the presence of the resurrected Lord. It is the resurrected Jesus who takes the initiative to come to them and open their eyes to a new reality. He opens their eyes to take a new look at the things that have happened. He opens their eyes to take a new look at their Scriptures. The old stories and texts take on a new significance in light of their experience of the risen Christ.
As Jesus blesses the bread, breaks it, and gives it to the two disciples in Emmaus their eyes are opened, they recognize him, and he vanishes from their sight. Their encounter with Jesus becomes a reality through the sacrament of breaking bread. The presence of Jesus with them from now on will not be the same as it was before in his earthly life. Now his presence will become known through the word of Scripture and the sacrament of the broken bread.
The two disciples return to Jerusalem to tell the eleven and the others what had happened on the road and how Jesus "had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread" (v. 35). "While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them" (v. 36). In the context of an assembly of the disciples and the telling of the story, Jesus comes and is present among them. Here is another way that Jesus is present among us. When we gather to tell the story, he is among us. This is Luke's way of rendering the saying of Jesus in Matthew 18:20: "For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." John puts it this way: "Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them" (14:23).
Human rationality and ingenuity cannot account for God's act on Easter Sunday. A new day has dawned in the history of God's saving activity in the world. After all that the religious and political establishment has done to put an end to Jesus, God found another way to make sure that the story goes on. Furthermore, the story goes on in spite of the dismal failure of the disciples of Jesus. The story goes on not because the disciples picked up the pieces and raised themselves up in a heroic fashion to press on into the future. The story goes on because the resurrected Jesus comes and seeks his doubting, questioning, failing and hopeless followers. Therein lies our hope. God comes to us in Jesus in surprising ways when we least expect it.
This Sunday in the Church Year
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