Previous to this passage, Peter and John, observant Jews, have gone to the Temple at the time of day when sacrifice is offered for prayer. At the gate to the temple courtyard they have seen a man lame from birth, forced to beg in order to survive. Peter has commanded him: “in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk”. After helping him to his feet, the man has entered the temple with them, “walking and leaping and praising God”. “While he clung to Peter and John, all the people ran together to them.”
Now Peter preaches to the crowd. It is not by their own power or devotion (“piety”) that the man walks, but rather by God’s power, through Christ. Peter speaks as a Jew, to his own people: the titles of God are those by which God identifies himself to Moses in the burning bush (Exodus 3:6). God has “glorified” (exalted, lifted up) Jesus. Glorification stands in contrast to the actions of the unthinking mob, who “handed [him] over and rejected [him]”. “Holy and Righteous One” are messianic titles; the “murderer” is Barabbas. Jesus is “the Author of life”, the pioneer or founder of a new order, an order open to all. The healing occurred due to faith in God’s authority, “his name”, through Christ, God’s agent. Then he appeals to Israel to repent and be converted. The mob and the Jewish authorities, Peter says, “acted in ignorance”. “The prophets”, as a body – Isaiah in particular – predicted that “his Messiah would suffer”. But there is a second chance for Israel: “repent” and be converted, “turn to God” and God will wipe out their sins so that you may enjoy “times of refreshing”.
Peter is probably referring to the end of the era, when Christ comes, at “the time of universal restoration”. Peter believes that Christ is the prophet Moses said God would “raise up” those who do not listen to him will be condemned. Peter reminds his audience of God’s promise to Abraham: “in your descendants all the families of the earth shall be blessed”. Now you have to remember that this was written to a particular audience. This speech, whether or not it actually happened, is meant to shape the audience. The point is to convince the hearers that what they have been taught is right. Keep in mind, though, that the audience would have been, for the most part, Jewish. It is set within the boundaries of the temple and follows a healing. But repentance, in Jewish terms, does not really mean a confession of a personal sin to a religious figure. Sins are confessed privately in prayer to God. It is not a show of personal conversion. For these Jewish believers, full “teshuva”, or full repentance, requires full consciousness of one’s actions and the refraining from the sin that one has committed. Interestingly, though, it doesn’t illicit a real response, but rather gets Peter and John arrested.
What does this mean for us? What does this study of Acts hold for us in today’s world? What does it mean to be a new creation?
- What is your response to this passage?
- What meaning does it hold for you?
- What does repentance, or recognition of our sins, have to do with our faith?
- In what ways might this passage be abused?
NEW TESTAMENT: 1 John 3: 1-7
This passage deals with the questions: What does it mean to be children of God? What does that mean to other people? What does it mean to be like Jesus? The notion that we are God’s children implies that there is something in the future for us, something different from the way things are now. When Jesus appears, we will look at him and it will be a transforming experience. The writer of this passage is saying that our hope is to become like Christ in the future and our challenge is to become like Christ now.
At its simplest, the passage is saying to do what we say. People become what they look at, so our focus does matter. By focusing on Christ, we become those for whom sinning is not an option. Essentially, it makes us really look at what it means to have Jesus in our lives.
The most problematic part of this text is the claim made in verse 6 that those who “abide in him” do not sin. (Really?) It is difficult to understand how this is not a blatant contradiction to much of the rest of the biblical witness, and even to what 1 John says elsewhere (see 1:8-2:2). Some have suggested that the present tense of the verb “sins” in verse 6 indicates that the author is denying only a constant habit of sinning. While the author of 1 John would certainly consider habitual sinning to be out of bounds for those who claim to be God’s children, the verse cannot be tamed quite so easily. Are we to imagine that the author is willing to excuse occasional sins?
- What meaning does this passage hold for you?
- What does it mean to be children of God?
- What does that mean to other people?
- What does it mean to have Jesus in your life? What does that call for you to do that is different from the rest of the world?
GOSPEL: Luke 24: 36b-48
This is one of our favorite stories. In other lectionary years, we read more of the passage. We travel to the elusive place known as Emmaus and we encounter a little-known disciple named Cleopas and some other elusive character. Jesus appears on the road to two people and walks with them and then reveals his real identity to them. It is later on Easter Day, the day on which Mary Magdalene and the other women have discovered the empty tomb. As two of Jesus’ followers walk to Emmaus, they talk about the day’s news, the recent startling events. They are surely despondent, not knowing where to turn.
Eusebius, the first church historian, tells us that “Cleopas” was a relative of Jesus. (Perhaps this is Uncle Cleopas or something!) The two do not recognize our Lord Jesus. Jesus has disappointed them: they expected him to deliver Israel from Roman domination, and to begin an earthly kingdom of God. Three days have passed (long enough, in Jewish belief, for the soul to have left the body) and, despite Jesus’ statement that he would be raised from death, nothing has happened! The women told us that he is alive, but when Peter and John went there, all they saw was the empty tomb!
Jesus tells them how slow they are to grasp what has happened. The meal seems to be a Eucharist: “he took bread, blessed and broke it””. Then, from Jesus’ interpretation and their hospitality to this “stranger”, “their eyes were opened”,i.e. they develop a deeper understanding of who Jesus is, that he is divine. At the Last Supper, Jesus said he would not share food with his disciples until God’s kingdom came. He has now eaten with the two, so the Kingdom has indeed come. “The Lord has risen indeed … !”
But the truth was, they invited the stranger to dine. They invited the stranger into their lives. This is the dramatic proof that Jesus had arisen from the dead. And this was not a random event. God had done this. Notice one thing—the name of the second person is never given. Who is it? Is it a disciple? Is it someone you know? Is it you?
This story celebrates Easter and invites participation. William Loeder calls it a “faith legend”. We are invited to imagine that Jesus materializes and then just as suddenly dematerializes. What happened to us in between? In all honesty, we never hear of Cleopas again and we don’t even know who his companion is. They are ordinary people on the road to ordinary places who had the grand adventure of encountering Jesus. And now they go home. The road to Emmaus—probably a two hour walk—is a story of the Christian life. Frederick Buechner interprets Emmaus as “the place we go to in order to escape—a bar, a movie, wherever it is we throw up our hands and say, “Let the whole damned thing go hang. It makes no difference anyway,”…Emmaus may be buying a new [outfit] or a new car or smoking more cigarettes [or eating] more than you really want, or reading a second-rate novel or even writing one. Emmaus may be going to church on Sunday. Emmaus is whatever we do or wherever we go to make ourselves forget that the world holds nothing sacred: that even the wisest and bravest and loveliest decay and die; that even the noblest ideas that men have had—ideas about love and freedom and justice—have always in time been twisted out of shape by selfish [people] for selfish ends.”[i]
It is the road from disappointment, despair, and disillusionment. The unseen stranger is always walking with us. And, in fact, the implication is that we are the other disciple. And Jesus appears in both places—the place that we go to retreat from the world and on the road itself. Jesus appears in the ordinary and the sacred; in the mundane and in the special. And if we don’t recognize the presence of the Risen Christ, the presence waits around until we do.
- What meaning does this passage hold for you?
- What would you have thought had it been you on that road?
- What does it mean for you to be the second disciple?
- In what ways do we fail to recognize Jesus?
- What does this passage say to us about hospitality?
- How aware are you of the holiness dancing in and out of your awareness? What gets in your way?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would be seen as it is. (William Blake)
Some people, in order to discover God, read books. But there is a great book: the very appearance of creating things. Look above you! Look below you! Read it. God, whom you want to discover, never wrote that book with ink. Instead [God] set before your eyes that things that [God] made. Can you ask for a louder voice than that? (St. Augustine of Hippo, 5th century)
For lack of attention, a thousand forms of loveliness elude us every day. (Evelyn Underhill)
God, you call us to leave our comfortable ways, to sing new and unfamiliar songs. You ask us to invite absolute strangers into your house even though we feel awkward. We are slow to do what you ask…Lead us on a new path, your path. When we hesitate, stumble, and even reverse direction, reach back—grasp our hands—pull us forward. And when we start to grow deaf to your voice, call out to us—bellow out to us. Make us hear. Overwhelm us with your love. Surround us with your peace so that we have no choice but to share it with those you have put into our lives. Amen. (Deborah Bushfield, from “God of Risk”, in Alive Now, May/June 2009, p. 38)
[i] In The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Volume IX, Luke & John, p. 482.