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Easter 2, Cycle A

Christ and the resurrection have their way with us. Historically, this was the first Sunday during which newly baptized members (since baptisms occurred only on Easter in the first centuries) would be admitted into the fellowship as full members of the church, and so this theme of how Christ, his Resurrection, and Baptism have or can change us is most appropriate (Justification and Sanctification by Grace).

Psalm 16
This is a song of trust in God’s power to save, attributed to David. We have previously noted the scholarly consensus that David is not likely the author or even the collector of the Psalms attributed to him. The editorial rationale for attributing this and the other Psalms to him is to make clear to the original audience that because he was king, David represents Israel, and so his Psalms were about them (Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, pp. 512, 521).

The psalmist begins with a prayer for deliverance from trouble (v. 1). To Yahweh is proclaimed that there is no good apart from him (v. 2). The Lord in turn proclaims delight in the holy ones in the land, but as for those who choose another god, their names are forgotten (vv. 3-4).

The psalmist adds that Yahweh is his chosen portion [manah] (v. 5). He claims to have a godly heritage and will bless the Lord who gives him counsel and instruction (vv. 6-7). It is obvious that the psalmist has received many material blessings from the Lord. This has led some interpreters to conclude that the psalmist was a Levite, who had no land and so lived only from the Lord providing the offerings given to him by other tribes. Other Old Testament texts speak of the Levites like this one, of the Lord being their portion (Numbers 18:20; Deuteronomy 10:9).

A pledge is made to keep the Lord always before him. The psalmist proceeds to express confidence in God. He sings that his heart is glad and he rejoices, for he does not give him up to Sheol (the place of death) (vv. 8-10). This song is quoted by Peter in the First Lesson. Yahweh shows us the path of life, and in his presence there is joy [simchah] (v. 11).

Application: On this Sunday when the church remembers the doubts of Doubting Thomas, a sermon on this text, after acknowledging the gospel story, might focus on the joy that comes with reveling in God’s presence and heritage (what he has done) and in the assurance that we have been given up to death (Sanctification and Eschatology).

Acts 2:14a, 22-32
We continue to consider the second half of the two-part early history of the church attributed to Paul’s Gentile associate Luke (Colossians 4:14; 2 Timothy 4:11; Philemon 24). Its main emphasis is the universal mission of the church and to vindicate Paul’s ministry. But as Paul did not negate the Jewish inheritances of the faith, so in this lesson we hear part of Peter’s address to the crowds on the Day of Pentecost, a word that seeks to link Jesus’ Resurrection to the earlier Hebraic faith.

Peter is reported as addressing the Israelites concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested by God with deeds of power and wonders that God did through him. Jesus was handed to them in accord with the Lord’s predetermined counsel and foreknowledge. (This is a consistent theme in the book.) But, Peter notes, the Israelites have crucified him by the hands of those outside the law (vv. 22-23). Peter then proceeds to note that God raised Jesus from the dead, which could not hold him in its power (v. 24). David (Psalm 16:8-11) is quoted (though as we have noted above he was not likely the author of this Psalm). This citation speaks of the Lord always before [enopion] the psalmist so he can never be shaken. This it is said makes for gladness and hope, for the Lord will not abandon our souls to Hades or let the holy one be corrupt (vv. 25-28).

Continuing to address Israelites, Peter adds that their ancestor David was a prophet who knew God had promised that one of his descendants would sit on his throne (vv. 29-30). Peter cites Psalm 16:10 and its reference to God not giving us up to Hades, claiming this refers to the Resurrection of the Messiah (v. 31). God has in fact raised up Jesus; Peter and the disciples are witnesses, he proclaims (v. 32).

Application: Several possible directions are suggested by the text. One could focus on Peter’s observation that all that transpired in Jesus was part of God’s eternal plan. We can revel in the confidence that God is in control of our lives (Providence). Another related option is to focus on Peter’s and the cited Psalm’s claim that the risen Lord is always before us — always in our presence, traveling with us. The comfort of this insight can be analyzed and celebrated (Providence and Sanctification).

1 Peter 1:3-9
Probably written between 70 AD and 90 AD, this book is a pastoral exhortation (circular letter) written by an elder in Rome claiming to be Peter to a Gentile church at the lower levels of the socio-economic spectrum in Turkey. The latter date and high-quality Greek make it unlikely to have been a work of the apostle. The text is a discourse on rejoicing in salvation. The long blessing that precedes the lesson takes the place of an opening thanksgiving. Reference is made to the faithful having been chosen and destined [prognosin] by God, sanctified by the Spirit, and sprinkled by Christ’s blood (vv. 1-2).

After blessing God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ it is noted that by his great mercy through Christ’s Resurrection we have been given a new birth into a living hope and into an imperishable inheritance kept in heaven for us (vv. 3-4). We are said to be protected by God’s power through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed at the end (v. 5).

The writer calls for rejoicing, even though for a little while we must suffer trials, so that the genuineness of faith may be found to result in praise and honor when Christ revealed (vv. 6-7). Although his hearers have not seen Christ, the author notes that they love him, and while not seeking him, they believe and rejoice in him (v. 8). For the recipients of the letter receive the outcome of their faith, the salvation of the soul (v. 9).

Application: The text affords an opportunity to reflect on the difference the Resurrection can and has made in our daily lives (Sanctification). Because of what Jesus has done we have been chosen by God (Predestination and Providence) to live lives as people born again, living in hope, and protected by God.

John 20:19-31
Again we receive a lesson from the last gospel to be written (probably in the last decade of the first century), and so not written by John the son of Zebedee, but perhaps by a disciple of his in order to address a community of Jewish Christians who had been expelled from Jewish society. These verses, accounts of Jesus’ Resurrection and the story of Doubting Thomas, embody the gospel’s primary concern with testifying that Jesus is Messiah, but also its characteristic emphasis on faith. (The word “believe” [pisteuo] appears far more in John than in any of the gospels.)

The text begins by reporting on a gathering of disciples on the first Easter, locked in a house for fear of the Jews. The risen Jesus enters and gives them a peace greeting. The disciples rejoice (vv. 19-20). He came to those with weak faith. Jesus is then said to commission the disciples, giving them the Holy Spirit as well as the power to forgive and retain sins. A reference is made to Jesus “breathing on” [enephusao] his followers, the same phrase used to describe the communication of natural life (Genesis 2:7). The author thereby expresses that what the risen Jesus does is to give new life (vv. 20-23). Thomas was not present and expresses doubts about accounts of Jesus’ Resurrection (vv. 24-25).

In a gathering the following week, Jesus is reported again to appear and has Thomas feel his body. Thomas then confesses his faith (vv. 26-28). Jesus asks him if he only has believed because he saw him. The Lord adds his blessing for those who have not seen him but yet believe (v. 29). The author then reports that Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples that have not been reported in the gospel (v. 30). The ones reported are provided, he writes, so that readers may believe Jesus is the Messiah, Son of God, and through believing have life in his name (v. 31). This last verse is understood as the gospel of John’s statement of purpose.

Application: This is a text that makes clear that if we are to affirm that Jesus is the Son of God we need to believe he has risen from the dead! But that does not come easily. Help parishioners identify with Thomas, coming to appreciate that like him we have our doubts (Sin). When the risen Christ comes to us he “breathes on” us and gives us new life. (See discussion in the second paragraph above.) We are born again, given a new start (Realized Eschatology). With the fresh start Easter gives us, the old destructive doubts begin to wither away (Justification by Grace). And as we get freed from the destructive past and the doubts, it is a little easier to believe he has risen, and we have a fresh start after all.

Easter 3, Cycle A

Amazing grace! Historically this has been a Sunday to celebrate the goodness of God. The focus of the sermons should be placed on what God has done and is doing for us in our daily lives (Atonement and Justification by Grace), with attention to how this is a word which alleviates our despair (Sin).

Psalm 116
As noted on Holy Thursday when it was assigned, this Psalm is a thanksgiving for healing and/or deliverance. God is praised for healing us, a witness made amidst the whole congregation in the temple (vv. 1-2, 18-19). The psalmist claims to love [aheb] Yahweh for hearing his cry. This is a God who is said to be gracious (channun, a term not prominent in the Old Testament, appearing most frequently in Psalms), righteous [tsaddiq], and merciful [racham] (v. 5). The relationship between these attributes makes sense when we remember that the righteousness of God refers in the Old Testament to the quality of relationships God has, and that he is on Israel’s side (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, pp. 371-372). Healthy relationships depend on love and mercy.

The rest of the Psalm makes clear that Yahweh Elohim is on the side of the faithful, for much of what is reported is a story of deliverance. He is said to have released the psalmist from death [sheol in vv. 3, 8 is the place of death for the Hebrews] and to have loosed bonds [moser] (v. 16). These images regarding God’s struggle against evil and death suggest the Christian concept of the Classic View of Atonement. God is said to protect the simple [pethi] (v. 6), which may indicate God’s identification with the lowly. No matter how bad things get we are to trust God more than the ways of human beings, for humanity’s ways lie — everyone is a liar [kazab] (v. 11).

Reference is made to lifting the cup of salvation (v. 13). This is probably a libation offered in fulfillment of the vow made by the psalmist when suffering (Exodus 29:40). But for Christians, the reference reminds us of the saving cup from which we drink in the Lord’s Supper. The psalmist identifies himself as a servant of the Lord, the child of a servant girl, who yet has been set free [pathach moser, loosed bonds] (v. 16). If read in relation to the New Testament this could also be applied to Jesus (especially the v. 15 reference to how precious the death of the faithful is to the Lord as well as the comment about the sacrifice in v. 17). Or it could be that the psalmist speaks for the faithful and is celebrating how precious Jesus’ death is. The Psalm ends with praise, as the phrase “Praise the Lord” is a translation of the Hebrew liturgical expression haleluyah (v. 19).

Application: The song affords opportunity for sermons on God’s love and deliverance when we are in anguish or need healing (Providence and Justification by Grace through Faith), his struggles with evil (Classic View of the Atonement), his concern for the oppressed or those outside the mainstream (Social Ethics), and also an opportunity to focus on the significance of the Lord’s Supper as an occasion for thankfulness and praise (Sanctification).

Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Again we consider the second half of a two-part history of the church traditionally attributed to Luke, a physician and Gentile associate of Paul (Colossians 4:14; 2 Timothy 4:11; Philemon 24). There is some dispute about the date of composition, whether it was composed before Paul’s martyrdom (in 65-67 AD) or much later, after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 AD. In any case the author is concerned to stress the universal mission of the church (1:8) and so also makes an effort to validate Paul’s ministry. But this lesson is about Peter and part of his address to the crowds on the first Pentecost (v. 14a). His words are a call to repentance.

Having outlined what God has done for Hebrews in Jesus (vv. 14bff), it is claimed that Israel knows that the Jesus whom they crucified has been made Messiah [Christos] and Lord [kurios] by God (v. 36). This cuts the hearers of Peter to the heart, and so they ask what they should do (v. 37). He responds with a call to repentance [metanoeo] in the name of Jesus Christ, so their sins will be forgiven and they receive the Holy Spirit [hagios pneuma] (v. 38). This is typical of Luke, who inseparably connects repentance and salvation, while not identifying them (Hans Conzelman, The Theology of St. Luke, p. 228). (The reference to the work of the Holy Spirit at this point is not surprising, since the Spirit’s work is a crucial theme throughout Acts [Brevard Childs, The New Testament as Canon: An Introduction, p. 221].) It is declared that the promise is for the people, their children, and everybody called by God (v. 39). The last point is a reminder of how the stories of Acts and Luke are written so that by the Spirit, readers of later generations can discern the significance of the characters and accounts reported in the narrative for their generation (Hans Conzelman, The Theology of St. Luke, p. 230-231; Brevard Childs, The New Testament as Canon: An Introduction, p. 240). Peter is reported to continue to testify with other arguments and exhort people to save themselves from the corrupt generation of the present (v. 40). Those who welcomed this message were baptized, it was said to be 3,000 in number (v. 41).

Application: The text provides an excellent occasion for a sermon on repentance or a call to repentance. To make this point in a Lucan way entails that repentance is linked to sorrow for sin (v. 37), certainty of forgiveness (Justification by Grace) (v. 37) and baptism (v. 41), all transpiring by the Holy Spirit’s work (v. 38).

1 Peter 1:17-23
We have previously noted that this book was probably written between 70 AD and 90 AD. It is pastoral exhortation (circular letter) written by an elder in Rome claiming to be Peter to a Gentile church at the lower levels of the socio-economic spectrum in Asia Minor (modern Turkey). Apparently they were enduring some sort of suffering (2:19-24; 3:14-15; 4:12-19). The latter date and high-quality Greek make it unlikely to have been a work of the apostle. This lesson is part of an appeal for holiness.

In the context of exhortation to live in a holy manner (vv. 13-16), the author notes that the people should invoke the Father as the one who judges impartially according to deeds, and then live in fear [phobos] during this time of exile (v. 17; cf. Deuteronomy 10:17-18; in view of God’s impartiality it seems fair to interpret the Greek word for “fear” here in terms of the Hebraic equivalent yirah which includes the element of a fear occasioned by reverence to God). (The exile mentioned at this point is apparently a reference to the suffering alluded to above.) Recipients of the letter are said to know that they were ransomed/redeemed [eletrothete] from futile ways inherited from the ancestors, not with perishable things like silver and gold, but with the blood of Christ (vv. 18-19; cf. Mark 10:45). A comment about the lamb without defect in verse 19 may reflect Isaiah 53:7 or perhaps the Passover lamb of Exodus 12:5. Christ is said to have been destined before the foundation of the world but revealed at the end of ages only for the faithful. Through him the faithful are said to have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead (vv. 20-21). Now that the faithful have purified their souls by obedience to the truth so that they have a genuine mutual love, loving one another is exhorted (v. 22). This ethic is said to be grounded in being born again [anagegengennao], through the word of God (v. 23).

Application: The lesson invites reflection on the sense in which the faithful are in exile, suffering like the recipients of the epistle were (Sin). This opens the door to sermons exploring the awesomeness of a God who judges impartially and without bias, but judgments which have not our works but Christ’s eternally decreed mission as the means of salvation (Justification by Grace). Sermons on the atonement (the Satisfaction Theory) or how lives of holiness and love follow spontaneously from being born again (Sanctification) can also be developed from this text.

Luke 24:13-35
The first installment of a two-part history of the church traditionally attributed to Luke (see the First Lesson for details on the book’s origins and the author’s agenda). This lesson is the well-known story of the encounter with the risen Lord on the road to Emmaus, an account unique to Luke. Two travelers on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus (about seven miles from the capital) were talking about the Easter events (vv. 13-14). The risen Jesus approaches, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him, and Jesus asks what they are discussing. They are reported to look sad (vv. 15-16). One of the travelers, Cleopas, states in wonder if Jesus were the only stranger in Jerusalem who did not know of the events. The travelers respond with an indication that the events had to do with Jesus of Nazareth, whom they identify as a mighty prophet, and then refer to how chief priests and Jewish leaders handed him over to be crucified (vv. 17-20). Cleopas and his fellow traveler then express their hope that Jesus would have been the one to redeem Israel. They note that these events happened three days previously (v. 21). It is also observed that some women in the group who were at his tomb early on Easter did not find the body and have reported that they had seen angels testifying that Jesus was alive (vv. 22-23). This was also confirmed by others who went to the tomb, but apparently they did not see the risen Jesus (v. 24).

Jesus calls the men foolish and slow to believe what all the prophets have declared. He asks if it were not necessary that the Messiah suffer these things and then enter glory. This interpretation was said to be based in Moses and all the prophets (vv. 25-27). (For other texts testifying to the necessity of the Messiah’s suffering in God’s plan of salvation, see 9:22, 43b-45; 17:25; 18:31-34.) As they came to Emmaus Jesus seems to plan on proceeding, but those he met urge him to stay with them and Jesus acceded to their wishes (vv. 28-29). While at table, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and then it seems that their eyes were opened and they recognized him, at which time Jesus vanished (vv. 30-31). (This reference to breaking bread may have Eucharistic overtones, as it does in Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7; 27:35.) The travelers then noted to each other how their hearts had burned while talking to Jesus on the road and how he opened the scriptures to them. That same hour they returned to Jerusalem finding the eleven and hearing the testimony that the Lord had risen and appeared to Simon (an account not reported by Luke) (vv. 32-34). The two travelers then in turn reported what had happened to them.

Application: The text invites sermons on how we cannot find God. He is the one who finds us in our wandering and confusion. The themes of Sin and Justification by Grace are evidenced. We need to stop criticizing the spiritual blindness of others. We are as blind as the men on the Damascus Road. Another possible theme is to focus on how Christ comes to us most clearly in the celebration of meals with him (the Lord’s Supper).

Easter 4, Cycle A

God takes charge! Historically this has been “Good Shepherd Sunday.” It was celebrated a week earlier under the theme of the goodness of God. This Sunday was historically a day for rejoicing — a celebration of the various ways in which God has been in charge (Providence and its various manifestations in the Christian life and in Social Ethics).

Psalm 23
This famed Psalm attributed to David, but probably not written by him, is characterized as one of the Songs of Trust (see 9:3-12; 11). Many scholars have concluded that references to David in the Psalms may have been a way of using him to represent the inner life of all his subjects and so of all the faithful (Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, p. 521). In that sense this song is about trust in God that all the faithful experience. It concerns itself with confidence in God the shepherd’s [raah] protection and providential guidance (vv. 1-2). The reference to “lacking nothing” may be an image evolved to remind worshipers of how Israel was cared for by Yahweh in the wilderness (Nehemiah 9:21). Reference to the soul being restored (v. 3) is not an indication of the psalmist’s belief in the body-soul dualism many Christians have come to accept through the impact of Greek philosophy. The Hebrew term that appears is nephesh which is nothing more than “life force.”

Yahweh is said to lead us in the right paths (v. 3), living righteously not in the sense of faultless conformity to some moral norm but in the sense of remaining in right relationship with him (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, pp. 370-371). Thus we need fear no evil. The rod and staff used by Yahweh to comfort (v. 4) were weapons for fending off wild animals or for keeping the sheep from straying. Reference to a table prepared in the presence of one’s enemies (v. 5) suggests a sacrificial meal in thanksgiving for God’s deliverance of his people. To have one’s head anointed with oil, as the verse indicates Yahweh will do to his faithful guests, was a custom of showing hospitality to an honored guest. We are Yahweh’s honored guests! Surrounded by goodness and mercy, the psalmist pledges regular worship in the temple where Yahweh resides for the rest of his life (v. 6).

Application: The Psalm invites sermons on providence, on how God cares for his people and leads us in right relationships with him, protecting us from all that harms. (This could be a good occasion for considering the perennial free will-providence dispute. The song does not opt for determinism but makes clear that our freedom is little more than the autonomy a sheep has in relation to the shepherd’s, whose will usually prevails regarding where the flock are to travel.) The status we have as honored guests of Yahweh (v. 5) provides opportunity to preach on creation and anthropology (human beings as in the image of God) or Justification by Grace. The gratitude that flows from this awareness (Sanctification) is also an appropriate sermon theme.

Acts 2:42-47
The lectionary continues to have us consider this second half of a two-part history of the church traditionally attributed to Luke, a physician and Gentile associate of Paul (Colossians 4:14; 2 Timothy 4:11; Philemon 24). This book is particularly concerned to affirm the universal mission of the church (1:8). There is some dispute about the date of composition, whether it was composed before Paul’s martyrdom (in 65-67 AD) or much later, after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 AD. In any case the author is concerned to stress the universal mission of the church (1:8) and so also makes an effort to validate Paul’s ministry. Concerned as it is to stress the work of the Holy Spirit (Brevard Childs, The New Testament as Canon: An Introduction, p. 221), it is not surprising that much attention is devoted to the first Pentecost. This lesson involves the concluding reports of the events of that day.

Following the mass baptisms on Pentecost (v. 41), it is reported that the followers of Jesus devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship to the breaking of bread (a common meal that included the Lord’s Supper) and prayers (v. 42). Awe reportedly came on everyone because many wonders were done by the apostles (v. 43). The faithful at that time seem to have shared all things in common, selling their possessions and distributing the proceeds to those in need (vv. 44-45; cf. 4:32-35, a communal practice mirroring the Essenes who are the source for the Dead Sea Scrolls). Much time seems to have been spent in the temple (the first followers of Jesus continued to worship there as devout Jews), and they reportedly broke bread at home, eating this food with glad hearts, praising God and having favor [charis] with all. Daily more and more joined (vv. 46-47) — a theme regularly emphasized in Acts (6:7; 9:31; 11:1, 21; 12:24; 14:1).

Application: A sermon on this text might focus on God’s governance of the church and its growth, helping the faithful to experience the awe the first Christians felt (Providence, Evangelism/Church Growth, and Sanctification). The importance of the Lord’s Supper for the Christian life is also suggested by reference to the time spent breaking bread and eating with joyful hearts (vv. 46-47). Sermons on the sharing of goods by all the faithful and so a concern for the poor (Church and Social Ethics) are also appropriately rooted in the text.

1 Peter 2:19-25
Likely not written by the apostle due to its high-quality Greek, this book was probably written between 70 AD and 90 AD. It is a pastoral exhortation (circular letter) written by an elder in Rome claiming to be Peter to a Gentile church at the lower levels of the socio-economic spectrum in Turkey. This lesson is from a discourse on the obligations of Christians, in this case on the need for obedience (to masters). In part, this stress on maintaining the social order was an attempt to undercut Roman assumptions about Christians, who like practitioners of other foreign religions, were thought to practice immorality and insubordination to established social relationships.

After calling on slaves/servants [oiketes] to accept the authority of their masters with all deference (v. 18), it is noted that it is a credit [literally charis, which can be translated grace] to the faithful who are aware of God to endure pain while suffering unjustly (v. 19). In keeping with the Catholic character of the epistle (one of the so-called Catholic Epistles), works are related to grace. But no credit [literally kleos or glory] is to be given, it is asserted, if beaten for doing wrong (v. 20; cf. Colossians 3:22-25). We have been called to endure such suffering because Christ suffered for us. He is said to leave an example [hupogra, which literally translates copy or under-writing] (v. 21). Isaiah 53:5, 12 is paraphrased, witnessing that the Messiah committed no sin and offered no deceit (v. 22). When Christ was abused, the author asserts, he did not return abuse. He accepted suffering and entrusted himself to the one who judges righteously [dikaios] (v. 23). Although we cannot be absolutely certain, the use of this term in 2 Peter 1:1 suggests that the author uses the term like Paul and most Jews in the first century, not as pertaining to justice but as referring to right relationships and setting them right (Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, Vol. 1, p. 271). This understanding of God’s righteousness helps explain the logic of the following reference to Christ bearing our sins on the cross, so that free from sins we might live for righteousness (in right relationship with God), healed by his wounds (v. 24). The people are said to have been going astray like sheep but now have returned to the shepherd [poimen] and guardian of their souls (v. 25). The language of Isaiah 53:5-12 may be in the background of this description of Christ. Other scholars suggest that we have in these verses an early Christian hymn.

Application: Like the previous week, the lesson invites reflection on the sense in which the faithful are in exile, enduring the suffering of everyday life and of those emerging from critiques by the broader culture like the recipients of the epistle were (Sin). This opens the door to sermons on how we can endure such suffering. Not only has Christ set us free from the burden of our sins and healed us (Satisfaction Theology of Atonement and Justification by Grace), but as made righteous by him we are now empowered to serve and endure the sufferings (Sanctification). Sermons on this theme will proceed according to how Christ’s role as “example” (v. 21) is interpreted (see above). If he is understood merely as someone to be copied, then we must highlight walking in his footsteps, but if we follow the Greek understanding of examples as underwriting, then our teaching of the Christian life is more about how in all we do Christ is with us (“underwriting” us). Shepherds guide but are not imitated by sheep (see Application of the Psalm).

John 10:1-10
Though John may not have written this late first-century work based on the synoptic accounts of Jesus, a comment by the first post-biblical church historian Eusebius of Caesarea is relevant for considering the style and purpose of the gospel. He claimed that the author had perceived the external facts made plain in the gospel and been inspired to compose a spiritual gospel (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 1, p. 261). This spiritual approach seems evidenced in how the images are interpreted by Jesus in the lesson’s discourse on Jesus the shepherd who gives his life and is the gate/door [thura] to salvation, an account unique to the fourth gospel.

Jesus begins his comments (presumably to the Pharisees [9:40]) by teaching that anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in another way is a thief (v. 1). The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep, he teaches (v. 2). The gatekeeper opens the gate for the shepherd and the sheep hear his voice. He calls them by name and leads them out (v. 3). When the shepherd has brought out all the sheep he goes ahead of them and they follow. They will not follow strangers because the sheep do not know their voices (vv. 4-5). Jesus is said to have used this figure of speech, but his followers still did not understand (v. 6). Then Jesus says that he is the gate for the sheep and that all who come before him are thieves and bandits whom the sheep will not acknowledge (vv. 7-8). This may be a reference by John’s version of Jesus to messianic pretenders. As the gate [the Greek term used here thura is more properly translated "door"], Jesus claims that whoever enters by him will be saved. The thief comes only to steal and kill, but he has come to give life [zoe], abundantly (vv. 9-10). (This theme that faith leads to life is regularly made in John [3:36; 5:24; 6:40, 47; 20:31].) Jesus is then reported as noting that he is the good shepherd (v. 11).

Application: Understanding Jesus as both the gate/door and the Good Shepherd puts a new spin on his role as shepherd. As the only door to salvation (Justification by Grace Alone), and this could be a sermon in itself, it follows that having Jesus as our good shepherd is not properly conceived of merely as following his moral directives. Jesus’ real role as shepherd is to guide us to himself, to the door of salvation (Justification by Grace Alone). But if preachers want to focus on the implications of this for Sanctification, relating the text to the Psalm and points made in its Application above would be appropriate for this text.

Easter 5, Cycle A

What God’s love does to us. The lessons direct us to the impact grace has on everyday life (Sanctification and its relation to Justification by Grace).

Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
The song is a lament prayer for deliverance from personal enemies, traditionally ascribed to David. As we said last week, scholars have noted that in most of the Psalms of David references to him may be a way of using the great king to represent the inner life of all his subjects and so of all the faithful (Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, p. 521). In that sense this song is about the agonies we encounter in life.

At the outset the Psalm includes instructions to temple musicians. The psalmist articulates a cry for help, calling on Yahweh not to have him be put to shame, but to be delivered in his righteousness [tsedaqah] (vv. 1-2). We have previously noted that although in its original Hebraic context this could connote legal, judgmental actions on the Lord’s part or a legalism, most Old Testament scholars believe that this attribute of God is not in any way punitive but more about the relationship. Indeed, the concept has to do with God’s loyalty to his covenant in saving us, and even at times later in the Old Testament era the righteousness of God is construed as something bestowed on the faithful (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, pp. 373, 376ff) in a manner not unlike what Paul teaches happens to Christians in Christ (Romans 3:21-26). God’s judgment, the psalmist seems to say, is one of mercy. In this context it is clear why the psalmist calls Yahweh his rock and refuge and begs the Lord to lead, guide, and take him out of the net (vv. 3-4). Yahweh is said to have redeemed us (v. 5-6). Because our times [eth] are in God’s hands, petitions are offered for deliverance from enemies and to be saved in his steadfast love (vv. 15-16). The reference in verse 6 to having God’s face [aph] shine [or] upon the psalmist is a plea that God would show his favor.

Application: The song invites us to identify with David and his despair over enemies in our lives, the sense of shame (v. 1) and adversity we encounter (v. 4) (Sin). But there is hope because we are in God’s hands and he shows us favor (Providence and Justification by Grace). This sermon could also provide an opportunity to explain God’s righteousness (see above second paragraph).

Acts 7:55-60
We continue to devote attention to this second half of a two-part history of the church traditionally attributed to Luke, a physician and Gentile associate of Paul (Colossians 4:14; 2 Timothy 4:11; Philemon 24). Because of the book’s openness to the universal mission of the church (1:8), it is not surprising that the openness to Gentiles would surface in an openness to Hellenized believers (those who had been socialized in the Greek culture and its ways). There is some dispute about the date of composition, whether it was composed before Paul’s martyrdom (in 65-67 AD) or much later, after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 AD. In any case the author is concerned to stress the universal mission of the church (1:8) and so also makes an effort to validate Paul’s ministry.

In a sense the lesson’s account of the martyrdom of Stephen conveys vindication of the church’s universal mission. For Stephen, one of the seven deacons, was a Hellenized Jewish Christian who only came to leadership as a result of the first leaders of the church (traditional Jewish Christians who had not learned Greek and been Hellenized) being willing to share leadership with Jewish Christians not like them (Acts 6). An account of the heroic martyrdom of one from outside the inner circle of followers of Jesus seems to certify the validity of this inclusive character of the gospel.

Following a lengthy sermon before the high priest in Jerusalem (chapter 7) and filled with the Spirit, Stephen is reported as gazing into heaven and seeing the glory of the Lord with Jesus (whom he identifies as Son of Man [huios tou anthropos]) standing at his right hand (v. 55). This is a title used by Luke and other gospel writers in revelations of the Eschaton in fulfillment of Daniel 7:13 (cf. Luke 22:69; Mark 13:26). Stephen urges his persecutors to look (v. 56). They cover their ears and with a loud shout rushing against him (v. 57). They drag Stephen out of the city and stone him. Saul [later Paul] received many of the coats of those executing the martyr (v. 58). While being stoned Stephen prayed that the Lord would receive his spirit [pneuma], and then he knelt down and cried that the Lord would not hold this sin against his executioners (vv. 59-60, echoing Jesus’ words in Luke 23:34).

Application: In accord with Luke’s priorities, sermons could focus on the Holy Spirit’s work both in revealing Christ to Stephen and also giving him the courage to endure the suffering and even to forgive those torturing him. Get hearers to identify with Stephen, how the Spirit (Pneumatology) can reveal Christ by grace and so give them courage in facing trials and love to forgive (Sanctification). (Realized) Eschatology (the vision of Christ in his glory) might also be considered as a source of strength for coping with today’s trials.

1 Peter 2:2-10
Again we note that this pastoral exhortation (circular letter) was probably written between 70 AD and 90 AD. It was probably written by an elder in Rome claiming to be Peter to a Gentile church at the lower levels of the socio-economic spectrum in Turkey. The latter date and high-quality Greek make it unlikely to have been a work of the apostle. The lesson is part of the epistle’s appeal for holiness, in this case a discussion of the living stone (Christ) and a chosen people.

The author urges the faithful to long for pure spiritual milk like newborn infants, so that they may grow into salvation. (The word of Christ is like a mother’s milk.) The Lord is good, he adds (vv. 2-3). He urges the faithful to come to Christ, a living stone though rejected (an apparent reference to Isaiah 28:16), yet precious in God’s sight (v. 4). He further exhorts the faithful like living stones to let themselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Christ (v. 5). Isaiah 28:16 is quoted regarding the laying in Zion (the oldest and highest part of Jerusalem) of a cornerstone which is precious and that whoever believes in him will not be put to shame (v. 6). It is noted that to those who believe, he is precious. But for those who do not believe, the stone rejected becomes the head of the corner, a stone [lithos] that makes them stumble (Isaiah 8:14-15 is quoted) (vv. 7-8). The author tells readers that they are a chosen race [genos elekton], a royal priesthood [basileios hiera], a holy nation, in order to proclaim the mighty acts of the one who called them out of darkness (v. 9). This is a word that speaks to the oppression experienced by the epistle’s audience. Hosea 2:23 is quoted in closing, teaching that though once not a people, the faithful have become God’s people [laos theou], receiving mercy (v. 10).

Application: A sermon on this text invites consideration of the Priesthood of All Believers (Sanctification), how God in Christ has made us precious somebodies (a chosen people — Justification by Grace and Predestination). We have vocations — for all tasks in life are sacred callings providing us with occasions to practice holy activities that serve God and others.

John 14:1-14
We have previously noted the well-known fact that this is the last of the gospels to be written, probably not until the last decade of the first century, and so not likely by the apostle John but by a follower of his. It was probably written for a Jewish Christian community in conflict with the synagogue, one in which Christians had been expelled from Jewish society. The gospel’s aim was to encourage its readers to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God (20:31). In line with this overall agenda, the lesson is part of Jesus’ Farewell Discourse after the Last Supper. In these verses he offers teaching on the believer’s relation to the glorified Christ, comforting words following his previous prediction of Peter’s denial of him (13:36-38).

Jesus begins by exhorting the faithful not to let their hearts be troubled and to believe in God and him (v. 1). He notes that in his Father’s house there are many dwelling places; Jesus says he goes to prepare a place for them (v. 2). If he goes he promises to return to take the faithful to him, so that where he is they may be also (v. 3). He claims that his followers know where he is going (v. 4). This discussion typifies John’s commitment to presenting a direct identity between the earthly Jesus and the glorified Christ of the Eschaton (Brevard Childs, The New Testament as Canon: An Introduction, p. 135).

Thomas objects that the disciples do not know where he is going and wants to know the way (v. 5). Jesus responds that he is the way, the truth, and the life, and that no one comes to the Father but through him (v. 6). To know him is to know the Father (v. 7). This use of the phrase “I am” [ego eimi] by John’s Jesus is a way of identifying him with Yahweh (which literally means “I am who I am”).

Philip asks Jesus to be shown the Father (v. 8). Jesus responds that whoever has seen him has seen the Father (v. 9). He claims to be in the Father and the Father in him. His words are not spoken on his own, Jesus claims, for the Father in him does his works (v. 10). Jesus says that he is in the Father and the Father in him. If this is not believed, he should be believed because of his works (v. 11). He proceeds to note that those who believe in him will do the works that Jesus does, even greater works as he goes to the Father (v. 12). He adds that he will do whatever they ask in his name so that the Father may be glorified in the Son (v. 13). If anything is asked in his name, Jesus says he will do it (v. 14).

Application: A sermon on this text should concern itself with Christology (and Trinity), the relation between Father and Son, and the peace of mind and security in facing what lies ahead that this word offers (Justification by Grace). There is no judgmental, harsh God hidden behind Jesus’ love and compassion. We get the God we see in Jesus. He prophesies that this will get us to do great works (Sanctification).

Easter 6, Cycle A

The great things God’s love does. The texts provide a witness to the great things that God’s love and grace do (Providence, Justification by Grace, Sanctification, and Revelation).

Psalm 66:8-20
The text is a liturgy of praise and thanksgiving. The reference to Selah just before the lesson begins is a liturgical direction that probably indicates the call for an instrumental interlude before the singing begins. The first verses of the lesson (8-12) may be part of a general hymn of praise, following a hymn about God’s creation praising him (vv. 1-4) for his providential activity (vv. 5-7). The people are called on to bless God so that their praise can be heard, for he has kept us among the living (vv. 8-9). God is said to have tested the flock (vv. 10-12), but the psalmist pledges to come to the temple with burnt offerings, paying his vows (vv. 13-15). Those who fear God are called on to listen to the witness of what he has done (v. 16). When the psalmist cried to him with praise and had he instead loved sin, Yahweh would not have listened (vv. 17-18). But God has listened. He is to be blessed because he has not rejected the psalmist’s prayer or removed his steadfast love (vv. 19-20).

Application: A sermon emerging from this song will focus on God’s providential care which preserves us even while we face tests and hard times in life. Such an awareness of God’s love inspires praise and thanksgiving, even by the created order itself (Sanctification and Creation). There is a logical fit between the themes of this text and the First Lesson.

Acts 17:22-31
Reading once more from this second half of a two-part history of the church traditionally attributed to Luke, a physician and Gentile associate of Paul (Colossians 4:14; 2 Timothy 4:11; Philemon 24), we note again that there is some dispute about the date of composition, whether it was composed before Paul’s martyrdom (in 65-67 AD) or much later, after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 AD. In any case the author’s stress on the universal mission of the church (1:8) and so an effort to validate Paul’s ministry reflects in this lesson. This text clearly undertakes this agenda in reporting on Paul’s speech to the Athenians.

While waiting in Athens for Silas and Timothy to arrive, Paul experiences despair over the idols in the city and engages in dialogue with some philosophers (vv. 16ff). He stands up in front of the Areopagus (the hill west of the Acropolis [the heart of ancient Athenian cultural life]) commenting on how “religious” [literally "fearful or addicted to gods," deisidaimonesterous] the Athenians were (v. 22). He notes that in studying the objects of worship [sebasmata] in the city there is one altar with the inscription, “to an unknown God” [agnostos theos]. Paul proclaims what they already worship as unknown — the God who made the world and does not live in shrines and is not served by human hands. This God needs nothing since he gives life to all (vv. 23-25). The apostle proceeds to describe how God made all the nations from one ancestor, allotting their times and boundaries so they would search for him (vv. 26-27). He seems to borrow from the seventh or sixth century BC Greek philosopher Epimenides in claiming that “in God we live, and move, and have our being” (v. 28). Since we are God’s offspring it is wrong to think of the deity like gold, silver, and an image of art (v. 29). (This is a conventional piece of Jewish wisdom [Isaiah 44:9-20].) God is reported to have overlooked human ignorance but now commands all to repent (a central theme for Luke, who inseparably connects repentance and salvation, while not identifying them [Hans Conzelman, The Theology of St. Luke, p. 228]). For he has fixed a day on which the world will be judged in righteousness by a man he has appointed and of this he has given assurance by raising him for the dead (vv. 30-31).

Application: The most apparent sermon strategy is to review Paul’s argument for the existence of God, based on creation (a cosmological argument), supplementing this with data drawn from the natural sciences (esp. physics or biology) or on grounds of the human tendency to make gods (drawing here on insights from Paul Tillich, Martin Luther, or new insights of evolutionary theory regarding the religious nature of homo sapiens). There are promising insights about God’s relation to creation (that he is not somewhere up in the clouds) in Epimenides’ observation in verse 28. A sermon on our idolatry (v. 29) is also a legitimate option (Sin). And God’s forgiveness and our repentance, as what sets the Christian vision aside (Justification by Grace), is also suggested by the text.

1 Peter 3:13-22
Again we consider this late first-century pastoral exhortation (circular letter) was probably written by an elder in Rome claiming to be Peter to a Gentile church at the lower levels of the socio-economic spectrum in Turkey. The latter date and high-quality Greek make it unlikely to have been a work of the apostle. This lesson is a discussion of the obligations of Christians, dealing with suffering and also with questions of what Christ did when he descended into hell. The author begins by noting that there should be no harm if we are eager to do good (v. 13). If we do suffer while doing what is right, we are blessed (v. 14a). No need to fear but in their hearts the faithful are said to sanctify Christ as Lord (vv. 14b-15a).

The author provides counsel for patience in persecution, noting that we should always be ready to make a defense to anyone who demands an accounting of the hope the faithful have; yet that defense should be done with gentleness, he claims. The conscience should be kept clear, so that when maligned for their good behavior, Christians may put these critics to shame (vv. 15b-16). It is better to suffer for doing good than for doing evil (v. 17). For Christ, it is claimed, also suffered for sins once for all, in order to bring us to God. He was put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit (v. 18). (The term spirit [pneuma] in this text seems to refer to the eschatological existence in which Christ and believers are placed, the non-worldly, eternal sphere [Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, Vol. 1, pp. 334-335].) Christ is also reported as having gone to the spirits in prison [phulake] who did not in former times obey during Noah’s building of the ark and only eight persons were saved (vv. 19-20). Baptism is said to have been prefigured by the flood and now it saves us, not as a removal of dirt, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience through Christ’s resurrection (v. 21; cf. Genesis 6-8). He has gone to heaven to be at the right hand of God with angelic beings (the authorities [exousion] and powers [dunameon]) (v. 22).

Application: Several possibilities for sermons are suggested by this text. Counsel might be given those who suffer (for we are blessed when that happens if we have been doing good) (Sanctification). We also receive guidance when enduring criticism for living morally and good. We have every reason to make arguments for the value and sanity of the Christian lifestyle. Christ is offered both as our example in these cases, but also insofar as his atoning work and baptism (another possible sermon topic) has by grace given us the good conscience we need to have the courage to meet the suffering, love, and engage the critics. The vision we have of him in his glory also gives us courage to meet these life challenges (Realized Eschatology). And finally the comments in verse 19 suggest a sermon on how Christ preached in hell to those who had not believed (a second chance for the unfaithful extended by our loving God; cf. Revelation 2:10) (Eschatology).

John 14:15-21
We have previously noted the well-known fact that this is the last of the gospels to be written, probably not until the last decade of the first century, and so not likely by the apostle John but by a follower of his. It is also good to be reminded that the gospel’s aim was to encourage its readers to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God (20:31). In line with this overall agenda, the lesson is another portion of Jesus’ Farewell Discourse after the Last Supper. For in these verses Jesus offers reflections on the relation the faithful have to the glorified Christ. He begins by noting that if one loves him, his commandments will be kept. He promises that he will ask his Father to send the faithful another advocate/comforter [parakletos, a term for the Spirit unique to John] to be with them forever (vv. 15-16). This is the Spirit [pneuma] of truth, whom the world cannot receive. But the faithful know him because he abides in them (v. 17).

Jesus assures the faithful that he will not leave them orphaned and is coming to them (v. 18). In a little while the world will no longer see him, but the faithful will. Because he lives they will also live (v. 19). On that day the faithful will know that the Son is in the Father and they are in him and he in them (v. 20). Jesus adds that those who have his commandments and keep them are those who love him. And those who love him will be loved by the Father, and Jesus will love them and reveal himself to them (v. 21).

Application: The text invites sermons on the Holy Spirit as our counselor (regarding what to do and who we are) and advocate. We are also invited to reflect on the Spirit’s role in linking us in an intimate union with Christ (Pneumatology and Justification by Grace as Union with Christ). This opens the way to preaching on the companionship we have with Christ in face of loneliness, anxiety, and despair. And the union we have with Christ helps account for the love that we embody which makes clear we love the spontaneity by which such love transpires (Sanctification).

Passion / Palm Sunday, Cycle A

God’s love shines through the Cross and changes us. This is a Sunday for reflection on the Atonement, the love of God and its implications (Justification and Sanctification by Grace), along with some reflection on our Sin.

Psalm 31:9-16
This is a prayer for deliverance from personal enemies attributed to David. Since it is not likely that David is the author or even the agent in collecting this and other Psalms attributed to him (Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, p. 512), it seems appropriate not to contend that the song is only about David, but rather to read it as a pertaining to the Davidic line, to pertain to Jesus as a prophecy of his sufferings. The psalmist begins by articulating his distress and grief (v. 9). The reference to soul [nephesh] in this verse is not an embrace of the notion of soul in Greek philosophy or as most of us understand the term, but a mere reference to the life-source. The psalmist proceeds, claiming to be in sorrow — scorned, a broken vessel, and the object of schemes (vv. 10-13). He prays for vindication that we may be saved by God’s steadfast love. Awareness is expressed that our whole life is in God (vv. 14-16).

Application: On a Sunday when we observe our sinfulness in contributing to Christ’s death and the tragic condition of our sinful plight, the text celebrates the conquest of God’s love (Justification by Grace). The idea of our whole life being in God and so in Christ has rich implications for living the Christian life (Sanctification).

Isaiah 50:4-9a
This lesson probably has its origins in the second oldest of the three distinct historical strands of prophecy that comprise the book. It seems quite clearly not to have been the work of the eighth century BC prophet Isaiah who worked in Judah (the Southern Kingdom) but to have emerged soon after the conquest of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 539 BC and so during the Babylonian captivity. The text is taken from the Book of Consolation, a series of eschatological prophecies. It is the so-called Third Servant Song. There is much dispute about the identity of the servant in these songs (42:1-4; 49:1-6: 50:1-6; 52:13–53:12). Historically the church has claimed that the referent of these texts is an individual (the Messiah, and specifically to Jesus). But many scholars understand them to refer to the role the nation of Israel would play in propagating God’s mission.

The servant says that God made him a teacher, to sustain the weary (exiled Israelites) (v. 4). The servant is said to do the Lord’s bidding and accepts the insults received (vv. 5-6). Using a law-court image, the servant expresses unshakable confidence that God will vindicate him (vv. 7-9).

Application: If this text is read as referring to Jesus, it suggests the Easter event of Christ accepting the insults that he received in going to the Cross in anticipation of his Easter vindication, all to sustain the weariness of the faithful (Atonement and Justification by Grace). The theme of what makes us weary in American life (Sin) could first be developed. Another possibility would be to interpret the faithful or the church (the New Israel) as the servant, who accepts insults for God but proceeds with confidence of God’s vindication (Sanctification).

Philippians 2:5-11
This letter was written by Paul while a prisoner to Christians in a province of Macedonia. There is some debate about whether the epistle in its present form might be a combination of three separate letters (for an early theologian of the church named Polycarp spoke of several of Paul’s letters written to Philippi [Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, p. 33]). Its immediate occasion was to thank the Philippians for their gifts, by way of the return of Paul’s coworker Epaphroditus to Philippi (2:25-30), the church member who had brought these gifts to Paul. The main purpose of the apostle is to urge persistence in faith in the face of opposition.

After urging the faithful to love and be concerned with the interests of others (vv. 2-4), Paul exhorts them to have the mind of Christ Jesus (v. 5). Christ is depicted (in hymn form) as divine (in the form of God), but also as one emptying himself into humanity and on the Cross (vv. 6-8). In turn, God has exalted him (vv. 9-11). It is possible that the hymn is inspired by the Fourth Servant Song of Isaiah (52:13–53:12).

Application: Several options are suggested by the text. It might occasion a sermon to the sacrifice of Christ, his emptying himself for us for our sakes (Justification by Grace and Atonement). But it could also inspire a sermon on living the Christian life (Sanctification), urging the faithful to live like Christ (having his mind as a result of being united to him in faith), and so committing to empty ourselves in order to serve in love the interests of others.

Matthew 26:14–27:66 or Matthew 27:11-54
In this detailed account of the Passion we consider the version of the most Jewish of all the gospels. Likely not written by the apostle who bears the gospel’s name, its Jewish character is likely a function of the original audience addressed — Jewish Christians in Antioch no longer in full communion with Judaism (23:25-32; 24:20). As a result a lot of attention is given in the gospel (and in this text) to presenting Jesus as the messianic fulfillment of Torah.

The account begins with Judas Iscariot’s initiation of efforts to betray Jesus to the chief priest (26:14-16). New Testament scholarship increasingly understands Judas to have been a Zealot trying to press Jesus into starting a revolution. The name Iscariot is related to the Latin word sicarius [knife-man], a common Roman reference to Zealots. At least one other disciple, Simon the Cananean, has a name from the Aramaic qan’an, meaning “the Zealot” (10:4). The thirty pieces of silver given to Judas were probably about 120 days’ wages. Then we read of the successful efforts of Jesus to find a host for him and his disciples for the Passover meal (26:17-20). During the meal, he indicates that one of the disciples will try to betray him (26:21). They become greatly distressed. With reference to Psalm 41:9, he speaks of woe to the one who betrays him. Judas protests, but Jesus says, “You have said so” (26:22-25).

After initiating the Lord’s Supper, Jesus claims he will never drink of the fruit of the vine until he drinks it new in his Father’s kingdom (26:26-29). After singing a hymn they go to the Mount of Olives. Jesus tells them that they will all become deserters because of him. Quoting Zechariah 13:7 and its reference to striking the shepherd and then the flock will be scattered, he adds that after he is raised up he will go ahead of the disciples to Galilee (26:30-32). Peter objects, claiming that he will never desert Jesus, and the Lord in turn prophesies that Peter will deny him three times that night (26:33-35).

The account continues with Jesus going to Gethsemane (an unknown site somewhere on the west side of the Mount of Olives) and withdrawing from the disciples to pray (22:36). He takes Peter and the son of Zebedee with him, then gets agitated and throws himself on the ground, asking the Father to let the cup pass while being determined to submit to God’s will (26:37-39). He finds the disciples asleep, has them pray, and notes that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak (26:40-41). Two more times Jesus prays that the cup he is to drink pass from him, and the disciples sleep. The third time he notes that the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is to be betrayed for the betrayer is at hand (26:40-46). Jesus often refers to himself as “Son of Man” in connection with prophecies about his death or as a way of referring to his humility. The betrayal by Judas’ infamous kiss to an armed crowd is reported (26:47-49). Kissing a rabbi as a greeting was a common sign of respect in this era.

Jesus’ arrest is reported, as well as his role in putting an end to violence when one of his followers takes action against a high priest’s slave. He claims that he could appeal to protection from the angels (12 legions was about 74,500 solders), but then the scriptures would not be fulfilled (26:50-54). He then addresses the crowd, asking why they have come to arrest him as though he were a bandit when they did not arrest him while he was teaching in the temple. He again notes that this takes place to fulfill the scriptures of the prophets. All the disciples desert him and flee (26:55-56). Jesus’ appearance before Caiaphas the high priest and the whole council [Sanhedrin] follows. It is reported that Peter followed at a distance (26:57-58). Seeking false testimony in order to put him to death, the council finds none, though false witnesses come forward accusing Jesus of claiming he could destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days (26:59-61). Jesus refuses to answer the high priest’s questions, but to the question of whether Jesus is the Messiah and Son of God, he responds that the high priest has said so. He then cites a compilation of Daniel 7:13 and Psalm 110:1 concerning how the Son of Man is seated at the hand of power (26:62-64). The high priest tears his clothes (a gesture of distress), accusing Jesus of blasphemy. Those assembled claim Jesus deserves death, and he is mocked as a false messiah (26:65-68).

Meanwhile when confronted by two female servants and some bystanders, Peter denies Jesus again. The cock crows and he remembers Jesus’ prophecy of his denial, leading to weeping (26:69-75). After Jesus is tried before the Sanhedrin who turn him over to the Roman governor Pontius Pilate (27:1-2), Judas repents and returns the thirty pieces of silver he had received for the betrayal back to the chief priests and elders, but they say that that is his problem. In despair Judas throws down the pieces of silver in the temple and hangs himself (27:3-5). The chief priests find it unlawful to return the pieces of silver to the treasury since they represent blood money. They buy a potter’s field as a place to bury foreigners. It is said to be called to this day the field of blood, a place to bury foreigners. This fulfills Jeremiah (18:1-3; 32:6-15; cf. Zechariah 11:12-13) referring to the thirty pieces of silver, the price of the one on whom a price had been set, giving them for the potter’s field (27:6-10). This story of Judas’ remorse is only told in Matthew.

The text next reports Jesus’ appearance before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. It is noted how he refuses to respond to charges that he is king of the Jews, which amazes Pilate. The crowd’s choice of the notorious prisoner Jesus Barabbas over Jesus himself, as a result of the prodding of chief priests is noted. Pilate’s wife is reported as warning him to have nothing to do with Jesus since he is innocent (27:11-23). With a riot likely to develop, Pilate washes his hands claiming innocence of Jesus’ blood, contending that responsibility is on the crowd and their children; Pilate hands Jesus over for crucifixion. The flogging Jesus is said to have endured was typical of Roman efforts to weaken a prisoner prior to his crucifixion (27:24-26). Only the Roman government, not local rulers, had the authority of capital punishment in its empire.

The soldiers’ actions in bringing Jesus to crucifixion and the mocking of the crowd are reported. Simon, from the African district of Cyrene (a region with a large Jewish population), is made to bear Jesus’ cross to the crucifixion site Golgotha (Place of the Skull). There Jesus receives wine mixed with gall (though he refuses to drink it), his clothes are divided by lot, and the charge “This is Jesus, the king of the Jews” is affixed to the cross (27:27-37). It is noted how bandits are crucified on each side of Jesus, and how he is mocked by the crowd regarding the charge of destroying the temple and rebuilding it in three days, but now cannot save himself (27:38-44). Darkness covers the land from noon until 3:00 p.m., perhaps a reference to Amos 8:9-10 where mourning for an only son is related to the sun going down in daylight (27:45). When Jesus cries out to God about being forsaken, bystanders claim he is crying out for Elijah. His cry is a transliteration in the Aramaic language which he spoke of Psalm 22:1 (27:46-47). Popular belief at the time regarded Elijah as a helper of the oppressed. Another witness to the crucifixion provides Jesus with a sponge filled with sour wine for him to drink. Others mock him by saying that they will wait to see whether Elijah will save him. Jesus cries out with a loud voice and dies (27:48-50).

At the moment of his death the curtain of the temple is reported to have been torn (perhaps symbolizing the possibility of direct access to God), the earth shook, tombs were opened, and the bodies of saints were raised (27:51-52). After Jesus’ resurrection, the text notes, these saints came out of the tombs and appeared to many in Jerusalem. The centurion at the site of the crucifixion sees the earthquake and what happens then confesses Jesus as God’s Son (25:53-54). Many women (especially Mary Magdalene and Mary the Mother of James and Joseph and the mother of the sons of Zebedee) are watching at a distance (27:55-56). James and Joseph are likely not Jesus’ brothers, and so the Mary referred to here is probably not his mother. The text continues to report on the rich man Joseph of Arimathea, a disciple of Jesus, who asks Pilate for his body. After Pilate allows this, Joseph wraps the body in his own tomb, rolling a stone before it. This is witnessed by Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (27:57-61). The next day the chief priests and Pharisees meet with Pilate, reminding him of Jesus’ apparent claim that he would rise in three days. (They refer to the allegation that he would rebuild the temple in three days [26:61; 27:40].) They ask Pilate to secure the tomb, lest his followers steal the body and claim he rose (27:62-64). Pilate tells the Jewish leaders that they must do it themselves, and they proceed to secure the tomb with a stone (27:65-66).

Application: A lesson this long offers numerous possibilities. One option is to focus on how politics (crowd pressure) led to Jesus’ condemnation by Pilate. This affords an opportunity to assess present American and global social trends that crucify Jesus (Social Ethics and Sin). Peter’s lack of courage as embodying our lack of courage is another insight that could be developed (Sin). But the good news is that God and Christ still go to the Cross for us (Justification by Grace), and how Christ and the ways of God are a threat to all the political maneuverings (Social Ethics). The power of Jesus’ persona continues to haunt the Jewish leaders even in death (as they fear his body might be stolen and a resurrection claimed). This point might be developed later on Easter Sunday to deal with skeptics of Easter and also to suggest God’s power over even those who do not believe (Providence).

Other possible avenues for sermon development include attention to Jesus’ suffering. He knows our suffering and despair and through him God does also. We have a God who can identify with us. The events that transpired in the Jerusalem Temple at his death (the tearing of the curtain barring access of all to the holy place of the temple [Exodus 26:31-35]) and also the opening of tombs remind us both of the saving significance of Christ’s death and resurrection, and also that we now have direct access to God and do not need a priest as our mediator or representative (Justification by Grace, Worship, and Theological Method).

Ascension of Our Lord, Cycle A

This theme of heavenly power and cosmic presence of Christ leads to consideration of Providence, Christology (the Cosmic Christ, including Creation), the good news of Justification by Grace, as well as Sanctification and the Mission Imperative.

Psalm 47
This is a Korah Psalm, a family of psalms written for or by a professional musician of that name (see 1 Chronicles 15:16-22; Nehemiah 12:41-46). These Psalms (42-49) may be attributed to one of Israel’s chief group of singers (2 Chronicles 20:19). This one is an enthronement psalm, a group of psalms used on festival occasions when God was declared king. Our lesson celebrates God’s enthronement as king [melek] of all nations. It begins with a summons to all the world to praise God with shouts, loud songs, and the clapping of hands (v. 1). Yahweh Elohim is said to be awesome and a great king over all the earth, subduing peoples under the Hebrew nation (vv. 2-4). As we have previously noted, the word Selah, appearing in a Psalm as occurs after verse 4 in this one, is a liturgical direction which may indicate that there should be an instrumental interlude at that point in the singing of the psalm. This universal theme is consistent with the theme of God’s power manifested in the ascension. The Psalm is likely composed to accompany religious ceremonies associated with the Ark of the Covenant (vv. 5-9).

Application: A sermon on this song will stress God’s glory and power over the entire cosmos. When things look bad for the faithful, we can be assured that God is in control of all things, even of our enemies (Creation and Providence). This emphasis on God’s power might be related to the glory and power which belong to the ascended Christ (Christology). The loving-kindness of Jesus now reigns! The sermon might then move to reiterate the joy and praise of God reflected in verses 5-9 that these insights occasion (Sanctification).


Psalm 93
This is another of the enthronement psalms, like the one described above, extolling God as king and probably composed for a festival. It is closely related to Psalm 47 above. Yahweh’s majesty and establishment of the world are proclaimed. He has ruled from eternity (vv. 1-2). He is said to rule over the waters [mayim, interpreted as chaos] (vv. 3-4). Perhaps this image could suggest that the occasion for this psalm was the annual Fall Festival of Booths or Tabernacles, when the Lord’s victory over chaos is evident in the harvest. It is also possible that the image of water is employed here in view of the fact that Mesopotamian and Canaanite conceptions of divine kingship were understood as established by victory over the sea. In any case, the powers of chaos are said to testify to him, exposing the divine goodness. God is praised for his law and for the holiness of the temple (v. 5).

Application: This Psalm presents another opportunity for a sermon on God’s providential rule. The stress on God’s rule over chaos provides entrée for sermons on giving hope in the midst of fear or hard times. The stability of moral principles and the church in the midst of this chaos is another angle for sermons.

Acts 1:1-11
On this festival we continue to read from the very beginning of the second half of a two-part history of the church traditionally attributed to Luke, a physician and Gentile associate of Paul (Colossians 4:14; 2 Timothy 4:11; Philemon 24). We note again that there is some dispute about the date of composition, whether it was composed before Paul’s martyrdom (in 65-67 AD) or much later, after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 AD. In any case, the author’s stress on the universal mission of the church (1:8) and an effort to validate Paul’s ministry reflects in this lesson. This lesson is the introduction to the book and an account of Jesus’ ascension in heaven.

Like Luke, the book begins addressing Theophilus. It is not clear if this means that these works were written for a recent convert or a Roman official from whom the church sought tolerance. But since Theophilus means “lover of God” it is possible that the author addressed all the faithful. The author notes his earlier book (Luke) in which all Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the ascension is recorded (vv. 1-2). Forty days of Jesus’ resurrection appearances are noted. Many convincing proofs [sure tokens, tekmerion] are said to be offered (see Luke 24:13-53). Reportedly he spoke of the kingdom of God, ordering the apostles to remain in Jerusalem to wait for the Father’s promise (vv. 3-4). As John the Baptist baptized with water, the apostles will be baptized with the Holy Spirit (v. 5; cf. Luke 3:16; Mark 1:8). The apostles ask if their Lord will restore the kingdom to Israel (v. 6; cf. Luke 1:32). Jesus replies that it is not for them to know the time or periods set by the Father (v. 7). It seems that the mission of the church replaces concern about the kingdom of God for Luke (Eduard Schweizer, The Good News According to Luke, p. 326). The apostles are told that they will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them and will be Jesus’ witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, and to the ends of the earth (v. 8). This theme of the Spirit empowering the faithful as well as their universal missions is central to the book (2:12ff; Robert Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: A Literary Interpretation, p. 57). Then Jesus begins to ascend. Two men [andres] in white robes then appear. These men (presumably angels, though the Greek term employed does not authorize that interpretation) inform them that Jesus will come again in the same way that they had seen him ascend into heaven (vv. 9-11).

Application: The text provides an opportunity to reflect on how Jesus’ ascension makes love in Christ cosmic, so that to think of Jesus’ love for us becomes all the more awesome, majestic, and mysterious; not just a trivial thing to be ignored (Justification by Grace through Faith). Likewise the gift of the Holy Spirit which follows from the ascension is all the more an awesome mystery, events in life we can no longer easily trivialize.

Ephesians 1:15-23
This epistle is a circular letter, either written by Paul from prison late in his career or by a follower of his who had a hand in assembling the collection of Paul’s epistles. These conclusions follow from the fact that the letter includes vocabulary and stylistic characteristics different from the rest of the Pauline corpus. It is clear that the epistle is addressing a younger later generation of Christians (1:15). This lesson involves the author’s praise of the Ephesians and a thanksgiving for the blessings of God’s cosmic plans. The Ephesian faithful are first praised for their faith and love toward the saints (v. 15). Paul (the author) prays that they may receive wisdom regarding the greatness of God’s power for the faithful (vv. 17-19). God is said to put his power to work in Christ in raising him and seating him at the Lord’s right hand [dexios] (in the ascension) (v. 20). This is probably a reference to Psalm 110:1, where Yahweh directs his priest-king to sit at his right hand. To be at one’s right hand was to stand in the place of power and honor of a ruler (see 1 Kings 2:19). The ascension then entails that all things are under Christ, including the church of which he is the head [kephale]. (This designation is not used in the authentic Pauline letters.) The church is then his body [soma], the fullness [pleroma] of him who fills all in all (vv. 22-23; cf. Romans 12:5; 1 Corinthians 12:1-27).

Application: The concept that with the ascension Christ has all God’s power and honor, and all things are under him, entails a vision of the cosmic Christ, which implies that his creative loving nature is embodied in the creation. This insight into Providence and Justification by Grace brings joy, calm, and energy to the faithful (Sanctification).

Luke 24:44-53
We turn to the first installment of a two-part history of the church traditionally attributed to Luke (see the First Lesson for details on the book’s origins and the author’s agenda). This text is the conclusion of Jesus’ commissioning of the disciples during his final resurrection appearance (vv. 44-49), followed by the account of his ascension (vv. 50-53). Only in Acts (in the First Lesson) is express reference to the latter also made. Jesus claims that the words he uttered to the disciples (that the Messiah should suffer [v. 26]) demonstrate that the Law of Moses, the prophets, and Psalms has been fulfilled (v. 44). He opens the minds of the disciples to understand that his suffering and resurrection fulfill these Old Testament texts (vv. 45-46; cf. Hosea 6:2). This theme is more characteristic of Matthew, and it is interesting that the only parallel account to Luke’s story is found in Matthew (28:16ff), which does not include this proof from Old Testament prophecy.

The risen Lord proceeds to instruct that this word is to be proclaimed with the word of repentance and forgiveness of sins (v. 47). We have previously noted how characteristic it is of Luke to connect repentance and salvation, while not identifying them (Acts 2:38; Hans Conzelman, The Theology of St. Luke, p. 228). As witnesses, Jesus notes, the disciples are to receive what the Father promises (power [dunamis] from on high [ex hupsos]) and remain in Jerusalem until this is received (vv. 47-49), no doubt another Lukan reference to the faithful’s need for empowerment of the Holy Spirit in doing their mission. Jesus is reported as leading the disciples to the east of Jerusalem to Bethany to bless them, and then ascends to heaven (vv. 50-51). The disciples respond with worship, return to Jerusalem with joy, and are continually in the temple blessing God (vv. 52-53).

Application: A sermon on this text affords occasion to examine the ascension and its significance for daily life. Note how Jesus’ ascension was related to the giving of the Holy Spirit and to power and energy for mission (Pneumatology, Sanctification, and Mission). Though distant from us, Christ remains actively engaged in our lives, giving new insight about the faith and leading us into mission. With this awareness, Christ is not distant but present in a new, marvelous way, and like the disciples we can only respond in joy (Sanctification).

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Author of
Lectionary Scripture Notes
Mark Ellingsen is professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Mark Ellingsen

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