Preaching on Easter's Third Sunday

April 18th, 2023

Acts 2:14a, 36-41. From last week, now we continue Peter’s first and great Pentecost sermon. The whole thing makes me anxious. To say Christ is “Lord and Messiah”? Both are hugely important but dangerous terms!! Someone I read recently suggested that if you’re quick to think of Christ as Lord, like the one in church, the one before whom we are subservient, then you’re probably the kind of person who might accept or inflict an unjust hierarchy from or on others in this world.

And ever since I tried to explain Jesus to a group of Jewish teenagers, I’ve found that a focus on Jesus as Messiah just feels misguided. He was, and is (a point crucial for N.T. Wright among many others) – but there are so many other ways to think about and name Jesus that we needn’t expend so much energy on a title that we’ve co-opted from our friends the Jews. 

Peter’s proof that he’s the Messiah pivots on the notion that the very people he’s preaching to were the ones who crucified him. Here’s the stunner: on hearing this, “They were cut to the heart.” That’s what’s hard to impossible to replicate (at least in my modest preaching). More resonant for our people today is when he urges them to “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation” (verse 40). All will nod! The problem is they will mis-locate where the corruption really lies – usually (in their minds) in those of the opposing political ideology, not in the problem of ideology (= idolatry) itself, and in the whole culture in which we are enmeshed.

After noting “the divine propensity for interruption," Willie Jennings underlines Peter’s best point: “God will stand over against religious faith, as neither its friend nor its enemy, but as God. Here is the point of offense: all religious faith believe it already has God in its sight. Those who hear this message, however, encounter a difference born of the body of Jesus.”

The appeal to repent needn’t be to feel grungy and guilty, but to rethink things, to realize the truth about yourself, God and the world, and orient your thinking and acting as best you can as liberated by that truth.

Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19. Again, as with last week’s readings, we perhaps should preach just this text, as for the early Christians, they had no other Bible for decades! This Psalm: just 17 days earlier, Jesus and his disciples had sung these words at the Last Supper. Without stealing the Psalm from those who aren’t Christians, pondering it in this context is moving. “The snares of death encompassed me.” “I will lift up the cup of salvation” (which Jesus did within minutes!). “I will pay my vows” – made when? At his Baptism? When do we pay the vows made at our Baptism?? “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints”: Jesus and his friends sang this moments before he went out into the dark to be arrested, tried, and executed. Precious here implies both “dear” but also “costly” – and also “beautiful” (as Jason Byassee points out)

Well worth noting: “I love the Lord” – but why? “He has heard my voice and my supplications.” Not “he answered and did what I asked.” There’s something in (a) the virtue of simply being heard, and (b) the truth that God doesn’t just do what we ask!

1 Peter 1:17-23. I shiver when I read that God “judges all impartially according to their deeds.” Houston, we have a problem… The author (could it be the Peter?) is debunking the idea that God is partial toward the holy or the religious insiders of his day. That God isn’t just a judge adjudicating your behavior, notice Peter says that this Christ business was “destined before the foundation of the world.” As Barth put it, there was a cross in heart of God when about to create the universe.

What did that cross achieve? We are “ransomed by his precious blood.” "Ransomed, lutro in Greek, means paid but also delivered, rescued – and it’s from “futile ways,” the Greek being better translated “idols.” These futile idolatries are “inherited from your ancestors” – and I get puzzled but hopefully inquisitive looks when I suggest in preaching that even some lovely religiosity and worldly wisdom you got from parents and grandparents might be curiously out of kilter when it comes to the realities of God’s kingdom. Joel Green’s wisdom intrigues: “Interestingly, in 1 Peter 1:18-19, sin and its consequences per se are not the focus of redemption; ‘the emptiness of your inherited way of life’ is.”

St. Francis, interestingly enough, was reported by his first biographer to have been “reared by his parents according to the vanity of the age. By long imitating their worthless life and character he himself was made more vain and arrogant.” Parents in my church groom their children to fit in, to succeed, to get ahead – we might add “according to the vanity of the age.” Francis had to shed that vain way of life as he shed his clothing in the famous scene when he was put on trial by his father. As Flannery O’Connor is quoted as saying, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.”

Luke 24:13-35. One of our richest, most evocative narratives! Hard not to over-explain or man-splain it. Tempting just to hold up the image by Caravaggio (or maybe Rembrandt’s) and just ponder in the quiet. The trudging disciples are deep in conversation; the Greek word here is homileo? Is a homily an intense discussion? Does the unrecognized presence of Jesus echo Genesis 28, when Jacob awoke and realized “The Lord was in this place and I did not know it”?

Jesus noses his way in, asking what they are talking about. David Lyle Jeffrey suggests this might be “a warning for theologians… It is possible to be so engrossed in our wearied debates that we fail to know Jesus as he is.” It’s not reading another book to get better information about Jesus; it’s an intimate awareness of his presence. St. Augustine pointed out that “the Teacher was walking with them along the way, and he himself was the way.”

It’s their disappointment that opens the window to the heart for our listeners. The great short story writer Raymond Carver declared the predominant mood among Americans in recent decades is “disappointment.” The Greek skythropos means even more, akin to “sadness,” but Amy-Jill Levine suspects the Greek has tucked inside it a hint of anger. Our people are disappointed in – gosh, everything. Do they harbor a touch of anger that things haven’t panned out as they’d wished, even their religious lives? I heard a phrase recently about “mourning the life you think you deserved.” That’s it, isn’t it?

The crucifixion of Christ and the first reports of his resurrection did not provoke hymns or an explosion of faith, any more than Easter Sunday inspired your people to profound discipleship. Back to trudging down the old road. And yet there are glimmers of hope, even for our tired people overly familiar with the story. The guys on the road recognized Jesus only after three things happened: 

1. They delved into the Scriptures together. Too often we want to know God without troubling ourselves with the Bible, but (as Luther put it) the Bible is “the swaddling clothes in which Christ is laid.” The Scriptures are God’s divinely-ordained, merciful, gracious means by which we can know and experience God – and especially when we probe the Scriptures with other seekers. The book is hard, even weird, takes immense time and patience, has no quick answers – as I tried to explain in this short video to my people recently! Somehow owning the lunacy of it gives people permission to shudder – but maybe keep reading.

2. Jesus was known to them in the breaking of the bread. Holy Communion is the highest moment of the Christian life, for Christ is mysteriously present each time we gather at the table and break this bread, symbolic of his act of salvation – and do so together, for we are one with him, one together because of him. And, surprisingly:

3. Don’t forget that their simple effort at hospitality was the prelude to their awareness of Christ! He was going on, but they “constrained” him to stay with them, to share a meal. Again, we often feel we do not know Christ because we never meet up with the poor, we never reach out to those desperately in need of food and shelter. But when we do, not only do we help others, but we discover Christ, alive and blessing us. Can you tell a personal story, or a vignette from the life of your church, when the Scriptures did open some eyes, when being at the table really was an encounter with the living Lord, or when hospitality to the stranger did usher in Christ himself – or maybe all three?


What can we say April 23? Easter 3 originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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