First Thoughts on Year A First Reading Acts Passages from the Lectionary

Easter 2

William Loader

Easter 2: 23 April Acts 2:14a, 22-32

This passage is an excerpt from Peter's speech at the day of Pentecost, for which the Lectionary provides the introduction in 2:14a. Luke, the name traditionally given to the author of the gospel and Acts, is recreating early Christian history. Faithful to the best historical methods of the day, he has composed a speech which he wants to persuade his hearers and readers is most likely to be the kind of thing that Peter might have said. The scene, too, reflects Luke's creation, because he dates the giving of the Spirit to the festival of ingathering of the harvest, Pentecost, 50 days after Passover. Our lectionary year assumes Luke's dating, though elsewhere no such dating is evident. In John the Spirit is breathed on the apostles on the evening of the day of resurrection after Jesus has encountered Mary Magdalene and then ascended (the gospel reading for today). Paul similarly knows no such scheme. Christ ascends to God's right hand at his resurrection and nothing suggests a delay before the Spirit is given.

Luke's historical reconstructions are therefore much more than history. They are narrative theology, to which we need to attune our ears. They can be brilliant and inspiring. His Pentecost narrative certainly is: harvest, indeed; the Spirit as wind; the echoes of Sinai's descending flame; the reversal of Babel. So when we come to Peter's speech, we are hearing Luke the theologian at work. At the same time, as in the narratives, Luke is frequently employing what he (probably rightly) perceives as very early tradition about both events and beliefs. Therefore while it is a misreading of Luke's historical method to treat Peter's speech as a verbatim report from a first listener - who knows if there ever was such a speech - it conveys to us what Luke believes on the basis of his tradition is likely to have been said.

It makes sense then that we hear Peter interpreting what happened to Jesus on the basis of the psalms of affliction. The earliest form of the passion narrative shows that the first Christians used the psalms, especially Psalm 22 (God-forsakenness; dividing garments; mockery), to come to terms with with Jesus' suffering and death. Luke's own preference for a calm and brave image of Jesus has him replace the opening words of the Psalm about being forsaken, by the confident: "Into your hands I commend my spirit" (23:46; Ps 31:5). Luke is again employing the psalms in composing Peter's speech, probably reflecting an awareness that they provided a major resource for finding meaning in the cross. Thus, having confronted his hearers about their responsibility for Jesus' death, he cites Psalm 15:8-11 and then goes on to cite Psalm 110:1, the most cited OT text in the NT.

Luke's theology comes through strongly in his opening statement about Jesus. Like Acts 10:34-43, it puts emphasis on Jesus' ministry. Luke does not have a theology in which Jesus' ministry is reduced to a preliminary to the cross and is of little significance in itself. After all, he has written a gospel! Paul's shorthand of preaching the cross has misled many to seeing only the cross as salvific, a theological truncation which invites mythologies of transaction, as though the earthly Jesus had no real salvation to offer. Here Luke's focus is not Jesus' "doing good" (Acts 10:38), but his miracles, depicting them as signs of divine approval (similarly Heb 2:4). The claim that miracles indicate divine approval was a standard propaganda ploy of the imperial establishment and such ploys led to bidding wars. They also led to a rather superficial faith, such that John's Jesus has no faith in such faith (2:23-25; 3:1-3).and Paul has to counter it with a lesson on love (1 Corinthians 13). Luke says more than this in his gospel and also in other speeches he has composed for the first apostles.

Luke charges his hearers with killing Jesus. That is an extraordinary claim, given that hundreds if not thousands of them, who had come up to the Pentecost festival from across the diaspora of east and west, had no such involvement. Even compared to Luke's own passion narrative, where as in Matthew we see a tendency to lay more blame on the Jewish authorities than on Pilate, this is a loose generalisation which lacks veracity and belongs to those texts upon which hate and anti-semitism could seize. In 3:17 we find some amelioration: they acted in ignorance. In the context the message of forgiveness is stronger than the message of blame. Luke also mentions the agency of Pilate ("Law-less"; i.e. non-Jew, Gentile, probably rather than wild and lawless) and of God. For Luke, God must have known and somehow predetermined this event, a comforting way of coming to terms and accepting suffering, but problematic in itself and especially when generalised. Not everything that happens can be attributed to a divine plan. Like the rhetoric of predestination, claims of divine control may have lees to say about divine determinism than the determination of faith to say: God has not abandoned me in this event and will not abandon me as I live through it.

In the use of Psalm 16 (15 in the Greek OT) we see the assumption that David wrote the psalms - whereas we know their authorship is not to be solved thus - and that they are to be read as predicting future events. Wresting them like this from their original contexts is at one level an artificial exercise, but it serves to give divine validation and value to events of one's own time. So the psalmist's thanksgiving for rescue from some terminal illness or affliction becomes a description of Jesus' resurrection from the realm of the dead. The oath referred to in 2:30 may allude to Ps 89:4, but could equally (also) allude to Ps 110:4, about the king to be enthroned and made a priest forever according the order of Melchisedek, which inspired the author of Hebrews. Our passage stops short of the allusion to Psalm 110:1, which comes in 2:33-36. We begin with 2:36 next week. Both Psalm 16(15) and Psalm 110 serve Luke's purpose in having Peter acclaim that the rejected Jesus has been appointed Israel's Messiah.

The loose assertion of blame serves not anger and resentment, but encouragement for people to change their minds (repent) and embrace Jesus. Acclaiming him Messiah, Christ, Son of David, could have meant lots of things, including much that the first Christians firmly rejected. The risqué assertion that Jesus is the Christ ("King of the Jews"!) made sense for them not as a new role description for Jesus who would from now on propagate a different gospel, but as a way of acclaiming him in the role he had fulfilled in his ministry and into which he now called all to become involved. The role definition is there in Luke 4:16-20, where now the "anointing" could be read as depicting the "Anointed one", the Messiah. They will quickly run out of miracles suitable for propaganda, and what abides is engagement in compassion for all, calling them into relationship with God and one another, and building communities which provide hope and look for a transformation of society from one of Rome's peace to one of God's peace.

Gospel: Easter 2: 23 April  John 20:19-31
Epistle: Easter 2: 23 April 1 Peter 1:3-9