Easter 3: 19 April Luke 24:36b-48
Last week we noted the similarity between this passage and John 20:19-23. Perhaps the writer of the fourth gospel had some acquaintance with the stories in Luke or drew on a similar source.
The focus in Luke 24:36b-43 is dramatic proof that Jesus really did rise from the dead. This is being asserted against doubting hearers of the gospel. These doubters have found their way into the narrative. The disciples play their role to a point of incredulity, leaving the hearers astonished that they could be so unbelieving. The tension reaches a paradoxical climax in verse 40 where Luke states that the disciples were unbelieving for joy! The proof is sealed when Jesus asks for something to eat and proceeds to eat a morsel of fish. It is as concrete as the invitation in John 20:27 that Thomas reach out and put his finger in Jesus’ wounds.
"It really did happen!" That was the message, but it was a message fraught with some difficulty. Jesus appears embodied, flesh and blood, and eats fish. He is not just a spirit. Yet this is a resurrection body which is traditionally not the same as a physical body - as Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 15 and Daniel 12 illustrates. Most images of resurrection bodies assume this different character. The transfiguration body of Jesus assumes the same. The Easter stories assume that Jesus could materialise and dematerialise, appear and disappear. Luke’s emphasis on physicality should probably also be understood in this light, although it can lead to the notion that Jesus, since his resurrection, was always visibly somewhere in and around Jerusalem for forty days, before finally removing himself by ascension. Today’s imaginings of a physical ascension become gloriously entangled in meaningless speculation about Jesus in orbit or how far Jesus would have travelled across the galaxies by now and, not least, where heaven is!
Such proof stories are designed to confirm faith in the resurrection: that Jesus has been vindicated by God, is alive, and wants his disciples to continue his work. We may have quite different ways of affirming the same thing. Luke does not leave it there. In 24:44-48 he portrays Jesus’ instructions about that work. Luke produces a second version of the scene in Acts 1:3-8. It is, effectively, what Luke wants his hearers to understand about Jesus’ death and resurrection and is striking in its simplicity.
The first point is that Jesus’ death and resurrection was not a random event. It fulfilled scripture (described by Luke as the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms - a fairly full canon). ‘It was meant to be’ is one way of coping with one’s story, but also has its problems. This had been the theme of Jesus on the Emmaus road. It is also a common emphasis in the preaching which Luke portrays in Acts. There we find the scriptures Luke had in mind. They included the Psalms and (our) favourite, Isaiah 53, which the Ethiopian eunuch was reading (Acts 8:32-33). Notice even there the emphasis is not on Jesus’ dying vicariously, although Luke is aware of that tradition. Rather the focus is the suffering itself and then the vindication. Did his readers need assurance that such a shameful end was not to be a source of embarrassment, especially in a Roman world? Did they need to be reminded that such suffering might come their way? Certainly the focus is on ultimate triumph and hope.
24:47 points forward to their task: to proclaim forgiveness of sins in his name to all the world. It finds its echo in Acts 1:8. ‘You shall receive power after the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you shall be my witness in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.’ 24:49 also speaks of empowerment. 24:48 speaks of being witnesses. 24:47 speaks of beginning at Jerusalem. Those who are to be witnesses are those who witnessed the events of Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection. The rest of us are not eye witnesses, but secondary bearers of their testimony.
The key aspects of the testimony are the name and the forgiveness. The name is the person and his power. Forgiveness is the primary benefit. Luke has Peter later put it this way: ‘You know what happened in all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism which John announced, about Jesus from Nazareth, how God anointed him with the Holy Spirit and power, who went around doing good and healing all who were disempowered by the devil, because God was with him. And we are his witnesses...’ (Acts 10:37-39a).
For Luke, to fulfil the hope of the resurrection is to tell the story of Jesus (testimony). That means telling what he did, how he was rejected and then vindicated; and it is at the same time to live it by the power of the same Spirit, by doing good and bringing liberation for all. This includes forgiveness of sins. It is radically simple. The canon of scripture offers us much more than this, but this is a model which continues to speak to people. Its inspiration is in the parables, like those of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son - ultimately in Jesus, himself.
First Reading: Easter 3: 19 April Acts 3:12-19
Epistle: Easter 3: 19 April 1 John 3:1-7
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