Thursday, April 16, 2015

"He opened their minds to understand the scriptures": Readings for the Third Sunday of Easter

Two themes are underscored by this Sunday's lectionary readings. First, Jesus' passion was anticipated by the prophets. Second, Jesus died for a purpose, namely, the forgiveness of sins.

As the lectionary will also make clear, however, recognizing these truths is not simply the result of rationalistic biblical interpretation. It requires faith.

FIRST READING: Acts 3:13-15, 17-19
Peter said to the people:
“The God of Abraham,
the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,
the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus,
whom you handed over and denied in Pilate’s presence
when he had decided to release him.
You denied the Holy and Righteous One
and asked that a murderer be released to you.
The author of life you put to death,
but God raised him from the dead; of this we are witnesses.
Now I know, brothers,
that you acted out of ignorance, just as your leaders did;
but God has thus brought to fulfillment
what he had announced beforehand
through the mouth of all the prophets,
that his Christ would suffer.
Repent, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be wiped away.”
There are many fascinating aspects of Peter's speech. Among other things, he refers to Jesus as the "author of life" (or "prince of life"; archēgon tēs zōēs), a reference that might be seen as highlighting Jesus' divinity (though that could be disputed, hence the interesting discussion).

However, here let us focus on one particular aspect of this passage: Peter insists that Christ's suffering was foretold by the prophets.

Specifically, the language employed by Peter seems to link Jesus to Isaiah's famous "Suffering Servant" passage.

The reference to Jesus as the God's "servant" and as the "Righteous One" evokes Isaiah 53:11, "by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous".[1]  Of course, there is something ironic here: the "author/prince of life" is also a "servant".

That Peter speaks of Jesus' passion and death, of course, also fits well with an allusion to Isaiah's Servant passage, since that figure is described as suffering:
3 He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. 4 Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. 5 But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53:3-5)
Finally, Peter explains why his audience ought to repent and believe in Jesus: "that your sins may be wiped away" (Acts 3:19). It is hard not to hear echoes of Isaiah 53 in this. Isaiah explains the Suffering Servant dies in order to bring about the forgiveness of sins:
"he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed" and that he shall "make many to be accounted righteous; and he shall bear their iniquities" (Isaiah 53:11). 
The speech of Peter, then, emphasizes that Jesus' death was anticipated by the prophets (namely, Isaiah). Recognition of this, Peter insists, should lead to faith. While the rejection of Jesus was the result of ignorance, looking back it should now be clear that everything that happened to Jesus was a result of God's plan. Comprehending this--realizing that, in fact, Jesus' death was in accordance with the divine plan--should lead to repentance and conversion.

In short, for Peter, conversion is the result of understanding the Christ-event in view of the scriptures. The Gospel, however, will also make it clear that such an understanding is not possible without faith.

RESPONSORIAL PSALM: Ps 4:2, 4, 7-8, 9
R. (7a) Lord, let your face shine on us.
R. Alleluia.
When I call, answer me, O my just God,
you who relieve me when I am in distress;
have pity on me, and hear my prayer!
Know that the LORD does wonders for his faithful one;
the LORD will hear me when I call upon him. R. 

O LORD, let the light of your countenance shine upon us!
You put gladness into my heart. R.

As soon as I lie down, I fall peacefully asleep,
for you alone, O LORD,
bring security to my dwelling. R.
In the First Reading we looked at a speech delivered by Peter that identifies Jesus with the Suffering Servant passage of Isaiah. However, in Acts Peter also links Jesus with the figure described in Psalm 16 (cf. Acts 2:25-28). Indeed, the early Christians regularly viewed the psalms as prophecies. In fact, in the Gospel reading for this Sunday, which is taken from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus explains that "everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled" (Luke 24:44). 

Read in the liturgy, especially against the backdrop of the first reading, this psalm seems to be applied to Christ. Jesus is the one who undergoes distress but is finally delivered. The reference to sleep in the last line used of the psalm could be understood in terms of Christ's death--he rests in peace knowing that his death will bring redemption ("security").

Christ, thus, is understood as the perfect model of the faithful one described in the psalm. All, therefore, can pray the psalm in light of this. In other words, believers can pray these words in the midst of their own affliction, confident that, like Jesus, they too will in the end find security in the Lord. 

SECOND READING: 1 John 2:1-5a
My children, I am writing this to you
so that you may not commit sin.
But if anyone does sin, we have an Advocate with the Father,
Jesus Christ the righteous one.
He is expiation for our sins,
and not for our sins only but for those of the whole world.
The way we may be sure that we know him is to keep
his commandments.
Those who say, “I know him,” but do not keep his commandments
are liars, and the truth is not in them.
But whoever keeps his word,
the love of God is truly perfected in him.
The passage here begins with an admonition not to sin. However, John is realistic. He understands that his readers may very well fall. If that is to happen, John reminds us that we have a "advocate" with the Father. 

The Greek term used here, paraklētos, is also found in the Gospel of John, where it is applied to Christ as well as the Holy Spirit (i.e., the "Paraclete"). Implying that he himself is also a "Paraclete", Jesus tells the apostles:
And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Paraclete [paraklētos], to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you. (John 14:16-17; cf. also John 14:26; 15:26; 16:7). 
The meaning of the term paraklētos is debated. Different options have been suggested. In the second century, Origen suggested it means "comforter" [2], an interpretation that was picked up by later writers, including Thomas Aquinas. In context, this meaning makes sense.

However, the best evidence suggests a different meaning is in view. It seems more likely that the term in John 14 should be understood in terms of a legal "advocate", i.e., a “counselor” or “attorney”. Indeed, John's Gospel uses a number of motifs associated with such a courtroom setting such as the concepts of "witnesses", "testimony", "truth", "judgment", etc. The language of "Paraclete" seems to cohere well with this conceptual matrix.

Here it is helpful to understand the Greco-Roman courtroom model that is probably in the background.[3] In such a setting there was no “public prosecutor”. At a trial there were only private accusers (katēgor, Rev 12:10) who served as witnesses against the accused. Witnesses for the accused served as "advocates". The advocate was the one who defends accused in a courtroom and intercedes for him. It is used in ancient literature synonymously with synēgoros, a term which is the opposite of katēgōr (“accuser”). 

Of course, Scripture uses this kind of legal terminology for the devil. "Satan" is, literally, the "accuser" (cf. Rev 12:10; Job; 1:6ff.; Gen. Rab. 38:7; 84:2; etc.). In Jewish tradition, various figures were associated with the role of "advocate", including Moses [4], Michael [5], God [6], the Logos [7], and the Holy Spirit [8].

The idea then would seem to be that the Spirit is the witness on the side of believers. In fact, this also coheres with what is said later on in John 16:
Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8 And when he comes, he will convince the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: 9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no more; 11 concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.” (John 16:7–11)
Here the Holy Spirit is described as prosecuting the disciples’ persecutors (John 16:7–11).

Jesus' promise to send another Paraclete is noteworthy for it implies that Jesus himself is also a Paraclete. In fact, 1 John clearly states that Jesus is a Paraclete: "My little children, I am writing this to you so that you may not sin; but if any one does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1). 

In his comprehensive two-volume commentary on the Gospel of John, Craig Keener has compiled an impressive list of the parallels between Christ and the Spirit in John.[10] 

Keener explains, “The discourses are clear that the Spirit, above all else, carries on Jesus’ mission and mediates his presence. . . ”[11] 

Moreover, by describing the Spirit as the Paraclete, the divinity of the Spirit is implied. Elsewhere in John's Gospel Jesus is said to be divine. Speaking of Jesus, John tells us that "the Word was God" (John 1:1) and that he is "one" with the Father (John 10:30). John 5 explains that Jesus taught that God was his Father and thereby made himself "equal with God" (John 5:18). If Jesus is a divine Paraclete and the Spirit is another Paraclete, he would also seem to be a divine person. 

Jesus' description of the Spirit as another Paraclete led the fathers and doctors of the Church to recognize Trinitarian theology in John. If the Spirit is a Paraclete like Jesus and Jesus is divine, the Spirit must also be divine.

In 1 John, though, there seems to be an additional dimension to the language of "Paraclete". John links Christ's role as Paraclete to his identity as the "righteous one" who makes "expiation" for sin. Whether or not an allusion is intended--scholars disagree on this--the language coheres with the Suffering Servant passage: "he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors" (Isaiah 53:12).[11] Although the second reading is not always tied to the first in the lectionary, the overlap is hard to miss here: in both cases Christ is presented as the one who suffers and through whom forgiveness of sins is accomplished.

Finally, the love of God is said to be "perfected" in those who keep the commandments. God's love is what empowers believers to keep the commandments. Indeed, it is not hard to perhaps see echoes of Isaiah 53 here as well. Isaiah announces that the "righteous one", the Servant, suffers in order to "make many to be accounted righteous" (Isaiah 53:11). In other words, the Servant's death--the "righteous one's" death--is ordered towards the making others righteous. 

In a certain way, in this we go beyond what was said about Jesus' death in the First Reading. In Acts, Peter explained that recognizing that Jesus' death was in conformity with God's plan should lead to repentance. 1 John explains that Jesus' death and the love of God is what actually makes it possible for the believer to be freed from sin in the first place.

GOSPEL: Luke 24:35-48 
The two disciples recounted what had taken place on the way,
and how Jesus was made known to them
in the breaking of bread.
While they were still speaking about this,
he stood in their midst and said to them,
“Peace be with you.”
But they were startled and terrified
and thought that they were seeing a ghost.
Then he said to them, “Why are you troubled?
And why do questions arise in your hearts?
Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself.
Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones
as you can see I have.”
And as he said this,
he showed them his hands and his feet.
While they were still incredulous for joy and were amazed,
he asked them, “Have you anything here to eat?”
They gave him a piece of baked fish;
he took it and ate it in front of them.
He said to them,
“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you,
that everything written about me in the law of Moses
and in the prophets and psalms must be fulfilled.”
Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.
And he said to them,
“Thus it is written that the Christ would suffer
and rise from the dead on the third day
and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins,
would be preached in his name
to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
You are witnesses of these things.”
In the Gospel reading the reality of Jesus resurrection is emphasized. He is not a ghost; he can eat fish! 

The disciples, however, are amazed. The resurrection was not anticipated by them. Seeing the Risen Lord, they believe but they are "incredulous". They cannot process what is happening. In fact, they didn't expect Jesus to die much less be raised from the dead. 

Jesus insists that what has transpired was anticipated in the scriptures of Israel. However, they clearly did not see that. Indeed, there is little evidence of widespread belief in a coming suffering messiah in ancient Judaism. Certain Old Testament passages might have been seen as suggesting such a notion (cf. especially Daniel 9:26), but the notion of a defeated Messiah seems to have been foreign to Jewish thinking. Peter's response to Jesus' passion prediction in Matthew (cf. Matthew 16:22: "God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you!"), makes it clear that the disciples themselves were adverse to the idea that such a thing would take place. 

What's the point? I think it is this: Jesus fulfills the scriptures . . . but that cannot simply be grasped by purely rationalistic exegesis. To see that, one must have faith. 

This Sunday let us ask the Lord to receive that faith so that we too can repent and receive the forgiveness of sins. Only in this, will receive the Easter "peace" he offers us. 

[1] See Craig Keener, Acts (3 vols.; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 2:1092: "Luke's primary literary background with his audience . . . is biblical, and this is the pimrary source of his allusion. Thus the most likely usage to come to their mind, given the allusion to the servant in Acts 3:13, would be Isaiah's title of 'righteous one' for the servant in Isaiah 53:11."

[2] See Anthony Casurella, The Johannine Paraclete in the Church Fathers: A Study in the History of Exegesis (Tübingen: Mohr, 1983), 3–4.

[3] See Craig Keener, Gospel of John (2 vols.; Peabody: Hendricksen, 2003), 2:957.

[4] Deut. Rab. 3:11.

[5] Exod. Rab. 18:5; cf. T. Sol. 1:7; Deut. Rab. 11:10; etc.

[6] Job 16:19–21; m. ‘Abot 4:22.

[7] Philo, Heir, 205.

[8] Deut. Rab. 3:11.

[9] Adapted from Keener, Gospel of John, 2:965.

[10] Keener, Gospel of John, 2:965.

[11] See Peter Stuhlmacher, "Isaiah 53 in the Gospel and Acts," in The Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 in Jewish and Christian Sources (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 159-60. 

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