Today in the Spirit: Easter 3A

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By the Easter 3 Sunday Collect and readings the church moves forward with its messaging on Christian living based on nothing less than the truth of Jesus Christ resurrected and ascended. The Collect (used mid-Pentecost in the 1979 BCP but moved to the Easter season in the 2019 BCP) prays for grace based on the revelation of Jesus Christ as “both a sacrifice for sin and an example of godly living.” In Year A the Gospel reading in Luke 24:13-35 recounts Jesus’ resurrection appearance to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. One can imagine that as Jesus is explaining to these two the things concerning himself in the Scriptures he might have used bits of the assigned OT reading in Isaiah 43:1-12, like Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. The alternate first reading in Acts 2:14a,36-47 gives us the second half of Peter’s first sermon after Pentecost (the first half being assigned last week), plus an added description of life in the first churches of Jerusalem. The appointed Psalm 116:12-19 (verses 11-16 in the BCP Psalter), along with the reading from Isaiah, opens the heart of the worshiper to the idea that joy over salvation from God must overflow in costly service to the Lord in the world, even the death of his saints which the psalmist declares is precious in the sight of the LORD. Continuing in 1 Peter through Easter Year A, the assigned epistle reading in 1 Peter 1:13-25 likewise calls the church to action and holiness in service to the Lord who, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, has given us the imperishable seed of eternal life.

The Collect

Almighty God, you gave your only Son to be for us both a sacrifice for sin and an example of godly living: Give us grace thankfully to receive his inestimable benefits, and daily to follow the blessed steps of his most holy life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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You Are My Witnesses (Isaiah 43:1-12)

All the nations gather together,
    and the peoples assemble.
Who among them can declare this,
    and show us the former things?
Let them bring their witnesses to prove them right,
    and let them hear and say, It is true.
“You are my witnesses,” declares the Lord,
    “and my servant whom I have chosen,
that you may know and believe me
    and understand that I am he.
Before me no god was formed,
    nor shall there be any after me.
I, I am the Lord,
    and besides me there is no savior.
I declared and saved and proclaimed,
    when there was no strange god among you;
    and you are my witnesses,” declares the Lord, “and I am God” (9-12).

It is well known that the last third of the book of Isaiah (40-66) is directed to Israel in exile. But for people scattered in small communities under the control of dominating empires like Babylon in the north and Egypt in the south, we can well imagine the words of the prophet Comfort, comfort (Isaiah 40:1) coming across as hollow and dreamy. YHWH’s message in this reading is basically one of wait and see. Using images of a trial court in the heavenly places, the great nations and their gods will present witnesses who will never be able to testify to any real strength over the God of Israel. The unlikely deliverance of Israel will be their testimony that YHWH is the only God. So, says YHWH to his people, in that trial You are my witnesses. Devotionally, this word is for you and me as we look with fear on the giants arrayed against us as Christians living in secular society. How can there really be any comfort against the unchecked tyranny of evil in all its forms wreaking havoc at work, in schools and among our children? In the Easter season we hear the testimony of the Father God, see my risen Son is my witness–and you who live in his power are my witnesses. You have seen something already, wait and see, there is much more to come. Today, Holy Spirit, let us not be dismayed in our small community of exiled believers. Help us live as Peter puts it the Epistle reading assigned for today, as foreigners here in reverent fear (1 Peter 1:17 NIV).

And They (Acts 2:14a,36-47)

So those who received [Peter’s] word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved (41-47).

Notice from Luke’s writing it is the very people who received [Peter’s] word and were baptized one day who devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers shortly thereafter. For all the signs and wonders in Acts, there is possibly no greater miracle recorded by Luke than the birth of the early church in Jerusalem. How is it that these new disciples in such great numbers are so quickly put into shape? Were they already culturally inclined to pray and meet in the temple and break bread in one another’s homes? Maybe, yes, to some degree–but this formation of a community life is nothing less than extraordinary, a triumph of the Spirit against the grain in that society (see also 4:32-35). In the church today we can and should make goals, strategize to meet targets, and do everything humanly possible to organize the church. But in the end let us never forget that everything depends on the power of the Holy Spirit of Jesus to set things in order. Today, Holy Spirit, we plead for Christian revival in our time and place, for the rising up of a winsome and effective community like we see in Acts. 

The Death of His Servants (Psalm 116:12-19)

What shall I render to the Lord
    for all his benefits to me?
I will lift up the cup of salvation
    and call on the name of the Lord,
I will pay my vows to the Lord
    in the presence of all his people.
Precious in the sight of the Lord
    is the death of his saints.
O Lord, I am your servant;
    I am your servant, the son of your maidservant.
    You have loosed my bonds.
I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving
    and call on the name of the Lord.
I will pay my vows to the Lord
    in the presence of all his people,
in the courts of the house of the Lord,
    in your midst, O Jerusalem.
Praise the Lord! (12-19).

Our psalmist is going along, talking about personal commitment to YHWH, when out of nowhere it seems he exclaims, Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints. Make no mistake, death here (Heb. mawet, used over 150 times in the OT) means the end of physical life. We might ask, “Giving thanks to God, keeping my promises, okay, but martyrdom?” Well, yes, truly following God is nothing less than a martyrdom to self. Remember Jesus’ teaching: For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? (Luke 9:24-25). Our Christian life is a series of spiritual deaths, the killing off of our having things our own way here and exerting our own control there, until one day we die physically. Are you just now troubled before the Lord on which way to turn on a matter of importance to you? It could be your anxiety is Jesus patiently waiting for you to die to your insistence on shaping things according to your preference and convenience before he reveals anything to you. Precious (Heb. also scarce) to God is that death of self in you, so that you come to the point of joining the psalmist: O LORD, I am your servant…I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving and call on the name of the LORD. Such self-emptying devotion is scarce among his people, and of great worth in the heart of the Father. Today, Holy Spirit, assist me to surrender my control, to put aside my prejudices, to forfeit my rights to have things my own way, that I might with the singer of these verses follow you happily.  

Do Not Be Conformed to the Passions of Your Former Ignorance (1 Peter 1:13-25)

Therefore, preparing your minds for action,and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (13-16).

Here again this week is an opportunity to sit under the earlier and later teaching of Peter (Acts 2:14a,36-47 and this reading from 1 Peter). It is interesting to see from the beginning the compulsion of the Holy Spirit on Peter to advocate strongly for the avoidance of nominal faith–a careless form of believing the doctrines of Christ without making them count for adjustments in personal behavior. In Acts, Peter follows up his instructions to repent and be baptized with the admonition to save yourselves from this corrupt generation. Thirty or so years later the message in his letter to Christians is still: As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct. There is for Christians in any age and place, for the mature and immature alike, the two-sided, holy compulsion to be built up into the reign of God and to guard against the tyrannical unholy forces–Satan and our own sinful nature–always with designs to turn our allegiance from that reign. Peter is calling for a soberness of spirit that, yes, will receive the joy of Christ’s coming, but then move past pure emotion to apply the reality of new life in Christ to daily routines: how we live at home in families, how we behave at work, how we interact with others on the street, and how to suffer with grace (see 2:13ff). Today, in the Spirit, go before God prayerfully searching for the practical ways you can set your hope on the resurrection of Christ, preparing your minds for action.  

They Stood Still, Looking Sad (Luke 24:13-35)

That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad (13-17).

There is an awkward moment at the beginning of this narrative worth contemplating. Luke opens with Cleopas and another disciple of Jesus talking animatedly about all these things that had happened in Jerusalem. Suddenly a stranger appears (it is Jesus, but the two do not know it). The newcomer inquires about what they are discussing, and the text says they stood still, looking sad (Greek: skuthropos, “somber” or “downcast”). Perhaps hesitant to air their feelings before a stranger, perhaps to avoid becoming emotional, they shut down. Now Jesus wants to reveal himself to them as the risen Lord, but to do so he decides not to stun them (like he does with the group in the next section, Luke 24:36ff) but meet them in their sadness and draw their story out of them. Have you ever looked back at your passing through a difficult time and noted the skill with which the Son of God handled you? Depending on what is needed, we observe in the Scriptures and by personal experience that Jesus knows when to be stern and frank and when to be gentle and discreet. He knows the amount of time to take and the choice of words to say. Now, astoundingly, he uses the church to carry out the physical aspects of his ministry to us. By the time they reached Emmaus, these two disciples were probably far better equipped to move forward with their knowledge of the resurrection of Jesus than they would have been before. They had heard the Lord’s teaching from all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. They had broken bread with Jesus. They had spent precious time with him. The road to Emmaus was a way to Jerusalem, and so the zeal of the psalmist for the presence of God in Zion comes to mind here: Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion…No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly (Psalm 84:5,11). Today, in the Spirit, noting the care you took with these two disciples, Lord, I am grateful for your wise and sensitive treatment of me.  

Today in the Spirit

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Published on

April 17, 2023

Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

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