Third Sunday of Easter, year A, April 26, 2020
The book of Acts introduces pagan converts to the roots of their new religion. Today we read of an early stage when Peter addressed a strictly Jewish audience about Jesus.
The writer of the First Letter of Peter tells his audience they are fortunate to live in the time when they could turn to Christ from paganism.
Two discouraged disciples had left the company of believers in Jerusalem. They are turned around and rejoined with the church first by coming to understand the scriptures, then by breaking bread.
The Historical Situation: This is the beginning of Peter's first public proclamation about Jesus. The context is the whole Pentecost story, which you know well. That's why Peter's last words in the passage are "he [the risen Christ] received the promise of the Holy Spirit from the Father, and poured him [the Holy Spirit] forth, as you see and hear."
The Theological Background: Notice the assumptions about the audience of this speech. First Peter addresses them as "You who are Jews," then, as something of an afterthought, "all of you staying in Jerusalem." Then it's "You who are Israelites." Peter refers at length to Israel's beloved king David, quoting Psalm 16, which is ascribed to David, and asserting that David "foresaw and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ." The Jewish character of the audience described, and the setting early in Acts, distinguishes this from later speeches of Peter, and from speeches of Paul, which addressed Gentile audiences. Today's reading tries to describe a time before the earliest Christians realized that God was calling them to embrace all people. At this stage, they act like they're only the first few Jews to catch on to the Messiaship of Jesus, and their goal is only to convince other Jews of what they realize. As you hear and proclaim other sections of Acts throughout the Easter season, try to comprehend this expansion of the mission God is giving to the church. Notice the events that convince the believers to enlarge their scope. While this may be our first reading today because it's about the resurrection, it also sets the stage for that great drama. (Of course Acts itself wasn't written for a Jewish audience, but for an already mixed church that needed to work out some "seniority" issues and other conflicts between is Jewish Christian and Gentile Christian members.)
Proclaiming It: In the first place, pronounce carefully a few words that are not part of our everyday vocabulary: "commended," "lawless," "throes," "exulted," "netherworld," (twice) and "exalted, " (not exulted). Some of these words are key to Peter's argument.
Secondly, you may well feel stirred by your reading of this passage. But resolve now not to deliver the whole speech at one high level of oratorical intensity. If your congregation is primarily television-sated people in a developed country, their attention spans can't handle two and half minutes of that. (Right. Proclamation of this passage, at a moderate pace, takes the time consumed by five TV commercials.) Specifically:
The Historical Situation: As we said last week, in introducing 1 Peter, the writer wants to give his audience a sense of God's providential plan working out in the course of their lives and in the history of which they have become a part. The writer continues to use long and convoluted sentences, challenging to proclaim. There are only two sentences here, in length 60 words and 42 words. No kidding.
Let's analyze them.
The first sentence says: IF you invoke as Father the God who judges justly (who judges each person according to that person' deeds) THEN act reverently during your sojourn (your years on earth) for you have been released from the pagan way of life (which your ancestors practiced) Your release was paid for not by perishable silver and gold but by the blood of Christ which blood can be compared to lamb's blood in some ritual sacrifices. The second sentence says: The coming of Christ was in God's plan for the world all along. You are fortunate to have come along after Christ because now you can believe in God in God who raised him from the dead so now your faith and hope are in God (not in whatever they were in when you were pagans).
As with last week's second reading, note that I've been forced to break up the overlong sentences. In Proclaiming It, you can do this only with careful phrasing and varied tones of voice. To prepare, print out the text (or use your missallette) and mark up the copy with pauses, emphases, changes of tone, brackets enclosing units of thought, whatever it takes. Practice this aloud and often. Practice in front of a friendly critic who will forgo the comfort of a missallette, so he or she can tell you what you seem to be saying.
Remember the writer's goals (same goals as last Sunday):
The Supper at Emmaus, a painting by the Italian Baroque master Caravaggio, executed in 1601, and now in the National Gallery in London. I love the expressions of astonishment in the faces and postures of the disciples.
The wikipedia article makes these observations about details in the painting: "Cleopas wears the scallop shell of a pilgrim. The other apostle wears torn clothes. Cleopas gesticulates in a perspectively-challenging extension of arms in and out of the frame of reference. The standing groom, forehead smooth and face in darkness, appears oblivious to the event. The painting is unusual for the life-sized figures, the dark and blank background. The table lays out a still-life meal. Like the world these apostles knew, the basket of food teeters perilously over the edge."
In a 1606 painting of the scene, the artist includes two women and subdues the gestures of the disciples. What's shown here should perhaps be called "detail" because it's slightly cropped. Click here for a 900-pixel version, also cropped.
This page updated February 28, 2020