Gospel for the Third Sunday of Easter (18 April 2021)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence”.
Then 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, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things (Luke 24:35–48 – NRSV).
This is the third appearance of the risen Christ in Luke. It takes place in Jerusalem on the same evening following the discovery of the empty tomb, immediately after the return of the two disciples from Emmaus with their report. “Christ appears to the nucleus Christian community, the house-church of his followers, gathered together in bewilderment, astonishment, and incredulity (24:36–43)” (Joseph A Fitzmyer, The Gospel according to Luke X–XXIV: introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 28A), New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008, 1572).
There are two facts presented here: The appearance of Jesus on the road and the way in which they recognized him. This offers a paradigm for all disciples: Jesus walks with us – even when we do not recognize him – and he is revealed in and through the breaking of the bread. (See Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), Chapter 2, “The people of God”, #11. Pope Pius XII had articulated this same teaching in 1947, in Mediator Dei, #201. See also Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1324.) This teaching must be held in tension with the Church’s teaching concerning the Word of God. For example, in the Second Vatican Council’s document on Sacred Scripture, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum), Chapter VI, “Sacred Scripture in the life of the Church”: “In the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven meets His children with great love and speaks with them; and the force and power in the word of God is so great that it stands as the support and energy of the Church, the strength of faith for her sons and daughters, the food of the soul, the pure and everlasting source of spiritual life. Consequently these words are perfectly applicable to Sacred Scripture: "For the word of God is living and active" (Heb. 4:12) and "it has power to build you up and give you your heritage among all those who are sanctified" (Acts 20:32; see 1 Thess. 2:13).” (#21)
In fact, Word and Sacrament are both evident in this passage from Luke. Jesus proclaims the Good News to both the two on the road and the gathering of disciples – who are listening to the two proclaim that Word. In the midst of this proclamation of the Word, Jesus is revealed in the breaking of the bread.
The breaking of the bread: This is the first such reference in Luke. We find it again however in Acts: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (2:42). Joseph Fitzmyer notes: “True, it is not always said that the bread was distributed, but we are clearly confronted here with an abstract way of referring to the Eucharist, which was current in Luke’s time” (Joseph A Fitzmyer, op cit, 1569). Fitzmyer then goes on to point out the link between the sacramental celebration and the proclamation of the Word: “What is above all important is that the disciples report that they knew him ‘in the breaking of the bread’ (v. 35) and not by seeing him” (Ibid). The “recognition” is not complete, however, until v. 52 – the second last verse in the Gospel – when they “worshiped” him. In the light of this verse, the very last verse of Luke’s Gospel makes eminent sense: “they were continually in the temple blessing God” (v. 53).
Jesus stood among them: The same word is used here – estē, from the verb histēmi meaning “stand” or “stand there” – as John uses in 20:19. Both Luke and John have the greeting of peace and the showing of wounds, though in John it is hands and side, in Luke it is hands and feet. There is something very definite even gently confronting about the statement, followed by the peace greeting, then the showing of the wounds. It may be taken as a proclamation in the face of their –understandable – reluctance to believe what they were experiencing.
They were startled and terrified: The English word, “startled” translates the Greek verb ptoeō. It has been used in Luke 21:9 to describe the terror caused by war. The same word is used in the Septuagint to describe the response of the people to the theophany on Mt Sinai in Exodus 19:16. The English word, “terrified” translates the Greek word emphobos – the word already used by Luke to describe the reaction of the women at the empty tomb in 24:5. Mark also uses this word of the women at the empty tomb in Mark 16:8 – “they were afraid”.
why are you frightened: “The only other time in the Gospel that Luke uses the verb tarassō …. is to describe Zechariah’s response to the angel Gabriel’s appearance; see also Acts 15:24; 17:8, 13” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991, 401).
Touch me and see: See also the incident of Thomas demanding to touch the wounds of Jesus – see John 20:19-31.
see that it is I myself: “The ‘withdrawal’ of Jesus is not so much an absence as it is a presence in a new and more powerful mode: when Jesus is not among them as another specific body, he is accessible to all as life-giving Spirit” (Luke Timothy Johnson, op cit, 406).
you are witnesses: The Greek word translated “witnesses” is martys. This is the root of our English word, “martyr”.
One of the truly striking features of the Gospels is that they are focused on Jesus himself. Jesus is the Good News! That is nowhere more so than in today’s Gospel – Luke 24:35-48. When describing the reactions of the disciples, Luke uses words like, “startled” and “terrified” and “frightened”. However, perhaps the most interesting of his descriptions is, “in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering”.
Near the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, we have heard the prophesy of John the Baptist: “‘He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire’” (3:16). The prophesy is being brought to fulfilment. In today’s text – near the ending of Luke’s Gospel – we see people who are undergoing a monumental transformation of their minds, imaginations and memories, their expectations, assumptions and emotions. These folk will never be the same again. It is all because of him. They have really encountered him – as if for the first time. A new energy has been unleashed in them. They will be “witnesses”. A fire has been lit in their hearts. Soon they will receive the Holy Spirit empowering them to continue his presence throughout the world until the end of time.
In our Catholic Tradition, we place great store by prayer and liturgy – especially the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup; we promote silence and reflection, contemplation and study of the Word; we endeavor to build communities in which these activities imbue hospitality, care for the poor and love for each other. Why? Because it is our belief that such a way of living opens us and, through us, our world, to the presence of the Risen Lord. If we listen to the Word with the ear of the heart, if we look with compassion on the world, if we wait upon every person, event or thing with the conviction that he is here, then we too will encounter him. No amount of data, information, theological knowledge, pious devotion or asceticism can replace the daily living that seeks him – and expects him – in every moment everywhere.
How shall we discern his presence – in us personally and in our communities? Listen to Jesus himself in the synagogue at Nazareth as he reads from the Prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (4:18-19). This is almost a complete quotation from Isaiah 61:1-2. There are two changes, however. Jesus draws in the phrase from Isaiah 58:6: “to let the oppressed go free” and he omits reference to “the day of vengeance of our God”.
He is the source of the freedom we all crave. Freedom from sin and sinful behaviour is what is on offer through him, with him and in him. Jesus’ proclamation, reading the Prophet Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth that day, sets a structure and vision for his life – and ours.