THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER [B]
USCCB Link to all three readings
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."
This Sunday’s sequence of readings is unusually intriguing and provides a good example of how some pre-Sunday homework can enrich the public hearing of the Word in the Eucharist and private meditation in the solace of home. It is also a testimony to the importance of reading Scripture in its full context without cherry picking; the sequencing of the action in the Acts of the Apostles reveals as much as the individual events themselves. I am remiss in not providing a good stand-alone resource sooner. The commentary by Father William Kurz, S.J., is now in wide use and you can sample the text here at Amazon; it is available in Kindle format as well as paper, though for commentaries I recommend the latter, for ease of reference.
I am going on the assumption that the Acts may not be as familiar to you as the Gospels, or even Genesis; I concede that even as a teacher I don’t own a stand-alone commentary on Acts and I refer to general commentaries like the Jerome Biblical Commentary when I need data. The case can be argued that Acts deserves “fifth Gospel” status, as its author [Luke] refers to his Gospel as “my first volume.” [Acts 1:1] It would seem that Luke is the first evangelist to drop the apocalyptic expectancy and take the long view of history, that the Church might be a universal venture extending across centuries, not a localized body waiting for the end times. If Luke and Paul actually crossed paths in ministry, as many scholars hold, then it is even more important to note that Paul, in the course of his epistles, adjusted his own apocalyptic time frame as well.
Both of Luke’s works are dedicated to a certain Theophilus; his identity has been the subject of intense debate for centuries. We may possibly never know who this Theophilus was, or even if he was. But the Greek meaning of his name is “lover of God,” which may carry a generic meaning, an address to all followers of God and his son, Jesus the Christ. The Acts themselves throw out a large salvation net, and Luke, with his historical vision, may have wanted to provide for later Christians a detail of what happened after Jesus ascended into heaven, which would make him the first and only evangelist to do so.
Again, by way of context, let me draw out a poor man’s sketch for the early timeline of the Acts of the Apostles:
Chapter 1: The Ascension, carried over from the Gospel of Luke; the reestablishment of the Apostolic leadership/the new Israel by adding Matthias to the Twelve to replace Judas.
Chapters 2-5: The Jerusalem Pentecost Event; the preaching of Peter to the 3000 Jews who immediately sought baptism for forgiveness for their sin against Christ; the miracles and preaching of Peter and John and their testimony to the Jewish leaders.
Chapters 6-7: The hostility of Jewish leaders and the ultimate martyrdom of the deacon Stephen witnessed by Saul of Tarsus.
Chapter 8: First mission outside of Jerusalem, to Samaria.
Chapter 9: Saul’s conversion, renamed Paul, and meets Jerusalem Christian leadership.
Chapter 10: Peter and the first Gentile outreach. Beginning of controversy regarding the baptism of Gentiles—must they become Jews first, and undergo circumcision to become Christian?
Chapter 15: The “Council of Jerusalem” in 49 A.D. Paul advocates an open position to Gentile converts; the leadership of the Church agrees and issues a letter to Gentile Christians in the newly formed Church of Antioch that it need not pursue Jewish initiation rites to receive baptism.
Chapter 16ff: “The Mission of Paul to the Ends of the Earth.”
Sunday’s first reading is set in the very early stages of the Church’s mission, portraying Peter’s initial post-Pentecostal evangelization to the residents of Jerusalem. This is a more conciliatory sermon than his preaching in Chapter 2, the “Pentecost Sermon,” when Luke reports that his listeners were “cut to the heart.” In Sunday’s reading Peter acknowledges that his listeners acted out of ignorance, as did their leaders. Luke reflects the ambivalence of the early Christian era before the Gentile mission when the Apostles and deacons strove to convert their brethren in the temple. After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., the relocation of the Palestine population coincided with the Gentile Christian mission in the major cities of the Mediterranean and the animosity continued well into the future.
The Church has paired this reading with Luke 24: 35-48, where Jesus appears to the full cluster of apostles (except Judas) on the evening of his resurrection. What becomes immediately evident is how the recording of Jesus’ sermon here compliments the preaching of Peter above. The early sermons of Acts bear considerable resemblance to Jesus’ post resurrection exhortations, such as the meeting with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, the same two disciples mentioned at the beginning of Sunday’s Gospel.
Jesus—and his successors—make the case that everything that has happened—from the beginning of Israel’s Revelation to the execution of Jesus on the cross—was ordained so by God. And, with the presence of the Holy Spirit, those things that would follow—the preaching, community life, conversions, and persecutions—will continue to manifest the will and plan of God. Peter will make this case in a Jewish idiom, Paul in a Gentile one, but the united mission will be portrayed in Acts for all “lovers of God” throughout the ages. The Acts of the Apostles is an interpretive key to the contemporary Church in any age, for Jesus will continue his presence through the “breaking of the bread,” i.e., the Eucharistic event.