The gospel lectionary reading for the Third Sunday of Easter in Year B is Luke 24.36b–48, the episode where Jesus meets the disciples after the encounter on the Emmaus Road and before the Ascension. (The lectionary readings for the Third Sunday in Easter ignore the particular gospel for the year, and instead cycle round Luke 24 and John 21: in this Year B we have the second half of Luke 24, Jesus meeting the group of frightened disciples; in Year C, the miraculous catch of fish in John 21; and in Year A the story in the first half of Luke 24 of the two disciples meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus.)
This episode can often be felt to play second fiddle to the better known and more engaging story that precedes it. And yet it includes some key ideas, and both links the resurrection back to the beginning of Luke’s gospel as well as anticipating many of the things to come in his second book, the account of the Acts of the Apostles.
The lectionary tries to cut off the connection with the Emmaus Road incident by starting our reading half-way through verse 36, but this is not easily done. The two stories are integrated, and (as we shall see) share some important themes. It is as the Eleven are talking about ‘these things’ that Jesus appears amongst them; ‘these things’ includes not simply that Jesus was risen, but also that his resurrection made sense of the (Old Testament) scriptures and was pointed to by them, and that he was known to them in the table fellowship of a shared meal.
(I noted previously that, despite later readings back into this text, ‘breaking of bread’ refers to a meal, and is not a ‘eucharistic’ reference to the sharing of Communion. Luke does not show very much interest in eucharistic theology within his gospel, and the actions of taking the bread, giving thanks, breaking it and giving it to them corresponds not to Luke’s account of the Last Supper, but to the feeding of the five thousand in Luke 9.12–17. It is striking that, for Luke, it is that event which is associated with the recognition of Jesus’ identity; immediately after it, Peter makes his declaration ‘You are God’s Messiah’ (Luke 9.20). The wording of Luke 24.30 ‘he took and blessed [God]’, εὐλόγησεν, matches Luke 9.16 but is different from Luke 22.19 ‘when he had given thanks’ εὐχαριστήσας.)
There is an intriguing aside at the end of the last passage: that Jesus has also ‘appeared to Simon’. This reassures us that, following his three-fold betrayal, he has been fully restored so that he can take up once more his position of leadership of the Twelve, but we have no separate account of it. However, Paul’s list of witnesses and appearances in 1 Cor 15.5 correlates with this exactly, and so Jesus’ personal appearance to Simon/Peter/Cephas was clearly a very early tradition.
Jesus’ immediate saying ‘Peace be with you!’ parallels the account in John 20, where he emphatically repeats this greeting three times. Although it comes only once in Luke’s account, it reminds us of the central importance of the term in Luke’s gospel as Michael Gorman has argued:
For Luke, the age of peace has also been inaugurated; for him it arrives not only in Christ’s death and resurrection, but already in the birth, ministry, death, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus and in the gift of the Spirit. This new age is characterized by reconciliation and nonviolence, but also especially by justice characterized by status-reversal and inclusion.
In that sense, ‘peace’ is a metonym for ‘salvation’ in this gospel. The paradox explored by those on the road to Emmaus is how Jesus could redeem Israel when he has been rejected and killed; the answer here is that it is precisely through Jesus’ death and resurrection that God brings ‘peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near’ (Eph 2.17).
Luke’s description of Jesus’ appearance has two important aspects to it. On the one hand, he comes suddenly and has the effect of startling and frightening the disciples. There are strong parallels with the angelophanies at the beginning of the gospel; in Luke 1.12, Zechariah is similarly ‘troubled’ and full of fear. This isn’t simply the Jesus that they knew before; this is no mere resuscitated corpse; there is something changed and startling about him.
On the other hand, Jesus here emphasises his materiality. Unlike in John 20, there is no mention of the wound in Jesus’ side (from which, in John 19.34, the blood of death and water of life have flowed)—but there is a similar mention of his (wounds on his) hands and his feet. Luke’s account is quite clear that this is neither a vision, nor a ghostly spectre, but (despite any change) a bodily person who has continuity with the person they knew (‘It is I myself!’).
There are repeated points of contact with the Johannine tradition here. We have already heard the greeting of peace; we find the language of ‘do not be troubled’ that we had heard in John 14.1 and 14.27, with trouble also contrasted with ‘peace’; the invitation to see and touch his wounds parallels the specific invitation to Thomas in John 20.27; and the experience of having ‘touched’ as well as seen the risen Jesus leaves its mark in 1 John 1.1, which also moves immediately to the question of testimony and proclamation.
The disciples’ reaction to Jesus’ appearance is notable for several reasons. Their slowness of response is hardly the most flattering portrayal, and it raises a basic question against the theory that these accounts have been made up as a way of explaining a later conviction that Jesus was in some non-corporeal sense ‘alive’. If you were going to make up a story, it is hard to fathom why anyone would offer such a poor account of the leaders of the future movement! The ‘thoughts’ or ‘doubts’ of people’s ‘hearts’ have been mentioned in neutral terms previously in Luke 2.35, but more often these refer to the questions asked by Jesus’ opponents (Luke 5.22, 6.8) or by the disciples when they fail to understand Jesus’ teaching (Luke 9.47).
Jesus has already chided those on the road to Emmaus for being ‘slow of heart to believe’ (Luke 24.25)—and yet here Luke offers a positive reason for their slowness, as they ‘disbelieve for joy’ (v 41). Joy is a repeated theme in Luke, usually in positive response to something God has done (see, for example, Luke 2.10, 8.13), and in fact joy in disbelief will soon give way to great joy that leads to confident testimony. At the moment, though, this all seems ‘too good to be true’, not simply because of the reversal of their profound disappointment, but because (as good Jews) they knew very well that the dead are only raised at the end of the age, and not as one individual but as the whole of humanity. The change ‘in their hearts’ is not so much about an affective disposition (though it does include that) but a rethinking of their whole outlook and understanding of God’s plan and the way he is working in the world.
Mikeal Parsons (Paideia, p 353) notes that the unusual phrase ‘and he took it and ate before them’ (καὶ λαβὼν ἐνώπιον αὐτῶν ἔφαγεν) only occurs elsewhere at Luke 13.26, where it clearly means ‘shared a meal with you’—so we should read the phrase here as ‘he took it and ate with them‘. This is not so much a spectator sport than another example of table fellowship, a theme which threads consistently through this gospel.
- The new-born Jesus is laid in a feeding trough, indicating that he is the food for the world (Luke 2.7).
- Jesus dines with Levi, a tax collector, and other sinners in Luke 5.
- On several occasions Jesus dines with Pharisees in Luke 7, 11 and 14.
- Jesus feeds both the multitudes (Luke 9) and individuals (Luke 8.55).
- He eats with Mary and Martha (Luke 10) and with Zacchaeus (Luke 19), in the latter case as a sign that ‘salvation has come to this house’.
- And of course he dines with the disciples in Jerusalem (Luke 22) and at Emmaus (Luke 24).
(It is worth noting that Jesus accepts the invitation to dine from all sorts of people, but is only the host for his disciples at the last supper.)
To share a meal with someone…implies acceptance of that person. In Luke, the way Jesus eats—with sinners and tax collectors, with religious authorities and disciples—leads directly to his death…Jesus does not want his disciples to forget how (or with whom) to eat… “eating and drinking” at Jesus’ messianic table in his kingdom demands radical inclusion at the ordinary table, and inclusiveness that transcends racial social and gender barriers. And so the last “Last Supper” (Luke 24), where Jesus eats broiled fish with his disciples not only is a reminder of the corporeal nature of Jesus’ own resurrected body but, standing as it does in a sequence of suppers, no doubt also serves to remind the disciples of the radical inclusivity of the ‘body’, the church, which remains behind to continue the work of the resurrected Christ (Parsons, p 354).
In a fascinating reflection derived from Peter Leithart, Chad Bird notes the symbolic significance of fish in relation to God’s call on Israel and the nations:
Throughout the Old Testament, fish, great sea creatures, the sea and raging rivers were all emblematic of the Gentile world. For instance, deliverance from “the waters” is deliverance from “foreigners” (Ps. 144:7). The thundering of the Gentiles is like the thundering and roaring of the seas (Isa. 17:12). Gentile kingdoms and their rulers were likened to great oceanic creatures like legendary Rahab (Dan. 7; Isa. 51:9). Even in the New Testament, John echoes this imagery when he says “the waters” are “the peoples and multitudes and nations and languages” (Rev. 17:15).
He goes on to see the symbolic significance of fishing as further hints towards the ultimate reach of Jesus’ good news about the kingdom of heaven:
When Jesus called his disciples, his choice of several fishermen—and the context in which they were called—was not by chance. They let down their nets into the deep and caught so many fish that their nets were breaking. Jesus told them not to fear. From now on they would be “catching men” (Luke 5:11). In Matthew, Jesus calls them “fishers of men” (4:19). These new 12 patriarchs, the apostles, would not be conquering Gentile nations with the sword as did Israelite tribes of old, but would be fishing for Gentiles in the “seas” of the nations, using the net of the Gospel (cf. Matt. 28:18-20).
So, on the one hand, Jesus comes and reassures his disciples that he is the person they have known all these years, and reminds them of their meals together. On the other hand, these meals were signs of the inclusive incorporation of those on the fringes, and even beyond, Israel. The fish points to the wider ministry of the followers of Jesus, to include the Gentiles, and Jesus then goes on to commission the disciples to proclaim this message ‘to all the nations’ (verse 47). This answers the one as yet unanswered question raised at the very beginning of the gospel: how would Jesus become not only ‘the glory of your people Israel’ but also ‘a light for revelation to the Gentiles’ (Luke 2.32)? The answer is: through these disciples, empowered by the Spirit, bearing witness to this Jesus whom God has raised from the dead, from Jerusalem, through Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.
The disciples have seen the evidence of the risen Jesus, not least from multiple witnesses; they have now had their own encounter with him; yet (just as in John 20) their understanding will not be complete until they have understood the scriptures. This is vital, and it is a consistent hallmark of all the NT documents; God has indeed done something radical, new and unexpected in the person of Jesus; and yet this is the same radical, new and unexpected thing that God has always been doing in his dealings with his people Israel and the whole world. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus is the same God and Father of his people Israel.
This is no new claim by Jesus; he is very clear that what he teaches them now is what he has been teaching them previously, prior to his death and resurrection. It is interesting that, contrary to most Jewish discussion at the time which saw a two-fold division in the Scriptures (the ‘Law and the prophets’), Jesus assumes a three-fold division, an idea we see beginning to emerge at this time (in the Greek prologue to Sirach, the Dead Sea Scrolls at 4Q397, and in Philo’s The Contemplative Life). And it is not surprising given Jesus’ own citation of Ps 22 on the cross (Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34).
We long to know exactly which Scriptures Jesus cites here—if only Luke had recorded Jesus’ comments in more detail! Yet it is unlikely that Jesus is offering proof-texts; we have a good example of this kind of reading in Acts 7, where Stephen (before his martyrdom) rehearses the history of Israel. Instead of including what we might have expected, he focuses on Joseph (Acts 7.9), Moses (Acts 7.20) and David (Acts 7.45), and emphasises that those rejected by Israel were received by Gentiles, and then became God’s instruments for the deliverance and redemption of his people.
There is no doubt that the Servant Song of Isaiah 53 would have featured largely, as well as Is 49.6:
It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.
This is the text behind Simeon’s prophecy in Luke 2.32; it is echoed again in Acts 1.8; and Paul cites it in his early preaching in Acts 13.47 as the justification for his ‘Gentile mission’. Where the OT texts appear to have a centripetal focus, so that the nations ‘come to’ Jerusalem, the proclamation here has a centrifugal force, throwing the disciples with their gospel message out from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.
Jesus first inscribes his own story, the story of the Messiah who suffers and is raised, into the scriptural story, and then inscribes the story of the early church into both his own story and that of the scriptures. He underscores the truth of the resurrection (ie its actuality and its significance within the divine plan), and ensures that the disciples grasp fully how the past, present, and future of God’s activity belong to one great mural of salvation (Joel Green, NICNT, p 856).
The content of the preaching, ‘repentance and forgiveness of sins’, is language that John the Baptist used in Luke 3.3, and is deployed across the early preaching in Acts 2.38, 3.19, 5.31 and 8.22. John promised that this would be accompanied by the presence of the Holy Spirit, and so Jesus promises this ‘gift of my Father’ to enable the disciples to continue the Spirit-empowered ministry of Jesus (Luke 4.18). It is odd that the lectionary cuts off this reading at verse 48; as Luke goes to great pains to show us in his second volume, there can be no effective witness until the disciples are ‘clothed with power from on high’.
The gospel ends where it began—Jesus’ faithful followers, full of expectation, praising God in the temple. The story is left hanging there, and will only be completed when we see the fulfilment of all Jesus has promised in the dramatic growth of the early church.
(I do not know the origin of the picture above; if you recognise it, tell me in the comments below. Jesus is here meeting with the Eleven, including Thomas, so it appear to relate to this account in Luke, rather than the account in John 20; artistic depictions of that chapter usually single Thomas out.)