Lectionary Commentaries for April 19, 2020
Second Sunday of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 20:19-31

Joy J. Moore

The Easter Season provides opportunities for the church to reflect on the biblical witness concerning the rumors of the resurrection.

John provides four experiences of the followers of Jesus that are recounted as further testimony to the central conviction that to know the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom he has sent, is eternal life (John 17:3). Throughout the book of John, we find that Jesus glorified God on earth by finishing the work he was given. And here, the Johannine account shows us how Christians tell a story of the world after God has shown up.

It is still the first day of the week, according to the written record. So much happened from sunrise to evening on that day to turn the world over and over again, worshipers today can linger in the original testimony. For some, it is still news that the entire witness to the resurrection began on the testimony of women. Like a viral video, this report is not easily upstaged. This week’s passage is told as the fourth resurrection report according to the Johannine account.

First, a mourning Mary discovers an empty tomb and, perplexed, reports this news to Peter and the other, unnamed, disciple whom Jesus loved; and a new scene emerges. There, a mystified couple of disciples race to the tomb, entering the space to find the linen that wrapped the body of Jesus, but, as Mary said: no body. What it is the beloved disciple believes, the writer confirms, is believed without seeing the body, without knowledge of the Scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead, and without the testimony of others who have indeed seen Jesus. Before this week’s passage, the writer turns back to Mary—the third report and first sighting. It is this testimony of something a woman said, that prepares us for this week’s witness to the resurrection.

Disciples have gathered. Here, the record does not specify how many, as in other places (6:66-67; 20:24), but Thomas is not present. The unconfirmed rumors of the resurrection started by Mary has brought neither understanding nor obedience. Perplexity and amazement, cynicism and unbelief. The disciples are clueless concerning the meaning of Jesus’ death, disappointed by this presumed dashing of their hopes, and astounded by reports of the empty tomb (not much has changed).

The disciples are fearful. Good news does not erase fear. Good news, incredible news, can ignite hope, but even hope does not eliminate genuine fear. So, there they were in a familiar place desperate with unfamiliar fear. An empty tomb isn’t enough to confirm all that Jesus promised is true. What does the resurrection mean? It means God still shows up. The writer of this gospel account continues to rehearse elements of the storied witness to God as testimony to Jesus. Like God finding the first couple behind trees, the disciples are found behind closed doors, perplexed by the knowledge they have.

So Jesus shows up. (Now you want to talk about fear …) Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  No doubt it was Jesus. They recognized the scars. They see the stripes on his back and the hole in his side. And in recognition, John says they rejoiced. Astonished, ashamed, afraid, the intruder into their hidden place asserts must-needed peace. God is (still) with us! And Jesus, like God breathing life into the first human, breathed on the disciples. The prospect of insight comes with the intrusion of Jesus—for the Spirit of God proceeds from him and in so doing, opens the eyes of the disciples. Which brings us to the rest of the story.

What they saw is all Thomas desires. Too often the focus here is on Thomas’ doubt. But Thomas was not present when Jesus showed up on the other side of a locked door to greet fearful followers with peace and the instruction to forgive. Thomas’ request is merely for what the other’s experienced. The wonder of this moment is Jesus’ willingness to meet Thomas exactly where Thomas names he needs meeting. Thomas names what Jesus knew his disciples needed. The doors are shut. Jesus appears, nail scars and all. His offering of peace is followed by a demonstration of forgiveness—no condemnation for Thomas’ request—a simple invitation. The disciples rejoiced, but Thomas’ response is praise. There is a difference.

The question Jesus does ask foreshadows those who will believe because of the testimony of these witnesses. In this inquiry and promised blessing, what the one whom Jesus calls Father sent him to do, Jesus assigns his followers. Jesus sends these followers out with the mission of forgiving the sins Jesus’ death has taken away.

Today’s listeners bring their own turned over worlds. Some by their own doing: a community scattered, distraught by a vehement denial of what was once confidently promised, and compromised by a price unequal to the betrayal of a loved one. Some by what has been done to them: disenfranchised by wavering public opinion, persecuted and tormented by the very systems that should sustain them, demoralized by the loss of hope for a future.

Most who have at least heard the rumors of the resurrection desire the intrusion of Jesus to believe. Without condemnation, here it may be beneficial to recall the wonder of Jesus’ instruction.

The whole of this is neither about phantom appearance nor even a doubting disciple. It is how to tell of a world when the divine shows up in disaster. It is how to tell of a world when forgiveness is forever possible. It is how to tell of a world when a woman’s witness welcomes wonder. It is how to tell of a world when life is to know the God whose mission is to forgive sins and reconcile communities scattered by oppression. There are many stories to be told, but these stories confirm Jesus’ identity as the one who has the divine prerogatives to give life and exercise God’s rule.

It is this message that makes possible the myriads surrounding the throne and singing with full voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Revelation 5:12). Blessing and glory and wisdom, thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever!


First Reading

Commentary on Acts 2:14a, 22-32

Jerusha Matsen Neal

The first assignment in the course I teach on the relationship between body and Spirit in proclamation is for students to memorize Peter’s Pentecost sermon and address it to the class.

The exercise is meant to bring up all sorts of thorny questions about Spirit-inspired preaching: can evidence of the Spirit’s presence be “read” off Peter’s words? Does our repetition of his words authenticate our words as “Spirit-filled” speech? Is there any correspondence between Peter’s experience of the Spirit in Pentecost and the diversity of our own experiences? You can imagine the complexity of the conversation that follows.

But the exercise is also illuminating as performative exegesis. Students make embodied decisions when interpreting Peter’s sermon, bringing new insights and asking new questions. Their performances can be radically different in function and tone, growing out of different theologies of proclamation, narrative and Spirit-anointing. Some students speak as “themselves:” seminary students carefully relating Peter’s sermon to their classmates. Others step into his shoes, imagining us as his long-ago audience. Everyone discovers that performing a text of scripture—particularly a sermon—requires a bit of both vantage points. Embodying Peter’s sermon is like entering a hall of mirrors, where contemporary preachers grapple with a biblical text about another preacher grappling with a biblical text in light of a world-altering resurrection.1

All of them struggle with what to do about Psalm 16. Peter’s exegesis is notoriously slippery, in part because the identity of the biblical speaker is slippery. Who is the “I” in verse 25? Does one read that sentence as if the “I” were voiced by David or by Christ—or does one read it in the voice of Peter, arguing for his preferred Christological interpretation? From whose persona does the preacher speak? The slippery nature of the pronouns mirror the high-stakes theological case Peter is making. Verse 34 (not included in the lectionary reading) makes plain his radical claim. Building on Psalm 110:1 (“The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand.’”), Peter argues that Jesus’s resurrection and exaltation are evidence of his Lordship—a point he reiterates in verse 36. Jesus not only sees the Lord at his right hand (verse 25), he is the Lord seated at Yawheh’s right hand (verse 34). Peter’s readings of these Psalms create a theological fluidity in his own interpretation of Jesus’s identity and the identity of the “Lord” described in the Hebrew scriptures.

This reading may give certain interpreters of the Hebrew Bible pause. Luke’s rendering of Peter’s sermon demonstrates a familiar Christocentric hegemony, where the particularities of Hebrew texts are co-opted for Christian purposes. But it is also a reading that draws on Jewish exegetical techniques,2 embedded in a sermon trying to make sense of its own hall of mirrors. Past, present and eschatological future are braided together in this text, and the result is a sermonic performance that will not sit still.

I think Peter does more than parse pronouns in these Psalms. He brings his own present-tense reality into their cadences. Students often note, for example, how Peter quotes more of Psalm 16 than required to make his exegetical argument. Verse 28 is a simple exclamation of joy. When students come to that part of the sermon, they are regularly pulled into gratitude, performing it, not as if Peter were quoting David, but as if Peter had stepped directly into the Psalm itself. “You have made known to me the ways of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.” Peter is not belaboring an interpretative point here. He’s narrating his awe-filled wonder at the presence of the risen Jesus, manifested at that very moment through the work of the Spirit.

This brings us to one more slippery identity in Peter’s sermon: the identity of “all of us” who are witnesses (verse 32). When students perform Peter’s sermon, they have to decide what Peter means by that phrase. Not everyone present at Pentecost witnessed the risen Jesus in the flesh. Peter may gesture in a way that limits the category: that is, “all of us” might mean, “the disciples standing here beside me.” But verse 33 gives a different answer. Peter makes clear that those who “see and hear” Jesus’ pouring out of the Spirit are also witnesses to his resurrected presence. This Pentecost crowd has seen Jesus in post-Easter action. Similar to the pronouns of Peter’s exegesis, Peter’s naming of “all of us” as witnesses weaves together past, present and future. A “witness” becomes a category that stretches through time, embracing any believer who finds herself full of wonder at Jesus’ pouring out of a Spirit that cannot be summoned, exegeted or contained.

There is no excuse for the lectionary’s exclusion of verses 33-36 from this week’s reading. Matt Skinner lays out a robust exegetical case for the significance of these verses in understanding the meaning of Peter’s argument.3 I add one reason more. Without verse 33, being a “witness” to the resurrection is a time-bound category. Similar to last week’s expansion of the category of “witness” to include Gentiles, verse 33 expands the category of “witness” to include those untimely born. God willing, it expands the category to include us.


Notes:

  1. I love Lewis Hay’s description of this text as an three-way mirror where one sees an “image of an image of an image in almost endless regression, except that in this case even the faces keep changing,” “Acts 2:1-47,” Interpretation, January 1, 1979: 62-67.
  2. For those wanting a deep dive into this question, Donald Juel discusses the complex interplay between events, scripture and Jewish interpretive practices in the first century in Shaping the Biblical Imagination: Truth, Meaning, and the Theological Interpretation of the Bible, eds. Berg and Skinner (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2011), 87-105. His article “Social Dimensions of Exegesis: The Use of Psalm 16 in Acts 2” notes the “rabbinic” posture of Peter’s exegesis, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, v. 43 (1981): 556.
  3. Matt Skinner, “Acts 2:14a, 22-32,” Working Preacher, March 30, 2008, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=50.

Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 16

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

In the Acts 2:25-28 story of Pentecost, Peter recites Psalm 16:8-11 in his address to the gathered people about the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, thus linking the death and resurrection of Jesus to the words of Psalm 16.

Psalm 16 is classified by some as an individual lament, in which an individual cries out to God in the midst of a perilous, even life-threatening situation. Laments typically consist of five elements:

  1. an invocation, in which the psalmist invokes the presence of God as she cries for help
  2. a complaint, or lament, in which the psalm singer tells God what is wrong, the situation in which she finds herself that prompts the words of the psalm
  3. a petition, in which the singer tells God what she wants God to do to alleviate the oppression that she feels
  4. words of trust, in which the psalmist recalls times in the past when God came to her rescue or to the rescue of others
  5. an expression of praise, in which the psalm singer acknowledges the good provisions of God for her.

But the psalm’s form is a bit unusual. First, an invocation occurs only once, in verse 1, and further references to God are in the third person voice—verse 2, “I say to the LORD”; verse 5, “The LORD is my chosen portion”; and verse 7, “I bless the LORD.” Second, Psalm 16 has no complaint/lament, and only a few words of petition—in verses 1 and 4:

“Protect me … Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows; their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out or take their names upon my lips.”

The remaining verses of the psalm express words of trust and words of praise in verses 1-3 and 5-11. The lack of complaint/lament and the abundance of words of trust and praise leads some commentators to identify Psalm 16 as a Psalm of Confidence or a Confession of Faith.1 So how do we understand this rather enigmatic psalm, one that seems to reflect a perilous situation for the psalm singer, but which lacks any description of the peril besetting the psalm singer?

One clue may be found in Psalm 16’s verbal and thematic links to the psalm preceding it, Psalm 15, which opens with the words “O LORD, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?” and describes that person in detail as one who “walks blamelessly, and does what is right” (Psalm 15:2). The final verse of Psalm 15 states that the person who does so “will never be moved” (verse 5).

The singer of Psalm 16 states in verses 1-4 that she has chosen to reverence the LORD and not any other gods; and because she has chosen the LORD and keeps God always before her, God is at her right hand, and she will never be moved (verse 8), echoing the promise of Psalm 15:5. Therefore, the psalm singer is confident that she may abide in the LORD’s tent, on the LORD’s holy hill.

One can only imagine the emotional dynamics of the people gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost after the ascension of Jesus. What happens now? What does the future hold? Peter’s words of confidence in Acts 2:25-28, quoting from Psalm 16, I suggest, reassured his listeners that the great psalm singer David affirmed centuries before the life and death of Jesus that Jesus said concerning God, “he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken … for you (God) will not abandon my soul to Hades … you (God) have made known to me the ways of life” (verses 25, 27, 28—NRSV). Peter spoke words of hope to this gathered community of followers of Jesus who were not sure what the next step in life was for them, assuring them that they could and would indeed abide in the LORD’s tent and dwell on God’s holy hill.

How then do we, in the 21st century, appropriate the words of Psalm 16 and understand Peter’s appropriation of them in the New Testament’s account of Pentecost? A clue, I think, may be found in its superscription, where it is called “a Miktam of David.” The Hebrew root of miktam means something like “to be inscribed, to be written,” with the idea of “to be made permanent.” Therefore, a possible meaning for miktam is a “carved inscription,” indicating perhaps that this prayer (Psalm 16) was written down and deposited at the temple so that it could be offered to God over and over again.2

Psalm 16 invites ever-new appropriations of its words in the lives of the faithful. With each breathing moment, we humans must decide between “other gods” (Psalm 16:4) and the one true God, between that which offers immediate gratification or easy answers to life’s pressing issues and that which remains unchanging throughout life.

Quoting the confident words of Psalm 16 from a psalm singer who has decided to reject the worship of other gods and throw her lot in with this Yahweh God, Peter assures the gathering at Pentecost that they, too, can cling to the perhaps unknown and unknowable presence of Yahweh God and know that they will not be moved (Psalms 15:5 and 16:8).


Notes:

  1. J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, vol. III (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015), 343; and Richard J. Clifford, Psalms 1-72, Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 96.

  2. See Nancy L. deClaissé-Walford, Introduction to the Psalms: A Song from Ancient Israel (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2004), 152. 


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Peter 1:3-9

Jennifer T. Kaalund

This text reminds me of a song my grandmother sang.

The lyrics, in part, are:

I don’t know about tomorrow, I just live for day to day;
I don’t borrow from the sunshine, For its skies may turn to gray.
I don’t worry o’er the future, For I know what Jesus said;
And today I’ll walk beside Him, For He knows what lies ahead.
Many things about tomorrow, I don’t seem to understand;
But I know who holds tomorrow, And I know who holds my hand.1

This song expresses the simultaneous feelings of anxiety and hope that many of us have felt and likely are feeling right now. We are anxious as the world is changing before us in ways that we did not anticipate and do not clearly understand and, for the most part, are out of our control. The uncertainty of the near future, however, is overshadowed by the blessed assurances knowing that Jesus knows the future, holds the future and holds our hand. That is, Jesus is a companion in our suffering.

The audience of 1 Peter seems to need these same assurances. Although scholars debate the extent to which the readers of this letter are experiencing suffering (ranging from state sanctioned persecutions to being ostracized or rejected by their communities), it is clear that  their suffering is challenging their faith. In these few verses we understand something of the past, present, and future. The writer asserts that the audience had been given a new birth and a living hope (past). Their inheritance (future) is currently being protected by the power of God, even if now they have to suffer for a little while (present). Their past and present trials should serve to strengthen their faith. This is not to say that suffering is necessary to produce genuine faith. It is simply an acknowledgement that trials can reveal the beauty of our faith (just as fire reveals the beauty of gold).

I think that the Buddhist understanding of suffering may be instructive here. Buddhism teaches that suffering is a universal human condition. There is a cause to suffering, a way to bring about an end to suffering and perhaps most importantly, knowing that suffering has an end. This is an oversimplification but also an important acknowledgement that surely trouble doesn’t last always. For the readers of 1 Peter, past and present, the way to bring the end of suffering was accomplished in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The hope of the resurrection is a living hope. This living hope is made possible through the new birth that has been given to the believer through the mercy of God.

What is a new birth? Whether it is the life that bursts forth in the spring as the flowers bloom and the trees blossom or a mother delivering a child, birthing elucidates an entanglement with life and death; old and new; perishable and imperishable. The word, anagennesas, though translated as new birth or born anew can also be rendered as “having begotten” or “regenerated.”2 The writer may be emphasizing the renewing of the living hope that God has given us. Renewal and regeneration are not one-time events; they ongoing processes. Therefore, when we feel challenged by difficulties, our faith reminds us that our living hope can be renewed.

At a recent event that I attended a young lady, a college student, was giving a presentation before a large crowd of professionals. She began her presentation and was clearly nervous. It was not going as well as she had perhaps planned. She stopped, took a deep breath and said: “Let’s try that again.” This young lady went on to do a phenomenal job and was affirmed with a standing ovation. I do not know what happened in the mere seconds between that statement and her starting over, however, when she did start over she had a command over the material that was not previously apparent. Her confidence in herself became more and more clear. For me, this incident serves as a reminder that there will be times when we simply need to start again. There are times when it is necessary to pause in the midst of our stressful situations and say, “let’s try that again.” In these moments, the genuineness of in our confidence, in our faith may also be revealed. In fact, every day we are presented with an opportunity for renewal and regeneration.

The writer reminds us that we have been given a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The resurrection activates a living hope. Perhaps at no other time in our lives have we needed a hope that is alive than we do today A hope that can animate us and allows us to seek the light in darkness, to hold onto what we know to be true when everything seems questionable. Hope is kept alive by nurturing it; it is sustained by looking beyond tomorrow to a promised future, remembering that we have an inheritance that is not only awaiting us, but that is also being protected. Faith in Jesus Christ makes this all possible. According to Hebrews, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).

Connecting faith and vision has long been a part of the Christian tradition. Recall the words of Jesus: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29b). Hope is a state of expectation; it is to be pregnant with an anticipation. And though faith is concerned with what we cannot see, hope provides us with sight beyond what we can see. In spite of our current circumstances, our suffering or our anxieties,  the resurrection of Jesus still fills our lives with the possibility to ignite our hope and renew our faith.


Notes:

  1. Ira F. Stanphill, “I Know Who Holds Tomorrow,” lyrics © Warner Chappell Music, Inc., Capitol Christian Music Group.

  2. This term is used again in 1 Peter 1:23: “You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.”