Lectionary Commentaries for June 9, 2019
Day of Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 14:8-17 [25-27]

Osvaldo Vena

When we think of Pentecost we immediately think of the book of Acts, when the Spirit came on the primitive community gathered in one place in the form of a strong wind that filled the house, and divided tongues of fire that rested on each of them (Acts 2:1-3).

Nothing like that is to be found in the gospel of John which has its own version of Pentecost. John talks about the coming of the Holy Spirit and gives it a name, parakletos (counselor) and Spirit of truth. And while in Acts the coming of the spirit is public and noisy, in John it is subtle and intimate (John 20:22).

Our passage for today starts with Philip asking Jesus: “Show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” The word Father, used more than 125 times in John, appears eleven times in this section alone. These are some of the ideas connected with these occurrences:

  • Seeing the Father is the same as seeing Jesus (8-9)
  • The Father and Jesus dwell reciprocally in each other (10-11).
  • This reciprocal in-dwelling is the reason why Jesus’ words carry so much authority: they are the Father’s works (10-11).
  • The Father will be glorified when Jesus answers the believer’s petitions (13).
  • Jesus will ask the Father to send the parakletos (15).

When Jesus uses the word Father, he is pointing at a very special and intimate relationship with God, and not necessarily, as later orthodoxy will declare, to an ontological oneness. Jesus acknowledges the Father as the source of his authority and always subordinates himself to the Father.

But this relationship between Jesus and the Father is not there to be acknowledged only: it is also to be imitated. When Jesus is gone, and the Spirit comes, the community will replace Jesus as instruments of God. God will be incarnated again, this time not in a person, Jesus (John 1:14), but in a group of people who will continue Jesus’ work to an even greater degree (John 12). The same kind of symbiotic relationship that existed between Jesus and the Father will now exist between the community and the Holy Spirit.

The word used for this relationship is meno, which is a favorite word of the evangelist “to denote an inward, enduring personal communion”1 that has many different levels and applications: God to Christ (John 14:10), the community to Christ (14:4), Christ to the community (14:4), the Spirit to the community (14:17). Through this relationship, Jesus’ words (teachings) will be actualized, contextualized if you please, in new situations. I call this the hermeneutics of the Spirit, that is, the Spirit as an interpretive source and force.

This coming of the Spirit is not only John’s version of Pentecost but also his version of the Parousia, for it is Jesus who comes in the person of the Counselor. He says it clearly in verse 18: “I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you.” The Spirit is at present remaining with the disciples. He is “with” (para) them, but then it will be “in” (en) them. What’s the difference between these two Greek prepositions? Para, with the personal pronoun in the dative case (humin), means “beside, in the presence of.” Jesus is then besides the disciples, he is in their presence, he is visible. En, also with the personal pronoun in the dative case, means “in, on, among.”

Jesus will then be in the community, among the community, no longer physically seen (see also John 16:10, “ … because I go to the Father and you will see me no more;”) but spiritually felt (see also 16:14, “… he will take what is mine and declare it to you”). The Spirit of truth (14:17) is the Spirit of Jesus! (14:6). This is his “second” coming.

This dwelling of the Holy Spirit in the community is exclusive because it does not include the larger society of which the Johannine community is a part of. This is called “the world” and refers to anything and anybody that does not belong to John’s group. It is a sectarian view that is problematic for contemporary readers living in a pluralistic, multicultural, and multi-religious world.

These are the words of a sectarian community at odds with society. We, on the other hand, belong to the mainstream of society, enjoying religious and economic privileges, something John’s community did not. We should never forget that, lest we become intolerant of other people’s beliefs.

The exclusivism of the Johannine community was perhaps necessary at the time because they needed to survive in a world that they perceived as hostile, whether this was true or not, for we only have their side of the story. We don’t know what their “adversaries” looked like or thought about. But obviously John’s group felt the need to survive so they encircled the wagons and built ideological walls around themselves (not a good idea, really, then or now; walls do not accomplish anything, religiously or politically!).

Verse 27 brings that often-quoted bit of Jesus’ lore: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” The peace John is referring to is not only internal, spiritual, but also external and social. It is an alternative to, and a criticism of, the Pax Romana and all its repercussions in people’s lives both physically and psychologically. The empire affected not only people’s bodies but also their minds.2

What does it all mean today? Here are some ideas:

  • Jesus represents the presence of God in our midst through the agency of the Holy Spirit.
  • This presence needs to be shared, not monopolized.
  • The Holy Spirit is the interpreter or Jesus’ words. That implies contextualization and not mere repetition.
  • The Holy Spirit will enable us to become communities of peace, distributing it around the world as an alternative to other understandings of peace that depend on force and domination.

Notes:

  1. William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, translated by W. Bauer (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979), 504.
  2. Frantz Fanon, in his book The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 1963), has demonstrated how colonialism affects people psychologically

First Reading

Commentary on Acts 2:1-21

Amy G. Oden

It happened on the subway platform in Moscow.

I’d been there for a week and I don’t speak Russian or understand it. For several days, my ears had been in a sea of gibberish, random sounds that I couldn’t understand. Then, in an instant of clarity, I heard English from the other end of the platform. It was like a beam of light, piercing through all other sounds, straight to my ear. American English, no less. My native language. It was a homing beacon, sharpening my senses to its signal. I felt every molecule in my body relax as I focused on the voice and understood the words. It felt like coming home.

In the Pentecost story, we see this dynamic played out ten-fold. The disciples are empowered to speak some 15 different languages not their own. And not just any foreign languages. The Spirit empowers them specifically to speak the languages of the “devout Jews from every nation” in Jerusalem (verse 5).

Just imagine Parthians, Mesopotamians and Cappadocians, as immigrants or visitors in Jerusalem, hearing their mother tongues spoken for perhaps the first time in years! Did each receive that homing beacon tuning the ear to its signal? Did each have that sense of coming home?

This gift of the Holy Spirit that marks the birth of the church is a gift expressly for those outside the Jesus movement, those who had lived displaced in a language-world not their own. We cannot miss this! It is a spiritual gift given not for the disciples themselves, but for the outsiders listening. God’s gift reaches outward to those outside of this immediate circle of Jesus followers. It seems that one mark of the Holy Spirit’s gifting is that it empowers us to connect to others.

And this gift given for the sake of others can sound crazy, ridiculous, so that “others sneer” (verse 13). Peter responds to the sneer-ers by calling on the ancient prophetic tradition. He doesn’t hesitate to claim this Pentecost experience as the fulfillment of Joel’s inspiring vision of what is looks like for God’s Spirit to be poured out “on all flesh” (verses 17-21). “All flesh” means young and old, women and men, slave and free. All will prophesy, which means speaking God’s word into reality. Peter says, “it’s happening now!” The Jesus community, through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, challenges existing religious norms just as Joel did. These dreams and visions turn the Jesus community outward, proclamation through outsiders’ mother tongues.

What language would you speak in your missional location, if you were filled with the Holy Spirit? How might those outside your congregation hear their mother tongue and be welcomed home?

Invite your hearers to consider the native language of those outside your congregation: It might be a specific human language like Vietnamese, English, or Somali, spoken in the surrounding neighborhood. Or it might be a form of communication, like emojis, texting or digital images. Or perhaps the native language of those outside your circle of Jesus followers is the language of science or music. Or perhaps it is a particular spiritual dialect, a language of the heart that speaks deeply into people’s lives. Can we ask the Holy Spirit to gift us with such native languages?

Pentecost was the Jewish celebration 50 days after Passover that marked the giving of the Torah and was also the time of giving first fruits at the temple. The gathered disciples would already be celebrating God’s gifts, unawares that another gift was coming. This new gift of mother tongues turned them outward, toward those outside their movement.

The church birthed at Pentecost carries this deep DNA, to make a home in God’s life and invite others, in a way they can understand, to make a home in God’s life, too.


Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 11:1-9

Sara Koenig

This text is offered as an alternative First Reading for the Day of Pentecost, with the instructions that if it is chosen, then Acts 2:1-21 gets used as the Second Reading.

Certainly, there have been connections made between Genesis 11:1-9 and Acts 2:1-21, with people understanding God’s gift of speaking in tongues as a reversal of the confusion of tongues at Babel.

However, some New Testament scholars place a caveat on reading the Day of Pentecost as a “solution” to the problem of the Tower of Babel. For example, Eric Barreto explains that such a reading suggests diversity is a punishment from God; that our different languages and cultures are a problem in need of an answer. Barreto notes that in the Day of Pentecost, the Spirit maintains the diversity of human language by enabling everyone to hear the gospel in their own language, not in a single universal language. Diversity — of language, culture, and the like — is therefore not a divine punishment, but something to be celebrated.1

Barreto is paying attention to what C. L. Seow refers to as “the history of consequences” of interpretations of biblical texts. These consequences include how a text is interpreted, applied, and used, as well as the ethical implications of certain readings of the text.2 The history of consequences of Genesis 11:1-9 includes South African theologians’ use of the text to justify apartheid, by arguing that God desired to keep separate languages and races apart from one another.

One reason why Genesis 11:1-9 has been interpreted and applied in such various ways — with varying ethical implications — is that the narrative is sparse, with very little explicit reason given for why God scattered the people and confused their language.

There have been at least three main emphases in the interpretations, though they are not mutually exclusive. The first is that this is a story about pride and rebellion against God. The people attempt to build a tower because they desire to make a name for themselves (Genesis 11:4), when God is the one who ultimately makes a name for people, as is evident in the promise to Abram (Genesis 12:2).

Second, this narrative has been read as a critique of the totalizing power of empire, particularly the Babylonian empire that destroyed Judah and took the people away into exile. The name of the city, “Babel” (Genesis 11:9), is the same Hebrew word that gets translated as “Babylon” throughout the rest of the Old Testament. Among other things, empires impose a single dominant language — as Alexander the Great did in the Macedonian empire — and thereby enforce a level of unity and conformity.

A third way of understanding Genesis 11:1-9 has been to see the people’s desire to remain in one place as contrary to God’s mandate that they “spread out and fill the whole earth” (Genesis 1:28, 9:1). Even in the verse immediately preceding this lectionary text, Genesis 10:32, the survivors of the flood “spread out over the earth.” Those who want to settle and build a city are scattered by God because God wants them to continue to move and even diversify.

Though the text is sparse, certain details stand out, such as the repetition and variation of the language in verse 1, which explains, “all the earth had one language and the same words.” In Genesis 11:6, God echoes the narrator, saying, “the people are one, and all of them have one language.” Then, in Genesis 11:9, God confuses “the language of all the earth.”

The people are journeying in Genesis 11:2, but in the same verse they find and “dwell” in a plain in Shinar. Genesis 10:10 located Babylon in Shinar, so the connection has been made even before the name “Babel” is given in 11:8. The Hebrew verb yasab “to dwell,” can also be translated as “to sit,” so the word emphasizes that the people have stopped moving.

The people’s first action is to make bricks, something that the Israelites will be commanded to do when they are enslaved in Egypt. They use “bitumen” as mortar (Genesis 11:3), the same material used by Moses’ mother to seal up his basket before she places it in the water (Exodus 2:3). After making bricks, the people then decide to build a city and a tower, consequently making a name, lest they be scattered (Genesis 11:4). 

In Genesis 11:5, God comes down to see the city and tower. Within the Jewish tradition, this is less about God’s lack of omnipotence than it is a description of God’s personal involvement in what happens on the earth.

Despite God’s direct statements in Genesis 11:6-7, there is a level of mystery about exactly why the response to the people’s unity, especially their unity of language, is to confound that language and scatter them. Again, the three main threads of explanations, above, attempt to solve the mystery. God does not destroy the city or the tower, which suggests that the issue is not with the building projects, but more about the reasons for building. 

Being scattered is typically negative, a consequence of disobedience. What the people fear in Genesis 11:4 comes to pass in Genesis 11:8, “being scattered on the face of all the earth.” But in Deuteronomy 30:3 — just a few biblical books after Genesis — is the first of many times when God promises to “gather” from all the places where God has “scattered” (see also Ezekiel 11:16-17; 20:34, 41; 28:25).  

Our theology frames and directs our understanding of texts. If we assume God’s power, benevolence, and love in this narrative, it becomes harder to read it only as a punishment. Another consequence of reading Acts 2:1-21 as a “solution” to the “problem” of Genesis 11:1-9 is that it can suggest God in the Old Testament punishes people in ways that are not ameliorated until after the ascension of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. In fact, God’s actions of grace are evident throughout the metanarrative, from start to finish.


Notes:

  1. Eric Barreto, “What Happened at Pentecost?” http://www.enterthebible.org/blog.aspx?post=2547
  2. C. L. Seow, Job 1-21, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2013, 184-185.

Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 104:24-34, 35b

Courtney Pace

This creation psalm celebrates the goodness, splendor, complexity, and interrelatedness of creation, which reflect God’s wisdom.

With strategic repetition of “your works” throughout the chapter, Psalm 104 celebrates the world as evidence of God’s wisdom in creating and sustaining the world, such that everything connects with everything else.

The phrase “Bless the Lord, O my soul” appears in Psalms 103 and 104, joining these two psalms as a larger celebration of God’s creation and as a guide for the people to pray in praise of God for creation. The psalmist agrees with Psalm 103 that God rules over all that is, and Psalm 104 expands upon this by detailing God’s works of creation.

Verse 24 begins with a new vocative, “O Lord,” proclaiming God’s sovereignty and dominion over all of the earth and the heavens, all of which are God’s creation. The psalm is somewhat reminiscent of Genesis 1 but is not intended to be read as a narrative.

Humankind are workers within God’s ordered world, built upon interdependence between all living things. The whole world depends on God for sustenance, and none can survive without God. As the creator and source of life, God will always be sovereign, but God guides creation like a loving and compassionate parent. God has made creation and providence continuous with each other, just as those are continuous within God’s very self.

Verse 30 points to God’s ruach, or breath, which brings life to our physical and spiritual lives simultaneously. Just as God raised the dry bones (Ezekiel 37:1-14), God’s breath/Spirit is our complete source of life in every possible meaning. The psalmist is suggesting that the purpose of creation is life itself and that delight in life must always be rooted in deep connection to God.

Creation exists in polyrhythm, and just as God’s life-giving breath animates all of creation, humanity is to echo this life-giving breath with their praise of God.

Similarly, because the world was created with interdependence, everything we do impacts God’s world, and also God. Ecology and theology cannot be separated because every human action impacts God’s creation, therefore, they impact God as well. Note that in verse 16, the psalmist refers to “trees of the Lord” but never to “people of the Lord,” which suggests that humans are not above creation but rather are one piece within its majestic whole. God tasked humans to serve creation and take care of it, not to rule over it and exploit it for human gain. Human interference in the delicate balance of interconnectedness threatens the system which God has put into place.

This begs us to consider the root cause of our contemporary concern with environmental justice. Is it rooted in preserving our way of life for future generations (self-interest), or is it rooted in praise for God the Creator (worship)?

Wickedness is a jarring discord between the world and what it was created to be. Wickedness seeks to disconnect and deal harm, whereas the world was created for life-giving interconnectedness. As J. Clinton McCann referenced, “we have seen the wicked, and it is us!” (McCann, 1100).

The mention of the sea monster Leviathan recalls the ancient association between the ocean and chaos and between sea monsters and evil. Even these, this psalmist says, are subject to God, for God has ordered the chaotic waters to become life-giving springs (verses 6-13) and quieted the sea monsters (verses 25-26).

The psalmist wishes that God would rule over creation for eternity and that this will bring God joy. While verse 35a seems disconnected from the rest of Psalm 104, the psalmist so rejoices in creation that he wishes wickedness were not at work attempting to dismantle what God has built.

This also points to the fact that those who view themselves as part of creation cannot praise God and tolerate wickedness within the world. Either one lives in praise of God as creator/life-giver/sustainer, or one undermines God’s sovereignty by seeking to harm what God has made.

Verse 35 also offers the first instance of “hallelujah” in the psalter, which is one of the reasons this passage tends to be used on the Day of Pentecost in celebration of God’s spirit (breath, wisdom) over creation. Just as God is the source of life for all of creation — physically, cosmically, and spiritually — God has created the church and sustained the church, through which all humankind and creation are interconnected.

What amazes you about creation? For what do you find yourself repeatedly praising God? How does God reveal God’s self through creation? What responsibilities do humans have to and for creation, and how does your preaching form your congregation in this regard?


Resources:

Bruggemann, Walter, Israel’s Praise: Doxology against Idolatry and Ideology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988).

Cotter, Jim, Psalms for a Pilgrim People (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse, 1998).

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

Mays, James L., Preaching and Teaching the Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006).

Mays, James L., Psalms: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994).

McCann, J. Clinton, “Psalms,” In The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol 4, ed by Leander E. Keck, et al. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996).

Reid, Stephen Breck, Listening In: A Multicultural Reading of the Psalms (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997).


Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 8:14-17

Jane Lancaster Patterson

Both culture and translation stand between this significant passage and twenty-first century English-speaking interpreters.

I offer the following translation as a tool for understanding, not an example of English prose worthy of proclamation:

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.

For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear,
but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons.

When we cry, “Abba! Father!”
it is that very Spirit
co-witnessing with our spirit
that we are children of God,
and if children, then heirs,
heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ —

if, in fact, we co-suffer with him
so that we may also be co-glorified with him.

I hope that — in spite of the awkwardness of this translation — you can see some of the charged points at which this short passage invites the hearers into dynamic relationship with the Trinity, before the Trinity had a name and a place in Christian doctrine.

Sons of God by adoption

The meaning of this passage is highly dependent upon an understanding of the role of sons in first-century Roman culture, as well as Roman practices of and motivations for adoption.

  • Adult sons were understood to have the responsibility of carrying on the work of their father, and doing so in a way that embodied the father’s values.
  • The agency of daughters, on the other hand, was limited by laws that treated them essentially as minors.

The metaphor of sonship, and the understanding of Jesus as “Son of God” is dependent upon this understanding of the role of sons as partners in, and then heirs of, their father’s work. Jesus was seen to be God’s Son because he faithfully carried out God’s work in the world, exactly as God would have it done. When Christians, led by God’s Spirit, do likewise, then they are living faithfully into their baptismal identity in Christ, living as sons of God.

This important theme in the New Testament — that the baptized have the high calling of living as partners and heirs of God — is masked by translations that render “son” as “child.” As a woman, I understand and appreciate the rationale of gender inclusion; as someone concerned with Christian moral practice, I lament the infantilizing of Christians as children, without the responsibilities of adult members of the household of God.

Adoption in Greco-Roman culture was not pursued primarily as a way for childless couples to experience the love of children, but for families without a male heir to ensure that the work that sustained the family could continue. The word used here for adoption is huiothesia, literally “son-making.” The imagery is especially potent for Gentiles, who were not previously members of God’s family.

Paul contrasts two spirits:

  • a spirit of slavery, consisting of the fear and lack of true agency that correspond to being outside the household of God;
  • and a spirit of having been made sons through baptism, presumably a state of confident freedom for acting in the world as people authorized to carry on God’s work.

The fact of having been adopted as sons by God puts the baptized in close relationship with Christ. They are literally, as brothers, co-heirs with him to the rights and responsibilities of the family of God.

When Paul turns to the language of “children” in verses 16 and 17, it is to underscore the validity of the adoption. Gentiles who have been “made sons” of God through baptism are legitimate children and valid heirs of the promises.

Pentecost: the nearness of the Spirit

No doubt, this passage has been assigned for Pentecost because of the intensity of identification between the believer and the Spirit. English translations muffle the shocking intimacy of the relationship between the Spirit and the baptized. Paul’s Greek repeats the prefix syn- (translated here as co-), like the continuous heartbeat of the Spirit pounding in the veins of the one who witnesses, acts, suffers, and is glorified.

In contrast to the giddy, unexpected eruption of the Spirit among the disciples in Acts 2:1-4, here the Spirit is made manifest in living witness to Christ discerned by followers…

  • who are willing to risk suffering for the sake of Christian witness;
  • who cry out to God as naturally as to a trusted parent;
  • whose practices of faith repeat the courageous patterns of Christ’s self-offering, no matter the cost;
  • who entrust themselves to their hope of eventual glorification by a loving God.

In each of these dimensions of their witness, the baptized are filled with the Spirit of God in a profound co-agency for the salvation of the world.