Lectionary Commentaries for May 5, 2019
Third Sunday of Easter
Commentary on John 21:1-19
Joy J. Moore
Commentary on Acts 9:1-6 [7-20]
Amy G. Oden
It’s a dramatic story.
A villain struck down by a flash of light. Jesus’ disembodied voice calling him out. We tend to assume that Saul is the bad guy in the story. But is he? It’s important to remember that Saul sees himself as the good guy trying to protect the faith. Saul loves God and wants to stamp out anything that, in his view, dishonors God. In this case, that means the Jews in the movement around Jesus.
When he breathes “threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (verse 1) Saul is God’s champion going after “bad Jews.” He sees Jesus’ followers as those within his own faith needing rescue from their error. He asks for letters to the synagogues in Damascus that will give him authority to conduct his policing there, to clean up his own faith community and rid it of the straying, unrighteous ones. As far as he is concerned, this is not a matter of going after people just to persecute them, but rather a correction of “Jews gone bad.”
Saul is the classic example of the devout person who is so determined to do good that they are blinded (literally!) to the destructive consequences of their purity campaign. He does much harm as he is trying to do good.
We must be careful, then, in how we portray Saul. Rather than portraying him as a persecutor, we might see him as a committed son of the covenant, someone trying to do the right thing in order to strengthen the people of God.
Narrow or expand?
In this sympathetic reading then, we might hunch that Saul is shocked not only by the flashing light, but by the accusation of persecution, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (verse 4) We might imagine Saul can hardly believe his ears, thinking, “Who? Me? A persecutor?” This is not Saul’s story about himself.
His one-track focus on righteousness narrows rather than expands his vision of what God is up to. He is so convinced of the error of others that he cannot see the new thing God is doing in Jesus Christ and mis-reads it completely.
Saul’s blindness can help us see the ways our religious commitments, however righteous, can be obstructions. How do our religious (or political or ideological or social) commitments keep us from seeing the new thing God is up to? How do we narrow rather than expand God’s mission in the world? What, in our good intentions, do we mis-read completely?
At both ends of the ideological spectrum, Christian progressives as well as Christian conservatives look to purge their ranks of any who step even slightly out of line. The story each side tells about themselves is that they are holding firm to sacred values. No one thinks of themselves as a persecutor in the stories we tell ourselves about our own commitments. We would be shocked to hear Jesus say to us, “Why do you persecute me?”
On this Sunday before Pentecost, to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Holy Spirit to expand, not narrow, the vision of what God is up to far beyond ourselves, we might pause to examine our blind spots, often tied to our deepest commitments.
It’s also an opportunity to see our own reactivity against those with whom we disagree. Commentaries on Luke 9 and 10 (June 30 and July 7) continue the theme of reactivity.
Commentary on Psalm 30
Psalm 30 leaves little doubt that God has a penchant for transforming weeping into joy, darkness into light, even death into life.
It follows, then, that the predominant disposition of a worshiper toward such a God will be one of praise and thanksgiving, regardless of short-term life circumstances. Already in verse one, the psalmist vows to “exalt, lift up” (Hebrew rum) the Lord.
However, the exaltation offered to the Lord comes in response to the Lord first “drawing up” (Hebrew dalah) the psalmist. This action by God presupposes that the psalmist was in some dire or undesirable situation from which the Lord provided rescue, an assertion which the second part of the verse confirms by mentioning that the psalmist’s foes were not allowed to rejoice over the situation in question.
To have praise and thanksgiving given to God is certainly good. But to have praise and thanksgiving given to God in response to God’s deliverance is even better, because herein a crucial theological point is made. Like other references to suffering in Scripture, Psalm 30 does not present a systematic, exhaustive discussion of the topic. What it does do, which is of enormous value, is clearly demonstrate that the scope and strength of God’s penchant for deliverance is difficult if not impossible to understand without some experience of suffering, pain, or difficulty. (Much like the joy and power of Easter is difficult if not impossible to fully grasp and appreciate without Maundy Thursday, and especially, Good Friday.)
As desirable as unbothered, prosperous times may be, they bring along the danger of complacency and excessive self-confidence, which Scripture repeatedly cautions against.1 In verse 6, the psalmist here confesses, “As for me, I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’”2 Yet the fact that we have this psalm testifies that this proclamation did not hold true. Rather that proclaiming prosperity, verse 2 has the psalmist describing a call for help to the Lord, and being healed by the Lord as a result.
Verse 3 goes even further, declaring that the psalmist’s very soul3 has been brought up from Sheol and life restored from the Pit. This is not deliverance from a stubbed toe. God is here restoring life from the very confines of death. It is not clear that the psalmist actually died and was restored, but the restorative experience seems to have been profound enough that it felt like being brought up from the abode of the dead, and at the very least inspired confidence that such a feat lay well within God’s ability and prerogative.
The psalm neither presents suffering as something that one should seek out, nor something that God desires for or takes delight in seeing among humans. Nor does it present the argument of Job’s so-called friends that misfortune must be the result of some wrongful/sinful behavior (In fact, the psalm would seem to argue against such a view in light of verse 1b.). What it does seem to say, however, is that suffering happens in life, perhaps for no clear or good reason, and that it is not an indication of long term, and certainly not eternal, abandonment by God. It may be that God on occasion becomes angry or hides the divine face (verses 5a and 7b), but these occurrences are few and fleeting compared to the lasting favor of God and God’s propensity to rescue and restore.
A life-view that thus allows for, even expects on occasion, the presence of misfortune or suffering, rather than works to avoid any trace of such things, is the only solid and appropriate platform for giving thanks and praise to God. Offering such supplications only in hopes of enticing God to spare one of unfortunate bumps in the road of life would presuppose a God that is petty, spitefully playful, and even vengeful.
Despite such (mis-)perceptions of God based on the Old Testament that stubbornly persist to this day, Psalm 30 joins with the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures in testifying to a very different God. Verse 4b says, literally, “Give thanks for the remembrance of his holiness.”4 To refer to God’s holiness (or to God’s holy name as the NRSV and others render) is to refer to God’s profound differentness and uniqueness.
There are plenty of ancient Near Eastern options for the petty, spitefully playful and even vengeful deities. But this God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, is different, indeed, very different. This one is characterized by bringing up souls from Sheol, has momentary anger but lifetime favor, and brings forth joy from weeping.
Despite the unusually specific superscription of this Psalm, it lends itself to a wide variety of circumstances. It may have been used at some point for a palace or temple dedication (especially the post-exilic rebuilt temple or re-dedicated Maccabean temple — both of which come on the heels of communal suffering and difficulty). Nevertheless, the use of the first person and the largely general nature of the petitions make it suitable for anyone experiencing or emerging from a trial, even one that approached death.
That being said, the use of this psalm on the third Sunday of Easter is most certainly appropriate. Along with the other lessons for the day, it demonstrates that what God did on Easter Sunday was neither a whim nor out of character for God. While it was extraordinarily unparalleled in power and eternal meaning, the resurrection of Jesus is entirely consistent with God’s well-established penchant for transforming weeping into joy, darkness into light, even death into life.
This is what God has done, it is what God is doing, and it is what God promises to continue to do. Therefore, (verse 12) how could our souls be silent and not praise God — how could we not give thanks to God forever?
- See Psalm 10:6 and Proverbs 1:32.
- Hebrew nefesh — the whole life of a person, not just their aphysical Platonic soul.
- Author’s translation.
Commentary on Revelation 5:11-14
Where can we hear the Lamb’s “new song” (Revelation 5:9) being sung in the world today?1
Revelation makes vibrant connections between worship and justice, between liturgy and political transformation. Singing is a profound source of hope in the book of Revelation, as Kathleen Norris writes:
I am attracted to the Revelation also because it was Emily Dickinson’s favorite book of the Bible, and because it takes a stand in favor of singing. In fact, it proclaims that when all is said and done, of the considerable noises human beings are capable of, it is singing that will endure. A new song — if you can imagine — and light will be what remains. I find this a cause for hope.2
Revelation 5 introduces the Jesus as the slain and risen Lamb whose praise is joined by “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea” (Revelation 5:13). All heaven breaks loose in singing when the lamb is found worthy to open the scroll. Revelation is rich in such worship scenes. The hymns of Revelation are familiar from Handel’s “Messiah” (“Worthy Is the Lamb Who Was Slain”), from Charles Wesley’s hymns (“Salvation to God Who Sits on the Throne”), and from the liturgy (“This is the Feast of Victory for Our God”; “Holy, Holy, Holy”). More than fifteen hymns are sung in Revelation, all giving encouragement to Gods people on earth from the perspective of heaven. No book of the Bible has had more influence on Western music and art than Revelation.
John of Patmos envisions a liturgy where animals and all living creatures join us in cacophonous singing. This vision can serve as a corrective to our anthropocentric tendencies to neglect the truly cosmic dimension of God’s praise. The Easter Eucharistic Preface underscores this witness of all creation: “Therefore with Mary Magdalene and Peter, with all the witnesses of the resurrection, with earth and sea and all their creatures, we praise your name and join their unending hymn.”
In order to understand the full significance of this worship scene we must view it in context — both the literary context of ancient apocalypses and the first-century context of Roman imperial theology. Beginning in chapter 4, Revelation follows the typical genre of an ancient “apocalypse” (the first word in Revelation 1:1) in which a representative seer goes on a journey up into heaven and then returns with an urgent message to the community.
On this journey up into heaven (Revelation 4-5) John sees the divine throne and God as “the One seated upon it,” surrounded by heavenly worshipers. The clear message is about allegiance: Only God and God’s Lamb Jesus are worthy of our worship, not the Roman emperor or any imperial power. This radical message is transformative for John and for his first century communities in Asia Minor.
The hard-hitting political role of this worship scene becomes even more apparent if we consider the root meaning of the word “apocalypse”– apo, “from,” and kalyptos, “covering.” John’s Apocalypse is an exposé, a pulling back of the curtain to uncover the truth about the Roman Empire. In a role analogous to that of Toto in the climactic scene of the film “The Wizard of Oz,” Revelation pulls back the curtain to expose the fact that Rome is not the great eternal power it claims to be. Rome must not be worshiped.
As preachers, we can invite worshipers to savor the liturgy and join in the hymn of all creation, even while we also observe that radical liturgy demands saying “no” to false allegiances and claims. As Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza argues, Revelation’s frequent use of hymns, doxologies, hallelujahs, amens and descriptions of heavenly liturgies serves “not for the sake of persuading his audience to participate in the daily or weekly liturgy,” but rather “for the sake of moving the audience to political resistance . . . If the author would write today, he might say: ‘Don’t salute the flag, salute God’; or ‘Don’t pledge allegiance to the state, pledge it to God’.”3
Revelation does not strictly follow the genre of apocalypse, however, but throws in some surprises. Most surprisingly, Revelation introduces Jesus not as the expected fierce apocalyptic lion (Revelation 5:5, from Genesis 49:9), but rather as a “Lamb” (literally the diminutive word, “little lamb”). No other Jewish apocalypse portrays its hero as a Lamb. This is a depiction of Jesus in the most vulnerable way possible, as a slaughtered victim. Jesus Christ is God’s Passover lamb who has been raised, and who now is worthy of our worship.
The powerful metaphor of Jesus as “the Lamb who was slain” will become the central christological symbol of the entire book. This scripting of Jesus as a lamb is an obvious signal not to interpret the imagery of Revelation literally, but rather metaphorically. Just as Jesus was not literally a four-legged sheep or lamb, so Revelation’s other symbols and numbers should not be read literally. Revelation’s profound truth is not as a series of predictions to be figured out, but rather a deeper-than-literal truth — a journey into God’s vision of hope for our world.
1 Commentary first published on this site on April 14, 2013.
2 Kathleen Norris, Introduction to Revelation (New York: Grove Press, 1999), vii.
3 Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Revelation: Vision of a Just World (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), 103.
Details are important. The writer of the good news as recorded in John holds to details to the very end.
Today, as we look back at these texts, our tendency is to see the triumph. In the moment-to-moment uncertainty of “what it all means,” hindsight’s assessment can overshadow the strength-building steps of the journey. The power of narrative is the lessons lodged in the dramatic details. The writer has shared with the readers the purpose of the reports.
Rather than mere apologetic or intellectual proofs, the writer of John brings testimony to the invitation that has always been the concern of the God of Israel: the redemption and reconciliation of all humanity and creation. For that reason, another chapter indicates we have not arrived at the end of the story. Resurrection appearances confirmed and Jesus’ Lordship confessed is an invitation, not a conclusion. Having heard the Easter events, what is there for the community to do now?
In a season of great expectations and equally great disappointments, hours are enough to create doubt. Days pass into weeks since the reports of the empty tomb were confirmed by Jesus’ appearances among those who knew him best. The disciples were waiting on the Spirit Jesus had promised but they didn’t know what to do while they waited. Going back to what they did before all the hope and hype seemed a good option. But the events of triumph over tragedy are not to send the disciples to a life of their past.
The details of this narrative are brought together in the end like the merging of Marvel Comics storylines. The disciples have been disillusioned. Their idealism had been assaulted by reality, and the seeds of faith were now scattered in upturned soil.
A consequence of the departure of Jesus, the delay of his promised return, and a deficiency in their community — the place that was to be a safe harbor when everything else has come crashing down. One of their own had betrayed Jesus: handed him over to the enemy with a gesture of devotion. Peter had sworn he had no knowledge of the Galilean, and certainly no allegiance to him. Disenchanted by the humiliating reversal of their plans to overthrow their political enemies, only John bothered to witness the crucifixion.
Hindsight might suggest that Judas acted out of religious zeal, but his suicide exposes his own disappointment. Peter surely feared for his own survival, despite his recent promise to follow Jesus come what may. The other disciples enjoyed the thrills of being a part of the coming revolution, but it hadn’t occurred to them that the victory would not come to pass in their lifetime.
Delayed gratification has always been difficult for the children of God. Peter and his friends are living in the meantime — the time when we wait on God’s next move. What do we do when we are waiting for God’s next move?
Peter turns back to the life they once knew. He plans a late-night fishing trip, and seven of the eleven show up. This attempt to return to the way things were ignores that the encounter with Jesus gave them a greater mission.
The writer presents this familiar activity as a distraction from the greater mission. Failing to move forward, career fishermen failed to catch anything all night long. So their impatience and confusion is marred with disappointment. This makes John’s narrative allusion noteworthy. Failure in fishing brings back the failed mission felt on Friday night. Unachieved goals mirror the anticlimax when the resurrected Jesus appears with promises of power and then leaves again at the moment of their recognition.
Confusion sets in as they realize they can’t go back, and they don’t know the way forward. The entire narrative had been an invitation to join with Jesus in God’s mission — a mission that is not about heaven when we die or converts to a religion. Jesus’ disciples are doers.
The disciples are still on a journey of discovery marked by relationships with respected friends and loved ones. They have to recover the habits of discipleship they practiced for three years: regular experiences of God intruding on the ordinary, followed by lengthy discussions about seeing the difference God’s grace makes in the lives of people who encounter acts of love and kindness. Up close and personal ministry.
The challenge for the disciples was to be the bridge for someone else to experience justice. The disciples have to grasp who they now are in light of the resurrection. Their old occupations have been transformed into a godly mission. A mission that is as unpredictable as fishing all night and catching nothing, and as intimate as a breakfast on the beach with a friend who knows how much you love them.
When Jesus commissioned Peter, he didn’t send Peter out in search of instant conversions. Jesus said feed my sheep. This story stands in opposition to the notion of packing your bags and waiting to cash in on that fire insurance policy with its eventual pie-in-the-sky payoff. It also suggests more than the big catch as a metaphor for large church initiatives, mega-church ministries, and televised revivals that reach millions. Jesus leaves the many to speak to one with forgiveness, intimacy, and invitation.
It has been two millennia since the first reports of the empty tomb. Many have been blessed by believing without seeing. Still, waiting for God’s next promise to be fulfilled leaves us not knowing what to do. It seems a viable option to go back to a way of living that isn’t dependent on the hope and hype.