Lectionary Commentaries for May 20, 2018
Day of Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Judith Jones

Compared to Acts’ description of the Spirit descending like tongues of fire at Pentecost, today’s reading from John is sadly lacking in drama.

Nevertheless, Jesus’ conversation with his disciples about the Holy Spirit provides an important counterpoint to the Pentecost story. In this passage Jesus outlines the critical role that the Spirit will play both in the Christian community and in the world.

In John, Jesus’ preferred term for the Spirit is the Paraclete. Because this word is notoriously difficult to translate without losing key components of its meaning, many commentators avoid the problem altogether and simply transliterate the Greek. The Greek noun Paraclete is related to a verb that means “I call alongside.” The Paraclete, then, is the Spirit of Truth whom Jesus calls to accompany his followers as helper, counselor, advocate, and guide. Though sent by Jesus, the Spirit goes out from the Father.

Jesus promises to send the Paraclete as a replacement for his own presence among his disciples. Observant readers will notice that Jesus’ comment in John 16:5, “But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, Where are you going?” seems to overlook Peter’s question in John 13:36 (“Lord, where are you going?”) as well as Thomas’ statement in John 14:5 (“Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”).

The point that Jesus seems to be making here in John 16 is that as he continues to talk about his imminent departure, his disciples have been stunned into silence. In their shock and grief, they simply do not know what to say. He consoles them by assuring them that it is better this way, because unless he leaves, the Paraclete will not come. Even though he himself is returning to the Father, the Paraclete will be their constant companion, the living presence of the divine among and within them, comforting the community in Jesus’ absence. The Paraclete will enable them to abide in Jesus’ love.

Jesus describes the Paraclete as the Spirit of truth who will expose sin, righteousness, and judgment and who will lead Jesus’ followers into all truth. It is vitally important that readers understand what Jesus means here by truth. The Spirit of truth is not focused on propositional, dogmatic truth. Jesus does not send the Spirit to ensure that the community makes no errors in its theological descriptions of the Trinity or of the precise nature of Christ’s presence in the consecrated bread and wine. No, Jesus sends the Spirit of truth to help his followers live in the Way of Jesus.

The truth that the Spirit of truth teaches is relational, not propositional. According to John 16:13, the Spirit of truth “will guide you into all the truth” (New Revised Standard Version). The Greek verb that describes the Spirit’s action here is hodegeo, which combines the noun hodos, “way” and the verb ago, “I lead.” The Paraclete leads Jesus’ followers in the way of all truth, and of course John’s community knows that Jesus himself is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (see John 14:6). Those who know Jesus’ character as revealed in his deeds and words will lead lives shaped by those words and deeds. How can anyone who truly knows Jesus — the beloved Son who says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:13) — use doctrinal error to justify violent or hateful treatment of another human being?

John 16:1-4a, the verses that have been omitted from today’s Gospel reading even though they fall in the middle of the passage, prove the above point by stating its opposite: not knowing the Father or the Son leads to profoundly mistaken behavior. Those who use faith as an excuse for violence do so because they do not truly know God. Only those who do not know God as revealed in Jesus could conclude that killing people is offering worship to God.

By contrast, the Spirit of truth leads Jesus’ followers in the way of Jesus, whose love for the world led him to lay down his life for it. As the living divine presence in the community, the Paraclete continues the work of Jesus. An essential part of the Spirit’s task is to bring to mind the words that Jesus has already taught the disciples and to teach them the words that they were not yet able to bear when Jesus was physically present among them.

The Spirit also continues Jesus’ work by revealing the truth about sin and righteousness and judgment, just as Jesus did. The Paraclete exposes the world’s sin by pointing to its opposite, the righteous one whom a sinful world crucified. As Jesus says at the turning point of John’s Gospel, “Now is the judgment of this world…. and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:31, 32). When the world tries to deny the truth about itself, the Spirit offers convincing evidence of sin by pointing to Jesus, who embodies righteousness and justice. There can be no clearer indictment of the world than its choice to walk the path of darkness, violence, and hate instead of walking in the way of Jesus, who is light and love incarnate.

The Spirit of Truth testifies to the incarnate truth and empowers Jesus’ followers to become witnesses too. The Spirit speaks through the community of disciples, teaching them to bear witness not only with their lips, but with their lives. As Jesus himself said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). The most compelling witness that any disciple can bear is to love others as Jesus did, in deed and in truth.


First Reading

Commentary on Acts 2:1-21

Greg Carey

In telling the story of Pentecost, Luke struggles with a profound tension: How does one honor the Spirit’s radical freedom to move as it wants without giving the impression that Pentecost is chaotic?

We might even ask the question: how do believing communities open ourselves to the wildness of the Spirit while maintaining structures of accountability?1

Respectable spirit possession

Luke does a great deal to confine the outbreak of the Spirit within the constraints of respectability. A key factor in this strategy involves reading Luke and Acts together, not necessarily as one seamless story but at least in sequence. The opening of Acts encourages its reader to remember Luke’s Gospel (Acts 1:1-5).

The risen Jesus has already prepared the disciples for this moment. Having appeared to them after his resurrection, Jesus promises to deliver what his Father has promised to him: “power from on high” (Luke 24:49). Acts opens by returning both to this promise and to the words of John the Baptist. The disciples are to be baptized with the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5; see Luke 3:16). Indeed, just as Jesus’ career commences with the Holy Spirit descending upon him (Luke 3:21-22), so does Pentecost ignite the careers of his disciples. Finally, before Jesus ascends into the sky he repeats the promise. The disciples will receive power when the Holy Spirit “comes upon” them. If the language of the Spirit “coming upon” the disciples seems a bit, well, wild, Luke and Acts have at least prepared us for the event.

The Pentecost crowd’s initial response to the Spirit’s outpouring includes the concern that things have gotten a little too wild. Amazement and confusion spreads throughout the crowd, but some make fun of the event: surely these disciples are drunk (Acts 2:13). Peter begins by answering that complaint, and he does so by explaining the event as a fulfillment of Joel 2:28-32. Luke has already interpreted the Spirit’s “happening” as a fulfillment of Scripture. At the end of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus ties the Spirit’s arrival to his confounding saying that “everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44-49). The phrase, “what my Father promised” suggests further fulfillment of the Scriptures. He repeats this language in Acts 1:4.

Acts’ attempts at respectability include an imperfect attempt to foreground the role of the apostles. On Pentecost “they were all together in one place” (Acts 2:1). That “all” includes the eleven apostles plus Matthias, along with “certain women,” Jesus’ mother Mary, and his brothers. Presumably, they “all” spoke in the manifold languages of their diverse audience. But Peter takes the lead, preaches the sermon, and gathers the converts. From this moment the believers adhere to the apostles’ teaching and the apostles do the miracle working (Acts 2:42-43). (The pattern cracks a bit when two non-apostles, Stephen and Philip, become great preachers.) In this light the preoccupation with choosing an apostle to replace Judas makes all the more sense (Acts 1:15-29). Indeed, it is to the apostles alone that Jesus promises the Spirit in Acts 1:2-5.

Free from constraint

We can understand why Luke would frame a respectable message for “most excellent Theophilus” (Luke 1:3). But Luke also knows the Spirit is all about dynamic freedom. The metaphors Acts uses for the spirit — power, tongues, fire, and wind — all signify the radical nature of the Spirit’s freedom. We translate the Greek dynamis as “power.” We may be overreading here, but the image is suggestive: what happens when fire strikes dynamite? Likewise, the ways in which the Spirit interacts with people — baptizing, coming upon, filling, giving them to speak — amplify the Spirit’s initiative.

Only the disciples, it seems, perceive the tongues of fire alighting upon them (Acts 2:3). But everyone discerns that something remarkable has occurred. That “everyone” reveals that the cat is now out of the bag. Peter’s audience may be respectable. Luke describes them all as “devout” persons. They all share multiple ethnicities, combining their Jewish identity with ethnicities from all over the ancient world ranging from Libya to Mesopotamia to Rome. Jesus’ promise that his disciples will take the gospel “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8) receives here a prefigured fulfillment. As soon as some of these people travel home, the gospel will spread well beyond the apostles’ control.

The miracle in Acts is every preacher’s fantasy — and what every preacher already fears. The miracle resides not with the speaking of the disciples but in the hearing of the crowd. They hear the gospel in their own languages. This is what we all want: through the work of the Spirit to communicate with every person in a language particular to that individual. But we also know the dismay of being heard in ways we never intended. For once the word is out, it’s like a once-wounded eagle, captured, healed, and then set free. It is gone.

And then there is Joel. God’s pours the Spirit upon “all flesh,” making no distinctions according to rank, authority, or position. Children, male and female children, speak the word. Women and men alike receive the gift. One wonders: does Luke even try to render Joel respectable, transforming the “male slaves and female slaves” of Joel 2:29 into “God’s slaves” (Acts 2:18)? The Spirit crumbles all the walls of respectability: age, gender, and status alike. For these are the last days, and Spirit is bathing “all flesh” with its gifts. Everyone who calls upon God is being saved (Acts 2:21).


Notes:

  1. Two interpreters have shaped my grappling with the Spirit’s wildness and Acts’ respectability. See Justo L. Gonzázlez, Santa Biblia: The Bible Through Hispanic Eyes (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 35-36; and Shelly Matthews, The Acts of the Apostles: Taming the Tongues of Fire (T&T Clark Study Guides to the New Testament; New York: Bloomsbury, 2017 [2013]), 73-92.

Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 104:24-34, 35b

Cameron B.R. Howard

Psalm 104, a hymn of praise to God as creator, is remarkably comprehensive in its survey of earth and space, flora and fauna, topography and geology.1

The psalm’s list of these diverse aspects of creation extols God’s greatness, with particular attention to God’s control of and power over that creation. Like any good poet, the psalmist provides no dry recitation of species’ names, but rather paints a picture of the landscape using vibrant imagery and powerful metaphors.

The lectionary reading for Pentecost Sunday excerpts verses 24-34 and 35b from Psalm 104. In the opening verses of the lectionary unit, readers get an extended taste of the descriptive style that fills the preceding verses. Having devoted only a line or two to most other aspects of creation throughout the poem, the psalmist lingers over these observations of the sea in verses 24-30. I can almost see the psalmist standing on the beach with one arm draped around God’s shoulders, the other arm gesturing to the ocean stretched out before them. Together God and the psalmist survey the vastness of the sea and the tiny ships perched atop it, and, at the psalmist’s prodding, they reflect on the dependency on God shared by all creatures under and above the water.

Though initially we may balk at such a scene, which imagines God with mundanely human characteristics, the psalmist capitalizes on the notion of God’s “body” as the metaphorical basis by which to describe God’s power over creation. God has an open hand (verse 28) or a hidden face (verse 29); God can look on the earth and touch the mountains (verse 32). These images recall the similarly anthropomorphic features of God in the second account of creation at Genesis 2-3. In that story God shapes dirt into the first human (Genesis 2:7a), God breathes into that human to animate him (Genesis 2:7b), and God takes walks through the garden (Genesis 3:8).

At the same time, Psalm 104 also recalls the taming of chaos and the cosmic scope of the first account of creation at Genesis 1. Psalm 104 emphasizes order, limits, and separation; the waters stay within their boundaries (verse 9), and the sun and moon mark proper times and seasons (verse 19). Likewise, Genesis 1 recounts God’s separation of light from darkness, waters above from waters below, and the waters of the earth from dry land. Thus, the attributes of the creator God so distinct in Genesis 1 and 2 — cosmic vs. earthy, distant vs. close — are combined to great effect in Psalm 104. Just as the psalm’s list of elements of creation seems comprehensive, so, too, does the psalm imagine a litany of characteristics of the creator God. 

The detail with which creation is described in Psalm 104 also recalls Job 38-41. The Joban accounting of God’s control over creation issues directly from God in a speech delivered out of the whirlwind. By contrast, the catalog of creation in Psalm 104 comes from the mouth of the psalmist and is addressed to God. Excluding the opening line of the psalm, the first thirty verses use second-person address to the deity: “You are clothed with honor and majesty…,” “You cause the grass to grow…,” “You have made the moon….”

Direct address to God is common throughout the psalms, including visceral demands for God’s attention and assistance. The kind of prolonged, detailed accounting of God’s actions presented in Psalm 104, however, is often delivered in a third-person mode and used to exhort human beings to praise God.1 The extent to which the psalm tells God God’s “business” can strike us as particularly bold, pushing the boundaries of testimony. What kind of hubris leads the psalmist to tell God what God has done? How bold must one be to drape one’s arm around God’s shoulders and be God’s guide through God’s own creation: to pray, as the psalmist does at verse 31, that God might rejoice at God’s own works?

If we consider Psalm 104 as a whole, the psalmist’s boldness must be born of wonder. The delight with which the psalmist surveys God’s creation allows the psalmist to glimpse, however imperfectly, God’s own joy at what God has called “good.” At verse 31 the psalm has shifted from second-person address to a tone of petition and first-person reflection. The psalmist does indeed sing out of joy, in hopes that the song will be pleasing to God.

The lectionary apportionment skips over one half-verse in the last lines of this psalm: verse 35a. Such a precise omission begs for our attention, not necessarily to challenge the lectionary’s editorial discretion, but certainly so that we may understand the psalm in its fullness. In the omitted verse, the psalmist hopes that the wicked will be eliminated from this otherwise magnificent creation.

As scholar William Brown remarks, “Shock is elicited from even the most familiar reader of psalms, not because the language of imprecation raises its head, which is nothing new to Psalms, but because it has found its way precisely here, in a psalm that revels so wantonly in the wonder and diversity of God’s creation.”2 The verse seems to interrupt the flow of what has been a powerful eruption of praise. Even the perfect harmony of all that God has made can be threatened by sin. The petition carries overtones of the wisdom tradition, in which the wicked are the ubiquitous counterpoint to the righteous (see, for example, Psalm 1).

This half-verse reminds us that the creation described by the psalmist is, in the end, not a Genesis 1 world or a Genesis 2 world; it is a Genesis 3 world, one in which human sin inhabits God’s good work. Psalm 104 is made all the more remarkable because it testifies so ebulliently to God’s power and the goodness of creation, even when the psalmist is clearly aware of the constant efforts of the wicked to do and say otherwise. In Psalm 104 we are reminded that God’s sovereign, creative power persists, and we are called to testify to that power with joy.


Notes

1 Commentary first published on this site on May 27, 2012.
2
See, for example, Psalm 105. Psalm 89, though, uses a rhetorical strategy very similar to that of Psalm 104.
3 William P. Brown, Seeing the Psalms: A Theology of Metaphor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 162.


Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 8:22-27

J.R. Daniel Kirk

Romans 8 is perhaps the greatest chapter on the Spirit in the entire New Testament.

It tells of how we become incorporated into the most important story told in scripture: God’s salvation of the cosmos through the death and resurrection of Jesus. It shows us that this is an “incorporation” in the literal sense of that term: we, in our bodies, become part of Christ in his body, so that we can be part of the new humanity that God is forming for the new creation.

The Spirit and story of Christ

In this story of salvation, Jesus’ story becomes our story. Depending on what sort of gospel story we grew up with, this might be a hard thing for us to get their heads around. Many of the ways that we depict the death of Jesus are distant from us: Jesus’ death creates a transaction on a ledger of reckoning that gets credited to our account. But the full story is much more intimate.

The reception of the Spirit makes us capable of walking in a way that is pleasing to God (Romans 8:4-6). This new life, and new world of possibility, comes not just from the Spirit as an empowering agent, but from the Spirit as Christ’s own gift and presence, empowering us to recapitulate Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection through our own (Romans 8:9-11).

At the heart of this union with Christ is the gift of a renewed identity: all who are led by the Spirit of God are God’s beloved children (Romans 8:14-17). Here we should recall that the Spirit is inseparable from Jesus’ own identity as God’s son. We see this first in his birth: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you… therefore the child will be called holy, the son of God” (Luke 1:35). We then see it in his baptism: “… the Spirit descending on him like a dove… You are my son, the beloved” (Mark 1:10, 11).

But most importantly for understanding Romans 8, we see the Spirit being responsible for Jesus’ sonship at his resurrection: “he was appointed son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness, by resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4, my translation). Who are we who have received the Spirit? We share the Easter story, we participate in Christ’s own sonship, we are God’s beloved daughters and sons.

Resurrection and new creation

One more lens helps bring this week’s reading into focus. The resurrection is the beginning of new creation, and the resurrected Jesus is the birth of renewed humanity at the heart of it. In Romans 8:29, Paul tells us we are conformed to Christ’s image. The idea of “image bearing” echoes Genesis 1, where humanity is created in God’s image and likeness, which is to say, as God’s sons and daughters charged to rule the world on God’s behalf (Genesis 1:26–28; 5:1–3).

Thus, while our vital experience of the Spirit often provides us with an intimate connection with God, we discover through ever-growing concentric circles that this personal experience is far from private. To walk with the Spirit is to walk in the way of the crucified Christ. To cry out “abba, Father,” is to be part of a large family of sisters and brothers doing the same. To taste the first fruits of the resurrection by the presence of the Spirit is to find ourselves connected with the entirety of creation on its way to restoration and renewal.

This week’s reading pairs us with creation in the suffering groans that mark life in its futile, fallen state. But for both creation and ourselves these sighs are laced with hope. Paul calls the groans of creation “labor pains.” Its suffering is not the throes of death but the pangs preceding birth, newness of life.

When he turns to humanity, the groans are generated by the Spirit, which has given us a taste of the age to come. Strangely, in Romans 8, Paul says both that the Spirit shows us we have already been adopted (Romans 8:15), and that it is the promise of a future adoption (Romans 8:23). This is because adoption comes with resurrection. We have adoption now because we have received the Spirit by whom Christ was raised from the dead. We await our future adoption, the fulfillment of our participation with him in resurrection life.

Salvation, hope, and the suffering God

Salvation, then, makes itself known in the present, but also remains a hope for our future. We have to take care never to think that salvation is fully resolved in the present, even as we have to avoid allowing its future fulfillment to keep us from seeking its realization here and now. It is we who are God’s adopted children who await our adoption. It is we who are presenting our bodies as instruments of righteousness to God who looks for the resurrection of our body.

The groaning of creation and of humanity is matched by the groaning of the Spirit. The New Revised Standard Version says that the Spirit “sighs,” in verse 26, but the Greek here is the noun form of the “groaning” that creation and humanity are said to do in verses 22 and 23. If the incarnation and cross of Christ show us that God boldly enters into the brokenness of the world, the presence of the groaning Spirit demonstrates that God stays with the broken world all the way through to the end. But the end, in fact, is the new beginning.

This groaning Spirit becomes the culmination of our hope. The Spirit who endures the suffering and simultaneously offers us a foretaste of resurrection life makes sure that we are remembered before God. The divine plan to create a new humanity upon a new creation will come to pass, as the Spirit reminds God of those whose bodies need to be redeemed for God’s purpose to be fulfilled.1


Notes:

  1. Read more of Daniel Kirk’s thoughts on resurrection in Romans in Unlocking Romans: Resurrection and the Justification of God.