Lectionary Commentaries for May 13, 2018
Seventh Sunday of Easter
Commentary on John 17:6-19
Mark G. Vitalis Hoffman
Commentary on Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
Amy Lindeman Allen
The story of the resurrection is the story of God making a way where there is no way. This is also the story of the Christian church as told in Acts.
The church as “The Way”
Before they were called Christians, the early church called itself “The Way” (Acts 9:2; 18:25; 19:9, 23; 24:14, 22). As witnesses of Jesus’ ministry and resurrection, the apostles and disciples followed the way that Jesus had taught them. They engaged in service for one another, living into the in-breaking Kingdom of God in community together.
Followers of the Way also knew Jesus as he describes himself in John’s gospel — as “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6). They knew this because they had seen first-hand God make a way through death into life in the very person of Jesus.
In the first days after the resurrection, the apostles and all of those who had been following Jesus therefore devoted themselves to learning about the Kingdom of God from the resurrected Christ (Acts 1:3). However, after Christ ascended into heaven, the Church had to figure out how to live into Christ’s new Kingdom until his return.
The Twelve Apostles
After Jesus’ ascension, the community of believers finds their natural leadership in the apostles whom Jesus had appointed (Luke 6:13-16). In Luke’s gospel these Twelve accompany Jesus as he proclaims the good news of the Kingdom of God (Luke 8:1). Jesus also gives them “power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases” (Luke 9:1).
Although many people, including women and children, accompany Jesus as disciples throughout his ministry, the apostles take on a special significance as confidants of Jesus (see Luke 9:12; 18:31). They are important not only for the individual roles they play, but also for the symbolic restoration of the twelve tribes of Israel that their number represents. Thus, they are frequently called simply “the Twelve.”
While the apostles are eating their last supper with Jesus, Jesus tells them, “I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you … will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Luke 22:28-30).
But when Judas, who “was numbered among” them (Acts 1:17), abandoned his office, the Twelve were incomplete. In order to maintain the parallel between the apostles and the tribes of Israel it was necessary that a new apostle be chosen.
The election of Matthias
Throughout Luke’s Gospel God has shown the divine power to make a way through oppression, betrayal, rejection, and death. Now in the selection of a twelfth apostle, God shows that God can make a way even through politics!
With eleven apostles intact, it would have been legitimate for the community of believers to question Peter’s insistence that a replacement for Judas be chosen at all. But then the connection with Israel would not have been complete. Symbolically, this could have called into question the early Church’s claim to follow in the tradition of Israel. By maintaining this connection, Acts makes clear that God’s Kingdom is for both the nascent community of Jew and Gentile believers in the Way and the Jews as the original covenant people of Israel.
Alternately, in a power vacuum for the twelfth throne, one could expect significant dispute and conflict between those gathered. Although the casting of lots was an accepted practice in first-century Jewish and Christian communities, Peter seems to be making the rules up as he goes. There had never been twelve apostles before and so there were no ready rules or processes for succession. And yet, in a room of likely more than 120 people (Acts 1:15, this number just representing adult men, and likely symbolic along with the Twelve), there is not a single dissent to be heard.
Matthias is chosen as Judas’ successor (Acts 1:26). And then, just as quickly, he disappears from the story — only implicitly present in mentions of the apostles or the Twelve. There is no contention, no usurpation. In no less of a miracle than the spontaneous unison prayer of all those gathered (Acts 1:24-25), Matthias and the other Twelve simply fade into the background of the real story — the continued in-breaking of God’s kingdom on earth.
God’s way for God’s church
God in Christ Jesus is a God who continually makes a way. This pioneering continues in Acts 2 when God pours out God’s own Spirit on Pentecost. The in breaking of God’s Kingdom can be spectacular indeed!
But in this moment, in this story, God’s way is quieter. God works through the human initiative or ordinary people like Peter and Matthias and all those gathered together. Through their quiet deliberation in an upstairs room, God sets the groundwork not only for Pentecost, but for the whole Gospel mission.
In Jesus’ absence, the apostles and disciples together are charged with being the Way. They bring the hope and power of the kingdom of God into communities and to people for whom the trials of religious and political oppression may have make it appear as though there is no way. In my faith tradition, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), we express the attempt to live into this same charge with the sentences: “God’s work. Our hands.”
Living in light of the resurrection, we are called to follow our God who always makes a way — through betrayal, through death, and even through politics!
Commentary on Psalm 1
J. Clinton McCann, Jr.
The poets and compilers of the Book of Psalms were clearly in touch with a perennial human issue — happiness.1
“Happy” is the very first word in the Psalter, and the repetition of “happy” in Psalm 2:12 provides an envelope-structure for the two psalms that introduce the book. Given this introductory function, it is not surprising that “happy” will occur over twenty more times in the Psalter; and indeed, it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that the whole Book of Psalms offers a commentary on the single word “happy.”
Some 2,500 years or so after the origin of Psalm 1, we are still thinking about and talking about happiness. There has even emerged in relatively recent years an academic discipline within the social sciences called “happiness studies,” and there is now a Journal of Happiness Studies: An Interdisciplinary Forum on Subjective Well-Being. As the word “subjective” in the title of the journal suggests, happiness scholars are interested in what people think and feel about various aspects of their lives — income level, relationships, health, career, and so on. While this approach is interesting and important, it is fundamentally different from the psalmists’ approach to happiness. For the psalmists, the primary subject is not the human being, but rather God! So, happiness is not primarily about what we human beings feel, desire, or accomplish. In short, and in contrast to much of what our society tells us, happiness is not about doing what we want to do. Rather, happiness is about doing what God wants done.
The God-driven life
The repetition of the Hebrew torah in verse 2 reinforces this conclusion. The traditional translation “law” is quite misleading; and in the history of interpretation, it has led to very negative assessments of Psalm 1, which many commentators have construed as legalistic and retributional. But torah does not mean “law.” Rather, it means “teaching” or ‘instruction” (see the Common English Bible’s “Instruction”); and in the broadest sense, it suggests God’s will.
So, Psalm 1 does not mean that happiness can be reduced to a mechanical process of following a set of rules, for which one is duly rewarded. Instead, happiness is a dynamic process that involves — indeed requires — constant meditation (“day and night”) upon God’s will, in order to discern what God would have us do in any and every situation. In short, as Jesus would later summarize the torah, happiness derives from discerning what it means at all times and in all places to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind … And … your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39; see Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18).
The translation “prosper” in verse 3 has also contributed to the misunderstanding of Psalm 1, since it has suggested to many commentators the promise of a reward for obedience — even a material reward, since “prosper” in English almost inevitably connotes money or material wealth. A better translation is “thrives” (Jewish Publication Society Bible). If there is a reward involved, that reward is the stability and strength derived from connectedness to God that offers the opportunity to grow and bear fruit. This understanding of reward is, of course, not tied to a retributional system (or a retributional God).
In a similar direction, verses 4-5 do not portray a retributional system whereby God punishes “the wicked.” Rather, by their own choice, “the wicked” separate themselves from God. Verse 5 could be translated, “The wicked do not stand up for justice.” Why? Because, unlike “the righteous,” they do not attend to God’s torah. In other words, God does not exclude “the wicked” from “the congregation of the righteous.” Rather, “the wicked” choose not to be there. To be sure, one may conclude that the consequences of this choice are “punishing.” But if so, this is not a punishment that God intends.
The choice is ours
In the final analysis, Psalm 1 invites a choice — our choice. There are clearly two ways. Note the repetition of “way” in verse 6, and see also “path” in verse 1 and “way” in Psalm 2:12. The contrasting ways yield sharply different consequences that are emphasized by the first and last words of the psalm — “Happy” and “perish.” “Happy” begins with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and “perish” begins with the final letter. The rhetorical style emphasizes the comprehensiveness of the choice. Will we choose God’s way, which promises life? Or will we choose to go our own way, which promises death?
Can we be more specific? Are there guidelines or criteria to assess whether we are genuinely choosing and following God’s way? Yes! In fact, two key Hebrew roots in Psalm 1 are suggestive in this regard — the roots underlying “justice” (New Revised Standard Version Bible “judgment”) and “righteous.” These two roots constitute a summary of what God wills; and it is likely that the introductory Psalm 1 intentionally anticipates what many scholars consider to be the theological heart of the Psalter — that is, the enthronement psalms (Psalms 93, 95-99). The core-psalms of this collection (Psalms 96-99) all mention “justice” and “righteousness.” Psalms 96 and 98 even say that God “is coming (a Hebrew participle indicating continuous action in the present into the future) to establish justice on the earth … with righteousness” (my translation; see also the Common English Bible). Other key psalms, especially Psalms 72 and 82, also feature “justice” and “righteousness” as basic articulations of God’s will, defining them as attendance to and provision for the poor, the weak, and the needy.
If there is a law involved, it is the law of love (see Romans 13:8-10). The promise of Psalm 1, reinforced by Jesus and Paul, is that the God-directed and neighbor-oriented way is the most rewarding and happiness-producing life possible. The choice is ours.
By the way, in Johannine terms, this way would be called “eternal life” (see 1 John 5:11, the Epistle for the day), a life characterized by loving one another, “because love is from God … for God is love” (1 John 4:7-8, the Epistle for the Fifth Sunday of Easter).
1 Commentary first published on this site on May 17, 2015.
Commentary on 1 John 5:9-13
Alicia D. Myers
As with the previous eight verses of this chapter, 1 John 5:9-13 persists with connections to the Gospel traditions, especially John 20.
These connections include the emphasis on believing language about the Son of God, “writing these things,” and having eternal life. A quick glance back at John 20:31 illustrates this point; here the Evangelist explains, “These things have been written so that you should believe that the Christ, the Son of God, is Jesus and that by believing you should have life in his name.” In addition, 1 John 5:13 replicates language from the Gospel Prologue as well, repeating the line “the ones believing in the name” (see John 1:12). Bringing together high points of tradition from the Gospel, along with themes from the sermon of 1 John, the preacher moves toward his conclusion and emphasizes, again, the gift of eternal life that comes from God alone, through God’s Son, Jesus Christ, and which is experienced by means of the Spirit.
Looking more closely at 1 John 5:9-13, this section of text can be divided into an introduction in verse 9, followed by a chiastic arrangement in verses 10-12, and a conclusion in verse 13. Of course, these verses form only part of chapter five and should be read in conjunction with their context, but this description can guide our reading of this pericope and centers our attention in particular on verse 11. My translation and arrangement are as follows:
9If we receive the witness of people, the witness of God is greater.
For this is the witness of God that he has witnessed concerning his Son.
10The one believing in the Son of God has the witness in him.
The one not believing in God has made him a liar because he has not believed
in the witness which God has witnessed concerning his Son.
11And this is the witness:
God has given eternal life to us.
And this is the life in his Son.
12The one having the Son has the life.
The one not having the Son of God does not have the life.
13I wrote these things to you, the ones believing in the name of the Son of God,
so that you might see that you have eternal life!
Verse 11 falls between two couplets in verses 10 and 12, both of which offers a positive description (the one believing, the one having) followed by its negative opposite (the one not believing, the one not having). Moreover, verse 11 contains its own chiastic structure that narrows the focus even more squarely on the middle phrase: God has given eternal life to us. This emphasis on eternal life continues through the rest of verses 12-13, and resurfaces at the end of the sermon as well: “And we know that the Son of God has come and he has given understanding to us, so that we might know the True One, and we are in the True One, in his Son, Jesus Christ. This One is the True God and Eternal Life” (1 John 5:20).
The focus on eternal life, however, brings up a key question: what is “eternal life” and how are believers experiencing it? The answer comes when we follow the chain of words in 1 John 5:9-13 backward, tracing the path the preacher has used throughout the sermon. In 1 John 5:11, God’s having given “eternal life to us” is the gist of his “witness.” Moving backward to 1 John 5:6, we find that the “witness is the Spirit,” who is also described as the “Truth.” Still further back in the sermon, we find a discussion of the “Spirit of Truth” in contrast to the “spirit of deception” in 1 John 3:23-4:6. The Spirit of Truth is characterized as having its source from God, and its presence among the “children of God” is evidence of the community’s fellowship with God:
And this is his [God’s] commandment:
that we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ
and we should love one another, just as he gave us a commandment.
And everyone who keeps his commandments remains in him, and he remains in them. And in this we know that he remains in us, he has given to us from his Spirit (pneumatos). (1 John 3:23-24)
According to 1 John, therefore, those who are experiencing eternal life are those who are inspired by God’s Spirit to speak truth and to live out love that is consistent with God’s revelation through God’s Son, Jesus Christ.
First John was written in a world where “Spirit” or “breath” (pneuma) was understood as an animating force involved not only in respiration, but also in the conception and generation of an unborn child. Living people take in “spirit” when they breathe, but they were also shaped by “spirit” in their mothers’ wombs. Not surprisingly, different spirits could animate positively or negatively depending on their sources (compare with 1 John 4:1). For 1 John, the “children of God” are those who have been begotten by means of God’s Spirit and have God’s “seed” in them (3:9). Having been formed by this Spirit anew, the children are enabled to confess that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” (4:2) and to show God’s love in their own lives (3:16; 4:7; 5:1-4).
For the preacher of 1 John, therefore, it is when we recognize God’s life-giving Spirit among us that we see the eternal life we already have. It is by means of this Spirit, given only after Jesus’ return to the Father, that we can participate in the fellowship God has made possible for us. We gather and exist as “children of God” together, and we experience fellowship with God as well as with one another. It is the Spirit who enables such fellowship by animating the “children of God” and connecting them with the Father, and the Son, who are together in heaven (1 John 2:1-2). This Spirit communicates God’s love, and God’s will of life, to all who are animated by it.
In 2018, the Seventh Sunday of Easter is also Mother’s Day.
John consistently uses “Father” language for God, especially in John 17, so it is good to be mindful that this terminology is used to indicate a close, familial relationship and not as a gendered identity.
John 17:6-19 is part of the larger unit of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples that starts in John 13 with the foot washing scene and concludes with Jesus’ prayer here in John 17. The prayer is sometimes referred to as Jesus’ “High Priestly Prayer,” but that is not accurate, since Jesus is not portrayed in a priestly role in John. It comes closer to functioning as John’s version of the Lord’s Prayer with the address to the “Holy Father” and his “name” (verse 11) and the request for protection from the evil one (verse 15).
The prayer actually runs from verses 1-26. Verses 1-5 preceding our text focus on Jesus’ glorification. The text at hand, verses 6-19, focuses on Jesus’ concerns for the disciples. Verses 20-26 close with Jesus’ request for his disciples’ unity and mutual love. Immediately following the prayer, Jesus and the disciples go across the Kidron Valley to the garden where Judas will betray him.
As is typical for Johannine texts, the wording spirals around, seemingly repeating itself, yet moving forward to some new perspective. It is a passage that functions better as a meditative prayer than as a spoken text. It is like a fabric woven with repeating words and themes. Focusing on a few of these threads will help sort out key points in this prayer.
World: The relationship of Jesus and his disciples to the world is complicated in John. The disciples were chosen from the world (verse 6), are in the world (verse 11), are hated by the world (verse 14), and are not of the world (verses 14, 16). Jesus prays that the disciples be protected from the “evil one” who is at work in the world, but not that they be taken out of the world (verse 15). Ultimately, just as the Father sent Jesus into the world, so too Jesus sends the disciples into the world to continue his mission.
Given: This word (didomi) occurs nine times in this passage. It is acknowledged that the Father gave the disciples to Jesus (verses 6, 9). Everything (verse 7), including the words (verse 8) and the “word” (verse 14) that the Father gave Jesus, Jesus has given to the disciples. The “name” that the Father gave Jesus is the name which protects the disciples (verses 11-12).
Word: Jesus is the Word (logos) in John, and so there is a double entendre when Jesus talks about how the Father has given his disciples the “word” (verse 14) and that this word which they have kept is the truth (verses 6, 17).
Truth: This section of the prayer is framed by “truth,” a repeated and significant theme in John which also has a double entendre. (See also John 1:14, 17; 8:32; 18:37-38.) In John 17:8, Jesus affirms that the disciples know the truth of his origin from the Father. In verses 17-18, Jesus asks that they be sanctified in the truth which is also confirmed as God’s word. All this comes together to confirm what Jesus, the Word, had previously said in John 14:6, “I am the way and the truth and the life.”
Sanctify: This concept is the climax of this part of the prayer (verses 17-19). The word used, hagiazo, is the same word in the Lord’s Prayer traditionally rendered as “hallowed.” It is noteworthy, then, to consider that the way in which God’s name is to be regarded as sacred is also what Jesus prays for his disciples. Consider also Jesus’ statement in John 10:34-36 where his own sanctification is what qualifies him to be God’s Son. Similarly, then, our sanctification is the basis for our claim to be children of God. This sanctity is not just an abstract reality or the grounds for claiming a godly status. It is described as being “in the truth” which is equated with the “word” as noted above, and here is where things get interesting.
First, this sanctification has a purpose which is given in verse 18: “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” That is, sanctification is not a way of being made pure and holy by being set apart. It is intended as the way for disciples to be sent forth to share the t/Truth and the w/Word. It is not a way of being taken out of the world but being sent into it. (See also John 20.21 for a similar commissioning.)
Second, verse 19 points to how the sanctification occurs by connecting our sanctification with Jesus’. What does it mean for Jesus to sanctify himself? I believe that it must refer to his action of laying down his life on the cross and taking it up again in his resurrection. (See also John 10:17-18!) What then does it mean for us be sanctified in the t/Truth? We can return to Jesus’ own words earlier in this discourse at the last meal in John 15:11-13: “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Our sanctification, therefore, comes freely to us at a cost to God in Christ, but it is not cheap grace. It also comes in the experience of losing our own lives. (See also John 12:25.)
As with John in general, this passage functions on two levels: the prayer Jesus shared with his disciples around 30 CE and the ongoing relevance of that prayer for Jesus’ disciples later in the first century when the text was written and shared in the Johannine community. This perspective becomes explicit in verses 20-23 where Jesus refers to those who will come to believe based on the original disciples’ testimony. This latter context also serves to make John transparent and applicable to Jesus’ disciples today. For the first disciples and for us, sanctification in the t/Truth and w/Word, therefore, is both a matter of what God does for us in Christ and what we experience in being sent into the world as messengers of that w/Word and disciples who love one another, even to the point of laying down our lives.