Lectionary Commentaries for May 6, 2018
Sixth Sunday of Easter
Commentary on John 15:9-17
Commentary on Acts 10:44-48
Amy Lindeman Allen
Humans have a tendency to think about the world and its resources as limited, but the story of the resurrection is the story of God’s limitless power and love.
When we are accustomed to operating in a zero-sum world it is difficult to change our perspective. Peter experiences this first-hand throughout his encounter with Cornelius (Acts 10:1–11:18). He seems so convinced of the limited nature of God’s forgiveness that even when God connects Cornelius and Peter, and Peter admits that “God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34), he remains astounded when the Holy Spirit descends “even on Gentiles” (Acts 10:45).
Limited human understanding does not limit God
Cornelius, though devout, doesn’t seem to know what to expect from Peter. He adopts a wait and listen approach (Acts 10:31).
Peter, for his part, seems to resist the urging of the Spirit at every turn:
- First, in a vision, God tells Peter to eat unclean animals and he refuses, not once, but three times (Acts 10:16).
- Next, God tells Peter to go with Cornelius’ slaves and though he follows, as soon as he is introduced to Cornelius, Peter points out that “it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile” (Acts 10:24).
- Finally, Peter allows that “in every nation, anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God” (Acts 10:34), but still fails to fathom that God would gift God’s Holy Spirit to Gentiles.
God, however, does not wait or question. God acts. God pours out God’s Spirit — and Cornelius, his slaves, and his whole household receive this gift of God’s limitless power.
God’s pours out God’s Spirit without limit
If it was not already clear to Peter or Cornelius that God’s intent in bringing them together is to break down barriers, it becomes abundantly so following the outpouring of God’s Spirit.
In the resurrection life, God’s power does not stagnate or diminish the more people it touches. The gifts of the Holy Spirit increase as they are poured out. Cornelius and his household respond to the Spirit with immediate and ecstatic praise (Acts 10:46).
The old barriers of tradition and law no longer separate them. They are now joined together by the stronger bond of God’s Holy Spirit. As a result, this text has been likened to a Gentile Pentecost.1 The gift of the Spirit (Acts 2:4; 10:46) and response of baptism (Acts 2:41; 10:48) are similar in both accounts.
There is a difference between these Jewish and Gentile Pentecosts, though. Peter freely offers baptism to the Jews who receive God’s Spirit (Acts 2:37-39). Yet, when faced with a similar experience for Cornelius’ household, Peter asks whether anyone can “withhold the water for baptizing these people” who are different from him (Acts 10:47).
Although Peter’s question functions rhetorically, it also serves to test the limitless reach of resurrection life. The insertion of a presumption that the early believers could or would have withheld water for baptism were it not for the Spirit’s intervention serves as a reminder both of our human tendencies to place limits on and fence in the power of God and of how much both Peter and we still have to learn.
In this context, Peter’s question could also be read as one last-ditch questioning of the extent of God’s plan in this encounter — “Last chance? Can anyone think of a reason to prevent it?” They cannot.
God breaks through human limitations
Whether or not Peter understands or even agrees with the expanse of God’s action, his encounter with Cornelius brings him to accept the limitless reach of God. The absurdity that Peter would imagine he could have prevented God is emphasized by the way in which he phrases his question in the first place — “Who can withhold the water for baptizing these people?” (Acts 10:47).
Water is a basic life sustaining resource. Even in pre-industrial societies in which water is more difficult to access, it is considered a minimum need. Thus in Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples, “Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones” will not lose their reward (Matthew 10:42). Water itself is often viewed as nearly limitless.
Yet in this narrative, Peter and his company are in Cornelius’ home. The Gentile slaves, children, or women are the ones from whom one would expect the water to be provided. His question is thus not primarily from his Jewish companions, but for the same Gentiles are baptized in the next verse.
Peter’s response connects their baptisms to the first Gentile baptism already narrated in the Book of Acts. In Acts 8:26-39 God brings together another apostle and Gentile — Philip and an Ethiopian eunuch. When this pair passes by a body of water, the Ethiopian eunuch asks Philip what can prevent him from being baptized (Acts 8:36-38, same verb as in Acts 10:47).
In both cases, those about to be baptized provide the water that is needed. Streams of water and running wells that flow through God’s creation, refreshing and nourishing all God’s children. So too baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus, the grace and power of God, is free and open to all.
In either case, all that stands in the way is the fallacy of zero-sum thinking. Our human inclinations to withhold or exploit God’s good gifts for ourselves. This is the tragedy of ongoing failures like the Flint water crisis.
Can anyone withhold a glass of clean water from a child? As long as we pretend to live in a world in which that water costs us water, wealth, or effort, the answer is yes.
But the power of the resurrection is that by conquering the powers of death, God has turned our zero-sums positive. In Christ Jesus God stretches the limits of life and death themselves. Through God’s Holy Spirit, Christ pours out this limitless, liberating power with anyone who asks. Who can prevent it? Nobody!
- Richard Pervo, Acts: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009) 281.
Commentary on Psalm 98
Psalm 98 is the fifth psalm in a group of six psalms in Book Four of the Psalter known as the Enthronement Psalms (Psalms 93, 95-99).1
The Enthronement Psalms celebrate the reign of God as sovereign or king over all humanity and, indeed, over all creation. In their opening words, they cry out to all who will hear, “O come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!” (95:1); “O sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth” (96:1); “The LORD is king! Let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad!” (97:1).
Psalm 98 continues many of the themes that occur in the Enthronement Psalms surrounding it. The singer once again cries out, “O sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things” (verse 1). The people and all of creation are then instructed to “make a joyful noise” in verses 4 and 6 (see Psalm 95:1, 2 — all from the Hebrew root rua’); “break forth into joyous song” and “sing together for joy” in verses 4 and 8 (see 95:1 and 96:12 — all from the Hebrew root ranan) and “sing praises” and “melody” in verses 4 and 5 (see 95:2 — all from the Hebrew root zamar). The words of praise in Psalm 98, though, move beyond the praise the reader encounters in previous Enthronement Psalms, incorporating musical instruments in the praise of God as sovereign — the lyre, trumpets, and the sound of a horn (Hebrew shofar) in verses 5 and 6. In verse 7, the psalm singer invites all of creation to add its own “instrumental mix.” The sea and all that fills it, the world and all that live in it are invited to “roar” — literally “make the sound of thunder.” And in verse 8, the floods are invited to “clap their hands,” and the hills to “sing together for joy.”
But why should all humanity and all creation join in celebratory song of God’s reign? Verses 1-3 and verse 9 frame the psalm and provide the rationale for such an extravagant display of praise. In the NRSV translation of Psalm 98, the word “victory” is repeated three times in verses 1-3. The verbal root of the word is yasha’ and means “deliver” or “free.” The “right hand” and the “holy arm” of God are able to deliver humanity, and, indeed, all of creation from the many oppressions with which we and it are faced.
Verse 9 states that God not only delivers, but comes to judge the earth and the world. This verse is rich in imagery and promise. “The earth” and “the world” are used in parallel structure to describe what God is coming to judge. The word translated “earth” is ‘erets, and identifies the whole of the earthly realm (Genesis 1:1, etc.); tebel is translated “world” and has a more narrow reference of meaning as earth’s habitable space. The word occurs fifteen times in the Psalter, with six occurrences in the six Enthronement Psalms in Book Four.
The one additional appearance of tebel in Book Four occurs in Psalm 90. There, we read in verse 2 that God “formed” the earth — ‘erets, and the world — tebel. The word translated in the NRSV as “formed” is the verb hiyl, a verbal root that occurs most often in the Hebrew Bible in connection with the birthing process (see, for example, See Deuteronomy 32:18; Isaiah 13:8; 26:17, 18; 51:2; 66:7,8; Jeremiah 4:31; Job 15:7; 39:1; Psalm 51:5 (7); Proverbs 8:24, 25; 25:23). Thus, in Psalm 90, we have a depiction of the creator God, writhing in childbirth, bringing forth the earth and earth’s habitable space. Thus, we are permitted to see the creator God giving birth to the world that all creation calls home.
Verse 9 continues by stating that God will judge the world, that habitable space, with “righteous and equity.” The words “righteous” and “equity” are rich with both ethical meaning and sheer simplicity. “Righteous” is tsedek, a word to which we Christians often attach overtly religious overtones. The basic meaning of the word in Hebrew is “to do the right thing.” In any situation, what would a worshiper of the creator God do? What would be right for ALL concerned — not for some and not others, not for some right now and others later, but for all right now in the this time and space? “Equity” is the English translation of the Hebrew word yashar, which means, literally, “upright, straight, to the point.” Judging with “equity” means judging with a clear view of equality for all and a firm sense of right and wrong — not equality and right for those of privilege, but equality and right for all of the earth and the habitable spaces of the world.
In summary, then, Psalm 98 celebrates God as sovereign over the earth and the habitable world; invites all of creation to celebrate God’s sovereignty not only with song but with the loud clamoring of “musical instruments”; and assures it celebrants that God will deliver from oppression and judge all of creation with righteous and equity. What a reason to celebrate!
But, what does it actually mean to celebrate God as king, as sovereign? After all, we are here, in the habitable world, the tebel; God is there, in the heavenly realm. How does/can the judgment and righteous and equity of God play itself out in the tebel? At the end of all things, whenever and wherever that might be, God WILL set all things right. In the meantime, I maintain that those who embrace the message of our creator God and, indeed, all of creation — roaring, clapping, singing together — are the hands, the feet, the voices of judgment, righteousness, and equity in this world, the tebel. May we embrace our task, and may we enable, to the best of our individual abilities, all of creation to undertake the task.
1 Commentary first published on this site on May 10, 2015.
Commentary on 1 John 5:1-6
Alicia D. Myers
The final chapter of 1 John brings together themes that have been presented throughout the sermon, weaving them together again in order to reinforce the message of love: the love that is from God as revealed through Jesus, and the love that should exist between believers who experience fellowship with each other and with God (see also 1 John 1:3).
Consistent with the style of the sermon, the preacher uses parallelism and chiastic structures to create pleasing and memorable refrains for the audience. Moreover, these refrains echo back to traditions from the Gospel, whether or not that document was finalized at the time of 1 John’s own composition. In particular, 1 John 5:1-6 takes us back to Jesus’ crucifixion and John 20:31: “But these things have been written so that you should believe that the Christ, the Son of God, is Jesus, and so that by believing you should have life in his name.”
The refrain that those hearing the Gospel should “believe that the Christ, the Son of God, is Jesus” finds its parallel in 1 John 5:1 and 5. In verse 1, the audience is instructed that “Each one believing that the Christ is Jesus has been begotten from God.” Verse 5 completes the clause, “Who is the one who is conquering the world if not the one believing that the Son of God is Jesus?” The connections to John 19-20, however, do not end with these verses. Immediately following, 1 John 5:6-8 reads: “This one is the one having come through water and blood: Jesus Christ.” Although a conclusion to the previous five verses, this verse also introduces the next section as part of a larger chain of words linking their way through the chapter.
Stepping back for a moment, it becomes easier to see this chain of words trickling through the chapter, resuming, and summarizing their appearances from earlier in the sermon. My translation through verse 8 below highlights these chain-links:
1 Each one believing that the Christ is Jesus, has been begotten from God.
And each one who loves the one having begotten
loves also the one having been begotten from him.
2 In this we are knowing that we are loving the children of God:
Whenever we are loving God also we are doing his commandments.
3 For this is the love of God:
That we are keeping his commandments,
and his commandments are not burdensome.
4 Because each thing that has been begotten from God is conquering the world.
And this is the conquest which conquered the world: our faith.
5 Who is the one who is conquering the world,
if not the one believing that the Son of God is Jesus?
6 This one is the one having come through water and blood: Jesus Christ,
not in the water alone, but in the water and in the blood.
And the Spirit is the witness, because the Spirit is the Truth.
7 For three are the witnesses:
8 The Spirit and the water and the blood.
And the three are one.
This translation emphasizes repetitions between verses 1-3, 4-5, and 6-8. The use of “believing” transitions to “love,” then to “commandments,” to “conquest,” and so on. The pattern continues as verses 9-12 pick up the motifs of witness, truth, and lies, while also introducing the idea of “eternal life” that segues into verses 13-21. Each of the words highlighted above connects back to previous sections of 1 John, binding them together, focusing the audience again on the main themes of the fellowship with God and with other believers that is the product of God’s love and self-revelation though his unique Son, Jesus, the Christ.
If 1 John 5:1-5 restates previous themes, verses 6–8 can present a challenge to interpreters, and indeed they have done throughout church tradition. Interpreting verse 6 demands looking at verses 7-8, which continue the motif of “water and blood” introduced in verse 6. Two traditions dominate the interpretation of these verses: 1) that the mention of “the water” is a reference to baptism, and 2) that the description of “three in one” in verse 8 is a reference to the Trinity. Without precluding either of these as potential readings, keeping our context in the Johannine literature pushes us in a different direction for interpretation: namely, to the scene of Jesus’ death in John 19:30–37.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus determines the moment of his death. After saying, “It has been completed” (tetelestai), he “reclined his head and gave over the spirit (to pneuma)” (John 19:30). After his death, the soldiers come and, finding him already dead, they pierce his side “and immediately blood and water came out” (verse 34). The Gospel follows this report with an aside that emphasizes its veracity, explaining, “And the one who has seen has witnessed, and his witness is true, and that one knows that he speaks truly, so that you might believe” (verse 35). It is in John 19, therefore, that the exact same collection of words appears as in 1 John 5:6-8: water, blood, Spirit, witness, and truth.
The significance of this connection is that it offers an explanation of what it means to believe that the Christ, the Son of God, is Jesus. It means to believe that Jesus came in the flesh (1 John 4:2) and, therefore, that he died. It also means believing that his death is not the end, but rather only part of Jesus’ return to his Father — a return that made possible the giving of the Spirit to his disciples so that they might experience eternal life in his name. This event makes possible Jesus’ prayer from John 17:23: “I am in them and you are in me so that they might be completed into one (osin teteleomenoi eis).” Perhaps as an allusion to this prayer, 1 John 5:8 also describes the unity of witnesses as being “into one” (eis to hen eisin). Belief, therefore, is participation in the realization of Jesus’ prayer.
This section brings another exhortation.
The first one was “abide in me” (John 15:4). Now it is “love one another,” and it is marked by a grammatical enclosure, or inclusio (verses 12, 17), which makes it a self-contained section. This exhortation is a restatement of the love commandment of John 13:34, where it is called “a new commandment.” In what sense is it new? Probably because the kind of love that it is advocating for has a new component: self-sacrifice.
When preaching or teaching from these highly used and abused passages we have to make an effort to pay close attention to the text in its historical and literary context. This will prevent us from interpretations that fuel antisemitism, sectarianism, exclusivism, and exceptionalism, all of these common elements in so many religious and cultural discourses.