Lectionary Commentaries for April 29, 2018
Fifth Sunday of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 15:1-8

Osvaldo Vena

Peter and John have been instruments of divine resurrection power (Acts 3).

The main theme of this section is abiding in Jesus, the true vine. It is not a parable nor an allegory but a mashal, a Semitic form that includes an image and its application to real life.

The vine was a common image used in the Hebrew Bible to speak of Israel as God’s people and conveyed the ideas of divine love and divine judgment. We can see this in Isaiah 5:1-7, the song of the unfruitful vineyard, where instead of grapes (justice) God finds wild grapes (bloodshed). The same idea is present in Jeremiah 5:10 and Jeremiah 12:10-11, but not so in Isaiah 27:2-6, where a reversal of the earlier song occurs, and now Israel is depicted as a fruitful vine.

Ezekiel 17, the mashal of the vine, does not refer to collective Israel but to an individual, King Zedekiah (Ezekiel 17:2-10) and to a king of the Davidic house (Ezekiel 17:22-24). This sets a precedent for John’s use of the figure in John 15.

Ezekiel 19:10-14, a funeral dirge, is used to mourn the fate of Judah when it was taken into captivity by the Babylonians.

Sirach 24:17-21 gives a different interpretation. Wisdom, which in sapiential literature is equated with Torah and Word of God, is depicted here as a vine whose fruits give life. The imagery is different than the one in John but the principle of giving and sustaining life is the same.

All of these passages — and many others — supply John with the raw material from which the mashal of the vine in John 15 was composed.

The primary meaning of the vine in John is Christological: Jesus is the true vine (John 15:1), a word used in this gospel to speak of God (John 7:28; 17:3) and to that which is of divine origin: true light (John 1:9), true bread (John 6:32), true judgment (John 8:16). God is the vinegrower who “prunes” the vine, a verb that can also mean “to clean or to cleanse.” Since it is said in verse 3, using the same expression, that the disciples are “cleansed” by Jesus’ word, that makes Jesus’ action coincide with God’s action. The branches being pruned are, obviously, the members of the community, and the bearing of fruit is the condition of being disciples (verse 8). Disciples are recognized by their fruits, that is actions (see also Matt. 7:16, 20).

Why is Jesus the “true vine?” Are there other vines that are not “true?” Given the usage of this figure in the Hebrew Bible one may think that here John is contrasting Jesus and his community with ancient Israel. That he is using it in a polemical way, asserting that his community is now the true Israel. And that in the same way that Israel was punished by its failure to fulfill God’s commandments or rewarded by obeying them, so also this renewed Israel is punished when it is not abiding in the vine or rewarded when it is. Notice that the key to abiding in Jesus is precisely to keep his commandments! (see also John 15:10-17).

John plays masterfully with the symbolism of this image. The vinegrower is still God but the vine is not Israel. Now it is Jesus. And the branches are part of the vine, that is, part of Jesus’ mystical body. The secret to a productive branch is its attachment to the vine, its relationship to Jesus and his community, a theme expressed by the idea of abiding, remaining, or residing. The word appears 9 times in verses 1-8, which shows its centrality in the evangelist’s argument. It is also a conspicuous word throughout the gospel, appearing 40 times, to indicate loyalty or deep attachment especially to Jesus, but also to God.

So, there seems to have been a problem in the community with people’s loyalty and faithfulness which the evangelist is trying to address. The community is warned, with a strong language reminiscent of that of Matthew 3:10 and 7:19, of the dangers of not abiding in Jesus. There is no place for unfruitful branches in the community of Jesus, the vine. They are cut off and thrown away to be burned (John 15:6).

On the other hand, fruitful branches are pruned/cleansed so they may bear more fruit. This is done by God, who will reward those fruitful branches with whatever they wish (verse 7). The community thus described is an exclusive one. Only those attached to Jesus, and therefore cleansed by his word (verse 3), are allowed in it. And eternal condemnation is even in the picture through the image of burning branches, though in this context it perhaps means more separation from the community, excommunication.

If we can get past the exclusive and almost sectarian feeling of this kind of language, which was perhaps necessary for a community in search of self-identity at that particular time, we can still find some important lessons for today:

  1. Only attachment to Jesus’ words, his message, the gospel, as understood in community, will ensure that the church produces fruits. Apart from that there is nothing we can do (John 15:5). And whatever else we do we may be doing it for the wrong reasons. When the church forgets that its mission is to show its attachment to Jesus by uncompromisingly proclaiming the gospel in today’s society, then it becomes a disposable part of God’s vine. Yes, the words are hard but true. The church becomes an institution that tries to accommodate to the world rather than to transform it. It ceases to be attached to the source of life and becomes a mere institution seeking self-preservation.
  2. As Gale O’Day suggests, “In a vine, branches are almost completely indistinguishable from one another; it is impossible to determine where one branch stops and another branch starts. All run together as they grow out of the central vine.” There is an absence of hierarchy in this vision of the church as branches of a vine because they all belong to the same vine and are tended by the same vinegrower. Therefore, there is no status, everyone is equal, everyone is responsible for bearing fruit. The only condition is to love each other as Jesus loved us. We have lost sight of this basic idea in our highly structured church.

So, we can choose between the model of the vine and the branches or the corporation and its branches, between the good shepherd as a model for leadership (see previous Sunday for this idea) or the CEO as model for a minister, between ministry as a call or ministry as a profession. Making the right decision will make all the difference in the world, literally.


Resources:

1. Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995, 491-865.


First Reading

Commentary on Acts 8:26-40

J.R. Daniel Kirk

This week we read of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. It’s a story that wasn’t supposed to happen.

The wrong people

Remember that Jesus has specially commissioned the twelve apostles (Acts 1:5, 8). They were devoted to the word and prayer. So much so, that when a dispute arose over how to distribute food, they punted (Acts 6:2-4). It did not occur to them that Jesus, who appeared to them as one who serves at table (Luke 22:27), was to be their model in this as well.

Readers who have dialed into Jesus’ upside-down kingdom, the place where the servants rule, would know to keep an eye on the table-servers. They would not be taken off guard when Acts unfolds with the surprising storyline: those who were commissioned to go from Jerusalem to all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth (that is the apostles) simply hang out in Jerusalem while everyone else gets pushed into the mission of God in Judea and Samaria by persecution (Acts 8:1).

In Acts 8 we pick up with one of these table-servers, Philip, sent far from the controversies of food distribution and his navigation of linguistic and cultural tensions. He first brings the gospel to Samaria (Acts 8:4-25), in fulfillment of Jesus’ promise and command in Acts 1:8. The Spirit then sends him to this peculiar eunuch, who will carry the message into Africa. The “deacon” (as some interpret the role assigned to the seven in Acts 6) turns out to be the true apostle!

The other character in the story is a bit of a surprise as well. The Law had proscribed men with crushed, mutilated, or missing genitalia from full participation in Israel’s worship (Leviticus 21:20; Deuteronomy 23:1).1 Isaiah, however, envisioned redemption for the sexually ambiguous. In the eschatological restoration of God’s people, eunuchs would be brought within God’s house and given a name greater than sons and daughters (Isaiah 56:3-5). God’s embrace of the eunuch, and a foreign eunuch at that (compare to Isaiah 56:6-8), shows that the promised age of restoration has begun to dawn.

The suffering servant

In Luke-Acts, a critical theme is that rightly reading scripture, which is to say reading it as a testimony of Jesus’ suffering messiahship, requires instruction from a faithful interpreter. What Jesus does twice for his followers in Luke 24 Philip does here for the eunuch.

The eunuch reads Isaiah 53:7-8 and Philip uses this as a springboard for telling the eunuch about Jesus (Acts 8:32-35). Much to our chagrin, Luke does not tell us what Philip actually said. However, it is interesting to note what he does and does not cite from Isaiah 53.

He cites the portion of the text about the servant’s silence, and that which underscores that he was unjustly condemned. The notion of Jesus’ innocence is a critical, and unique, component to Luke’s crucifixion scene (see Luke 22:41, 47). Last week we saw how Luke-Acts narrates Jesus’ death and resurrection as the realm in which antithetical judgments of Jesus play out. The human leaders judge him as worthy of death, God judges him to be innocent and worthy of an eternal throne. Isaiah 53 underscores that innocence.

Interestingly, Luke does not include the very end of Isaiah 53:8. It is there that Isaiah says the Servant “was stricken for the transgression of my people.” Luke does not develop a theology of substitutionary atonement. Instead, Luke-Acts depict the death of Jesus as Israel’s complicity in injustice, the action that shows God’s people that they, too, need to turn and be forgiven.

Inclusion and surprise

In what we might regard as an unobtrusive miracle, the eunuch driving through the wilderness sees water. So he asks to be baptized. Thus, he sides with God: the good works that Jesus did were indications of God’s own hand upon him; the death of Jesus was a denial of God’s spirit and presence; the resurrection is God’s vindication, such that Jesus is now enthroned as lord and Christ. In baptism the eunuch adds his own yes to the divine yes that suffuses Jesus life — before and after the cross.

The story ends much as it began: God seeing to it that the gospel rushes to the ends of the earth, even as those commissioned for that particular job sit at home in Jerusalem. The eunuch himself will take the message into Africa, while the Spirit whisks Philip away to preach along the shores of the Mediterranean as far north as Caesarea.

This is the sort of passage that should hold up a mirror to many of us, especially those of us in well-ordered denominations with extensive procedures and protocols for being entrusted with the gospel message. God will not wait for us. God often seems more bemused with us than committed to our affirmation of some as ministers of word and prayer while the gospel runs off untethered in the hands of those commissioned to other tasks or not noticed at all.

In this story, in the bursting forth of the Kingdom of God, not only is there a beautiful eschatological reversal that embraces the previously-excluded eunuch. There is also the unsettling reversal in which the one commissioned to tend the table at home finds himself setting the table in dessert places, while those sent far and wide by Jesus’ command quietly slip from the story of God’s redeeming work.


Notes:

  1. Folks interested in how ancient Jews thought about variously sexed people can get a quick overview of the possibilities here: http://www.sojourngsd.org/blog/sixgenders

Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 22:25-31

Eric Mathis

Anne Lamott has famously said, “Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.”1

While Psalm 22 cannot be reduced to these words, it does seem as though this contemporary perspective might be similar to the perspective of the Psalmist.

From Darkness to Dawn

Psalm 22 is a familiar Psalm of Lament that begins in the dark with one of Christ’s final statements on the cross: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” However, this Psalm was not intended to be prophetic, and its original form was not Christocentric, even though Christians today will inevitably read it as Christocentric, making the connection between this Psalm and the words of Christ just as early Christians might have done.

Psalm 22 is the lament of a conflicted individual, and this is evident in the tension established early in the Psalm. Accusatory statements like “I cry by day, but you do not answer” (v.2) and “I am a worm” (v. 6) are juxtaposed with declarative statements such as “You are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel” (v.3) and “You took me from the womb; you kept me safe” (v. 9). Indeed, the first twenty-one verses of the Psalm display an individual in distress, full of contradictory statements about the human plight and the goodness of God.

It is not until the final verses of the Psalm that the Psalmist’s timbre changes. Though initially conflicted, the Psalmist has waited, watched, worked, and persevered. Verse 25 shows that dawn has arrived for the Psalmist, who summons the whole community to experience the transformation the Psalmist has experienced and offer thanks and praise to God.

From Individual to Community

The first twenty-four verses of this Psalm remain in the first person voice, and they are an explicit dialogue with God. But, verse 25 becomes a testimony of sorts that answers the disruption presented in the litany of complaints and questions in the earliest verses of the Psalm. Verse 25 alters the tone of the litany and sets the individual, and even the whole community, towards a “right and creative relationship” with YHWH. Truly, “the individual’s experience should correspond to that of the community and should deepen its faith.”2

From verse 25 onward, the Psalmist establishes the strong implication that what YHWH has accomplished for the individual, YHWH will accomplish for the whole world. From the weak, the poor, and those of the lowest status in the community who must seek help from YHWH (v. 26) to the ends of the earth and all nations (v. 28-29), those who remember the Lord, turn to the Lord, and worship the Lord (v. 27) will find a generative faith (v. 30-31) that will eventually confirm and testify to the past, present, and future deeds of God.

Implications for Preaching

John Goldingay uses this Psalm to offer a counter argument to a common mode of Christian comfort: assuring those in suffering that God is present with them in their suffering. Psalm 22 shows us a contrast Goldingay says that “God was not present with this suppliant and does not expect us to pretend that this is so when it is not.” Rather, Psalm 22 invites those of us who experience suffering to find ways to remind God and us of God’s faithfulness, to remind God and us of God’s involvement in the world, to plea with God to change, and to believe strongly enough in our argument that God will, in fact, respond.3

To give this Psalm an explicitly Christocentric focus on the fifth Sunday of Easter might be to trace the dark days of Christ suffering on the cross to the promise that came with the dawn of the resurrection. Verses 25-31, when viewed from the dark days of Good Friday and Holy Saturday to the dawn of the resurrection, promise that all those who are weak and call upon the name of God in their weakness will eat and be satisfied. In biblical times, this might have been the Psalmist (Old Testament) or Christ or Christ’s disciples (New Testament), but its implications are ever contemporary. Yes, even we when faced with suffering — whether we find ourselves among the weak or the powerful — will move from darkness to dawn and proclaim the deliverance that comes from God to God’s people. This is the Psalmist’s story. This is Christ’s story. This is our story. And, this is the story for generations to come. Thanks be to God.


Notes:

1 Commentary first published on this site on May 3, 2015.

2 John Goldingay, “Psalm 22,” in Psalms, Volume 1: 1-41, ed. Tremper Longman, III, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 337.

3 Goldingay, 341.


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 John 4:7-21

Alicia D. Myers

This section of 1 John is centered on the theme of “love” (agape) and “loving” (agapan).

Although much ink has been spilt over the definition of these words — especially how they may (or may not) contrast with the synonyms philos (noun) and philein (verb) — 1 John is consistent with its preference for agape and agapan. Rather than seeing the root of this in some sort of significant contrast between these synonyms it is better to trace the connection back to Jesus’ own teachings in the Gospel of John, particularly from excerpts of the “Farewell Discourse” in John 13:31-17:26. In these chapters, Jesus comforts his disciples before his coming departure — his crucifixion, resurrection, and return to the Father.

In addition to promising the Holy Spirit, who will be “another Advocate” for them, Jesus also gives his disciples (and later believers) a “new commandment.”

A new commandment I am giving to you: that you should love one another just as I loved you so that also you should love one another. In this everyone will know that you are my disciples: if you should have love for one another. (John 13:34-35)

My translation highlights the repetitions that occur in these few verses — and hopefully bring out some other connections with 1 John. All the verbs for “love” are forms of agapan, and the phrases resonate with 1 John’s sermonic admonitions: “a new commandment” (1 John 2:7-8), “love one another” (1 John 3:11, 23; 4:7, 12), “in this everyone will know” (1 John 2:3, 5; 3:16, 19, 24; 4:2, 13; 5:2), the use of subjunctive verbs with hina– and ean, as well as the grounding comparison to Jesus, who provides the model love to be imitated — just as (kathos) I loved you (see also 1 John 3:16). Jesus’ own preference for agapan in the Johannine tradition could be explained by the use of this verb (rather than philein) in the crucial passages of Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:8b.

First John, then, uses the agape and agapan words because these are the words attributed to Jesus in their tradition. By repeating these words in the sermon, the preacher of 1 John takes on the voice of Jesus, speaking by means of the same breath (or Spirit, pneuma) to show continuity with his teaching in contrast to the “teaching” of those who have “gone out” from the community mentioned in 1 John 2:18-27. First John 4:7-21 is the crescendo of the sermon. It brings together a number of themes that the preacher has already mentioned, tying them all into the admonition to “love” that Jesus commanded in John 13:34-35 (see also 15:12-14) and that he demonstrated in his own life, death, resurrection, and return to the Father.

The importance of this passage is reinforced by the parallelism that appears within it. In fact, in some Bibles 1 John 4:7-10 is set off as though it is a poem (see also 1 John 2:12-14). Verse 11 could be added to the “poem” since it completes the parallelism with verse 7. The structure of the clauses encourages this separation, although we cannot prove whether or not it was actually a poem. What is clear is that the structure of these verses would have made them easier to remember and poignant — perhaps similar to the way that quoting or singing a hymn in the middle of a sermon might today. In 1 John 4:7-11 the preacher “sings”:

7Beloved, let us love one another because love is from God.
And each one who loves has been begotten from God and knows God.
8The one who does not love did not know God because God is love.
9In this, the love of God was revealed to us:
              His Son, the Unique-One, God has sent into the world so that we might live through him.
10In this, love is:
              Not that we ourselves have loved God, but that he himself loved us and sent his Son, a means of forgiveness concerning our sins.
11Beloved, if thusly God loved us also we ourselves ought to love one another.

The balanced refrain contains two couplets (1John 4:7b-8, 9-10) and parallelisms that cannot be explored in detail here, but that unite the passage and underscore its importance. This is the heart of the preacher’s message.

These words also help us to understand better the sometimes baffling information concerning “fear” and “the one who fears” in 1 John 4:18. We run into trouble if we divorce these words from their context. The preacher has waited until almost the end of the sermon to come to this topic, only after the preacher has repeatedly affirmed the identity of the audience as God’s children and beloved (see also 1 John 3:1-2; 4:7-16). The sermon, therefore, is not primarily about fear over the community’s salvation. Instead, it is primarily about encouragement for the community to realize the life they already have. The preacher calls on them to “remain” or “abide” in Jesus’ teaching and, therefore, in the family of God.

First John 4:18, therefore, should not be read as a condemnation of the one who experiences fear. We all feel fear at various times in our lives, and various biblical passages even encourage a certain type of “fear”: fear of the Lord (Proverbs 1:7). Instead, 1 John 4:18 works with the rest of the sermon to encourage the audience that God, whose love is demonstrated to perfection by Jesus (and his disciples), is casting out fear, and creating a time when all might experience confidence rather than shame (see also 1 John 2:28-29).

After all, when we spend our lives loving in the same way that Jesus loved, we do not focus on condemning others (or even ourselves) for experiencing fear. Rather, we focus on loving people through those fears and thereby revealing the true victory of God, the One who is Love, in spite of the chaos around us. In this way, 1 John 4:18 again brings us back to the main point of the sermon: Beloved, let us love one another because God loves us!