Lectionary Commentaries for April 8, 2018
Second Sunday of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 20:19-31

Mary Hinkle Shore

Maybe you have had this experience: one of your friends comes back from seeing a movie, or going to a concert, or visiting a beautiful place and says to you, “You have got to see this!”

You listen with interest, even as you are trying to distinguish between what is hype and what is real.

Needing more

It is not exactly right to say that you don’t believe the testimony of your friends. It is more that you don’t have any experience of your own to compare to theirs. To know what you believe about what they are reporting, you will have to go to the movie, or try the product, or see the sunset in that particular spot. In order to offer your own testimony, you need to have your own experience.

The evangelist, John, knows this. John’s gospel exhibits a pattern in which someone hears about Jesus and needs more — and then receives what they need to come to their own experience of the life Jesus is embodying in the world. The earliest example is in John 1, when Philip says to Nathaniel, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth” (John 1:45) Nathaniel replies with skepticism: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” All Philip can say in reply is, “Come and see.” Nathaniel will have to encounter Jesus and draw his own conclusion, which, in fact, he does. Within three verses, Nathaniel is saying to Jesus, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

The woman at the well goes into town after her meeting with Jesus and says to her neighbors, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!” John says that many of them believed on the basis of the woman’s report, and many more believed because they heard Jesus themselves. The story ends with some of them saying to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world” (John 4:42).

Fast-forward to Easter morning. Mary tells the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!” John does not tell us if they believed her testimony or if they tried in any way to verify it. He merely continues the story by saying that on Easter evening, they were behind locked doors, afraid that the forces that had conspired to bring about the execution of Jesus might come next for them.1 Instead, Jesus comes into the secured room, saying, “Peace be with you.” He shows his hands and his feet to them demonstrating that the Risen One will be forever recognizable as — and only as — the Crucified One.2 The disciples rejoice to see him. They tell Thomas what Mary had told them: they “have seen the Lord.”

Thomas replies with the post-resurrection equivalent of, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46), or the Samaritan woman’s “Sir, you have no bucket and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” (John 4:11), or Mary’s “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away” (John 20:15). Bearing Nathanael’s skepticism and Mary’s broken heart, Thomas needs more.

Thomas will not be shamed into believing, or shamed into at least keeping his unbelief to himself. Neither will Thomas ignore what he knows in order to believe something he does not know. Thus Thomas’s journey to faith make his story especially important for the audience of would-be believers (see also John 20:31) for whom John writes.

Holding fast

We will return to Thomas as an example of someone who receives what he needs to believe, but to get there, we need to go by way of John 20:23 with its commission to forgiveness and something more.

In her 2010 presidential address to the Catholic Biblical Association, later published as “The Lamb of God and Forgiveness of Sin(s) in the Fourth Gospel,” Sandra Schneiders considers the translation of John 20:23b. Traditionally, translators read an “understood” second occurrence of tas hamartias in the text and see both genitive plural pronouns as possessive genitives. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them. If you retain [the sins] of any, they are retained.”

Yet the second conditional clause does not include the word for sins at all, and the function of genitives is ambiguous. Schneiders writes, “A more adequate reading would be the following: ‘Of whomever (possessive genitive plural) you forgive the sins, they (the sins) are forgiven to them; whomever (objective genitive plural) you hold fast [or embrace], they are held fast.’ In other words, the sins in the first member are ‘possessed’ by the forgiven. It is the persons, not sins, in the second member who are the ‘object grasped or held fast.’”3

Schneiders’ points of argument for this translation include a caution against reading the Johannine text through the lease of Matthew 16:19 and the note that, “Theologically, and particularly in the context of John’s Gospel, it is hardly conceivable that Jesus, sent to take away the sin of the world, commissioned his disciples to perpetuate sin by the refusal of forgiveness or that the retention of sins in some people could reflect the universal reconciliation effected by Jesus” (page 28). Grammatically, linguistically, and theologically, the “traditional” reading of John 20:23b as speaking of the retention of sins is unconvincing.

Blessed

If Schneiders’ translation and interpretation are accurate, then the exchange between Jesus and Thomas is a focal instance of what, the week before, Jesus spoke of in the second condition. “If you hold fast to someone, they are held fast.” Jesus appears to Thomas, holding him fast through doubt to faith.

Just as Nathanael, the woman at the well, the man born blind, Mary Magdalene, and the disciples who were behind locked doors on Easter evening are held fast through doubt and partial understanding until they receive what they need to believe, so also will those “who have not seen” (John 20:29) be held fast. The blessing received by the characters of the stories “that are written” (John 20:31) extends to those who are reading. By breathing the Holy Spirit onto the disciples, Jesus make it possible for them to continue his work of holding fast to others and the accompanying work of forgiving sins.

As we experience the story of Thomas, we are invited to trust that Jesus will keep showing up, alive, and with a body that holds together the worst that has happened to him and his risen life. He is eager to reveal himself, not only through appearances but also through the written word. Again and again, he will offer that wounded, living body to his own beloved ones, until finally the whole creation will be held fast in the peace he offers when he makes himself known.


Notes:

  1. On the problematic phrase, “fear of the Jews,” see the Working Preacher commentaries on this text by Robert Hoch (https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2808) and Elisabeth Johnson (https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1991).
  2. As Robert Smith puts it, “Even after Good Friday and Easter, God continues to turn to the world through the wounded Christ,” (Wounded Lord: Reading John through the Eyes of Thomas (Eugene Oregon: Cascade Books, 2009), ed. Donna Duensing, p. 6.
  3. Sandra Schneiders, “The Lamb of God and Forgiveness of Sin(s) in the Fourth Gospel,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 73 (2011):27.

First Reading

Commentary on Acts 4:32-35

Greg Carey

What does an Easter church look like?

Acts 4:32-35 provides the second snapshot of the believing community. We encounter the first in Acts 2:42-47, which follows immediately upon the Pentecost outbreak and Peter’s first great sermon. The Revised Common Lectionary invites us to consider both snapshots in the context of Easter, not Pentecost: Acts 2:42-47 occurs on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A. Having grown up in a non-liturgical tradition, I might have expected both snapshots to appear early in the Season of Pentecost. But I am grateful for this invitation to ponder what Easter means for the life of the church.

A resurrection church in Acts

Acts provides a wonderful framework for this question. First, Acts joins Paul and the author of John in linking the gift of the Spirit with the resurrection. Paul claims, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” (Romans 8:11, NRSV). He also refers to “ first fruits of the Spirit” (Romans 8:23), just as he speaks of Jesus’ resurrection as the “first fruits of those who have died” (1 Corinthians 15:20, 23). In John’s Gospel it is the risen Jesus who breathes the Spirit upon his followers (John 20:22). Acts places forty days to pass between the resurrection and Pentecost, tempting us to separate the two. But Jesus’ promise to the disciples in Acts 1:8, a passage often regarded as a preview of the entire narrative, links the Holy Spirit with power, as does Luke 24:49. Sure enough, Peter’s Pentecost sermon identifies the Spirit as a gift bestowed upon Jesus through his resurrection and ascension (Acts 2:32-33).

Second, in Acts the church not only continues the ministry of Jesus, it amplifies it. Time and again Jesus’ followers repeat Jesus’ great deeds and undergo his experiences Jesus’ ministry begins with the Spirit’s descent at his baptism (Luke 3:22), and Acts gets underway when the Spirit rests upon the believers (Acts 2:1-4). Opening sermons by Jesus (Luke 4:16-30) and Peter (Acts 2:14-40) begin by quoting Scripture and declaring it fulfilled. Jesus, Peter, and Paul have saving encounters with centurions, lepers, and people who cannot walk. All three restore to life people who apparently have died. And just as Jesus stands innocent before the authorities, so will Peter, Paul, and other believers. Stephen’s martyrdom echoes that of Jesus in remarkable ways. Both Jesus and Stephen pray that God will show mercy upon their tormentors (Luke 24:34; Acts 7:60),1 and both commit their spirits into God’s care (Luke 23:46; Acts 7:59).

This larger thematic context proves critical for the interpretation of Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-35. Both passages show us what resurrection practices look like in a communal context. They show us how the church lives together as it continues and amplifies the ministry of Jesus. Through the centuries Christians have debated whether or not these two passages prescribe how the church should live. We will receive other snapshots of church life as we progress through Acts, though none quite match up to the glory of these two. These stand out as special, though they are not identical. One of my heroes, Clarence Jordan, attempted precisely that model in the racially integrated Koinonia Farm he established in 1942 in Jim Crow Georgia, as have countless others. I would suggest that we avoid reducing these snapshots to either of two poles: one a blueprint for daily living and the other just an idealistic fantasy. Both poles take the stories too literally but not seriously enough. We should take seriously the details of these accounts as signs for our own churchly imaginations.

Touchstones

Acts challenges us to imagine a church living as “one heart and soul” (Acts 4:32). It’s far too easy to critique modern congregations as expressions of consumerist affiliation: We choose the churches we like, we participate in the things we like, and we associate with the people we like. All of that is true to a degree, but we also need to name those be-graced moments when true community happens. As a twelve year-old I was introduced to churchly ways during a week-long hospital stay. Apart from family, my only two visitors came from churches. We might consider the passing of the peace as a moment of sacramental re-membering. We do not pass the peace as a welcome greeting; we do so having confessed our sins and received assurance of pardon. We do so as a sign of reconciliation with God and one another. Acts invites us to imagine such moments as defining rather than accidental.

Readers always seem drawn to the matter of possessions in Acts, perhaps because this testimony challenges us most. Luke describes not a community that requires dispossession of all one’s possessions. Believers do renounce the notion that they have an absolute right to their property, and they habitually share their possessions with members of the community who are in need. Acts indicates this model in several ways. It uses the imperfect tense, which shows habitual action rather than action completed in the past. The example of Barnabas, who will prove one of Acts’ most compelling characters, involves the selling of one field. So does the horrifying example of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11. For contemporary believers, a good starting point would involve sitting down and asking which of our financial practices we can do without and how we may engage personally in works of mercy and justice.

The church in Acts 4 continues to be a witnessing community. Acts 2:42-47 shows a community that breaks bread together — yes, think Eucharist — and engages in practices of formation. Since that Pentecost moment, Peter and John have encountered resistance from the authorities. They have been arrested, tried, and threatened. As they persist in their boldness, “great grace” resides upon them (4:33).

“Great grace” makes a flawed goal, for by definition grace comes as a gift from God. To reduce the testimony of Acts 4:32-35 as a checklist of behaviors is to miss what “great grace” entails. But to receive it as a testimony of how God’s resurrection power animates the life of the church, that opens possibilities for faithful response.


Notes:

  1. A notorious text-critical problem attends Luke 24:34.

Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 133

Shauna Hannan

Behold! A psalm that oozes with hopefulness even in the face of perceived impossibilities.1

The unity this psalm calls for is between Democrats and Republicans. Impossible? It is between Christians and Muslims. Impossible? It is between Palestinians and Israelis. Impossible? Behold! How good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in full harmony. The primary proclamation of this Psalm is that full harmony is possible because the source flows from on high.

Full harmony seems so unlikely that the Psalmist has to turn to a series of similes in order to describe it. Both similes emphasize the abundance that accompanies unity. First, unity is like oil. It is not just any oil, but precious oil. The Hebrew word for “precious” is the same word translated as “good” in verse one. (This is also the word for “good” used repeatedly in Genesis 1.) Whether this is the oil used to anoint a high priest in a liturgical act or the oil ritually used on guests as a sign of hospitality, the point is abundance.

We are not talking here about the little dab of oil on the finger of the pastor making the sign of the cross on the forehead of the newly baptized. No, this anointing is extravagant. (I cannot help but recall the story of Mary and the costly nard in Mark 14). There is so much oil used that it runs down onto the beard of the anointed one, Aaron, whose beard ran down to the hem of his robe.2 That is a lot of oil. It is extravagant. Messy? Probably. So might unity be between divided peoples!

Oil is not the only thing running down. The second simile likens unity to the dew that runs down from Mt. Hermon in order to quench the thirsty land. Extravagantly, once again, the dew runs down from Mt. Hermon all the way to Zion. Impossible? Probably, since they are hundreds of miles apart. Even so, as Grogan states, the linking of Hermon and Zion means that, for Israel, “no limit was being set to the need for harmony.” 3

No limit suggests all have the potential to be considered “kindred.” There has been some disagreement over the reference to “kindred.” Is it literally (and only) blood siblings? Extended family? Is it those whom God has brought together? Is it those who profess belief in God? Ultimately, the psalm suggests there are no boundaries to “kindred.” The Psalmist proclaims the hopefulness of the harmonious living of the Northern Kingdom (Judah) and the Southern Kingdom (Israel); two lands turned into one people. Water has no bias and hosts anointing guests with oil before a meal (Luke 7:44-46) extends hospitality beyond borders.

Both liquids flowing in this Psalm (water and oil) spread beyond their points of origin. Living together in full harmony is good and pleasant because it is no longer scarce, it is limitless, it spreads beyond its point of origin. I began with listing a few prominent limits of harmony in the news today that inevitably are challenged by this Psalm. Preachers, can you think of others?

Not to be missed in this Psalm are both the liturgical elements and the movement. The oil itself signifies the liturgical act of anointing. This is underscored by mentioning Aaron, the high priest who resides in the temple of Jerusalem (Zion). The robes (plural), too, suggest liturgical vestments. These liturgical references are not surprising given that this is a song of ascent, which is a song that was sung by the people as they made their way to Jerusalem for a festival. And yet, this Psalm is not simply about one group of people making their pilgrimage to Zion in order to celebrate their union there.

The movement outward, the abundant and extravagant movement outward, is not to be missed. Good and pleasant things do not simply flow within neat boundaries. Unity is “on the move.” First, as mentioned, this is a song of ascent depicting people on the move. (It is curious that a song about going up has such a downward movement.) Second, the oil just keeps moving from the top of the head, to and through the beard down to the hem of the robe. Water making its trek from Hermon to Zion would have to be mighty voluminous. Even the words themselves highlight movement. “Running down” in verse 2 and “falling down” in verse 3 are from the same participle (yored). Yored appears three times in this short Psalm anticipating the blessing coming down from God.

This whole Psalm runs from living in harmony to God’s blessing as if to say it all comes down to this: God’s blessing is life forevermore. This is the theological crux of the Psalm. Full harmony is somehow connected to life and blessing from God. What exactly is the connection between living together in unity and life forevermore? Goldingay suggests a circular connection: “Kinfolk living together in harmony is a means of the blessing being released. But the blessing is also an image for the wonder of kinfolk living together in harmony.”4

Homiletically, there is no need to exhort (you must unite or else!). Instead, invite. Then again, perhaps this is simply a psalm of celebration when it is already happening. Preachers, point out those places in your community where harmony exists. This is Easter, a season in which the resurrection stirs us to celebrate even as it unites. Not even those who doubt (Thomas) are beyond the gushing of the oil and water.

You might also consider other similes you would use to describe the kind of unity to which the psalm refers. What are your images of “good” that describe the preciousness of unity where division prevails? We are an Easter people coming together on this second Sunday of Easter singing a reminder to all (even to ourselves) that living in unity has extravagant and abundant benefits far beyond measure. Even if we are not yet fully there, God willing, full harmony is a place toward which we are moving.


Notes

1 Commentary first published on this site on Apr. 15, 2012.

2 Terrien, Samuel. The Psalms: Strophic Structure and Theological Commentary. Eerdmans Critical Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003.

3 Grogan, Geoffrey, W. Psalms. The Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008.

4 Goldingay, John. Psalms: Volume 3: Psalms 90 — 150. Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic Press, 2008.


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 John 1:1—2:2

Sherri Brown

Early church leaders referred to 1 John as a “catholic epistle” (also known as a “general letter”) because of its formal treatise-like tone and lack of personal address or distinctive audience.

In fact, the prominence of 1 John eventually led to the group of more universal letters in the New Testament known as the Catholic Epistles. In addition, the relationship between 1 John and the Gospel of John becomes evident across the first verses of the letter. The Evangelist’s language of love, knowledge, and the gift of truth for the children of God permeates these pages but culminate in a more grounded and direct plea for, scholars suggest, the same general community.

Most scholars suggest the letters are written about a decade after the Gospel to address a later threat that was fracturing the Johannine community of churches. Additional details of the world behind these texts must be gleaned from the expressed concerns. 1 John 2:19-23 indicates a schism has occurred in the community that is based in the denial of Jesus as the Christ. 2 John 7-9 clarifies the christological crisis in terms of incarnation: those who have left reject the claim that Jesus was fully human. In distress, the author calls them antichrists — that is anti-Christian in that they are falling for these “new-fangled” ideas and not adhering to the tradition they received. This suggests some members of the community have been attracted to Gnosticism, a Hellenistic form of Christianity developing in the early second century and eventually deemed heresy.

The author’s overarching purpose in writing these epistles, therefore, is to root out these splintering notions and urge unity in the community. Further exploration of 1 John’s structure reveals a prologue that mirrors that of the Gospel (1:1-4); while the final verses likewise echo the Gospel’s concluding sounds (5:13-21). Within this theological frame the author makes three resounding appeals to the new community in terms of the characteristics of God that form the heart and soul of God’s children: light (1:5-2:27), justice (2:28-4:6), and love (4:7-5:12). They warn the community of the dangers of the world, while instructing on the power of faith to conquer all for those who abide in Christ and thus remain in the new covenant community. Today’s passage covers the prologue and the first segment of the opening appeal (1:1-2:2).

Prologue: The word of life for the community

The author states his purpose in the prologue with intentional echoes of both Genesis and the new “beginning” of the Gospel prologue (1 John 1:1-4; see Genesis 1, John 1:1-18). But “the word of life” he declares is only that which the community has collectively perceived through the senses — what they have “heard,” “seen,” “looked at,” and “touched.” Therefore he can “testify” to that which has been “revealed.” This is the mark of the true fellowship he wishes for the community: it is grounded in the complete joy of union with God the Father and Jesus Christ the Son. The ensuing appeals are all written toward that goal.

The experience of the light: the word of God in Jesus

The opening appeal is the proclamation that God is Light in terms of the community’s experience of the Light (1 John 1:5-2:2), the message of the Light itself (2:3-11), and the crisis the Light faces in this world (2:12-27). John 1:1-5 introduced God and God’s Word as creators of life and light in the world. Now in 1 John and based upon their own experience of the Light in their lives, the community is called to acknowledge the Word of God in Jesus (1 John 1:5). Here the author gives insight into the conflict that has arisen in the community. In a series of conditional statements he asserts that the claim to be without sin lies outside of the truth. To claim such is to make a liar of Jesus and his blood that cleanses this sin (referring to his sacrificial death on the cross that atoned for sins; 1 John 1:6-10; see John 1:29, 36; 18:28-19:16a).

The author reaffirms his concern in writing (1 John 2:2). Just as Jesus spoke of the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete, or Advocate, for humankind in the Last Discourse (John 13-17), the author speaks of Jesus as the Advocate for humankind and its sinful nature before the Father. Indeed, the indwelling of the word in truth leads to his claim that Jesus “is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). This experience is affirmed in Christ, the Light of God and of all humankind, and his central message that knowledge of God leads to fellowship in God. This is a further affirmation of the two primary commandments of the Gospel: to believe in God and to love one another. The author teaches that ongoing faith in God leads to ethical living in community with each other.

The collective summons of 1 John punctuates the Gospel’s teaching on believing in God as revealed through Jesus, the human Christ who is also God incarnate, and on loving one another as the ethic that naturally follows from living as authentic children of God. One’s relationship with God through believing in Jesus Christ empowers, enlivens, and sets parameters for the ensuing relationship with other people who are likewise struggling to live in an often-difficult world. These Letters give testament both to the powerful self-giving love of God through Christ in relationship with humankind, as well as to the profound frailty of the nature of that same humankind.

The open call for a community to live in equal fellowship through believing in Jesus as the Christ and Son of God and love of both God and one another is a vocation that every Christian can agree upon. This summons to relationship is never in question. The ability of humankind to live in this ideal, if unstructured, relationship in an imperfect world is. This is the ongoing challenge of living in community as children of God.