Lectionary Commentaries for March 31, 2018
Vigil of Easter (Year B)

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 20:1-18

Mary Hinkle Shore

Christ is risen, and Mary is weeping: John’s account of the disciples’ discovery of the resurrection has this tension at its heart.

[Looking for commentary on Mark 16:1-8? See this commentary for Easter Sunday by Philip Ruge-Jones.]

In his telling of the story, John stretches out the interval between the event of Christ’s resurrection and the time when his closest friends recognize it.

That interval holds two disciples’ footrace to the tomb, where they see the emptiness of it, and where one of them believes something, but then they both wordlessly return home, as if someone had said to them, “Move along. Nothing to see here.” Mary stays, weeping outside the tomb. All she can see is that the body has been taken, and what she wants is to control the damage: “Tell me… I will take him” (John 20:15).

As with the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, readers who are outside the bounds of the story know that it is the risen Lord speaking. Inside the story, Jesus is hidden from those closest to him. Paul Duke makes the point that identifying Jesus to the reader before Jesus is known to the characters aligns the reader with the risen Jesus.1 We see Mary or the two on the road, and we want ourselves to proclaim the resurrection to them: “He’s right there! In front of you!” Readers are able to testify to the resurrection even before Mary or Cleopas and his companion can.

Of course, eventually, to the characters’ surprise and the readers’ delight, Jesus makes himself known. To Mary, he does so by speaking her name. Readers recall John 10:3, “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.”

After Mary hears her name, she is able to see Jesus. We infer that Mary embraces Jesus because the next thing he says to her is, “Do not hold on to me.” Both grammar and context argue for “do not hold me” (New Revised Standard Version, New International Version) rather than “do not touch me” (King James Version, New English Translation). First, the present tense imperative communicates continuous action, not a mere touch. Secondly, touching Jesus would not hinder his ascending to the Father, but clinging to or holding onto him could impede his going forth. Mary can — and presumably does — touch Jesus. What she cannot do is to hold onto him because he has somewhere else to be, and when he finishes speaking to her, so does she.

Jesus’ commission to Mary earns her the title of apostle to the apostles. Jesus sends her to his brothers, or, if more than the twelve are in view, the translation of adelphous should be, “brothers and sisters.” The message to be relayed is that Jesus is “ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20:17). In a prepositional phrase (“to my Father and your Father…”) Jesus speaks the whole purpose of his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. The one he calls, “Father” is not his abba alone. In his ministry, and in his death, resurrection and ascension, Jesus is opening the way for humanity to have the same relationship with God that he has.

We heard of this goal of Jesus’ work first in the prologue. At the center of the chiastic-structured prologue is the phrase, “he gave them power to become children of God.”2 The mission of the Son is to offer those who receive him a relationship with God just like the one he has. This is also part of what it means for Jesus to tell the disciples in the farewell discourse that he is going to prepare a place for them, “that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:3). He is opening his home and his family to them.

It may help to think of someone bringing his friends home after school. The house, the food, the video games: all of them are shared as if all the kids belonged to the same family. Jesus says he is going “to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20:17). Like that kid bringing his friends home, Jesus means to share the relationship he and God share with his brothers and sisters. Being sons and daughters of God: this relationship is open now to everyone the Son brings home, and he wants lots of brothers and sisters (see also John 17:24 and Romans 8:29).

To some, the masculine imagery for God has severe limitations in terms of the extent to which it can speak good news. But the point should not be sacrificed because language for it is hard to find. The way Jesus knows God and is known by God — even the way Jesus is one with God — this “at-one-ment” is for us. Jesus’ relationship with God is ours. To borrow from Paul, “Jesus is the firstborn within a large family.”

Mary fulfills her mission. She announces, “I have seen the Lord.” In John, to see (horao) the Lord is to know, believe in, receive and trust the Lord. It is to have power to become a daughter of God.

Perhaps the sermon will open for hearers the interval between God’s work to raise Jesus and the time when it (finally!) makes a difference for Mary. Hearers could follow Mary’s experience and think of our own times of not knowing and not seeing how life could ever come out of the death that surrounds us. Yet Jesus appears. He knows his own, and he makes himself known to them. Or the sermon might marvel at the forthright way Jesus claims for his followers the relationship he has with God. Jesus’ life before his death was not for himself alone; nor is his risen life for himself alone. The love between the Father and Son is enlivened in the resurrection so that it may be shared with many more brothers and sisters.


  1. Irony in the Fourth Gospel (Nashville: John Knox Press, 1985), 105.
  2. See also R. Alan Culpepper, “The Pivot of John’s Prologue,” New Testament Studies 27/1 (Oct 1980):1-31.

Vigil Reading V

Commentary on Isaiah 55:1-11

Melinda Quivik

Any preacher whose congregation will be celebrating the Vigil of Easter will encounter this text when the assembly listens to Old Testament (OT) readings.1

This is one of at least four — and as many as twelve — of the most significant faith stories from our Hebrew ancestors that through the centuries have been chosen for the Vigil readings. Isaiah 55:1-11 includes both invitation (“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!”) and the promise of forgiveness (“my thoughts are not your thoughts … ”).

Although a preacher may be overwhelmed by the wealth of texts on this night, do not be dismayed. The Resurrection is the subject of preaching on this night with equal emphasis on the baptismal calling of the body of Christ. Let the OT texts set the context for these matters. Assuming all twelve readings are heard, the trajectory of faith experiences and pronouncements adds layer upon layer of stories and imagery to the final proclamation.

Beginning with the Genesis account of creation, the assembly hears of the flood, the testing of Abraham, and escape through the waters to freedom. Isaiah 55:1-11 is next with its invitation to “the waters” and to a feast. The prophet’s cry is followed by a reading on God’s wisdom, two readings from Ezekiel (including the valley of the dry bones), gathering the people, Jonah coughed up by the fish, the people being clothed in garments of salvation, and deliverance from the fiery furnace. After each reading there may be silence or a song or other response to what is read and then a prayer. These texts constitute a wildly rich experience, usually bathed in candlelight as the night deepens.

The OT readings lead to Romans 6:3-11 (“all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death … ”) and then John 20:1-18 in which Mary Magdalene, Jesus’ mother, and Salome go to the tomb and encounter the youth in white who says Jesus has gone ahead to Galilee.

The preaching of the Resurrection and resurrected life for all is informed and bolstered by the twelve readings, and this Isaiah text is a fine participant. A mysterious speaker coaxes the people, cries out in the street like a vendor of goods, enacting precisely what the Gospel reading also does — calling everyone to be refreshed. The image of the waters is set out as already available for knowing the ways of the Lord: “Come to the waters!” The speaker enacts what the sacramental baptismal washing and the meal of bread and wine say to us: Beloved, I have made you for feasting and abundant life. Come!

The invitation to free water and free food contrasts with the life known in exile with no assurance even of survival, let alone a feast. Isaiah 55 lays out the irony between what is costly and what is free. Under oppression, in exile, away from what is nourishing and familiar at home, the people live a truly expensive life. Although in democratic countries we often speak of the high cost of liberty, the price of exile is also great. The people pay with devastation, anguish, loneliness, guilt, shame, terror, and more. Who in your community, state, nation, and on earth live in conditions of exile, devoid of what is stable and nourishing? Where is anguish and hopelessness? Who are those who need to be invited to what is life-giving?

The question for the preacher in our time is this: What is the meaning of exile in our communities? Isaiah speaks to a community that is about to be liberated to return home. In order to make a gospel life as vivid as possible when proclaiming the Resurrection, it is necessary to bring to the assembly’s attention the reality of lives lived in need of freedom.

When you settle on who would find the invitation in Isaiah 55 incredible and unanswerable, you will know who (people, creatures) and what (landscapes, air, water) needs to be heard from on this day as the preacher strives to make real the meaning of the empty tomb. Think not only of individuals who are desperate. Think of whole communities fraught with turmoil over injustices, racial strife, disabilities, destruction, thwarted dreams. Think of the ways in which communities are afflicted with the life-destroying temptations and afflictions of wealth and power, whether or not they wield either of them.

Think, as well, of those who lead the way toward liberation. These are they who put the lie to values that do not satisfy, to dreams that turn to dust when achieved, and to hopes that are too shallow to serve as food. The liberators are Resurrection majorettes, if you will. In word and deed they give the rest of us energy. They fill our imaginations with visions of a better world for all. Who are they in your sphere? I dare say that most of us yearn to follow the thumping baton of someone who sees an enduring vision, whose words renew spirits. We all need those who in and out of the church lead us toward what makes for the common good. These people exist today. Most of us know at least one of them. Name them! Show us where to look for the goodness of God alive in the world.

The preacher declares on this night the promise of the risen one having gone ahead of us, opening us into the way of God, clear as rain and snow that waters the earth. We are all led by the one who knows the agony of exile, who died out of favor with both religious and political power structures, and who watched all of his friends turn away. If there is any exile greater, I do not know it. If there is any homecoming richer and more powerful than coming back forever to be with your friends and betrayers, I do not know that one, either. Preach that homecoming.


1 Commentary first published on this site on Apr. 4, 2015.

Vigil Reading XII

Commentary on Daniel 3:1-29

Amy Merrill Willis

As the story begins, the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, erects a massive golden statue and commands that all must bow before it.1

Initially, it appears that the central conflict of the story involves idolatry. However, as the story progresses, a different conflict emerges — that between the kingship of Nebuchadnezzar and the power of God. The story alerts the reader to this conflict in Daniel 3:15 when the king, furious with Daniel’s friends, threatens them saying, “who is the god that will deliver you out of my hands?”

This court tale about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is part of a larger series of stories in Daniel 1-6 dealing with the relationship between the God of Israel and the gentile kings.2 At times, the foreign king recognizes that the source of his power is the God of Israel and publically announces that fact (Daniel 2:47). At other times, however, the kings are recalcitrant and refuse to recognize the ultimate sovereignty of God. They try to claim their power as their own, and, in doing so, they create intense conflict and danger for the Jewish community caught in the middle of the struggle. This is the situation in which Daniel’s friends find themselves. At the end the previous chapter, Nebuchadnezzar had announced that true knowledge and true power comes from Daniel’s God. But at the beginning of Daniel 3, the king seems to have forgotten his earlier confession, and, at the prodding of some Babylonian sages (the Chaldeans), he entraps the Jewish friends and arrogantly dismisses their God.

What is puzzling, however, is Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s answer to the king: “If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you … that we will not serve your gods … ” (Daniel 3:17-18). This response, accurately conveyed in the NRSV but emended in other popular translations, does not appear to be an enthusiastic defense of God’s sovereignty. It suggests that they have doubts about God’s power to rescue them and are not confident that God will do so. C.L. Seow argues, however, that the friends’ response conveys an unconditional and absolute faith.3 Their devotion to God is not based on any kind of quid pro quo from the LORD. Unlike Jacob who attached all kinds of strings to his commitment to God (cf. Gen 28:20-22), the friends announce that their dedication to God is absolute, regardless of what happens to them.

Comic relief, comic resistance

In the midst of tension and conflict created by this clash of sovereignty, the story offers some good comic relief. Notice the long lists of government officials and musical instruments that are repeated so frequently and so unnecessarily (Daniel 3:2, 3, 5, 7, 9, 15). The repetition of these complicated lists creates exaggeration and makes the king and his officials look silly. Moreover, as the story unfolds, the king comes off looking rash and easily manipulated: the king begins the story with an arrogant command, then becomes the pawn of his jealous officials who wish to get rid of the Jewish wise men. He then flies into a rage when the Jewish men do not obey them, but ends by blessing their God!

The satirical elements serve an important purpose. They help negotiate the conflicts that might arise between the Jewish community’s fidelity to God and its dealings with gentile kings. By showing him to be bumbling and blind, the story undermines the king’s fearfulness and tyranny and encourages resistance. At the same time, the story shows the king to be teachable — he learns to show honor to the true God. Thus God is shown to accommodate the king and also vindicate the participation of the Jewish men in the gentile government.

Survival and deliverance

Despite the story’s comic playfulness, its liturgical context in the Christian lectionary — the Great Vigil of Easter — highlights the weighty theme of deliverance from death. The three friends of Daniel, despite being bound in their clothes and tossed in, survive the overheated furnace and come out unbound and physically unharmed. In the midst of the fire’s damaging flames, there is a fourth person who looks like a man but has “the appearance of a god” (Daniel 3:25) or, literally, “a son of a god.” Although the Hebrew text does not tell us exactly who this figure is or what he does in the furnace, he seems to be an angel of the Lord who has come to protect and deliver the three. In some medieval interpretations, this angel is Michael.4 For many Christian interpreters, however, the language of “a son of god” suggests that the fourth figure is Christ.5

The clash between the power of God and the forces of the world; deliverance from an unjust death at the hands of the empire; a miraculous “son of god” not bound even by death; hope for physical restoration and resurrection (see Daniel 12:3) — these are some of the thematic links connecting Daniel 3 and the Great Vigil of Easter.

The story has continued to inspire resistance for communities facing unspeakable injustice. Jewish activist and holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, reminds readers that we live in a world where our neighbors continue to face the threat of eradication through fire and violence. Wiesel describes seeing the fires of the crematoriums as he and his fellow Jews, crowded into train cars, approached the concentration camp. His life reminds readers that while Daniel’s friends survived the fiery furnace, the gas chambers and crematoriums claimed millions more. For him and others who lived through and resisted injustice, Daniel and his friends offered hope for survival.6 What is more, the story serves as a reminder that we are all called to the work of faithful resistance.


1 Commentary first published on this site on Apr. 4, 2015.

2 See further, C. Newsom, “Political Theology in the Book of Daniel: An Internal Debate,” Review and Expositor 109 (2012):557-568.

3 C.L. Seow, Daniel (Westminster Bible Companion; Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2003), 57-58.

4 C. Newsom and B. Breed, Daniel (Old Testament Library; Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2014), 97-127.

5 J. Collins, A Commentary on the Book of Daniel (Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 190.

6 Newsom and Breed, Daniel, 114-118. Breed points out that Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. also called upon these stories from Daniel in the midst of their civil rights movements.

New Testament Reading

Commentary on Romans 6:3-11

Kyle Fever

It’s common to say we’re dead to sin in terms of our spiritual self, or that “when God looks at me, God sees Christ and not my sinful human self.”1

In reality we’re still sinners; God just does not see it because we’ve been baptized into Christ.

This passage does not seem to allow for this soft understanding of “dead to sin.” Paul writes of finality. When something is dead its existence in reality ends; it exists only in memory.

We must admit this passage jars us. It jars us to the point that we regularly say, “yes, but … ” Of course Paul knew of the ongoing struggles for those in the faith, even the reality of sinning; just consider the community in Corinth. Yet, one is hard-pressed to find Paul identify any in his communities as “sinners,” especially where he had every opportunity point this out pastorally. Paul knows of the potential to commit acts that fall under the category “sin,” but he draws focus to the new reality, with no “but we still struggle in sin” tagline.

When Paul does this it raises the problem of idealism versus realism. Are we really dead to sin? If so, why do we still struggle? Is Paul a little too idealistic here? Or am I missing something — captivated by later theological developments and anthropological views? Perhaps it’s “rhetorical”?

Paul’s words here, of course, do not stand in isolation. The lectionary selection (unfortunately) hacks off verses that rhetorically should be part of the passage. Everything Paul says in Romans 6:3-11 (in fact, the section should continue through 6:14) functions as a response to the questions he raises in 6:1-2. The leading question in verse 1 is, “shall we remain in sin?”

The “remain” language is important. Paul’s not just writing about committing occasional sins — an offense to our brother/sister here and there. It is more along the lines of “in what sphere of reality should we find and define ourselves?” He’s writing about where we reside, where we find our home, our identity.

The question functions as an (imagined) objection to what Paul said in Romans 5:20 (“where sin increased, grace increased all the more”). Now, I am not convinced that people actually thought, “hey, let’s continue to live in ways that violate God and our sisters/brothers — just so that we can keep receiving grace!” That seems silly to really think that people thought this in such simplistic terms.2 The underlying mentality, I suspect, is more complex. I suggest that the objection derives from a mentality of reciprocity that says, “If God gives grace in exchange for sin, then let’s stick with that deal and just make it an ongoing part of our reality. Let’s continue to recognize the reality of our state as sinners so that we can always be assured of God’s grace.” According to this line of thought, the fundamental human realty hasn’t changed; there’s just a way to deal with it through Christ.

It is precisely Paul’s point that the fundamental human reality has changed. We can’t even think of ourselves in terms of remaining in the realm of sin, even if it’s just to reinforce our need for God’s grace and forgiveness. (This is not to say that God’s forgiveness is not abundant where we do still struggle with sin. That matter is not Paul’s concern here, however.)

Paul responds in Romans 6:3-11 (really it should be verses 3-14) in four movements. In verses 3-4 he draws attention to baptism as the starting point. It is the act which communicates our identification with Christ’s death. In verses 5-7 he draws out the implications in terms of death to sin, and in verses 8-11 he draws out the implications in terms of life to/for God. He wraps up in verses 12-14 with a concluding exhortation.

A few things stand out. First, Paul emphasizes participatory sharing. It’s not just that Christ has shared his benefits with us. Beginning with baptism, Paul says, we are “co” with Christ, in both death and resurrection/new life.3 We are participatory sharers in Christ’s reality, swept up in something that’s not inherent to our original humanity. We are not just passive recipients of a spiritual truth.

Second, Paul uses punctiliar verbs to communicate this new reality: “we were buried with him”; “our old humanity was crucified with (him)”; “the body of sin was abolished“; “we died with Christ.” Paul does not say, “the old sinful humanity has been wounded; it’s still alive, but not as effective.” Yet this is how this is commonly read and communicated.

Third, the aorist “we have died” leads to “no longer continue.” The new reality is no less a reality, but it must still be worked out in life, which he gets at explicitly in verses 12-14. Paul, however, makes no concession that we have one foot in both the old and new! It is like the reminder to the Israelites that they are no longer in Egypt, that their existence now must display a distinctly new reality under a new God who orders this new and very different existence for them, and for the world.

It is important to keep in mind that Paul’s argument relates directly to the law. If believers remain in the old humanity in any way, then the law remains necessary. But if the old humanity has in fact been crucified, then the necessity of the law also goes away. This is where Paul is going (Romans 7:1-6). If our identity as “sinners” remains, so does the need for the law. But Paul is adamant that neither sin nor law continue to live.

Paul’s claims do not mean we’re “perfect.” In fact, Paul does not discuss being “perfect” at all. Such an idea is not on Paul’s radar. To let ideas of moral perfection creep in falls into reading through the lens of modern (primarily Western) morality — what I call “MPS” (“Moral Perfection Syndrome”). This is the idea that God demands moral perfection, and our failure to achieve said moral perfection is the problem. Because we think God demands such perfection, and because we’re never going to get it, we’re always “sinners.” This is not quite Paul’s framework; he’s talking about relocating the sphere in which we dwell as humans. What Paul is getting at is like the difference between Narnia and mid-20th century England in The Chronicles of Narnia. Rather than jumping back-and-forth between the two realms, according to this passage baptism symbolizes our passing through the wardrobe, into a new existence, never to return.

Yes, we still live in the old world; but it is now no longer home. Paul’s perspective is not “ongoing sin is just the way things are. But you’re washed in the blood of Christ; God just doesn’t see you that way any longer.” Paul turns his audience’s focus to the monumental shift in reality brought about by God through Jesus Christ. This does not just transform how we think God sees us or how we think about ourselves. It should transform our very existence. We might still struggle as we remain in the flesh; but we no longer “remain” in sin as “sinner.” That identity is dead.


1 Commentary first published on this site on Apr. 4, 2015.

2 Some interpreters often connect the objection in Romans 6:1-2 with the objection in Romans 3:8 (“why not say [as some people slander us by saying that we say], “Let us do evil so that good may come”?), pointing out that it seems some people actually advocated living in sin to receive God’s benefits. I am unconvinced. The nature of the argument is quite different, as is the objection itself.

3 The use of the future tense leads some to think that experiencing new life/resurrection with Christ is only a future reality. The future tense may also function as a “logical future” as in Fitzmyer’s commentary. Nevertheless, while it is likely that the future refers to the future resurrection, Paul connects the two; the future reality has significant effects on the present life. Christ’s new reality and our future promise are the basis upon which the present reality is also changed.