Lectionary Commentaries for May 8, 2016
Seventh Sunday of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 17:20-26

Barbara Lundblad

John 17 brings us to the end of Jesus’ farewell to his disciples.

The timing is a bit confusing to listeners. We celebrated Easter at the end of March, but the last few weeks we’ve gone back before Easter to Jesus’ last meal with his disciples. We’ve been sitting at the Passover table, leaning close to hear Jesus’ final promises to his disciples. Chapter 17 is Jesus’ closing prayer. He looks up to heaven and prays first for himself. This is not the agonizing prayer in Gethsemane found in the other gospels. Jesus is not in agony nor is he confused. “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you.” Sometimes, Jesus seems to be praying for somebody else — he says “your Son” then “the Son” then “glorify me.” We hear a mixture of Jesus and the gospel writer mingled together in one prayer.

Then Jesus moves on to pray for those who are sitting at the table with him. Jesus is praying like a mother who has adopted these children. They belonged to God, but God gave them to Jesus to care for, to teach, to nurture. Soon Jesus will go away and he prays for these children with the love of a motherly heart.

I remember talking to a woman whose son was in our youth group. “Every time he goes out of the house, I say a prayer that he’ll be safe,” she told me. “You know, when there are more than two black boys walking down the street, people get suspicious. They attract attention from the police. It happens all the time,” she said. ”Even if they don’t do anything, they’re likely to get in trouble. So I keep praying until he comes back in the door.”

Jesus’ prayer doesn’t stop with those seated at the table. “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.” Jesus is praying also for you and for me. We are the ones who have come to believe because of the disciples’ words. Jesus’ prayer hangs in the space between earth and heaven, between time past and time present and time yet to come. Jesus is praying that we will remain faithful and trust in the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Just when we think we’ve figured out what’s going on in John’s gospel, we are surprised at every turn. Jesus proclaims God’s love for the world, yet prays that these beloved children will be protected from the world. Jesus speaks of himself as the Good Shepherd whose sheep hear his voice — yet, just when we’re ready to shut the gate, Jesus says, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold — I must bring them also.” Just when we point to John’s gospel to confirm that God is our Father, we hear Jesus praying from a mother’s heart. Even in John’s fatherly gospel, we see a picture of Jesus who seems very much like a mother.

Perhaps we should have known from the first chapter of John. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” This eternal, cosmic Word (with a capital W) translates the Greek word logos. Yet, everything that is said about the Word comes from Old Testament descriptions of Wisdom. Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of God. Wisdom, pitching a tent to dwell upon earth. Wisdom, beside God as co-creator from the beginning. Wisdom, the female figure translated in Greek as Sophia. Indeed, Raymond Brown, in his classic commentary on the Gospel of John, says that “there are parallels to Wisdom in almost every detail” found in the opening verses of the gospel.1 The reason John chose logos instead of sophia was because Jesus was male.

Can we be open to God’s surprises? Could it be that the Spirit that moved over the waters in creation became a mothering presence in the Gospel of John? Could it be that when we insist that God can only be called Father, the Spirit of truth whispers other names in our ears? Jesus, prayed for his beloved, adopted children on the last night of his life. He prayed that they would be one, even as Jesus and his motherly Father are one.

The life of faith is a journey filled with surprises. Just when we think Mother’s Day is about cards and flowers, we’re reminded that the original Mother’s Day proclamation urged an end to war: “We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”2 (Julia Ward Howe) Just when we think we know all about Jesus the Good Shepherd, he’s out looking for sheep beyond our fold. Just when we think the Word — capital W — is an abstract philosophical word, we’re reminded that Jesus is Wisdom/Sophia in earthly flesh. Just when we argue that God can only be called “Father” we hear Jesus praying as a mother worried for her children. “I will not leave you orphaned,” Jesus said. You are my own and I will be with you forever.

This is the wondrous mystery revealed to Julian of Norwich in the 14th century. This well-educated Christian woman devoted her life to God through study and contemplation of scripture. She wrote a theological treatise entitled “Showings” and her words have now become a hymn that we might rightly sing today: “Mothering God, you gave me birth. Mothering Christ, you took my form. Mothering Spirit, nurturing One.” God is always more than we imagined. God is always closer than we had dared to dream.


Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I – XII (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1966) 523


First Reading

Commentary on Acts 16:16-34

Eric Barreto

In Acts, trouble follows Paul.1

Or perhaps Paul tends to help precipitate the various controversies which embroil him. Either way, Paul’s time in Philippi is no exception to the general rule. Despite the successes narrated in last week’s text from Acts, Paul and Silas will find themselves swept up in a crowd’s fervor but ultimately vindicated by God’s miraculous involvement.

A Nameless Mantic Slave
A seemingly innocuous set of events precipitates a consequential dispute. Luke narrates the proclamations of a mantic slave girl: “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” Verse 16 does not specify how much time had passed between the conversion of Lydia and the declarations of the fortune-telling slave girl. However, the imperfect tense of the verb pareichen and the remark that these encounters became a daily event suggests that these became regular and for Paul a nuisance.

Why would Paul find her pronouncements so irritating? At first glance, we might imagine that by calling Paul and his companions servants of “the most high God,” she was implying that their God was one among many. That is, hers was a declaration infected with pagan thought. However, Luke elsewhere has faithful Jews describing the God of Israel in the same way (Luke 1:32, 35, 76; 6:35; Acts 7:48). Beyond our speculating about Paul’s mood on this particular day, Acts does not provide a significant rationale for Paul’s indignant reaction. Perhaps the best we can argue is that the mantic girl’s proclamation while true was also misleading in Paul’s eyes. That is, the ambiguities of her message, the source of her inspiration, and her role as a profitable fortuneteller corroded the full message Paul hoped to proclaim.

Almost unflinchingly and seemingly without much thought, Paul exorcises her, alleviating his annoyance, but also crippling the profitability of a syndicate’s manipulative business. We hear nothing of how this changed the life of this unnamed slave. Instead, she drops from the narrative as quickly as she flitted into it. Ultimately, she is not a fully formed figure in this narrative but a mere narrative hinge. In fact, her owners’ indifference to her state of being quickly becomes evident.

Baseless Accusations
Gripped with avarice, the formerly profitable girl’s owners accuse Paul and Silas of profound treachery before the city’s ruling authorities. Notice, however, that their indictments fail to mention one key piece of evidence: the loss of the unnamed slave girl’s services in a lucrative endeavor! Instead, these rapacious merchants resort to the tried and true method of base ethnocentrism. They accuse Paul and Silas of drawing Philippi’s denizens away from the approved Roman way of life to Jewish customs incommensurate with the city’s ethnic values. Of course, the charges are false. Not only are their true motives cloaked in these false ethnic accusations, but also we will later learn that Paul and Silas are Roman themselves (Acts 16:37)!

Despite their innocence, Paul and Silas are beaten and then remanded to prison. What follows is an excellent example of particularly dramatic scenes in Acts which imbue the story with a novelistic air. In these stories, we see most clearly a likely impulse in Luke’s writing not only to inform his readers but also to compel and even entertain them.

“Not Escape but Rescue” — Beverly Gaventa2
Securely ensconced in a deep cell and securely bound, Paul and Silas pray and sign hymns as midnight strikes. A powerful tremor suddenly provides them with a path to freedom. The guard — realizing that a prison escape would be interpreted as a dereliction of duty — tries to take his own life only to be stopped by Paul.

The guard then asks a simple but consequential question: “What must I do to be saved?” What might we imagine this Roman guard meant by this? Did he want protection from authorities above him who might hold him accountable? Did he view Paul and Silas as “divine men” with great power who might grant him some gift? Did he even comprehend the depth of his query?

Perhaps in that moment of despair followed by relief, we ask too much of this guard by asking these questions. Perhaps he did not fully understand what he was asking, but in his grasping for answers, many of us can relate. The sense that life has spun out of control often characterizes the questions we ask of God.

The guard’s question is complex perhaps even beyond his understanding, but the answer is clear: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” Much like Lydia last week, the guard hears the gospel and in response hosts Paul and his companions in his home. Once again, hospitality is a marker of his gratitude for the good news. In both the cases of Lydia and this guard, conversion is not a solitary experience, but one shared by all those who together create a home. The repercussions of both Lydia’s and the guard’s conversions extend well beyond themselves. Similarly, the outpouring of hospitality by the whole household suggests the communal dimensions of conversion in Acts.

At the Intersection of Drama and Theology
Such an artful combination of these theological narratives is typical of Luke-Acts. Imbued with a dramatic flair, these stories can both delight and teach.3  The challenge for the preacher is to communicate that same sense of dramatic significance to her audience. To be sure, our modern entertainment industry makes such a homiletical task difficult. After all, most churches lack the special effects budget to recreate a powerful earthquake!

What we can do, however, is recreate the dramatic storytelling imbedded in this narrative. It is too easy for those hearing the reading of this slice of scripture to lose the narrative and theological connections between the slave girl, the vile accusations made against Paul and Silas, and the ultimate deliverance of both the guard and his prisoners. Therefore, the preacher’s task when preaching this text is to highlight how these seemingly disparate stories cohere so well.

Draw attention to the slave girl’s brief cameo in this story. Wonder aloud about her “healing” and why she does not merit even a mention in the accusations brought against Paul and Silas. Compare the parallels between Lydia and the Roman guard.

In this connective narrative tissue lies a profound message: at the intersections of drama and theology, power and weakness, travail and rescue, the story of God’s people was and is being told.


1 This commentary originally published on the site on May 16, 2010.
Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Acts (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries; Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 239.
3See Richard I. Pervo, Profit with Delight: The Literary Genre of the Acts of the Apostles (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987).


Commentary on Psalm 97

Karla Suomala

The now well-known hymn “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” was performed for the first time on February 12, 1900, at the segregated Stanton Elementary School in Jacksonville, FL. James Weldon Johnson, principal of Stanton and author of the poem, wrote the piece for his students as part of a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.

Later, Johnson reflected on the genesis of the hymn:

My brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, and I decided to write a song to be sung at the exercises. I wrote the words and he wrote the music. Our New York publisher, Edward B. Marks, made mimeographed copies for us, and the song was taught to and sung by a chorus of five hundred colored school children.

Drawing on the themes and imagery of Psalm 97, Johnson wrote “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” just four years after Ferguson vs. Plessy decision was handed down by the Supreme Court. It was brought to the court through a suit in which Homer Plessy was arrested for civil disobedience because he challenged Louisiana’s segregation laws. Plessy lost, by a vote of 7-1, and the Court upheld the “separate but equal” doctrine under which states could legally require separate-but-equal public facilities, such as schools.

Deeply discouraged, but also hopeful for change in the future, Johnson connected the suffering of African American people to a better future, encouraging them to keep up the good fight, to trust that “a new day” would come. In many ways, Psalm 97 and “Lift Ev’ry Voice” share this theme, forming a bridge between the ancient Israelites and African Americans at the turn of the 20th century.

Call to praise

Both Psalm 97 and “Lift Ev’ry Voice” begin with a call to praise. The psalmist invites, even commands, celebration as he begins:

The Lord is king! Let the earth rejoice;
   let the many coastlands be glad! (97:1)

Johnson further expands on this imperative, emphasizing the song of the people:

Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies … (“Lift Ev’ry Voice, vs. 1)

Cosmic in scope

Beyond a shared theme, Psalm 97 and “Lift Ev’ry Voice” are similar in scope. For example, they both move from the cosmic or universal to the particular or local. For the psalmist this is marked by “earth” and “coastlands” in vs. 1, and the mention of Zion and Judah later in the psalm. Johnson points to the very particular voices of African Americans, those who have trod the stony road and passed through the “blood of the slaughtered” along the way.

How long, O Lord?

They also emphasize the vastness of God’s time — reflecting on the connection between past and future. This is evident in that they are both attempts to answer the demands presented in Psalm 90:

Turn, O Lord! How long?
   Have compassion on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
   so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days (vs. 13-14).

Ancient Israelites were in need of protection and an assurance that they would have a future, concerns that African Americans certainly shared as they looked to their past and pondered their future.

The psalmist responds to this question of “How long?” by declaring that God has been moved to action and that the time for redemption, a better future, is on the horizon. This God is not absent, idle, or powerless — this is the God we’ve been waiting for, the one who lights up the world with lightening, consumes enemy with fire, and melts mountains like wax. This God, whose foundations are justice and righteousness, is on the move and will make things right. Johnson celebrates this God of action, the God who assures a better future, through his emphasis on faith, hope, a new day, and victory.

Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us,
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun
Let us march on till victory is won.

Keep us on the path

A further resonance between the psalm and the hymn can be found in the call to righteousness and turning away from what is not of God. The psalmist frames it as a statement by pointing out that:

The Lord loves those who hate evil;
   he guards the lives of his faithful;
   he rescues them from the hand of the wicked.
Light dawns for the righteous,
   and joy for the upright in heart (vs. 10-11).

Johnson, on the other hand, puts the admonition in the form of a prayer:

Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;

They kept singing it

Once “Lift Ev’ry Voice” was performed, its popularity spread like wildfire. In describing what happened, Johnson noted:

Shortly afterwards [after the first performance] my brother and I moved away from Jacksonville to New York, and the song passed out of our minds. But the school children of Jacksonville kept singing it; they went off to other schools and sang it; they became teachers and taught it to other children. Within twenty years it was being sung over the South and in some other parts of the country. Today the song, popularly known as the Negro National Hymn, is quite generally used. The lines of this song repay me in an elation, almost of exquisite anguish, whenever I hear them sung by Negro children.

Perhaps this is what happened to Psalm 97. Written by an ancient Israelite for a particular festival, the psalm lived on and took on a life of its own. In addition to being chanted and sung (to a great variety of settings) in synagogues and churches throughout the centuries in worship and prayer, traces of it can be found in hymns written before “Lift Ev’ry Voice,” many of which are in our hymnals today. A few examples include: “Rejoice the Lord is King” by Charles Wesley (1744); “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty” by Reginald Heber (1826); and “The Almighty Reigns Exalted High” by Isaac Watts (18th century).

Living words

The beauty and power of psalms is found not just in their words and phrasing, but in their ability to grow and adapt to new circumstances over time. They are living organisms rather than static text. Not just the psalms themselves, but even their reiterations live on. “Lift Ev’ry Voice” was written as a poem, then put to music, spread and became the Negro National Anthem in 1919, gained further inspiration during the civil rights movement, has been reinterpreted by musical artists throughout the 20th century, was sung Obama’s 2009 inauguration, and I recently participated in singing it with my family at a Black Lives Matter protest.

The words of the psalm are no less powerful today than when they penned and their calls for transformation and reassurance of God’s power are no less urgent in our uncertain times. 

Second Reading

Commentary on Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21

Micah D. Kiel

As Biblical scholar, I have a love-hate relationship with the lectionary.

Its power, it seems to me, resides in the fact that we don’t get to cherry-pick the texts we want to read in liturgy. It forces us to read broadly within the canon, and often pairs together texts we may not have connected on our own. This forces interpreters and preachers to think differently about texts as they converse with each other intra-canonically.

But the lectionary can be bad, too. I find its slicing of Revelation 22 particularly frustrating. I understand the need for brevity in the liturgy, and there are reasons why certain texts might need to be truncated. But the way the lectionary removes small chunks (vv. 15 and 18-19) of Revelation 22 is highly manipulative. It is akin to the gerrymandering that often carves out ideologically pure electoral districts. It leaves the reader with only a partial experience of the whole. And, worse, it ignores the warning of John himself:

“If anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.” (Revelation 22:19)

The skipped verses represent the dark side of Revelation’s apocalyptic message. Without them, the reader is left with a rosy, positive picture of this book. It’s not that I like the negative stuff, but without it, the edge of John of Patmos’ words gets lost.

Revelation is eschatological. It squirms beneath questions about economic justice, political hegemony, and theological allegiance. While it has some of the most beautiful hymns, liturgical set pieces, and visions of a heavenly future, it also has many troubling images. Rivers of blood, death for large swaths of humanity, and turmoil in the cosmos, all point toward an upheaval that is part of the apocalyptic message of its author.

The problem is this: if we only retain the positive elements of Revelation, then it becomes too easy to miss the deep critique that John of Patmos offers. It becomes the chamois with which we will wipe away every tear, a soft assuaging of our fears and concerns. Such a reading, where only the “good” elements remain, forces an interpretation in which we are the “righteous” in John’s program. This may or may not be warranted.

John’s apocalypse is about empire, the worship allegiance it requires, and how that worship is intercalated with exploitative economic structures. Allegiance to Rome and participation in its economics is akin to defilement. There is no grey area, no wiggle room. In his final chapter, John does not shy away from his divisive language, the idea that humanity is either righteous or wicked, and the dual fates for those two parties.

This lectionary text recapitulates the themes of Revelation rather well. The opening in vv. 12-13 suggests the imminent nature of the visions and reasserts God as sovereign and eternal. Verse 14 refers back to chapters 6 and 7. In chapter 6, the martyrs who live underneath an altar in John’s vision are given a white robe. In 7:13 John is told by one of the elders that the image he saw of those robed in white are those who have come out of the “great ordeal.” They have washed their robes white by using blood. Verse 15, which the lectionary skips, talks about those who will not be allowed in the heavenly, eschatological city: dogs, sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.

The juxtaposition of vv. 14 and 15 is vitally important. The questions and issues raised by John are not just academic or hypothetical. By all accounts, real persecution has been experienced or will be imminently. The close reader will know that these robes are washed in blood to get them white, laundering advice that only makes sense theologically. It seems that people’s lives are at stake (see 2:13).

The question here becomes how do we make the leap from John’s apocalyptic visions, rooted in persecution, to our world today? The lectionary’s divisions make it too easy to see ourselves as the righteous. Unless we face the kind of persecution John’s community did, this parallel hardly seems apt. At the same time, it might be particularly harsh to suggest that modern Christians are among the fornicators and dogs and murderers.

Here at the end, the readers are still left with a choice, of sorts, despite some tendencies of eschatological and apocalyptic determinism you might find in this text. People are going to be repaid for their work (Revelation 22:12). There are things people can do to align themselves with God’s sovereignty. The future, eschatological depictions are meant to engender a moral response. There is still, even at the end, an invitation: “Come” is repeated three times in v. 17.

This invitation is not easy. And there is not time to sit back and think about it. Time is up. God is coming soon (Revelation 22:20). With the economic and religious critique offered by Revelation, accepting the invitation to “come” would cause us to rethink the structural sin in our society: where our food comes from, who makes our iPhones, and the ecological impact of a 45 minute commute. If there is good news at the end of Revelation, it is that God does not seem yet to have closed the door to heaven, even as God knocks on the door of our world (Revelation 3:20).