Lectionary Commentaries for May 1, 2016
Sixth Sunday of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 14:23-29

Elisabeth Johnson

This passage is part of Jesus’ farewell discourse to his disciples on the night before his death, a discourse punctuated by the anxious questions of his disciples about his impending departure.

First Peter (John 13:36), then Thomas (14:5), then Phillip (14:8), and then Judas (not Iscariot) (14:22) ask for clarification about what Jesus is telling them.

Jesus has promised not to leave his disciples orphaned (John 14:18). He has promised to send another Advocate, the Spirit of truth, to be with them forever (14:16) and continue the work that he has begun. The world does not recognize the Spirit of truth and thus cannot receive him (4:17), just as it has not received Jesus.

Jesus tells his disciples that though the world will no longer see him, they themselves will see him (John 4:19) because he will reveal himself to them (4:21). Then Judas (not Iscariot) asks: “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?” (4:22) Our passage begins with Jesus’ response to this question. Perhaps Judas expects that Jesus will give them some kind of secret knowledge, but that is not what Jesus means.

Earlier Jesus had spoken to his disciples of the “many dwellings” (monai pollai) in his Father’s house, where he was going to prepare a place for them (John 14:2). Now Jesus says that he and the Father will come and make their dwelling (monên) with those who love him and keep his word (14:23). In John’s Gospel, “eternal life” begins here and now; it is life in relationship with God through Jesus Christ (17:3). Even while Jesus prepares eternal dwellings with the Father, he and the Father will continue to dwell with his disciples in the present.

It is through the Holy Spirit, the Advocate or Paraclete (the Greek word paraclêtos signifies “called along beside”), that Jesus will continue to be present with his disciples. Jesus says that the Father will send the Holy Spirit to be alongside his disciples, to teach them and remind them of all that Jesus has said to them (John 14:26).

Because Jesus will be present with them through the Holy Spirit, his disciples need not be anxious. Chapter 14 begins with Jesus’ exhortation, “Do not let your hearts be troubled” (John 14:1). Now again Jesus exhorts, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid,” after telling his disciples, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives” (14:27).

When Jesus meets his frightened disciples after his resurrection, it will be with a greeting of peace (John 20:19, 21). The Greek word for peace is eirênê, but this is surely a translation of the traditional Hebrew greeting shalom. Shalom signifies more than the absence of conflict; it is a profound and holistic sense of well-being. It is the kind of peace which the world cannot give, but can only come from God. This gift of peace accompanies the gift of the Holy Spirit, which Jesus breathes into his disciples as he sends them out in mission (20:22).

As Jesus seeks to prepare his disciples for what is to come, he tells them that if they loved him, they would rejoice that he is going to the Father, because the Father is greater than him (John 14:28). It seems understandable that the disciples would not be in a rejoicing mood upon learning that Jesus would soon be leaving them. Jesus tries to reassure them that he is not simply leaving them, but that there is a purpose in his leaving; he is going to be with the Father. Later in this same discourse, Jesus will tell them that it is to their advantage that he is going away, so that he can send the Advocate, who will bring further understanding and be with them always (16:7).

I can imagine that the disciples were still not convinced that Jesus’ leaving could be a good thing. Jesus says that he is telling them these things now so that when they occur, they will believe. Indeed, it is only after the resurrection, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, that the disciples begin to understand and believe the words of Jesus (John 2:22; 12:16) and are finally able to rejoice (20:20). The whole of John’s Gospel manifests the fruits of the Spirit’s work among the disciples after Jesus’ death and resurrection in deepening their understanding of Jesus’ identity and mission.

One approach to preaching this text might be to talk about how the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives. So often we do not understand what God is up to. We do not understand how certain events could have any meaning or result in anything good. It is only with time and prayer and the aid of the Holy Spirit that we begin to see how God might be working for good even in the midst of terrible and confusing events.

This is not to say that everything that happens is God’s will, for that would be to deny the reality of evil. The crucifixion of Jesus was clearly an act of human evil. But God is able to bring good even out of the worst evil. John’s Gospel sees the death of Jesus in the light of the resurrection, in the light of God’s triumph over evil and death. The incarnation, the ministry, the death and resurrection of Jesus, the sending of the Spirit — all of these events together demonstrate the depth of God’s love for the world.

Above all else, it is this profound love of God that Jesus has made known to his disciples and that the Holy Spirit continues to make known to us. The Spirit assures us that we are never abandoned, even in the midst of the loss, pain, and sorrow that are part of life in this broken world. The Word who became flesh and lived among us (John 1:14) continues to make his home with us (14:23), even as he prepares our eternal dwelling with God (14:2).

Alternate Gospel

Commentary on John 5:1-9

Elisabeth Johnson

The man healed in this story is perhaps the least willing and the least grateful of all the people Jesus heals in John’s Gospel.

The setting of the healing is a pool called Bethzatha near the Sheep’s Gate in Jerusalem (John 5:2). Lying in the porticos around this pool are many invalids — blind, lame, and paralyzed (5:3). The earliest manuscripts of John do not explain why the invalids are there, but later scribes added an explanation that appears in certain manuscripts (5:4). According to this explanation, people believed that an angel of the Lord would come and stir the waters, and that whoever was the first to enter the pool after the waters were stirred would be healed of his or her malady.

When Jesus sees a man who has been ill for thirty-eight years lying there (John 5:5), he asks him, “Do you want to be made well?” (5:6). We might expect a resounding “Yes!” Instead, the man offers a complaint, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me” (5:7).

Jesus responds to the man’s complaint by saying, “Stand up, take your mat and walk” (John 5:8). Immediately the man is healed and takes up his mat and walks (5:9). At the end of verse 9, the narrator adds, “Now that day was a Sabbath.” This is where our lectionary reading ends, but the attentive reader or hearer will recognize that this is not the end of the story. As is always the case, Jesus’ healing of someone on the Sabbath creates problems.

As the story progresses, the man will be confronted by “the Jews,” i.e., Jewish religious authorities, who tell him that because it is the Sabbath, it is not lawful to carry his mat (John 5:10). The man responds that he is only doing what the man who healed him told him to do (5:11). When asked who it was who healed him, the man responds that he does not know (5:12-13).

Later Jesus encounters the healed man in the temple, and then the healed man proceeds to tell the Jewish authorities that it was Jesus who healed him (John 5:14-15). So the authorities begin to persecute Jesus because he has healed on the Sabbath (5:16). When Jesus tells them that he is simply doing the work of his Father (5:17), the Jewish authorities seek all the more to kill Jesus, “because he was not only breaking the Sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God” (5:18).

If ever we are tempted to think that God’s healing depends on the quality or quantity of a person’s faith, this passage offers a strong corrective. The man whom Jesus heals shows no sign of faith in Jesus or of gratitude for what Jesus has done for him. When confronted by the religious authorities about carrying his mat on the Sabbath, he deflects blame to the man who healed him, whose name he has not even bothered to learn. And when he meets Jesus again and learns his name, he immediately tells the authorities the identity of the man they seek. Perhaps the man thinks that if the authorities go after Jesus, they will leave him alone.

The religious authorities are convinced that Jesus is a sinner because he heals on the Sabbath. From the perspective of John’s Gospel, however, unbelief is the fundamental sin; it is rejection of the One sent by God. When Jesus meets the healed man in the temple, he tells him, “See, you have been made well! Do not sin anymore, so that nothing worse happens to you” (John 5:14).

The “sin” that Jesus refers to is the sin of unbelief. There are worse things than being reproached by religious authorities for breaking the Sabbath. If the man persists in his unbelief and indifference to Jesus, he risks incurring the judgment of God, which matters far more than that of the religious authorities.

The man, though made well, seems blind to the power and presence of God in Jesus and more concerned about his standing with those in positions of earthly power. He wastes no time in reporting Jesus’ identity to the authorities, presumably knowing that they will turn their judgment on Jesus. The good that Jesus does is met not with faith or gratitude, but with persecution. Yet Jesus continues doing the life-giving work of his Father, regardless of the consequences.

One might wonder why Jesus chose this particular man to heal out of all the invalids lying around the pool of Bethzatha. It seems like he could have made a better choice! Yet here we see that the compassion and healing power of Jesus are not reserved only for those who are “deserving” — for those whose faith is great and who respond to healing by believing in and following Jesus. Certainly Jesus heals such people also. But here Jesus heals one whose lack of faith leads him to cooperate with those who persecute Jesus, who even seek to kill Jesus (John 5:18).

John’s Gospel does not answer the question of why certain people are healed and others are not. But this passage makes it clear that healing is not a matter of having “enough” faith (as if that could be measured). That is not how Jesus operates. Clearly Jesus does not heal for the benefits to himself in gratitude or praise or devotion. He heals people simply because this is the work of his Father (John 5:17).

After this passage, Jesus goes on to say, “Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing … Indeed, just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomever he wishes” (John 5:19, 21).

John’s Gospel tells us from the beginning that “no one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1:18). The God whom Jesus makes known is a God who does not discriminate in giving good gifts, a God who wills that all may have life, and have it abundantly (10:10).

First Reading

Commentary on Acts 16:9-15

Mitzi J. Smith

According to Acts, first the Holy Spirit and then “the Spirit of Jesus” prevented Paul and Silas from speaking in Asia and from entering Bithynia, respectively, resulting in their arrival in Troas (Acts 16:6-8; cf. 15:40).

It is in Troas (situated in Asia at the shore edge of the Aegean Sea and facing Macedonia), on the opposite side of the Sea, that Paul sees in a vision a Macedonian man (aner); the man summons them to cross over and help them (16:9-10). Convinced by the vision that God had called them to preach good news in Macedonia, without hesitation they cross the border over into Europe (16:10). Luke has constructed the narrative so that the trinity (Holy Spirit, Spirit of Jesus, and God) conspire to get Paul and Silas across the border.

It is important to remember that Silas is traveling with a Jewish man who is also a Roman citizen. Paul will play this card, which carries political and social privileges, later in the narrative. Scholars argue as to whom the “us” in the vision refers; it quite possibly refers to Lydia and her household (Acts 16:13-15) as well as to the jailer and his household (16:27-32). Paul and Silas’s encounter with both result in household conversions. In patriarchal households (male dominated domiciles wherein the father/husband is master/lord [Greek: kurios] over all subordinated members), the subordinate members must submit, with felicity, to the wishes of the master, whether they desires to or not.

Lydia is the head of her household, it appears. She is an independent business woman; we need not assume that she is a widow. Lydia is also a worshiper of God (sebomene ton theon) who leads her household in worship on the Sabbath (Acts 16:13-14). Other Gentile worshipers of Israel’s God in Acts include the Ethiopian eunuch (8:27, 37) and the Roman centurion Cornelius (10:2). Both hear good news in their own contexts and request or submit to baptism.

Paul and Silas arrive in Macedonia and join Lydia’s prayer gathering or synagogue (proseuche) worship by the river, which may or may not be the same location or space as her house. Lydia and her household, we can presume are colonized peoples living in the Roman colony of Macedonia (Acts 16:12). Paul’s status is more complicated; his people, the Jewish people, have been conquered and colonized, but Paul as previously stated is a Roman citizen. He enjoys privileges that Lydia and her family may not, presuming she is not a citizen of the Empire. In his book Jesus and the Disinherited, Howard Thurman aptly wrote that if a Roman soldier pushed Jesus into a ditch, he could not appeal to Caesar; he (unlike Paul) would be just another Jew in the ditch.”1 It is important that we recognize our privilege in relation to others; that we do not use our privilege to further oppress others. It is equally important that we don’t always equate our privilege with special divine favor.

It is as a Jewish male and as a Roman citizen that Paul stands before Lydia’s household to preach the good news. We do not know what Paul preached; we just know that the audience gave him their eager attention and responded as expected by being baptized (Acts 16:14; cf. 2:37-38). However, unlike the mixed crowd at Pentecost, there is no mention of repentance. This absence could be because Lydia and her people are already worshipers of the God of Israel (but not necessarily monotheistic). Perhaps, that which Lydia considers good news is partially demonstrated in Paul’s gracious administration of the baptism ritual without burdensome stipulations.

The absence of any mention of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit may also be an acknowledgment that the Spirit was already operative in Lydia’s life and ministry. In Acts God’s Spirit moves as it choose, inhabits whom it will, and is not confined to a particular routine or pattern. Sometimes the Spirit falls on Gentiles before they are baptized as with Cornelius and his household (Acts 10:44-45). God’s Spirit precedes us; God is omnipresent. God looks upon and hears all people; his attention, power, and compassion are not limited to those who call themselves Israelites or Christians.

God’s Spirit falls upon, fills, moves human beings as and when God desires. Some of us have often heard people say that they don’t feel the Spirit in certain places because the theological rhetoric does not match what they’ve been taught or they disagree with something that is being taught. Our emotions, be they feelings of annoyance or disappointment (cf. Acts 16:16-18), do not determine the Spirit’s presence with others. God’s Spirit is not submissive to our feelings. Our biases against others who worship, speak, look, or live different from ourselves, should not be taken as proof of the Spirit’s absence or presence.

It appears that Lydia wants Paul to view her submission to baptism as proof of her faithfulness to the Lord (kurios), Acts 16:15. Based on her proven faithfulness, she prevails upon Paul to accept her hospitality and visit for a while. We might imagine that during Paul’s stay with Lydia and her household, on some Sabbaths Paul was blessed to hear Lydia preach the good news (16:16a). Everybody needs to hear good news from time-to-time. Quite possibly, Lydia’s hospitality included a mutual sharing of the gospel. Good news is not the spiritual and intellectual property of males only or of a particular religion. And true discipleship or learning involves dialogue, mutuality, and humility. We might see Lydia as a disciple like Tabitha (9:36–43) who has taught her house gathering how to worship God in word and by acts of kindness.


Howard Thurman, Jesus and the disinherited (Boston: Beacon, 1976), 33.


Commentary on Psalm 67

James Limburg

A few weeks ago I was browsing through our local Barnes and Noble bookstore and ran across a thin volume with the title: PRAISE BE TO YOU: Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home (Ignatius: San Francisco, 2015).

I picked up a tall Starbucks and sat down with this Encyclical Letter from Pope Francis. It begins:

In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to You, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with colored flowers and herbs.” (p. 9)

I went to get a second cup of coffee and spent the rest of the afternoon reading the Encyclical.

Psalm 67 in the psalter

This is one of a quartet of psalms labeled “songs,” dedicated to the music director and expressing praise and thanksgiving (Psalms 65-68). Psalm 67 calls for a string orchestra to accompany the song. These psalms frequently mention earth, using the Hebrew word ‘aretz, which occurs in the first verse of the Hebrew Bible. That word occurs in Psalms 65:5,9; 66:1,4; 67:2,6,7; 68:8. God has blessed the whole earth, with its blue rivers and seas, amber grain fields, green pastures, and forests (Psalm 65:9-13; blessed in v. 10). All the peoples of the earth (Psalm 66:1-4) are called to praise for God’s mighty acts among them. Psalm 67 prays for God to continue blessing inhabitants of the whole earth (vv. 2, 7) which means asking God to supply that which the earth produces (vv. 6-7). Psalm 68 (notoriously difficult to understand) speaks of a God-driven earthquake (68:8).

Benediction, blessing, and saving (Psalm 67:1-3)

In a religious context, a benediction is a part of a worship service referring to God’s gifts or blessings, as given to a congregation and a people. The blessing pronounced by Aaron and his sons (Numbers 6:24-26) fits well at the end of a service of worship (see Leviticus 9:22-23) and continues to be used in both Judaism and Christianity:

The LORD bless you and keep you;
The LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
The LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.

This psalm uses the language of that benediction (Psalm 67:1). When the Lord is angry, the Lord hides his face, paying no attention to the people and their prayers (see also Psalms 13:1; 27:9; 30:7). When the Lord shows favor, the Lord turns toward the worshippers with a beaming, smiling face (Psalm 67:1; see also Psalms 4:6; 31:16; 80:3, 7, 19).

The notion of God’s blessing is an especially important one in the Bible, and is often glossed over. Psalm 67:6-7 indicates that blessing means God causing the earth to be productive. This blessing activity of God involves the giving of sunshine and rain, good and seasonable weather, so that the crops grow and the harvest is good. When the earth yields such a harvest, it is an occasion for praise to God, “from whom all blessings flow” as the hymn puts it (vv. 3,5).

This psalm also refers to the saving power of God (v.2). One occasionally sees a bumper sticker on a vehicle declaring “Jesus saves.” I can say “amen” to this slogan but I think it should be balanced by another bumper sticker on the other side of the car saying, “God blesses.” These are the two primary shapes of God’s activity: 1) the dramatic acts of saving or rescuing (the Exodus in the Old Testament, the cross/resurrection in the New) and 2) the quiet, almost unnoticed action of blessing, giving sunshine and rain, good health, the joy of life in a loving family and with friends (throughout the Bible and Luther’s Small Catechism).

Blessing and mission (Psalm 67:4-7)

There is another emphasis in this psalm. In addition to praising God for saving and blessing Israel, there is a robust concern for people of other nations. It is the task of God’s people to bring the Good News about their God to other inhabitants of the planet (v. 2). God’s people are blessed — to be a blessing to other nations (Genesis 12:1-3).

The refrain in vv. 3 and 5 makes the same point. There’s a wideness in God’s mercy that goes beyond God’s people Israel and the Christian church. This psalm says, “Let the peoples praise you, O God,” and then as if to second the motion, the next line repeats the idea and expands it: “let all the peoples praise you.”

In its closing wish that “all the ends of the earth revere him,” Psalm 67 links up with the words of Jesus in Matthew 28:18-20 and Acts 1:8.

Our common home, viewed from the International Space Station

While doing some TV surfing a couple of weeks ago I discovered the NASA channel, making transmissions from the International Space Station. Two of the crew members were demonstrating gymnastics in the weightless environment. They opened a window and there, some 240 miles away, was the earth, our common home.

I could see why it has been called “the blue planet.” Some 80 percent of our planet-home is covered with water. But then I thought about the water pollution in Flint, Michigan and the invasive species in the waters of my home state of Minnesota.

In sum, our planet’s rivers and lakes, meadows and pastures, are no longer as lush as the picture in Psalm 65:9-13. As the Pope’s Encyclical puts it, “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth … ” (p. 23). Our forests and grasslands are disappearing and the songs of millions of species in the rain forests and the oceans are being stilled.

As Psalm 67 concludes: may God continue to bless us (vv. 6,7). And as the Encyclical urges, may we learn to care for our common home.

Second Reading

Commentary on Revelation 21:10, 22—22:5

Micah D. Kiel

The view of the future offered by John of Patmos is beautiful.

The lectionary skips much of the detail, but the New Jerusalem is full of a variety of precious stone and is of impressive scope. This text is one of the primary influences on Christianity’s view of heaven, a place of beauty, peace, and perpetual light that emanates from the lamb.

In recent decades, as our society has become increasingly aware of our ecological crisis, scholars who study the bible have turned their attention to how the Bible has shaped our treatment of the environment. The field of “ecological hermeneutics” asks us to read the Bible in light of our environmental crisis. The vision of the new heaven and the new earth in Revelation is a fascinating text when read through an ecological lens.

For starters, many people, particularly evangelical Christians — those who read Revelation as a literal script for the end of the world — use the new heaven and new earth as an excuse not to care for the environment. Pastor Mark Driscoll is quoted as saying: “I know who made the environment. He’s coming back and he’s going to burn it all up. So yes, I drive an SUV.” This is obviously a drastic statement, but there are probably a good number of people today whose literal reading of Revelation 21 provides just cause not to care about the natural environment.

Although we may recoil from Driscoll’s harsh comments, the exegetical details of Revelation 21 – 22 present the reader with ecological problems. The first two come from earlier in chapter 21, which lies outside our particular text, but they do form a backdrop and introduction. The beginning of chapter 21 contrasts sharply with the end of chapter 20, where Death and Hades are thrown, along with the wicked, into the lake of fire. Once this is accomplished, a new heaven and a new earth descend, for the first heaven and earth had passed away (Revelation 21:1). Then we learn: “the sea was no more.” As someone who has lived most of his life in the central United States, the idea of a lost sea pains me. The sea fuels the imagination and provides a powerful metaphorical resource. More importantly, the sea nurtured early life on earth. For John of Patmos, the end of the sea marks an end to chaos. Eliminating the sea removes the abode of the beast which arose from it in chapter 13, a recapitulation of many sea monsters from the Old Testament, such as that in Daniel 7. In the context of Revelation’s ancient mythology, a sea-less reality makes some sense, but in our modern context, a planet without the sea would make biological processes impossible and weather patterns stagnant. Without the sea there would be no life. The image presented at the beginning of Revelation 21 is not a biologically viable world.

Another problematic text arises in Revelation 21:5. The one seated on the throne announces: “See, I am making all things new” (NRSV). Another possible translation of this verse would be: “See, I make all new things.” Scholars who read with an ecological lens argue strongly for the former reading, the one adopted by the NRSV. It suggests that there is some continuity between the old and the new, and thus it might create a crack into which some ecologically sensitive moral action might seep. While I completely agree with the sentiment behind such a translation, I’m not convinced that John intends such continuity. This new heaven and new earth seem awfully new to me. And if they are, it raises an eschatological problem about care for the planet.

The bulk of the text for this week is a description of the new heaven and new earth. What we find is that the vision is exclusively urban. The future for the righteous is to live in a city, one with 12 gates and built with myriad precious stones. There is one river, and the tree of life that somehow exists on both sides. The tree provides twelve kinds of fruit and its leaves are for the healing of the nations. We are told later that the dogs and wicked are to stay outside the city (Revelation 22:15). This is an urban future, devoid of wilderness, forests, and landscapes. (This ending contrasts with the ending of another ancient apocalyptic text, the Book of Watchers, whose future envisions vast, uncultivated forests and wilderness.)

Finally, the celestial phenomena of our universe are also rendered irrelevant in this new reality. The city does not need a sun or a moon because God is its light, and the lamb is the lamp that shines. Indeed, it will never be night, because this light shines constantly and eternally. This image has no basis in astronomical and physical understandings of how the universe works.

I am being unfair. Of course the Bible does not depict an apocalyptic, eschatological future that is in accordance with the knowledge of modern science. Even more obviously, we are not meant to take these chapters as a literal prediction of how the future will unfold. Nevertheless, these texts pose a problem to modern interpreters who want to study the Bible and its crossover importance with ecology.

From its beginning, Christianity has been beset with an eschatological problem. How do we reconcile a determined and unrealistic future with the need for ethical action in the present? Pope Francis, in his encyclical Laudato Si, struggles with this. In the final section, titled “Beyond the Sun” he, for the first time in the whole work, turns to eschatology and specifically cites Revelation 21: “Even now we are journeying towards the Sabbath of eternity, the new Jerusalem, towards our common home in heaven. Jesus says: ‘I make all things new.’” But a treatise such as this, meant to engender action, can’t leave things there. He adds a final section (244), that starts: “In the meantime, we come together to take charge of this home which has been entrusted to us … ” In some ways, what Francis seems to suggest is we ought not be too encumbered with eschatology. Leave that to God. How God decides to create the future does not remove the need to nurture God’s creation in the present.