Lectionary Commentaries for May 24, 2015
Day of Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Ginger Barfield

The temptation when preaching Pentecost is to make the sermon a witness to something that happened.

When we do this, we simply retell the story of Acts 2 and reconstruct the account of the Holy Spirit’s coming to the early disciples. Then we describe an event that marked the founding of the church and the enlivening of the early days of the spread of the gospel.

The challenge is to create a narrative for our preaching so that the Pentecost event is made relevant for the present in real and tangible ways. The Gospel of John (GJ) text guides us in some clear ways in how to do so from that context and into our own.

This article will steer our thinking towards understanding what the text reveals about the function of the Spirit. What is to happen when the Spirit comes? Secondly, the article will attempt to challenge us to ponder where and how we see this same activity in our community and in the world today. Jesus did not promise the Spirit as a gift only for the first and second century Christians. The reality of Pentecost is that our world at this moment is God-drenched. It is the Holy Spirit who reveals that.

The ethos of the GJ was marked by two clear groups: those inside the community (those who knew Jesus, who believed) and those outside, the “world,” (those who did not know or believe). The lines of demarcation were exact and unbending.

These verses are part of what we call Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse” to his disciples. Here the gospel writer captures Jesus’ last teaching moments with those who had followed him most closely. Jesus is intent on clarifying with them that he is about to leave this earth and return to the Father in heaven. The incarnation has been Jesus’ descent to earth, and now it is time for Jesus to ascend. He will, however, send the Spirit to them. As Jesus ascends, the Spirit will descend.

What is to happen when the Spirit comes?

The particular relevance of this passage in making our sermons speak to our own contexts is that the text states openly what the function of the Spirit will be. The author of this gospel spells out unmistakably in the words of Jesus to the disciples what the Spirit will do. In what is rather strange for the gospel context, the Spirit is going to bridge the two realms. The Spirit will function both in the community and in the world.

  • For the world (John 16:8-11): The Spirit will bring the world to the recognition of the meaning and reality of sin, righteousness, and judgment. In other words, the Spirit will expose to the outsiders, to those who do not believe, the error of their unbelief. Not to believe is the greatest sin according to GJ, and that sin keeps one outside the community. The Spirit, thus, has the function of continuing to confront the world (outsiders) with the presence of Jesus after his ascension. In this way, the Spirit functions as a witness to Jesus (John 15:26) to the world and to the community, to outsiders and insiders.
  • For the community: The Spirit witnesses concerning Jesus to the community as well as to the world. More significantly for the community specifically, the Spirit will lead them in the way of truth on matters that Jesus has not yet been able to teach them (John 16:13). This is interpreted in 16:14 as “taking what is mine and declaring it to you.” The exciting news in this is that the Spirit will proclaim Jesus’ own teachings in the new and changing circumstances that the community will face when Jesus is gone. The Spirit will interpret what it has heard for the new contexts that the community will come to face. The Spirit will make the teachings of Jesus relevant to each new generation and to each new age.

Where do we see the Spirit functioning in our communities and our world now?

The movement forward in the interpretive process is to articulate directly and to tease from the hearers insights into where and how the Spirit is active today.

  • As I write this article in the middle of January, there are continuing conversations on our campus about the sin of broken relationships between the races. Until events in Missouri, Ohio, and New York, honest conversations about the reality of this sin among us could not happen. Among devastating circumstances we were watching others go through, the Spirit of Truth convicted our community and we began to be vulnerable and open.
  • Just a few days ago, some of our students returned from an inner city cross cultural learning experience in Detroit. Most of them knew about the devastation of the city from news programs and reading about the flight from the city because of the economic downturn. However, when they had the opportunity to walk along side of the poorest of the poor and see first-hand how perilous it is for those who live on the margins, they were guided into the truth. They were also able to see and hear the message of Jesus in new and life-changing ways from the Christian servants who are committed to the residents of Detroit and are testifying to Christ among them. The Spirit is at work.

The demarcation between those who are inside and those who are outside is never quite as precise as the GJ depicts it. The work of the Spirit in the world today helps us to see that. The Spirit bridges the realms of the church and the world and calls us to be alert to this movement back and forth.

Pentecost calls us to recognize the Spirit alive and active not just on a spectacular day in the first century but constantly and always — even now. Where is the Spirit in your community and world?


First Reading

Commentary on Acts 2:1-21

Frank L. Crouch

One challenge of preaching on major festival days such as Christmas, Easter, or Pentecost lies in their familiarity.

If familiarity does not exactly breed contempt, it does tend toward the domestication of scripture’s most unruly, norm-busting stories. Incarnation, resurrection, and the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit upon all flesh find themselves toned down into quiet images of a baby in a manger, a bunny with a basket, and a burning breeze that swept through some distant place in a distant age, leaving perhaps only a trace of its passage among our own people in our own time.

Another part of the challenge lies in how the story has been told. The post-resurrection band of believers has regrouped after the violent crucifixion of their leader and a devastating betrayal by one of their inner circle (Acts 1:15-26). Through the quiet intercession of the Spirit, a replacement for Judas has been selected, and — with decency and order restored among their ranks — they stand ready to bear witness to the gospel and the resurrection. And, ready or not, the Spirit of God visits them and says, “You think resurrection was something? Wait until you see what’s next.”

The history of art and imagination has left us a paltry legacy of depicting the narrative tumult of this story. (Do a Google Image search for “Pentecost” and you’ll see.) Art history mainly leaves us with small, polite tongues of fire dancing through a room or resting as unobtrusively as possible (for fire) upon the heads of people calmly sitting in their places. There seems to be little that would draw a crowd of onlookers or invoke much more of a summation than a simple, “That was weird” before observers turn to what’s next. It’s like a Facebook post or viral video that is quickly forgotten rather than a story whose impact and possibilities endure after 2,000 years.

English translations also underplay the fear-inducing, adrenalin-pumping, wind-tossed, fire-singed, smoke-filled turmoil of that experience. Those who observed this Pentecost visitation from outside the room are described in the NRSV as “bewildered” (v. 6), “amazed and astonished” (v. 7), and “amazed and perplexed” (v. 12). The Greek terms describing their reactions could be appropriately rendered (following the lead of various lexicons) as confused, in an uproar, beside themselves, undone, blown away, thoroughly disoriented, completely uncomprehending. It’s important to release this story from its 2,000 year long domestication. Its connections to some of scripture’s most primal, disorderly, prophetic roots open doors into a liberating, open-ended array of possibilities made possible by the unconstrained Spirit of God.

  • Pentecost as a major festival day did not originate with the Christian church. It was a Jewish festival commemorating the giving of the Law, its occurrence fifty days after Passover corresponding with tradition that Moses received the Ten Commandments fifty days after the Exodus. Acts takes a core story of liberation from slavery and the continuing presence of the God and adds a new dimension of liberation from death (the resurrection) and its continuing impact on individuals and communities of believers who are open to God’s Spirit.
  • Surprisingly, the essential voice for Pentecost in Acts is neither Moses, the lawgiver, nor Jesus, the risen one, but the Spirit. Jesus first appears nine verses into Peter’s sermon interpreting the experience (v. 22), after the end of this pericope. Peter begins with the prophet Joel (v. 16), through whom God spoke — true to the prophetic tradition — in ways that brush aside our human categories, distinctions, and societally-established roles.

If we are used to thinking of any group as a better or more divinely-ordained voice for conveying the plans and purposes of God, God’s Spirit tells us otherwise. All flesh — boys and girls, young and old, free and slaves — whether they be women or men — are graced with the Spirit’s direct connection to the prophecies, visions, and dreams of God (vv. 16-21). This was institutionally unsettling back then and is institutionally resisted today. In this story, God shows no regard for our structures, hierarchies, or status quo. Even the basic, predictable structures of the cosmos are not exempt from whatever God has in store for creation (vv. 19-21). God’s unstoppable drive toward new creation is made visible in the disorienting experience that God’s revelation reaches even deeper than the isolations brought about by human cultures, nationalities, and languages (vv. 5-16). God speaks through our words and actions and does not pause in the face of what we see as insurmountable barriers that actually exist only by our own creation.

  • The wind of Pentecost connects to the accounts of the wind (spirit) of God moving over the abyss before creation (Genesis 1:1-2), driving back the flood in the time of Noah (Genesis 8:1), separating the waters of the sea to let Israel pass through from slavery to freedom (Exodus 14:21-22), and signaling to Elijah that God’s fearsome power is, sometimes, best heard through a still, small voice (1 Kings 19:11-18). The fire of Pentecost connects to the smoking fire pot and flaming torch that sealed the covenant with Abram (Genesis 15:1-17), the burning bush at the call of Moses (Exodus 3:2), the pillar of fire that guided the Israelites through the wilderness (Exodus 13:21), the cleansing fires of Psalms (46:9, 50:6, etc.), and the judging, consuming fires of Elijah and the prophets (1 Kings 18; Isaiah 5:24, 9:2b-7, 29:6; Jeremiah 4:4, 21:12-3; Hosea 8:14; Amos 7:4-5; Micah 3:1-5, etc.).

Taken alone, these images of wind and fire as agents of God’s power, judgment, and purification present a one-dimensional portrait of the divine relationship with creation. Joel’s image cited by Peter includes these elements, which, as noted, have their own unsettling, destabilizing implications that cannot be ignored. At the same time, as Joel and Peter proclaim the unconstrained work of the Spirit within and among all of humanity, they proclaim it with a redemptive purpose that also cannot be ignored: Though “the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day” (v. 21), it stands as a great and glorious day because it heralds the time when “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (v. 21). That day is now. Among all the primal, unconstrained purposes of God, God’s desire for redemption, new creation, and salvation reigns supreme, regardless of any barriers we create that stand in its way.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 104:24-34, 35b

J. Clinton McCann, Jr.

Ecological activist and author Bill McKibben suggests that “environmental devastation stands as the single great crisis of our time, surpassing and encompassing all others.”1

If he is correct or even close to being correct, then Psalm 104 may be more important now than it ever has been in its centuries of existence. In a word, McKibben’s proposal for beginning to move toward solutions for environmental devastation is this: “Humility, first and foremost.”2 McKibben supports his proposal with a careful reading of the Book of Job; but Psalm 104 also supports his proposal, because Psalm 104 puts humankind, as it were, “in its place.” To be sure, biblically speaking, humanity occupies a special place in the created order, but not the only place! Psalm 104 is an eloquent reminder that we human beings share our space with a vast array of God’s “works,” including an “earth … full of your [God’s] creatures [or “creations,” according to the Common English Bible]” (v. 24). Humility is in order!

Creator of All

The lection begins with v. 24, which has been preceded by a poetic cataloguing of some of God’s “works” — the heavens, the clouds, the wind, the waters, the mountains, the valleys, springs, the hills, wild animals, birds, plants, rocks, moon, sun, and finally, “People” (v. 23). It might be possible to conclude that since people occupy the final position in this cataloguing, humanity is the climax of creation (as in Genesis 1). But the context does not seem to support such a conclusion. There is no elaboration upon humanity’s status or vocation — no “image of God” here. Rather, the poem moves immediately in v. 24 to a celebration of the multiplicity of God’s “works.” Humans are one among “all” that God has made. In the cataloguing itself, it is noteworthy that “The trees of the LORD” are mentioned (v. 16), but we hear nothing about “the people of the LORD.” Again, humility is in order!

Valuing Creeping Things and Leviathan

Following the expansive exclamatory celebration of v. 24, attention turns immediately to the sea and “creeping things innumerable” (v. 25). There is still no elaboration upon the human being. While human-made ships are mentioned, we hear nothing about sailors. So again, humility is in order!

Not surprising, given the mention of the sea, is the appearance of Leviathan (v. 26), the mythic sea monster that often symbolizes the threat of chaos. But here, Leviathan’s image has been altered. Leviathan is no threat at all; he just plays in the water. Or, if one renders v. 26b as it could be translated, “and Leviathan that you formed to play with him,” then perhaps God’s image (at least as traditionally understood) has been altered! God is not only a master worker, but also a playful creator. This rendering would suggest perhaps that v. 26b anticipates the psalmist’s request in v. 31b, “may the LORD rejoice in his works.” God really does enjoy the world, the whole creation in all its manifold and majestic fullness. Yes, this includes people; but God also enjoys all those other creatures and features of creation, even Leviathan! Humility is in order!

Provider for and Sustainer of All

As Psalm 104 moves beyond v. 26, God is celebrated not only as creator, but also as provider and sustainer. “Food” and “good things” for “all” (vv. 27-28) derive from God’s beneficent care (see also Ps 145:15-16). Food, of course, is a basic necessity of life; and another basic necessity is in view in vv. 29-30 — air or “breath” (or “spirit,” New Revised Standard Version Bible). Human beings breathe about once every five seconds. On the one hand, respiration (that is, re-spiriting) can be understood as a natural process. But for the psalmist, the breath of life is construed fundamentally as a divine gift. The final line of v. 30 suggests that every breath we take is a new creation! Our existence and the ongoing existence of the world are grounded in God’s commitment to and enjoyment of life. Imagine what difference it might make if we viewed every bite of food we eat and every breath we take not simply as natural processes, but also as gifts. We would be a lot more inclined to gratitude and humility!

Humility, Gratitude, Joy, and Praise

And this is the direction that the psalmist is moving as Psalm 104 concludes. Humility is evident is the psalmist’s desire to please God rather than self (v. 34), as well as in the psalmist’s invitation to his or her self to “Bless the LORD” (v. 35). The word “bless” connotes not just praise, but also submission — that is, a humbling of the self. But praise is present too. The psalmist cannot keep from singing (v. 33), and it is appropriate that the first hallelujah (“Praise the LORD!) in the Book of Psalms concludes Psalm 104. The psalmist’s celebration of life as a gift yields a life characterized by humility, gratitude, joy, and praise.

An Ecological Pentecost

What Psalm 104 may help us contemplate and appreciate is that humility, gratitude, joy, and praise are, properly understood, ecological activities! Or at least, they are the foundation for ecological sensitivity and action, for they motivate us to love and enjoy the creation in all its majesty and multiplicity as much as God loves it and enjoys it. To love and enjoy the world will naturally mean “to serve it and preserve it” (Genesis 2:15, a better translation than NRSV’s “to till it and keep it”).

The use of Psalm 104 on the Day of Pentecost derives largely from the word “spirit” in v. 30, but the connection is deeper than a mere catchword. Rather, it suggests that the ongoing life of the church is a divine gift from the same God who energizes the ongoing life of the world. The theological effect is to inject an explicitly creational dimension into our thinking about the church. The birth of the church meant and means the ongoing existence of a community that knows that it owes its life to God, and that is called to share that good news. The church will be not just in the world, but for the world, including “all” that God has made (v. 24). Perhaps the Day of Pentecost should also be called the church’s Earth Day!


Notes:

1 The Comforting Whirlwind: God, Job and the Scale of Creation (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 2005), 15.

Ibid., 32.


Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 8:22-27

Arland J. Hultgren

The reason that this passage appears in the lectionary at this point is obvious.

It is an epistolary text that speaks of the activities of the Holy Spirit. There are of course other passages that do that, such as those that speak of the gifts of the Spirit (Romans 12:4-8; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; Ephesians 4:1-13). In fact, since it is Pentecost, the lectionary could arguably include a passage on glossolalia (e.g., 1 Corinthians 14:1-25 or portions of it). But actually that would undercut the story of Pentecost itself, which was a communication event for all those present, whereas glossolalia requires interpretation (1 Corinthians 14:1-5, 13, 27-28). Instead we have a passage that sets the work of the Spirit within cosmic redemption, the prayers of believers, and the inner life of the triune God.

The passage fits into a chapter that heralds the good news that those who are in Christ are free from condemnation, as set forth in the very first verse (Romans 8:1). Paul goes on from there in the chapter to write concerning the new life in the Spirit, which is a life under the leadership of that Spirit. But while doing so, Paul also speaks of the solidarity of the believer with Christ, and that is a life that can include suffering (8:17). In fact, he says, the entire creation suffers in the present era (8:18-19), for it was subjected to futility by God (an allusion to the curse of Genesis 3:17) and therefore shares in the fallen state of humanity. But that does not mean for a moment that God has abandoned the creation, for it was subjected by God in hope that in due course it “will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (8:21). Our passage begins with the next verse.

In Romans 8:22-23, Paul uses an interesting, memorable, and striking metaphor. Presently the whole creation, he says, groans in labor pains; its condition is like a woman giving birth to a child. Something is about to happen, an outcome. But for now there is waiting. In God’s own time the entire creation will share what Christians have now — adoption by God and transformation into a new status, redemption. The phase “redemption of our bodies” signifies an eschatological renewal of ourselves in our totality, including our bodily existence.

In Romans 8:23 he says we have the “first fruits of the Spirit.” The Greek term for “first fruits” (aparche) is a cultic one, used in both pagan Greek sources and in the Septuagint (Exodus 23:19; 25:2-3; Leviticus 22:12), referring to either agricultural produce or animals presented to God and consecrated before the rest of a crop or herd could be put to use. In the present context Paul is saying that believers have already the first installment of what is to come. They experience proleptically that which is in store for the entire creation.

In Romans 8:24-25 Paul expands on the situation of the believer. He declares that “in hope we were saved.” This is the only time Paul speaks in his letters of being saved as a past event. But it is possible for him to do so, for God’s saving action in Christ has taken place already. But, to be sure, it is not yet fully realized; its full effects remain a future hope, something not yet seen. And we must wait for that patiently.

The following brief paragraph (Romans 8:26-27) continues the overall theme of the chapter, life in the Spirit, and about prayer in particular. The verses presuppose that believers in Christ, worn down by weakness and the groaning of creation, are spiritually impoverished and are unable to pray in a proper way. Help from the Holy Spirit is needed. But what is striking is what Paul does not go on to say at this place. He does not say that the Spirit empowers us to pray. Instead, he says, the Spirit intercedes for us “with sighs too deep for words” (a more literal translation would be: “with inexpressible groanings”). The intercessions, being inexpressible, are not heard, for they take place within the larger life of God, “who searches the heart” and “knows what is the mind of the Spirit.” The whole emphasis is on God from start to finish. God the Spirit helps us in our spiritual poverty, interceding for those in Christ, and God the Father hears the prayers uttered by the Spirit. There is here an intimation, or at least an anticipation, of a doctrine of the triune God. Later on Paul adds that Christ himself intercedes for the saints (8:34) as well.

This text, in conjunction with the other readings for the day, provides for the preacher and the congregation a wide arena for celebrating the Holy Spirit and its work. First, there is the story of Pentecost, which is the reason for the day and the centerpiece of the readings, even if it is read first. The Psalm (104:24-34, 35b) speaks eloquently of the Spirit in creation and renewal of it. And in the Gospel for the Day (John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15) Jesus promises to send the Spirit (the Advocate), and he says that the Spirit will testify of him and guide the community of believers “into all the truth.” The Second Lesson (Romans 8:22-27) relates most directly to the Psalm in affirming that the Spirit is involved in the renewal of creation, but goes its own way when it takes up the role of the Spirit in prayer. The point should be clear: there is a lot more in the texts for Pentecost than what is told in the second chapter of Acts, even though the drama of Acts is hardly matched by the other readings.

The text from Romans is unique within the New Testament concerning the creation. When biblical texts relating to environmental concerns are sought, the most fruitful place to look is the Old Testament (e.g., Genesis 1:1-2:25; Job 38-39; Psalms 8; 104; 145-147; Joel 1:1-20). But Romans 8 needs to be added to the list as well. There we have one of the most sensitive discussions within all of Scripture concerning the plight of the creation. The creation is in a sorry state. It is groaning, and its groans are like that of a women in labor. That is not all, of course. During her groaning a mother-to-be looks forward with eager anticipation for the delivery to occur. That will mean the end of suffering, and it also means a gift of new life for both her and the child. What is also important in the passage is the clear affirmation that God cares deeply about the creation. God has not abandoned it. And since that is so, the Christian community cannot turn away from it in favor of an apocalyptic rescue operation, ignore it, or destroy it. On the contrary, the Christian community is bound to care for it. Our expectation of a new creation in God’s good time does not negate the importance of the creation we have. We do not seek to escape from the creation; we affirm a common destiny with it. It is our home.

The second paragraph of the reading (Romans 8:26-27) is truly inspiring and can be good news. It is true for most Christians that they do not know how to pray as they ought. The good news is that, regardless of that, the Spirit is also at prayer within the inner life of God, interceding for them. That does not mean that Christians should therefore stop praying and let the Spirit do all the praying for them. Paul assumes that believers will continue to pray, even if their prayers seem inadequate. But even though prayers by believers seem to be halting, and so much is left out, the Spirit is boundless, active, and gracious, picking up where we need help.