Lectionary Commentaries for May 17, 2015
Seventh Sunday of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 17:6-19

Meda Stamper

This week’s text is the middle of Jesus’ prayer for his friends, which brings to a close the extended farewell section of this Gospel (John 13-17).

The lectionary assigns the opening and closing of the prayer to other years of the cycle. This midsection of the prayer begins with a progress report in John 17:6-8, developing the introductory statement of John 17:2-4 about Jesus’ mission in the world. And then it moves into the intercessory prayer of John 17:9-26, with this week’s text ending with John 17:19.

As in John 15:1, where the branches are tended by God, so here God is at work before Jesus begins, and Jesus asks for that work to continue once he is no longer physically present.

The verb give occurs 17 times in this chapter, more by far than in any other chapter of the New Testament. The uses of this verb tell the story of the prayer in nuce: The Father gives Jesus authority over all flesh to give eternal life to all whom God has given him. He has given Jesus work to do, but most of all in the section under consideration this week, it is a question of those whom God has given Jesus from the world. They were first the Father’s own but are now Jesus’ own. Jesus has given them words and indeed the word (logos) that the Father gave to him. But the prayer is about them, the given ones.

The rootedness of Jesus and “his own” (as they are called in John 13:1) in the Father, their given-ness, dominates the prayer. That they have been drawn into the love of Father and Son and into the mission of God in the world is Jesus’ doing, but it is first God’s doing. That this should be so underscores the theological emphasis in a Gospel where we tend to be especially aware of the Christological.

Jesus makes three requests on their behalf in this week’s section of the prayer. The first two are variations on a single request for protection. In John 17:11, Jesus asks that the Holy Father should protect the ones whom he has given Jesus in his (the Father’s) name so that they may be one as the Father and Son are one. The point of the protection is that they should mirror and be drawn into the oneness in love of the Father and Son themselves, as is made even clearer in John 17:21-23, which is not part of this text but is essential for understanding it. They are to be protected so that they may love as they have been commanded to love in a way that not only draws them into union with the divine love but also shows that love to the world into which they are being sent as Jesus has been sent; the previous sending of Jesus and current sending of Jesus’ own is another important theme in the prayer. So Jesus’ own are to be protected not only for their own sakes but also in order to fulfill the mission of love in the world.

The second petition is that the Father should protect them from the evil one (John 17:15), whose activity has been highlighted with respect to Judas (John 13:2, 27), the one Jesus has lost because he was destined to be lost (John 17:12).

Emerging from that second request is the third, that they be sanctified in the truth (John 17:17), further defined as the Father’s word (logos), both of which we know, from John 1:1-18 (logos) and John 14:6 (truth), to be the Son Jesus himself. The word for sanctified is translated hallowed in the Lord’s Prayer; the Father’s name there is to be sanctified, and here Jesus’ own themselves, God’s gift to him, are to be hallowed for God’s purposes. This is bound up with their being sent into the world as earlier, in John 10:36, the Son’s sending has been linked with his sanctification. Jesus’ own are set apart for the logos, God’s self-revealing testimony, God’s act of love in the world.

The emphasis on the world underscores the importance of God’s mission of love. The world, which appears 13 times in these 14 verses, is complicated in John. One could easily be forgiven for seeing it as mostly scary and hate-full; certainly if we don’t notice those things about the world in John, it is because we are not reading the whole of the Gospel but are reading the happy parts and skipping over the difficult ones. However, to read the world as only that is to dismiss the Gospel’s most famous verse (John 3:16!) along with some others or to suggest that the world God loves is something other than the one spoken of as broken and hate-full, and that is surely to underestimate God and God’s love and to misread the whole thrust of this narrative.

If the broken world isn’t the one that is so beloved, then the lifting up of the Son makes no sense. Jesus need not die if he is only in the world for the sake of the people who like him. And Jesus’ own will not be in danger if they are to bear fruit in happy isolation. The reason that they are mirroring the union of the Father and Son and carrying the love of God and Jesus for them into the world that doesn’t know God is precisely that God loves that world and wants it to know that love.

In the center of the prayer (John 17:13) is Jesus’ intention that in hearing the prayer spoken “in the world” where they are being sent even as Jesus is returning to the Father, his own should find his joy made complete in themselves. We saw already in last week’s text Jesus’ intention that his words should issue in joy for his own (see that lectionary commentary for a paragraph on Johannine joy). There it was that they should have joy in his command to them to abide in love; now they are to find joy in overhearing Jesus’ prayer on their behalf for the same thing — that they should be protected for love by the one in whose love they dwell.


First Reading

Commentary on Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

Frank L. Crouch

For well over two centuries (or more correctly, for two or three millennia) scholars, pastors, lay leaders, skeptics, devout believers, and dedicated unbelievers have debated the truth and accuracy of scripture.

Errors, inconsistencies, and contradictions have been alleged, refuted, explained away (sometimes torturously), or accepted. Some see them as evidence that the Bible is not true. Others, as evidence that the Bible’s truth lies deeper than a tallying of facts and errors. Others encounter them as disruptions of their confidence in the Bible as a sacred text that leads to deeper relationship with God.

If persons gathered for worship do not have these philosophical/hermeneutical issues at the forefront of their minds as they enter worship, Acts can quickly bring them forward. As this pericope is read aloud in worship, anyone following along in a Bible or Bible app can easily notice that verses have been omitted (verses 18-20). One glance at Acts’ version of Judas’ death, as told in the omitted verses, leaves some listeners only a hyperlink away from Matthew 27:3-10. There Judas does not fall into a ravine, but, more famously, hangs himself. A measurable percentage of the congregation might wonder why the lectionary sidesteps the matter of two conflicting stories of Judas’ death. Other questions might follow: Acts and Matthew cite different scriptures to back up their accounts, raising questions about the citations themselves. Did David really write those cross-referenced Psalms? Why does Matthew cite Jeremiah when the one reference to buying a field with thirty pieces of silver comes from Zechariah?

Sermons are usually not the best medium for addressing these questions or the presuppositions underlying our interpretations. However, many in the pews puzzle over how to determine the ways that scripture leads us to truth or why inconsistencies or factual accuracy might matter sometimes and not others. If these matters are not best addressed from the pulpit on any given Sunday, it is worth considering when in the course of a year one’s congregation does dedicate time for such questions.

When trusted leaders betray

It seems clear that Judas’ betrayal of Jesus left a deep wound in early Christian communities. One act indelibly marks his name, his history, and the Church’s memory — Judas, the one who betrayed him. The four gospels make that connection twelve times (Matthew 10:4, 26:25. 27:3; Mark 3:19, 14:10; Luke 6:16, 24:48; John 6:71, 12:4, 13:2, 18:2, 18:5). The wound seems especially deep within the Johannine community. All four gospels convey a version of a woman anointing Jesus with expensive perfume (Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, Luke 7:36-50, John 12:1-8). All four report an objection being raised that the perfume was not sold for the poor — raised by “some of those present” in Mark, by the disciples in Matthew, by Simon the Pharisee in Luke, and in John, by “Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him).” Only John adds further commentary, “He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it” (verse 6).

The reason Judas’ betrayal cuts so deep lies in the other way that all four gospels identify him — as “one of the Twelve” (Matthew 10:2-5, 26:47; Mark 3:14-9, 14:10, 20, 43; Luke 6:13-6, 22:3, 47; John 6:70-1). Powerful opponents might have called for Jesus’ execution, Pilate might have sentenced him to death, Roman soldiers might have nailed him to the cross, but they were outsiders. Judas was one of the most inside of the insiders. Our pericope relates a story of Peter, another of the Twelve, helping the community regroup, naming the pain of betrayal: “Judas, who served as guide for those who arrested Jesus … was one of our number and shared in our ministry” (Acts 1:16-7). When Jesus sent out disciples to preach, teach, and heal, Judas was among them. Except for John’s allegation that Judas was both betrayer and embezzler, the gospels offer no mention that, prior to Gethsemane, Judas was any less gifted or effective than any other of the twelve.

So, how do individuals or communities recover when a gifted spiritual leader goes dramatically astray? Does betrayal negate everything else Judas did? If someone in the first century were to look back on a lesson, a teaching, an act of healing performed by Judas, how would they put it into perspective or assess its value, its truth? In our own day, many individuals and communities face the same emotional aftermath following a radical betrayal of trust — anger, grief, confusion, loss of confidence in one’s judgment, or enduring suspicion of other people’s reliability. How can one help them move forward?

One must act carefully when selecting leadership after someone’s actions destroy a community’s sense of identity and integrity. This group knew, first, that they needed to replace Judas with someone with impeccable credentials — one who “accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us” (verses 21-2). This person’s commitment must have remained intact beyond betrayal and death — unlike Judas — into the time of resurrection. Such a one can “become a witness with us to [Jesus’] resurrection” and embody the possibility of resurrection and new life within the community as well. They knew, second, that the replacement must be made after extended prayer involving the whole community (1:14). Prayer offers its own healing, especially for a wounded group seeking restoration. The community that prays together, heals together.

Many communities today would not see the Holy Spirit guiding such a crucial decision through the casting of lots. But the lot is the least important, least required element of their process then or our process now. Whether by lot, interview, or committee vote, the way forward that offers the surest prospect of new life after betrayal focuses on listening and discerning through extended communal prayer, finding people of rich experience and deep integrity, and ending with some sign that this next person is called by God — however a given community makes that determination. The scars left by Judas or others who betray and damage those around them will remain, but they do not need to define or stop a community’s ministry. God will make a way for people of resurrection to rise.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 1

J. Clinton McCann, Jr.

The poets and compilers of the Book of Psalms were clearly in touch with a perennial human issue — happiness.

“Happy” is the very first word in the Psalter, and the repetition of “happy” in Psalm 2:12 provides an envelope-structure for the two psalms that introduce the book. Given this introductory function, it is not surprising that “happy” will occur over twenty more times in the Psalter; and indeed, it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that the whole Book of Psalms offers a commentary on the single word “happy.”

Some 2,500 years or so after the origin of Psalm 1, we are still thinking about and talking about happiness. There has even emerged in relatively recent years an academic discipline within the social sciences called “happiness studies,” and there is now a Journal of Happiness Studies: An Interdisciplinary Forum on Subjective Well-Being. As the word “subjective” in the title of the journal suggests, happiness scholars are interested in what people think and feel about various aspects of their lives — income level, relationships, health, career, and so on. While this approach is interesting and important, it is fundamentally different from the psalmists’ approach to happiness. For the psalmists, the primary subject is not the human being, but rather God! So, happiness is not primarily about what we human beings feel, desire, or accomplish. In short, and in contrast to much of what our society tells us, happiness is not about doing what we want to do. Rather, happiness is about doing what God wants done.

The God-driven life

The repetition of the Hebrew torah in verse 2 reinforces this conclusion. The traditional translation “law” is quite misleading; and in the history of interpretation, it has led to very negative assessments of Psalm 1, which many commentators have construed as legalistic and retributional. But torah does not mean “law.” Rather, it means “teaching” or ‘instruction” (see the Common English Bible’s “Instruction”); and in the broadest sense, it suggests God’s will.

So, Psalm 1 does not mean that happiness can be reduced to a mechanical process of following a set of rules, for which one is duly rewarded. Instead, happiness is a dynamic process that involves — indeed requires — constant meditation (“day and night”) upon God’s will, in order to discern what God would have us do in any and every situation. In short, as Jesus would later summarize the torah, happiness derives from discerning what it means at all times and in all places to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind … And … your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39; see Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18).

The translation “prosper” in verse 3 has also contributed to the misunderstanding of Psalm 1, since it has suggested to many commentators the promise of a reward for obedience — even a material reward, since “prosper” in English almost inevitably connotes money or material wealth. A better translation is “thrives” (Jewish Publication Society Bible). If there is a reward involved, that reward is the stability and strength derived from connectedness to God that offers the opportunity to grow and bear fruit. This understanding of reward is, of course, not tied to a retributional system (or a retributional God).

In a similar direction, verses 4-5 do not portray a retributional system whereby God punishes “the wicked.” Rather, by their own choice, “the wicked” separate themselves from God. Verse 5 could be translated, “The wicked do not stand up for justice.” Why? Because, unlike “the righteous,” they do not attend to God’s torah. In other words, God does not exclude “the wicked” from “the congregation of the righteous.” Rather, “the wicked” choose not to be there. To be sure, one may conclude that the consequences of this choice are “punishing.” But if so, this is not a punishment that God intends.

The choice is ours

In the final analysis, Psalm 1 invites a choice — our choice. There are clearly two ways. Note the repetition of “way” in verse 6, and see also “path” in verse 1 and “way” in Psalm 2:12. The contrasting ways yield sharply different consequences that are emphasized by the first and last words of the psalm — “Happy” and “perish.” “Happy” begins with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and “perish” begins with the final letter. The rhetorical style emphasizes the comprehensiveness of the choice. Will we choose God’s way, which promises life? Or will we choose to go our own way, which promises death?

Can we be more specific? Are there guidelines or criteria to assess whether we are genuinely choosing and following God’s way? Yes! In fact, two key Hebrew roots in Psalm 1 are suggestive in this regard — the roots underlying “justice” (New Revised Standard Version Bible “judgment”) and “righteous.” These two roots constitute a summary of what God wills; and it is likely that the introductory Psalm 1 intentionally anticipates what many scholars consider to be the theological heart of the Psalter — that is, the enthronement psalms (Psalms 93, 95-99). The core-psalms of this collection (Psalms 96-99) all mention “justice” and “righteousness.” Psalms 96 and 98 even say that God “is coming (a Hebrew participle indicating continuous action in the present into the future) to establish justice on the earth … with righteousness” (my translation; see also the Common English Bible). Other key psalms, especially Psalms 72 and 82, also feature “justice” and “righteousness” as basic articulations of God’s will, defining them as attendance to and provision for the poor, the weak, and the needy.

If there is a law involved, it is the law of love (see Romans 13:8-10). The promise of Psalm 1, reinforced by Jesus and Paul, is that the God-directed and neighbor-oriented way is the most rewarding and happiness-producing life possible. The choice is ours.

By the way, in Johannine terms, this way would be called “eternal life” (see 1 John 5:11, the Epistle for the day), a life characterized by loving one another, “because love is from God … for God is love” (1 John 4:7-8, the Epistle for the Fifth Sunday of Easter).


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 John 5:9-13

Nijay Gupta

First John, in some ways, is like a commentary on the meaning of the Fourth Gospel, but in other ways it is like a catechism.

For example, the Elder1 likes to raise questions that his readers are struggling with and then he answers them carefully and concisely. In chapter five, the Elder focuses his attention on the person of Jesus as Son of God and giver of life. In order to make full sense of this chapter, the reader should notice the frequent use of testimonial language. The Elder treats the truth of Jesus as if it is on trial and he must make his case and invite the proper witnesses.

The lectionary reading focuses on 1 John 5:9-13, but the epistolary section begins with 1 John 5:6-8: “This [Son of God] is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth. There are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood, and these three agree.”

Many Johannine scholars agree that the Elder, a leader of a certain Johannine community, is addressing the statements of certain dissenters who are throwing his readers into confusion. It is clear enough that, here in 1 John 5:6-8, there is some controversy over whether Jesus Christ came by water (referring to his unique Spirit-endowment for ministry and Sonship at his baptism) alone, or whether also by his blood (no doubt a metonym pointing to his crucifixion). It is possible these dissenters had certain gnostic tendencies whereby they prioritized the spirituality, heavenliness, and divinity of Jesus, and denied or downplayed what was related to his mortality, suffering, human shame, and death. In such a case, the Elder was affirming to his community the centrality of Jesus’ fully human life and his real human death.

In order to appreciate just how controversial this would be in the first century, we must understand two things. Firstly, the anticipated Jewish “messiah” was expected to be a triumphal figure, an invincible superhero for his people. How could such a man be “bested” by his enemies? Secondly, it made a huge difference how Jesus-the-messiah died. If he died nobly in battle, at least he would be remembered for his bravery. But crucifixion was the absolute worst way to die. The Romans did not invent crucifixion, but they perfected its effects — it was the single most powerful way to obliterate someone’s dignity and honor. No wonder Jews found it to be a stumbling block and scandal to think of a crucified messiah (1 Corinthians 1:23).

But the Elder does not shy away from attributing to “the blood” the ultimate importance. In 1 John 5:5, the Elder asks, who is it that overcomes the world? The dissenters may have answered that it is “God,” or perhaps even “the Son of God.” The Elder wants to place emphasis in his letter on Jesus Christ whose blood was shed. The question and answer, put in that way, introduces a paradox. How do you normally overcome an enemy? By force, of course. By power, by superior weapons of war, by will to dominate. The Elder offers his surprising answer: by the cross. The cross is victory. There is power in the blood.

Huh?

This would prove to be a hard lesson for many Christians in the first century. It required such backward thinking to see power and victory in the death of Jesus. What Christians eventually came to realize is that the cross was not a failure on the part of Jesus. As Paul reminds us in Philippians 2:5-11, Jesus chose his own path in full obedience to God, humbling himself, taking on the form of a slave, and his unswerving obedience led to the cross.

It might seem strange to feature a lectionary text on “the blood” during the season of Easter, but in fact it ought to be a reminder that when we move from “Good Friday” to “Easter Sunday” we do not leave the cross behind as if the resurrection erases it. The cross was not a mistake covered over by the resurrection. The testimony of the apostles teaches us that the cross was the climax of Jesus’ obedience to God the Father and his full love for the world. While his sacrifice was pervasively labeled as shame and degradation by the world, when God raised Jesus up from the realm of the dead, He placed His own stamp of approval on Jesus’ gift of his life. The resurrection does not replace the cross of Christ, it shines a spotlight on the cross to broadcast the victory of God to the world.

Today, it is not as common to hear Christians deny the humanity of Jesus, or to scorn his death. But problems with a similar misunderstanding of the way of Jesus appear in every generation. To give a recent example, in April of 2014, a woman in North Carolina called the police having noticed a homeless man sleeping on a bench outside of a church that she drives by on the way home from work. The woman and the police discovered that this “homeless man” was actually a statue of a humble Jesus, commissioned by the church and sculpted by Catholic artist Timothy Schmalz.

The woman was scandalized by this statue, finding it an offensive portrayal of Jesus: “Jesus is not a vagrant, Jesus is not a helpless person who needs our help,” she told reporters. This woman’s voice, I think, has echoed through the ages as someone who wants to claim a supernatural Jesus to the exclusion of the man of the cross. His own did not receive him (John 1:11). He needed help from others (Matthew 4:11). He had no place to lay his head (Matthew 8:20). His lifeless body was taken down from the cross (Luke 23:53). He was crucified in weakness …

… But lives by the power of God. For we are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God (2 Corinthians 13:4).


Notes:

1 The author of 1 John is conventionally called “the Elder” in scholarship.