Lectionary Commentaries for April 12, 2015
Second Sunday of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 20:19-31

Lance Pape

Easter is supposed to be a season, not a day, but it’s hard to deny the letdown that comes on the Sunday after the Big Event.

At the grocery store, lilies and chocolate eggs have found their way to the discount rack. There are no fancy hats or new clothes this week. All across town there is plenty of good parking at church again. In thousands of ordinary churches, the ordinary faithful gather on no particular Sunday to listen again to the story of Thomas who wouldn’t believe without proof.

It’s the perfect text for the Sunday after Easter. For one thing, the main action of the story takes place exactly one week after that first Easter Sunday (John 20:26). But what truly suits the story to the occasion is the subject matter: on the Sunday after Easter, as countless, colorful unfound eggs lie moldering in their hiding places, even the faithful must come to terms with hidden doubts, and decide if faith is real enough for ordinary time.

Our point man on the Sunday after Easter is a guy named Thomas. We have designated him “Doubting” and given him a bad rap, but the truth is that on the Sunday after Easter he is our go-to guy. We send in Thomas on days like this. For such occasions we call in the hard-nosed skeptic — somebody brash enough to poke around a bit and see if this thing will really hold water.

So when we read that Thomas refuses to believe in resurrection based on mere hearsay — when we hear again his demand for physical proof, we are of two minds, I think. Our proper, church-going, religious selves wag a knowing finger at Thomas. “Shame on you! And you call yourself an apostle!” But another part of us thrills at the words of our champion: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). Yes! Yes, and why not? If it’s true — and we’re not saying it’s not true — but if it is true, why can’t we have proof? We want to see. We want to touch. We want to be there.

If only we had been there when Peter entered the tomb and found it empty except for what? The linen head-wrappings neatly folded and laid aside. What an intriguing detail! If only we had felt our own hearts ignited by the words of the stranger on the road to Emmaus. If only Jesus had been revealed to us that evening in the breaking of the bread. Or the road to Damascus — we would prefer even the road to Damascus to no proof at all. We would have gladly changed places with Saul — endured the dagger thrusts of divine light that stabbed out his sight and cut him loose from the only life he knew. We would be Saul, writhing blind in the dust — his world unmade for now, but all the possibilities of Damascus looming on the horizon. We would gladly endure it, because then, at long last, we would be sure. Or even just to be a face in the crowd — one of the anonymous onlookers when our Lord appeared to more than 500 believers who had gathered in one place, as 1 Corinthians 15 tells us. In short, we understand Thomas perfectly. We, too, want to be there. We want proof. A part of us cheers him on when he sets his terms for belief: “Not unless I see … not unless I touch.” You go, Thomas!

Indeed, this desire for experiential proof is completely normal. The longing for evidence is not the special burden of believers living in an age of science. Thomas was not the only disciple who wouldn’t take someone else’s word for it. Earlier in this very chapter, Mary announced the good news of resurrection to the disciples (John 20:18), and yet when Jesus came to them that evening he found the doors locked in fear, and offered to each of those present the same signs that Thomas would later demand (v. 20).

Proof is what everyone prefers. But we must come to terms with our place in history. God, in God’s manifold wisdom, has not ordained that we should “be there” no matter how sincerely and audaciously we wish it. We live in an age of wonders, no doubt, but when it comes to resurrection faith, ours is not the dispensation of sight.

Instead, God has given us the chance to be blessed according to the last of the beatitudes. “Blessed are the poor,” said Jesus, and yet the least well off among us are wealthy by any realistic historical or global standard. “Blessed are you who hunger,” and yet we are only hungry when we are dieting. “Blessed are the meek,” and yet we can scarcely avoid pride at all that we have achieved. No, this last beatitude may be our best shot at the designation “blessed of God.” Blessed are they who can’t be absolutely sure. Blessed are they who believe the hearsay. Blessed are the eyes of faith that continue in hope despite the frustrations and ambiguities. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29).


First Reading

Commentary on Acts 4:32-35

Troy Troftgruben

The portrayals of Christ-following community in Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-37 raise red flags for many Euro-American readers.

Some liken it to a kind of “Christian communism,” believing that such extensive sharing — so that “everything they owned was held in common” (4:32) — is not only unrealistic, but dangerous.1 These texts are idealistic, but they name facets of the earliest community’s experience, character, and intentions. Whatever happened historically, Luke’s depictions proclaim a message as purposeful as it is provocative, and worth our ongoing deliberation.

I. The literary context: The birth of the church

According to Acts, the early community of Christ-followers arises in response to Pentecost (2:1-41), and thereafter devotes itself to worship, instruction, fellowship, and sharing (vv. 42-45). In Acts 4:4 Luke estimates the community at 5,000 males (cf. 2:41, 47), but Luke’s numerical counts may be hyperbolic for rhetorical impact (cf. 4:16; 17:6; 19:10). Just before the text at hand (4:32-35), Peter and John are examined and released by Jerusalem’s leaders (4:1-22), which inspires the community to pray (vv. 23-31). In doing so, the Holy Spirit fills them so that they speak God’s message “with boldness” (4:31; cf. 4:8, 13).

What follows in Acts 4:32-35 is just as important: the contrasting examples of the generosity of Barnabas (4:36-37) and the deceit of Ananias and Sapphira (5:1-11). The two stories feature opposing reactions to the call to share, and more importantly the acts of opposing forces. Whereas Barnabas’s actions correspond with those inspired by God’s Spirit (cf. 4:31-35, 36-37), those of Ananias and Sapphira are attributed to Satan (5:3). However similar the donations of these paired examples, the narrative aligns their respective generosity and refusal with cosmic forces — which explains the condemnation of the latter couple (5:1-11).

II. The text at hand: “Of one heart and soul”

No other New Testament passage depicts the ideal of sharing with the Christ-following community so vividly:

“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common … There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” (Acts 4:32, 34-35).

Luke’s depiction of communal unity and sharing would certainly have appealed to prevalent virtues in antiquity — whether the principles of historic Israel (“There will be no one in need among you,” Deuteronomy 15:4-11), Greek ideals of friendship (“Among friends everything is common,” Aristotle, Eth. nic. 9.8),2 ideal philosophical communities (e.g., Iamblichus, Life of Pythagoras, 30.167),3 or the practices of hospitality (e.g., Pliny describes one’s possessions as belonging equally to one’s guest, Ep. 1.4.3). In addition, many Christian writings express strong convictions about the importance of sharing material goods, especially on the part of wealthy believers with those in need (2 Corinthians 8-9; 1 Timothy 6:7-10, 17-19; James 2:1-7; Did. 4:5-8). This conviction does not diminish quickly in the ensuing centuries.4 And so, given ancient virtues and Christian convictions, Luke’s audiences likely found the idealism of Acts 4:32-35 more appropriate than surprising. And yet, later instances in the narrative show that such singularity of heart did not mark every chapter of the church’s story (5:1-11; 6:1-7).

Furthermore, the passage notes briefly that “great grace (charis) was upon them all” (4:33b). While the phrase is ambiguous (grace with whom?), a parallel statement in 2:47 (“and having the goodwill [charis] of all the people”) implies in 4:33b the community’s favor with outsiders — very possibly due to their visible generosity.5 The same benevolence seems to enhance the apostles’ testimony, which is given “with great power” ((dunamei megale, v. 33) — language used elsewhere in Acts to describe miraculous signs that inspire faith (8:13). In short, the community’s generosity itself becomes a tangible “sign” that authenticates its message of Jesus.

III. Significance: An embodied witness

The utopian quality of Luke’s vision bars it from being a simple yardstick for measuring all forms of Christian community — a recipe for a host of failing grades. Instead, Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-35 read best not as blueprints for today but as glimpses of dynamic experiences by a community enlivened by God’s Spirit. And so, these texts say less about model church practices and more about the dynamic power of God among believers.

And yet, the jarring features of radical generosity in Acts 4:32-35 should not be dismissed. As Luke Timothy Johnson observes, throughout history the church has far too often been a “sign of wealth rather than of poverty and has aligned itself with the rich and powerful on earth more than the weak and lowly.”6 How the radical sharing of Acts 4:32-35 speaks to our own church cultures is an open question, but certainly practices of “inspired” generosity would lend greater substance to our testimony.

In view of the focus of our Gospel reading (John 20:19-31) on “seeing” and faith, Acts 4:32-35 asks similarly: How might the community of Christ-followers itself be a “sign” that encourages belief? Despite the idealism of Luke’s vision, the narrative’s call for an embodied witness on the part of Jesus’ followers stands. As church, how do we embody the message of Jesus by our life together?


Notes:

1 The phrase “Christian communism” is named by Mark Allan Powell as the opinion of others in What are they Saying About Acts? (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1991), p. 77.

2 Argued by Luke Timothy Johnson, Sharing Possessions: Mandate and Symbol of Faith (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981).

3 So Abraham Malherbe, Social Aspects of Early Christianity (2nd ed.; Eugene, Oreg.: Wipf & Stock, 2003), p. 90.

4 See Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4.13.3; Basil On Avarices; John Chrysostom, Hom. Rom. 7. On this topic, see Charles E. Gutenson, The Right Church: Live Like the First Christians (Nashville: Abingdon, 2012), pp. 81-95.

5 The Greek conjunction gar (‘for,’ not in the NRSV) in v. 34 connects it directly to v. 33b.

6 Johnson, Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church: The Challenge of Luke-Acts to Contemporary Christians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), p. 125.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 133

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Psalm 133 is fourteenth of the fifteen “Songs of Ascents” in Book Five of the Psalter.

These “songs” were most likely sung by pilgrims as they made their way to Jerusalem to celebrate a number of annual religious festivals, including Passover, the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Tabernacles.

In three short verses, the singer of Psalm 133 summarizes the goodness and pleasantness of kindred living together in unity and likens that goodness and pleasantness to two powerful metaphoric images — oil and dew. A number of scholars suggest that Psalm 133 was formed by combining a traditional proverbial or wisdom saying with worship or liturgical images from the life of ancient Israel. The proverbial saying would have gone something like this:

Behold, how very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity.
It is like the precious oil on the head,
     running down upon the beard.

It is like the dew of Hermon.

And the worship additions would have been:

          … on the beard of Aaron

          … which falls on the mountains of Zion.

                   For there the LORD ordained his blessing, life forevermore.

The two simple images of oil and dew, combined with the images of oil on Aaron’s head and dew on Jerusalem, transformed the proverbial saying into a celebration of the goodness and pleasantness of pilgrims coming together in Jerusalem, God’s dwelling place.

In its proverbial setting, the wisdom words of verse 1 — “how good and how pleasant” — recall the exclamation of blessing uttered by a traveler or visitor upon entering the home of another in ancient Israel. The word translated “good” is tob, a word that recalls God’s assessment of creation in Genesis 1. In Genesis 1: 4, 10, 12, 18, and 21, the creation story tells us that “God saw that it was good.” At its conclusion, “God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good (v. 31).” In the Genesis 2 creation story, however, God declares, “It is not good (lo’ tob) for the human to be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner” (2:18). The word “good” in Psalm 133:1 reminds the reader/hearer of God’s provision of community and relatedness for humanity.

The word translated “pleasant” in Psalm 133:1 is na’im. Its meanings include “lovely, good, attractive, friendly, joyous.” It frequently occurs in parallel to “good — tob” (Genesis 49:15; Psalm 147:1; Job 36:11; and Proverbs 24:25). In ancient Israel, extended families lived together in small communities and shared responsibilities that were common to their communities.

Verse 2 compares the goodness of kindred dwelling together to the “good oil” on the head. Although the NRSV translates the word “precious,” here we have the same word, tob, that is used to describe kindred dwelling together. Oil from the olive was an important commodity in the dry environment of the ancient Near East. Olive oil was mixed with sweet-smelling spices and used for hair and skin care. The oil was poured over the head, and, for men, ran down into the beard. A basic act of hospitality when visitors entered the homes of others was to wash the visitors’ feet and pour soothing and refreshing oil upon their heads.

The oil in Psalm 133 is poured upon the head of Aaron, and the oil runs down into his beard and onto the collar of his garments. In Leviticus 8, Moses anoints his brother, Aaron, as high priest of ancient Israel. We read:

Then Moses took the anointing oil and anointed the tabernacle and all that was in it, and consecrated them … He poured some of the anointing oil on Aaron’s head and anointed him, to consecrate him. (Leviticus 8:10, 12)

Verse 3 continues the metaphor of soothing and refreshing moisture. Mt. Hermon, located some 125 miles north of Jerusalem, was known for its abundant dew. And in Palestine, which saw little rainfall between the months of April and October, dew was an important commodity. Without the nightly accumulation of dew, the land would be parched and dry for many months out of the year. In Psalm 133, the dew that soothes and refreshes the land comes down, not on Mt. Hermon, but on Mt. Zion; and Jerusalem, the center of worship for ancient Israel, is soothed and refreshed.

The verse continues with words of confidence that from Zion, where the God of the ancient Israelites dwelled, the people sought and found blessing — barak. The word reverberates throughout the pages of the Hebrew Bible — God says to Abram “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3); after Jacob’s long night of wrestling, we read, “And there he blessed him” (Genesis 32:29); and Moses says to the Israelites in Deuteronomy, “Surely the Lord your God has blessed you in all your undertakings” (Deuteronomy 2:7). The oil and the dew are metaphoric symbols of blessing that celebrate the goodness and pleasantness of those who dwell together in unity.

In its position in the book of Psalms, then, Psalm 133 is a proclamation of delight, sung by pilgrims traveling up to Jerusalem. We have here, I think, a picture of the sincere and simple pleasure of people who are bound together by their covenant with the Lord and who, having come from a great distance, anticipate with joy standing together in the courts of the temple and in sitting down together at the feast table.

The ancient Israelite singers of Psalm 133 would most likely have remembered the proverbial wisdom saying upon which the psalm was based — kindred who dwell together in unity being likened to good oil and dew. They still would have celebrated the joy and goodness of dwelling together as brothers and sisters. But the words of the whole psalm reminded the people that their family relationship was established not by blood, but by their mutual share in the community of God, a community that received blessing from its God. Psalm 133, as one of the Songs of Ascents, prepared the pilgrims coming to Jerusalem to celebrate together as family, as kindred living in oneness, the festivals of the Lord their God. The celebrations of festivals at the Temple in Jerusalem transformed pilgrims coming from different places into a family that for a holy time ate and dwelt together. Psalm 133 was a song of greeting, of anticipation, and of celebration of that holy time.

In the Christian tradition, Psalm 133 is often used as a text for the observance of the Lord’s Supper, which calls the whole people of God to a family table where all are welcome. St. Augustine boldly claimed that Psalm 133 inspired the foundation of monasteries, since its words paint a picture of the ideal of brothers, fellow pilgrims in the faith, dwelling together in unity.

We each have our own “kindredness” based on blood ties, but we also share in a covenant community with God in Jesus. We come from kindred families from different places and times, but our ultimate kindredness is assured through our mutual share in the promises of God.


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 John 1:1—2:2

Nijay Gupta

Sometimes we think of the first century as a kind of “honeymoon” period for early Christianity where the church, led by the Spirit, was the ideal of holiness and unity.

Certainly it would have been an exciting period full of fresh revelation, miracles, and the rapid growth of the church. However, texts like 1 John bear witness to the first century of Christianity also as a time of strife and the splitting of some Christian communities over differences.

We have meager evidence to support theories about what happened to the community that received this letter, but from the text it seems that some dissenters split off due to disagreements especially about the person of Jesus and the nature of the Christian life. These dissenters denied that Jesus was really human. They believed they followed the model of a spiritual Christ. As Christ is “heavenly,” sinless, and wise, so they thought they were as well.

The writer of 1 John (whom we will call “the Elder”) wrote this letter to “set the record straight,” so to speak, about these matters probably with the fear that current members of the community might split off to join the dissenters. What we have in 1 John, though, is not a polemic against these secessionists, but rather a positive appeal to readers to embrace the incarnate Christ and enter into fellowship with Father and Son. While 1 John has not held center stage in doctrinal discussions or even in preaching, this epistle happened to be favored by John Wesley, so much so that he exclaimed: “If the preacher would imitate any part of the oracles of God above all the rest, let it be the first epistle of St John” (Sermons on Several Occasions).

Repeating the old, old story

According to Luke, when Paul went to Athens he was engaged in discussion by Greek philosophers who were interested in his message out of intellectual curiosity because they enjoyed spending time “telling or hearing something new” (Acts 17:21). Perhaps the dissenters of 1 John were also obsessed with new knowledge and special wisdom. And we too are often caught up in “new” — new gadgets, new technology, new TV shows, new cars — new, new, new! If the dissenters’ views resembled what would later be called Gnosticism, they hungered for exclusive, unique knowledge, a privilege for the special few. What makes the beginning of 1 John so clever is how John overturns this obsession with novelty. He opens by writing about Jesus, giving a testimony to the incarnation. But he does this slowly to unwrap his message delicately. Even though he is talking about a who (a person), he commences what “what” (in Greek, simply, ho).

            What was from the beginning

            What we have heard

            What we have seen with our eyes

            What we beheld and our hands handled, concerning the Word of Life

            We declare to you (1:1, 3b)

First, it sounds like he is talking about a message, a Word (logos), because he begins with “what” and not “who.” For those looking for “news” I am sure the readers would be all ears. The “what,” though, is not a fresh, new idea, secret wisdom, esoteric knowledge. This “news” is “old news.” From the beginning. And not only have ears heard it, and eyes have seen it, but it was touched by human hands.

The Greek word used here is not the typical word for touch (apto), but rather is a verb that means something more like “physically examined” (pselaphao). For example, the verb is used in Luke 24:39 in reference to the risen Lord where Jesus himself says, “Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.”

Some may want a special new message from the Elder, but he opens with the old, old story — of a person, a human, Jesus. One cannot know Jesus the risen and reigning Lord without reckoning with the incarnation, the “flesh and bones” of Jesus. If he is Word, we must attend to the words he spoke on earth to us first of all. If he is Life, we must desire to live the life (even now) he opened up for us in his earthly life and death on the cross. Only then can there be fellowship, union, and life together with Father and Son (1 John 1:3).

Sometimes, I think, we become victims of our own terminology. Often we use “spirituality” in a way that may lead us to think that being a Christian requires spiritual transcendence, leaving behind our bodies and this world, and catapulting our souls into a heavenly plane to achieve peace or holiness. But the truth is much simpler than that and is poignantly explained by the German pastor-theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Being a Christian does not add anything to being a human being, but puts our humanity into force.” It is crucial for John also to reinforce the humanity of Jesus to make it clear that Jesus sets a new pattern for human life, one marked by sacrificial love (1 John 3:16).

Jesus the Advocate

John spends much time in this epistle talking about sin. The dissenters apparently denied being sinful, so John reinforced the reality of human sin, even for believers (1 John 1:8). In the western church today, the problem is not so much that believers deny sin, but rather ignore it. “Fulfillment” is the new buzzword. We want Jesus to give us spiritual satisfaction, peace, contentment. These are good things, but John reminds us of the problem of sin — that it decays our life and pollutes our relationship with God. However, it would be taking the opposite extreme to believe sin is unconquerable. Confession (1 John 1:9) clears the pollution, and trust in Christ heals the decay (1 John 2:1-2). Much like the author of Hebrews, the Elder embraces the humanity of Jesus by appeal to his sympathetic advocacy (see Hebrews 4:15). Sin must be recognized and dealt with, but Christ, who was touched in his body by the fallout of our sinfulness, bears on his skin the marks of finding a new way to be human. He is the perfect advocate in his divinity because he alone could defeat sin. He is the perfect advocate in his flesh because his humanity is indelible.