Lectionary Commentaries for October 26, 2014
Reformation Day

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 8:31-36

Emerson Powery

The concept of freedom is one of the most valued and debated ideas in Western democracies.

It is central to contemporary debates surrounding voting rights, freedom of speech, a woman’s right to choose, gun laws and multiple other issues. Because the United States is commonly referred to as the “land of the free” governed by its citizens, the language of freedom within the fourth Gospel resonates with Western, Christian ideas about spirituality and faith.

It is one reason why the Gospel of John has become so popular, arguably, the most popular canonical Gospel in the West. Yet, Jesus’ language of freedom couldn’t be more distinct from contemporary notions of freedom than the ancient, first-century practice of slavery is, now, distinct from our post-Civil War and post-Civil rights era.       

This was a dialogue between Jesus and some of his fellow Jewish followers in Jerusalem. What it meant to be a descendant of Abraham took center stage, a common motif among early Jewish Christian followers of Jesus (cf. Matthew 3:9//Luke 3:8; Galatians 3:16). “For not all Israelites truly belong to Israel,” as Paul put it (cf. Romans 9:6-8).

Yet, some still recognized the significance ties to Abraham’s lineage as well: “For it is clear that he (i.e., Jesus) did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham” (Hebrews 2:16; cf. Luke 1:54; Acts 3:25; 13:26). And, even Paul will boast in his attachment to Abraham, when comparing his missionary activity to that of others: “Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I” (2 Corinthians 11:22).

But the Jesus of the fourth Gospel took the discussion of Abraham’s ancestry to another level. In this account, some became believers in Jesus because of what he was teaching (8:31). Following the teaching of the Johannine Jesus would lead to “truth,” which in turn would lead to “freedom” (cf. 8:32).

Although this section began well (since many Jews believed), it didn’t end well; instead Jesus challenged whether Abraham or God was their father. Shockingly, he concluded that the devil was their father (8:44), primarily because of their opposition to his teaching. This may imply what Jesus stated earlier that he would not entrust himself to Jerusalem believers because he knew them well (cf. 2:23-24).

Belief in Jesus is key in the FG (cf. 8:24), and the lack of this kind of belief is what makes one a “sinner” (cf. 8:24). Indeed, one could argue that “belief” was the fundamental theme of the Gospel of John. The verb, “to trust” or “to believe,” occurs almost one hundred times and “to believe (in) Jesus” frames the entire narrative. John the Baptist came as a witness to Jesus, so that people might “believe through” Jesus (cf. 1:7) and those who did so would become God’s children (cf. 1:12).

And, the ending summarized the author’s intentions in writing this account: “these are written so that you may come to believe (or, continue believing) that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (20:31).

Believing (in) Jesus was just the beginning point. Abiding in the truth of Jesus’ teaching was key (cf. 8:32). Truth (from the Greek word aletheia) is a common word in the fourth Gospel, occurring twenty-five times; in total, it appears only seven times in the Synoptic Gospels combined. In John, it referred to Jesus’ teaching, Jesus himself (14:6), and what the Spirit would continue to teach as well (16:13).

Christ, the logos, is “full of truth” (1:14, 17), a truth — in the Johannine world — that was juxtaposed with the Law (cf. 1:17). To be sure, unlike the Synoptic Gospel Jesus, the Johannine Jesus was not a law-abiding Jew. The Johannine community began the difficult task of distinguishing themselves from their Jewish neighbors by removing Jesus from his Jewish context and de-emphasizing his Jewish prophetic role.

In chapter 8, there is a concentration of “truth” language. Continuing in Jesus’ teaching leads to truth (8:32), a truth that Jesus “heard from God” (8:40), and would be followed by the true children of Abraham (8:39). Furthermore, Jesus’ testimony to truth was the primary reason he came into the world (18:37), to teach the truth that will lead to freedom (8:32), and will make people holy (cf. 17:17, 19). According to John, Jesus is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (14:6). The teaching about the kingdom of God — central to Jesus’ mission and teaching in the Synoptic portrayals — is basically absent from the fourth Gospel (cf. John 3:3, 5; 18:36 [3x]).

Our passage was situated in the middle of a series of teachings within the temple area (cf. 8:20). The Pharisees, who were associated with the temple (cf. 7:32) questioned Jesus’ self­-testimony (cf. 8:13). Jesus responded by discussing his intimate relationship with God. Others believed him because of his teaching (cf. 8:30). As a side-note, the narrator implied that Jesus could be arrested for this type of discussion (cf. 8:20). Jesus claimed that he and God shared the same thoughts (cf. 8:16, 18), which explained why he spoke only what God told him to say (cf. 8:26, 28).

Following our passage under discussion is a continuation of Jesus’ challenge to the people’s ties to Abraham. In 8:37, there’s a significant shift: how could these believing Jews (cf. 8:31) also be the ones attempting to kill Jesus? Strikingly, Jesus began to question their loyalty (cf. 2:23-24). Jesus reinterpreted what ancestry in Abraham’s family meant. It was about proper actions (8:39), which, for Jesus, meant following his teaching. True children of God would follow Jesus (8:42, 47). If they did not obey Jesus, this proved that they were children of the “devil” (8:44), who blocked them from hearing and following Jesus.

Then, John’s Jesus elevated himself above Abraham and created more distance between himself and the children of Abraham (8:56-59): “before Abraham was, I am” (8:58). This, too, moves us beyond the theological tradition of the Synoptic Gospels. So, the temple leaders — those the fourth gospel labeled as “the Jews” — attempted to stone him (8:59).

It is worth taking note of the language of “the Jews” within the fourth Gospel, a rhetorical feature distinctive to this canonical Gospel. The reference occurred seventy-one times in John. The author used the term as a generic rhetorical reference for Jesus’ opposition (e.g., 8:22, 52). In the last reference in the Gospel, the narrator left us with this statement: “the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews” (20:19). In the section surrounding our passage, we find the following statements:

  • The “Jews” wanted to kill him (cf. 7:1);
  • The crowds “feared the Jews,” so they kept their belief in Jesus to themselves (cf. 7:13; 9:22);
  • The “Jews” thought Jesus had a “demon” (8:49, 52); basically, Jesus thought the same thing about them (cf. 8:44);

While the NRSV fairly consistently translates the Greek term, Ioudaioi, as “Jews,” some English translations attempt alternatives based on literary contexts. For example, the Common English Bible uses “Jewish leaders” for the term in 8:22, probably in light of the temple setting and the Pharisees’ question (cf. 8:13). In addition, the CEB uses “Jewish opposition” in 8:49 and 8:52, as a way to distinguish this group from the Jews who were part of Jesus’ group.

But the Greek — like the NRSV — maintains an ambiguous generic label without adjectival qualifiers. For close readers of the story, it should not be overlooked that Jesus and his disciples were Jews as well, which the FG specifically recognized about Jesus himself (cf. 4:9)! And, even here, at 8:31, many Jews also believed in Jesus. This type of rhetoric informs us more about the antagonism the Johannine Christian community experienced during the author’s day than about the lifetime of Jesus.         

On the one hand, this is a story about the freedom attached to believing in Jesus. On the other hand, this is also a story about the way to depict one’s belief in Jesus over against those who choose not to follow. Granted, the tension between the early Jewish Christian community and their Jewish neighbors was high, but we should not transfer this Gospel’s rhetorically negative depiction of the other to our contemporary setting.

Does the freedom we find in Christ allow us to abuse and ridicule the “freedom” others have to make their own religious choices? How many of us are Christian today because of family upbringing and tradition and not simply due to individual choice? Simply because our Jewish, Muslim, and non-religious neighbors do not choose to follow Jesus (or, our version of that message) does not make them the “children of the devil”? Nor should our depictions of their lives display such rhetorical flourishes. Our use of John’s Jesus must somehow find a way to pass along a broader message of the truth that makes us all free.

First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 31:31-34

Anathea Portier-Young

Reformation Sunday draws our attention to God’s ongoing work of renewal in the church, to the unmerited gift of divine grace that cannot be bought or sold, and to a history of courageous response to that free gift, embodied in reformers who have been willing to challenge abuses within the body of Christ. 

Jeremiah’s declaration of God’s renewed covenant, enfleshed within the very guts of God’s people and written on their hearts, surprises with visceral and vital imagery of intimate knowing and belonging.

God says: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer 31:33). What will it mean for the people of God to carry the law within their bodies? God’s own will and teaching will become their electromagnetic signature, radiating from within, setting the rhythm for all that they do.

What do we know about our hearts? We know that with each heartbeat blood courses through our bodies, delivering to each cell and organ the nutrients and oxygen they need to thrive. With each beat blood returns to the heart, so that it may be pumped through the lungs to be filled with oxygen once more. The heart’s beating is the pulse of life within us.

The ancient Israelites understood the heart as a faculty. They knew the heart as the seat of will (Jeremiah 7:24), invention (Jeremiah 14:14), reasoning, discernment, and judgment. In 1 Kings, when Solomon asks God for “an understanding mind … able to discern between good and evil” (1 Kings 3:9 NRSV), he has requested, in the first phrase, “a hearing heart” (lev shomea’ 1 Kings 3:9). Later, God’s gift to Solomon is described as “very great wisdom, discernment, and breadth of understanding” (1 Kings 4:29 NRSV). In Hebrew, the last phrase is rechov lev: “wideness of heart.”

These metaphors emphasize the capacity to receive, respond, grow, and hold a wisdom that only God can give.

Perhaps the people of Israel and Judah felt the heart quicken with insight or resolve, seize with worry, settle with peace, and deduced from these sensations that this beating organ was bound up in human thought, awareness, memory (e.g., Jeremiah 3:16, 28:50), and decision-making.

They also understood the heart’s powerful link to emotion. Earlier in the book of Jeremiah, his prophetic word exploded from the painful awareness of his heart’s response to the distress of his people: “My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain! Oh, the walls of my heart! My heart is beating wildly; I cannot keep silent; for I hear the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war” (Jeremiah 4:19 NRSV). On another occasion the prophet declared that he ate God’s words and they became the delight of his heart (15:16); later still, Jeremiah confesses that God’s word rages in his heart like a fire (20:9).

Indeed “heart” (Hebrew lev and levav) is a word that Jeremiah uses again and again — 65 times in all, more frequently than does any book of the Hebrew Bible apart from Psalms and Proverbs. This prominence highlights an important theme in Jeremiah, namely the embodied awareness, thoughts, disposition, choices, and actions of God’s people. Their hearts embody their intentions (5:24), guilt (Jeremiah 17:1), and punishment (4:18).

When God will write God’s law upon the hearts of the people, their hearts will embody and empower the true relationship they share with God and one another. This relationship will be characterized by a deep and abiding knowledge of God’s will and by an intimacy that defines each in relation to the other.

This interior and intimate knowledge of God does not shift the focus from community to individual. Rather, it unites and renews the community as God’s people. They are still bound in covenant with God precisely as a people, as a community sharing past, present, and future. Within the biblical canon, God’s promise to be the God of Abraham’s children is first articulated in Genesis (17:8).

Here, too, the context is covenant. God’s promise accompanies the command that, through circumcision, the male members of Abraham’s household will incise this covenant in their flesh. This focus on shared, embodied obedience helps us to recognize, on Reformation Sunday, the corporeal and corporate dimensions of the renewed covenant God promises in Jeremiah 31:31-34.

In her book, The Body, Lisa Blackman summarizes insights of anthropologist AnneMarie Mol on the ways our bodies extend beyond our perceived self:

…the body is not bounded by the skin, where we understand the skin to be a kind of container for the self, but rather our bodies always extend and connect to other bodies, human and non-human, to practices, techniques, technologies and objects which produce different kinds of bodies and different ways, arguably, of enacting what it means to be human.1

This understanding of the body as interconnected, extending beyond perceptible boundaries of skin, helps us to understand how the interior transformation God promises is not bounded by its location. The heart’s law is not a private matter. The new, or perhaps more accurately, renewed, covenant God promises joins God’s people not only to God, but also to one another.

Even as we anticipate and live into this renewal, Reformation Sunday also invites attention to persisting divisions within the body of Christ. Ancient Israel knew division as well. First Kings reports that, after Solomon’s death, his son’s abusive and exploitative rule led the united kingdom of Israel to split, resulting in two nations: ten northern tribes, called Israel, and two southern tribes, called Judah (1 Kings 12).

Now centuries later, long after the northern kingdom had fallen and in anticipation of the southern kingdom’s demise, God promises through Jeremiah to make a new covenant with Israel and Judah together (31:31). Placing the law within God’s people creates condition for unity, as God later declares: “I will give them one heart and one way” (Jeremiah 32:38). This unity is a gift from God’s own heart and life: God promises to plant God’s people in faithfulness, “with all my heart and all my soul” (32:41).


Lisa Blackman, The Body (Oxford: Berg, 2008), 1, citing AnneMarie Mol, The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002).


Commentary on Psalm 46

James Limburg

This Reformation Sunday is a time to ask whether the church, and by this I mean the whole Christian Church on earth, needs to have a big rummage sale.

I’m not talking about a literal rummage sale where people bring used clothing, tools, and vehicles to sell and give the proceeds to the poor. I’m talking about a “metaphorical” rummage sale, which would mean getting rid of excess spending, excessive trappings and personnel and wasteful practices all around.

One student of the religious scene suggests that the Church needs to have such a rummage sale, call it a re-formation, every 500 years. The last such cleanup was set off in 1517, when a monk in the German university town of Wittenberg nailed 95 suggestions for improvement on the door of the church there. These statements said, essentially: our Church is in bad shape. We need to get rid of some of the junk. We need to have a big rummage sale.” And the cleanup got going and the whole world changed. This was the Reformation, which began almost 500 years ago, in 1517.

Just a couple of years ago now my wife Martha and I visited Germany. We had heard from a former student, now a pastor in Germany, that the protestant church there was planning for a big” rummage sale” and celebration for the year 2017 — that’s 500 years after Martin Luther nailed up those 95 suggestions on the church door. So we visited with our friend at the headquarters of the German Protestant Church (EKD) in Hannover. Her full-time job these years is to help get ready for the celebration in 2017.

In fact the German protestant church has called this the “Reformation Decade” which began in 2007. The symbol (which we saw all over Germany) is a huge poster of Luther — wearing headphones with a cord running down to an electronic device, symbolizing that the church has to get “plugged in” to the modern age. So we join believers in Germany and all over the world as we read Psalm 46 today, and as we sing the hymn based on that psalm, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

Psalm 46 divides into three sections, each developing the theme of God as “refuge and strength,” or, in a word, as Fortress. Each section ends with selah indicating a pause. The last two sections end with a refrain in verses 7 and 11; a similar refrain may have once concluded the first section, after verse 3.

God as a Fortress against the threats of nature (verses 1-3). The dominant theme of the psalm is trust in God, first sounded in verse 1, “God is our refuge and strength.” The same word refuge occurs in Psalm 104:18, referring to a place where small animals may find safety. In Isaiah 25:4 the same Hebrew word denotes a shelter from the rainstorm; in Isaiah 4:6 it is a refuge from the storm and rain.

If “refuge” refers to a place where one may find safety and security, “help” has a more active sense, identifying God as one who takes action to assist those in trouble. Verses 2 and 3 indicate that God’s people need not fear the worst that nature can hurl at them, whether it be earthquakes or floods. Because no matter what, God will be with them.  

God as a Fortress against the threats of the nations (verses 4-7). This second stanza deals with attacks from hostile nations. God gives humans freedom, even the freedom to carry on wars. And how does God rescue people from such events? Through the men and women of armed services, through the United Nations, God works “to make wars cease” and bring about peace.

God and the stillness after a war (verses 8-9). After the roaring of the sea and the warring of the nations, the psalm portrays a time of quiet. The wars have come to an end. Programs of disarmament have been carried out and the battlefields have been cleared. A voice says “Be still and know that I am God.” The nations quit their battling and the earth stops its quaking. The psalm ends with the congregation joining in the refrain a final time: “The Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge.”

This doubled “with us” marks this as a psalm of trust. The same thing is expressed on an individual level in another famous Psalm of Trust: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley I will fear no evil, for you are with me” (Psalm 23).

Let’s be clear. These psalms are realistic. They do not promise that we as God’s people will be free from the ravages of nature or of war or of individual suffering. But they do promise that we will not have to go through these things alone. “The LORD of hosts is with us … ” and “for you are with me.” Both psalms have the same “with” language which bind believers to a loving God.

On the tower at the top of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany, the words of Psalm 46 are printed in huge letters: EIN FESTE BURG IST UNSER GOTT (translated, “A MIGHTY FORTRESS IS OUR GOD.”)

Psalms 46 and its numerical half Psalm 23 are psalms to which believers always turn when the going is the toughest. Luther knew that when he wrote in the last stanza of his hymn:

Were they to take our house,

Goods, honor, child or spouse

Though life be wrenched away

They cannot win the day.

The Kingdom’s ours forever.

Remember the refrain, “The Lord of Hosts is with us.” No matter what deep and dark valleys you may have to go through this week, don’t be afraid. Because you can say to God, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” And that’s a promise you can count on.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 3:19-28

Kyle Fever

This is one of the more theologically loaded passages in the New Testament.

Many Christians, and Lutherans especially, derive from this passage a foundational element of belief: justification comes through faith in Christ apart from the law. Luther called this passage “the chief point, and the very central place of the epistle, and of the whole Bible.”1 Indeed, many Christians today hear or read this passage with the familiarity of comfortable clothes. And let’s face it, when most pastors preach on it, the sermon often sings a predictable tune. Because of its acquired centrality, it is difficult to read or preach this passage in new ways. One might even ask, “Do we need to hear a passage anew when we’ve already got a solid understanding of it?”

To paraphrase Indigo Montoya’s famous statement from the movie The Princess Bride, “(This passage may not) mean what you think it means.” It’s not that we might be off the mark (though we should always be attentive to this reality). It’s that we shouldn’t get too comfortable. Most commentators readily acknowledge the interpretive difficulty of this passage. Ernst Käsemann conceded that this is “one of the most obscure and difficult (passages) in the whole epistle.”2 Any perusal of commentaries, articles, and exegetical studies shows that nearly every statement in this short passage raises unavoidable exegetical and interpretive questions around issues of significant theological weight. And it is no secret (or it certainly should not be!) that we have witnessed over the past thirty-five years in New Testament scholarship (and even in more general theological scholarship) significant rethinking of the concept of justification by faith. All of this holds the potential effect of throwing one’s theological framework(s) rooted in this passage into a tailspin. It’s not that this passage does not centrally pertain to justification or Christ’s atoning death. It’s that we cannot so comfortably stand on what we have thought these things mean. It is only fitting that such an important and even familiar passage in Paul’s letters is equally untamable, isn’t it?3

Perhaps one of the most important points about this passage, even if unintended and the result of time and distance from Paul and his audience, is this: we are never far from misunderstanding or misusing even what seems to be the central statement of God’s redemption in Jesus Christ. All too often we stand upon our traditions and theological frameworks to define God and God’s activity. Throughout Scripture God has constantly been showing God’s people the inadequacy of doing this.

It is helpful to recall some general points about the letter (though these are disputed). Reading Romans as Paul’s great systematic theology of the gospel, abstracted from real life issues, have been shown unsatisfactory. Paul is likely dealing with a community with some stress fractures. At root of the tension in the Roman community/-ies seems to be the issue of where “righteousness” or “justification” is found. And remember, this is a community of believers; the issue does not pertain to how one gets saved, but how the community in Christ should get along. In Rome, one system of understanding is being privileged over another. Genuine Christlike love and acceptance of one another is lacking (Romans 14:10-19).

As in Galatians, Paul’s argument contrasts Jesus Christ and the Jewish law. Note that the alternative is not “doing” or “works” simpliciter. It is “works of the (Jewish) law.” Paul faces a common perspective that holds the Jewish law as the supreme revelation of God’s justice (righteousness) and what God has outlined for human life. It was also framed in terms of what the Jewish people did, as opposed to the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, etc. Paul is not opposing works understood universally, as if the Jews were trying to earn their salvation. Paul opposes the imposition of a particular way of living (in this case defined by the Jewish Torah). He opposes the demand that living according to this law — being part of the people who live this way and not some other (i.e. Greek, Roman, etc.) — made one just. This is causing division in the community in Rome because if “justification” or “righteousness” is through participation in the Jewish system, then Gentile believers are on the outside until they conform. They remain the “them” — even within the body of Christ.

But, for Paul, human sin made humans incapable of being just according to that system of evaluation. Being part of God’s historic people Israel — living according to their covenant — made no difference in relation to the quest for being just before God. No boasting could be made. So it was also wrong to define humanity along these lines — wrong for ethnic Jews within the community of faith to think they have the upper hand over ethnic Gentiles because of their way of living in accordance with God’s law; wrong for ethnic Gentiles to think that they are superior because they are free from law. No human narrative of living could have the upper hand. God’s “justice” has been revealed now in Christ, fulfilling the law, demolishing the quest for the superior narrative, and reconciling humanity. Because of this, evaluation of another’s standing before God on the basis of anything other than God’s revelation in Christ cannot take place. We are made just on the basis of God’s revelation that is apart from the system of the law.

This passage challenges not just “works of the law” understood theoretically. It also fundamentally challenges the effects of “works of the law,” effects that turn being just/righteous before God into the privilege of a certain few — a perspective built on a broken foundation. It is a passage that disarms the wall-building effects of “works of the law” systems, wall-building effects that effectively fracture humanity and the reconciled community rooted in Christ. If we leave Paul’s words at the level of a proposition that we must believe with our minds and hearts, we leave untouched a vital part of what justification in Christ is supposed to effect. Understood in relation to the drama behind the letter of Romans, this passage thrusts us out of our inclination to think that justification only matters for my personal relationship with God. It destroys our human built and well-intended foundations upon which we construct our theories of how God works, and whom God justifies. It leaves nothing but Christ alone, which thrusts us into genuine Christlike “welcoming” of others and the establishment of an identity on the basis of the revelation of God’s justice in Christ, and nothing else.


1 This is found in the margin of the Luther Bible for 3:23ff.

2 Ernst Käsemann, Commentary on Romans, trans. and edited by G. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980) 92.

3 As is common, the lectionary gives us a poorly defined text. The section properly begins at 3:21 and runs through 3:26. There is a clear end to a rhetorical movement in 3:20, and the battering of rhetorical questions that begins in 3:27 and continues through 4:10 demonstrates Paul dealing with the imaginary objections that might issue from what Paul declared in 3:21-26. But perhaps not all is lost because of this quirky division of the text. This unfortunate break-up of the natural rhetorical flow of Paul’s argument forces the reader to connect things in a new way. If anything, the lectionary’s division is an invitation (one that I would strongly suggest preachers should not ignore) to say a few words about the wider argumentative and rhetorical context of this passage (which one can find in a good commentary).