Lectionary Commentaries for June 1, 2014
Seventh Sunday of Easter (Year A)

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 17:1-11

Karoline Lewis

Most of you preachers out there already know this, but it never hurts to be reminded of a perhaps well-known fact because maybe this time around it will mean and preach something different.

In this case, our Gospel-comparison detail is that Jesus’ prayer to the Father before his arrest in the Gospel of John is not off alone somewhere with clutched hands praying on a big rock while the disciples nap. It is sitting around a table, after a meal and an extended conversation, with the disciples hearing every single word that Jesus says.

This aspect alone of the text for this Sunday may be all you need to get a sermon started. What difference does it make to overhear Jesus praying for you? How will you hear Jesus’ words in another way? How might we understand prayer in a new way? For those preachers drawn to these questions and moved by the thought of dwelling in the difference prayer makes, off you go, and my prayers go with you.

It really is nothing short of astonishing to imagine this passage as a model for prayer. Remember, in the Gospel of John there is no, “teach us how to pray” followed by the Lord’s Prayer. This is the Lord’s Prayer according to John. One more reminder before you get started. Don’t fall back into surface claims about why we should pray, when we should pray, or that prayer is good for us, so do it. Nobody wants to hear a sermon about the blanket benefits of prayer. Instead, preach the specificity of this prayer and maybe prayer will get a new lease on life.

It’s not often that we get a straight forward definition of eternal life, but here it is, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (17:3). How many times have we heard this depiction of eternal life? I would wager rarely, if at all. On this last Sunday of Easter, in the season of the resurrection, here is an idea about eternal life that just might stand out and mean something beyond the empty tomb and the lilies and “Jesus Christ is Risen Today.”

Eternal life is to know God and Jesus. What if it is that simple? How would that change what we imagine in this life? How would it affect our thoughts about and beliefs in our future life with God? How does this alter even our picture of God? Of course, what it means to “know” God is key, and to know God in the Fourth Gospel has no connection to cognitive constructions, creedal consents, or specified knowledge about God. Rather, knowing God is synonymous with being in a relationship with God.

The preacher is invited to use the entirety of John’s Gospel to paint a picture of what being in a relationship with God looks like. In fact, the depiction should be multi-faceted and multi-sensorial, especially given the narrative of Jesus’ ministry up to this point and the Fourth Evangelist’s theological center, the incarnation. Be specific. Use the details of the stories. Don’t offer bland or general statements. The incarnation demands specificity and sensoria. At the end, the people in the pew should be able to feel, actually feel, what a relationship with God means. Let them taste it, smell it, hear it, see it. Anything less and the reality of relationship is reduced to mere acquaintance.

As the seventh and last Sunday of Easter before the festival of Pentecost and the beginning of the long, green season, Jesus’ closing words, at least in this chosen pericope, are more than a fitting finish. “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” What if this blessing was that which provided a theme for the entire season of Pentecost for your congregation?

It is, perhaps, one of the most relevant and truthful definitions of what Pentecost is supposed to be as disciples of Christ. Jesus is no longer in the world. The incarnation is over. Jesus has been resurrected. He ascended to the Father from whence he came (1:1). But we are still in the world, Jesus’ works are now in our hands (14:12), and Jesus is counting on us to be his presence in the wake of his absence (21:15-17).

What if we imagined that the resurrection of Jesus was just the beginning and not the conclusion of the Gospel? That the promises of the resurrection are, in part, ours to fulfill? How would a life of discipleship, of witness, of love, between Pentecost and Advent, be different were we to trust that Jesus meant what he said in 14:12, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” We are in the world now, the world that God loves (3:16).

First Reading

Commentary on Acts 1:6-14

Mikeal C. Parsons

Falling forty days after Easter, Ascension Day has never held that important a place in the Church Calendar.

Its place in Christian tradition, however, has been securely fixed by its prominent role in Christian creeds and confessions. A myriad of creeds and confessions echo the claim of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed that Christ “ascended into heaven.”1 Although there are NT references and allusions to Christ’s ascension (e.g., Luke 24:50-53; John 20:17; Ephesians 4:8-10; 1 Timothy 3:16), only Acts 1 provides a full narrative of the event.

Both Jewish (e.g., 2 Kings 2:9–11) and Greco-Roman (e.g., Plutarch, Rom. 28:13) assumption stories accentuate the elevated status of their subjects.2 Likewise, the ascension of Jesus functions to underline the exaltation of Jesus. It is the fitting conclusion to the ministry of Jesus (so Luke 24:50–53); more importantly, here, it is the foundation of the church which makes the life of the church both possible and intelligible. The departure of Jesus inaugurates the beginning of the church — the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the beginning of the worldwide mission.

In addition to the significance of the ascension for Luke’s story and theology, these opening verses focus as much on the response of the disciples to Jesus as they do on his words and deeds. This second section contains two parts and each one concludes with a reproof of and a promise to the disciples. In Acts 1:7–8, Jesus responds with a reproof: “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority”(cf. Matthew 24:36); and a promise (1:8a): “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses.” This empowerment will enable the disciples to engage in a world-wide mission, “beginning in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (1:8b; cf. Matthew 28:19-20).

Likewise, at the conclusion of Acts 1:9–11, we read the angelic response in two parts: a reproof (1:11a): “Galileans, why are you standing (there) looking at the sky?” and a promise (1:11b): “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into the sky, will come (back) in the very same manner that you saw him go into the sky” (cf. Luke 21:27). Despite the reproaches, both dialogues end with promises to the disciples, thus inviting a favorable judgment of the disciples by the audience.

The dating of the Pentecost requires that the hiatus between Easter and Pentecost be filled — this Luke does by the forty days of instruction. Through being taught by the risen Lord, praying together with one accord, and performing the delicate and crucial task of selecting Judas’s replacement without incident, the formal features of the opening scene depict the disciples as informed, spiritually mature, and administratively equipped — all signs that they are prepared to undertake the task of worldwide mission which lies before them (cf. Matt 28:19-20).

When Jesus ascends, his ascent into heaven is described in “earth-bound” terms, not as a heavenly journey in which the narrator accompanies the hero (as is the case in many heavenly journeys in late antiquity). The phrase, “into the sky” (or “heaven”), occurs four times in rapid succession emphasizing that Jesus is taken from the eyes of the disciples and thus from the audience’s “visual” field.

In Acts 1:10, the two messengers ask: “Galileans, why are you standing (there) staring at the sky?” Again, just as the disciples’ words seemed reasonable in their question to Jesus, so also their actions seem most natural. What else should one do when Jesus ascends except stand and look into heaven after him! Idly gazing into heaven, however, is an inappropriate response to Jesus’ ascension. The messengers assure the disciples (and audience) that Jesus will return in just the same way he left.

Despite Christ’s departure, there is no need, however, to speak of an “absentee Christology” in Acts. Though absent as a character from the narrative of Acts after chapter 1 (though see Acts 7:56), the influence of Jesus throughout the rest of the narrative is profound. His name occurs no less than 69 times in Acts. He is at the center of the church’s controversy with the Jews. He guides the church in its missionary efforts; he empowers the disciples to perform miracles. The ascended and exalted Christ, though absent as a character, is nonetheless a constant presence throughout the narrative.

The scene ends with the disciples’ return to Jerusalem (1:12-14). The list of followers is extended in Acts to include women and the family of Jesus, inviting the audience perhaps to revise the definition of disciple and the understanding of who was present at the ascension. To mention “women” is unusual for a succession list. “Mary, the mother of Jesus” stands as a bridge figure between the women who followed Jesus (see Luke 8:2; 23:49, 55; 24:10) and the family of Jesus, which (except for James) receives no further mention in the text. Jesus’ followers return to the upper room where they “devoted themselves together to prayer” (1:14).

The ascension narrative has long puzzled modern interpreters.3 John A.T. Robinson began his theological bombshell, Honest to God (1963), by asserting the impossibility of taking the ascension account literally. Karl Barth (among a host of others) also commented on the difficulty in gleaning a “nucleus of genuine history” from Acts 1 (CD III.2.452). Even a traditional scholar like N.T. Wright has balked at taking the ascension story as a straightforward, historical account: “the language of ‘heaven and earth’, though it could be used to denote sky on the one hand and terra firma on the other, was regularly employed in a sophisticated theological manner, to denote the parallel and interlocking universes inhabited by the creator god on the one hand and humans on the other.”4          

Like Wright, theologian Oliver O’Donovan has attempted to steer a media via between those who see the ascension as a literal event and those who assign it to a “mental” or purely “spiritual” realm.

The ascension is not only a ‘taking from’, it is a ‘taking up.’ It is a material event which involves the material body of Jesus; it leaves the spatio-temporal order to enter the immediate presence of the Creator … The transition from the earth to Heaven is more than a reversal of the incarnation, at which God ‘came down’; it is the elevation of man, physical, spatio-temporal man, into an order that is greater than the physical and the spatio-temporal, and which is not his native habitat … All we can say is that the transition has occurred, that there is a beaten path that lies before us, linking our physical existence to an existence in the presence of God which lies beyond its conditions. We cannot see the path — the cloud which hid Jesus on the mountain-top is a veil for that which cannot be comprehended from below — but we know that the path has been taken, and that we are to take it too.5

Material adapted from The Acts of the Apostles. Paideia Commentary Series. Eds. Mikeal C. Parsons and Charles H. Talbert. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic (a division of Baker Publishing Group), 2008. Used by permission.


Jaroslav Pelikan and Valerie Hotchkiss, Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition (4 vols.; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), I.915.

The following paragraphs are drawn from Mikeal C. Parsons, Acts (Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic), 27-31, 35. Used with permission.

The following paragraphs will appear in Heidi J. Hornik and Mikeal C. Parsons, The Acts of the Apostles Through the Centuries (Wiley Blackwell Bible Commentaries; Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, forthcoming).

N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 665.

Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order (Leicester: IVP, 1986), 36-37.


Commentary on Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35

J. Clinton McCann, Jr.

While Psalm 68 is fraught with interpretive difficulties — several one-of-a-kind words, obscure allusions, unknown geographical locations, and a less-than-clear structure — its general character and movement are clear enough.

As Konrad Schaefer helpfully suggests, Psalm 68 “is a hymn to God’s power and majesty … The overall impression is of a triumphal parade which culminates in Zion.”1

The celebration of “God’s power and majesty” explains why the lectionary associates Psalm 68 with Acts 1:6-14 and the Ascension of the Lord; however, this association also invites careful attention to one’s interpretive conclusions and hermeneutical directions, so that this portrayal “of a triumphal parade” not be allowed to serve as warrant for an unfaithful triumphalism.

Verses 1-3 introduce the cast of characters — God, of course, but also God’s “enemies”/”the wicked” (verses 1-2; see also verses 12, 14, 18, 21-23, 30) and “the righteous” (verse 3; see verses 7, 10, 25-27, 35). Verses 1-3 also anticipate the basic “plot” of the poem — along the way of a journey that moves from Egypt through the wilderness (verse 7), including Sinai (verse 8), toward and into the promised land (verses 10-16) ending at Zion (verses 17-23), God does indeed scatter God’s enemies. With their well-being secured by God’s powerful leading, God’s people celebrate in the Temple on Mount Zion (verses 24-27).

Along the way of the journey, the victorious God of Israel has appropriated functions that the Canaanites attributed to one of their gods, Baal — namely, the bringing of rain that yields agricultural productivity (see verses 8-10; and note that it is God, not Baal, that in verse 4 “rides upon the clouds,” and that in verse 33 is the “rider in the heavens”).

Along the way of the journey, the God of Israel has also bypassed another desirable location, Bashan (verses 15-16), in order to take up residence in Jerusalem on Mount Zion. Given the character, route, and destination of this “triumphal parade,” the people of God may been tempted to conclude something like this: Our God is better than your gods, because our God has defeated, scattered, and displaced your gods; and our God now lives in Jerusalem, which just happens to be our place — in other words, God is on our side!

In the presence of this sort of conclusion, the praise invited in verses 4, 32-35 (and note that the invitations to praise bracket the portion of the psalm that rehearses the “triumphal parade”) would amount to little more than an ideology of proud, prosperous, and powerful people who are attempting to give divine legitimation to a status quo that benefits themselves. What is to prevent Psalm 68 and its rehearsal of “a triumphal parade” from being appropriated as a crass, self-aggrandizing triumphalism?

It is as this point that verses 5-6 become so pivotally important. Immediately following the initial invitation to praise, verses 5-6 make it clear that the God of Israel, the sovereign (see “King” in verse 24) enthroned on Zion, is not merely a mighty warrior who scatters his enemies for the fun of it, or for the thrill of the battle, or for the purpose of just showing off.

Rather, God “fights” for the vulnerable and the dispossessed — orphans and widows (see Psalms 10:14, 18; 82:3; 94:6; 146:9; Exodus 22:22; Deuteronomy 10:18 and often in Deuteronomy; Isaiah 1:17, 23; Jeremiah 7:6), the homeless (see Psalm 113:7-9; Isaiah 58:7), the captives (see Psalm 146:7; Isaiah 49:9; 61:1). As James L. Mays concludes concerning Psalm 68:

In spite of its militant character and victorious confidence, such is not its spirit. There is a self-understanding and self-description in the psalm’s measures that belies such a reading. The uses assigned to the power of the LORD as divine warrior are crucial. The God who dwells in his holy habitation as victor is father of orphans and protector of widows, who gives the desolate a home and liberates prisoners (verses 5-6) …

The song belongs to the lowly, who in the midst of the powers of this world remember and hope for the victory of God.2

To praise the God who is the protector of the vulnerable (verses 5-6) and the provider for the needy (verse 10) means to conform oneself to God’s will, or in essence, to join God at God’s work in the world. The concluding “Blessed be God!” especially invites this conclusion. The verb translated “Blessed” means more literally “to fall on one’s knees in obeisance to” — that is, to submit. Such submission to God leaves no room for self-serving triumphalism.

Rather, Psalm 68 invites the people of God in all times and places to praise God by practicing the same compassion that characterizes God’s activity in the world. Only those who practice divine compassion can rightly claim that “God is on our side.” As Archbishop Oscar Romero once put it: “There is a criterion for knowing whether God is close to us or far away: all those who worry about the hungry, the naked, the poor, the disappeared, the tortured, the imprisoned — about any suffering human being — are close to God.”3

In keeping with the triumphal tone of the psalm, the final section (verses 32-35) contains four occurrences of a Hebrew word translated “mighty” (verse 33) and “power” (twice in verse 34 and once in verse 35). Power belongs to God (verses 33-34), but God also “gives power and strength to his people” (verse 35).

Again, as suggested above, this gift of power could be construed in a triumphant manner; but in view of the preceding material (especially verses 5-6, 10), the power given to the people is the strength to “fight” for protection of the vulnerable, provision for the dispossessed, and liberation for the oppressed. Insofar as the “triumphal parade” in Psalm 68 anticipates the Ascension of the Lord, the resurrection-power evident in the Ascension is the power to do what God wants done (see essay on Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16, Fifth Sunday of Easter).


Konrad Schaefer, Psalms (Berit Olam; Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2001), 163-164.

James L. Mays, Psalms (Interpretation; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994), 228-229.

From a sermon by Oscar Romero, February 5, 1978, quoted in In the Company of the Poor: Conversations with Dr. Paul Farmer and Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez, ed. Michael Griffen and Jennie Weiss Block (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2013), 150.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11

James Boyce

The “living hope” that belongs to the good news of Christ’s resurrection even in the midst of persecution and suffering that marked the theme of last Sunday’s reading from the opening verses of 1 Peter still undergirds and shapes the reading for today which stands at the conclusion of this letter. 

As readers and hearers who stand now at the last Sunday of Easter, it is perhaps fitting to take a few moments to reflect on Christian faith and life from the perspective of the end time. Even in the midst of waiting, and even in the midst of a world that seems so contrary and adversarial to the commitments and attitudes that belong to the people of God, there is reason for confidence in God’s promises. We are still an Easter people who are sustained and encouraged by the hope that, whatever comes, God has joined us to the suffering and victory of Christ, whom God has raised from the dead.

“Since Christ has suffered in the flesh … ” Chapter 4 of 1 Peter begins with this foundational premise, and then draws the implied conclusion: so “arm yourselves” by keeping that insight as a guide for life in this world. As noted in last Sunday’s comments, it is very clear that what occupies the mind of this community is the very real experience of suffering (signaled by the fact that 1 Peter has twelve uses of the verb “suffer” out of only 42 in the whole New Testament).

It is instructive that the author does not avoid or play down the issue, but addresses it squarely by acknowledging that the community’s suffering is real. At the same time, the author provides a perspective and builds confidence by encouraging the hearers to view that suffering through the lens of a crucial reminder.

Christ also suffered. That remembrance joins this community to Christ and to the realization that for those who bear the name of Christ suffering should not come as a shock. Today’s reading in fact picks up with that advice. Don’t be surprised at the “fiery ordeal” that belongs to this present earthly life, “as though something strange were happening to you” (4:12). The testing of suffering in this earthly life will reveal whether this community will spend their time following their passions or instead use the gifts that have been given them in the exercise of love and hospitality for one another (4:3-11).

Thus, far from being a matter for lament or surprised anxiety, suffering is rather an occasion for rejoicing, because it is a sign that they are sharing in the sufferings of Christ (4:13). To suffer is to be joined in a special way to the resurrected Lord Jesus. In fact that author can speak of suffering as essentially the name tag of identity on which is inscribed the name of Christ. To suffer is what it means to walk around in this life with the name of Christ as the mark of identity.

To bear this name is not a mark of sadness or shame; this name is indeed what constitutes their “blessing” (4:14). The mistreatment of those who revile or persecute them because they bear the name of Christ is in fact the blessing of God that assures them that the spirit of God is “resting upon you.”

Such a perspective belongs to a people who are encouraged to see themselves as standing at the end of time. 1 Peter as a whole speaks from that perspective: “the end of all things is near; therefore be serious and discipline yourselves” (4:7). It might not always be easy for us to share that perspective, especially when it is now some two thousand years later, and the end has not yet come.

At the same time, as we stand at this last Sunday of Easter, it might be worthwhile to reflect on how we might live our lives differently should we really believe that the world in which we live is not so hospitable a place, and should we really long for an end to present suffering to be exchanged for the blessings of God’s promise of victory in the resurrection of our Lord.

1 Peter speaks of maintaining a sense of seriousness and discipline in the meantime before the end (4:7). That discipline is reflected in the series of commands and encouragement that characterize the last verses of today’s reading (5:6-11). Though not explicitly stated, it seems to be no accident, and the student of the New Testament witness will recognize in their content themes that are an imitative reflection of the teaching of Jesus in the gospels.

Not only is Jesus’ suffering an occasion for encouragement, but the words of Jesus also provide a companion and guide for the living of life in the meantime of waiting. The community is exhorted to live in humility. (“Humble yourselves so that God may exalt you in due time;” cf. Matthew 23.12). They are encouraged not to be anxious when reminded always that God keeps them in love and care (“Cast all your cares on him because he cares for you;” cf. Matthew 6.25f.). They are called to “keep awake” in a sober and disciplined life (cf. Matthew 24.42: “Keep awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming”).

The warning to watch out for the devil, who prowls around waiting to attack them, well recalls the temptation accounts of Jesus (cf. Matthew 4.1-11). Finally, the charge to resist the wiles of the evil one and to recall the brothers and sisters who undergo the same kind of suffering as they do recalls Jesus’ encouragement to pray — “Deliver us from the evil one” — and to engage in intercessory prayer on behalf of the community of believers (cf. Matthew 6.9; 18.18-22).

The final word of encouragement, indeed, as it were the final words of this epistle are the reminder that the “God of grace has called you” (5:10). In the perspective of God’s grace, the author encourages, the time of suffering is only for a little while. God’s grace and the promise of the resurrection is forever.

As in last Sunday’s reading the last word is about power. In the end the power of God has the last word. The concluding words, “To him belongs power forever!” (5:11), sounds much like the familiar doxology of the Lord’s Prayer. They commend themselves in much the same way as perspective and framework for the living of each of our days. Whatever happens in this life, God’s promises revealed in the glory of Christ and his resurrection are sure. God will continue to restore with creative gifts, to establish us firmly when we stumble, to give strength in times of weakness, and to build us up on the firm foundation of the community of faith (5:10).