Lectionary Commentaries for May 24, 2020
Seventh Sunday of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 17:1-11

Lindsey S. Jodrey

Death is never an easy reality to face.

It is often unexpected, but some of the most challenging situations arise when a group knows that a beloved member of their community will die. Such a dynamic is depicted in Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, in which the family goes to great lengths to hide a terminal diagnosis from their beloved grandmother. The film is a touching and comedic depiction of their efforts to avoid the reality that they will lose their matriarch.

In John’s story, Jesus takes the opposite approach. Throughout the story, Jesus makes explicit references to his coming death. Here, in his final prayer for his disciples, he offers them a final word of comfort and challenge. John’s Farewell Discourse is a lengthy address (taking up chapters 14-17) that serves as the culmination of a narrative that has always been forthright about the fate of its hero.

The Gospel’s early readers likely never knew Jesus on earth, and there are some clues that suggest they were mourning the loss of their own community leader. Read through this lens, Jesus’ prayer is good news for anyone who feels that God is distant, who finds themselves missing connection with the divine, or who is grieving the loss (or worrying about the potential loss) of a loved one.

Unity and love for the world

Two things immediately stand out when reading this passage. First, there is an emphasis on unity or oneness. Throughout the Gospel John emphasizes the unity shared between Jesus and God. Jesus is introduced as the Word who was with God and was God (John 1:1). In this passage, where Jesus offers a final prayer for his disciples, the capacity of that unity expands to include Jesus’ followers.1 Jesus mentions this unity as a visionary hope that his followers would be “one” just as he is one with God (John 17:11). For those who continue reading past the lectionary section, this vision is reiterated in verse 21 “… that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.”

At the same time, there is also an emphasis on the world. The “world” has a prominent and complex place in John’s Gospel. It is the creation of God, (John 1:10a; 7:4; 11:27; 12:19), the object of God’s love and work (3:16), but it is often characterized as hostile to God’s work, or the realm that does not know God (1:10b). Jesus prays for the world (17:20-21) and sends the disciples into the world so that the world will no longer be separate from God (17:15-23). Jesus was sent to enlighten the world (1:9), to give life to the world (3:16-17; 6:33, 51), to save the world (4:42; 12:47), and to invite the world to join in the love he shares with God (14:31; 17:23).

We can see that “world” does not mean one thing in John’s gospel, rather, the range of meaning reveals a dynamic movement within the story. The world that was positive in relation to God as God’s creation becomes hostile, opposed to God when it rejects Jesus. But, as the Gospel shows, God works to break down the divide between God and the world as people who encounter Jesus are invited to believe.

John tells us that this is the purpose of the incarnation—God taking on flesh in the person of Jesus. Jesus, a human who is one with God and is God, can create this dynamic movement. It is divine love for the world that drives God’s work in the Gospel (3:16; 13:1; 15:13; 17:23, 26). In one of the Gospel’s most revealing verses, the narrator tells us: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”2 1 John 4 picks up this language and extends it: “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:12).

The Gospel of John presents Jesus as the one who is one with God, who can do God’s work of closing the distance between God and the world. The epistle takes the image a step further. We are the ones who can show what God is like. No one has ever seen God … but if we love one another God lives in us. When we love one another God’s love is perfected; we can bring God’s love to its intended purpose.

This theme is present in Jesus’ final prayer in John 17 where the disciples’ connection to Jesus grants them his words, and passes his mission on to them. “As you have sent me into the word,” Jesus says, “so I have sent them into the world” (17:18).

God lives in you

This passage ends on a sobering note: “I am no longer in the world” (John 17:11a). Living with the loss of a loved one, a leader, is quite a burden to bear.

[Spoiler alert: If you haven’t yet seen The Farewell, you may want to skip this paragraph.]
At the end of the film, you learn that the beloved matriarch, despite being diagnosed with terminal cancer and given little time to live, is still alive and well. They still get to enjoy her presence and follow her wisdom. It is a joyful ending to a wonderful movie. But most times, that’s not the ending to the story. Most often, the diagnosis ends in death.

Jesus’ disciples don’t know how to continue Jesus’ mission in the face of his death and departure. John’s readers are dealing with the very real challenge of trying to live out a mission of love for the world, while feeling the loss of their leader. The hope comes in at the second half of our final verse: “I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world” (John 17:11). We become the incarnate love of God. In our connection to God, we extend God’s mission.

At the risk of incorporating too many movie metaphors, I am reminded of a favorite scene in Disney’s The Lion King. Rafiki tells the adult Simba, who is grieving the death of his father, Mufasa, that he knows where his father is. He takes Simba to a pool of water, and tells him to look down. Simba complains, “That’s not my father, that’s just my reflection.” “No, look harder,” Rafiki says. As he looks, Simba begins to recognize his father in his own reflection. “You see?” Rafiki hums, “He lives in you.” 

The lesson aligns remarkably well with Jesus’ message in John 17, and the message reiterated in 1 John 4. When we feel lost, aimless in our mission, forgetting who we are—remember that we are connected to God. Remember that God lives in you. Remember that it is in living out God’s love for the world that we have the oneness with God that echoes throughout Jesus’ final prayer.


Notes:

  1. In her Working Preacher commentary on John 14:15-21, Jaime Clark-Soles uses the term “Quattrinity” to describe the intimate relationship that exists between Jesus, God, the Spirit and believers.

  2. This is a gender-bending image that presents Jesus the Son, nursing at the breast of God, the Father. The word kolpon, here translated “heart,” is the Greek word for bosom. John presents a maternal picture where God shares with Jesus the source of life.


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.1

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.”2 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.3 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.4 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.”5          

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.6

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.


Notes:

  1. Commentary first published on this site on June 1, 2014.
  2. Jaroslav Pelikan and Valerie Hotchkiss, Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition (4 vols.; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), I.915.
  3. 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.
  4. The following paragraphs appeared in Heidi J. Hornik and Mikeal C. Parsons, The Acts of the Apostles Through the Centuries (Wiley Blackwell Bible Commentaries; Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2016).
  5. N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 665.
  6. Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order (Leicester: IVP, 1986), 36-37.

Psalm

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.1

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.”2

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.3

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.”4

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).


Notes:

  1. Commentary first published on this site on June 1, 2014.
  2. Konrad Schaefer, Psalms (Berit Olam; Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2001), 163-164.
  3. James L. Mays, Psalms (Interpretation; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994), 228-229.
  4. 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

Jennifer T. Kaalund

Suffering is a major theme in 1 Peter. The word is mentioned twelve times in this short letter.

This repetition makes it clear that the audience is experiencing difficult circumstances. And yet the writer wants to remind them that they are not alone in their suffering. He writes: “for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering” (1 Peter 5:9).

How poignant for our contemporary moment! As the world journeys through this pandemic, perhaps we can find some solace in knowing, that we, too, are united in our suffering. We never suffering alone.

The universality of suffering, however, should not be mistaken for the necessity of it. Even more, the relationship between suffering and faith should not be understood as determinative. In other words, suffering is not necessary for one to have faith, to be considered faithful, or to build one’s faith. To that end, the term suffering requires definition.

What do we mean when we say suffering? Do we understand suffering to mean anguish or severe pain that is physical, psychological, spiritual or some combination of these? Do we understand suffering to be something we should tolerate or is suffering unpleasant experiences that we endure? Our understanding of and experience with suffering can determine how we read and understand this letter. Despite our definition, it is important to acknowledge that suffering has the potential to both harm and transform.

Sharing in Christ’s suffering

Our understanding of Christ’s suffering should not be limited to the physical pain that he endured on the cross. The mental and spiritual anguish of betrayal and separation must be considered. Moreover, we cannot separate the suffering from the work that lead Jesus to the cross. His crucifixion was the result of an attempt to transform oppressive systems, to assert the importance of the lives of marginalized people, indeed, to challenge a worldview that suffering of the many was necessary for the pleasure of a few. Jesus taught about experiencing a life of abundance and fullness in a kin-dom that is here now and one that is to come.

Oppressive systems that subject people to suffering must be challenged and ultimately destroyed. When we overlook this connection between Jesus’ life and ministry and his death, we miss an opportunity to create a more just and peaceful world. We share in Christ’s suffering when justice is denied, when righteousness is not realized, and when the conditions for peace are elusive. So the author of the letter reminds the audience that they should not be surprised when they are standing for righteousness, fighting for justice, and are pursuing peace that they are met with obstacles and challenges. Jesus, too, was challenged in this pursuit.

Yet, a hope lies in knowing that suffering is not eternal. No, trouble don’t last always. He writes: “after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace … will restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.” We must know that on the other side of suffering, there is restoration.

Bearing the name of Christ

The followers are Christ not only share the experience of suffering, they share a common name. What’s in a name? Though names can be seen as a way of identifying someone or something, how we choose to identify ourselves is significant. Often, we describe ourselves in terms of our relationship to others – partner, parent, child, sibling. Naming is an important way to solidify group identity. In many parts of the world, one can discern a lot about you simply from your name. So, what does it mean to call ourselves Christian?

The name, Christian, has always meant different things to different people. This remains true today. Historically, the term was, at times, negative, even derogatory (see 1 Peter 4:16). The writer of 1 Peter is exhorting the audience to embrace the name as a badge of honor, not shame. To be Christian meant belonging to an elite group, to be God’s chosen people. He writes: “If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed because the spirit of God is resting on you.” The bearers of the name should not only be associated with particular beliefs, but they must also exhibit particular behaviors. That is, their actions should be aligned with their beliefs.

Humility, discipline, and resistance

After affirming and encouraging the community in their beliefs, the writer then gives them ethical directives for how they are to behave. The directives in this lection can be summarized in  three words: humility, discipline, and resistance. This community is described as outsiders, exiles and aliens, who are learning how to leave peaceably with each other and with those who are mistreating them. In many ways this advice is intended to instruct them for how to live in this environment.

Humility requires self-awareness. It is not, however, analogous with self-degradation or low self-regard. Humility must be considered in relationship to God. Humility is what enables the believer to come before God and cast their anxieties before him. I think a fishing analogy may be instructive here. To cast one’s net or line means to throw it far into the sea anticipating a catch.

Casting one’s anxiety may be seen similarly. We should “throw” our worries and concerns far away from ourselves to God anticipating that God’s care and concern will address them. One does not cast their line out with the bait and hope to pull it back in with the same bait. You cast out something you do not want in exchange for something that you do want. God’s care for God’s people is expressed in God’s response to our prayers if we humbly ask for help when we need it.

Discipline, like humility, can be misunderstood. It often has a negative connotation, particularly when it is associated with punishment. However, discipline is repeated actions that are necessary to achieve positive results. It is a method of training. Discipline is waking up early every morning to run when you are preparing for a marathon. Discipline results in preparedness and vigilance. Discipline is reading the Bible, praying, and coming together with like-minded people (even if virtually) in order to better understand and continue to grow in one’s faith.

It is the steadfastness of one’s faith that enables them to resist any enemy that would come against the work to establish God’s kin-dom on earth. Our ability to stand against injustice and to stand with those who are considered to be “the least of these” is a form of resistance.

Resistance, humility, and discipline are acts of faith that guide how we should live.