Lectionary Commentaries for May 28, 2017
Seventh Sunday of Easter (Year A)

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 17:1-11

Samuel Cruz

The Gospel of John depicts a very “sinful, evil, world,” a system of human governance that moved contrary to the values of God and his Kingdom.

It can be debated what the Gospel’s authors sought to articulate during this time. Our perspectives about their purposes, approaches, and the manner in which they related the story of Jesus, will greatly influence how we read the Gospel in general.

Some scholars have suggested that one of the emphases of John’s Gospel is that Jesus was killed because of the good works he performed. They point out that Jesus’ acts were Messianic “good works” rather than simple acts of charity. The late Mexican biblical exegete, José Porfirio Miranda, suggested that from a literary perspective, Jesus refused to perform the first miracle (i.e. good work) as requested by his mother, Mary, in the wedding of Cana, because the “hour” for him to die had not yet come.1

The eleventh chapter of John tells us that Jesus had the “audacity” to raise Lazarus from the dead (good work), and John informs us that the religious leaders decided Jesus had to be killed. The Gospel of John underscores the point that the leaders of the day challenged the light of righteousness that not only exposed evil, but also offered an alternative path to living and governing the world. This light that could not be extinguished was the incarnate Son of God, Jesus.

Good works of justice, mercy, and equality were in stark opposition to a world in darkness. This must have created a sense of insecurity for the disciples. In all probability, the priority for this community must have been to safeguard against the dangers of the world around them. How would one support and protect the individuals who labored for the establishment of the Kingdom? Jesus knew that his time was limited. Prayer was needed and welcomed by the disciples of that community. Jesus prayed for his beloved, specifically petitioning for unity among them.

The renowned New Testament scholar, Ernst Käsemann suggested that Jesus’ prayer was a divine revelation: his prayer moved from being a petition to actually an “address, admonition, consolation, and prophecy.”2 I disagree with Käsemann regarding Jesus’ prayer, because it seems there is nothing in the text to suggest this perspective. Furthermore, Käsemann’s theological perspective seems to diminish the human, as if Jesus was above praying. If discourses and prayers can only be legitimate if emanating from divinity, this infers that Jesus’ humanity could be in question.

I think Jesus’ prayer should be accepted for what it was — a sincere petition asking for the help that his loved ones needed at that time and would need in the future. This certainly showed his humanity and his continued relevance to real, flesh and blood people. It seems that Gnostic ideals continue to influence our theologies, biblical hermeneutics and other philosophical beliefs.

The Gospel of John may pose certain challenges for preachers in the 21st century. One challenge has to do with the concept of “evil” in the “world.” The modern/post-modern world in which we live seems to have moved away from beliefs about evil in the world that originated from “primitive” societies. These ideas may seem irrelevant in our age, but are ironically more relevant today than ever. In our time, the prosperity theologies and/or psychological theologies of positive thinking make it unfashionable to even use the word sin.

I see an exaggerated emphasis on human triumphalism over evil, a concept which has taken a stronghold in 21st century thought. Despite signs to the contrary, indicating that the world is not necessarily heading towards a better future, the vestiges of enlightenment hope and the triumph of reason, generating peace and prosperity, persist. As a result, any ideas or prophetic voices that might proclaim the need for radical change, renewal, and redemption are challenged.

The early church developed in a situation of persecution, and in many ways, finds itself there today. The emphasis on the existence of principalities and powers should continue to be an essential component of the message of the church. In Spanish, there is a statement that comes to mind when I reflect on Jesus’ prayer: “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido.” (A united people will never be defeated.) The challenge to live in unity is a great one. It is difficult to keep people on message, and the church has a long history of schism.

If the emphasis on unity can be seen in Jesus’ prayer, then we can conclude that he was aware that keeping his beloved united was a challenge. Without cohesion, they would not survive. In an environment of persecution and evil, the church, then and now, faces many challenges. A prayer from Jesus asking for protection via unity of the church, provides a great source of comfort to his followers.

Preachers can emphasize that Jesus’ prayer in the Gospel of John is powerful because it emerges from his personal experiences as a man. It is contextually based. When a parent prays for his or her child, we know that the motivations behind that prayer are deep and primal. Likewise, the deeply loving petition in our favor requested by Jesus is greatly treasured.


1. José Porfirio Miranda, Being and the Messiah: The Message of John (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1973).

2. Ernst Käsemann, The New Testament of Jesus according to John 17, translated by Gerhard Krodel (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968).

First Reading

Commentary on Acts 1:6-14

Sarah Hinlicky Wilson

This is a funny sort of episode to kick off a book all about mission.

The founder tells his followers to spread the word across the entire face of the earth, but then he vanishes into the clouds, so the newly commissioned apostles just go back home, sit tight, and pray. Good luck with that, guys. (And girls: along with those “certain women,” we have here the last reference to Mary in the New Testament, other than Paul’s minimalistic “born of a woman” in Galatians 4.)

Furthermore, the question they ask — now will you restore the kingdom to Israel? — is proof that they still don’t get it, even after the resurrection. “Not getting it” is a distinguishing quality of Jesus’ disciples. Think of Peter’s constant stumbles, the disciples bickering about who is the greatest (not once but twice in Luke: chapters 9 and 22), or James and John asking to sit at Jesus’ left and right hands to demonstrate how well they’ve understood what he’s said about being mocked and flogged and spat upon.

So there’s been Jesus doing all this teaching, feeding, healing, dying, rising and raising, not to mention his relentless hammering on sin and the forgiveness thereof — and what the excitable apostles distill from it all is that now is the time for the restoration of the kingdom. Apparently, they missed the “my kingdom is not of this world” memo. (Perhaps because it was only circulated among John’s readership.)

This is not an error likely to be made by twenty-first-century, probably Gentile Christians with the long burden of church history trailing behind them. But Jesus’ response is as timely as ever: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.”

Speculation as to the grand pattern of history, and our place in it, is a pastime venerable only because of its age. Augustine did about the best job that can possibly be done with it, employing (to use the terminology of a thousand years later) a theology-of-the-cross hermeneutic: the true city of God is hidden and suffering, and earthly glory is no proof of anything.

Most other efforts toward cracking the code of history have been pretty lousy. Eusebius wrote the first church history to vindicate the semi-Arian march of triumph toward the Constantinian establishment. It’s hard to see how the Christians of the time could interpret the end of the age of martyrdom as anything but God’s blessing; little did they know, however, the fatal compromises and collusion that would follow in the wake of political power aligning itself with ecclesiastical power. But then the end of that arrangement, as has been unfolding over the last five centuries or so, is hardly an unambiguous success, either.

And those are still only mild attempts to sort out the flux of history. Others have gone into excruciating detail in mapping out the epochs, based on Daniel or Revelation or the Trinity, from patristic chiliasts to Joachim of Fiore in the twelfth century to the Scofield Reference Bible in the twentieth. Even the eager affirmation of growing Christianity in the Global South serves a particular glorious narrative of history, assuaging fears and assuring hope — but still based on our knowing “the times or the periods.”

Whoever plays the game, it’s dangerous. It can’t not be self-serving, whether in triumphalist or paranoid ways. Claiming to know the pattern of history ultimately doesn’t commend faith in God but faith in one’s knowledge of the pattern. It encourages one to place oneself on the winning side of history, at whatever cost.

We’ve seen no end of regimes, theologies, churches, and governments claiming history on their side. It is all too common in U.S. political discourse, flip-flopping between messianic hopes and armageddon panic. Karl Marx thought he figured history out with communism, Francis Fukuyama with capitalism, and ISIS with the Islamic State. If history awards prizes to whoever manages to drain the most blood, then one (or more) of these theories may be right. Good reason to prefer a kingdom not of this world.

Jesus betrays no hints about history’s course. What he gives us — besides himself! — is now and eternally. Now: you don’t know the pattern, the times, or the periods. You don’t need to. What you need to do now is get going as witnesses to the good news about God breaking into history. Eternally: God’s justice will be wrought on all sin and evil, God’s mercy will be poured abroad, the body will be raised up to live in a city without temple or lamp where God is all in all.

Stirring words. Stirring enough to send the happy disciples right back to where they started, a familiar place, to pray and hang out. It’s not a bad start. It’s not enough, either. But they don’t know what to do without the Holy Spirit egging them on. A little Pentecost fire, a handy martyrdom of Stephen, and they’ll start on that long road to Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. In God’s time, not theirs. It is enough.


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

Joel LeMon

When God shows up, everything changes.

Psalm 68 celebrates the appearance of God as divine king and catalogues the implications of God’s rule throughout the entire world.

This highly complex Psalm contains some of the Old Testament’s most challenging grammar, vocabulary, and syntax. It also presents uniquely explicit depictions of God’s violence against the enemies (verses 21-31). For better or worse, these verses do not appear in the lectionary reading for this Sunday, or any Sunday.

To put it mildly, Psalm 68 is a difficult text. Preaching from it requires a great deal of sensitivity to its original historic context and especially an understanding of the royal ideologies of the ancient Near East. Despite these interpretive challenges, we can discern a basic theological message that underpins the psalm: God’s presence brings about vindication for those who are suffering. God comes to deliver the oppressed.

The opening verses invite God to reveal God’s self: “Let God rise up!” (verse 1). In the logic of the psalm, the presence of God banishes all threats. God’s “enemies,” “those that hate him,” and “the wicked” must retreat when God arises.

The Psalter contains a number of similar entreaties for God to rise (for example, Psalm 3:7; 7:6; 9:19). In virtually every case, these texts appear on the lips of those who look to God to bring about justice. To “rise” means to assume the authority to act as king and judge on behalf of those who are crying out for salvation.

God’s judgement, while providing protection to the suffering, has devastating implications for the oppressors. Through a series of richly evocative images, the psalm describes the enemies as disintegrated, dissolved, and destroyed (verses 1-2). The righteous, however, have the opposite response to the risen God. They join together as one in praise (verse 4).

This text provides many challenges for translators. One of the most famous occurs in verse 4, where God is described as either “the one who rides of the clouds” or “the one who rides through the wilderness.” The titles have very different implications for how one understand the profile of God vis-à-vis other ancient Near Eastern deities. Yet the most important issue for the psalmist is establishing the particular name — and thus the reputation of God. The revelation of the divine name Yah, the short form of Yahweh, appears only in this verse. However, the entire psalm is dedicated to exploring the identity of Yahweh as the unchallenged king of heaven.

God’s fundamental orientation is toward the helpless: widows, orphans, the desolate one (or “abandoned one”), and prisoners (verses 5-6). In a patriarchal culture such as ancient Israel, widows and orphans struggle to survive without a husband or father to provide protection, economic viability, and honor. So God fills the gap left by the absent man (verse 5). Likewise, Yahweh provides for those who are abandoned, giving them a home (verse 6).

Yahweh’s manumission of “prisoners” as described in verse 6 might possibly be understood as a work of advocacy for those who have committed crimes. Yet given the fact that there was no large-scale, long-term imprisonment for criminals in ancient Israel, the “prisoners” in this context are more likely prisoners of war, enslaved captives, or falsely accused individuals awaiting trial. People in any of these situations would need God’s immediate intervention to preserve their lives. Without divine intervention, they would have little hope.

It was indeed a hopeless people whom God delivered from Egypt. Verses 7-10 describe the exodus, the community’s movement through the wilderness from slavery to freedom. In the context of that journey, the forces of nature are bent to God’s will. The earthquake and abundant rain (verses 8-9) are a manifestation of God’s power that provide for those who suffer. To be clear, these displays do not happen simply for God to show off but to bring about deliverance.

The description of God’s power over natural forces gives way to a description of the power of God over all human forces (verses 11-31). This large section of the psalm describes God participating in all the activities of ancient Near Eastern kings. God is called king explicitly in verse 24, and like a king, God leads troops into battle and conquers other warrior kings (verse 11-14). God rides a chariot home from battle in triumph (verses 17-18). God brings back prisoners of war (verse 18). God receives tribute (verses 18, 29, 31). God oversees ritual processions (verses 24-27). God shows mastery over wild animals through ceremonial hunts (verse 30).

That God fulfills all these functions of ancient kingship implicitly acknowledges that the kings of Judah and Israel largely failed to live up to the expectations of Near Eastern royal ideology. The witness of the Deuteronomistic history (especially 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings) confirms the failure of the kingship in Israel and Judah as does modern historiography of the biblical world. Thus, the psalmist felt a special urgency for Yahweh to be understood as the divine king, both to provide a model of the proper exercise of power and to serve as king when the kingdom ceased to exist.

When leaders fail to live up to expectations, God’s identity emerges even more strongly as the dominant power in the universe. The psalm’s ultimate affirmation of divine power chastens all other leaders who might assume positions of absolute leadership. In fact, the final verses of the psalm (verses 32-35), where the lectionary reading resumes, contain a call for all the kings of the earth, the potential rivals of God, to acknowledge God’s authority.

This ancient psalm is rife with challenges for the modern interpreter. We must navigate a profoundly difficult text that describes cultural and political institutions that are far removed from our modern democracies, at least in their ideal forms. The psalmist uses analogies from his own historical context to describe the power of God. Those analogies seem strange to our ears. Yet, at the heart of the psalm is a conviction that God’s power is ultimately oriented toward the deliverance of those who are suffering. God’s power is expressed not for some sadistic delight in violent spectacle, but to provide protection for those who are oppressed and have no one to defend them.

Second Reading

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

Jeannine K. Brown

When suffering happens to religious people, it is not uncommon to hear the refrain, “Why is God punishing me?”

Leaving aside the thorny question of whether or how God is involved in suffering (the issue of theodicy), the lectionary text from 1 Peter 4 for this week suggests a quite different perspective on suffering. For the author of 1 Peter, suffering that arises from living a life centered on Jesus Christ is in no way a sign of God’s displeasure. Quite the opposite. Peter exhorts Christians who are suffering insults and scorn for their allegiance to Christ to rejoice, since they are blessed (1 Peter 4:13-14). Mocking words unfairly pointed at them are, in fact, a sign that God’s spirit rests on them!

As we see in earlier parts of 1 Peter, some of the most vulnerable persons in these house churches of Asia Minor are being pressed to give up their newfound faith and return to their former gods (4:3-4), the gods of their masters (2:18), and husbands (3:1).1 If they do so, according to those who pressure them, all will be right with the world and they will be living in line with society’s expectations. In this difficult situation, Peter calls them to remain steadfast to Christ and to persist in doing what is right, trusting in the faithful God who has created them (4:19). By doing so, they will be sharing in Christ’s sufferings, with the promise of sharing in his glory at his future revelation (4:13).

The author has already held Jesus up as the exemplar of how to navigate unjust suffering (2:18-25), with the hope that his story of suffering to exaltation will be theirs (3:18-22). Now he claims that any suffering they incur for remaining true to the Lord will actually be “sharing” (koinoneo) in Christ’s sufferings. This is language of participation and signals that they somehow join Jesus in his sufferings, just as they are promised a share in Jesus’ glorification. Whatever relational ties have been strained in their households and towns, their relationship with their Lord is deep and unbreakable. This truth can offer hope into seemingly hopeless situations of suffering, both for first-century believers and for Christians today.

The second part of the lectionary reading moves us to 1 Peter 5 and the concluding exhortations and promises of this letter. The author has just stressed the importance of service and humility among believers (5:1-5); now he calls his readers to humility before God, with the promise of exultation “in the last day” (5:6) — a resonating motif with the first lectionary text.

The author also provides a final word on the suffering that is being experienced by his audience. “After you have suffered for a little while” (5:10; CEB) echoes the first reference to suffering in the letter at 1:6: “You now rejoice in this hope [of salvation], even if it’s necessary for you to be distressed for a short time by various trials.” The brevity of present suffering is juxtaposed with the enduring quality of their salvation (1:5, 8) — theirs will be an eternal glory (5:10).

The exhortations to be clearheaded and alert (5:8) makes sense in the context of the original audience, in which believers are being pressed to abdicate faith in Christ for more traditional piety. We might invite our own audiences to think through what forces may be pressing them to practice less than full devotion to Christ. In the first-century or our present-day context, it can be easy to be on high alert and anxious about these forces and influences. Yet Peter pairs the call to alertness with the invitation to cast all anxiety upon our powerful God, who is able to provide the care they need (5:7).

The author then clarifies that the true enemy is not the neighbor or family member who does not yet believe. Instead, it is the devil — the epitome of evil, to which they need to remain alert. The description of their accuser as a lion on the prowl (5:8) would likely evoke lions of the Roman arena, with images of lions being ubiquitous especially in the eastern Greek world. This image would help to draw a clear line in the sand for the Petrine readers and accents a final time the truth that “only Christ and not Caesar is to be worshipped (2:17; 3:15).”2

While the role of these believers is to stand firm (5:9), God’s role is effusively described by four verbs: God will “restore, empower, strengthen, and establish you” (5:10). And this same God is described as powerful (5:6, 11) and “the God of all grace” (5:10). This provides the theological frame for our passage. It is within this frame that we should locate the various exhortations of 5:6-9 — as responses to this God of grace and power. Such a caring God can handle our deepest anxieties (5:7). Such a God is deserving of our faith (5:9) and worthy of the concluding blessing, “To him be power forever and always” (5:11).



1. Brown, Jeannine K. “Silent Wives, Verbal Believers: Ethical and Hermeneutical Considerations in 1 Peter 3:1-6 and Its Context.” Word and World 24 (2004) 395-403.

2. Horrell, David G., Bradley Arnold, and Travis B. Williams. 2013. “Visuality, Vivid Description, and the Message of 1 Peter: The Significance of the Roaring Lion (1 Peter 5:8).” Journal of Biblical Literature 132 (3): 697-716.