Lectionary Commentaries for May 25, 2014
Sixth Sunday of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 14:15-21

Karoline Lewis

Jesus never stopped talking, in case you were wondering.

While the lectionary came to a halt at 14:14 last week, Jesus didn’t and so we pick up where we left off. This section of text first introduces the Holy Spirit as the Advocate in John’s Gospel. It is important to note that a sustained discussion of the Holy Spirit first occurs at this juncture in the Gospel and not earlier in the narrative.

While there have been references to the Spirit up until this point, this specific understanding and portrait of the Holy Spirit are reserved for the Farewell Discourse. Why is that? As a reminder, the Farewell Discourse, or chapters 13-17, is Jesus’ words of good-bye to his disciples, aware of his imminent arrest, but more so, sets forth the larger theological trajectory of his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension.

One entry into this text is to ask, what is it that the disciples need to hear from Jesus about the function and purpose of the Holy Spirit in this moment? Answering this question will get at the heart of any kind of meaningful understanding of what difference the Holy Spirit actually makes for our lives.

In hindsight, the work of the Holy Spirit makes sense of how Jesus can say what he did in the opening verses of this chapter. 14:12 should seem virtually impossible unless the Holy Spirit was and is present. In fact, 14:12 foreshadows how Jesus first describes the Holy Spirit as “another advocate.” If the Holy Spirit is another Advocate then that means there has been an Advocate already, Jesus.

As a result, we are invited to imagine that one way of understanding the role of the Holy Spirit is to reread the Gospel up until this point and notice what Jesus has done. To have seen Jesus at work is to anticipate the work of the Holy Spirit. That the imagination for the presentation of the Holy Spirit is first grounded in the experiences of and encounters with Jesus provides a grounding and tangibility to what is otherwise a rather ethereal tenet of Trinitarian belief.

There are reasons why we rarely hear sermons on the Holy Spirit unless it is Pentecost Sunday or there is direct mention of the third person of the Trinity in the text itself. If we are honest, a lot of us have a rather dysfunctional pneumatology. We don’t quite know what to do with or think about the “shy member” of the Trinity. Perhaps this is the year to change that.

There are several important clues to what the Holy Spirit does that gain a fuller meaning when the larger context of the Fourth Gospel is brought into play. First, this is the Spirit of truth. Jesus has just revealed himself as the way, the truth, and the life (14:6) and in the trial before Pilate, the concept of truth will play a major role (18:37-38).

In the trial narrative, the truth is to which Jesus testifies and “everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” The truth is synonymous with Jesus. Jesus is the truth. Later in the Farewell Discourse, Jesus promises, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth (16:13).

Second, the disciples know the Spirit, and to “know” in the Gospel of John is to be in relationship. The Spirit abides with you and will be in you, abiding also being one and the same as relationship in the Fourth Gospel. The Spirit will also be in you, a foreshadowing of Jesus breathing into the disciples the Spirit in 20:22. Third, the coming of the Spirit, the promise of the Spirit, means that the disciples will not be orphaned (14:18), a particularly poignant claim.

This specific assurance of not being abandoned, without a parent, calls to mind the strong parental theme across the entirety of this Gospel, between Jesus and the Father, but also between the Father and those who believe. The Prologue asserted that “all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (1:12). In this section of chapter 14 we find the fulfillment of that promise.

What if you preach the coming gift of the Holy Spirit before Pentecost, just like this passage from John anticipates that you will? Lay the groundwork for Pentecost rather than dumping the entirety of the Spirit into one Sunday. And when you get to the Day of Pentecost, preach John’s Spirit rather than the one portrayed in Numbers, Psalms, 1 Corinthians, or Acts. In other words, start suggesting that there’s life beyond Easter Sunday and it has everything to do with the Spirit.

That this text is located in the Sundays after Easter promises that the presence and power of Jesus will extend beyond the empty tomb, beyond Easter, and well into this next season we call Pentecost. All too often, the resurrection is preached as a culmination rather than an inauguration, the ultimate believer’s reality rather than the penultimate promise, especially for the Gospel of John.

A primary theological assumption throughout the Farewell Discourse is that there’s more to being a child of God than being raised from the dead. The crucifixion will indeed bring to an end the incarnation, but the resurrection is not the end all of eternal life. For the Gospel of John, the ascension is the final surety that secures every single claim about abundant life.

To preach the promise of the Spirit and the assurance of Jesus’ ascension in the middle of the Easter season may very well get us out of our resurrection ruts, that the resurrection is all that God has in store for us. In fact, it isn’t and it could very well sound like an empty platitude. I have a feeling there will be people in the pews asking, so what exactly am I supposed to do with Easter anyway? I’m still here. So, get them ready for Pentecost. Preach that there’s Christian life beyond a discovery of an empty tomb. Help them imagine that resurrection is a matter of death and life, even life right here and now.


First Reading

Commentary on Acts 17:22-31

Mikeal C. Parsons

Paul was the chosen instrument to carry Christ’s name to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15).

Yet only twice in Acts is Paul’s missionary preaching aimed at an exclusively Gentile audience: in Paul’s address to the residents at Lystra (Acts 14:15-17) and in Paul’s Areopagus speech delivered in Athens (17:22-31).

To understand the rhetorical and cultural strategies of Paul’s Areopagus speech, we must take into account the passing note made by Luke in Acts 17:21: “Now, all the Athenians and the foreigners living among them spent their time in nothing other than (trying) either to say or to hear something novel.” Despite the Athenians’ insatiable appetite for “new things” (well known in antiquity: Demosthenes, Oration 4:10; Aristophanes, Eq. 1260-63), Paul demonstrates that the true identity of the “unknown God” is anything but new.

The Areopagus sermon is the fullest and most dramatic speech of Paul’s missionary career. Anticipated by the shorter address in Lystra (14:15-17) and consistent with the kerygma Paul presents to the Gentiles in his letters (cf. Romans 1-3; 1 Thessalonians 1), this address provides a window into how Paul dealt with the Gentiles in other places. The speech may be outlined as follows:

A: Introduction — Evidence of the ignorance of pagan worship (17:22-23)
B: The object of true worship is the one Creator God (17:24-25)
C: Proper relationship between humanity and God (17:26-28)
B´: The object of false worship are the idols of gold, silver, or stone (17:29)
A´: Conclusion — The time of ignorance is now over (17:30-31)

The sermon begins with Paul’s attempt to curry the favor of his audience with a compliment: “Athenians! I see that you are very religious in every way” (17:22b). His evidence for their religiosity is taken from his tour of the city: “For as I walked around and carefully observed your objects of worship, I even discovered an altar upon which had been inscribed, ‘To an unknown god’” (17:23a). Paul uses the inscription as a point of departure for the remainder of his speech; within the compliment is an implicit criticism: “that which you worship in ignorance, this is what I am proclaiming to you” (17:23b). The Athenians had been worshipping an object, not a personal God, a “what,” not a “whom.”

Paul then claims that this unknown God is none other than the Creator God(17:24-25). The concept of a creator deity was not unknown to the Greeks (see Epictetus, Diatr. 4.7.6), but there is no other god worthy of worship; indeed, ultimately Paul would argue there is no other God. Though Paul does not quote Scripture, his monotheism is biblically grounded (cf. 1 Kings 8:27; 2 Chronicles 6:18; Isa 42:5).

This emphasis on God the creator (who is separate from the created order) also echoes earlier speeches in Acts: 4:24; 7:48-50; 14:15. The statement that God has “need of nothing” echoes both Jewish (“the Deity stands in need of nothing”; Josephus, Ant. 8.4.3.111) and pagan philosophical (“God has need of nothing”; Euripides, Herc. fur.1345-46) views of God’s self-sufficiency. Furthermore, that such a God is not to be worshipped in human-made temples also resonates both with Jewish (Isa 57:15; Josephus, Ant. 8.3.2.114) and pagan (Lucian of Samosata, Sacr. 11) traditions. The argument here also specifically echoes some Stoic teaching, e.g., “It is Zeno’s teaching that one should not build temples of the gods” (Plutarch, Mor. 1034B), although as we shall see, however much Paul wishes to identify with his audience, in the end, he proclaims a distinctively Christian message.

Paul then speaks of God’s creative act of humanity: “From a single person he made every race of people”(17:26). Despite possible connections to the Platonic notion of the “one” and the ‘many” (Pato, Resp. 596a), Paul is not echoing the Platonic, philosophical “one,” but rather the “one man” Adam from whom the human race descended (Genesis 2:7; see Luke 3:23-28 and 17:31 below).

This same God also “established orderly seasons and boundaries.” Once again, this claim resonates with a Greco-Roman understanding (Cicero, Tusc. 1.28.68-69), but it also is grounded in Jewish understanding of God’s creative work in separating “space and time in orderly fashion” (Genesis 1:24; Deuteronomy 32:8; Psalm 73:17; Wisdom 7:17-19). Humanity is created “to live” within this cosmos and “to seek God.” “Seeking God” is a biblical theme (Isa 51:1; Psalms 26:8; 104:4; Proverbs 16:15; 28:5; Sirach 2:15).

The next phrase expands on the nature of our seeking: “If only they might really search hard for him and find (the one)” (17:27). That God is “not far from any one of us” is, however, a cause for hope. In fact, the book of Acts, with its various epiphanies of God’s voice, Spirit, angel, and Anointed One (Acts 2; 9; 10-11; 12; 13; 16; etc.), confirms Paul’s claim of God’s immanence. But does the experience of the divine come through human fumbling and groping after it or is it God who enables our apprehension of his presence?

In anticipation of such a question, Paul claims: “For in him we live and move and exist(17:28). The triad of live, move, and exist underscores the fact that our very existence depends utterly and absolutely on God. In God, we live, move (search?!), and exist. Paul’s “natural theology” is grounded in the enabling presence of God.

Paul’s argument then pivots, not on an Old Testament quotation, but rather a citation from one“of your own poets”:“For we too are his offspring” (17:28b). The quotation is presumably from the Stoic philosopher Aratus (Phaen. 5; cf. Clement of Alexander, Strom. 1.19.91). Nonetheless, the underlying sense of the quotation has a biblical grounding, picking up the allusion above to the “one” Adam, the “son of God” (cf. Luke 3:38). That is, we are God’s offspring, created in God’s image (cf. Genesis 1:26).

Building on his last statement, Paul contrasts the object of true worship (17:24-25) with an account of the false worship of idols (17:29). Here then is the basis for Paul’s attack on idolatry which follows: “we are God’s offspring”; thus, humans are the true image of God. Therefore no image made “by a person’s skill and creativity” could possibly be anything other than a distortion of the image of the one, true God (17:29). The condemnation of idolatry is standard in Jewish polemic (Deuteronomy 4:28; Psalms 113:12; 134:25; Isaiah 40:18; 44:9-20; Wisdom 13:5, 10; 15:16-17; cf. Acts 7:41-43), but is not altogether missing in pagan philosophy (Dio Chrysostom, Dei cogn.80-83).

Paul ends his sermon by announcing that the time of ignorance is over and calling for eschatological repentance (17:30-31). Now Paul’s purpose is clear. He is not seeking to add a new god to the Athenian Pantheon; he is rather seeking the Athenians’ repentance! God will no longer “overlook” this ignorance (cf. 14:16; Romans 3:25); now is the time for repentance (17:30).

Just as God had made all the nations to inhabit the whole earth from one man (17:26), so God will judge the world through the one man whom God appointed (cf. Romans 5). That this man is Jesus is confirmed when Paul says that God raised him the dead (17:31). Paul has deferred the misunderstood subject of resurrection (17:18) until the end of his speech. The sermon ends with God as the main actor: God overlooks, commands, sets the day, judges the world and provides proof through the resurrection.

Paul’s Areopagus speech is sometimes unfairly criticized: 1) for lacking explicit citations to Scripture, which led 2) to the speech’s failure to win converts among the Athenians. But as we have seen, Paul’s argument is thoroughly grounded in the thought world of biblical Judaism (and Christianity) despite its lack of scriptural citations. And a peek at the very end of the story suggests that while some of Paul’s audience did mock him (17:32a), others promised to hear him again (17:32b), and still others “joined him and believed” (17:34). So goes the proclamation of the Gospel!

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.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 66:8-20

Jerome Creach

Psalm 66:8-20 is part of a hymn that extols God’s mighty deeds on behalf of God’s people.

God’s mighty deeds on behalf of God’s people. Verses 1-12 are oriented toward the Israelites and how God saved them, pointing specifically to God saving them at the Red Sea (verse 6). But the psalm concludes with the testimony of an individual who thanks God for rescuing her or him out of trouble (verses 13-20). The shift from communal to individual orientation has led some scholars to surmise that Psalm 66 is actually a combination of two psalms that were originally separate.

The two sections of the psalm are connected, however, by the call to “come” and see/hear what God has done (verses 5 and 16). The particular section of the psalm that comprises the lectionary reading ties communal and individual emphases together with the word “bless” (in verses 8 (“Bless our God”) and 20 (“Blessed be God”). If Psalm 66 was performed in ancient Israelite worship, the thanksgiving portion in verses13-20 likely accompanied sacrifices made by an individual who represented the community as a whole.

Verse 8 begins with an imperative addressed to all humankind (“Bless our God, O peoples”), thus indicating that God’s goodness to Israel was to serve as testimony about God’s goodness to all. Verse 9 states again that God saved Israel (“us”) by “keeping us among the living.”

But then verses 10-12a recall how God tested and punished Israel before bringing them “to a spacious place” (66:12b). Hence, these verses reveal God’s true character. The Lord who brought Israel out of Egypt is not just a God who is partial to this people to the detriment of others. Indeed, God shows his concern about justice and equality by rescuing Israel from bondage but also by punishing Israel for unfaithfulness.

This section of the psalm is the reason it is read during the Easter season. That God has “kept us among the living” and “did not let our feet slip” is a metaphor for God’s care for the worshipping community that draws from images of and concerns about the underworld. The psalm shows keen awareness that God is the giver of life, the one who saves the people from slipping into death. It also reveals a crucially important point about Easter: resurrection is not just for the end of life; it is a paradigm for God’s work always to bring us from death to life.

In verse 13 the psalm shifts to first-person voice. It is no longer “all the peoples” who praise God. Now, an individual believer professes faith and makes promises to worship. Verses 13-15 are structured around the psalmist’s promise to bring burnt offerings “into your house” (which probably refers to the temple in Jerusalem). Verse 13a makes this promise initially, and the promise appears again in greater detail in verse 15.

In between is the explanation that such offerings will fulfill the vows the psalmist made when in trouble (verses 13b-14). The vows were not empty pledges or attempts to manipulate God. The offerings made give evidence to that fact. Rather, the vows are a sign of the faith of the psalmist who expressed in them his or her gratitude for and dependence on God.

Verses 16-20 again begin with a plural imperative. This time, however, the call is given by the individual who spoke in verses 13-15 to “those who fear God” to “listen” to testimony of God’s acts for the psalmist (verse 16). The main message is that the psalmist cried out to God and God heeded the prayer (verse 19).

This is general language. It is reminiscent, however, of language in Exodus. The term “listen” appears in Exodus 3:7, and “steadfast love” (verse 20) occurs in Exodus 3:15. So, it seems the exodus story has become the model for the psalmist’s personal experience of being brought from death to life. The account of God’s rescuing the Israelites from slavery has given shape to the psalmist’s own testimony of deliverance.

Verses 16-20 are addressed to “those who fear God.” This description refers to those who stand humbly before God and who worship God rightly as a result. The individual who gives testimony in these verses also speaks as one who “fears God.” He or she praised God (66:17) after carefully examining his or her heart for evil thoughts (“cherished iniquity;” 66:18). This testimony does not claim moral purity. Rather, it claims right relationship with God, relationship characterized by reliance on God for forgiveness and salvation.

The description of sacrifices in verses 13-15 may seem at odds with other psalms that downplay the importance of sacrifices in favor of prayer and spiritual devotion (Psalms 40:6; 50:12-15, 23; 69:30-31; 141:2). These other psalms do not reject sacrifice per se, but the kind of empty ritual the Prophets also rejected (e.g. Amos 5:21-24). Psalm 66, however, presents sacrifice as a way to make faith live.

To be sure, ritual is in some ways not “real life.” It is dramatic, rehearsed, and “staged” action. Nevertheless, ritual is essential for faith for at least two reasons. One, it reminds us that our faith is incarnational. It is always lived faith, public faith. It is never purely personal or internal. Two, ritual can remind us of how we ought to live when we don’t feel like living. In the case of Psalm 66:13-15, the psalmist’s example sets before us the importance of formal expressions of gratitude in response to God’s grace.

This is particularly pertinent to the issue of financial stewardship. The reference to sacrifices in this psalm does not apply to us directly. We no longer make the kind of sacrifices described here. But the purpose of the sacrifice is captured in our tithes and offerings. When we take seriously that giving is a ritual, we remind ourselves that our offerings are thanksgiving for what God has done. They are not responses to a particular service of worship or to a church’s program. By regular giving of our finances we are thus reminded that all of life is to be given in response to God.


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Peter 3:13-22

James Boyce

The trumpets, the fanfare, and the antiphonal shouts of “He is risen! He is risen, indeed!” have receded into the background. 

It is now the sixth Sunday of Easter; by now it may be somewhat difficult to sustain the excitement and positive outlook that only a few short weeks ago seemed so ready at hand. By now we have begun to settle in once again into the drudgery, the lack-luster, the “same-old, same-old” of the mundane daily tasks and worries that characterize life in the real world.

If we recognize any of those sentiments or feelings, then perhaps we can understand in some way what must have been the experience of the recipients of the letter of Peter, living as they were toward the end of the first century. Our distance from the celebration of Easter, even though only a few weeks away, may offer a glimpse of what must have been the experience of this people.

Living now some seventy years after that first Easter event, they can perhaps be forgiven for having difficulty keeping alive the freshness of that first Easter announcement of our Lord’s Resurrection and the accompanying promise of new life in him. But their distance from Easter and the accompanying delay of Christ’s return are not the only problems they face.

The letter makes clear that this community, as it seeks to remain faithful and to live lives that befit a good conscience, is constantly beset by the antagonism and outright persecution of those among whom they live. The double whammy of a fading sense of the resurrection and the very real experience of daily suffering are almost more than they can bear. To such a setting and people the writer addresses a word of encouragement through the restatement and assurances of the promissory implications of Easter.

It perhaps goes without saying, but this people, and perhaps we as well, can afford to hear the announcement reaffirmed once again. No matter what present experience may imply to the contrary, Jesus Christ is Lord. In the reading for today, the writer opens by encouraging his hearers to work against all the signs of intimidation in their lives by keeping the acknowledgement of Christ as their Lord at the center of their hearts (3:15).

In fact this encouraging word is set as a frame around the reading. His words give assurance of Christ’s post-Easter power and authority now marked by his position at the right hand of God, with all the powers of the universe now subject to his authority. To have Christ as Lord is to know that power in life even when all the signs of the surrounding world seem to testify to the contrary.

Every reader of the New Testament is familiar with Paul’s triad of faith, hope, and love, and his remark that the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13). But for the audience of this letter, the more important of these gifts is hope; hope is at risk for those who have difficulty keeping hope alive in the midst of their troubled lives.

So it is both instructive and effective that the letter opens with a beautiful assertion of the blessing of God’s mercy accomplished in the raising of Jesus Christ from the dead and now bestowed on the believers through their “new birth into a living hope.” Not only is this a present and living hope, but it is kept in safety, on deposit as it were, in heaven, and so under God’s faithful protection as an “inheritance” that is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading” (1 Peter 1:3-5). Again in 1:21 the author appeals to that hope; faith and hope are linked together as grounded in the conviction that God raised Jesus from the dead.

Assertion of that living hope appears at the heart of today’s reading (3:15), indicating how important a theme it is for the whole of 1 Peter. Resurrection and hope belong together. And the hearers are encouraged by a double aspect of this attitude of hope. First, in case the readers are hesitant to believe, there is an implied assumption and with it the assurance that this hope is “in you.” And then, lest that hope be allowed to stagnate without being used, the readers are challenged to be at the ready to “give a defense,” to state in open testimony, that this hope, indeed, dwells in them.

Still, in the midst of all this talk of “hope,” the presenting issue remains the “suffering” that stalks this community. That the author recognizes suffering to be an overwhelming issue for this community is clear from the repeated references to suffering in this letter (twelve explicit uses of the verb suffer out of a total of only forty two in the whole New Testament). The implied complaint is compelling and painful. If God has raised Jesus from the dead, and Jesus Christ is Lord, then why living in the season of Easter do we keep suffering, and especially even when we are “doing what is right.” How can this be justice? Where is the hope in that?

These are not easy questions to answer any more for 1 Peter’s readers than they are for us. The author offers at least two responses. First is the reminder that righteous suffering was modeled in Christ’s own death. On the cross the righteous suffered for the unrighteous, for us; and so our suffering imitates the suffering of Christ and joins us to him. The second is the encouragement, then, to bear this suffering and to continue to do good by not repaying evil treatment with evil. In the midst of suffering you may not be able to control the evil, but you can control how you respond by continuing to do good even in the midst of suffering.

If one asks how it is possible to live in such hope, the answer lies in pointing to the event of baptism. The new birth in the waters of baptism (1:3), just as in the case of Noah and his family, is a sign of God’s protection and salvation because it is linked in its promise to the resurrection — to God’s having raised Jesus from the dead and exalted him to a position of power and authority as the seal of God’s promises (3:21-22).

Several important attributes of character belong to this living hope to which the readers are called and encouraged. Though they are challenged to be able to give an accounting for their hope, that public accounting is to be done with “gentleness and reverence” (3.16). Confidence in hope and in knowing that this hope is grounded in God’s protection and salvation, however correct the theology, does not lead to brow-beating or forceful pressure for submission or agreement.

This is a tough hope that will live as tested only through suffering. The final testimony of the truth of their witness will be seen in their good conduct which will imitate their Lord and will of its own accord put to shame the evil deeds of their adversaries.

Accordingly, twice in the reading the author points to the rewards of a behavior that is guided by this living hope–a good conscience (3:16, 21; see also 2:19). Who can harm you, if you remain eager to do what is good? The words seem to recall somewhat the words of Paul to the Romans: “If we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience…We know that all things work together for good for those who love God…If God is for us, who is against us?” (Romans 8:25, 28, 31)

Even in the midst of suffering, God’s blessing is assured (3:14). Our hope is grounded in the surety that God has raised Jesus from the dead. Christ’s resurrection and the new birth of baptism that joins us both to his suffering and to that resurrection power stands against all signs to the contrary and calls us to good work in the world. This good work has the power to shame every sign of evil that would seek to argue against the love and mercy of God.