Lectionary Commentaries for May 21, 2017
Sixth Sunday of Easter (Year A)
Commentary on John 14:15-21
Commentary on Acts 17:22-31
Today’s text occurs in Athens.
Paul has been brought here to escape violent opposition (Acts 16-17:15). In Athens, he preaches in the synagogues and marketplace (17:16-17). Epicureans bring him to the Areopagus, wanting to know more. After this speech, a few Athenians turn to Paul and to the gospel; then he departs Athens for Corinth.
The opening of today’s passage establishes Paul’s location as the Areopagus, and praises the devotion of the Athenian men gathered (17:22). Then, Luke lays out Paul’s reason for speaking: to declare the truth of the unknown God. Verses 23-26 begin Paul’s theological statement. God, Paul argues, does not dwell in buildings, nor is God served by human beings, as though the creator of all might need anything. Rather, God has made from one all peoples of the earth for the purpose of dwelling on the earth in fixed boundaries, and seeking after God who is never far away.
Luke then connects Paul’s theology with the poetry of the poet Aratus. This connects Paul’s very Jewish theology with the theology of the Gentiles, demonstrating that Paul is not babbling as the Epicureans charge (17:17). Paul continues by refuting the practice of making statues of gods, and worshiping them, for God does not take a golden, silver, or stone form. The implication of Paul’s message: people should repent from idolatry and turn to “a man” who has been raised, and who, in God’s time, will judge.
Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus: Standing is a common posture for declamation in Acts (2:14; 5:20; 25:18; 27:21). The Areopagus is a rock outcropping downhill from the Acropolis, the temple to Athena, that served primarily as a court of law for trying homicides. Paul’s speech is political as well as religious, for the worship of the gods was a political act. He rises to declare God’s judgment in an Athenian court.
Athenian men: Speeches in ancient historiography were usually the invention of the author, in this case, the author of Luke/Acts. As with many of the speeches in Acts, Luke has Paul addressing the men rather than the entire crowd. Similar patterns can be seen in Acts 2:22, 3:12, 5:35, 7:2 and so on. This gendered language is masked by some contemporary translations.
I see you as devout in all things: In ancient rhetoric, this would be the exordium or introductory section. The purpose here is to make the audience well-disposed to hear you. Paul does so by acknowledging the devoutness of his audience.
I found an altar on which had been written, “To an unknown God”: Such altars existed in various places throughout the Roman world. Paul uses this as the launching point for his primary proposition that the God the Athenians called “unknown” was the creator of heaven and earth.
Does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands: Here Luke is arguing, first, against pagan forms of worship. However, underlying his argument is a long-running theological discussion about the appropriateness of Temple worship in Judaism (2 Samuel 7:5; Isaiah 66:6), a discussion that also emerges in Stephen’s diatribe in Acts 7:48. For Luke’s audience, who heard Acts read after the fall of the Temple, the theological importance of the Temple would have been a major concern.
From one ancestor: For many, the more familiar translation is “from one blood.” The word blood (haimatos) seems to be a later addition found in the Bezae manuscript, on which the King James Version relies. The argument hearkens back to Genesis 9, in which God is said to have made the nations of the world through Noah’s three sons, and indeed back to the creation story of Genesis 2. This verse was commonly cited by abolitionist preachers to oppose the enslavement of Africans and their descendants and the segregation that arose in its wake; and to argue that all people are created equal by God.
That they would search for God: Through Paul’s speech, Luke argues that in creating humanity God’s intent was that humanity would search for God. The call to seek for God draws on themes found in Deuteronomy 4:29, Isaiah 55:6 and Jeremiah 23:23, and 29:13-14; as well as in Psalm 145:18, among other places.
In him we live and move and have our being: Luke quotes the poem Phaenomena by the Greek poet Aratus. The poem is an ode to Zeus, rather than to the God of Israel. Nevertheless, Luke excerpts it here, perhaps to give the lie to the charge that Paul was a “babbler” preaching foreign concepts (17:18).
We ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone: This is the crux of Luke’s argument. If we are God’s offspring, living, moving, and being in God, how can we imagine that God is like a precious metal or a stone?
He commands all people everywhere to repent: After laying out his argument, Paul turns to his peroration, or emotional appeal. This contains the first allusion to Jesus Christ in the entire speech: “a man,” appointed by God, attested to by resurrection, and who will judge God’s world with justice. Most manuscripts never mention Jesus by name.
Today’s lectionary text encourages us to view the entire created order as the place of God’s dwelling. God is near to us, as close as every motion and breath, and wishes to be found by those who seek. Further, all people are God’s people. Luke makes no differentiation between the church and others. This inspires awe, and also repentance for not seeking, not paying attention to the God in whom we live, move, and have our being. Particularly, we are exhorted to repent from the human inventions we worship in place of God. Finally, the end of the vision is justice, brought about through Jesus, the man attested by God through resurrection.
Commentary on Psalm 66:8-20
God makes the whole world shout “Hooray!”
It’s just this sort of shout, hari‘u, that begins Psalm 66. Hari‘u is an imperative verb meaning: “(Hey, all of you) make some noise! Shout!”
The verb appears in a number of contexts, with the most common being celebrations (Isaiah 44:23; Zephaniah 3:14) and descriptions of conflict and victory, where it is often translated “raise a war cry” (Joshua 6:10, 16, 20; 1 Samuel 17:20, 52). In Psalm 66, this gigantic “hooray!” from the whole earth (verse 1) expresses joy to be sure, as many translations have suggested: “Make a joyful noise” (NRSV); “Shout joyfully” (CEB). Yet the verb also signals that everyone and everything should participate in God’s victory. The psalm suggests that God has won and God is winning throughout the whole world.
The opening shout of hooray (verse 1) initiates a string of imperative verbs, “sing … give praise … say” (verses 2-3). “All the earth” experiences God’s victorious power and responds to it with exultation (verses 2, 4). In fact, the power of God is evident to everyone. While enemies “cringe” (verse 3) before a victorious God, faithful communities rejoice as they bear witness to God’s saving acts throughout history.
A narrowing focus on God’s actions
As the psalm progresses, its focus narrows. The psalm begins with a summons for the whole world to praise God (verses 1-4). Yet the psalm soon shifts to describe God’s interactions with a particular people (verses 5-12) and ends with a meditation on God’s relationship with a particular person (verses 13-20), the unnamed “I” of the psalm.
The rhetorical effect is akin to a camera zooming in from a wide angle to a tightly cropped frame around the psalmist. God’s overall victory throughout the world means that God intervenes for communities. Likewise, God’s actions for communities have implications for individuals.
The complexity of God’s actions
But how does the psalm understand God’s activity? The psalmist gives a very complicated portrayal of God’s relationship to the community. God is the source of salvation to be sure (verses 8-9). Yet the community also attributes its hardships to God’s action, God’s inaction, and the community’s own actions.
The community begins by describing an experience of God leading the people into dangerous and difficult places (verses 10-12). To be tried “as silver is tried” (verse 10) evokes a vivid image of being heated to the point at which metal liquefies. At these temperatures, impurities float to the surface and can be skimmed off. The community thus imagines some suffering to have pedagogical or purgative effects.
Other forms of suffering seem to be less clearly motivated by some positive outcome. It is hard to imagine the justification for God actively ensnaring the community or laying burdens on their backs (verse 10). It is also difficult to understand why God would allow suffering to befall the community in the form of oppression: “you let people ride over our heads” (verse 12a). It seems that the community suffers sometimes from God’s inactivity.
There is still one other form of suffering described, where the primary agents seem to be the people themselves. It is the community itself that goes “through fire and through water” (verse 12b). Indeed, it is quite common for the psalmist (and the Bible more broadly) to describe suffering in this polymorphous way, where suffering can be understood as (a) divinely ordained testing, (b) the result of divine inactivity, and (c) the result of human activity.
According to Psalm 66, the experience of suffering defies easy categorization. It frustrates all our attempts to explain in a definitive way how or why suffering happens.
While the psalmist presents a complex picture about the causes of the suffering, there is a clear and unambiguous source of salvation, namely, God’s action: “you have brought us out to a spacious place” (verse 12b). Put differently, though psalmist praises God from whom all blessings flow, these verses complicate any simplistic assertions about the source from which all sufferings flow.
Human response to God’s actions
On the heels of celebrating God’s actions for the community (verses 8-12), the psalmist suggests the appropriate individual activities in light of God’s victory (verses 13-20). It turns out that shouting “Hooray for God!” (verses 1) is only part of the human response to God’s victorious power.
The reality of God’s power means that human life is oriented toward obedience and worship. The psalmist brings to God that which is costly and precious: sacrifices and offerings (verses 13-15). This sort of language is difficult for modern Christians to understand. But at its heart, this sacrificial system shows that God’s activity makes the psalmist think differently about what matters, what holds value. Items of great value (like livestock in the ancient agrarian cultures) take on new value when they are dedicated as a sacrifice in God’s service.
Indeed, the psalmist’s life itself takes on a new value. Like the sacrifices that attest to God’s power in the world, the psalmist’s words and actions provide a testimony. Evidence for God’s power emerges from the words of the psalmist. The cries of praise and the cries of petition (verse 17) all bear witness to God’s power.
Can we shout “Hooray”?
Many of us find it difficult to see God’s victory on clear display in our messy, violent world and in the chaos that often threatens to overwhelm our communities and our personal lives. Into these places of suffering and sin, Psalm 66 calls us nevertheless to recognize God’s victory.
This psalm affirms that suffering eschews any easy explanation, even as it insists on shouting about God’s final triumph. That triumph demands that we orient our lives around the reality of God’s victory.
By the power of the Holy Spirit, the divine victory of God in Jesus Christ changes how we think, act, and speak. God changes the value of everything we have, enabling us to see ourselves as a living witnesses to God’s power.
Commentary on 1 Peter 3:13-22
Jeannine K. Brown
Suffering is a central issue in the letter of 1 Peter, and it is a central focus of this week’s lectionary text.
Peter has been bringing both words of hope and caution to his readers in the first chapters of the letter. They should act in ways that are honorable and holy (1:15-17; 3:10-12) so that their neighbors and even family members (3:1) have no reason to criticize them (2:11-12). The tension inherent in their situation comes to the fore in our passage, where Peter asks the question that seems to be plaguing his audience: “Who will harm you if you are zealous for good?” (3:13; Common English Bible).
You see, these followers of Jesus in Asia Minor are on the receiving end of slander and malicious talk (2:11-12, 15). The reason for this treatment is their allegiance to Jesus as the only Lord (3:15) in a context where withdrawing from temple worship of their former gods is tantamount to sedition (4:3-4). Into this difficult situation, Peter advises the followers to adhere as much as possible to the expectations of state and household: “Submit to [emperor and governors] because it’s God’s will that by doing good you will silence the ignorant talk of foolish people” (2:15; see also 2:18; 3:1).
So, when Peter asks the question of 3:13, his audience could easily respond that they have been harmed precisely for doing good — for following their Lord in full allegiance. Peter asks the question, it seems, to call for even deeper reflection on their situation. He will readily concede in the very next breath that it is possible for his audience to suffer slander even as they live worthy lives (3:14; also 4:19). But he seems to want his readers and hearers to do a double check when this kind of external pressure comes their way.
The need for self-reflection comes into even greater focus in verse 17 where the author wonders aloud about the incongruity of suffering for doing good — “(if this could possibly be God’s will).” Peter is bent on ensuring that the slander directed toward these Christians comes from their allegiance to Jesus and nothing else.
Pursuing allegiance is a central exhortation of this passage: “set Christ apart as Lord in your hearts” (3:15; New English Translation). In a world of many lords and gods (compare to 1 Corinthians 8:5), the Petrine believers are to have only one Lord and are to be ready to speak to the hope they share in common with the community of faith (3:15b). And by speaking of their hope respectfully, humbly, and honorably, they will remain above reproach even if they are slandered by neighbors and family members. The hope held out is that their honorable behavior will in the end put to shame those who slander them.
In the rest of 1 Peter 3, Peter offers the example of Jesus to encourage his readers, as he did in 2:18-25. Here he offers the narrative trajectory of Jesus’ life to give them hope. As Jesus was vindicated after he had suffered unjustly (3:18-22), so these beleaguered followers of Jesus can look forward to vindication if they commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good (4:19; New International Version).
There are numerous interpretive difficulties in 3:18-22; most notably the identity of the disobedient and imprisoned spirits, the nature of Christ’s preaching or proclamation to them, and the source or rationale for the analogy between Noah’s situation and the Petrine context. An answer to these three significant textual questions comes from the Jewish apocalyptic book, 1 Enoch, which dates from about the second century B.C.E. In Enoch 6-16, we hear an expanded interpretation of Genesis 6-9 in its narration of the exponential growth of human sinfulness and the subsequent flood, which only Noah’s family survived. In 1 Enoch, the Nephilim (Genesis 6:4), now called the Watchers, give birth to evil spirits (1 Enoch 15:8) who bring great wickedness upon the earth that is the impetus for the great flood.
The author of 1 Peter seems to draw on this expanded telling of sin and flood from Enoch to assert Christ’s proclamation of victory over all evil (3:19), including these spirits “in prison,” a picture of God’s patient restraining versus destruction of them (3:20).1 Christ’s victory over death brings his full lordship over “all angels, authorities, and powers” (3:22), including these spirits who epitomize evil.
Because of his resurrection — his vindication, those who trust Jesus can be assured that they, like Noah’s family, will be rescued through water, an analogy for Christian baptism (3:20-21). If, as it is quite possible, the readers of 1 Peter knew these Enochian traditions,2 then in 3:18-22 they hear the story of Jesus’ vindication after suffering and his removal of all contending powers. Jesus’ storyline is meant to give hope that their own suffering will turn into vindication.
An important issue when contextualizing any part of 1 Peter is to exercise caution in making assumptions about one-to-one correspondence between then and now. Especially since first-century Christianity in Asia Minor was a minority and marginalized group, we’ll want to be careful in making direct comparisons between Christians then and Christians for example, in the U.S. today, where Christians often have significant advantages in relation to people of other faiths.3
Yet some of the motifs we hear in this text of 1 Peter may very well resonate within our own contexts. As Peter presses his readers to greater self-reflection to ensure that any suffering they are experiencing comes from and only from their allegiance to Christ, so we might caution our congregations to not too quickly assume that any persecution they encounter arises because of their faith. It always remains a possibility that they are being maligned for bad behavior and not for good. As we find ourselves in an increasingly pluralistic society, we will want to think carefully about such dynamics and lead our congregations to do so as well.
And when suffering seems to be winning the day, we can offer people the story of Jesus to give them hope (3:18-22). Although Jesus suffered unjustly, God vindicated and exalted him. This God cares about righting wrongs that have been done. And such a God is worthy of our faith and hope (1:21).
1) Jobes, Karen H. 1 Peter. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 244
2) Jobes, Karen H. 1 Peter. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 246
3) Larson, Marion H. and Sara L. H. Shady. From Bubble to Bridge: Educating Christians for a
Multifaith World. (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2017), 57-61
For many years, tradition and biblical studies held that the Gospel of John was understood to be the “Spiritual” Gospel.
This generally meant two things: it did not provide historical content (i.e., not much historical value), and was simply ahistorical/spiritual in nature rather than being contextually relevant. Liberals/progressive pastoralists, theologians, and eventually, liberationists, tended to ignore John’s Gospel in favor of the more “historical” gospels. The implication was that esoteric ideas were not very useful in addressing then-present day challenges. Interestingly for conservatives, John’s Gospel became a favorite. It offered “eternal” truths that fortified traditional theological tenets — especially John, 14:6 — “Jesus saith unto him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life: no one cometh unto the Father, but by me.’”
These initial views of Johannine literature and the scholarship of the Gospel began to take a shift in thought. It began to view the Johannine corpus as a literary genre intended not for historical purposes, but perhaps intended to be purposefully ideological and contextual (i.e., responding to very specific needs). Although the synoptic gospels all do this, John’s Gospel engages in contextualizing to a much greater degree.
In other words, we can assume that the redactor of the Gospel of John did a more extensive re-reading of the Jesus story so that he or she could respond to his or her contextual reality. I would therefore suggest to the preacher that this provides an opportunity for creativity within our sermons, in contextualizing them for our congregations. The Johannine literature gives us an opportunity to be creative and interpret Jesus’ story for the 21st century. This allows the Gospel to be more relevant to us today, in our daily lives.
This Gospel passage speaks to a very human reality: the fear we feel when we lose a loved one who played an important role in our lives. Those of us who have had such an experience know that we can become shaken and concerned about the future. It is easy to think, “How should I proceed when a strong personality in my family passes on?”
How can we live up to the example of our mothers, fathers and mentors? Who can replace Pope John Paul II, Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day, etc.? I can imagine the disciples probably asked themselves similar questions: “How can we keep The Commandments, our faith, and continue our struggle without the guidance of Jesus?
Knowing the challenges and persecution that the nascent church experienced, we can envision how significant Jesus’s words of assurance would have been to his disciples. It can be argued that the church today is traversing some uncertain and challenging times, and the Gospel of John is certainly a reminder that we are not alone. This lesson can be equally assuring now as it was then; to know that even today we are never abandoned by Jesus.
African Christian theologians have a great penchant for this passage because it has an affinity with traditional beliefs in African and Caribbean spiritual ancestor worship, such as the belief that our departed ancestors move on to higher levels of living, knowledge and wisdom, and henceforth are always there to guide us. These theologians see in this passage, Jesus coming back to guide his disciples through the Holy Spirit of truth. This truth continues to guide them and us, advocating for all of us. It can be said that the ancestors for people of African descent return in a superior state and with more power; likewise, the Spirit “takes over” for Jesus.
Jesus returns with limitless power via the Holy Spirit. The limitations of the embodiment of Jesus are no longer an impediment, because as can be seen in the Gospel of John, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.” The Holy Spirit has been sent for us, and without any physical constraints! The possibilities now appear endless. Through the Holy Spirit, or paraclete (someone called alongside), Jesus although contextually and physically limited, can walk by our side. The spirit is ubiquitous
In the history of the church whenever a historical epoch has occurred in which the Spirit has been given primacy, the barriers of sexism, classism, and all sorts of prejudices have been torn down. Now the spirit of truth is ever present not only to bring us to knowledge that we can be reconciled to God through Jesus, but that we will be able to discern values of justice, mercy and peace to which we should adhere with the discernment process that only the spirit of truth can provide us. The Holy Spirit, unrestrained by ethnicity, gender, class and sexuality, guides us to places beyond the physical and psychic limitations imposed by our bodies, experiences and historical realities.
I offer several follow up suggestions for preachers: Jesus, is ever present with each and every human being as we walk through this journey of life with the unrestrained guidance and wisdom of the Holy Spirit. This same spirit would not allow for the exclusion of a woman who was a Samaritan from the blessings of the Kingdom, as the Spirit will not allow for the exclusion of any among us today.