Lectionary Commentaries for May 17, 2020
Sixth Sunday of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 14:15-21

Craig R. Koester

The Spirit plays an essential role in Christian faith and yet is something many find hard to deal with in preaching.1

The art in our churches pictures episodes from Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. But the Spirit is more challenging to portray. The Spirit’s dove may hover above Jesus on stained glass windows, but the Spirit often remains on the margins when it comes to proclamation. And this is a problem.

On the one hand, some people equate the work of the Spirit with a particular kind of experience, such as excitement in worship or speaking in tongues. Others are content with a kind of vague spirituality that seems to be mainly a sense that there is something “out there” that we cannot name. So what might the gospel say about the work of God’s Spirit?

At the last supper Jesus has been telling the disciples about his coming departure, which raises the disturbing prospect of separation (John 13:33, 36; 14:2, 5). In years to come he knows that the disciples will feel like “orphans.” Easter will be a joyous reunion, but the resurrection appearances will not continue indefinitely. As the years pass, people will be called to believe in a Jesus they have never seen or heard. Jesus’ words and actions will be conveyed to them through the tradition of the church in a world that may seem indifferent at best and hostile at worst to the message about a crucified Messiah.

In this passage Jesus anticipates the Easter moment when he says, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you” and “because I live, you also will live” (14:18-19). The Easter message is that life rather than death has the final word, and this is crucial for faith. In John’s gospel, faith is a relationship with a living being. For there to be authentic faith in Jesus, people must be able to relate to the living Jesus–a Jesus who is not absent but present. Otherwise faith is reduced to the memory of a Jesus who died long ago.

But here is the conundrum: Why would anyone believe that authentic life comes from a Jesus who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, a Jesus whom they cannot see? The honest answer is that no one would believe it–apart from the work of the Spirit. For it is the Spirit who makes the presence of the living Jesus and his Father known.

Coming to faith is analogous to falling in love. One cannot fall in love in the abstract. Love comes through an encounter with another person. The same is true of faith. If faith is a relationship with the living Christ and the living God who sent him, then faith can only come through an encounter with them. And the Spirit is the one who makes this presence known.

John’s gospel calls the Spirit the parakletos or Advocate, a term for someone who is called to one’s side as a source of help. In modern contexts someone may serve as an advocate in the court system, in the health care network, or in an educational institution, while other advocates may press the legislature to act on behalf of a certain cause. A quick reading of John may give the impression that the Spirit is the Advocate who brings our case up before God in the hope that God will do something merciful for us. But here the direction is the opposite. God has already given the gift of love unstintingly through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and such love is what creates genuine life. The Spirit is the Advocate who brings the truth of that love and life to people in this time after Easter, which makes faith possible.

Jesus calls the Spirit “another” Advocate, which assumes that Jesus also was an Advocate (14:16). Jesus and the Spirit have some similar functions. For example, Jesus and the Spirit both come from the Father and are sent into the world. Jesus communicates what he has received from his Father and the Spirit declares what he has received from Jesus (7:17; 16:13). If Jesus glorifies God, the Spirit glorifies Jesus (16:14; 17:1). Both of them teach, bear witness to the truth, and expose the sin of the world (3:20; 7:14; 14:26; 15:26; 16:8; 18:37). And in both cases, the reaction is the same: the world refuses to recognize and receive Jesus or the Spirit (1:11; 14:17).

Yet calling the Spirit “another Advocate” does not mean he is “another Jesus.” The Spirit continues Jesus’ work without taking Jesus’ place. As the Word made flesh, Jesus reveals God through the life he lives and the death he dies. But the Spirit does not become incarnate and is not crucified for the sin of the world.

The Spirit will disclose the truth about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, but will not replicate these events. After Jesus’ return to the Father, the Spirit remains with the disciples; but this does not mean the Spirit replaces Jesus. Rather, the Spirit discloses the presence of the risen Jesus and his Father to the community of faith.

Jesus also says that the world cannot receive the Spirit of truth because it neither sees nor recognizes it (14:17). Here he refers to “the world” as the realm where people are alienated from God. “The world” consists of those who are hostile to Jesus and his followers (15:18). Saying that the world cannot receive the Spirit does not mean that an unbeliever cannot become a believer.

Rather, it means that “the world” estranged from God cannot receive the Spirit while remaining unchanged. For the world to receive the Spirit means that it is no longer “the world” in the Johannine sense. It loses its identity as “the world,” for it is no longer alienated from God.


Notes

  1. Commentary first published on this site on May 29, 2011.

First Reading

Commentary on Acts 17:22-31

Philip Ruge-Jones

Last week, Stephen spoke to fellow Jewish believers; this time, Paul preaches in a decidedly foreign place.

Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, preaches one of his most extensive sermons in a Gentile context. Of course, his letters are much longer and since he penned them, they provide us with a more accurate take on Paul than the construction of Paul provided by the composer of Acts. Nonetheless, this story does provide an account of how at least one of the early Christians, the author of Acts, navigated the task of being an apologist of the new movement.

No other passage of the New Testament more explicitly puts on display the challenge of an apologist: How does the faith flowering in this new movement relate to beliefs in the world around it, especially beyond the Jewish soil in which The Way’s first green blade appeared?

The section for today has layers of Paul that I will not dissect, but will note. The first is already mentioned. This is the Acts of the Apostles construction of Paul. This level (which I will call Acts’ Paul) is further complicated because within the narrative, that character is publicly describing himself in a highly crafted way. Paul’s speech to the Athenians is a selective portrayal of himself even within the understanding of Acts. He lifts up aspects of himself and his message, ignoring others that we encounter elsewhere in Acts.

In verse 22, Paul extols the city of Athens and its religious fervor. Paul, as presented in today’s Acts reading, is attentive and impressed by the widespread religious interests of his audience. However, we already know that he is not delighted in the religion of the Athenians; he is “deeply distressed” by this city’s over the top idolatry (17:16). That idolatry led him to go all about Athens and argue his case, causing some Greek philosophers to call him a babbler (17:18). He is brought to the Areopagus where his ideas, and perhaps he himself, are put on trial. The Athenians—at least Acts’ Athenians—claim to be curious about all things, especially those ideas new to them. They were accustomed to spending their time seeking novelty.

Paul makes his case to the Athenians by leaving the places where he feels comfortable—specifically idol-free landscapes—to meet them where they live. He speaks of what he has seen and appreciated, a pagan altar. He does not project his “deep distress,” but rather, joy at what he found in his careful search of the city. An altar bore an inscription: To an unknown god.

Stepping into their own confession of ignorance, Paul offers to make known to them what has been unknown. Paul begins not with the story of Jesus, nor even that of Abraham. His best hope for sympathy is to focus on the creational work of God. He proclaims God as a source and sustainer of all that is, whom no human construction could contain. Even as he begins to speak of what Israel has known of God, Acts’ Paul emphasizes that this God has already gifted the listening Athenians with something near and dear to them: life and breath. God gave each people their own time and place to dwell. The Athenians whose days were spent in idle conversation would undoubtedly appreciate a God who put them in that place and gave them such a pleasant life.

Acts’ Paul lauds the vocation of such people who spend their days seeking and even touching God. (“Groping” seems an unnecessarily negative translation). He argues that they have indeed made at least incidental contact with the divine because God is so close. Paul chooses as his proof text not a passage of Scripture, but a word from a Greek poet who describes God as the one in whom “we live and move and have our being” (17:28). The only time we have had an experience of living, moving, and having our being within another is when we inhabit our mother’s womb. And this image leads to a declaration that humans like both Paul and the Athenians are like offspring of the one in whom they had been carried.

Since they have their origin within God, Paul argues that this God who bore them must not be conceived as the work of human hands or inventive minds, but as a living being. Only after laying all of this groundwork does Paul make a specifically Christian claim. He asserts that this God has appointed a just judge who will clarify what has been unknown to the hearers. This appointed one can be trusted because God raised him from the dead.

When finally Paul makes the specifically Christian claim about resurrection, the crowd interrupts him with a mixture of indignity and interest. He never expounds on the mystery that happens in the twinkling of an eye nor does he testify to his encounter with the resurrected one on a Damascus road. He simply leaves Athens with a few more believers and with the rest of those at the Areopagus to muse on the ideas he has left them.

The apologists among us will note that Paul was wise in setting aside his own assumptions about what he found offensive in the Athenians’ beliefs and practices. We will celebrate each of the ways that Paul attempts to meet the Athenians within their own spiritual landscape. We will applaud his decision to begin with a recognition of shared origin in God. We will speak in ways that are different than when we speak to those of our own community. And we will then reveal Christ standing on the common ground we have established, offering new life. At times, we will take leave of our hearers, entrusting them to God who may bring to fulfillment the promising possible avenues of thought we have opened up.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 66:8-20

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Psalm 66 is a hymn of thanksgiving in which the voices of the community of faith (verses 1-12) mingle with the voice of an individual psalm singer (verses 13-20).

Verses 1-5 of the psalm echo Psalm 65’s celebration of the goodness of the creator God: “Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth … Come and see what God has done: he is awesome in his deeds among mortals (bene ’adam)” (verses 1 and 5). In verses 6-7, the psalm singers continue by celebrating the good provisions of God to Israel during the Exodus and wilderness wanderings.

In verses 8 and 9, the beginning of this week’s reading, the psalm singers continue their recounting of God’s good provisions expressed in verses 6 and 7, but in more generalized language. Verse 9 states that God has “kept us among the living” and “not let our feet slip” (see also Psalms 16:8; 17:5; 55:22). While not as direct a reference to the Exodus as we see in verses 6 and 7, these words affirm God’s continuing acts of deliverance of the faithful. They suggest, in the words of Walter Brueggemann, that “the exodus recurs again and again, in new circumstances.”1 Richard Clifford adds that “saving events of every age ‘renew’ the great saving event of the exodus.”2

The focus shifts in verses 10-12 from God’s on-going deliverance to a recollection of the testing which the faithful have undergone at the hands of God. As with the generalized language of God’s deliverance in verses 8 and 9, the trials and testings in verses 10-12 are not event specific, permitting the words to be understood in a more universal way. The word translated “people” in verse 12 (“you let people ride over our heads”) is the Hebrew word ’enosh, used in biblical Hebrew to designate the very human character (frail and flawed) of humanity.

Whether specific or universal, how do we understand words about God’s testing of the faithful? J. Clinton McCann writes, “Tests and trials need not evoke the concept of punishment; indeed, they most frequently suggest that God is examining a person for the purpose of vindicating him or her.”3 Such an understanding of these words in Psalm 66 are confirmed by the “envelope” structure around them in verses 9 and 12c: “who has kept us among the living, and not let our feet slip … you have brought us out to a spacious place.” The word translated “spacious place” in the NRSV translation is the same Hebrew word translated “overflows” in Psalm 23:5—“my cup overflows.” Thus, the “spacious place” of Psalm 66:12 is one that provides abundance after one goes through various trials and tests, just as the overflowing cup of Psalm 23 comes after the psalm singer has “walked through the darkest valley” and is “in the presence of enemies” (Psalm 23:4, 5).

Another shift occurs in verses 13-15. There, the voice of the community gives way to the voice of an individual, who states that she will come into the house of God with burnt offerings to pay the vows “that my lips uttered and my mouth promised when I was in trouble” (verse 14). While movement from plural voices to a singular one and from singular to plural is not unusual in the psalms (see Psalms 20, 103, and 123 for example), we might understand the singular voice here as that of one of the individuals whom God has delivered (verses 5-7) who is offering her own thanks to God. As with the recollections of verses 8-12, the words of verse 14 do not specify the nature of the trouble that the psalmist has undergone. Rather, they may be understood as an invitation to anyone who has experienced troubles to follow the psalm singer’s lead in making offerings of thanks to God.

In verses 16-19, the psalm singer recounts the journey she undertook in her quest for God’s deliverance. She “cried aloud” and “extolled” (highly praised) God (verse 17); and she did not cherish “iniquity” (wickedness) in her heart (verse 18). Thus, God “listened” and “gave heed to” (paid attention to) the words of her prayer. In the closing words of the psalm, the singer offers blessing to God because, she says, God “has not rejected my prayers or removed his steadfast love from me.” Again, how do we understand verse 19, where the psalm singer says that God has “given heed” to the words of her prayer? Are the singer’s prayers answered only because she has offered the proper burnt offerings? James L. Mays writes, “The offerings are presented to keep the promises made in prayers for help in times of trouble. They are not to be thought of as ways to pay God back but rather as ritual acts of acknowledgement and confession.”4 The psalm concludes in verse 20 with an affirmation of God’s care for the psalm singer—God has not rejected her prayer or removed God’s steadfast love (hesed) from her.

The superscription of Psalm 66 in the Septuagint and the Vulgate is: “To the end (for example, forever), a song, a psalm of resurrection.” The creator God, who delivered the Israelites from Egypt, continues to deliver the faithful in recurring exoduses in new life situations, giving new life to those delivered. 


Notes:

  1. Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984), 138.

  2. Richard J. Clifford, Psalms 1-72, Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 310.

  3. J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” in The New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. III, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 2015), 485.

  4. James L. Mays, Psalms, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994), 223.


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Peter 3:13-22

Shively Smith

The letter of 1 Peter opens by identifying Christian readers as a membership of sojourners, chosen people, and dispersed communities (1:1-2).

It is an eclectic association of communities, located in different places with different geographical and cultural histories across Asia Minor (1:1; Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia) and the Roman world (2:13-14; 5:9, 13). From the very beginning, 1 Peter asserts this is a new kinship group—a new demographic and dynamic—anchored in the event of resurrection (1:3; 3:21).

From the perspective of 1 Peter, faith in the resurrection connects believers—near and far—to each other in new ways. It forms a new existence the letter seeks to name and describe. Within the letter, the novelty of Christian identity is characterized by how expansive and inclusive it is and thus, unfamiliar and possibly uncomfortable for those inside and outside its communities. One of the tasks of the letter is to make readers more conversant in Christian communal life and identity (1:15-17; 2:9; 3:8-12). Indeed, to understand resurrection, according to 1 Peter, is to involve oneself in the work of redefinition, expansion, and community building.

Today’s lectionary passage highlights the dangers of living in a community created and transformed by a proclamation of resurrection. Because of the visible differences they exhibit in their interactions with each other and the world (3:13-16), the letter asserts believers in Jesus Christ should expect resistance from those outside the community. Yet, these differences in behavior are not simply about interaction and exchange. The unique identity of “Christian” (4:14-16) includes interacting in mutuality with each other as brothers, sisters, and siblings across societal boundaries, such as:

(1) social status (2:18-3:7; for example, servants, married couples, singles);

(2) age and experience (5:1-5; for example, elders and youth); and even

(3) ethnicity and/or regional ancestries and cultural identifications, as stated above (see also, 5:9, 12-13).

Three points are worth noting about the resistance and risks to authentic Christian practice, fellowship, and identity addressed by today’s passage.

  • Defend yourself! 1 Peter 3:15 encourages readers to prepare a defense (apologia) or counter argument for any public accusations of social misconduct, rebellion, or disruption levied against them by outsiders or non-Christians. The language of defense (apologia) represents a posture or response believers give to outsiders challenging their novel social configurations and questioning their legitimacy within the larger Roman world. Defending oneself against public opponents is not a new story in the New Testament. For example, in Acts 22:1-21, Paul prepares to defend himself against his Jewish brothers accusing him of being an apostate and agitator (see also Acts 25:16). Paul responds by defending himself in a public ad hoc courtroom, of sorts. In contrast, it does not appear 1 Peter anticipated physical violence, as much as the letter anticipated social interrogation and disgrace, ostracism, and typecasting (4:12-16).
  • Descent and ascent. In 1 Peter 3:18-22, the letter seems to fill in the story of the three-day period between the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection on the frontend and the time between his resurrection and ascension on the backend. There are a few items worth observing. First, the letter does not use any explicit Greek term for “hell” common in the NT, such as: Gehenna (geenna, for example, Matthew 5:22, 29), Hades (hades, for example, Matthew 16:18), or even Tartarus (tartaroo, 2 Peter 2:4). Rather, it alludes to hell or some form of a netherworld by referring, rather ambiguously, to “spirits in prison” (3:19) and “the dead” (4:6). Scholars debate whether 3:19-20 refers to Christ’s witness to those alive and disobedient at the time of the flood or, whether it is a link to 4:6, in which Christ is either proclaiming salvation to all the dead ones or proclaiming the coming judgment only to those Christians who died before his death and resurrection. This is a highly contested passage by scholars. What is clear in this passage, however, is that Jesus, as the resurrected Christ, traverses space and time in a form incomprehensible to human logic. 1 Peter represents the exceptional and extraordinary nature of Jesus’ movements by duplicating the same Greek form of the verb for “having gone” (poreuomai) in Jesus’ descent in 3:19 and his ascent in 3:22. It appears the letter is attempting to express the continuity of Jesus’ movements after his crucifixion-death, both before and after the resurrection moment. Nonetheless, it is worth mentioning that 1 Peter 3:19 literally states, “[Christ] having gone (poreutheis), he made proclamation to the spirits in prison.” Likewise, 1 Peter 3:22 literally states, “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is at the right hand of God, having gone (poreutheis) into heaven.”
  • Noah tradition revisited. The last item worth noting is the use of the Noah tradition, which does not occur often in the NT literature. The reference to Noah in verse 20 is closely related to the role of baptism elucidated in verses 21-22. In the gospel traditions, such as Luke 17:26-27 or Matthew 24:37, the Noah tradition is interpreted in relationship to the parousia and the unspecified coming of the kingdom of God. In 1 Peter, the Noah tradition is deployed in a way that is less focused on eschatology, and more focused on soteriology. The Noah tradition is linked to 1 Peter’s perspective about salvation and baptism. In turn, baptism is an item in the catalogue of Christian practice evident in the letter (preaching, 1:12; prayer, 3:7, 4:7; hospitality, 4:9).

Today’s lectionary passage offers a lot for preachers to consider. What stands above the rest, however, is the opportunity to ask ourselves the question: What are the activities of new life this resurrection season demands of our communities, locally and globally? And hopefully we do not stop there; but we embrace the invitation to ponder other questions, such as: What are the new practices, even in the throes of social distancing, that we can do to build connection, relationship, and belonging that supports and extends life? What are the opportunities to accompany each other in ways that are visibly instructive to a world that prefers separation and “everyone for themselves”? In what ways does this passage offer us an opportunity to take seriously the power of collective journeying, mutuality, and faith in Jesus, who has already suffered, died, and lived again? May we find a shared path forward in resurrection life so that even if we descend temporarily into despair, sorrow, and death, like Christ, we also ascend into new life that is impactful, lasting, glorious, and generative for all. In this way, we can announce renewal, revitalization, and hope in this season.