Lectionary Commentaries for June 8, 2014
Day of Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Alternate Gospel

Commentary on John 7:37-39

Elisabeth Johnson

This alternative gospel text, John 7:37-39, may seem a strange choice for Pentecost Sunday.

[Find commentaries on the main gospel reading, John 20:19-23, by Matt Skinner (2011) and Karoline Lewis (2008).]

After all, it takes place when Jesus is in Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles, not the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost).

Although not mentioned often in the New Testament, the Festival of Tabernacles was one of the “big three” annual festivals (along with Passover and Pentecost) for which adult Jewish males were expected to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and it was generally the most joyous and popular of the three. Originally a harvest celebration, by the time of Jesus it had also taken on the significance of remembering God’s provision for the people of Israel during their wilderness wanderings.

At the beginning of chapter 7, Jesus’ brothers suggest that he go with them to the Festival of Tabernacles in Jerusalem and perform some of his mighty works there, in order to become more widely known. Jesus rejects their suggestion because his time has not yet come, and because his mission was not to gain fame and popularity. Indeed, Jesus says that his mission evokes hatred from the world rather than popularity, because he testifies against its evil works (7:1-9).

Having made his point to his brothers, Jesus later goes in secret to Jerusalem, where the crowds are already speculating and debating about him. The rest of the chapter contains two segments of teaching by Jesus (7:15-24 and 7:37-39), each of which is followed by speculation among the people (7:25-31 and 7:40-44), then by Jewish officials plotting against Jesus (7:32-36 and 7:45-52).

Our brief text is the second segment of Jesus’ teachings in this chapter, and it occurs on “the last day of the festival, the great day” (7:37). According to the Mishnah (Sukkah), water ceremonies were an important part of this celebration. A priest would draw water from the pool of Siloam with a golden pitcher, then carry it back to the temple and pour it into a silver bowl next to the altar, accompanied by musicians and choirs. As the priest poured out the water he would pray to the Lord to send rain. In some rabbinic traditions, the water-drawing of Tabernacles is interpreted as the drawing of the Holy Spirit.

It is significant that on the last day of this festival, in which water is an important symbol, Jesus declares: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink; and the one who believes in me — just as the scripture says — from that one’s innermost being will flow rivers of living water” (7:37-38).1

(The NRSV translates koilia as “heart,” but the word really means “stomach” or “belly” — the seat of emotions in Jewish thought.)

Jesus suggests that those who drink of the water he gives will themselves become sources of this living water. This is similar to what he says to the Samaritan woman in chapter 4: “those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (4:14).

The puzzling thing about Jesus’ statement in John 7:38 is that it is difficult to find a verse of Scripture that matches what Jesus says about rivers of living water flowing from the “belly.” Many Scriptures have been suggested as a reference. Zechariah 14:8, which says that “on that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem,” is perhaps the closest in wording. Psalm 78:15-16 and Psalm 105:40-41 speak of the water that flowed out of the rock in the wilderness.

In chapter 6, Jesus had spoken of himself as the “bread of life” and “the living bread that came down from heaven” (6:35, 48, 51). God provided manna from heaven for the Israelites in the wilderness, which satisfied their hunger for a time, but eventually they died (6:49). Jesus promises that whoever eats of the bread he gives will live forever (6:50-51).

God provided water for the Israelites in the wilderness as well, but its thirst-quenching effects were also temporary. Here, at this festival that celebrates God’s provision in the wilderness, Jesus offers the living water that quenches all thirst and is a source of life eternal. The narrator adds a note of explanation, so that no one may miss the significance: “Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were yet to receive, for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (7:39).

Ah, yes, the Spirit! That is the reason for the choice of this text for Pentecost. Water and the Spirit are connected elsewhere in John — for example, when Jesus tells Nicodemus that “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (3:5). In Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman, living water is the symbol of the revelation of God in Christ which satisfies all spiritual thirst (4:10-15).

Here the narrator makes the connection once again: Jesus, in talking about living water, was talking about the Spirit, which believers in him were yet to receive. In saying that “as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified,” the author is not saying that the Spirit did not yet exist. John (the Baptist) has already testified that he saw “the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove” on Jesus, and that the one who had sent him told him, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit” (1:33-34).

The narrator’s comment, speaking to a post-resurrection community about a pre-resurrection reality, explains that the promised Spirit had not yet been given to Jesus’ followers. In his farewell discourse, Jesus promises his disciples that he will send the Spirit after he is glorified and returns to the Father (14:16-17; 15:26-27; 16:7-14).

This “Paraclete” or “Spirit of truth” will teach them, remind them of all that Jesus has said to them, and guide them into all truth (14:26; 16:12-14). The Spirit will be the abiding presence of Jesus with his disciples, continuing his work in and through them. This promise is fulfilled on the evening of Easter Sunday, when the risen Jesus comes to his disciples, breathes into them the Holy Spirit, and sends them out in mission (20:19-23).

The Festival of Tabernacles celebrated God’s presence and provision for Israel in the wilderness. Not only did God provide manna from heaven and water from a rock, God’s very presence dwelt with the people in the “tabernacle of the covenant.” Now in Jesus, the Word made flesh, God has come to “tabernacle” among us once again (1:14: skénaó, “to dwell in a tent”). Since Jesus could not remain in the flesh, he promised to send his Spirit to dwell with his disciples forever (14:17).

Jesus speaks of this promise at the Festival of Tabernacles — the promise fulfilled at Passover/ Easter according to John, or at Pentecost according to Luke-Acts. John interprets the Jewish festivals anew in light of God’s revelation in Christ. All that the festivals celebrate — the deliverance, presence, and provision of God — find new significance in God’s sending of the Son to tabernacle among us, and sending of the Spirit to abide with us forever, so that rivers of living water may flow from within us to a thirsty world.


Notes:

Author’s translation. There are significant questions of punctuation in this text; my translation follows the punctuation of the Nestle-Aland 27th edition.


First Reading

Commentary on Acts 2:1-21

Mikeal C. Parsons

Despite the theological attractiveness of seeing Pentecost as the reversal of Babel, there is little from the ancient historical and religious context to suggest that Luke or his audience would have made such a connection.

There is more evidence for linking the Pentecost event with the renewal of the Sinai covenant. The writer of Jubilees (2nd century b.c.e.) states that Moses is given the law at Sinai in the third month of the year (1:1) and later states that Pentecost (or Shebuot) is a festival observed the third month of the calendar (6:1), thus suggesting an implicit link between the giving of the law and Pentecost, an allusion that is made explicit by the time of rabbinic Judaism (b. Pesahim 68b).

Clues in Acts 2 suggest Luke stands in this stream of thought that moves from Jubilees to rabbinic Judaism. The sound, fire, and speech in the Pentecost narrative were phenomena associated with the Sinai theophany (Exodus 19:16–19), which itself suggests that Luke thinks of Pentecost in terms of a “new covenant” (Luke 22:20; cf. Jeremiah 31:31–34).

Exegetical Issues

The coming of the Spirit is joined by two manifestations — “a noise from the sky, like a strong blowing wind(2:2) and divided tongues (that looked) like fire” (2:3). In describing the event as accompanied by these natural phenomena, Luke is echoing the theophany scenes of the OT, in which God’s presence is accompanied by similar signs (Exodus 19:16; Judges 5:4–5; cf. Psalms 18:7–15; 29:3–9).

In Acts 2:5, we read that “there were Jews living in Jerusalem, pious men from every nation under heaven.” In Acts 2:9–11, representative nations are listed. The list of nations in Acts 2:9–11 may be taken as an “up-date” of the Table-of-Nations tradition found in Genesis 10. The authorial audience has already been introduced to the Table-of-Nations tradition in Luke 10:1 in the so-called mission of the seventy, a mission that foreshadows the Gentile mission. So too echoes of the Table of Nations in Acts 2 symbolize mission of the Jerusalem church was a universal one.

Peter’s interpretation of the Pentecost experience is nearly three times longer than the narrative account detailing the event itself. This citation of Joel 3:1-5 in Acts 2:17-21functions as the bridge both to what precedes and follows it. The Joel prophecy serves as the authoritative interpretation of the Pentecost event.

This radical new community about which Joel speaks and which Peter says is realized in the earliest Christian community is remarkably inclusive. It is gender inclusive: “your sons” and “your daughters” (2:17); “servants — both male and female” (2:18). It is age inclusive: “your young people” and “your old people” (2:17). And if we are to take seriously the opening (“all people”) of this citation, then this community is also destined to be ethnically inclusive.

The Joel citation has been modified by the addition of several significant terms and phrases. That this new community itself is an eschatological sign is underscored by the change from “after these days” in the LXX text of Joel to “in the last days” found here in Acts. The Pentecost event is recast here as one of those wonders and signs (2:19) which will precede the coming of “the great and marvelous day of the Lord” (2:20).

Another element added to the Joel citations, “signs” (2:19) is perhaps the most significant addition and certainly strengthens the point made above. The phrase, “wonders and signs” or “signs and wonders” is a refrain throughout the first half of Acts. Of course, it first recurs in the context of this very speech in which Peter refers three verses later to Jesus performing signs and wonders (2:22).

But Jesus is not the only referent. Others who perform signs and wonders include: the apostles (cf. 4:30; 5:12). Stephen (6:8); Moses as (7:36); Philip (8:6, though note the absence of “wonders”); and Paul and Barnabas (14:3; see 15:12; 19:11). Signs and wonders, then, accompany the ministries of the leaders of God’s community in unbroken succession, from Moses to Jesus (who is a prophet like Moses, see 3:22), to the Twelve, to Stephen the Hellenist, to Paul and Barnabas, the leaders of the Gentile mission.

In making these connections, Luke seeks to demonstrate that the early church has been faithful to the traditions of Moses, despite criticisms otherwise (Acts 21:21). Membership in this radically inclusive community is available everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved” (2:21). The identity of this “Lord” is explored in the second part of this sermon (2:22-36), and the call to “be saved” is the focus of the invitation at the end (37-41).

Few, if any, biblical events have lent their name to describe a religious movement; yet, this is exactly the case for Pentecost. Pentecostalism was (and is) grounded on the belief, drawn from its interpretation of Acts 2, that speaking in tongues is the physical manifestation of a person’s having received the baptism of the Holy Spirit, an experience distinct from and subsequent to conversion that empowers believers for witness. Pentecostalism continues to be a major force in global Christianity, flourishing in all quarters and most denominations of the world.

Advocates of “cessationism” (such as B.B. Warfield) deny the ongoing effects of Pentecost, claiming that the “tongues” described in Acts 2 were not a permanent endowment but were rather limited to the apostolic period as a necessary sign for the inauguration of the church’s public ministry, not an event that was required nor even allowed in modern times.       

How do we navigate among these various opinions? Did Luke understand the Pentecost event to be a “once-for-all” phenomenon? The answer here is simply “No.” Filling with the Holy Spirit occurs throughout Acts (cf. 4:31 et passim). Likewise, glossalalia is sometimes depicted as the public display of the gift of the Holy Spirit (cf. 10:46; 19:6).

On the other hand, it would be a mistake to suggest that tongues are a necessary evidence of baptism in the Holy Spirit (cf. 8:17) or that there is any clear sequence of baptism and reception of the Holy Spirit in Acts — sometimes baptism precedes reception of the Spirit (Acts 8:12-17); sometimes baptism follows reception of the Spirit (Acts 10:44-48); sometimes it accompanies baptism in the name of Jesus and the laying on of hands (Acts 19:5-6). All of this is to suggest that what is called for in our current context is a middle way that affirms the continuing reality of Pentecostal experience while correcting aspects of extreme expressions of Pentecostal theology. Christ’s ascension, then, is not a transport from one place to another, but a transition from one mode of existence to another.

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 104:24-34, 35b

Elizabeth Webb

In Psalm 104, the world that God creates and recreates is not just ordered, but rhythmic, each created thing a note that contributes to the Spirit’s song.

The whole of creation is like a song of joy sung by the Spirit of the Lord.

Looking at the whole of Psalm 104 helps us to see more deeply the significance of the portion of the text appointed for today. The psalm begins with a hymn of praise for the glory of the Creator, “clothed with honor and majesty, wrapped in light” (verses 1b-2a). That glory is manifest in the manifold works of creation, in the rhythmic ordering of the world and all its parts.

The ensuing song of creation closely, although not slavishly, follows the cadence of the creation narrative in Genesis 1. God is praised for stretching out the heavens “like a tent” (verse 2b), for establishing the foundation of the earth (verse 5), and covering it with the deep (verse 6), and for rebuking the waters to flee to their appointed places, “so that they might not again cover the earth” (verse 9). The moon is made to mark the seasons, and night and day establish a natural rhythm for nocturnal creatures and for human beings (verses 19-23). Verse 24 reads, or sings, like an elaboration on God’s assertion of the goodness of created things; the multiplicity of creatures, and the wisdom with which they are made, further elucidate the meaning of “good.” Psalm 104 is like the poetry of Genesis 1 set to music, singing the wondrous order that God has brought forth.

The musicality of the psalm is further enhanced by its emphasis on the interdependence of God’s creatures. Springs that “gush forth in the valleys” provide water for wild animals (verse 10). Vegetation is made to grow in order to supply food for cattle and human beings (verse 14). God not only made trees, but made various trees as homes for different birds (verses 16-17).

Mountains are created to provide homes for goats, and rocks to provide homes for “coneys” (mostly likely the hyrax, a small hoofed mammal indigenous to parts of the Middle East and Africa2; verse 18). Everything that God has made exists for another creature’s survival, and even enjoyment; birds “sing among the branches” of trees that grow alongside streams of water (verse 12). Interdependence is the order that God has given to the world, so that each created thing sounds a note in an ongoing harmony.

That creatures are made not only to survive but also to enjoy life underscores what is perhaps the central motif of the entire psalm, and particularly of the passage for today: joy. God delights in the creation, and we, the created, delight in this world and in the God who made it. The world is made from joy and for joy.

The “gushing forth” of springs and the joy of birdsong in the trees alongside (verses 10-12); the abundantly-watered “trees of the Lord” (verse 16); “wine to gladden the human heart, oil to make the face shine, and bread to strengthen the human heart” (verse 15) — these point to a world made not just for the satisfaction of need but also for the happiness of its inhabitants. In these works God rejoices (verse 31), and all creatures return that joy not only by rejoicing in God (verse 34), but also by delighting in the things that God has made.

It is by understanding joy as a central theme in this text that we can understand the role of Leviathan in the passage for today. Verse 24 operates as a summation of what has come before: God is praised for the multiple wonders of the earth, and for the wisdom with which they were made. The psalmist then turns to the sea and its inhabitants, as the crowning example of the wonder of creation. “Innumerable creatures” inhabit the sea, “living things both small and great” (verse 25). The greatest of these is the Leviathan.

In other texts, like Psalm 74:14, Leviathan is among the monsters of chaos and evil that God vanquishes at the beginning of creation. God’s response to Job consists in large part of a challenge to Job to overpower Leviathan as God has done (Job 41). Thus references to Leviathan tend to operate as vehicles for proclaiming divine might over the forces of chaos. In Psalm 104, however, Leviathan is simply another creature that delights in the world that God has made; Leviathan’s purpose in the created order is “to sport” in the sea (verse 26). The joy with which God creates is reflected in the playfulness of the sea’s most dreaded beast. Thus joy triumphs over chaos in a way that raw power cannot: by winning it over.

When God provides, creatures thrive, “they are filled with good things” (verse 28). If God’s face were to turn away from the creation, God’s creatures would be dismayed (verse 29a); God’s presence and attentiveness are necessary for the fullness of life of all God’s creatures. The removal of divine breath, of spirit, results in death, but the sending forth of the spirit of God brings life, and renews that which has been reduced to dust (verses 29b-30). The God whose look causes the earth to tremble, whose touch causes mountains to smoke (verse 32), and for whom sin and evil are offending breaches in the harmony of creation (verse 35a) — this God is most powerfully made manifest not in acts of might but in moments of joy.

There is joy at the foundation of the earth, in the dew on the grass, in the romping of a dog, in the quiet of cricket song on a summer night. There is joy in the wondrous interdependence of God’s creatures, in the necessity in which we exist for one another. There is joy in the winning over of the chaos that continues to threaten God’s harmonious creation. There is joy in the gifts of life and spirit that we receive from God, and in our rejoicing in those gifts. For this joy, we offer God our joyous praise.


 Notes:

1 Encyclopedia Brittnica, “Hyrax,” http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/280175/hyrax, accessed 5/19/14.


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13

Brian Peterson

What does it look like to be people of Pentecost, to be those claimed by the Spirit?

In the cultural buffet that is offered under the sign of “spirituality,” this passage from 1 Corinthians makes some important claims about the Spirit through which the church lives, and about the shape of faithful spirituality.

Paul’s discussion begins in verse 3 by insisting that the undeniable sign of the Spirit’s activity will be confession of Jesus as Lord. The Spirit brings faith itself, and specifically faith focused on Jesus as Lord. At this point, Martin Luther was deeply Pauline when he wrote in the Small Catechism, “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts … ”1

Paul connects the Spirit to Christ, so that the true manifestations of the Spirit are those which demonstrate that this is “the Spirit of Christ” (Romans 8:9; see also Galatians 4:6, “the Spirit of his Son”). The Spirit leads the believer to join in Jesus’ own prayer and cry out, “Abba, Father” (Romans 8:15, Galatians 4:6). Thus Christ himself becomes the measure by which genuine activity of the Spirit can be identified, and all who confess this faith are under the power of the Spirit.

This is a radically inclusive claim. As far as the Spirit is concerned, there will be no room for the categories that culture might use to divide the haves from the have-nots (“Jews or Greeks, slaves or free,” verse 13). By the very nature of faith as a divine gift, the Spirit has been and continues to be active in all who confess Jesus as Lord.

Paul indicates how to understand the Spirit’s activity in the church by his identification of the Spirit’s work through the believers as “gifts.” The root of this word points to the nature of these gifts: the gifts (“charismata”) are the result of God’s grace (“charis”). The gifts of the Spirit are the active, experienced instances of God’s grace at work in the church. All believers are given such gifts of the Spirit (notice “everyone” and “each” in 6b-7a).

To be gifted by the Spirit is not something that happens to some believers but not to others. Paul never gives us the impression that he expects some people in the church to be the ones who are ministering, and that there are others who are simply ministered to because they haven’t been given any of the Spirit’s gifts.

However, it may seem as though the gifts that Paul names here are uncomfortably absent from many of our congregations. While I rather regularly see evidence of wisdom and knowledge (verse 8) in the community where I worship, speaking in tongues and their interpretation has never happened there as far as I know. Healing certainly happens, but usually through the mediation of doctors, medicines, and therapy.

Miracles may happen, though spotting them usually means finding God hidden in what others would see as a “normal” event. So, where are the gifts of the Spirit? We might be more successful in spotting the spiritual gifts that Paul lists in Romans 12:6-8 — ministry, teaching, exhortation, generosity, leadership, and compassion.

In my experience, when (and if) we talk to people in our congregations about their spiritual gifts, we tend to focus on these sorts of characteristics and talents rather than on the flashier items mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12. That’s not necessarily wrong; we rightly thank God for the talents and abilities we have.

Yet it isn’t quite right to simply equate talents with “gifts of the Spirit” either; there is something more involved than simply talent. Paul’s central point about these gifts is made in verse 7, where he notes that these gifts are given to each for the good of the whole church. This allows room for us to rightly identify as gifts of the Spirit those talents that are informed by, summoned by, and “energized” (NRSV “activated”, verse 11) by the Spirit for the good of the church.

We are not talking about being “gifted” individuals who have the talents required to get ahead and earn a good salary or the admiration of others. Paul wants the Corinthians to adopt a new way of looking at spirituality by seeing these abilities as a means through which God is at work with grace and mercy for the whole community. It is that dynamic which transforms talents into gifts of the Spirit. When, by God’s grace and power, talents are reoriented away from us and our own interests and when they become vehicles for God’s love, they are truly the Spirit’s gifts to the church.

Believers are not simply individuals who are empowered and gifted by the Spirit. They are interconnected parts of a single body, and it is to this image that Paul turns near the end of our passage. Others in Paul’s culture used the image of the body to strengthen the hierarchy of society. Philosophers and politicians said that human society was like a body, which had to have a head that told everything else what to do. Of course, the elite rich get to be the head (or the stomach!), and the poor need to keep working as the hands and feet.

Paul overturns this common use of the body image. He questions any assumption that some members of the body are more important than any others. In the body of Christ, behavior will not be determined by concern for honor and status, but by what builds up the whole body, by interdependence, and by love. The work of the Spirit, correctly understood, will result in a unified body of Christ, not in competition or division, since we all receive life and growth from the same flowing baptismal grace (verse 13).


 Notes:

1 Book of Concord, ed. Robert Kolb & Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 355.