Lectionary Commentaries for May 31, 2020
Day of Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 20:19-23

Matt Skinner

Liturgical observances of Pentecost are informed almost entirely by the familiar story in Acts 2, with images of fire, prayers offered in multiple languages, and attention to the church’s prophetic vocation.1

“The Johannine Pentecost,” as this passage is sometimes called, gets much less attention.

That makes sense, since in John’s Gospel Jesus does not impart the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost (the Jewish Feast of Weeks, or Shavuot, which falls on the fiftieth day after Passover). Here, the Spirit comes on Easter, during Jesus’ first post-resurrection appearance to a collection of his followers. (Earlier in the day, outside the tomb, he spoke to and commissioned only Mary Magdalene.) Also, in this passage we encounter the Spirit with less of a universal tone (in comparison to Acts); the focus here is more particular, focused on the identity and sending of a community.

The Spirit, at last

In John, this is an incredibly weighty and long-anticipated scene. The Baptizer introduced Jesus in John 1:33 as “the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” Jesus himself has said that his ability to give the Holy Spirit “without measure” would offer proof that he is from God and speaks the words of God (3:34). He promised that “rivers of living water”—a metaphor for the Spirit—would flow from his innermost being (7:38-39; see the CEB and NET translations of these verses, which are superior to those in the NIV and NRSV). And of course Jesus has had much to say about the coming “Advocate”:

  • It is “the Spirit of truth,” who dwells with believers forever yet cannot be received by “the world” (14:16-17).
  • It is the Holy Spirit, sent by the Father, who will teach Jesus’ followers everything and remind them of all he told them (14:26; cf. 16:13).
  • It is the Spirit, whom Jesus sends “from the Father,” and who testifies about Jesus and equips people to offer testimony about him (15:26-27). This Spirit glorifies Jesus (16:14).
  • It is He who can “prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment” (16:8-11).

The close connections John draws among Jesus’ promises about the Spirit, his glorification and ascension, his intimacy with the Father, and his commissions to his followers caution us not to skip over “the Johannine Pentecost” too casually, as if it serves merely as a final “Good bye, and good luck” from Jesus to his friends.

With this culminating scene, the christological climax of John’s Gospel (Jesus’ departure as the exalted Christ) is part and parcel of the Gospel’s apostolic impulse (the equipping and sending of the men and women who believe in him). That is, in the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ followers receive nothing less than the fullness of the glorified Son. Their lives (ours, too) can therefore accomplish ends similar to his life’s, insofar as they reveal God.

Important details

Fear colors the scene, as Jesus’ followers have secured themselves from the authorities (that is the referent of the problematic expression “the Jews” in 20:19). Note, then, the importance of the language that introduces Jesus’ commission: “Peace to you.” Jesus gives peace not “as the world gives” (14:27); he gives peace that provides solace in the face of persecution, a promise of new possibilities, and confidence in his ability to overcome “the world” (16:33). (In this Gospel, “the world” usually indicates a hostile and ignorant response to the truth that Jesus embodies.)

Recalling the moment when God breathed life into the original earth person in Genesis 2:7 (cf. Ezekiel 37:9), Jesus breathes the Spirit of life into (not merely “on”) his followers in John 20:22. A new creation is afoot. This creation does not replace “the world.” It engages it.

“Forgiving” and “retaining” sins

The final verse requires some attention in a sermon, because many people experience “the Johannine Pentecost” like this:

  • Jesus bestows peace upon his worried followers. Great!
  • Jesus fills them with the Holy Spirit. Great!
  • Jesus tells them they can forgive or retain other people’s sins. Huh?

The things mentioned in verse 23 (“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained”) sound at first hearing like responsibilities that few of us would choose for ourselves. Maybe fewer of us would trust an institutionalized church to wield them. What is Jesus talking about?

It is imperative that we make sense of this verse in light of all that has come before it. Too many mistakes have been made in the past by those who have read John 20:23 in isolation or with a sloppy connection to the unrelated words of Matthew 16:19. We must attend to how the Johannine Jesus has already characterized the problem of “sin,” the role of the Holy Spirit, and the nature of his ministry. If not, we risk perpetuating a legacy of misuse and polemic that has muddied this verse across the history of its interpretation.

Jesus is not appointing the church as his moral watchdog; nor does he commission it to arbitrate people’s assets and liabilities on a heavenly balance sheet.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus talks about sin as unbelief, the unwillingness or incapacity to grasp the truth of God manifested in him. To have sin abide, therefore, is to remain estranged from God. The consequence of such a condition is ongoing resistance. Sin in John is not about moral failings; primarily it is an inability or refusal to recognize God’s revelation when confronted by it, in Jesus. (Note what Jesus, says, concerning the world, in John 15:22: “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin,” see also John 9:39-41).

Consequently, the resurrected Christ tells his followers (all his followers) that, through the Spirit that enables them to bear witness, they can set people free (“set free” or “release” is a better translation than “forgive” in John 20:23) from that state of affairs. They can be a part of seeing others come to believe in Jesus and what he discloses.

Failure to bear witness, Jesus warns, will result in the opposite: a world full of people left unable to grasp the knowledge of God. That is what it means to “retain” sins (“retain” is the opposite of “set free”). Jesus is not—at least, not in this verse—granting the church a unique spiritual authority. He is simply reporting that a church that does not bear witness to Christ is a church that leaves itself unable to pay a role in delivering people from all that keeps them from experiencing the fullness that Jesus offers.

Jesus lives

Receiving the Spirit, the church receives Jesus. And so the church receives Jesus’ own capacity to make God manifest, bringing light to the world. The Trinitarian intimacy inferred from John’s presentation of these ideas is striking, but even more so is the intimacy expressed between the Divine and humanity.

Such intimacy between God and us is but one consequence of the rich Easter confession about what happens when God raises a corpse to new life. Jesus lives, yes—not apart from us, but in and through us.

We Christians tend to be cautious folk. Too many churches have locked their doors to a vibrant understanding of the Holy Spirit’s role in their midst. We don’t know how best to bear witness to Christ in a world populated by multiple religions and plagued by ecclesial hypocrisy. Maybe it would inspire us to bold and creative witness if we saw the risen Jesus miraculously pass through our barricaded doors. But probably all it takes is a preacher who can help us see that this same Jesus is already present, dwelling within us and eager to enlist us to carry on his work of setting people free.


Notes

  1. Commentary first published on this site on June 12, 2011.

First Reading

Commentary on Acts 2:1-21

Debra J. Mumford

On the day of Pentecost, a small crowd gathered in a room on the highest floor of a house in Jerusalem to wait for the manifestation of the promise Jesus made before his ascension.

The promise was that the followers of Jesus would be baptized, not with water, but with the Holy Spirit. The baptism of the Holy Spirit would give the people power to be witnesses of Jesus, in word or deed, in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

The crowd of about 120 people consisted of the 11 remaining disciples, women (including Jesus’ mother Mary), Jesus’ brothers, and other followers of Jesus. Very often, the presence of women at Pentecost gets lost in the masculine/male language. For example, when Peter rises up to speak to the crowd after the arrival of the Holy Spirit (in the NRSV), he addresses the “men of Judea” as if women were not even there. Women who had been healed of evil spirits and sicknesses, such as Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and others not only followed Jesus, but they supported Jesus’ work using their own resources (see Luke 8:1-3). 

The women of the Pentecost received the power of the Holy Spirit just as the men did in fulfillment of the words of the prophet Joel, “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy” (Joel 2:28). This text is a reminder to churches and ministries that still refuse to allow women to serve in leadership positions that since the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit has been poured out on all people of God, empowering them equally to do the will and work of Jesus Christ.

Very often when we preach this text, we concentrate on the power of the wind that swept the Holy Spirit into the room. We preach about the power of the Holy Spirit in general or its power to cause people to speak in other tongues in particular. We preach about the miracle of multiple languages being spoken but each person hearing others in his (there seemed to only be males in attendance) language. We preach about Pentecost being a foundational event in the life of the Christian church. 

There may be a slightly different way of understanding this passage: the power of the Holy Spirit to transcend difference. After the Holy Spirit invaded the space, a crowd of thousands began to gather outside. In the crowd were Jews from many different nations including Greeks, Arabs, Romans, Africans, and Asians, just to name a few. Each of the people in the crowd could understand the conversation in the upper room in his own language. 

The power of the Holy Spirit was at work in the situation in so many ways:

  1. The promise of the Holy Spirit compelled 120 people to gather in anticipation of it. They rearranged their schedules and synchronized their calendars to make themselves available to God. 
  2. The power of the Holy Spirit enabled each person in that room to speak in a language other than their own. 
  3. The power of the Holy Spirit got the attention of the crowd on the street, perhaps because of the mighty sound of the rushing wind or the sheer chaos of all those people speaking together at the same time. 
  4. The power of the Holy Spirit emboldened Peter to speak to the masses. 
  5. The power of the Holy Spirit caused the crowds to not only hear Peter’s message but to also receive it to such an extent that 3,000 people made a decision to follow Jesus. 

On this one day, the Holy Spirit transcended multiple layers of differences to accomplish God’s many purposes.

How many of our differences could be transcended if we allowed the power of the Holy Spirit to reign in our lives? What miracles could the Holy Spirit perform in our churches and communities if we embraced it and invited it into our midst? How many hearts and minds could the Holy Spirit possibly transform, if we prayed for the Holy Spirit to have its ways in our communities? This text is an opportunity for pastors to remind hearers of the role and power of the Holy Spirit to transcend difference.

Another angle of this text is the sudden holy boldness of Peter. When I read this account of Peter, I wonder, who is this man who addresses a crowd of thousands and demands to be heard? Who is this man who does not simply make a speech but preaches a sermon? I say he preaches a sermon because he takes a text and communicates the good news of Jesus Christ. That’s a sermon, right? 

Who is this man who so skillfully crafts his message using a progressive rhetorical strategy: He first calls his hearers Israelites, then fellow Israelites, then brothers. Is this Peter? Simon Peter? Is this the, “I don’t know the man, I have never heard of Jesus,” Peter? Is this the same Peter who regretted his betrayal of Christ so much that he wept bitterly, according to Luke? Now we know that before the betrayal, Peter was never at a loss for words. In fact, when Jesus asked the disciples on one occasion who they thought Jesus was, it was Peter who responded, “the messiah of God.” It was Peter who asked clarifying questions when Jesus was teaching them.

On one occasion after Jesus told a parable about the watchful servants, Peter asked, “Is this parable for us disciples or for everybody?” Though he spoke sometimes on behalf of the disciples during Jesus’ earthly ministry, we never heard him preach. There was never an indication that he knew the scriptures very well. 

However, at some point between the time of Peter’s denial of Jesus and when he stood up and preached his first public sermon in this text, Peter got a bit of holy boldness. Something got a hold of him. Something made him stand before thousands, open his mouth, and testify about Jesus. 

What could cause someone to do that? On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came. And on that day, Peter, and all those with him, received power. Peter was never the same. The one who had denied Christ began to publicly preach Christ to any and all who would listen.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 104:24-34, 35b

Jason Byassee

It is no new observation to say that the lectionary cherry-picks. If verses are left out of a chapter, the first thing you should do is go examine them.

Some of the best Pentecost material from Psalm 104 is left on the editorial room floor here. “Fire and flame” are God’s ministers, the “wings of the wind” are what God rides upon (104:3-4). From verse 15, the wine God makes to gladden the human heart and the oil to make the face shine sing of eucharist and anointing—both actions that require the calling upon of the Holy Spirit.

The entire psalm sings the goodness of creation, made by and for and in the Holy Spirit. The one bit left out of our lection—“let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more”—is no exception. Psalm 104 depicts creation as it is meant to be, as it one day will be in God’s good time.

It was humanity’s fall that led to the fall of all the cosmos. So God the Spirit will one day judge sinful human beings and repair the world we have ruined. The left out bits preach the gospel. The rejected stone has become the head of the corner (Psalm 118:22). No need to share that with them—no congregation has ever been edified by preachers lamenting the lectionary any more than a toilet has gotten fixed by a plumber decrying her tools. But it’s important for the tool-bearer to know.

A sermon on this passage for Pentecost could focus on the Leviathan of verse 26. Here in British Columbia, people do strange things. They pay boats to ride up as close as possible to whales so they can take pictures. Aboriginal peoples on this continent did something more brave: they rode up close to such creatures in canoes a few inches above the waterline to hunt them. Perhaps ancient Israelites had it right—stay away. The sea is a fearful place. People who go that way never come back. Israel’s neighbors were often seafaring peoples—the Phoenicians and the Greeks and others had tales of conquering mariners. Israel did most of its conquering on land, thank you very much. 

In the ancient world, such great sea beasts were more often a source of fear than of wonder. In Psalm 91 or Job 41 or the book of Jonah, the great fish is a sign of creation disordered, frightful, destruction-wielding. But here, Leviathan “sports” (104:26). It plays. Perhaps the psalmist has seen a whale breaching, though scientists still cannot be sure what purpose this action accomplishes (it could be play, or it could be seeking relief from enormous intestinal parasites!). A creature that otherwise devours and shows God’s power for destruction, here shows God’s creative power, God’s control over what is otherwise death-dealing. Maybe Leviathan is on a leash like a house pet. 

In Psalm 104, the entire zoo worships. The word “hallelujah” appears here in the Bible for the first time—and it is on the lips of creation far beyond the merely human. Environmentalists often complain that Christianity has caused our ecological crisis, with some evidence. But Wendell Berry responds with the author’s lament—those who critique might first read the book. The Bible is an outdoor book, Berry says. We might go a step further and say that the Bible’s view of creation is as the setting for the jewel of redemption. In Psalm 104, the creatures know this full well. All look to God for food in season. God provides, they are filled; God hides his face, they are dismayed. More interestingly for pneumatological reasons, when God hides the divine face and takes away creatures’ breath, they die, and return to the dust.

Breath. Ruah, in Hebrew. Pneuma, in Greek. God is breath, spirit, life. At the beginning, God’s Spirit hovers over chaos, breathes life into dirt, and humanity becomes a thing. The psalm says when God sends forth the Spirit, creatures are renewed and all the land is filled with life once more. Barbara Brown Taylor speaks somewhere of seeing Desmond Tutu perform a baptism. He lifted the lid to the font … and breathed over the water. And the church saw the breath of God blowing life over the chaotic waters in the first place, blowing over the waters of salvation, bringing new life where there was only watery death. The last 100 years or so in the church have seen the rise of Pentecostalism, growing from a non-existent non-thing to a stream of the church nearly one billion strong now. God is reminding us that God is Holy Spirit, powerful, fiery, teaching new languages, blowing us out in mission to the ends of the earth. Psalm 104 reconnects this powerful movement of Pentecost, both in Jerusalem in 33 CE and in Los Angeles in 1906, to creation. The Holy Spirit is not just known in tongues of fire, though of course he is. The Holy Spirit is also known in every particle of creation, everything that breathes, everything that sports, everything that lives. One of the dangers of seeing creation as godless is that then you can use it up, exploit it, and be done with it. God’s word won’t let you do that. God lives in creation, loves it, gives life to it, gathers it up to dust to give yet more life to it. God will not be God without creation. That is why God is planning to renew all things (104:30).

Another fine image for the Spirit’s person and work here is in the smoking mountains (104:32). My Cree colleague at Vancouver School of Theology, Ray Aldred, points out that native peoples hardly ever worship without setting something on fire. So too, the Holy Spirit. Just a touch of the Spirit’s finger and the mountains quake and burst forth in flame. Some churches signify the Spirit’s presence with the burning of incense. Others use sage. Most at least light a candle. Some, Orthodox especially, build with golden domes, meant to flash fire far and wide. All are lit aflame by the God who is altogether fire. That fire burns and cauterizes. It also heals and gives new life. 

Watch out. This fiery Spirit who cavorts with deadly creatures is coming, and is even already here.


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?1

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 … ”2

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. Commentary first published on this site on June 8, 2014.
  2. Book of Concord, ed. Robert Kolb & Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 355.