Lectionary Commentaries for June 4, 2017
Day of Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 20:19-23

Samuel Cruz

Two very different but influential figures in 20th century Christianity, Karl Barth and Billy Graham, both stated that the 20th century should be the century during which “the Holy Spirit is brought to prominence.”

The 20th century brought the advent of the Pentecostal movement, with its emphasis on the baptism of the Holy Spirit and on speaking in tongues. Despite the fact that this movement experienced notable growth, the Holy Spirit — the third person of the Trinity — continued to be neglected in 20th century Christianity.

This neglect in church history is demonstrated by the diminutive space that our historical creeds apportion for the Holy Spirit. The Belgian theologian, José Comblin, suggests that a possible reason for this invisibility is that the Spirit empowers individuals by creating egalitarian conditions often beneficial to marginalized communities (i.e., women, the poor, those living in fear, the illiterate), which is usually an undesirable prospect for the hierarchical structures of institutions such as the church itself. According to Comblin, the Holy Spirit can pose a threat to societal and ecclesial powers. It certainly challenges exalted traditions, such as apostolic succession, and its pseudo-doctrines within protestant traditions. The Spirit really shakes things up.1

When the structures are used for the inclusion of some and exclusion of others, the Spirit is able to make possible the inclusion of the formally excluded. The Spirit, for example, might facilitate calling many into ministries who had not received ministerial validation through the route of apostolic succession. Jesus told the Samaritan Woman in John 4:23: “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.”

Jesus continues in John 4:24: “God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

The traditional theological and cultural beliefs of orthodox Jewish teaching about Samaritans, and, we can deduce, the physical and geographical locations, institutions, theology and doctrine, will no longer have a hold on God. The ways of the past have been replaced by the Spirit, which is not and cannot be controlled or limited by human systems. In fact, the Spirit enabled Jesus to theologize with a “common” woman, and to experience a fruitful ecumenical moment as a result of that encounter. The Spirit moved Jesus and the Samaritan woman from patriarchal, ethnocentric and theological restrictions.

How did this affect the Jewish teachers of the time and the power they held as the gatekeepers of orthodoxy? What implications does this hold for us today?

John makes it clear that after the crucifixion of Jesus, the disciples were overcome by fear and despair. This sentiment was to be expected from a group of individuals who had followed a charismatic leader — Jesus, whose ministry threatened the Roman Empire and the Jewish religious leadership. Consequently, those same disciples found themselves alone to cope with the religious-political consequences of Jesus’ three years of ministry and all of its challenges. They went from believing in the historical project of Jesus establishing the Kingdom on earth, to fearing a complete and utter failure of that trajectory.

Not surprisingly, Jesus came to visit his disciples, knowing that they would feel defeated and understanding the support they would need in order to move forward. He bestowed peace upon them, and they were overjoyed when he showed them his wounds. They, like Thomas, apparently needed physical proof of the resurrection.

Jesus’ return to visit with his disciples appears to have had a clear mission of fortifying them to continue his work. First of all, they would need peace to counter the turbulence of his death, and secondly, they needed evidence of his resurrection to restore their faith. Jesus dealt with these two pressing issues immediately. He did not simply return to celebrate his resurrection, but to prepare them as he sent them forth to continue the work he had begun.

However, how can people who witnessed total defeat and who were consequently living in fear, regain their faith with just a few words? Can one sermon, no matter how persuasive, change the minds, values and beliefs of a group of people? Can words create courage and faith where there is none? Before he left his disciples, Jesus bestowed upon them the Spirit. It seems that without the Spirit’s involvement in the lives of the disciples, there would be no peace, faith, or courage. This passage reminds me of Luther’s notion of the crucial role that the Spirit plays in breaking the barriers of sin and its bondage of the human will.

For Luther, human beings are, in and of themselves, incapable of living up to what God desires. The Holy Spirit makes it possible for the disciples, and for all of us, to be who Jesus wants us to be. The church needs to re-emphasize pneumatology, as declared by Barth and Graham. The role of the Holy Spirit as empowerment for ministry must be explored.

The Spirit is needed to help the church break through the barriers of ethnicity, sex, gender, race, class, ability, etc., and must be sought. We are living through a time in which there are so many challenges in our world, a time in which the fearless prophetic voice of the church is desperately needed. This prophetic voice can only be propelled by the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.


Notes:

1. Comblin, José. The Holy Spirit and Liberation. Theology and Liberation Series. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1989.


First Reading

Commentary on Acts 2:1-21

Margaret Aymer

The Pentecost lectionary takes place in Jerusalem on the feast day of Shavuot, fifty days after Passover in the Jewish calendar.

This story follows Luke’s retelling of the ascension of Jesus (Acts 1:1-12, see also Luke 24:50-53), the gathering of Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem — some one hundred twenty in all (Acts 1:15), and the choice of a twelfth man to replace Judas (Acts 1:16-26). These can be understood as prologue, for the Pentecost narrative catalyzes the action in the rest of Acts of the Apostles.

Luke’s narrative describes the completion of what John the Baptist began (Acts 1:5). It describes not the birth of the church, but rather the empowerment of the believers to bear witness to the ends of the earth, as promised in Acts 1:8. Following this passage, we hear Peter’s interpretation of the events of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and status as God’s messiah (Acts 2:22-36). The result of Peter’s speech, according to Luke, is the conversion of thousands, and the communitarianism of the earliest churches (Acts 2:37-47).

Today’s lectionary passage begins with the one hundred twenty gathered together (Acts 2:1; see also, Acts 1:15). Luke then describes the coming of the Holy Spirit as the sound of a rushing wind, an apparition of tongues resting on each, and the gift of the ability to speak in other languages (2:2-4). The narrative turns next to the outsiders who witness this spectacle (2:5-13). These include immigrants to Jerusalem from all over the Mediterranean basin (2:8-11). The lectionary ends only nine verses into Peter’s much lengthier address, with a quotation from Joel 2.

Exegetical notes

When the day of Pentecost had come: Although contemporary Jews commemorate the holy gift of the Law, Torah, at Mt. Sinai on Shavuot, it is not clear whether the ancient harvest festival carried that meaning in Luke’s day. Whether or not it did, Luke’s narrative serves as a Christian appropriation and reinterpretation of the festival day.

…there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind: Acts 2:2-4 comprises one long sentence describing the coming of the Holy Spirit. This is no gentle inbreaking. The spirit comes suddenly (aphno), even violently (biaias) upon the gathered. Fiery tongues appear and settle on each of them (Acts 2:3). Luke makes no distinction here, with regards to gender, as he will in other parts of Acts. Then the gathered begin to speak in “other tongues” (2:4) as enabled by the spirit. The later verses in this passage clarify that these are known languages of the Mediterranean basin, rather than the spiritual language that Paul calls glossolalia in 1 Corinthians 12-14.

Now there were devout Jews: Acts 2 focuses on the growth of belief in Jesus among Jews, not among Gentiles as will be the case in Acts 10. Moreover, these are not pilgrims to the harvest festival; they are immigrants, inhabitants of Jerusalem (Acts 2:5). Their homelands encircle Palestine in all directions (2:9-11). Further, they have mother tongues other than the languages of Palestine (Acts 2:8, 11). This points to the cultural diversity of Jews of Luke’s day, likely caused in part by various diasporas.

All were amazed and perplexed: Here, “amazed” should be considered a less than pleasant emotion. This is not the joy of a child seeing a magic trick. These have gathered because they also heard the violent wind (Acts 2:6). Their sentiment is closer to bewilderment; they are flummoxed by all of the signs and portents. Some, of course, mock the happenings as a scene caused by people drunk on new wine (2:13). Luke uses their question “What does this mean” to launch into Peter’s speech.

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice: In Acts, standing sometimes precedes an important oration (Acts 17:22). Peter delivers his address, here, with the other eleven male apostles. He addresses first Judean men (andres Ioudaioi), but also the crowd of immigrants gathered with them, whom he calls “you who live in Jerusalem” (katoikountes) (2:14).

This is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: The lectionary ends before we hear what Peter himself preaches. Instead, today’s reading ends with a quotation from the prophet Joel (Acts 2: 16-21; Joel 2:28-32a). In its original context, this passage follows a prophecy comparing the coming of the day of the LORD to that of a devastating army (Joel 2:1-11). The prophet declares fasting and repentance as the people’s appropriate response to the fearful coming of the wrath of the day of the Lord (2:12-18).

The result is both a near reprieve –the removal of the northern army – and the promise of an eschatological hope, the pouring out of God’s spirit. Luke uses this eschatological section as an interpretative lens for the violent, multilingual Pentecost outpouring. As in the days of Joel, the portents of God’s inbreaking are terrifying — blood, smoke, fire, and a solar eclipse (Acts 2:19-20; Joel 2:30-31). However, God’s coming also brings people to prophetic speech, women and men, slave and free. And all who call on God’s name will be saved (Acts 2:21; John 2:32a).

Theological considerations

In Luke’s telling, Pentecost engenders fear and bewilderment rather than celebration. The parallel here is to the eschatological day of the Lord. Pentecost is both its forerunner and, paradoxically, its fulfillment. The Holy Spirit proves not to be a quiet, heavenly dove, but rather a violent force that blows the church into being (Acts 2:41-47). That church consists mainly of immigrants, people of different languages and cultures with different mother tongues (Acts 2:5, 9-12, 14). To these, the message goes forth, a message of the coming of the Day of the Lord, full of heavenly portents and prophetic women, slaves, and men. But in the midst of the chaos of Pentecost rests an anchor. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 104:24-34, 35b

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Psalm 104 is classified as a creation psalm, a rare breed in the book of Psalms.

Only Psalms 8, 19, 65, and 148 share the designation, and, at 35 verses, Psalm 104 is by far the lengthiest of the group. The lectionary text reading includes only verses 24-34 and 35b, but those verses are a good representation of the message of Psalm 104. One scholar suggests the following outline for the psalm:

Introductory call to praise (verse 1a)
God and the heavens (verses 1b-4)
God and the waters (verses 5-10)
God and the order of creation (verses 11-23)
God and the diversity of creation (verses 24-30)
God’s glory and the singer’s song (verses 30-35b)
Concluding call to praise (verse 35c-d)

As we see from the above outline, the lectionary text emphasizes the “diversity of creation” and “God’s glory and the singer’s song.” How ought we to read this text as a commentary, an aid, to understanding the Pentecost story in Acts 2?

Creation psalms celebrate the sovereignty of God over the created world, and, in the case of Psalms 8, 19, 65, and 148, marvel at or allude to humanity’s special place within creation — see Psalm 8:3-8; Psalm 19:11-14; Psalm 65:1-5; and Psalm 148:11-14. Not so with Psalm 104. In its beautifully crafted words, humanity takes a decided backseat to God and God’s magnificent creation.

Humanity is included in its words in only one place — verse 23, which reads, in my own translation, “Humanity goes forth to its work and to its labor until evening.” The verse does not single out humanity, but speaks of humanity in the same breath as that of various elements of creation: the moon and the darkness (verses 19-20); the living things of the forest (verses 20); the young lions (verses 21); and the sun (verses 22).

The opening verse of the focus lectionary text, state, “O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom (chokmah) you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures — literally, the things that are belong to you.” Verses 24-26 recount God’s creative acts, carried out by means of wisdom (verse 24) and are abundant with echoes of Genesis 1: the sea (Genesis 1:6-10); the creeping things and the living creatures (Genesis 1:24); and, yes, even Leviathan, called the great sea monsters in Genesis 1:21. At the end of verse 26, the psalm singer depicts God’s delight in creation, stating “Leviathan — this you formed in order to “laugh” “play” (in the NRSV, “sport,” from the Hebrew root tsachaq) with it. The word used here is the same word that Woman Wisdom uses to describe her utter delight in creation in Proverbs 8:30.

Verses 27-28 describe God’s good provision for creation and verses 29-30 tell of creation’s dependence upon God and God’s ultimate power over creation. Again, humanity is not singled out with any special mention, but rather is depicted as one with all of creation.

The glory of God is depicted in verse 32 with images of the earth trembling and the mountains smoking, typical elements of a theophany — an appearance of God to humanity — in the Old Testament. See, for example, Genesis 15; Exodus 19; and 1 Kings 19. The psalm singer responds to the theophany in verse 33, not with fear and dread, though, but with a vow to “sing to the Lord as long as I live … praise God while I have being.” She continues with a wish that her meditation (her musings about God) will be pleasing.

This commentator finds the omission of 35a from the lectionary text interesting. I parallel the words of verse 35 with the words of Psalm 139:19-22, another psalm musing over the good care of God for God’s creation (in the case of Psalm 139, though, God’s care for humanity). J. Clinton McCann Jr. writes concerning Psalm 139:19-22,

“While the verses inevitably sound like a request for personal revenge, their import is much broader and deeper; they request that God set things right in the world.”

The singer of Psalm 104 celebrates God’s creation of, care for, and glory over creation. Why should she not cry out to God about the sources of sin and wickedness?

The psalm closes in 35b with the same words with which it opens, forming an inclusio, an envelope structure, around the psalm, perhaps indicating that its words are summary words in some way or another.

This commentary opened with words of musing: “How ought we read this text as a commentary, an aid, to understanding the Pentecost story in Acts 2?” I offer some tentative insights. The God we encounter in Psalm 104 is the God of creation, and humanity receives only a passing mention (verse 23). God created the world “in wisdom” (verse 24), and along with Wisdom, playfully interacts with his wondrous creation (verse 26). God provides for and is sovereign over creation (verses 27-30); and God’s glory manifests itself in awe-inspiring ways (verse 32).

On the day of Pentecost, the people gathered in that room in Jerusalem witnessed an “up close and personal” theophany: a noise, a violent wind, tongues of fire. But the God in this theophany brought a message not of dread, but of hope, to the gathered worshipers. And in Peter’s address to the people, we read a message of inclusion of all humanity (and might I add, all creation?) in God’s vision for the future. And the words of Psalm 104 remind all humanity that they are part and parcel of all creation.

Yes, we will prophesy, we will see visions, and we will dream dreams. But to what end? This commentator maintains that the “to what end” has to do with all creation, the glory of our God, and the world with which our God is so intimately involved, even deigning to come down and visit a rag-tag group of followers of Jesus in Jerusalem.


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13

Mary Hinkle Shore

Paul begins chapter 12 by saying, “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed” (1 Corinthians 12:1).1

By all accounts, the Corinthians had a full measure of the Spirit’s power. Prophecy, speaking in tongues, and the interpretation of tongues, knowledge: the Corinthians had them all and more. Yet they also had conflict, immorality, and thoughtless disregard for one another. How could they know something was a gift of the Spirit and not merely self-indulgence? Throughout this chapter and the next, Paul teaches on the topic of how to discern God’s work in the activation of various gifts and how to value one’s brothers and sisters in Christ across that variety.

What is God up to? My colleagues in the field of congregational mission and leadership regard this question as the central one for Christian public leaders: “What is God doing in this place?” What is God doing in the church, in the neighborhood, in the lives of people within the fold of the congregation and the lives of those beyond it?

Sometimes congregations have never asked questions about their reason for being in this way. Other times, people are used to God talk but not sure how to differentiate what God might be up to from what one or another group on the ground is fervently working for. Paul offers three criteria for making such judgments.

What is God up to? Through God’s Spirit, God is first of all bearing witness to Jesus as Lord. “No one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says ‘Let Jesus be cursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). In Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, Ross Douthat is sharply critical of various Christian heresies popular in America, from the prosperity gospel of people like Joel Osteen, to preoccupation with “the God within” from Oprah Winfrey and others, to Glenn Beck’s understanding of God as chiefly concerned to spread democracy throughout the world by means of American military might and foreign policy. One of the things all of these voices have in common is silence about that which Paul told the Corinthians was all he decided to know among them: “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).

According to the apostle Paul, one way to know whether a movement is led by the Spirit of God is to listen for its claims about Jesus Christ. The Spirit makes Jesus known to us in the cross (see 1 Corinthians 1:18-31), the supper (see 1 Corinthians 11:23-34), and the resurrection (see 1 Corinthians 15). By the Spirit, the church testifies that Jesus — not money, security, self esteem, paranoia, power, or anything else — is Lord. 

Gifts from God’s Spirit proclaim Jesus as Lord. They also serve the common good. Paul’s second criterion for discerning the work of the Holy Spirit points to the Spirit’s interest in the common life of those it draws together. Just as the Spirit is all about talking up Jesus as Lord, so the Spirit is all about building up the group rather than enriching individuals. “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7).

Individuals receive gifts from the Spirit, yet each gift is for the body as a whole. This implies that if a gift cannot be shared, and shared for the good of others, it is not from the Spirit. It also implies that any attempt to rank individuals according to their possession of “better” gifts would be at odds with each gift’s common purpose for the good of all. 

The third clue Paul offers to us as we try to answer what God is up to in a particular place is a sort of negative criterion. Whatever God’s Spirit is doing, it will probably not be characterized by tidiness. When you are looking for the Spirit’s gifts, look for a bit of a mess. This means, among other things, that the fact that you did not think of something — whether “you” are a long-time member, or a pastor, or the church council, or the apostle Paul — is not enough to say it is a bad idea. True, Paul urges that Corinthians to do everything “decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40), but this requirement does not preclude a varied collection of activities.

The Corinthians were the original enthusiasts, giving every evidence of having swallowed the Holy Spirit, feathers and all. Many of them seem enthralled by the more dramatic external manifestations of the Holy Spirit’s work (tongues, prophecy, healing, etc.). Sadly, at the same time, they ignored the quieter work of the Spirit to draw them into a community that respects all its members. They could not, for instance, share the Lord’s Supper together equitably (see 1 Corinthians 11:23-34).

When Paul tries to redirect the Corinthians’ attraction for spiritual gifts, it is not because he likes tradition more than innovation or because he is trying to erase difference. Paul directs the Corinthians to the “still more excellent way” of faith, hope, and love (see 1 Corinthians 12:31; 13:13) because that way will bring them back to valuing one another more than their own knowledge, wisdom, prophecy, miracles, tongues, and all the rest. The person sitting beside you in the pew or kneeling alongside you at the altar rail: that brother or sister in Christ matters more than all the spiritual gifts in the congregation. Paul’s goal is not a tidy community life but a loving one.

How do we know the work of the Holy Spirit among us? The Spirit proclaims Jesus as Lord, offers its gifts to the church for the common good, and activates love for the neighbor. These criteria give us a place to start as we continue to look for what God is up to in our own churches and neighborhoods today.


1 Commentary by Mary Hinkle Shore first published on this site on May 27, 2012.