Lectionary Commentaries for May 14, 2017
Fifth Sunday of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 14:1-14

Elisabeth Johnson

This text is frequently read at funerals, and for good reason.

It contains promises that are profoundly comforting in the face of the death of a loved one. The challenge for the preacher on this 5th Sunday of Easter may be to help listeners understand that this text is not only about life after death, but is a text that has everything to do with our lives here and now.

The setting is Jesus’ farewell address at his last supper with his disciples. Jesus has washed his disciples’ feet and has explained to them what this means (13:1-20). He has foretold his betrayal by Judas, and Judas has slipped out into the night (13:21-30). He has told his disciples that he will be with them only a little while longer, and that where he is going, they cannot come (13:33). He has also foretold Peter’s imminent denial (13:36-38).

No wonder the disciples are troubled. Their beloved teacher is leaving them, one of their own has turned against them, and the stalwart leader among the disciples is said to be on the cusp of a great failure of loyalty. It is as though the ground is shifting beneath their feet.

Jesus responds to the anxiety of his disciples by saying, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me” (14:1). Jesus calls them back to this fundamental relationship of trust and assures them that he is not abandoning them. Rather, he is returning to his Father, which is good news for them. In speaking of his ascension to the Father, Jesus assures his disciples that this is also their destination. There are many dwellings in his Father’s house, and he goes to prepare a place for them, so that they will be with him and dwell with him in his intimate relationship with the Father (14:2-3).

When Jesus says that they know the way to the place where he is going (14:4), Thomas, like most characters in the Gospel, takes Jesus quite literally. He wants directions, a road map to this place (14:5). Jesus responds by saying that he himself is the way: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (14:6).

Unfortunately, this verse has often been used as a trump card, or worse, as a threat, to tell people that they better get with the program and “accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior” in order to be saved. To interpret the verse this way is to rip it from its context and do violence to the spirit of Jesus’ words.

This statement by Jesus is a promise, a word of comfort to his disciples. Jesus himself is all they need; there is no need to panic, no need to search desperately for a secret map. Jesus adds, “If you know me, you will know my Father also” (14:7a). The conditional phrase in Greek is a condition of fact, meaning that the condition is understood to be true: “If you know me (and you do), you will know my father also.” So that there can be no misunderstanding, Jesus adds, “From now on, you do know him and have seen him” (14:7b).

This time it is Philip who is not quite convinced. “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied” (14:8). Jesus’ response contains perhaps a hint of exasperation: “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (14:9). Here Jesus echoes an affirmation from the prologue of John’s Gospel: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart (literally, in the bosom of the Father), who has made him known” (1:18).

This is the whole of Jesus’ mission, to make known the Father, to reveal who God is. Jesus, who has come from the bosom of the Father and is now returning there, is the fullest revelation of the person and character of God. If we want to know who God is, we need look no further than Jesus. All the words that Jesus has spoken, all the works that he has done, come from God and show us who God is (14:10-11).

This passage has everything to do with life here and now because Jesus entrusts his mission to his disciples. “Very truly I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it” (14:13-14).

Yet here is where Jesus’ promise becomes a little hard to swallow. Greater works than these? Really, Jesus? Greater works than healing the blind and raising the dead? And you will do whatever we ask in your name? We have all known the pain of praying for healing that did not come, of feeling powerless in the face of disease and death. How can these promises be true?

Perhaps our problem is that in hearing these promises, we expect to do these greater works in the same way that Jesus did them — with miraculous power that instantly solves the problem at hand. Yet even miracles are not guaranteed to produce faith. Many in John’s Gospel who witness the “signs” that Jesus performs have trouble seeing the work of God right before their eyes.

Toward the end of John’s Gospel, Thomas sees the risen Lord and confesses, “My Lord and my God!” (20:28). Jesus responds, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” This is not so much a scolding for Thomas as a blessing for us who have not seen and yet believe, however feeble our believing may seem.

Jesus promises to be with us through the power of the Spirit, to work in and through us to accomplish his purposes in the world. This does not necessarily happen in easily visible, spectacular ways. Yet wherever there is healing, reconciling, life-giving work happening, this is the work of God. Wherever there is life in abundance, this is Jesus’ presence in our midst.

“No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (1:18). Jesus has made known to us the heart of God, and he has entrusted this mission of “making known” to us. Where might we see Jesus’ work and presence in our midst? How might we show others the very heart of God?


First Reading

Commentary on Acts 7:55-60

Margaret Aymer

Acts 6-7 functions as a pivot point in Acts.

Before these chapters, the church is centered in Jerusalem. After them, the church moves out of Judea led by the Hellenistic Jews chosen as deacons in Acts 6. Stephen is one of these. This story of Stephen’s martyrdom follows directly after he charges the Council in Jerusalem with opposing the Holy Spirit, murdering the prophets, and breaking Torah (7:51-53). His audience is already seething before his vision (7:54).

Luke tells the story of Stephen’s death in five sentences. Verses 55-56, the first sentence, relates Stephen’s vision twice. Verses 57-58a describe the people’s enraged reaction. Verses 58b-59 introduce Saul of Tarsus for the first time, even as Stephen continues to be stoned. In verse 60a, Stephen advocates on behalf of those who are killing him to Jesus. Finally, in verse 60b, Stephen dies, or as Luke puts it colloquially, falls asleep.

Exegetical notes

Being filled with the Holy Spirit. In describing Stephen this way Luke establishes his voice and perspective as trustworthy, which then skews any reading of the other characters (see also Acts 6:5).

He gazed into heaven. Luke frequently uses atenizo, translated in the New Revised Standard Version as “gazed” to indicate perception beyond typical human sight. With the assistance of the Holy Spirit, Stephen, gazing into the heavens, is given a vision of heavenly matters.

He saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. This is the first and only physical appearance of God in all of Luke-Acts. Jesus only appears two other times in all of Acts of the Apostles: once at the outset, and once to Paul of Tarsus (Acts 1: 9). Thus, such a revelation is of great importance. As with other important revelations in Acts, Luke repeats it. He, the author, narrates it in 7:55; and Stephen, the only character whose voice we hear clearly in this part of the narrative, repeats it in 7:56. Luke, here, is echoing Jesus’s words at his own trial (Luke 22:69), a parallel between Stephen and Jesus that continues throughout these five verses. As part of that parallel, Luke is arguing that Stephen, like Jesus, was unjustly tried, sentenced, and executed, creating an anti-Jewish slant to this narrative that can have negative ramifications.

In saying that Jesus is standing at the right hand of God, Luke is not making a point about Jesus’ physical posture. Rather, Luke’s point is that Jesus’ position is established, that he has standing in a way that no one else does. This verb, histemi, will return in 7:60, as a dying Stephen pleads to Jesus on behalf of his executors.

Stephen’s declaration is one of only three times that Luke veers from using the aorist tense. The aorist tense, a tense that describes overall actions as though they were a single snapshot, is the typical tense of narration in the Greek New Testament. This is the tense Luke uses to describe the vision in 7:55. However, when Stephen speaks, he describes the revelation in the present tense. In so doing, Luke’s audience is drawn into the middle of the action as Stephen insists that he sees the vision, at that very moment.

But they covered their ears. This may be an allusion to Deuteronomy 13:8, where God’s people are instructed not to listen to anyone enticing them to follow other gods. Instead, such a person is to be taken out and stoned (Deuteronomy 13:11). Luke seems to be suggesting here that this is what happens to Stephen. Rather than hearing his words as prophetic, his audience hears him as enticing them to false worship. If this is true, they would be within their rights to stone him.

When they had driven him out of the city. Like Jesus, after a controversial sermon Stephen is driven outside of the city (Luke 4:29; Acts 7:58). Unlike Jesus, Stephen does not escape. Instead, the people begin to stone him. Here Luke switches tense to the more urgent imperfect tense. That the verb lithoboleo is only in the imperfect tense here suggests to the reader ongoing action taking place punctuated by cries from Stephen.

A young man named Saul. This is Luke’s first reference to Saul of Tarsus in all of Acts. He bears witness to the stoning of Stephen. Although it is unclear whether or not he participates in the stoning, he certainly approves of it (Acts 8:1). Only later, in Acts 9, does he become the famous convert and not until Acts 13 does he begin to go by his more familiar name, Paul.

Lord Jesus, receive my Spirit. This is Luke’s third parallel between Stephen and Jesus. Here, Stephen’s dying words echo those of Jesus on the cross in Luke’s passion (Luke 23:46). It is notable here that Stephen commends his spirit not to God but to Jesus. Jesus thus has a level of authority to receive souls that was not previously revealed.

Lord, do not hold this sin against them. There is some dispute whether this is meant to be a parallel verse to Luke 23:34. Early manuscripts of Luke lack that verse, which would make the question moot. Of interest, though, is Jesus’ role here as judge of sin. The verb histemi reappears here. Just as Jesus has standing on God’s right, so also Jesus decides which sins stand at the time of judgment.

Theological considerations

All three persons of the Trinity are present in this narrative, although God mainly functions as a reference point for Jesus. Jesus is shown as having divine standing, the ability to receive souls and forgive sins. The Holy Spirit reveals divine visions to those who are faithful.

Stephen models trust in Jesus and forgiveness, even as he is being martyred. Like Stephen, God’s people might die for their faith. However, Luke challenges the reader to trust the risen Christ and to bear witness to the truth of his resurrection and exaltation, even if it means death.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16

Joel LeMon

This psalmist is a refugee.

In fact, the Psalter is “refugee literature,” in a very real sense. It’s written by refugees, for refugees.1 The Psalms give voice to those who yearn for a place of safety and protection. Moreover, the voice of those refugees is so clear and compelling that the Psalms heighten our attention to the cries of those seeking refuge in our midst.

From its opening verses, Psalm 31 presents the fundamental relationship between the psalmist and God: “In you, O Yahweh, I seek refuge” (verse 1). This imagery of the psalmist as refugee and God as refuge recurs explicitly at the beginning and end of the psalm (especially in verses 1-4, 19-20). But the logic of the relationship underlies the entire psalm.

After its opening affirmation of God being a source of protection (verse 1a), the psalmist makes an immediate plea for God to provide that protection (verse 1b-4). The refugee desperately needs deliverance, salvation, and guidance as he tries to evade capture (verse 4).

In the subsequent verses, the refugee issues an assertion of trust in Yahweh alone, that no real power resides elsewhere (verses 6-8). “Idols” are worthless, but Yahweh is of inestimable worth, since Yahweh can lead the refugee to “a broad place” (verse 6). This delivering power of Yahweh provides a strong contrast to the threat of detention, of being ensnared in a net by the enemies (verse 4).

After the bold affirmations of verses 3-8, the refugee turns again to a description of his oppression. He is grief-stricken, worn out. He is completely “wasting away”: eyes, soul, body (verse 9), strength, and bones (verse 10). The refugee is faced with the terrifying reality that he is ceasing to exist.

This bodily disintegration corresponds to his lack of integration within the community that surrounds him. They deride the refugee and are terrified by him (verse 11). They either run away from the refugee (verse 11) or make plans to get rid of him (verse 13). All of this social dis-ease prompts the refugee to think of himself as one already dead (verse 12).

He is a broken vessel (verse 12) no longer useful, something only to be thrown out. Fields of broken vessels, i.e., potsherds, were the ancient equivalent to our modern dumps or landfills (see also Jeremiah 19:2; Job 2:8). That is where the refugee finds himself, as nothing more than human trash.  

The psalm is marked by a back-and-forth movement between bitter complaints and sublime confidence — between petitions (verses 1-2, 9-13, 16-18) and affirmations of trust (verses 3-8, 14-15, 19-24). This common movement in the psalms attests the complex emotional state of those seeking refuge. Refugees are alternately terrified by the threats of those who would seek to harm them and hopeful for a new experience of safety.

The psalm ends with expressions of hope and confidence, based on the refugee’s own experience of God’s power and goodness. God has established a pattern of delivering those who seek God’s sheltering presence (v. 20). Thus, the final strains of this psalm are an exhortation to all refugees to take courage and rely on God’s faithfulness and justice.

Preachers should pay particularly close attention to a psalm like this in a political climate like ours. This psalm provides a stark reminder of the plight of refugees in every age. Though the identities and threats change, the experience of refugees remains consistent. They exist at the dangerous periphery of society. They are both feared by those communities and themselves afraid.

This psalm reminds us of God’s fundamental identity as refuge. Over and over, in a cascade of images, Psalm 31, like so many others, portrays God as the place of protection for those seeking refuge. Reading this psalm helps us recognize God as refuge and ourselves, and so many others, as refugees. 

Psalm 31, in the larger context of Christian Scripture also helps us identify God the Son as a refugee too. Luke’s Gospel puts this psalm of refuge on the lips of Jesus on the Cross. Indeed, his very last words are an affirmation that he relies completely on God as refuge (Luke 23:46). The resurrection and glorification of Jesus testify God’s ultimate faithfulness to refugees.

In the Bible’s complex theological witness, God is both refuge and refugee. That reality should align our own communities toward refugees. And it defines Christian ministry as a ministry of and for refugees. 

Psalm 31 is a prayer for refugees to pray. But it is also a prayer for those of us who do not immediately identify ourselves as refugees. The immediacy of the rhetoric focuses our attention on those who are even now seeking refuge in our midst.

When we read verse 1, “In you, Yahweh, I seek refuge,” we cannot help but hear our own voice. And we realize that we are all refugees. We share a theological kinship with all who seek refuge and share profound responsibility to minister to them.


Notes:

1. On the many forms of the imagery of God as refuge and their implications for the theology of the Psalms, see Jerome Creach, Yahweh as Refuge and the Editing of the Hebrew Psalter, JSOTSup 217 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1996); and William P. Brown, Seeing the Psalms: A Theology of Metaphor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 15-30


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Peter 2:2-10

Jeannine K. Brown

As a Christian young person, I remember hearing that the New Testament letters begin with theology and move to practice (e.g., Romans 1-11, then 12-16).

I’ve learned since that there is nothing hard and fast about such a pattern. In fact, by the time we reach 1 Peter 2, we’ve already heard five major exhortations that begin the body of this letter. Believers are called to hope (1:13), to be holy (1:15), to be circumspect in their living (1:17), to love one another deeply (1:22), and, at 2:2, to desire what will bring about their growth, especially the Lord Jesus himself (with a nod to Psalm 34:8 in 2:3). Now, after this litany of actions to pursue, Peter grounds these exhortations in who believers are — he turns to issues of identity in 2:4-10.

Knowing one’s true identity is transformative. Melba Pattillo Beals was a 17-year-old African American girl living in Little Rock, Arkansas when she and eight other students integrated Central High School in 1957. Segregationists, spurred on by Arkansas Governor Faubus, defied the Supreme Court’s edict to integrate and attempted to halt integration. The African American students, known as the Little Rock Nine, experienced tremendous adversity in their quest for acceptance by the white majority.

Melba Beals was motivated to continue the fight for integration by her wise grandmother who said, “We are…God’s ideas [and] you must strive to be the best of what God made you.”1 Grandma India gave her granddaughter the gift of identity. She affirmed that, as a young black woman, she was “God’s idea.”

Peter seems intent on transforming his beleaguered audience, not simply by telling them what to do but, more deeply, by reshaping their identity in line with their Lord and their new heritage. And he begins with a potent image of stones being built into God’s temple.

In this word picture, Jesus is the living stone whom these believers have embraced and in whom they have found their hope. Jesus is also the cornerstone rejected by people but of greatest value to God (2:4, 6). The connecting point for Christian identity comes in verse 5, “You yourselves are being built like living stones into a spiritual temple” (Common English Bible). The follower is being made into the image of the master. And the followers together are being built into God’s temple to “offer up spiritual sacrifices.”

The image set is complex and beautiful. Rather than viewing true worship as what happens in the temples to various gods spread across the cities of Asia Minor, Peter draws on this image of stones. Suggesting that acceptable worship arises in small, house-church communities of Jesus followers scattered across this region, where these “stones” gather together to proclaim their allegiance to Jesus the Messiah (3:15).

But Peter is not yet finished with the metaphor. As believers are made in the image of their Lord, they also participate in the value God has placed on the cornerstone, Jesus. Though he was rejected, the final word drawn from the Old Testament Scriptures about Jesus is not “rejected” but, instead, “valuable” and “chosen” (2:6). Believers share in that verdict from God, even as they are currently rejected and maligned by their neighbors who do not yet believe (4:3-4). Peter writes that “God honors [those] who believe” in the cornerstone (2:7; referencing Psalm 118:22), even as those who do not believe end up stumbling over that very same stone (2:8; referencing Isaiah 8:14).

One of the striking features of 1 Peter is how often the Old Testament shows up in a letter that is, by all accounts, written to Gentile believers in Jesus (see 1:18; 4:3). So far in this passage we have heard at least four references to different Old Testament passages (from Psalms and Isaiah). In the concluding verses the author draws from Exodus, Isaiah, and Hosea to ground his Gentile audience in the identity of Israel — God’s covenant people.

The first half of 1 Peter 2:9 echoes the language God uses to describe Israel’s identity as they are redeemed from Egypt to be God’s possession (Exodus 19:5) and to be “a kingdom of priests for me and a holy nation” (19:6; Common English Bible). As Israel was called into being as the people of God to live out God’s mission to the world (the meaning of “a kingdom of priests,” with priests being those who bridge between God and others), so those who read 1 Peter as Scripture are identified as “God’s own possession” to testify to God’s “wonderful acts” (2:9).

To highlight God’s wonderful acts, the author concludes with Hosea in Acts 2:10. Israel’s disobedience had put them at risk as God’s people in the time of Hosea; if it had not been for God’s unfailing loyalty to them, they would not have survived as God’s people. Those who had at one time existed outside of God’s covenant and had not been recipients of God’s mercy — the Gentiles of Peter’s audience — have now been welcomed into God’s family by the unfailing mercy of God.

Whether new to faith or long-time believers, the people of our congregations need to be grounded in their identity in Christ in ongoing ways. Whatever their circumstances, they can derive a profound sense of hope (1:13) from hearing that they too are God’s precious stones, built upon that living cornerstone. They are God’s own possession and have been brought from darkness to light to offer spiritual sacrifices and to proclaim God’s wonderful acts of mercy.


Notes:

1. Melba Beals, Warriors Don’t Cry (New York: Simon Pulse, 1995), 10