Lectionary Commentaries for May 10, 2020
Fifth Sunday of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 14:1-14

Lindsey S. Jodrey

[This commentary is co-authored with Dr. Erin Raffety.1]

“Do not let your hearts be troubled.”

These farewell words from Jesus to his disciples do not feel relevant to me as I sit in my New Jersey apartment during COVID-19. Perhaps for some, the promise of a place that Jesus has prepared for them brings peace or hope, but I resonate more with the reaction of Thomas: “We don’t know where you’re going; how can we know the way?” (verse 5)

I cannot pretend to understand where God is in the midst of a global crisis. We preachers often share words of affirmation and assurance from a place of strength. We stand behind sturdy pulpits and lecterns, in our Sunday best—well-fed, (sometimes) well-rested, and we project a sense of control as we offer a semblance of comfort, of security. In some ways, I’m thankful that the current circumstances won’t allow me to take that approach to this text at this moment in history. My heart is troubled, but I find consolation in the context of these words in the Fourth Gospel, which Jesus spoke as he prepared for his own death with full knowledge that his disciples would soon be overcome with grief.

There’s a hint that Jesus’ words weren’t meant to offer physical security. As Jaime Clark-Soles reminds us, the promised “dwelling places” (monai) are linked grammatically to the Johannine concept of “abiding” (meno). The dwelling places are the noun form of the verb that Jesus uses just a chapter later, when he tells the disciples, “Abide in me.”2 The charge to abide and dwell with God strikes me as an invitation to hear and share a comforting word—not from a place of security or power, but from a place of vulnerability. More than a charge to “get it together” and put on a brave face, there’s a permission that is given, to admit that we cannot control the things that trouble us, to seek comfort without a false sense of security.

At home in grief and love

As I prepared this commentary, I had a conversation with a good friend and seminarian, Alisa Unell, whose life experience includes chronic illness. She reminded me, so graciously, that those who identify as able-bodied may not have developed the inner resources to deal with the constant stress and health-related fear that inundates us all during this crisis. I realized as we talked that those whose lives are affected by illness or disability even outside of COVID-19 have a wealth of resources to share.

With this in mind, I have included a message from Dr. Erin Raffety, a good friend who recently shared some of the resources she’s developed, particularly in her experiences as a pastor and a parent to a child with multiple disabilities and a terminal illness.3

I’ve never been able to save my daughter, Lucia. It’s a truth I’ve had to come to grips with. When you live at the edge of your limits as a mother and a person, you get kind of comfortable there, you make a home and a peace among those unanswerable whys. You realize to ask them is futile, faithless, distracting, daunting. The control that you don’t have was never an idol to be worshiped, but rather a tyrannical robber of joy.

There is truth and wisdom in many of these positions. We can’t save ourselves. We can’t prevent this virus. If we could, we would have done it by now. Instead, our lives are shot through with daily reminders of our vulnerability. Our naivete is gone.

A few months ago, over Lucia’s birthday, I flew unexpectedly to Wisconsin for a funeral of a dear family friend. Funerals are not really for the dying. They’re for the living to do the work of grieving so they can gather the resources to go on living. That weekend, we were blessed to be together and reflect upon the life of a beautiful, faithful woman. “Your mother was so good at loving people,” I said to my friend.

And is there really anything else? I began to wonder.

Grief and love are the twin conditions in which we’ve had to make our home in these coronavirus days. To acknowledge the former, in light of isolation, suspended gatherings, especially funerals interrupted, doesn’t always seem to help. In other words, it doesn’t seem to help to know what you’re going through is grief these days, when it just seems like it’s all grief on top of grief.

Grief all the way down.

Indeed, I worry increasingly that our vigilance around social distancing, self-protection, and isolation in the face of fear so easily turns from care to coercion. Human beings have always clung to a logic around life and death that privileges health and ability, because it makes most of us feel better than facing the unknowns of death that will never be controlled.

But even that logic won’t really save us. And it definitely won’t save us from pain or from grief. The paradoxical antidote, though, is to be like my mother’s friend, Sharman—in the face of life’s cruelty, to be ridiculously committed to loving people. The grief is that love never rescues anyone from death, of course, but it covers them, it nurtures them, it consumes them in a way that always and does matter completely.

My husband and I don’t always talk about how it feels to live with the specter of death at our door. It freaks people out to talk about death, let alone the impending death of a child. But we find it important and comforting to be honest and open about the unknowns.

I don’t want to live with a false security that my child will always be there. Instead, with the full knowledge of life’s impermanency, we can choose to love even more fiercely, generously, lavishly.

For many people, and importantly, the living and loving to be done in these days includes showing up as scientists, doctors, nurses, and emergency responders to those who are suffering and dying. But for the rest of us, there will be the equally hard and important work of loving fiercely, praying, honoring, and naming the dead, and not shying away from grief and fear but embracing them and their pain, in patience and hope that love will survive.

Our naivete may be gone, grief and death may be more and more evident these days, but perhaps there is salvation to be found. While we can’t save ourselves, may we be reminded that the God who saves has been unleashed in the world as love incarnate.

Love will conquer death. Love will find a way.

Concluding questions

  • How can you lean into vulnerability as you preach this text?
  • Where will you create space for yourself and those in your community to grieve the things we cannot control?
  • When fear and pain rear their heads, will you embrace them?
  • Will you find a place to dwell in grief and love?

This is true hope, even when our hearts are troubled.


Notes:

  1. Erin Raffety is the author of numerous articles, including, “Lonely Joy: How Families with Nonverbal Children with Disabilities Communicate, Collaborate, and Resist in a World that Values Words,” Journal of Pastoral Theology 29 (2019): 101-115. She is currently writing a book on congregational ministry and leadership with people with disabilities. Erin is a lecturer in youth, church, and culture in the area of education formation in the Department of Practical Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. She earned her M.Div. from Princeton Seminary and her Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from Princeton University. Her interests include culture, family, youth, disability studies, and ethnography, and her courses at Princeton Seminary focus on practical and ethnographic approaches to ministry with congregations and marginal populations.

  2. Jaime Clark-Soles. Reading John for Dear Life: A Spiritual Walk with the Fourth Gospel. (Louisville: KY: Westminster John Knox, 2016), 92.

  3. Quoting from a May 2020 social media post by Erin Raffety.


First Reading

Commentary on Acts 7:55-60

Philip Ruge-Jones

Back in the day, my seminary professors told us that our proclamation should recreate the effect in our own congregation that the Word had on its first hearers.

So, if all goes according to their instructions, you will end up stoned this Sunday as you utter your final words of forgiveness over your hearers. Meanwhile, that one member of the congregation—you know the one I’m talking about—will stand by sneering as he hands people their coats at the exit.

The story centers on Stephen who was introduced in the previous chapter of Acts. The dispute about equitable care for the widows among the Hellenists and the Hebrews led to the appointing of seven men of good standing to tend to these issues so that the twelve would not “neglect the word in order to wait on tables” (6:2). A similar side comment defines apostolic work with the twelve attending to “prayer and serving the word” (6:4).

The characteristics listed for these men were that they be in good standing in the church, and full of both the Spirit and wisdom (6:3). Even in this group, Stephen stands out as the first one named and the only one to receive specific praise as one “full of faith and the Holy Spirit” (6:5) and again as one “full of grace and power,” doing signs and wonders among the people (6:8). He speaks in a way that his detractors find impossible to dispute (6:10); this fulfills a promise from Jesus in Luke 21:15.

Stephen’s persuasiveness leads to a conflict in a synagogue and at this point, the narrator rallies allies among those who heard his account not with accolades like those above, but by constructing a narrative that echoes the arrest and trial of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. These points of resemblance arise:

  • a secret plot to arrest each (Luke 22:2; Acts 6:11)
  • they “seize” each (Luke 22:54; Acts 6:12)
  • each is brought to the council authorities (Luke 22:54, 66; Acts 6:12)
  • the people are “stirred up” against each (Luke 23:5; Acts 6:12)
  • each is treated as a blasphemer (Luke 22:71; Acts 6:11) and destroyer of the traditions.

Passion traditions held in other Gospels but not employed by Luke also appear in the description of what happens to Stephen:

  • false witnesses come forward (Acts 6:13) and
  • accusations of destroying the temple are made (Acts 6:14).

The narrator expects us to carry this impression regarding Stephen forward into Acts 7. If you want your congregation to know these connections, you have to point it out.

Unlike Jesus and his twitter length responses during his trial, Stephen speaks extensively. He rehearses the whole history of the relationship between God and Israel.

  • Abraham is a recipient of a promise he never himself saw fulfilled.
  • Joseph is a recipient of patriarchal hostility and betrayal.
  • Moses is a man of wisdom, word, and power, resisted by his own people.
  • The prophets were those who also met resistance from God’s own people.

This culminates with the accusation against Stephen’s accusers that they have followed the pattern of those who went before them.

The sermon that Stephen preaches is extensive. It is more than twice the length of any single proclamation by Peter. So much for dedication to waiting on tables being a distraction to serving the word.

When Paul comes into his own, his longest sermons do not come close to touching Stephen’s duration. In fact, even Jesus didn’t preach a single sermon in Luke that could come close to what Stephen has proclaimed.

Although this is a defense of Jesus, he is not alluded to until a single verse reference at the end of the sermon (verse 52). Stephen seems more interested in making a case for patterns of infidelity that he accuses his accusers of repeating than in demonstrating the fidelity of Jesus. No wonder they want him dead.

In his death, however, Stephen re-embodies the fidelity of Jesus in his own response to hostility.

The rhetoric of this section is interesting. The dynamic of uninterrupted discourse over an extended period—not even the narrator slipping in extra “and then he said”—keeps the hearers hearing the trial in the role of those who listened to Stephen within the Book of Acts. The audience becomes those invited to reflect on how they have manifested the patterns of infidelity.

All this is essential set-up to the actual martyrdom of Stephen. Here, too, the way of Jesus shows through Stephen’s words and deeds. Again, the spectators act out echoes of the passion narrative. But the phrases that demand attention are when Stephen speaks as Jesus has spoken.

Having seen the heavens opened, and knowing that the Son of Man will judge his innocence, Stephen forgives his tormentors: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). And in trust, he commends his spirit to the risen Jesus (7:59).

His ultimate message is the announcement of new beginnings, even for those who would rob him of his life. Stephen is able to love so recklessly because he has entrusted himself to Jesus.

The life and death of Jesus has given shape to Stephen’s life. He extends the forgiveness, trust, and mercy that Jesus has inaugurated. Having preached judgment with his words on those who have opted for disobedience and violence, with his forgiving dying breath, he announces the transformation the gospel creates.

His ending becomes an opportunity for a new beginning in those who watch his witness attentively. The gift of this event interrupts our failings; it did the same for the apostle Paul when he remembered his involvement in this hostility as he announced the hospitality of God that moved his own gracious vocation toward the Gentiles (Acts 22:20).


Psalm

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

J. Clinton McCann, Jr.

Psalm 31, along with Psalms 22 and 69, is among the longest and most impressive of the genre known variously as lament, complaint, protest, and/or prayer for help.1

Not coincidentally, these three psalms figure prominently in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ passion (see below).

Like Psalm 22 in particular, Psalm 31 has a noticeable double intensity—that is, the basic elements of complaint, petition, and expression of trust/praise recur in what Konrad Schaefer describes as a “first movement” (verses 1-8) and a “second movement” (verses 9-22), in which the basic elements match or parallel each other.2 For instance, in today’s lection, verse 5 parallels verse 15. John Goldingay notices the same structural feature, aptly entitling his treatment of Psalm 31, “When a Prayer Needs to be Prayed Twice.”3

As in all the laments (except Psalm 88), expressions of trust/praise like verses 5 and 15 are present; but what is distinctive about Psalm 31 is that such expressions not only begin and conclude the psalm (verses 1a, 19-24), but also appear throughout it (verses 3a, 4b-8, 14-15a). In this regard, Psalm 31 is similar to Psalm 116, a psalm of thanksgiving that is pervaded by expressions of trust (see essay on Psalm 116:1-4, 12-29, Third Sunday of Easter).

The opening line sets the tone of trust, employing one of the most important words in the Psalter—“refuge.” It occurs first in Psalm 2:12, and then it recurs regularly in the prayers that dominate Books I-II (Psalms 1-72; see verse 19; 5:11; 7:1; 11:1; 14:6; 16:1; and 71:1-3, which is very similar to 31:1-3). To “seek refuge” or “take refuge” (CEB) in God means to entrust life and future to God in the midst of trouble, turmoil, and pervasive opposition, all of which are present in Psalm 31 (see especially verses 4, 7-13, 18, 20-22) and in all the other psalmic prayers as well.

For this reason, verse 1a serves as an accurate and admirable summary of the faith of the psalmists throughout the Psalter—that is, they always live in fundamental dependence upon God, not only trusting that God can and will help, but also inviting others to trust and find hope in God (verses 23-24).

The series of synonyms for “refuge” solidifies the point—“rock of refuge” (verse 2; the Hebrew word translated “refuge” is different than in verses 1, 19); “strong fortress”/”fortress” (verses 2-3); “rock” (verse 3; again, a different Hebrew word than “rock” in verse 2). God can be trusted to protect and preserve.

Similarly, the three virtually synonymous verbs—“deliver” (verse 1), “rescue” (verse 2), and “save” (verse 3)—reinforce the point. The phrases “in your righteousness” (verse 1) and “for your name’s sake” (verse 3) invite attention to the character of God. God works to give life, because this activity communicates essentially who God is.

In this regard, it is significant that the Hebrew word hesed, “steadfast love,” becomes a keyword in the psalm, although it occurs only once in today’s lection (verse 16; see verses 7, 21). Rather uniquely, but helpfully, Goldingay translates hesed as “commitment.”3 The psalmists always trust that God is committed to them, and they in turn commit their lives to God.

Verse 5 is one of the clearest affirmations in the Psalter of the psalmists’ commitment to God: “Into your hand I commit my spirit,” or “I entrust my spirit into your hands” (CEB), or in more of a paraphrase, “I turn my life over to you.” The verb translated “commit”/”entrust” is interesting. In other conjugations and contexts, it is used for passing muster on troops and for appointing military officials.

Given this possible nuance, and given the military metaphor in verses 2-3 (“fortress”) and the pervasive opposition confronting the psalmist (verses 7-8, 11, 13, 15, 18, 20), the choice of words suggests that the psalmist’s battle-strategy is to trust God! What a difference it would make if we, as individuals and groups, “fought back” by trusting God instead of lashing out at enemies!

The word “hand” connotes power; and it links verse 5 to verse 15: “My times are in your hand,” or “My future is in your hands” (CEB). The “hand” or power of God is contrasted with “the hand of the enemy” (verse 8; see 15). The bad news is that the power of the opposition to the psalmist (and to God’s will for life) is real and must be endured.

The good news is that God’s power is greater and will ultimately prevail. Such conviction and commitment—such entrusting of self, life, and future to God—empowers the psalmist to resist and endure, and even to invite others to love God, to have courage, and to have hope (verses 23-24). We might even call it resurrection-power, which makes Psalm 31 appropriate for the season of Easter.

Not surprisingly, according to Luke 23:46, Jesus repeats Psalm 31:5a from the cross, in the midst of powerful and pervasive opposition (the kind of opposition described in 31:13 as “terror all around”—see this phrase also in Jeremiah 20:3, 10, which makes it clear that the prophets, along with the psalmists and Jesus, encountered such opposition). Jesus steadfastly resisted the evil forces arrayed against him, but he did not resist violently. Jesus “fought back” by entrusting life and future to God, and so his resistance took the form of love and forgiveness, grounded in the sure and certain hope of resurrection.

Liturgically, the use of Psalm 31 during both Holy Week (Palm/Passion Sunday and Holy Saturday, Years ABC) and the Easter season invites us to hold together cross and resurrection (see the essay on Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, Resurrection of Our Lord). A persistent temptation is to separate them, as if resurrection-people have put the cross behind them.

Jesus’ invitation, then and now, is to “take up [the] … cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34, CEB). In a world full of powerful forces that oppose God’s will for life, the resurrection-power to resist and endure begins, as it did for the psalmist and Jesus, with the simple but profound commitment, “Into your hand I commit my spirit.”


Notes:

  1. Commentary first published on this site on May 18, 2014.
  2. Konrad Schaefer, Psalms (Berit Olam; Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2001), 76.
  3. John Goldingay, Psalms, Vol. 1: Psalms 1-41 (Baker Commentary; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 434.
  4. Ibid., 434-436.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Peter 2:2-10

Shively Smith

In this Easter season, the letter of 1 Peter supplies useful metaphors for pondering the theological significance of Christ’s resurrection for faith-filled living.

The first verse in its opening thanksgiving prayer (1 Peter 1:3) sets the tone and basis of discussion throughout the rest of the letter: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” Existence in Christ through resurrection is the foundational claim upon which prescriptions for Christian identity, behavior, and practice are made in the rest of the letter.

In 1 Peter 2:2-10, the writer piles one image on top of another, encouraging readers to imagine the boundless possibilities of Christian existence in light of Christ’s life. Some of those images include: movement from darkness to light (2:9), babies drinking milk (2:2), constructing God’s temple (2:4), believers as the outcome in God’s decision-making process of election (2:4, 6, 9; see also 1:1; 5:13), believers as God’s family (2:9-10, 7; see also 4:17), and the community as the site of God’s presence and household (2:5).

Metaphors abound in this passage! And no one metaphor captures everything there is to say about resurrection. Rather, they suggest different interpretative pathways forward to ponder and take up. One image worth considering in light of the rest is the metaphor of stones.

Stone imagery and Peter “The Rock”

The imagery of stones (lithos) dominates the nine verses of this lectionary passage, occurring five times from verses 4-8. Language of stones (lithos) should not be confused with another Greek word for stone or rock (petra). Indeed, petra-rock was the image assigned to Peter by Jesus in Matthew 16:18. Language for rock as petra occurs one time in 1 Peter (2:8). Here, the passage compares “a lithos-stone of stumbling” (lithos proskommatos) to “a petra-rock of offense” (petra skandalou).

This one instance in 1 Peter may signal the nicknaming of Peter as “The Rock” in Matthew 16:13-23. According to the Gospel story, Peter demonstrates both insight into Jesus’ identity as the Christ and Son of God (Matthew 16:16) and misunderstanding. When Peter rejects that a task of Christ is to suffer, die, and rise again, Jesus responds by calling his rejection an offense (translated as “a stumbling block” in the NRSV), deploying the Greek term skandalon (Matthew 16:21-23). Thus, petra-rock and skandalon-offense are key themes in Matthew’s story of Peter, which appear together as an intertextual echo in the letter of 1 Peter 2:8 (“a petra-rock of offense,” petra skandalou).

Stone imagery and the meaning of resurrection

Nevertheless, lithos-stone, not petra-rock, is the imagery of choice in 1 Peter 2. In verses 4-5, the letter maps aspects of the function and quality of “living stones” onto the identity of believers. “Living stones” is not a phrase explicitly found in the Septuagint (LXX/OT).1

The book of Nehemiah contains one of the closest references to “living stones” or “stones of life” in the LXX/OT. In the company of associates, one of Nehemiah’s opponents criticize attempts to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem saying, “What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore things? Will they sacrifice? Will they finish it in a day? Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish—and burned ones at that?” Tobiah the Ammonite was beside him, and he said, “That stone wall they are building—any fox going up on it would break it down!” (Nehemiah 4:2-3).

In Nehemiah, a major focus is dispersion and return—themes that are also important in 1 Peter. Within this passage, imagery about stones is configured as demolition materials salvaged and repurposed for rebuilding the Holy City and site of God’s presence.

From this perspective, the “living stone” imagery may invite us to consider resurrection as a site of repurposed life and reconstruction. Resurrection life creates the environment to house and honor the presence of God within and beyond Christian communities. Indeed, the image of being built into a “spiritual house” or “house of God’s Spirit” (oikos pneumatikos) is referenced in 1 Peter 2:5 alongside lithos-stone imagery.

Reinterpreting stones: Jewish tradition and Christian proclamation

Verses 6-8 quote and interpret three passages from the LXX/OT that use the word lithos-stone:

  1. 1 Peter 2:6 reinterprets Isaiah 28:16—This passage describes Jesus as a figure of both shame and honor. He is shamefully rejected by humans but honored by God as a chosen, valuable, and founding building block in God’s new creation (1 Peter 1:3, 7).
  2. 1 Peter 2:7 reinterprets Psalm 118:22—This quotation is identical to the version in the LXX Psalm 117:22. This scriptural citation is deployed in reference to Jesus in the Gospel tradition (Mark 12:10-11; Matthew 21:42; Luke 20:17; see also Acts 4:11) and Pauline tradition (Ephesians 2:20). In all cases, the OT scripture is cited to predict resurrection. Consequently, 1 Peter seems to recycle a Christian interpretation of the Jewish Scriptures already circulating among early believers.
  3. 1 Peter 2:8 reinterprets Isaiah 8:13-14—The first part of this LXX/OT passage appears in 1 Peter 3:15 in the language of “but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord.” The second part is altered slightly in 1 Peter. The letter retains the language of “lithos-stone of stumbling” while exchanging the language of “falling rock” for “petra-rock of offense.”

Holding these three passages together is the language of honor-shame. Reinterpreting stone imagery within Jewish tradition, through the Christian proclamation of resurrection, invites readers to consider how they participate, like Jesus, in the honor-shame cycle. Jesus was rejected by some of his family, friends, and community while honored in resurrection by God. This passage portrays the difficulties that can accompany changes in communal identity, practice, and behavior—especially when it defies social conventions and family traditions.

Yet, it also celebrates the honor of being a family member of God. The passage concludes by deploying other metaphors to build believers’ appreciation for their new corporate identity and kinship. Believers who live inspirited by resurrection are invited to think of themselves and their communities as precious and valuable possessions, as royal dignitaries with spiritual inheritance (see also 1 Peter 1:3-4), as new people with a repurposed existence, and as priestly functionaries making sacrifice and worship to God (2:9-10).

The interpretative challenge for Easter proclamation

Today’s Easter reading invites us to reconsider our narrow constructions of resurrection. We are encouraged to entertain the possibility that resurrection life is so profound, aspects of it are captured in the images of the mundane—from rocks, milk, darkness, light, and growth—as well as in the images of the magnificent—from iconic edifices, precious stones, and newborn babies. We only need have the courage and imagination to play with interpretations, exploring the vast possibilities of resurrection in this season. I hope we follow 1 Peter’s model.


Notes:

  1. By LXX, I mean the Septuagint, which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. By OT, I mean the Old Testament, which is the Hebrew Scripture interpreted with reference to the New Testament.