Lectionary Commentaries for April 27, 2014
Second Sunday of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 20:19-31

Elisabeth Johnson

“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week … ”

That day, of course, was a day like no other. After the awful reality of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial on Friday, this Sunday had brought some strange and unsettling events.

Early that morning, Mary Magdalene had come, distressed, to tell the disciples that Jesus’ body was missing from the tomb. Peter and “the other disciple” had run to the tomb and had seen for themselves that it was true. They had seen the linen cloths that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head and body lying there with no corpse to be found. Then, a bit later that day, Mary Magdalene had come to the disciples once again, this time breathless with excitement, and told them, “I have seen the Lord.”

“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews … ” We might expect that the disciples would be celebrating by now. Instead, we find them huddled behind locked doors. John says that the doors were locked for fear of the Jews. Since the disciples themselves are Jews, of course, the statement cannot mean that they are afraid of Jews in general. Certainly they are afraid of the Jewish leaders who were behind the plot to kill Jesus. They are likely afraid for their own lives, afraid of their uncertain futures.

Some years ago I read a comment (I don’t remember where or who had written it) that suggested that maybe, just maybe, the disciples were also afraid of Jesus. After all, they had failed him miserably. Peter had denied him three times, and the rest had deserted him (except for “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” who had been at the cross and had taken Jesus’ mother into his home). Perhaps the last person the disciples wanted to meet on that evening was Jesus, risen from the dead to confront them with their failures.

Jesus, however, will not be stopped by locked doors. He who is himself the “door” of the sheep (10:7) comes right through those locked doors and appears in the midst of his frightened sheep. He comes not to confront his disciples with their failures, but to grant them peace. His greeting, “Peace be with you,” carries the sense of the Hebrew greeting “shalom,” a blessing that connotes more than tranquility, but a deep and holistic sense of well-being — the kind of peace the world cannot give (14:27).

Then Jesus shows his disciples his hands and his side, so that they can see that it is he, the real, flesh-and-blood, crucified Jesus — not a ghost or apparition — who is before them. The disciples respond by rejoicing in seeing the Lord, just as Jesus had told them that they would (16:22). Again Jesus speaks a blessing of peace and tells them, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

The disciples are sent to continue Jesus’ mission of revealing God to the world. They will not be left on their own in this daunting task. Jesus had promised to send another Advocate (paraklétos, one who is “called alongside” someone) who would be with them forever (14:16-17). Now he fulfills that promise. In an act of new creation (cf. Genesis 2:7), he breathes into his disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit (20:22). This Advocate or “Spirit of truth” will teach them, remind them of all that Jesus has said to them, and guide them into all truth (14:26; 16:12-14).

Then Jesus tells his disciples, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (20:23). As many interpreters have demonstrated, “sin” in John’s Gospel is not primarily a moral category; rather, it is fundamentally unbelief, the refusal to receive the revelation of God in the person of Jesus.

Jesus is not giving his disciples some special power to decide whose sins will be forgiven and whose will not. Rather, he is further specifying what it means to be sent, to make known the love of God that Jesus himself has made known. As people come to know and abide in Jesus, they will be “released” (aphiemi) from their sins. If, however, those sent by Jesus fail to bear witness, people will remain stuck in their unbelief; their sins will be “retained” or “held onto” (kratéo). The stakes of this mission are very high indeed.

For some reason (we are not told why), Thomas was absent and missed out on this first Sunday evening encounter with the risen Jesus. Although he has gotten a bad rap as “doubting Thomas,” he asks for nothing more than the others have already received: to see Jesus, wounds and all. The wonder of this story is that Jesus shows up again one week later to provide exactly what Thomas needs. And Thomas responds with the highest Christological confession of anyone in the Gospel. His is not simply a doctrinal confession, but a statement of trust and relationship: “My Lord and my God!” (20:28).

Jesus’ response to Thomas (20:29) is not a rebuke, but rather a blessing for all those who will come to believe without having had the benefit of a flesh-and-blood encounter with Jesus. Indeed, the author goes on to declare that this is the very purpose of this book, addressing all of us who have not seen but have heard this testimony: “But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (20:30-31).

The Easter season of alleluias can sometimes seem to leave little room for our doubts, our fears, and our pain. We tend to forget that for the first disciples, there was fear, doubt, pain, and confusion before there was understanding and joy at what had taken place on that day. One week after Jesus appeared to his disciples, they were gathered once again behind locked doors, suggesting that Thomas was not the only one still needing reassurance that Jesus had in fact conquered death.

There are many directions a sermon on this text could take. One would be to explore our commonality with the disciples in their fear and doubt. Are we so different today, even after we’ve heard — just one week ago — that Jesus is risen from the grave? How do the anxiety and fear in our lives betray our own disbelief? A preacher could name some of the fears and anxieties that keep us locked in–as individuals and as congregations–and keep us from fulfilling the mission for which Jesus has called and sent us.

The natural thing to do when we are feeling anxious or threatened is to hunker down and lock the doors, to become focused on our own security rather than the risky mission to which we are called. The promise of this text is that Jesus cannot be stopped by our locked doors. Jesus comes to us as he came to the first disciples, right in the midst of our fear, pain, doubt, and confusion. He comes speaking peace, breathing into our anxious lives the breath of the Holy Spirit.

What is more, he keeps showing up. As he came back a week later for Thomas, Jesus keeps coming back week after week among his gathered disciples — in the word, the water, the bread, and the wine — not wanting any to miss out on the life and peace he gives. And he keeps sending us out of our safe, locked rooms, into a world that, like us, so desperately needs his gifts of life and peace.


First Reading

Commentary on Acts 2:14a, 22-32

Scott Shauf

Today’s passage is part of Peter’s sermon following the original, powerful experience of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

The experience of the Spirit began with a sound like a strong wind and tongues of fire extending to all members of the early Christian community as they gathered in the upper room (2:1-3).

The Spirit then enabled the gathered to speak “in other tongues” (2:4), and when the many Jews from disparate nations who were in Jerusalem became aware of the spectacle, the Spirit enabled them all to hear the Christians in their own languages (2:5-13). Peter then stood up to speak to the crowd, as told in the opening part of today’s passage (2:14a).

The sermon has two main parts to it, each with its own main point:

The first part (2:15-21) interprets these happenings as the “last days” fulfillment of the prophet Joel’s promise of God’s Spirit being poured out on all people.

The second (2:22-36), from which our passage comes, focuses on Jesus, especially his death and resurrection, the main point being that these were part of God’s plan as revealed in prophetic Psalms.

The end of this second section then relates the story of Jesus back to the Pentecost events, with Peter demonstrating that it is in fact the risen and exalted Jesus who has poured out the gift of the Spirit (verse 33). The Pentecost events then in turn serve as a call to recognize Jesus’ status as “both Lord and Christ” (verse 36). Peter’s speech thus serves to link the story of Jesus with the giving of the Spirit and to interpret both as fulfilling Old Testament prophecies.

Besides the introductory verse 14a, our passage has three parts to it:

Verses 22-24 quickly summarize the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Verses 25-31 interpret Jesus’ resurrection as the fulfillment of Psalm 16:8-11.

Verse 32 restates Jesus’ resurrection as God’s act and asserts the apostles’ status as witnesses of it.

In summarizing the story of Jesus (verses 22-24), Peter points out the unfortunate contrast between the divine attestation of Jesus by his miracles, on the one hand, and his treatment by the audience on the other (“[whom] you crucified and killed,” verse 23).

There has been much discussion in recent years over the question of who killed Jesus, an understandable concern given Christians’ unfortunate tendency throughout history to label Jews as “Christ-killers.” Here Peter clearly does implicate his audience in Jesus’ death, but it is important to note that he is addressing a group of Jerusalem Jews located at a specific point in time. Peter’s statement would be nonsensical if taken to refer to Jews from any other period, or even to Jews located anywhere besides Jerusalem from his own period.

And, of course, Peter and the other members of the early Christian community in Jerusalem were themselves Jews. Modern historians tend to emphasize the Roman responsibility for Jesus’ death, which Peter himself alludes to in his reference to “those outside the law” being involved (v. 23).

The point of the blame for Jesus’ death is not belabored, in any case, as Peter’s ultimate point is the accomplishment of God’s plan, including Jesus’ death, but focusing on his resurrection. Resurrection is not a common topic in the Old Testament, but Peter finds a verse from Psalm 16 that suggests it, even if only obliquely: “For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption” (verse 27; Psalm 16:10).

As verses 29-31 explain, this statement could not apply to the psalmist himself, i.e. to David, as it is certain that David died and that his body experienced the normal subsequent decay (“corruption”). It is important to note here that the line from the psalm is interpreted in an ultimate sense — while one might interpret the line more mundanely as referring to a momentary experience of salvation from death, Peter takes it much more strongly, no doubt because the experience of Christ’s resurrection had suggested such an importance!

It is often the case in the New Testament that the powerful experiences of the resurrection and the Spirit enable the authors to see things in the Old Testament scriptures that had not been seen before. Critics sometimes find such interpretations forced or unconvincing, but I suggest that the interpretation of scripture through the lens of our experiences of God’s work through Christ and the Spirit remains an important interpretive principle.

Two points about this passage may be especially fruitful for preaching. First, the passage sets Jesus’ death and resurrection in the context of God’s larger plan and activity in the people and story of Israel. What happened to Jesus was not a new story but the continuation — and climax — of an old story. Jesus’ death and resurrection came as surprises to his first followers and to Israel, but only in the way that good stories usually have surprising climaxes.

And similarly, the surprising climax makes us reevaluate all that came before in the story. The story of Jesus is the center of the story of human history. Second, we must remember the whole reason Peter brings up the story of Jesus here: to explain the experience of the Spirit at Pentecost. The Spirit’s work must be connected to the story of Jesus.

This invites us to reflect on the work of the Spirit in our own lives: How can we understand God’s work in, among, and through us as part of the story of Jesus, particularly as part of the story of his death and resurrection? If our own stories cannot be meaningfully connected to that of Jesus, we have somewhere gone astray. The symbols of the cross and the empty tomb ought to characterize all that we do as Christians, whether individually or corporately. Or perhaps better put, these symbols ought to be the lenses through which we view all that God performs in and through our lives.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 16

Jerome Creach

Psalm 16 opens with a verse that expresses its main theme: “Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge” (verse 1).

The plea for God to “protect me” is common in the Psalter (similar petitions appear in Psalms 17:8; 25:20; 86:2; 140:5; and 141:9). The word translated “protect” is elsewhere translated “keep,” as in Psalm 121:3, 5, 7, and 8. There it refers to God keeping the psalmist from harm while in route to the place of worship.

The term also describes the Lord as “your keeper” (121:5) and thus serves as a label or title for God. Genesis 4 includes this word in Cain’s denial that he is appointed to watch over his brother (his brother’s “keeper”). Although there is no direct connection between Psalm 16 and Genesis 4, the use of the term is interesting because in the Psalter God clearly protects the psalmist in a way no human can do. Thus, the psalmist in Psalm 16 trusts in God as “keeper,” and the psalmist recognizes God as the only one able to keep him or her from harm.

In the second half of verse 1, the psalmist gives the rationale for the opening petition. He or she has sought “refuge” in God. This language identifies a key concept in this psalm, but it also represents one of the most important theological expressions in the Psalter.

The expression “take refuge” is a rich metaphor that draws on the image of hiding out for safety, as David did when pursued by Saul (1 Samuel 24). Some scholars suggest the language here refers specifically to seeking God’s protection in the temple. What is clear is that “to take refuge” in the Lord essentially means to rely on God for safety and security. The expression therefore is related closely to declarations of trust (see Psalm 25:2-3, 20).

Verse 2 continues and expands the declaration of trust that began in verse 1. The psalmist says to the Lord, “you are my Lord.” Lord is the common word for a superior; for example, subjects refer to the king as “Lord” (1 Samuel 26:17). Thus, the psalmist here proclaims that the Lord (Israel’s God) is the authority in his or her life, the one who gives direction and purpose.

The meaning of verse 2b is uncertain, but most scholars support a translation (as in NIV and NRSV) that enhances the ideas of 16:1-2a: there is no good apart from God (NRSV, “I have no good apart from you”). The line seems to say essentially what Psalm 23:1b says, “I shall not want” (if the Lord guides me). The Lord is the source of life and all goodness.

The meaning of verses 3-4 is uncertain, as the notes in NRSV and NIV indicate. The expression translated “holy ones” or “saints” (verse 3) in these two translations may instead refer to other gods, as the New American Bible indicates. This understanding of verse 3 would then make sense of verse 4 which seems to denounce the worship of other gods. Although this segment of the psalm is difficult to interpret, it seems to fit the rest of the psalm in its insistence that the only true source of life is the one God in whom the psalmist trusts.

When verse 5 refers to God as “my cup” it uses language and an idea similar to Psalm 23:5. This verse and the next, however, draw more directly from ideas in Joshua 13-19. The word “portion” refers to the share of the land given to every Israelite (Joshua 19:9). The term “lot” also appears in Joshua to refer to the method of apportioning the land (Joshua 14:2).

Verse six suggests similar ideas. The boundary of inherited land is generous. But the psalmist makes the point that the Lord is the inheritance, the portion, the share in the promise. This may mean that the one who spoke these words was a Levite, one who did not inherit property (see Joshua 13:33). But this identification is not necessary to interpret the psalm. The fact that the Levites had the Lord as their “portion” serves as a model of piety for all the people of God and the psalmist, Levite or not, professes this identity with God.

Verses 7 and 8 speak of the tangible results of having the Lord as an inheritance and of seeking refuge and trusting in God. The psalmist worships (“I bless”) and receives instruction and guidance from God who is “always before me” (verse 8).

The psalm concludes with three verses that reaffirm and expand the conviction with which the psalm began. When the psalmist speaks of “resting secure” (verse 9) the word for secure is a form of the word that means “to trust.” Thus, as McCann says, “security for the psalmist is not an achievement but a result of a life entrusted to God.”1

Evidence of this security is in the psalmist’s continuing in life before God, which is the opposite of being given up to Sheol or the Pit, references to the abode of the dead and separation from God (verse 10). The source of life and security is the Creator of life. So the psalmist speaks of the divine presence as the place that is most desired, that gives “fullness of joy” (verse 11).

From beginning to end Psalm 16 testifies to a life that finds its ultimate rest in God’s protective presence. It speaks against the notion that security and satisfaction come from material wealth or human accomplishments. Indeed, it insists all that is good and all that is needed are found in the presence of God, the one the psalmist claims as refuge. The psalm is fitting for the Easter season both because it provides support for the notion of resurrection (verses 10-11) and it identifies God as one who creates, supports, and protects life for all who trust in him.


Notes:

J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IV (Ed. Leander E. Keck; Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), p. 737.


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Peter 1:3-9

Karl Jacobson

“First Peter reflects the rapid expansion of the early church in Asia Minor.

The writer explores issues of community, mission, and suffering — issues these young faith communities may have been facing.”1

Over the next four weeks the Revised Common Lectionary gives us four readings covering most of the first two chapters of 1 Peter. Each of these successive readings from 1 Peter speaks to the shaping of identity in the fledgling Christian community; the first two readings (1:3-9 and 1:17-23) address the source of faith and hope (cf. 1:3-4; 1:21).

In the third selection (2:19-25, which is actually the fourth reading chronologically) speaks to suffering and struggle, appealing both to the example which Christ Jesus set in his own suffering, and to that which is effected by his suffering, forgiveness of and cleansing from sin. Finally in the fourth reading (2:2-10), a pastiche of biblical references is employed to define Peter’s audience, to speak them into being as God’s people.

Each of these four readings contains the fundamental language of faith, spoken by the author of 1 Peter, to establish, to shape, and to grow the early Christian community. Such language, employed for the shaping of Christian identity, is fitting not only for the fledgling life of faith, but for the ongoing, present-day life of faith, and its church.

1 Peter 1:3-9 describes the state of being defined by God’s “great mercy,” which gives us a “new birth into a living hope,” and fait that is “for salvation” (1:3, 5).

This new birth leads to two “outcomes,” in the “now” and in the “then.” Now, this new birth leads to rejoicing “with an indescribable and glorious joy.” Now, new birth is into joy. Then, “the outcome of your faith,” is “the salvation of your souls” (1:9). And it is the promise of the “then” that brings hope and joy into the “now,” most importantly and promisingly into any now that is marked and marred by suffering, by trials, and by testing.

In the midst of 1 Peter 1:3-9 we find a metaphor which captures all of this now/then tension. 1 Peter 1:7 describes a faith that is more precious than gold, but understood through the image of gold. Gold and faith; faith as gold. Faith, like gold, must be refined, tested, and purified; made “genuine” (1:7). This refining of (primarily) the people themselves is a fairly common metaphor in the Bible:

Zechariah 13:9: “And I will put this third into the fire, refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested. They will call on my name, and I will answer them. I will say, ‘They are my people’; and they will say, ‘The Lord is our God.’”

Malachi 3:2b-3: “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.”

Cf. Isaiah 48:10, where the precious metal is silver, but the metaphor essentially the same: “See, I have refined you, but not like silver; I have tested you in the furnace of adversity.”

And in Proverbs 17:3 the turn is made more explicit, where the metaphor of refining the people themselves, is taken to the heart of the people: “The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, but the Lord tests the heart.”

Here in first Peter the metaphor is of the devotion of the heart to God, both as it is refined, and in the joy it produces. This is faith. This is life in Christ. This is what 1 Peter is all about.


Notes:

Schultz, Raymond L., Book Introduction and Study Notes, 1 Peter, The Lutheran Study Bible (p. 1999).