Lectionary Commentaries for May 19, 2013
Day of Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 14:8-17 [25-27]

Lucy Lind Hogan

Believe, believe, believe.

While the reading from Acts will no doubt take center stage on this celebration of Pentecost, nevertheless, this gospel reading from John challenges us to think about how it is that we come to believe. In fact, in this reading from Jesus’ farewell sermon, his challenge to believe is made four times in only three verses. Jesus challenged his disciples and challenges us to believe in who he is, what he said, and what he did. How is it that we are able to love Jesus and keep his commandments?

We love the image of the dove appearing on Jesus’ head following his baptism in the Jordan. That would be a clear, outward, and visible sign that something important had happened. Likewise, when the disciples gathered in the upper room waiting as Jesus had commanded them, there was “a sound like the rush of a violent wind . . . Divided tongues, as of fire appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them” (Acts 2:2-3). That would be a very clear sign that something important had happened. If only we had such clear evidence.

I have to confess that, on the day of my Confirmation, I was hoping and praying for such a sign. I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church and the day finally arrived when the bishop came to All Saints’ Church. The boys were instructed to wear suits and the girls to wear blue skirts and white blouses. The girls were also given a white linen shawl with which to cover our heads. (This was back in the day when women wore hats to church.)

All eyes were on me as I walked up the aisle toward the bishop seated before the altar. But I did not look at them. I was looking at Bishop McNairy anticipating a sign, a feeling, something remarkable that would let me know that something important had happened. I knelt before the bishop and he laid his hands upon my draped head; “Defend, O Lord, this thy Child with thy heavenly grace . . .” I waited. I waited. Nothing. There were no doves or flames; no remarkable feeling. I rose and, with a heavy heart, returned to my pew. I was now a confirmed member of the Episcopal Church and yet, seemingly, the same old Lucy Lind — a disappointed Lucy.

Therefore, I am able to relate to Philip’s request. He turned to Jesus as they gathered around the table in the upper room that final night: “Show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Show us the Father? Now he asks? Philip has walked with Jesus. He sat at Jesus’ feet listening to his teachings, and still he feels unchanged? He does not feel different? He does not understand? I think that I can also hear the frustration and exasperation in Jesus’ voice as he turns to his friend and student, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?” (John 14:9). Perhaps Bishop McNairy might have asked me the same question.

The good news of the gospel is that, in knowing Jesus Christ, we have come to know God. In hearing the teachings of Jesus we have heard of God’s love for us because Jesus is “in the Father and the Father is in me” (John 14:10). All that Jesus said, all that he did, he declares, are not his words or his works but are those of the “Father who dwells in me” (John 14:10).

Over and over again Jesus challenges us to believe that he is in the Father. And if we believe, he declares to us, not only will be also be able to do the same works that he did but “will do greater works than these” (John 14:12). But how are we able to believe? How are we able to do great works in the name of a person who was crucified, died? Christ is risen, but he has also ascended. He is no longer with us. How can we, who were not with him, did not hear his teachings, did not see him, believe? We are able to believe through the power of the Paraclete, the Advocate.

As they sat in the upper room, with the power and hate of the Jewish leaders and Roman oppressors filling the air around them, Jesus assured his disciples that he was “going to the Father.” And he offered them words of comfort, “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it” (John 14:13). Little could they know how much they would need his help.

Finally, Jesus challenged them to love him and to keep his commandments. I suspect everyone seated in that room nodded their head and thought, “I do love you and of course I will keep your commandments.” But in a few short hours their teacher would be arrested and tried. In a few short hours his life would be ended and their lives filled with fear that the same thing would happened to them. Would they still love him? Could they keep his commandments?

They, and we, are able to love and keep the commandments because of the Spirit, the Advocate sent by God. Jesus declared to them and to us that the Spirit of truth would be with us forever. The Advocate would help us to hear the words of Jesus even though he has gone to the Father. The Paraclete “will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14:26). We are able to love God and others because the love of God in the gift of the Spirit will “abide with you, and he will be in you” (John 14:17).

Through that Spirit, the Advocate, the Comforter, the Counselor, I have come to believe that I was changed on that Sunday morning at All Saints’ parish in Minneapolis. Something important did happen. I was filled with the love, the peace, the Spirit of God and that Spirit continues to fill me and lead me to keep the commandments. And that Spirit fills all of those who believe in Jesus. That is the good news of Pentecost.

First Reading

Commentary on Acts 2:1-21

Brian Peterson

Within the New Testament, only Luke-Acts divides Jesus’ resurrection, his ascension, and the giving of the Holy Spirit into three distinct and temporally separated events (compare John 20, which talks about them all on the same Easter day).

Within the New Testament, only Luke-Acts divides Jesus’ resurrection, his ascension, and the giving of the Holy Spirit into three distinct and temporally separated events (compare John 20, which talks about them all on the same Easter day). Yet it is Luke-Acts’ plotting of the story that has overwhelmingly shaped the church’s memory and liturgical pattern. Perhaps that’s appropriate; though these three belong together as a unified whole, together clarifying what God has done for and through Jesus, perhaps these claims are so momentous that each deserves and needs a festival of its own for the church’s consideration and celebration. And so Acts moves us from the Easter encounters with Jesus, through the ascension, and now to the startling events of Pentecost.

It isn’t only in terms of narrative chronology that Luke-Acts offers something distinct about the Holy Spirit. There are two other New Testament authors who have a good deal to say about the Spirit, but each of these three voices emphasizes something different.1 For John, the Spirit is the Advocate, the continuing and comforting presence of Jesus with the church, and the source of peace. For Paul, the Spirit is that which unites us to Christ, makes us into his body, and gives particular gifts to each person for the sake of the community. For Luke-Acts, the Spirit is the power of God, the mighty burning wind that blows the church into new and unexpected places of ministry.

Of the three, the portrayal of the Spirit in Acts is the most disturbing. Who knows where such a Spirit might blow? Being a disciple of Jesus in this windstorm will bring the church, and you along with it, to unexpected places, and unexpected grace. It may only be in retrospect, and with inspired interpretation, that we can look back and recognize the Spirit’s driving wind rather than simply a frighteningly chaotic storm.

It is astonishing that the giving of the Spirit is described so briefly: just verses 1- 4, and the momentous event that Jesus had promised in chapter 1 is over. They are four weighty verses, of course. The Spirit comes with the marks of God’s own revealing presence: fire, wind, and noise (compare this scene with Exodus 19:16-19 and 1 Kings 19:11-12). But the focus of attention, both in the reaction of the crowd and in Peter’s sermon, is not on the wind and fire, and even on the Spirit as such, but on the words that the believers are speaking.

This is the central importance of Pentecost: the Spirit’s transformation of the church into a community of prophets (note that in Acts 2:18 “they shall prophesy” is found neither in the Hebrew text or the Septuagint of Joel 2:29, and appears to be Luke’s addition). The community that had gathered in Jesus’ name is now made something that they were not before: prophets of God’s word, messengers of the good news of Jesus. That transforming Spirit is given to all of them, apparently not just the eleven plus Matthias, but the larger community of 120 which was described in Acts 1:15.

This theophany of the Spirit is a unique event in Acts’ story of the church, but the gift of being made into God’s prophets will continue to reverberate throughout the narrative, not only through the apostles like Peter and Paul, but through people like Ananias (9:10-19), Philip’s four daughters and Agabus (21:7-14), and the apparently unnamed ones who will, even past the narrative limits of this book, bring the gospel “to the ends of the earth” (Acts, 1:8, which hardly describes the conclusion of this book in Rome).

Even the lowest in the household (“my slaves” in verse 18, with “my” being another meaningful Lukan addition to the text of Joel) will be claimed by God, and will become God’s servants and God’s prophets. Perhaps we ought to try speaking about the “prophet-hood of all believers” at least as much as we speak about the priesthood of all believers. This is what it means to be the church; this is the identity given to us by the Spirit’s claiming, calling, and empowering.

John the Baptist had promised that the Coming One would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, but that declaration sounded like a warning and threat (Luke 3:16-17). If the pouring out of the Spirit had meant wrath and condemnation, then perhaps we could sit back and let the rest of the world go to hell. But Luke interprets the giving of the Spirit to the church not as a rejection of the rest of the world, but as the sign that God intends to reach and reclaim it.

In another significant change from wording of Joel, Acts 2:17 begins by saying “in the last days” (rather than Joel’s “after these things”). That wording makes clear that this is an eschatological event, a God-given turning point for the world. The promised new time has begun, and Acts shows that this new age is one not only of God’s power but also of God’s grace, and that it is intended for the whole world. The focus of Peter’s exposition of the Joel passage does not stop to consider the “signs and wonders” (though such things will form part of the longer narrative of Acts; see for example 5:12); Peter’s sermon comes to its climax in verse 21 by focusing attention on the declaration from Joel that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

In the context of Joel, this passage meant the salvation of Israel and the destruction of those nations that had oppressed it. The surprise of Pentecost is that the eschatological “last days” do not bring that destruction, but rather bring mission and redemption for the world. Of course, it will take the rest of Acts (and maybe the rest of the church’s history) to fully comprehend what, by God’s grace, is meant by “everyone”.

1See Fred Craddock, Luke. Interpretation. A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox, 1990). 292.


Commentary on Psalm 104:24-34, 35b

Jerome Creach

Psalm 104 presents a glorious picture of God as creator and a sweeping view of the world God made.

The main subject of the psalm is the order of the world and the sovereignty of the God who created and maintains it. This subject in turn instills confidence that God can and will order the lives of those who seek God by keeping them in God’s purpose and away from evil.

Psalm 104 draws from theological ideas similar to those in the creation story in Genesis 1:1-2:4a and the flood story in Genesis 6-9. In Genesis 1:1-2:4a God creates the world by pushing back the waters that covered the earth so there is a place for plants to grow and animals, including humans, to flourish. The flood story states that when God saw that human beings were completely bent toward evil (6:5) God decided to reverse creation and start over (note in 7:11 the flood occurred when the waters were allowed to cross the boundaries God had made).

But after the flood God realized that humans were still inclined toward evil (8:21b). Nevertheless, God decided to allow the world to remain intact (8:21a). This promise is the most basic sign of God’s grace. God determined to be patient with human beings and not to punish them as they deserve to be punished.

Psalm 104:24-30 describes again God’s mastery over all the creatures of the earth. God is even the master of Leviathan, the mysterious sea creature sometimes conceived as a symbol of chaos and evil (Psalm 74:14). The section ends with two important claims: God gives all creatures their food (104:27-28) and God gives them the breath of life, without which they could not survive (verses 29-30). The second point says essentially the same thing as Genesis 2:7 which reports how God made the first human being from the dust of the ground and then breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.

Verses 24-25 give a particularly interesting testimony to God’s sovereignty and mastery over the creation. These verses begin much like the psalm begins, by lauding God for the marvelous works of creation. Verse 24 makes a new statement, however, that “in wisdom you have made them all.” The term “in wisdom” could also be translated “by wisdom.” The expression suggests that God created with great skill and insight and that all things made have a purpose. This statement is important for understanding the next two verses.

Verses 25-26 highlights the sea, which ancient Israelites often saw as mysterious, uncontrollable, and perhaps even evil (note that Pharaoh in Exodus is closely associated with the sea and Jonah flees from God on the sea). As if to deny that the sea is outside God’s creative purpose, verse 25 lists the sea and all its creatures as among those things God made “in wisdom.” Verse 26 emphasizes this wisdom by naming Leviathan, the great sea monster, as part of God’s plan: “there go the ships, and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.”

Leviathan is often listed in the Old Testament as a dreaded creature that is untamable, like the sea itself (Job 41). Therefore, the statement about Leviathan is a particularly important claim that God is master over the creation that no creature is beyond God’s control. But verse 26 may make an even more radical claim than the translation given indicates. Leviathan appears here not as a fearsome creature, but one that “frolics” and plays (see the NIV translation). The translations above assume that the end of the verse means simply that Leviathan plays in the sea (NRSV, “in it;” NIV “there”).

But there is another intriguing possibility that would speak even more strongly to God’s creation of Leviathan with a purpose. The words “in it” (NRSV) are actually one word in Hebrew. The word is a combination of a preposition that can mean “in,” “by,” or “with” and a pronoun “it.” Our translations assume “it” refers to the sea, thus Leviathan sports and plays “in it.” But “it” could refer to Leviathan. If Leviathan is the intended antecedent then the verse is saying God made Leviathan “to play with it.”

In other words, not only is Leviathan not a creature God dreads or sees as an enemy, it is God’s pet or plaything. This image of God playing with the great sea monster offers comfort for all those who feel the world around them is chaotic and unruly; it assures them that God is ultimately in control even though they may feel out of control.

Verses 31-35 conclude the psalm with calls for God to be praised and honored. The first part of the final verse is not part of the lectionary reading, but it actually illustrates the theological point of the rest of the psalm. Verse 35a asks that “sinners be consumed from the earth.” The petition is consistent with the rest of the psalm in that the order of God’s world will not ultimately accommodate rebellion against God’s rule.

It may be helpful to note, further, that the main Hebrew manuscript used to translate the Old Testament (known as the Masoretic Text) actually reads “Let sins cease.” NRSV and NIV are translating “sinners” because that word appears in a manuscript from the Dead Sea Scrolls. The translators thought “sinners” was more logical since the term “wicked” appears as a parallel word later in the verse. Regardless of which wording is most accurate, however, the notion that God would cause “sins” to end is consistent with the spirit of the psalm.

God created the world with order and purpose and anyone or anything that acts against that purpose essentially tries to undo the good creation God established. Thus, the final petition of Psalm 104 is not really a prayer against particular people, but against the forces of evil with which people sometimes cooperate against the wishes of the Creator.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 8:14-17

Mark Tranvik

Pentecost Sunday celebrates God’s gift of the Holy Spirit.

For many Christians, the Holy Spirit remains a puzzle. The other members of the Trinity, the Father and the Son, are better defined. But there is much confusion about the Spirit. Questions like the following are likely to be in the minds of listeners: Just what does the Holy Spirit do? How would I know if the Holy Spirit is involved in my life? It might be helpful, using our text in Romans as a guide, to describe the work of the Holy Spirit under the following headings.

The Holy Spirit Points to Christ
Often when people speak of the Holy Spirit they associate it with an extraordinary or spectacular event. We tend to let stories like the tongues of fire that appeared on the heads of the apostles (Acts 2:3) or the dramatic conversion of St. Paul on the road to Damascus define our understanding of how God works in the world. And there is little question that many acts of God are astonishing.

But just as notable is the way God works in a mundane manner. When Paul speaks of the power of the Spirit in our verses he points to our inclusion in God’s family. The Spirit makes us “children of God” (8:14) and so intertwines our lives with Christ that we now understand God as a Father or even a “Daddy” (as Abba might be translated — see 8:15). In addition, Paul suggests we are now “heirs” with Christ (8:17). In other words, all that the Son shares with the Father (peace, life, righteousness) has now been bequeathed to us as well.

In most cases the Holy Spirit usually does not try to draw attention to itself but rather works on us to strengthen our relationship of faith in Christ. This means the Spirit is very busy indeed. In our stumbling attempts at faith in Christ, the Holy Spirit is at work, overcoming our own desire to be in control. When we seek comfort, the Spirit reminds us of Christ’s seeking of the lost sheep and his forgiveness to a betrayer like Peter. When we need correction, the Spirit calls to mind Christ’s injunction against the love of money or the need to forgive — even those we classify as enemies.

Those who wonder about the Spirit’s presence in their lives need only look to their struggling faith in Christ and they will find plenty of evidence. Left to our own devices, we wander far from the source of light and truth. But the Spirit has other plans. God’s Spirit continually reaches out to embrace and encourage us.

The Holy Spirit is a Gift
The Holy Spirit is not something that resides in us or is under our control. There is such a thing as the human spirit, of course. This is the source of our imagination and creativity. It enables poets, painters, writers to practice express their gifts and it inspires magnificent works in literature and art. But when we attach the word “Holy” to the word “Spirit” we move beyond the human realm. We are now speaking of God and a force beyond human manipulation. Similar to the wind, the Holy Spirit is not something we can manage or direct (Acts 2:2).

But the Holy Spirit does have an agenda: it wants to bring us into a relationship with Christ. As Romans 8:15-17 says, God seeks to make us his children by adoption. The language here is suggestive. Children brought into a family by adoption usually have little to say about the process. It is something that happens to them by virtue of parents who are seeking a child and social workers who are helping to make that a reality.

Similarly, we do not earn membership in God’s family. The work of the Holy Spirit is to continually draw us to Christ, in spite of our desire to strike out on our own. Martin Luther’s commentary on the third article of the Apostles’ Creed fits in well here: “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith…”1

The Holy Spirit Means Trouble
This might strike people as a bit odd. After all, Jesus calls the Holy Spirit the “helper” (John 16:7). Furthermore, we are told the fruits of the Spirit are things like peace and joy (Galatians 5:22-23). And it is true that to be in a relationship with Christ (the chief task of the Holy Spirit as explained above) does bring a peace that passes all understanding. But those joined to Christ in faith by the Spirit are also returned to the world in lives of self-giving love.

The first thing the Spirit does after descending upon Jesus in his baptism is to drive him out into the desert for a frightening encounter with the devil (Mark 1:12-13). Think about that … the desert … a place traditionally identified with temptation and trial. People should be cautioned about associating the Holy Spirit with “playing it safe” or material abundance. As a wise, older pastor once told me, the “Spirit brings us to where the pain is.”

In fact, our text from Romans assumes that those who are part of God’s family will also experience difficulty. As joint heirs with Christ “we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:17). Paul’s point is not that we go out and seek suffering. That would turn suffering into a “good work” and simply be another attempt to manipulate God to our own ends. Nor does our participation in suffering mean that we are somehow in the midst of the Spirit’s work.

For example, I do not believe that God wishes things like depression for his children. God can certainly work through depression to achieve God’s will, but preachers will caution against a passive acceptance of suffering in all circumstances. However, those caught up in the Spirit, that is, those joined to the radical love of Jesus Christ, should not be surprised that it leads to conflict, struggle and trouble. After all, the Spirit not only drove Jesus to the desert; it also propelled him on a ministry that would eventually lead to a cross.

1“The Small Catechism,” in The Book of Concord, ed. by Robert Kolb and Timothy Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 355.