Lectionary Commentaries for April 28, 2013
Fifth Sunday of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 13:31-35

Karyn Wiseman

One of the stunning parts of this text is the location. This passage comes on the heels of Judas leaving the other disciples at the last supper to betray Jesus. 

It is an amazing moment in the text. We know what is coming and we know where Judas is off to. We wonder what Jesus will say and/or do next. His response is to talk about the glorification that is to come (verse 31-32). This glorification will be realized in his death on the cross and his resurrection. Through these events God will be glorified in Christ. And in this moment, Jesus wants to prepare his disciples for that reality and to command them to love one another.

In other love passages, found in the NT and echoing Leviticus 19:18, we hear Jesus speak of loving the neighbor. This passage is limited in many readers’ minds. Jesus is talking specifically to those who have been with him throughout his ministry and he is asking them to love one another — each other — the inner circle of his followers (John 13:34-35). In many ways this is similar to the theme of church unity often seen in the Gospel of John. But I believe that we must hear all of what Jesus is imploring his disciples to be about in this passage.

The Love Command
The new commandment in this text — to love one another — is arguably one of the more famous statements in the biblical text (verses 34-35). Even folks who are not active participants in the institutional church know this commandment or ones similar to it. But is it new? Hardly. Loving one another is part of Jewish tradition, is present in the Greco-Roman world around them, and is seen in other religious traditions as well.

Loving those with whom we agree or are partial to is the easy part. Loving the rest of the folks we come in contact with is a much harder proposition. But this will not be news to those sitting in the pews of your church or next to you in Bible Study. It is a part of the human condition to love and to want to be loved. Reality is … it’s easier to love those who are more loving and lovable. It is said that John, in his old age, would remind those around him to love one another. When questioned why he told them this so very often, his reply would be, “Because it is what our Lord commanded. If it is all you do, then it is enough.”1

Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said that “Peace is not the absence of war but the presence of justice.” Our world changes when justice prevails. When we love one another — no matter who they are — justice and peace become part of our reality. When we work for justice and equality we are fully living into the love we are commanded to show one to the other by Jesus.

This text focuses on love but the justice piece for many is that all of Jesus’ disciples will be known by their love of others (verses 34-35). For Jesus, love did not mean a sweet sentimental feeling. It meant action. It meant actively loving — putting one’s love into real world activities. This new commandment comes as part of a farewell address by Jesus to his followers. And he does this with a sense of tenderness and mercy.

The address to “children” is only used here (verse 33). It is a touching reminder that the end of Jesus’ time on earth will soon come, but he does this fully aware of the dismay it will cause. He even acknowledges that the immediate impact of his glorification through death and resurrection will mean his absence from them. And into this reality he leaves them this command and tells them they will only have him for a little while longer (verse 33).

He commands the disciples to love one another, but he also reminds them that they will continue to feel his presence despite the fact that he will not be with them. They will exhibit their discipleship by doing what he commands: by loving one another as he loved them. John continues this discourse on love in John 15:1-16:4.

Here is an opportunity this week to talk about the requirement and justice of love. We so often draw lines about who we will love and who we will be tempted to cast in the role of “less loving” in our lives. This happens in the hearts and minds of both individuals — and the church. An interesting thing to note in this text is that Jesus is reminding the disciples that they will be known to others by their acts of loving (verse 35). We would do well to listen to this commandment. We also are called to love others as a mark of our own discipleship.

The way Jesus talks about loving each other is a precursor of the spread of Christianity. As he loved and that love spread within his inner circle, so too will love spread after he is gone when love is done in his name.

This act, to love others, is a distinguishing mark of the followers of Christ then and will continue to be (verses 34-35). Some would say that one of the weaknesses of the church today is the way many Christians do not embody this commandment — or the others — commanding his followers to love their neighbor.

Jesus makes plain his call to the disciples. “Let me give you a new command: Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples — when they see the love you have for each other” (verses 34-35).

Jesus was bold and clear then. How much clearer do we need Jesus to be for our own lives of discipleship now?

1See Jerome’s Commentary on Galatians

First Reading

Commentary on Acts 11:1-18

Kyle Fever

According to several interpreters, there is an apparent redundancy in this passage. 

The Cornelius episode and its effects have been the focus since the beginning of chapter 10. We get the point! God is accepting Gentiles without the requirement that they participate in Judaism.

But this is not just repetition for repetition’s sake. Each time the acceptance of Gentiles is relayed a different aspect shines through, depending on the audience and particular situation. The constant remains, however, in that each telling focuses on God’s initiative through the Spirit and its effects.

We can see in this drawn out telling of Gentile acceptance that the newness that results from the work of the Spirit has several sides and it comes slowly in stages. Peter first experiences the vision from God that overturns the categories of clean and unclean that shaped his existence (Acts 10:1-23). Even the most cherished things are not immune from the newness that results from the resurrection. Then Peter’s realization is verbalized in proclamation to the Gentiles. The effect is not just for Peter to see things differently; it is for the benefit of the Gentiles’ participation in God’s salvation (10:23-48). Not only is Peter changed, but Gentiles’ relationship to God is changed.

Out present pericope is the third wave, slowly eroding away the wall that keeps Gentiles from sharing in the waters of salvation. This time the situation concerns those in Jerusalem, the perceived center of authority of the early church. When Peter comes to Jerusalem, they do not even ask about the Gentiles. They question Peter’s actions: “So you ate a meal together with Gentiles, hmmm?” The indictment is clear. They were concerned with making sure that Peter was acting as a proper Jew, maintaining his identity as one of God’s holy people.

The situation is almost as humorous as it is tragic. For the reader of the narrative, the concern of those in Jerusalem seems to wildly miss the point. The Holy Spirit had just broken down common and unchallenged ethnically and socially based evaluations of humanity, and the “leaders” in Jerusalem are worried that Peter ate in the home of a Gentile. This story puts the reader in a position to recognize the superficiality of the Jerusalemites’ concern. It also suggests that the change does not always begin from the perceived top where one might expect. The perceived authorities are playing catch-up with God’s work.

The Value of Publicly Sharing Experience
Often Peter’s speech is classified as a defense speech or a piece of forensic rhetoric. While formally it may be this, the story also invites us to see Peter’s response as more pastoral than argumentative. There are no fancy theologically-loaded words. He does not argue Scripture with them. He does not argue with their underlying hermeneutical lens. Verse four says that Peter “explained…step by step” his experience of God’s work among the Gentiles. Formally, perhaps it is forensic rhetoric, but the appeal is to experience — his experience of God and of the Gentiles’ reception of the Spirit. “Let me tell you a story…”

In Acts the public sharing of personal experiences of God is a vital part of the ongoing proclamation of the good news. On the one hand, experience of God comes through atypical channels; it does not need the validation of the church leaders. While the overall point of Luke’s story seems to show the positive reception by those in Jerusalem, their agreement is not necessary, just as the Jewish leadership’s agreement was not necessary in Acts 5. Nevertheless, in the story the advancement of God’s work comes through Peter’s witness to his experience. His experience would be of limited value unless he shared it with the rest of the community of faith.

They “Accepted” the Word of God
Peter’s report in this passage is prefaced with the statement, “The Gentiles received the word of God.” Notice also that whereas the Jerusalem leaders were focused on Peter’s actions, Peter draws attention to the activity of God among the Gentiles. He does not explain himself in the face of their accusation; he explains the activity of God.

Both the previous scene in Acts 10 and Peter’s present speech mention “acceptance.” In Acts 10 God “accepts” all who fear God and work justice; here the Gentiles’ receive or “accept” the word of God. The same Greek root is used in both instances. Not only this, but the point of our present pericope seems to be to show the leaders’ own acceptance of God’s new work as well. Both the Gentiles’ acceptance and the leaders’ acceptance of God’s initiative lie at the center of this pericope. But the acceptance means something slightly different for both parties. The Gentiles accept God’s logos that results in their participation in the community of salvation. The leaders accept also this message, but their acceptance comes through accepting the Gentiles as table-fellows, not just mental assent to the truth of the message.

It is a Gift
Peter emphasizes that what both the Gentiles and the Jewish believers hold in common is a gift from God. It is not immediately clear what that gift is. It could be the Holy Spirit; it could be repentance that leads to life; it could be salvation. While the work of the Spirit seems to be the primary referent, I would also suggest all of the above. The giving of the Holy Spirit, of repentance to life, and of salvation relate to each other; to receive one is to receive all. The importance again is on God’s initiative as the gift-giver.

Peter’s witness makes public his personal experience and his experience of others’ faith. Sharing experience in this case transforms and results in the shared glorification of God (11:18). God’s gift for all is not always shared or communicated in high-brow “theologically correct” expressions. They often do not fit established theological categories or come through the typical channels. But they testify to the fundamentally human nature of the way God breaks on through. At its root, the good news is not a universalized theological truth to be believed, but an experience of God that draws us into corporate and shared confession and glorification of God. “Do you know what God has been doing? Let me tell you…”


Commentary on Psalm 148

Shauna Hannan

In the “Preaching from Psalms” class I am teaching, we are reading/singing/meditating our way through the Psalter.

Encountering Psalm 148 through the ancient method of lectio divina brought forth a number of insights. One student from Burma reminded us of the potential for harmonious co-existence of all things. Another student was struck by the power of God’s voice. Yet another student expressed discomfort over the Psalm’s reminder that she was worrying about so many things instead of praising God.

As I read through the Psalm I noticed the number of times I said, “Praise!” After three readings, it was nearly 39 times. “Praise him!” “Praise the Lord!” “Praise the name of the Lord!” Since the practice of lectio divina encourages participants not to judge what comes to mind, I’ll risk sharing with you what came to my mind. I was imagining that silly arcade game, Whack-a-Mole. You know the one where the moles pop up randomly and the player tries to whack them back into their holes.

It’s not the latter (whacking the moles back into their holes) that led to the association (especially since the Psalmist very well could have had moles in mind when crafting vs. 10). Rather, it’s the “randomly popping up” part. Instead of moles, the repetition in fast succession of “Praise” in the Psalm was a reminder of the abundant and random nature of reasons to praise the Lord that arise in any given day.

I wake up. Praise the Lord! I have food to eat. Praise him! I have meaningful work to do! Praise the name of the Lord! I encounter people who know my name and care for me. Praise him! Praise him! I breathe in the crisp, clean air and note the gorgeous magnolia tree attempting to bloom as I walk to work. Praise the Lord from the Earth! There are all these reasons to praise the Lord and I have not even been awake for two hours.

Later in the day, it occurred to me that there may very well be days when I inadvertently whack these abundant and seemingly random invitations to praise out of my sensory purview. The student’s statement indicating the Psalms potential to convict began to make sense.

Indeed, this Psalm is an invitation to praise and not necessarily a description of the way things are. As it offers a new thing with its hopeful, forward-leaning inertia, it hopes to move beyond an invitation to praise and into praise itself. While reading it aloud or, better yet, singing it full voice, we are joining the heights, the moon, the sea monsters, and the cedars in praising the one who commanded us into being.

Walter Brueggemann’s work on Psalm genres can help us here. He has moved beyond the traditional (and varied) genres of the Psalms to suggest three “functions” of the Psalms: orientation, disorientation, and reorientation. This way of categorizing the Psalms converges a “contemporary pastoral agenda” with a more” historical exegetical interest.”1

At first glance, Psalm 148 appears to be a Psalm of orientation given the apparent “lack of tension,” “coherence of life,” “good order,” “celebration of the status quo,” and the “assurance that [all is] well grounded” and will continue in this way. Yes, the content suggests everything is aligned, or, as my student poetically stated, everything is in harmonious co-existence. The heavens and the earth are aligned with one another, the elements in the heavens and the earth are aligned with one another (people, animals, landscapes, heavenly beings, solar system), and, very importantly, the heavens and the earth are aligned with their creator.

In addition to content, the structure suggests good order. In between the invitation to praise the Lord that bookends the Psalm (A) are two sets of verses that mirror one another as they move from invitation to praise (B) to exhortation (C) to clarification of motive (D). The first set represents heavenly elements and the second represents earthly elements. It looks something like this:

A1 Praise the Lord!

B1 Invitation to praise (heavens)

C1 Jussive (Let them . . .)

D1 Motive (for . . .)

B2 Invitation to praise (earth)

C2 Jussive – (Let them . . .)

D2 Motive (for . . .)

A2 Praise the Lord!

Despite the alignment of the structure and content, this Psalm might be better understood as a Psalm of reorientation. Psalm 148 does not simply describe the way things are, but proclaims there has been a turn events that is a welcome reversal. While there are definite resonances with the language in Genesis, this is not simply going back to those edenic good ol’ days. Instead, Psalm 148 is a “new song sung at the appearance of a new reality, new creation, new harmony, new reliability.”Indeed, there is a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21).

Here the Psalm has the most homiletical potential in this season of Easter. Interestingly, we encounter this Psalm every year (A, B, and C) the first Sunday of Christmas. In year C, we also hear it during Easter. The newness expressed in this Psalm was unimaginable a few weeks back when we wept at the foot of the cross. Having been through the most profound disorientation we call Good Friday, we cannot look back, only forward where everything is made new (Revelation 21).

The student who mentioned the power of God’s voice reminds us that we take our lead from the creator who speaks all creation into creation. When we join in singing this hymn, we participate in bringing forth the new world; a new world we thought was not possible, one where all of heaven and earth not only notices, but joins in praising the Lord who is above heaven and earth. May it be so!

1Walter Brueggemann, “The Psalms and the Life of Faith,” in Soundings in the Theology of Psalms: Perspectives and Methods in Contemporary Scholarship, ed. Rolf Jacobson (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011), 3.

2Ibid., 16.

Second Reading

Commentary on Revelation 21:1-6

Barbara Rossing

Contrary to popular apocalyptic thinking, there is no “rapture” or a future snatching of Christians up from the earth in Revelation.

Instead, it is God who is “raptured” down to earth to take up residence among us. Revelation is profoundly ecological in the sense of declaring God’s commitment to the earth as the location of salvation. This Sunday’s proximity to Earth Day (April 22) occasions a rich context for proclaiming the New Jerusalem vision.

Revelation 21-22 offers us one of the most wonderful eschatological pictures in all of scripture. Readers who have followed the Lamb through the exodus journey of Revelation now are named “victors” or “conquerors” who will inherit all the promises of God (Revelation 21:7). The radiant new city fulfills Isaiah’s promises of newness (Isaiah 43:19, 65:17) as well as promises from Ezekiel and Zechariah. Promises to the seven churches come to fruition in this vision, including the Philadelphian letter’s promise to be inscribed with the “name of the city of my God, the New Jerusalem” (Revelation 3:12) and the Ephesus church’s promise of the tree of life (2:7).

Belief in a heavenly Jerusalem was widespread in biblical times (see Galatians 4:26, “Jerusalem above . . . is our mother”). What is so striking in Revelation — unlike any other Jewish apocalypse — is that this heavenly city descends from heaven down to earth.

The Lamb’s bride was introduced briefly in Revelation 19:7-9. Instead of the expected wedding scene, the bride now becomes a magnificent city, a place of welcome and renewal for God’s people. In Paul’s letters it is the church who is the bride, but in Revelation the bride is much more. The bride represents the whole renewed world, radiant and holy. God’s will “tent” (skene, skenoo, Revelation 21:3) in the midst of the bridal city. With great tenderness God wipes away people’s tears.

The vision of the city with the gleaming golden streets and pearly gates, where death and tears are no more, has given form and voice to the dreams of God’s people through the ages. African-American spirituals and gospel songs invoke imagery of the golden holy city and its river of life. From Augustine’s “City of God” through William Blake’s “Jerusalem” and Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream,” Revelation’s holy city has promised life and healing, reconciliation and justice.

The promise of newness — a “new heaven and new earth” — gives a radiant image of resurrection and renewal. The first earth and the sea have “passed away” (apelthon, 21:1). John’s point certainly is not that the whole cosmos will be annihilated, as some argue based on 2 Peter 3:10. The “first earth” that passes away represents the earth as captive to imperial domination and sin. The earth and all things will become “new” just as our bodies will be resurrected, renewed.

C.S. Lewis’s image “New Narnia” can be helpful for preaching Revelation’s understanding of newness in terms of both continuity and transformation. Lewis depicts New Narnia not as an escape from the old Narnia, but rather an entry more deeply into the very same place. Everything is more radiant. It is “deeper country.” New Narnia is “world within world,” where “no good thing is destroyed.”1

The repeated phrase “no more” (ouk eti) in Revelation 21:1 and 21:4 underscores all the ways God’s mystical city of beauty is the very opposite of the toxic city of Babylon/Rome (Revelation 17-18). Mourning, pain and death — all found in Babylon — come to an end in God’s holy city. John’s declaration that “the sea was no more” in 21:1 does not mean he is anti-ocean. The Mediterranean Sea was the location of Rome’s unjust trade, including slave trade condemned in the cargo list of Revelation 18:12-13. In the political economy of God’s New Jerusalem there will be no more sea-trade.

For the first time since Revelation 1:8 God speaks not through angelic intermediaries but directly, reiterating, “Behold, I make all things new.” God promises water of life for all who thirst, given free of charge. This twice-repeated promise of the water of life, dorean “without price” (21:6; 22:17), underscores the economic contrast between the political economy of God’s city and the Roman Empire. Unlike the unjust commerce of Babylon/Rome, God’s New Jerusalem is a place where life and its essentials are given as a free gift, “without money,” even to those who cannot pay for them. This vision of God’s water of life for everyone, even those without money, can be vital for preachers to proclaim in our time of economic and ecological crisis, including a global water crisis.

New Jerusalem is a profoundly urban vision, renewing our vision for urban ministry. “God wills to restore this world to a beauty we can scarcely imagine. It is a city, not a solitude, an important distinction in the narcissistic din of American culture.”The city that descends from heaven invites us all to enter as citizens and to “inherit” (21:7) its blessings, as God’s own sons and daughters.

1C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle (New York: Macmillan, 1956), 181.

2Kathleen Norris, Introduction to Revelation (New York: Grove Press, 1999), xii.