Lectionary Commentaries for May 12, 2013
Seventh Sunday of Easter
Commentary on John 17:20-26
Lucy Lind Hogan
Commentary on Acts 16:16-34
In last Sunday’s lesson, Paul met Lydia while he was looking for a place of prayer.
Now, again on his way to the place of prayer, Paul meets another woman. Whereas Lydia, while not necessarily wealthy, was at least a woman of some independence (as the head of her household), this second woman is doubly bound, a slave to a cartel of human masters, and a slave to the evil spirit that possesses her. She is a woman of no power, status, or freedom. Yet she speaks the truth about Paul and his partners, following them all around town and providing free advertising for Paul’s ministry.
But in the end, Paul cannot tolerate it any more. Perhaps even the truth, when proclaimed through abusive systems, ends up necessarily being distorted. Is her declaration that Paul and Silas offer “a way of salvation” (NRSV), rather than clearly saying “the way of salvation” (the Greek construction is ambiguous) such a distortion? Evil’s attempts to manipulate and perhaps control the truth are not to be tolerated, but answered with the clarity of the gospel.
And so, in Jesus’ name, Paul sets the woman free from the spirit that had occupied her life. At this point, we might wish to hear more about what happens to this woman, who remained a slave to her human owners. The focus of this scene is the power of Jesus over all the spirits of the world, but we might well ask whether and how there could be a more complete freedom for this woman. The story simply leaves her behind, nameless, disturbing, and perhaps a reminder of the continuing need of liberation for so many.
We might expect the people who witness this exorcism to react with awe, wonder, and even faith. Instead, there is greed, bigotry, and a hostile appeal to cultural-political identity that labels the “other” as different, and therefore as dangerous and a legitimate target of violence. It is not difficult to find similarly targeted groups among us: immigrant workers accused of taking “our” jobs, members of minority religious traditions who are seen as suspicious if not sinister, those whose sexual orientation or gender identity doesn’t fit the majority.
Too often, those who are perceived as different become the objects of criticism and violence in the name of being truly “American” or “Christian” (often with no distinction made between those two). Even more disturbingly, we may all find within ourselves a failure to recognize God at work in our midst, especially when that working of God upsets our plans and our profits.
It seems as though bigotry has won the day, with Paul and Silas locked in chains. The first sign that the powers of this world are really not in charge comes with the surprising songs in that dark cell. Paul and Silas sing praises to God — not laments for the suffering (which would be understandable, appropriate, and biblical) — but praise for the privilege of being God’s servants in the face of injustice.
God has already sprung preachers from Roman prisons twice in Acts (5:17-21, 12:6-11), so we readers shouldn’t be surprised that the Philippian jail can’t hold Paul and Silas. But the earthquake in this text is certainly a strange one as it is one that sets free instead of trapping and crushing. This earthquake is the visible manifestation of God shaking this world’s powers to their foundations.
Given the story of Peter’s rescue from prison in chapter 12, we might expect Paul and Silas to go immediately to Lydia’s house. But this is an escape story without an escape. Paul and Silas don’t leave. Being God’s servants does not mean escape from the dangerous places, but means the opportunity to be the voice and the hands of Christ there. And so just as Paul and Silas shared the gospel in song with their fellow prisoners (is that why all the other prisoners, whose chains and doors were also undone, stayed put with Paul and Silas?), now they save their jailer both from the suicide that Roman honor expected with a failure of duty (see 12:19), and from a life without faith in Christ.
Just as Lydia’s life was changed by the gospel, so too is the life of this jailer. He washes the wounds of Paul and Silas, and he becomes their host. The call to faith in verse 31 and the rejoicing over faith in verse 34b frame a scene in which we find the Word of the Lord being spoken (32), service to others (33a), baptism (33b), and sharing a meal (34a). This is a picture of the church’s life, which the jailer has now entered by faith.
The next morning, the city magistrates want to be done with this episode quickly. Perhaps they realize that the mob mentality had gotten out of hand the previous day; perhaps they hoped that a single night in prison would be enough to stop any more troublemaking from Paul and Silas. Despite the events of the previous night, the magistrates think they’re still in control of their little part of the world.
But they, and we readers, are in for one more surprise, as Paul reveals his Roman citizenship for the first time. With that one declaration, the magistrates’ sense of power and control is taken away. Like those Gerasenes in Luke 8 who could not tolerate Jesus’ exorcism (or was it losing all those pigs that they couldn’t tolerate?), so now the leaders of Philippi beg Paul to simply leave them alone. Paul does go; after all, God is calling him to an expanding mission.
But before he goes, we hear in verse 40 a reminder that the church is still there in Philippi in the house of Lydia (and, we remember, in the house of the jailer). If the magistrates felt any relief at Paul’s departure, it was premature and mistaken. The church remains, serving and proclaiming the risen Jesus as Lord, and the world will not go back to the way it was.
Commentary on Psalm 97
Ascension Day falls on a Thursday, but many churches observe it on the Seventh Sunday of Easter.
Feel free to consult Working Preacher for Ascension Day (May 9) as well as for Easter 7 (May 12). With Pentecost just one week away, the Seventh Sunday of Easter gives us a place from which to look back to Easter and ahead to Pentecost. The Easter Gospel is moving out into the wide world. From this vantage point Psalm 97 has much to offer. It reveals the glory of God in a world where many have not heard the Gospel. The Psalm promises light and joy to God’s people.
Like other Psalms in the Easter season the text at hand is an enthronement psalm, not for a human king, but for God who reigns over all. “In what we Christians profess is the ultimate demonstration of God’s sovereignty, Jesus arose. God delivered him from the power of the wicked (Psalm 97:10).”1 From Jesus’ birth, throughout his ministry, his death, resurrection and ascension, “God’s incarnational entry into the process of the world still invites out joyful pursuit of justice and righteousness.” And that changes us. We look for nothing less than “the transformation wrought by God.”2
In its own right, Psalm 97 is a noble text. In the first part, (97:1-5) the glory of God is revealed (theophany). God “is hidden in the mystery of clouds and thick darkness, irresistible fire proceeds him, lightning and thunder manifest his power… the unqualified sovereignty of God.”3 But that sovereignty, as James Luther Mays points out, is not based on brute force. Indeed “the foundation” of God’s throne consists of righteousness and justice. God’s power is not arbitrary, but expresses God’s character of mercy and truth. And God exercises this “rule by intervening in the history of his people.”
The second part of the Psalm (97:6-9) shows how nature and human beings respond to the revealing of God’s glory. Nature’s response is simple and clear: the heavens proclaim God’s righteousness. But among human beings, the response is mixed. The Psalm frankly admits that not all people worship God. And so when God’s glory is revealed, those who worship idols are ashamed — even the idols bow down before the one true God! (97:7). What a contrast with the response of Zion (God’s faithful people); they rejoice in God’s judgments (97:8). Despite this mixed response, section two of the Psalm reaffirms that God is exalted over the earth and “far above all gods” (97:9).
The third part of the Psalm (97:10-12) sounds like wisdom from Proverbs. It speaks to the question, “How do God’s people live in a world where not everyone recognizes God’s rule?” Verse 10 reassures “those who hate evil” that God has their back: God loves, guards, and rescues them. “The hand of the wicked” will not prevail (97:10). Then comes a promise: “Light dawns for the righteous, and joy for the upright in heart” (97:11).
Yes, there is evil in the world and yes, there is conflict and pain. But God’s love and faithfulness surround us. Therefore, we can “rejoice in the Lord… and give thanks to his holy name.” And so, writes James Luther Mays, “The real message of the psalm” comes in its third part. The Psalm proclaims “God’s reign [which] offers the righteous hope in their opposition to evil. When the kingdom of God is proclaimed, the righteous takes courage.”4
Two themes pervade Psalm 97; first, the theme of rejoicing. There is joy for the earth, for God’s own people and for all the righteous (97:1, 8, 11-12). The second theme is that of righteousness (God’s righteousness in 97:2, 6, and human righteousness in 97:11-12). As the New Interpreter’s Bible puts it, “those who submit themselves to God’s rule will derive their character from God’s character. Because God rules, there is the possibility that people can be righteous too.”5
In the context of the lectionary texts for Easter 7, Psalm 97 is a team player. For example, in Acts 16:16-18, Paul casts out a “spirit of divination” from a slave girl (similar to Psalm 97:7 in which all gods bow down before the one true God). In the Acts 16 story, owners of the slave are angry that Paul has cast out the spirit of divination, from which they were making money. So Paul and Silas are beaten and jailed (Acts 16:22-24).
But not for long, for earthquake shakes the foundations of the prison and breaks their chains open (16:26). This reminds one of the trembling of the earth in Psalm 97:4. In Paul and Silas’ story “light dawns for the righteous” (Psalm 97:11). This theme of light dawning is found also in Revelation 22:16, where Jesus says, “I am… the bright and morning star.” And in John 17:24, Jesus prays that we may see his glory. Psalm 97 proclaims God’s glory to the earth and all its people.
Psalm lends itself very well to a three-step sermon.
- Step 1: God shows up (the glory of nature, the mystery of incarnation, the suffering of the cross, the wonder of resurrection and the glory of ascension).
- Step 2: we respond (faith and unbelief, or a mix). Here one could speak directly to experiences of the congregation or community.
- Step 3: God is with us, loving, guarding, rescuing. The sermon starts on a high note, goes down into the valley, and then comes back up again with the promise that “Light dawns for the righteous.” But God is with us, loving, guiding, rescuing us, giving us light and hope.
“Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee” (ELW 836)
“Immortal, invisible, God only wise.” (ELW 834)
“Jesus shall reign” “Alleluia! Sing to Jesus” (ELW 392)
1New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 4 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 1068.
3James Luther Mays, Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994), 311.
5New Interpreter’s Bible, 1068.
Commentary on Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21
“Surely, I am coming soon.” Thus the New Testament draws to a close.
Do we believe it? Do we live as if Jesus’ return was imminent? That is, do we follow the story to the end and hold tightly to this last canonical promise? After so much time, many of us have lost hold of this hope, felt this promise slip through our fingers as the years go by. But the promise is certain as Revelation closes. How can we embrace anew this last promise?
Revelation closes with a litany of short summaries. They appear at first glimpse to be aphoristic thoughts linked together with little structure. However, taken together, they encapsulate and summarize the theological convictions underwriting the visionary journey through which Revelation has just led us.
God’s Promises Are Sure
First, John reaffirms the underlying conviction of the whole book. God is faithful and just. God’s promises will be kept. God’s faithful followers will not be ravaged by the cruelties of this world, for God will surely deliver them and us. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Jesus is coming and soon. How do we know this? Revelation declares this surety, for such faithfulness is characteristic of God (see Revelation 4).
Moreover, as Jesus declares the breadth of his power in verse 13, we are reminded of the paradoxical ways such power was displayed in Revelation 5. There, Jesus was a fierce lion but also a broken lamb. Unlike the rules of the rest of the world, true power is the inheritance of the weak, the frail; those crushed by the powerful of this world. The crown of Alpha and Omega are not mere inheritances granted to Jesus as the Son of God but achieved through the blood of the lamb.
God’s Justice is Graceful, God’s Grace is Just
If God’s promises are sure, what does this mean for all of us? Verse 14 evokes three key images. First is the innumerable gathering of peoples from every corner of the world recorded in Revelation 7:9-17. Notice that in a book so adept with numbers and counting, this is the one time John’s census-taking hits a roadblock. He can count the 144,000 immediately preceding this image and yet finds a crowd beyond counting of faithful seekers after God.
Second is the image of the tree of life that draws us to the beginning, to the narratives of the opening chapters of Genesis. That tree of life now finds root in the holy city of Jerusalem and all who are there taste its life-giving fruit. Last, we are reminded of the gates of this magnificent city, gates found on massive, impregnable walls. And yet these gates remain flung open, unafraid of external threats (see Revelation 21:25).
And yet there remains some outside those walls, those who do not or cannot choose to enter a sacred city made clean, whole, and just by the ruler of all things. Verse 15 is excised from the lectionary reading but vital to a full understanding of Revelation’s message. Without justice, God cannot be graceful. Without grace, God’s justice is empty. John does not avert its eyes from the evils that populate the world and the ways those evils inflict the powerless. God’s grace requires the just rejection of such forces of death and destruction.
A God We Can Trust
To imagine that there is any power beyond the Roman Empire is bold, requiring a huge leap of faith. To imagine that the pain and suffering that characterized the lives of so many in antiquity would be wiped away in the arms of a loving God is bold, requiring a huge leap of faith. To confess that God would not swerve from God’s promises is bold faith. It is precisely this faith in God that brings us to the end of this book. It is precisely faith in Jesus’ return that draws these Christians into a promised future.
Now, it is our turn. Can we trust in God and God’s promises? Can we look forward to Jesus’ return in hope and expectation, not trepidation? In short, can we have faith today?
Revelation can help people of faith develop an imagination and hope that answers these questions affirmatively. Revelation can help us if we can but draw our eyes from the dazzling visions that dot this book for a moment and see that behind them all is a simple but life-altering hope in a God that calls us all. That hope resonated in the seven churches that received this powerful book. It can still be true for us today. We too can look to Jesus and trust he is coming soon.
This Sunday wears many hats. For some it will be the observance of the Ascension of the Lord.
For those who mark the seventh Sunday of Easter, it is the in-between time, between the Ascension of the Lord and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. And we must also note that many will be celebrating another important observance, Mother’s Day.
The gospel reading appointed for the “in-between” time, the seventh Sunday of Easter, turns to the Gospel of John. This passage is the conclusion of Jesus’ final prayer before departing for the Garden of Gethsemane and the events of the Passion. One way, therefore, is to read this as a part of Holy Week during the retelling of the final supper that Jesus celebrated with his friends and followers.
But as we read this passage today those events are in the past; several weeks in fact. And since that meal they/we have walked the path to the cross; prayed as Jesus gave his life for us and stood with Mary outside of the empty tomb. We have celebrated the resurrection and now the Ascension. Jesus was victorious over the grave and now has been raised to sit at the right hand of God. But the disciples, and we, are trying to make sense of all of this. So in this new time, this in-between time as we await Pentecost, we return to Jesus’ prayer.
It is a prayer that looks to the future. Jesus was praying not only for the people seated around him at table that evening but also for his future followers, which thanks be to God, includes us. And it is a prayer that focuses on unity, on all being one.
I suspect that as the disciples gathered for what would be their final meal with Jesus (although they did not know it at the time) they did not feel like one. They were no doubt frightened, uncertain, insecure, scrappy, and squabbling. Peter was petulant, Judas plotting, and James and John were probably still jockeying for promotions. Did it change after the Ascension? Probably not. Having been a part of the church for many years I would add that this describes many the churches I have been a part of — far from being described as one.
A challenge of writing these preaching resources is that they are prepared many months in advance. For a teacher/preacher who relies heavily on current events as examples and illustrations this proves quite a challenge because I want to point to things that are happening now knowing that when you open this to begin to prepare for your sermon what I describe will be ancient history.
However, I am going to point to two examples trusting that (unfortunately) things will not have changed. The Congress just passed legislation to prevent us from falling too far off the fiscal cliff. But underlying all of that was disunity, discord, and dissension. Republicans could not agree with the President, with Democrats. Republicans could not even agree with Republicans. They are far from being one.
Likewise, I can point to many of our denominational bodies for examples and signs of that same disunity, discord, and dissension. In the Episcopal Church, of which I am a member, the Presiding Bishop and the Diocese of South Carolina are now at an impasse. It is along the lines of, “You can’t fire me — I quit.” The national church no longer considers them to be the true diocese, while the local Bishop disagrees. He wants those in union with the national church to choose a different name. They are far from being one.
As it was for the disciples then, so too is it crucial for us today to return to Jesus’ prayer, for it describes his hope, his vision, and his picture of what we, his followers, are to look like and how we are to live our lives together. It is very clear that his words are meant for everyone — then and now – as he prays for “those who will believe in me” (17:20) through the words of the disciples.
It is a prayer for community. Jesus prays that, “all may be one.” To be a follower of Jesus is to be a part of a greater whole. According to Jesus there are to be no solitary Christians or spiritual “Lone Rangers.”
Within that community the prayer is for unity: “that all may be one.” Does that mean we all have to get along all the time? Does that mean we all have to agree all the time? If one thinks of this as a functional/political statement, it would seem to call for constant agreement and accord. But if one thinks more in ontological terms then it becomes who we are. We are one in Christ whether we agree with each other or not. We are one in Christ whether we like one another or not. To become a part of Christ is to become a part of the community; a part of the one.
Jesus’ prayer reminds us that our unity, our “oneness” is to be a sign to the world of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. Oneness and unity is about love. And if you have been a part of a family, a member of a church, or a community, you know that within that love there can be disagreements and squabbling. We are human. But the mystery of the incarnation is that God desired unity with us so much God became one of us. And in that moment we were drawn into the oneness of God, the Creator/Father/Mother, the Son, and the Spirit. It is with God’s help that we can live into that oneness.
The disciples were in the time between the Ascension and the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost. We are in the time between the first and second coming of Jesus Christ. May we rejoice in the assurance that Christ is with us, continuing to pray for our oneness, our unity.