Lectionary Commentaries for May 16, 2010
Seventh Sunday of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 17:20-26

Mary Hinkle Shore

On his last night with the disciples, Jesus shares a meal with them, washes their feet, gives them a new commandment, and answers question after question concerning the fact that he is about to leave them (John 13-16).

After all that, Jesus begins to pray.

In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, when Jesus prays before his arrest, he is in Gethsemane, and he prays alone. Even his most trusted disciples are some distance from him, and rather than listening, praying, or keeping watch, they fall asleep (cf. Mark 14:32-42 and parallels).

In the gospel of John, the scene is different. Jesus and the disciples have not yet traveled to the garden where Jesus will be met by Judas and betrayed. In John, when Jesus prays, the disciples are within earshot. Throughout the earlier part of the evening Jesus had given them as much information as he could about what was about to happen and how he would provide for them in the future. Now Jesus turns from offering information to them and begins to offer intercession for them.

This turn in the farewell discourse (John 13-17) from information to intercession is the first point to keep in mind as one prepares to preach any text from John 17. In this chapter, Jesus is not offering instructions to the disciples or to the church they will lead. This means, for instance, that as important as evangelism is, when Jesus tells his Father that he is asking “not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word” (John 17:20), he is not exhorting the church to participate in evangelism. Likewise, as commendable as ecumenical partnerships are, when Jesus asks that those who believe and those who do not yet believe “may be one” (John 17:21), he is not exhorting involvement in ecumenical dialogue. Jesus is not exhorting the church here. He is not instructing. He is not preaching, teaching, or rallying the troops. Jesus is praying.

How do you feel when someone prays out loud for you? When I asked a few friends this question, these words surfaced: comforted, vulnerable, grateful, honored, humbled, awkward but appreciative, like someone really cares. Maybe one of the reasons it is so easy to turn John 17 into a “to do” list for the church is that such a list is easier to manage than such an experience as intimate as being the subject of another’s prayer. We are so obviously not in control as we listen to people pray for us. They, not we, are the ones doing the asking, and God, not we, is the one answering the prayer. If Jesus were exhorting his disciples, and by extension us, we could strive to meet his expectations then. If he were exhorting us, we would have a mission, namely, not to disappoint him. Instead, we overhear a prayer on our behalf and are not called to action in that moment as much as wonder that the Father and the Son spend their time discussing the likes of us and our little community of faith.

And there is more. There is more to wonder at than the fact that followers of Jesus are a topic for discussion among members of the Trinity. The content of the prayer is equally humbling and honoring. At the center of the prayer in John 17 is the relationship that the first and second members of the Trinity share and the work of the Son, as a result of the Father’s sending (verse 8), to draw everyone into that relationship.1  The Son is “close to the Father’s heart” (John 1:18), or as the KJV puts it, “in the bosom of the Father.”

Throughout his ministry, Jesus has made known that One whom he knows so well. Now, Jesus prays, “As you Father are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us…” (John 17:21). Jesus prays that those who follow him may be drawn into the life of the Holy Trinity. The Father sends the Son to humanity precisely so that the Son may draw all humanity into the relationship that exists between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

If being “drawn into the life of the Trinity” sounds a little esoteric for a Sunday morning, other texts in the gospel can help to say in other ways what Jesus is asking for on our behalf. At the center of John’s prologue is the news that, “to those who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (John 1:12, NRSV, emphasis mine). When the risen Jesus meets Mary Magdalene near what had been his tomb, he commissions her, “Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'” My Father and your Father…. In the resurrection, the relationship that the Son and Father have always shared now extends to those for whom he prayed before his death.

Our own wonder at this prayer extends once more as its horizon widens. As the cozy communion of the three members of the Godhead is not an end in itself, neither is the cozy, if somewhat expanded, communion of the three members of the Godhead with all of Jesus’ brothers and sisters an end in itself. John 17:1 notes that Jesus looks up to heaven as he begins to pray. The outwardly-focused posture of Jesus offers a physical sign of the reach of his prayer.

In the gospel of John, “the world” is often a way of describing those who oppose Jesus. Nonetheless, it was for love of the world that God sent the Son (cf. John 3:16), and in this prayer, at the close of his ministry, Jesus intercedes not only for his own but also for that world. Jesus asks for unity and love between those given to him and the Father, “so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21). Nothing less than the reconciliation of all things is in view. The telos–the goal–of the prayer is that even those who had been hostile to the coming of the Son (a.k.a. “the world”) may believe that the Father sent him. Such believing, we know, leads to life in his name (cf. John 20:31).

1As with other texts in John, finding appropriate and inclusive language for God in a sermon on this text is difficult. It does not work perfectly to call the Father, “God,” and the Son, “Jesus,” because such language may imply that Jesus is not also “God the Son.” On the other hand, the repetition of “Father” and “Son” too many times in the sermon reinforces an inaccurate understanding of God as male and of divinity as masculine. The point of the language is not the mistaken idea of the maleness of God. It is the reality that the way to speak accurately of God is to speak terms that describe the intimate, loving relationship that Jesus puts into words when he calls God father and refers to himself as God’s son.

First Reading

Commentary on Acts 16:16-34

Eric Barreto

In Acts, trouble follows Paul.

Or perhaps Paul tends to help precipitate the various controversies which embroil him. Either way, Paul’s time in Philippi is no exception to the general rule. Despite the successes narrated in last week’s text from Acts, Paul and Silas will find themselves swept up in a crowd’s fervor but ultimately vindicated by God’s miraculous involvement.

A Nameless Mantic Slave
A seemingly innocuous set of events precipitates a consequential dispute. Luke narrates the proclamations of a mantic slave girl: “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” Verse 16 does not specify how much time had passed between the conversion of Lydia and the declarations of the fortune-telling slave girl. However, the imperfect tense of the verb pareichen and the remark that these encounters became a daily event suggests that these became regular and for Paul a nuisance.

Why would Paul find her pronouncements so irritating? At first glance, we might imagine that by calling Paul and his companions servants of “the most high God,” she was implying that their God was one among many. That is, hers was a declaration infected with pagan thought. However, Luke elsewhere has faithful Jews describing the God of Israel in the same way (Luke 1:32, 35, 76; 6:35; Acts 7:48). Beyond our speculating about Paul’s mood on this particular day, Acts does not provide a significant rationale for Paul’s indignant reaction. Perhaps the best we can argue is that the mantic girl’s proclamation while true was also misleading in Paul’s eyes. That is, the ambiguities of her message, the source of her inspiration, and her role as a profitable fortuneteller corroded the full message Paul hoped to proclaim.

Almost unflinchingly and seemingly without much thought, Paul exorcises her, alleviating his annoyance, but also crippling the profitability of a syndicate’s manipulative business. We hear nothing of how this changed the life of this unnamed slave. Instead, she drops from the narrative as quickly as she flitted into it. Ultimately, she is not a fully formed figure in this narrative but a mere narrative hinge. In fact, her owners’ indifference to her state of being quickly becomes evident.

Baseless Accusations
Gripped with avarice, the formerly profitable girl’s owners accuse Paul and Silas of profound treachery before the city’s ruling authorities. Notice, however, that their indictments fail to mention one key piece of evidence: the loss of the unnamed slave girl’s services in a lucrative endeavor! Instead, these rapacious merchants resort to the tried and true method of base ethnocentrism. They accuse Paul and Silas of drawing Philippi’s denizens away from the approved Roman way of life to Jewish customs incommensurate with the city’s ethnic values. Of course, the charges are false. Not only are their true motives cloaked in these false ethnic accusations, but also we will later learn that Paul and Silas are Roman themselves (Acts 16:37)!

Despite their innocence, Paul and Silas are beaten and then remanded to prison. What follows is an excellent example of particularly dramatic scenes in Acts which imbue the story with a novelistic air. In these stories, we see most clearly a likely impulse in Luke’s writing not only to inform his readers but also to compel and even entertain them.

“Not Escape but Rescue” –Beverly Gaventa1
Securely ensconced in a deep cell and securely bound, Paul and Silas pray and sign hymns as midnight strikes. A powerful tremor suddenly provides them with a path to freedom. The guard–realizing that a prison escape would be interpreted as a dereliction of duty–tries to take his own life only to be stopped by Paul.

The guard then asks a simple but consequential question: “What must I do to be saved?” What might we imagine this Roman guard meant by this? Did he want protection from authorities above him who might hold him accountable? Did he view Paul and Silas as “divine men” with great power who might grant him some gift? Did he even comprehend the depth of his query?

Perhaps in that moment of despair followed by relief, we ask too much of this guard by asking these questions. Perhaps he did not fully understand what he was asking, but in his grasping for answers, many of us can relate. The sense that life has spun out of control often characterizes the questions we ask of God.

The guard’s question is complex perhaps even beyond his understanding, but the answer is clear: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” Much like Lydia last week, the guard hears the gospel and in response hosts Paul and his companions in his home. Once again, hospitality is a marker of his gratitude for the good news. In both the cases of Lydia and this guard, conversion is not a solitary experience, but one shared by all those who together create a home. The repercussions of both Lydia’s and the guard’s conversions extend well beyond themselves. Similarly, the outpouring of hospitality by the whole household suggests the communal dimensions of conversion in Acts.

At the Intersection of Drama and Theology
Such an artful combination of these theological narratives is typical of Luke-Acts. Imbued with a dramatic flair, these stories can both delight and teach.2  The challenge for the preacher is to communicate that same sense of dramatic significance to her audience. To be sure, our modern entertainment industry makes such a homiletical task difficult. After all, most churches lack the special effects budget to recreate a powerful earthquake!

What we can do, however, is recreate the dramatic storytelling imbedded in this narrative. It is too easy for those hearing the reading of this slice of scripture to lose the narrative and theological connections between the slave girl, the vile accusations made against Paul and Silas, and the ultimate deliverance of both the guard and his prisoners. Therefore, the preacher’s task when preaching this text is to highlight how these seemingly disparate stories cohere so well.

Draw attention to the slave girl’s brief cameo in this story. Wonder aloud about her “healing” and why she does not merit even a mention in the accusations brought against Paul and Silas. Compare the parallels between Lydia and the Roman guard.

In this connective narrative tissue lies a profound message: at the intersections of drama and theology, power and weakness, travail and rescue, the story of God’s people was and is being told.

1Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Acts (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries; Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 239.
2See Richard I. Pervo, Profit with Delight: The Literary Genre of the Acts of the Apostles (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987).


Commentary on Psalm 97

J. Clinton McCann, Jr.

Recent scholarly work on the book of Psalms has focused considerable attention on the collection to which Psalm 97 belongs — Psalms 93, 95-99, the enthronement or God-reigns psalms. 

According to an emerging consensus, the shape of Books I-III (Psalms 1-89) reflects the rupture of exile, especially by way of the positioning of Psalm 89 that concludes Book III (see especially Ps 89:38-51). In response to this crisis, which involved the loss of land, temple, and monarchy, Book IV opens with the only psalm attributed to Moses, who led the people before they had a land, a temple, or a monarchy. In keeping with the reality that the people of God looked to God as their king during the Mosaic era, Book IV’s major feature is the collection of God-reigns psalms. It is these sorts of observations that led Gerald Wilson to conclude that Psalms 93, 95-99 form “the theological ‘heart'” of the Psalter.1

In terms of the shape of the enthronement collection itself, Marvin Tate suggests a close relationship between Psalms 96 and 97, which he calls “twin-psalms.”2 Psalm 96 concludes with the announcement that God “is coming” (verse 13), and Psalm 97 seems to portray the effects of God’s arrival. These effects involve “the earth” (verses 4-5), as the language and imagery of theophany (which means “God appearing”) suggest in verses 3-5 (see similar descriptions in Exodus 13:21-22; 19:6-20; 20:18-21; 24:16-17; Psalms 18:7-15; 50:3; Micah 1:4; Hebrews 3:3-12). The storm-language — “lightnings” and thunder (“the earth . . . trembles”) — bespeaks the awesome power of God, before which even the “mountains melt,” an observation that connotes not destruction but yielded-ness to God’s sovereign claim.

The effects of God’s arrival also involves the human community, as suggested by the mention of “righteousness and justice” in verse 2. This vocabulary also links Psalm 97 clearly to Psalm 96, which concludes with the affirmation that God “will establish justice (in) the world with righteousness and (among) the peoples with his faithfulness” (verse 13; my translation). This vocabulary also appears elsewhere in the enthronement collection (see Psalms 98:9; 99:4) — in short, as monarchs, both human and divine, are supposed to do (see Psalms 72 and 82), God is coming to set things right in the world over which God is “the Lord” (verse 5).

Psalm 97 is the psalm not only for the seventh Sunday of Easter, but also for Christmas Eve/Day. Reflecting on the use of Psalm 97 at Christmas, Walter Brueggemann offers the following conclusion:

      In Christmas the Church does not simply celebrate
      the birth of a wondrous baby. Through that birth
      we celebrate the cosmic reality that God has
      entered the process of the world in a decisive
      way that changes everything toward life. The
      entry of God into the process of the world is the
      premise of the poem in Psalm 97.3

Brueggemann’s mention of life suggests the appropriateness of Psalm 97 for the Easter season. Whatever else it might mean, the resurrection is a validation of what Jesus was born to do, what he lived to do, and what he was killed for doing — that is, proclaiming and embodying the reign of God in a ministry aimed at setting the world right, at revealing the shape of life as God intends it.

The whole sequence of birth, life and ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection contains the recognition that Jesus’ proclamation and embodiment of the reign of God did not go unopposed. Despite the affirmation that the cosmic elements respond positively to God’s reign (see verse 4 where the “mountains melt” and verse 5 where “The heavens proclaim his righteousness”), and that “Zion hears and is glad” (verse 8), Psalm 97 also clearly recognizes that the reign of God does not go unopposed (and, of course, this is understandable if Psalm 97 is a response to the disruption and suffering of exile — see above).

In particular, the concluding section of the psalm recognizes that there is “evil” in the world perpetrated by “the hand of the wicked,” from which God’s “faithful” will need to be rescued (verse 10). The first line of verse 10 is better translated as an admonition, as in the NRSV note (see also the NIV), “You who love the LORD hate evil.” When heard as such, this admonition is capable of addressing the readers of Psalm 97 in every generation, including us.

More particularly, when heard during the season of Easter, we are reminded, in the language of Psalm 97, that the resurrection represents God’s deliverance of Jesus from the power of evil, and God’s shining of light into the darkness of a wicked world (verse 11; see Mark 16:2; John 1:4-5). As for us, the resurrection — an affirmation of God’s reign — is what gives us the courage to hate and to oppose the evil that clearly still exists in our world, as an affirmation and manifestation of our love for God. As James L. Mays concludes concerning Psalm 97: “The psalm’s proclamation of God’s reign offers the righteous hope in their opposition to evil. When the kingdom of God is proclaimed, the righteous take courage.”4

We might also say, “When the resurrection is proclaimed, the righteous take courage.” Guatemalan poet Julia Esquivel describes the hope and courage of those in Guatemala who resisted the right-wing government and its death squads during the prolonged Guatemalan civil conflict by saying that they were “threatened . . . with Resurrection!” Her poem, entitled “They Have Threatened Us with Resurrection,” ends with these words (see Threatened with Resurrection [Elgin, IL: Brethren Press, 1992], 63-65):

        Join us in this vigil
        and you will know what it is to dream!
        Then you will know how marvelous it is
        to live threatened with Resurrection!
        To dream awake,
        to keep watch asleep,
        to live while dying,
        and to know ourselves already

Such dreaming, such hope, such courage is why Brueggemann sees Psalm 97 as an invitation “to reflect on the transformation wrought by God and the ethical possibility offered us in that transformation.”5 Such reflection that leads to courageous ethical action — to justice and righteousness, to the life that God intends — is certainly an appropriate conclusion to the season of Easter.

1Gerald H. Wilson, “The Use of Royal Psalms at the ‘Seams’ of the Hebrew Psalter,” JSOT 35 (1986):92.
2Marvin E. Tate, Psalms 51-100, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1990), 508.
3Walter Brueggemann, “Psalm 97: Psalm for Christmas Day,” No Other Foundation 7
(Winter 1986):3.
4James L. Mays, Psalms, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1994), 312.
5Brueggemann, “Psalm 97,” 5.

Second Reading

Commentary on Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21

Brian Peterson

The conclusion of Revelation has seemed to many interpreters to be a bit choppy, a barely-held-together conglomeration of leftover pieces, stumbling toward the close of the book.

Whether it is made more or less choppy by the piecemeal selection of verses in the lectionary, it is obvious that the lectionary has decided to omit the verses of warning. Such a move may be understandable, but it runs the risk of making the close of this book too comfortable and too unremarkable. Revelation’s call to faithful witness is a matter of life and death, and the lectionary’s careful selection of verses may make it difficult for us to hear that.

Despite the sense that these verses carry us along on a nearly chaotic rush to the end of the book, John is in fact bringing the book to a careful, deliberate, and theologically precise end. These verses are filled with echoes of the whole story John has told: “alpha & omega” (22:13; see 1:8), the washed robes (22:14a; see 7:14), the tree of life (22:14b; see 2:7 and 22:2), the gates of the city (22:14b; see 21:21, 25), the interpreting angel (22:16; see 1:1), the root of David and the morning star (22:16; see 5:5 and 2:28), the bride (22:17a; see 21:9), the water of life (22:17b; see 7:17 and 22:1). The overwhelming promises of God’s salvation made throughout the book are reaffirmed here at the end with this cascade of images.

Verse 17 begins with a repeated exhortation/invitation to “come,” but to whom is that invitation being made? It would be possible to read the first two phrases of verse 17 as the evangelical outreach of the church, the word directed to all those outside the church, all those who may still find themselves outside the New Jerusalem described by John. However, it is probably better to take the first part of verse 17, the words of the Spirit and the bride and all who hear, as the church’s prayer for the coming of Jesus.

The appeal to “come” echoes Jesus’ own promise in verse 12, and it becomes more explicit as the prayer of the church in verse 20b. All that John has shown is testimony to the faithfulness of God and the Lamb, a revelation of the divine intention to redeem all creation from the grasp of sin, death, and the devil; to this, the church joyously responds with prayer and longing for that coming. The church can make this prayer because what John has shown in this book is not just a bunch of end-time events, but the One who is Lord of both beginning and end. We have not been shown a timetable, but a person, the Ruler of church and cosmos.

The last sentence in verse 17, however, changes the address. No longer is this a prayer to the Lord Jesus, but it is now directed to all those who thirst for the life and deliverance that this book has promised. It is an invitation both to those already inside the community of the Lamb, and to all those still outside: to all who thirst for this gift of life.

In verse 20, we hear Jesus declare that he is “coming soon.” It would seem that John’s book is wrong at this point. We cannot simply spiritualize and individualize this promise, turning it into an existential coming at all times. To do so would rob John’s apocalypse of its ability to confront the power of the beast as it shows up in all the world’s oppressive structures and systems. John declares a coming of Christ that is not internal or private, but a coming to the world, to redeem the world. Despite the apparent error about the timing, what John conveys is a sense of urgency, the promise and realization that God could invade the world’s history at any time. Where the empire and oppression seem to hold the day, John shows that in fact God and the Lamb are already reigning and already bringing sin, death, and the devil to their ultimate end. We see it in the resurrection of Jesus, and we experience a foretaste of it in the Eucharist.

It is to that table that the end of Revelation brings us. “Come Lord Jesus” is how the table prayer which I learned as a child begins. It is also the Eucharistic table prayer of the church, and has been from very early in the church’s life. The 2nd century Didache places this prayer within the Eucharistic liturgy (Didache 10:6; see 1 Corinthians 16:22, Luke 22:16). The water of life is not only available at the end, in the New Jerusalem, but is present already, because the Lamb reigns already. Verse 17 is often (and rightly) heard as an invitation and transition to the Eucharist within John’s churches. In worship, through Word and Sacrament, Jesus comes to us as the ultimate End of the universe. It is there the church joyfully submits to his dominion, refuses to bow down to the cult of human self-interest, and finds the beastly deception of earthly empire exposed.

Revelation ends with one final surprise, in the form of a textual variant in verse 21. Is grace declared to “all the saints” (NRSV text), or “to all” (NRSV footnote)? The shorter reading is probably the more original. Later scribes apparently found such grace problematically broad and so tried to limit it to the church. However, “to all” is a fitting final declaration for this book: God reaches out not just to the church, but to all the world, graciously beckoning all into the New Jerusalem. Everything that John has seen and shown, in the end, is God’s grace. In this book, as in all our lives, God’s grace is both beginning (1:4) and ending (22:21).