Lectionary Commentaries for May 9, 2010
Sixth Sunday of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 14:23-29

Mary Hinkle Shore

In the last evening he spends with the disciples before his death, Jesus tries to show them two elements of reality that are difficult to hold together: he is going away, yet he will not leave them orphaned.

As they listen, the disciples have questions. Peter (John 13:36), Thomas (John 14:5), Philip (John 14:8), and Judas (not Iscariot; John 14:22) all ask questions or make requests of Jesus as he is preparing his loved ones for his departure.

John 14:23-29, the text for the sixth Sunday of Easter, is part of the answer to a question that Judas asks. In John 14:19, Jesus had said, “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.” Judas presses Jesus for more information: “How is it that you will reveal yourself to us and not to the world?” (John 14:22). 

From this question, it sounds as if Judas is expecting Jesus to reveal secrets, to give his followers knowledge hidden from the world at large. The answer Jesus gives, however, goes in another direction. Jesus is not interested in hiding knowledge from anyone. While the world will not see him any longer, it will see his followers. The words that follow are for his followers, yet it is probably not a coincidence that as his followers keep loving him, the world will see those followers keeping his word. To keep the word of Jesus means to keep his commandments (cf. John 14:15, 21). It is to wash one another’s feet, to love one another (John 13:24). As the disciples keep the word of Jesus, they will be a community characterized by mutual regard, love and service.

Throughout the farewell discourse, Jesus makes it clear that followers love him by serving others. (One could say that Jesus’ love language here is “acts of service.”1) Although we might distinguish between loving Jesus and keeping his word, and imagine that we can do one but not the other, Jesus does not recognize that distinction. The clause in John 14:23b is a condition of fact: “Those who love me will keep my word…”2  Love for Jesus simply is love in action.

Whether the disciples know it, to live that kind of love, they will need the constant presence of God in their midst. Jesus offers that presence with three different promises. First, he says of himself and the Father about those who love him: “We will come and make our home with them.” From the first chapter of this gospel we know that prior to anyone’s love for Jesus, “The Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14). No one would be able to love Jesus if the Father had not first loved the world enough to send his Son into it. The cohabitation that Jesus speaks of is not a reward for good behavior. It is simply a statement of where God likes to spend time. It hearkens back to the first chapter of the gospel and forward to the reality envisioned in Revelation: “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them” (Revelation 21:3).

The Son also announces the advent of the Spirit among the believers. During the time between his leave-taking and life in the new Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit “will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14:25). I once heard a New Testament scholar speak of material written fifty years after Jesus’ death as a relevant source for the life of the historical Jesus by saying, “My mother has been dead for thirty years. I think I understand her better now than I did when she was alive.” The Holy Spirit accompanies the church as it remembers. The Spirit guides the disciples and the church as we think back over what we have experienced of Jesus, and as we seek to let our love for him show up in the ways we relate to others. The Spirit helps disciples to understand Jesus and his word and to love Jesus by keeping his word on behalf of the world.

Jesus speaks of the home that the Father will make with those who love him. He promises the guidance of the Holy Spirit as his followers remember him. Finally, he gives his own peace to those he is about to leave. The gospel of John includes no mention of peace until Jesus speaks it here, on the eve of his death. He describes the peace he offers as his own and says that he gives it “not as the world gives.” He will offer it again and again as he appears to the disciples after the resurrection (cf. John 20: 19, 21, 26). He does not describe the peace he offers, though from his words in John 14:27, we may conclude that his peace offers the disciples both comfort for troubled hearts and courage in the midst of fear. Throughout the events of his arrest, trial, and crucifixion, as well as in the resurrection, Jesus will embody the peace he offers here.

Why tell the disciples all of this now? Recall Judas’ question: “How is it that you will reveal yourself to us and not to the world?” (John 14:23). These are the ways those who love Jesus will continue to see and know him after he goes away: in the home that the Father and the Son make with them, in the work of the Spirit to call to mind everything that Jesus taught, and in their ongoing experience of peace that comes from him and not from the world. Jesus tells them ahead of time so that they may believe. As the events of the immediate–and distant–future unfold, Jesus’ followers will be able to trust that the One who loved them enough to send the Son still loves them and still seeks to dwell with them. They will know they are not orphaned.

1The concept of “love languages” has been popularized by Gary Chapman, The Five Love Languages (Chicago: Northfield Publishing, 1995). See also www.5lovelanguages.com.
2The pronoun in Greek is masculine singular (“he will keep my word”). I’ve used the NRSV translation to avoid gender-specific language.

First Reading

Commentary on Acts 16:9-15

Eric Barreto

Like much of Luke-Acts, this week’s text finds Christians on the road.

Seemingly unable to stand still, Paul is on the move, proclaiming the good news in a part of the ancient world rife with historical significance as well as great diversity of people. The geographical expansion narrated in these verses is a result of the consequential wake of the apostolic council’s decision in Acts 15 to welcome Gentiles without requiring circumcision. This decision sanctions Paul’s efforts in Acts to reach “the ends of the Earth.”

Asking for Directions
The first stop on the itinerary is Macedonia. The divine signposts up to this point had been negative. Repeatedly, God’s spirit kept redirecting their journeys, blocking their path to Asia and Bithynia (16:6, 7). It is as if the divine GPS was neglecting to tell these evangelists where to go but continually produced clear roadblocks; Paul confronts detour after detour without a precise destination. Clarity only arrives when Paul and his companions arrive in Troas.

There, a vision finally shows the way. Paul sees a Macedonian man beckoning, begging for his help. About this vision much is left unsaid. For example, the Macedonian does not specify for what assistance he hoped. Luke only indicates that Paul and his companions fully understood the dream. “Immediately,” they set out for Macedonia. On the road again, these early Christians are on the move thanks to the Spirit.

Finally, A Destination
Smooth sailing brings them to Philippi. The description of the city is complex but telling. First, significant text critical issues at verse 12 complicate exegesis. Ought we read that Philippi was the first city in Macedonia which Paul and his companions reached, the capital of the Macedonian region, or the leading city in the area? I concur with the NRSV’s reading here, which opts for the latter alternative. The text thus highlights that these early evangelists are headed to an eminent city.

Second, Philippi is described as a colony. This is the only city in all of Luke-Acts that receives this designation, though we know of other cities that Luke mentions that were unquestionably well-known colonies. Why then stress this civic feature? Why stress Philippi’s importance along with its status as a Roman colony? These descriptions anticipate the dramatic travails Paul and Silas will encounter in Philippi. Such characterizations–as I will detail next week–set the stage for a city’s denizens to jail and persecute these proclaimers of the good news as criminal proponents of a foreign way of life.

A Detour of Sorts
Before these conflicts, however, Luke reports some significant but rather surprising successes. Up to this point in the narrative of Acts, and in subsequent stops, the typical practice of Paul has been and will be to seek the synagogue first (Acts 13:14; 14:1; 17:1, 10, 17; 18:4, 19; 19:8). Here at Philippi, however, the Sabbath day finds them not at a synagogue, but at an unlikely location on the very fringes of this powerful city. Outside the city, they reckon they would find a place of prayer. How they knew this or why the imagined this to be true, Luke does not explain. What is clear is that the Spirit has lead these proclaimers thus far and has continued to do so to this point, for Paul finds Lydia in this unlikely place of prayer.

In a group of women listening to Paul and his companions, Lydia is highlighted in three ways. She is a worshipper of God, a native of Thyatira, as well as a purveyor of purple cloth. The first designation identifies her as one of a number of individuals in Luke-Acts with a faithful proclivity towards the God of Israel (cf. Acts 13:43; 17:17; 18:7 among others). These are individuals who have inclined themselves to this God though they are not identified as Jews and thus are on the margins of the faith. Second, the naming of her hometown is an unexpected twist; despite the fact that a Macedonian man beckons the help of Paul, it is a foreign woman who first has God open her heart to faith! Finally, her profession is perhaps an indication of her unusual social class and powerful status. Thus, the narrative ends with a note of generous hospitality. For Lydia a natural result of her and her household’s receiving of the good news is to welcome these erstwhile strangers into her home.

A Legend for Luke’s Map
For westerners, these verses present a temptation: too often, we imbue the advent of the gospel on the European continent and Lydia as Europe’s first convert with theological significance. However, there is no evidence that Luke had such a cartographical shift in mind. Neither is there an overarching shift from east to west. It is not a European who beckons Paul, but a Macedonian. Lydia is associated with Thyatira not the continent of Europe; that is, she is on European soil in Philippi, but she is actually from the other side of the Aegean. In antiquity, the powerful legacy of Macedonia would have leapt to the reader’s mind rather than Christianity’s arrival on new continental soil. Thus, we can again be reminded of the cultural distance between our cultural assumptions and those of the writers of the New Testament. For Acts, this is indeed an important moment guided by God’s clear handiwork, a vital transition both in geographical space and theological significance, but not in the way we might expect.

Preaching a text that reads like a travel itinerary can prove challenging, to say the least. To be sure, one could focus on the extraordinary story of Lydia’s conversion, but this leaves much of the text unexamined and unproclaimed. For Luke, these geographical details are not mere window dressings or simple signposts to help the reader keep their place on the map. After all, this selection begins with the heavy hand of the Spirit directing Paul in no uncertain terms. The conversion of Lydia is not explained save to say that God opens her heart to receive what Paul was saying.

Unmistakably for Luke, this is the way upon which God plans the church to walk. We ought to follow God’s call to reach across cultural and ethnic boundaries and learn to find opportunities to do God’s work in unexpected places. In Acts, this road is particularly marked by the panoply of people toward which the Spirit reaches out–Macedonian, Philippian, Thyatirian, Jewish, and Roman alike. Ought not our missional paths bear the same character?


Commentary on Psalm 67

J. Clinton McCann, Jr.

As we had occasion to observe in relation to Psalm 148, last week’s psalm, Israel’s songs of praise regularly invite an expansive congregation to praise God.

Whereas last week’s essay explored the ecological implications of inviting a universe-encompassing congregation to praise God, this essay focuses more narrowly on the human community. Note, however, that while our focus has narrowed, it is still extraordinarily expansive. Psalm 67 invites to praise God no less a congregation than “the nations” and “all the peoples” (verses 3-5)!

While such an invitation is the norm for Israel’s songs of praise, it is still remarkable. In the case of Psalm 67, this world-encompassing invitation is emphasized by the structure of the poem. Verses 3 and 5 are identical, and the repetition itself provides emphasis. Furthermore, in the way that Psalm 67 is often laid out poetically (see NRSV), verses 3 and 5 conclude the first two sections of the psalm, a positioning that offers further emphasis on the expansive invitation to “all the peoples.”

While this construal of the structure of Psalm 67 make sense, it is also possible to discern a chiastic arrangement of the poem, as follows:

A   verses 1-2 blessing and the nations
  B verse 3 refrain
      C verse 4 central invitation and focus on God’s just
        and equitable guidance
  B’ verse 5 refrain
A’ verses 6-7 blessing and “all the ends of the earth”

In this view, the poet has constructed a chiasm that focuses attention upon the central verse 4, which is enveloped by the two identical invitations in verses 3 and 5. Thus, all the invitations to the “peoples” and “nations” occur in verses 3-5, which are enveloped by the affirmations in verses 1-2, 6-7 that God has blessed “us” — that is, Israel. Structurally speaking, then, the people who have been blessed by God now surround the peoples and nations with blessing. The strong implication is that the praise of God that is invited from the peoples and nations is predicated upon Israel’s sharing the blessing with the world.

The central verse 4 reinforces this interpretive direction, especially when verse 4bc is translated as follows: “for you establish justice (among) the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth.” Establishing justice, which in Scripture is the responsibility of both human and divine monarchs (see Psalms 72 and 82, and Ezekiel 34:1-16), involves the meeting of basic human needs, especially the provision of food (see verse 6a, especially NRSV “increase,” which NIV translates as “harvest;” see also Leviticus 26:4). In short, God wills and works toward life for the world, by way of the agency of the people that God has blessed with food.

In fact, verses 1-2 have already indicated this direction. Echoing the Aaronic Benediction in Numbers 6:22-27, verses 1-2 suggest that God’s blessing of the people will not stop with the people themselves. Rather, God’s “saving power” (NRSV) or “salvation” (NIV) will be experienced “among the nations.” In its fundamental sense, “salvation” means life. Again, God wills and works toward life for the whole world.

At this point, Psalm 67 articulates a message that reverberates throughout the canon. In particular, the emphasis on blessing (verses 1, 6-7) recalls Genesis 12:1-3. To be sure, Abraham, Sarah, and their descendants are promised a blessing, but they are also to serve as agents of blessing for “all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:3). Elsewhere in the Old Testament, the scope of God’s concern is similarly world-encompassing (see Exodus 9:16; Psalm 22:27-28); God pursues justice among all the nations and peoples (see Isaiah 2:4), whom God claims as God’s own (see Isaiah 19:23-25; Psalm 87); and God’s people are agents of God’s world-embracing work (see Isa 42:5-9; 49:5-6).

In the New Testament, the apostle Paul cites Genesis 12:3 as foundational support for his mission of sharing the gospel with the whole world and opening the church to the Gentiles/nations (see Galatians 3:6-8). The final chapter of the Bible, Revelation 22 (one of the lessons for the day), envisions nothing short of the eventual “healing of the nations” (verse 2).

It is with good reason, therefore, that Theodore Mascarenhas interprets Psalm 67 in terms of mission. As he concludes:

       The psalmist [in Psalm 67] has used material
       available to him like the Aaronic Blessing
       but has so remodeled it as to make it
       missionary minded. Retaining all the
       theological import that the blessing carries,
       he has instilled in it the Abrahamic hope
       and has portrayed Israel as a blessing to the
       nations…Receiving God’s blessing, it [Israel]
       becomes a blessing to the peoples because it
       teaches them by life and worship how to be
       participants in the blessing.1

To read and hear Psalm 67 during the season of Easter is to be reminded that the resurrection of Jesus constitutes a call to mission. Not coincidentally, the risen Christ sent his disciples to “all nations” (Matthew 28:19; Luke 24:47). The point is not simply conversion, although sharing the good news may result in conversion in some cases. The real point is to exemplify the blessing of life that we know and experience — that is, we are called, as Israel was called in Psalm 67, to share the blessing with all peoples and nations. This includes sharing the “increase” or “harvest” that God provides. Blessing the world, working toward the life that God wills for all peoples and nations, will mean sharing our food and the other material resources that are necessary to sustain and nurture life.

This call to mission is timely indeed. The contemporary world is characterized by growing extremes of wealth and poverty. While people in the United States routinely eat too much, there are a billion people, maybe more, who suffer from hunger and malnutrition. Everyday, 30,000 children die of hunger-related causes. For those of us who have clearly experienced the earth’s “increase,” the call is to share the blessing.

Then too, our contemporary world is characterized by ongoing racial, ethnic, national, and religious bigotry and strife. Psalm 67 and its vision of a divinely-willed blessing for all peoples and nations may encourage us, in the words of Cain Hope Felder, to “engage the new challenge to recapture the ancient biblical vision of racial and ethnic plurality as shaped by the Bible’s own universalism.”2 So be it!

1 Theodore Mascarenhas, The Missionary Function of Israel in Psalms 67, 96, and 117 (Dallas: University Press of America, 2005), 120-121.
2 Cain Hope Felder, Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation, ed. Cain Hope Felder (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), ix.

Second Reading

Commentary on Revelation 21:10, 22—22:5

Brian Peterson

In this book of so many visions, we arrive at the final vision; final not only because it is the last in this book, but final because here we see the ultimate goal to which God will bring the world.

John gives us a more detailed presentation of the same city that he had glimpsed in 21:2. It is often stated that the New Jerusalem has no temple, but that is not quite right. It has no separate structure which could be identified as a temple, because God and the Lamb are the temple in this city (verse 22).

The declaration here is not that no temple is needed, but that God’s own, unmediated presence is where the people come to worship (see John 2:19-21), and that divine presence fills this city. The faithful had been promised that they would be pillars in God’s temple (3:12), and here we find that they will in fact dwell in God’s immediate presence. We have already been told about this city as the bride of the Lamb (21:2); now we are shown how the people and God will live together in that intimate relationship.

Other apocalyptic texts such as 4 Ezra 7:60-61 declared that salvation would be a small and exclusive club in the end (“I will rejoice over the few who shall be saved…and I will not grieve over the multitude of those who perish”). John’s vision, by comparison, is startlingly expansive. After the last 2 battles described in Revelation (19:15, 19-21; 20:8-9), we might expect that we had seen the last of the nations. Yet here they are, walking in the light of God’s New Jerusalem.

Perhaps even more striking is that the kings of the earth will bring their glory into Jerusalem, coming finally to proper worship (rather than being led in as war captives, as Isaiah 60:11 portrays). We last heard about the kings of the earth in 19:19, where they were assembled against the Lord. In 17:18, Babylon ruled over the kings, and in 18:3 they were the ones who had committed fornication (idolatrous worship and economic/military oppression) with the whore of Babylon. We had no reason to hope for the kings and the nations, and yet here they are–a sign of God’s amazing grace.

Just because the nations and kings are coming is no reason to worry about a future repeat of oppression and injustice. There will be no need for security systems in this city: no bars on the windows, no locked doors, no alarms. The gates of the city will be open always. Of course everyone would expect the gates to be open during the day unless the city were under threat, and all threats have been removed. The surprise is that there will be no need to close the gates at night, because there is no night, since God’s own light shines in the city. Anyone can come as they wish, none will feel insecure, and all are welcomed.

Or are they? Verse 27 mentions some who will never enter the city. But where did such people come from, since we have already seen the resurrection of the dead and the final judgment? We should notice that in this verse the alternative described to the “unclean” is not “only those who live righteously,” but “only those written in the Lamb’s book.” This is a reminder that entry to this city is by God’s grace. It is also a reminder that, by God’s grace, those written in the Lamb’s book live a life that is appropriate for this city. The promise that nothing unclean will enter, in the end, is the promise that God will remove all uncleanness from us all. As we will see, God provides healing for the nations (22:2), healing from the idolatry and falsehood that had infected them. God’s drawing of the kings and nations to God’s self, to the holy city, is no threat; the uncleanness that had led to oppression, violence, and evil will stay removed forever.

The river of life in 22:1-2 is based on Ezekiel 47:1-12, where the river flows out of God’s temple. In Revelation’s New Jerusalem there is no temple building, and so the river flows from the throne of God, flows with life from the presence and the ruling power of the Lord of all. The old serpent has been dispensed with (20:2, 10), and the tree of life flourishes among the people again. In Ezekiel, the river was lined with all kinds of trees, but here there is only one, the one that matters, the tree of life lost with Adam’s and Eve’s sin. In Ezekiel’s vision, the leaves were for healing (of Israel), but here they are for the healing of all the nations. Here there is nothing cursed (verse 3). Paradise is fulfilled in this city.

The profound images have piled up as high as this city’s walls, but the climax of it all comes in verse 4. The redeemed will see the face of God. Exodus 33:20 had declared this impossible. One could not see God’s face and still live. But here, by God’s grace, humanity reaches its intended goal and completion, to dwell in God’s presence.

This is the promise of life with God brought out of the long story of human sin, rebellion, and suffering. From God comes light; from God comes the tree of life; from God’s throne flows the water of life; God is the temple, sanctifying the entire community; and God’s own presence is given. We know that presence in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We know that presence of God at the font, and the table, and in the proclamation of good news. We know that presence of God dimly reflected in our own imperfect communities. This text holds before our eyes the goal to which God is bringing all of human life, and calls us on to that reality.