Lectionary Commentaries for May 5, 2013
Sixth Sunday of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 14:23-29

Karyn Wiseman

When Jesus departs from his disciples, there will be significant changes and this text makes a promise that despite this fact the disciples will not be left alone.

This is a promise that surely made a huge difference to those for whom Jesus’ departure is both immanent and potentially confusing.

Part of that preparation included making sure all knew what was expected his followers. Jesus states that loving him means obeying his teachings (verse 23). As a result of this obedience, “My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them” (verse 23). What an astonishing promise of presence.

However, we live in a world where people are more technologically connected than ever before, but many seem to still be lonely. They are isolated physically and perhaps connected in trans-dimensional modes of connection. But many are not pulled out of the isolation by electronic means. Feeling alone can be a profoundly difficult thing to experience. And this is what the disciples are likely to fear most: isolation from their teacher and friend. All that they have done has been about being part of Jesus’ life and journey. But Jesus’ promises mean that they will not be alone.

Preparing for His Absence
Jesus has, on several occasions, been preparing the disciples for his departure; he has not kept them in the dark about this fact (verse 28). But knowing he will be leaving them soon and understanding what that meant for them personally were probably two different things. 

Into this reality of impending absence comes the Spirit, the Advocate, sent by God in Jesus’ name to be present with the followers of Jesus (verse 26). This is the first time we read about this presence as the Holy Spirit. The Advocate is a presence the disciples will need in order to love as they are called to love. It will, as Jesus promises, be as if he is still with them. Additionally, the Spirit will serve as their teacher in Jesus’ absence (verse 26). Jesus as teacher has been a profound presence in the Gospel message and continuing this teaching — his teaching — will be the Advocate’s role.

Having a teacher who makes a difference in your life is an important thing. Countless stories have been told of teachers making an impact on a young person’s life in ways that turned them around or helped them fulfill their potential in profound ways. Mine was my mom who spent hours with me trying to overcome some serious learning issues I was having in school as a child. She was my champion and my teacher. She made the path I am on today possible. And I never felt alone on that journey. She was with me through it all.

Now, clearly she is not on the level of Jesus as teacher and mentor, but all of us need someone present “in our corner” to embody the Teacher who leads us to be our fullest selves. Jesus did that for the disciples. He taught them in ways that lead them to leave their previous lives to follow him in ministry and to change the world in so many ways.

One of the profound moments in this passage comes in verse 27: Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” Peace is a commodity we sorely need in our world and is absent for far too many. But into this discourse about absence, Jesus reassures the disciples, who were rightly feeling fear about his departure, that they will not be left alone and bestows peace on them.

However, he does more than gently wish them peaceful lives — he gives them peace (verse 27). This is not a wish. This is a gift. It is a gift of profound importance at this moment in the journey of Jesus and the disciples. He must have known the turmoil they would face when he was gone and he does all he can to prepare them for the next part of the journey. Peace is an important element of John’s gospel (along with love that has been examined in the previous weeks’ lectionary readings). And like love, peace is a mark of true discipleship that is required of the disciples — then and now.

This is not a passive peace. It is an active working toward peace in multiple situations. This Spirit and peace will propel the disciples and later the church into active discipleship and mission. The presence of this peace reminds me of one of my favorite quotes in life: “breathe in peace, breathe out love.” It is with the presence of this peace, given by God in Jesus’ name, which enables the disciples and us to live lives of faithfulness (verse 26).

In this context, we can rightly imagine that peace is not something the disciples are feeling. They have travelled the highways and byways with Jesus as he healed, taught, and changed the world. Now in his impending absence he leaves them what they need to continue this work.

Part of the amazing reassurance comes in verse 28: “You heard me say, ‘I am going away and I am coming back to you.’ If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I.” Jesus boldly proclaims that he is not just going away from them — he is going to the Father. And those who know him, who have walked the roads and have been on this journey with him, know that this is what he was meant to do.

Into this moment we are called to preach a word about peace and presence. After this discourse, Jesus intended for the disciples to feel his peace and presence always — through the Spirit, in the continued teaching to come, and in the connectedness of the community of believers.

First Reading

Commentary on Acts 16:9-15

Brian Peterson

Just prior to the beginning of this text, Paul and his companions Silas and Timothy seem to be at a loss for where to go next with the gospel. 

They stumble around the region, running into one barrier after another set up by God. Barred by the Spirit from going south and west into Asia or from going north into Bythinia, Paul appears backed into a coastal corner at Troas by God’s strange and repeated “no.”

It is regrettable (but not beyond correction) that verses 6-8 are not included in this lectionary reading. They might remind the church that God is in charge of the mission, that the church often searches for God’s calling in mistaken directions and aborted attempts, and that God’s Spirit often speaks through frustrating and difficult discernment.

Thus Paul receives his vision in the night. One might think that getting a vision from God would make everything clear, but even a vision requires interpretation; more to the point, it requires the community of faith. Famously, this is the first point in Acts where the narrator seems to join the characters as a part of the story. Arguments continue over whether the “we” that enters the text at this point indicates an author who was an eyewitness and participant in the events, or whether this “we” reflects the use of some else’s diary woven into the story, or whether the use of “we” is simply a narrative technique.

We can let those questions go, and instead focus attention on the communal claim carried by this “we.” Paul received the vision, but verse 10 says that “we” concluded what it meant and what to do about it. The vision must be interpreted, and that task does not fall to Paul alone. The small community contained in “we” is involved in discerning that this is God’s call not just to an individual, but to “us”; that the “help” which is needed is the preaching of the gospel; that the call was for immediate action.

The mission doesn’t belong to Paul alone, even though at this point in Acts the other apostles are almost completely left behind. The mission, of course, doesn’t even belong to the church; it is God’s mission. Yet the church is called into the discernment of God’s mission at every turn. Where is the Spirit calling us, and doing so through those whom we might otherwise think are outside our circle of responsibility? What visions call us beyond the boundaries into ministry where we had not considered it before?            

It is worth noticing that Paul and his entourage do not stop in the lovely seaside town of Neapolis (modern Kavala), but immediately head for Philippi. Despite the notorious difficulty in translating the middle section of verse 12 (“a leading city of the district”, or “a city of the first district”?), perhaps the main point comes at the end of the sentence: “a Roman colony.” This is where the Empire was powerful and popular. This was the heart of the Empire’s project in this corner of the world, a place that lived like an extended section of Rome itself, intended to be an example of what Rome offers to the world.

Perhaps Paul heads straight there because a place like Philippi is where the gospel of the Lord Jesus is needed most clearly. And so, unlike the unsuccessful wandering that characterized the verses before the vision, here there is no hesitation and no meandering — it is straight to Philippi. In places just like that God planted (and still plants) the church to the community that says “no” to the ways of imperial power and offers a different way of life, a different story, and a different promise. This is what the church is still called to be and to offer in the face of different (and not so different) systems of power and oppression.

Though the team apparently wastes no time in getting to the city, the mission still requires patience. Not much happens for a while. They were there for “some days” (just how long was that?). The appeal in the vision is urgent, and the response to it is immediate; but the results are not seen right away. When God does begin to work in Philippi, it comes with a surprise. Paul’s vision had involved a Macedonian man. But the first to welcome the gospel in Philippi was a woman, and in fact a woman from the area that Paul had just left in the east. Any simple expectations about God’s mission are clearly going to be wrong. How odd, and grace-filled, that this woman from Thyatira, in Asia where the Spirit had forbidden Paul to go, is now met in Philippi and hears the gospel.

Lydia listens, but the Lord must open the heart to believe (verse 14). At this crucial point, Paul practically disappears from the story. It is not the charismatic personality of the pastor or preacher that has the power to create faith; it must come from God’s own merciful activity. From beginning to end, this text stresses that it is God who is in charge of the mission, God who sets its direction, and God who determines its results.

Lydia’s faith becomes immediately active: she is baptized along with her whole household, and she opens her home. Social and cultural barriers crumble, and this corner of the empire is beginning to be changed by God’s grace. The author says that Lydia “prevailed upon” (NRSV) Paul and his companions to stay with her and accept her hospitality. There is only one other place in the New Testament where this word is used: in Emmaus on Easter evening, as the two traveling disciples urged the risen Jesus to stay with them that night (Luke 24:29).

Perhaps the verbal echo is not accidental; by lives transformed and opened up in faithful discipleship, the fellowship of the risen Lord continues to extend into the world. Here near the end of the Easter season, we continue to experience and to live out that fellowship, “prevailing upon” the world to hear, and see, and know the mercy of God in the risen Christ.


Commentary on Psalm 67

Nancy Koester

The sixth Sunday of Easter may feel a bit like the twelfth day of Christmas — officially still in the zone but, practically speaking, most people have moved on.

All the presents have been opened: preachers have proclaimed the Easter story, the most familiar Easter songs have been sung, the lilies have either wilted or been taken home. What better time, then, to try preaching from the Psalms! Psalm 67 offers a strong framework for building a late-season Easter sermon. It has at least two solid themes to choose from, and pairs well with either the Acts or the Revelation texts appointed for Easter 6.

Psalm 67 asks for “a blessing that will make the Lord’s way known among all peoples of the earth,”[1] writes biblical scholar James Luther Mays. Surely that prayer is answered in the Resurrection of Christ! As a step toward using Psalm 67 for Easter preaching, we will first look at it as a freestanding text.

We get to eat dessert first in Psalm 67. The Psalmist serves up the benediction right away instead of saving it till the end: “May God be gracious to us and bless us, and make his face to shine upon us.” (67:1, many have noted, echoes Numbers 6:24-26). A benediction is “a word wishing someone well,” writes James Limburg.[2] That well-wishing is not only for the faithful few, but for “all nations.” The blessing is signature, God’s way of communicating “saving power” to “all nations” (67:2). The outcome: “all the peoples” praise God (67:3). God’s blessing spreads far and wide, overflowing all boundaries.

The Psalm is global. Its invitation is universal, resounding in verse 3 and again in 5. “Let the people praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you.” Verse 4 asks “the nations” to “be glad and sing for joy.” Imagine being in a huge concert hall where massed choirs are singing from every side. The nations sing for joy because God judges the people with equity and guides the nations of earth. Everyone comes to the festival because God works in the history of all nations.[3]

Near the end of the Psalm, the reason for thanksgiving shifts to a harvest theme. “The earth has yielded its increase; God, our God has blessed us” (67:6). This has led some scholars to describe this Psalm as a thanksgiving for harvest, and it certainly can be used for that specific purpose. But it ends with a more general prayer for God’s continued blessing on the worshippers (that’s “us”) and for “all the ends of the earth” to revere God (67:7).

The theology of the Psalm works like this: God’s blessing comes to Abraham and through him to all the families of Earth. Israel’s salvation becomes a revelation to all nations. In the Psalm the nations come to know “the Lord’s way” as savior (67:2). God’s way of saving reveals who God is. We apply this to Christianity, for as James Luther Mays says, “the blessing of the church is for the salvation of the nations.” [4] God’s blessing, God’s saving mercies are not for a small group of insiders, but for all the peoples of earth. Therefore, the Psalm speaks to both the identity of God’s people and to their mission.

When used on the sixth Sunday of Easter, whether as the main preaching text or a supporting text, Psalm 67 works well for preaching. It declares that God’s blessing — and there is no blessing greater than Easter — is for all people. Church folk might be tempted at this particular time of year to feel deflated if the Easter crowd has drifted away. Psalm 67 does not go there. It imparts joy and prompts us to spread the Easter message everywhere.

Easter reveals “the Lord’s way as savior” and that “way” leads through death to resurrection, through darkness to light for the entire world. Psalm 67 reminds us that God’s blessing is moving throughout the world to embrace “the nations” and “the peoples” of earth. Christianity is growing in parts of Africa and Asia, and closer to home it is not only for “us” in the church but for all the “nones” who say they have no religion.

The “all nations” theme comes up in Acts 16:9-15, the first lesson for the Sixth Sunday of Easter. Here Paul and friends travel in what is now western Turkey, spreading the Gospel in several towns. Paul baptizes Lydia, “a worshipper of God” and her family. We are told that “the Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul” (Acts 16:14), and she opened her home for Paul and his companions.

The harvest theme from Psalm 67:6 also works well with Easter. The earth has indeed yielded its increase: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Christ is called the firstborn or first fruits of the dead in 1 Corinthians 15:20, Colossians 1:18; Revelation 1:5 for, as Christ has been raised, we too shall be raised. This blessing is free to all who embrace it by faith, so that the whole world may “be glad and sing for joy.”

In the texts appointed for the sixth Sunday of Easter, Revelation 22:2 speaks of the tree of life yielding twelve kinds of fruit “and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” Here are the nations, and here is the harvest, and here is the life and the healing that the risen Christ brings.
Psalm 67 invites us to “be glad and sing for joy.” Hymns that work well with the Psalm include
“Christ is Alive! Let Christians Sing” ELW 389
“In Christ There is No East or West” ELW 650
“Now the Green Blade Rises” ELW 379

1James Luther Mays, Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994), 224.

2James Limburg, Psalms, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000), 221.

3Ibid., 222.

4Mays, Psalms, 225. 

Second Reading

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

Barbara Rossing

“Then the angel showed me the river of life-giving water, clear as crystal.” Bishop William Skylstad of the Roman Catholic Church’s Spokane Diocese cites this verse from Revelation in recalling his own childhood experience of salmon fishing and growing up on an apple orchard along the Methow River, in Washington State.1

We all live in a watershed, a river basin. The river of the water of life flowing from the throne of God at the close of the New Jerusalem vision in Revelation 22 helps us draw connections between the particular rivers of our lives and the watershed of God’s river of life flowing through the world.

The river of life brings to a conclusion the architectural tour of New Jerusalem, in which an angelic guide “shows” John the features of God’s radiant city. The tour is modeled on the angel’s tour of the new temple in Ezekiel 40-48. Revelation makes important changes along the way that open up Ezekiel’s priestly vision to everyone. One striking modification is that New Jerusalem has “no temple” (21:22). God’s presence now extends to the entire city’s landscape, with all of God’s people serving and reigning with Christ as priests (Revelation1:6; 5:10; 20:6; 22:3, 5).

New Jerusalem is a welcoming city, not a gated community. Whereas Ezekiel’s temple gate was shut so that “no one shall enter by it” (Ezekiel 44:1-2), the gates into New Jerusalem are perpetually open — they are “never shut by day and there will be no night there” (Revelation 21:26). Even foreigners are invited to enter into this radiant city, whose lamp is the Lamb, Jesus. Nations will walk by its light, streaming in through its open gates (21:24, 26). In our time when nations and neighborhoods seek to secure themselves against outsiders, the church can claim Revelation’s vision of openness and multicultural welcome for all our cities.

The final verse of the chapter (21:27) is another prophetic wake-up call, exhorting faithfulness so that our names are written in Jesus’ book of life and we may enter as citizens into God’s New Jerusalem. Exhortation, not prediction, is the function of such threatening verses. Revelation seeks to make God’s vision of beauty so persuasive and real that the audience will “come out” of the evil empire (18:4) in order to enter into the promised land of blessing and healing.

The recurring image of the “throne” in this passage is a central image for Revelation. John’s apocalyptic journey began with a tour of the heavenly throne-room back in Revelation 4-5. But where is the “throne of God and the Lamb” located in Revelation 22? The text suggests that God’s throne will move down from heaven, where it was in chapter 4, and will be located in the middle of the city that descends from heaven to earth (see Rev 21:2). Thus, the New Jerusalem can be read as a wonderfully earth-centered vision for our future, a vision of hope for the world. Contrary to the escapism or “heavenism” that dominates some interpretations today, Revelation suggests that our future dwelling with God will be on a radiant earth.

Green space and God’s river of life fill out the final description of the city. Revelation 22:1-5 recreates the garden of Eden in the center of a thriving urban landscape, drawing on Ezekiel’s vision of a wondrous tree-lined river flowing out from the temple:

Water was flowing from below the threshold of the temple toward the east. . . .On the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing. (Ezekiel 47:1, 12)

In Revelation the river of life flows not from the temple but from the throne of God and the Lamb, through the center of the processional street of the city. Ezekiel’s fruit-trees on both banks become the wondrous “tree of life” in Revelation (22:2), invoking paradise traditions. The fruit of the ever-bearing tree of life satisfies the hunger of all in need, overcoming the prohibition of Genesis 3:22.

Most importantly, the tree’s leaves provide healing. In contrast to the toxic pharmakeia (“sorcery,” Rev 18:23) of Babylon, God’s tree of life gives medicine — therapeia — for the world. The prophet Ezekiel described trees with leaves for healing; Revelation deliberately universalizes Ezekiel’s vision by adding the “healing of the nations” to the tree’s healing leaves (Revelation 22:2; compare Ezekiel 47:12). Revelation’s medicinal leaves offer a vision of a political economy that heals us all and heals our world. God’s healing comes from creation, from a tree.

The tour of the city concludes with reference to God’s servants who offer service and worship (latreusousin) before the throne (Revelation 22:3). God’s servants shall reign forever and ever. At a time when Rome claimed to reign forever, Revelation boldly proclaimed that it is God who reigns — not the Empire — and that God’s servants will also reign with God. Note, however, that there is no object of the verb “reign.” God’s servants do not reign over anyone else. The text invites us to explore ways to understand our reign not as domination over, but as sharing in, God’s healing of the world.

Revelation’s vision of God’s life-giving watershed in the center of our cities renews hope for our future. We need New Jerusalem. We need the trees of life, the healing of the nations. These glimpses of a renewed earth can inspire and motivate us. Through each of our cities, by whatever name — the Mississippi, the Monongahela, the Methow — there is a river flowing from the heart of God and the Lamb. It is the life-giving river of the water of life, into which each we are baptized and by which we are renewed.

1William Skylstad, “The Waters of Life” in Brian Doyle, ed., God Is Love: Essays from Portland Magazine (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2003) 82.