Lectionary Commentaries for May 2, 2010
Fifth Sunday of Easter
Commentary on John 13:31-35
Frank L. Crouch
Commentary on Acts 11:1-18
Peter and Cornelius and Trouble in Jerusalem
This lesson for the 5th Sunday of Easter is the concluding episode of the narrative of Peter and
Cornelius that starts at the beginning of chapter 10. It is one of the longest stories of Luke-Acts and thus also one of the longest in the New Testament. Luke spends much energy on this story and writes with carefully chosen and artfully woven words that underscore its significance.
It will be important for the preacher to read the whole of the narrative to catch its development toward its climactic conclusion, which is surely programmatic in the grand sweep of the story of Luke-Acts. As many have noted, and as is explicitly stated in the text (see 11:15; “the Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us”; see also 10:47), this story is for Christian mission to “all nations,” the authorizing outpouring of the Spirit. In addition, the reader is invited to see the introductory comments on the lesson from Acts for the 2nd Sunday of Easter for a summary of perspectives and themes of Luke-Acts and the witness to the resurrection that provide background and setting for this lesson and for the Sundays of Easter.
“Even to the Gentiles?”
Literarily, though part of the much longer Peter-Cornelius narrative, 11:1-18 is marked as a unit by the parallel phrases that frame it and at the same time focus its significance–this story is about the coming of the “word of God” “even to the Gentiles.” The surprise and wonder, couched in the key word “even” are an important motif for Luke (the NRSV thus gets it wrong in verse 1, but right in verse 18; see also 26:20, 23), especially when linked to the central message of the power and promise of God’s word for salvation (see Luke 1:37: “all God’s words/promises are possible”; and see Acts 11:14 below where the same Greek “word” or “promise” is used as in Luke 1:37; Greek: rhema, used a total of thirty three times in Luke-Acts, and nine times in the birth narrative alone).
Important also in the framing of the story is the surprising transformation and distance that stands between the “hearing” of verse 1 and that of verse 18. In verse 1, the hearing leads not to rejoicing, but to the Jerusalem community’s accusatory criticism of Peter’s questionable actions of associating with and eating with people who were not circumcised (11:2-3). In verse 18 the “hearing” is one in which the criticisms have been silenced, and leads rather to praise of God who has “given even to the Gentiles, the repentance that leads to life.”
The Gospel on Trial
Between this beginning and ending, in verses 4 through 17, Peter answers the charges by narrating “step by step” each detail of the experience. Peter is on trial here, and he is careful to include details of his and Cornelius’ respective visions. He reports his careful examination of the sheet, noting three times that its origin was “from heaven.” Numbers are important here and give confirmation of the significance of this event. Even though potentially embarrassing, Peter fesses up to the fact that it took three times for him to get the point–the vision of the sheet, the instructions to “kill and eat,” his reluctant “No way,” and the answering voice from heaven: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
Now he gets it. And so it is significant in the Peter-Cornelius narrative that this is now the fourth time that the vision of Cornelius is told (10:1-8, 22-23, 30-33), but it is the first time that Peter himself tells it. Now also for the first time Peter puts that vision of Cornelius together with his own vision of the sheet and thus, links them in his own perception of God’s design and purpose.
With scripture-sounding language Peter tells how “behold”, “three men” are “immediately” at the door, “commissioned” to send for him. Important for Peter’s argument is his assertion that he goes at the direction of the Spirit of God, who charges him to go without any hesitation (11:12; the NRSV’s “not to make a distinction” is surely wrong; see 10:29), though Peter takes along six brothers for support. Peter admits that even the content of his preaching is provided by the Spirit through these messengers who marvelously already anticipate the “words of promise by which Cornelius and his whole house will be saved!” (11:14; see Luke 3:6: “all flesh shall see the salvation of God”).
In fact, Peter now recognizes that the Spirit is way out ahead of him in all this salvation business. Though he did not recognize it as the events took place and even as he laid out the story of God’s forgiving love (see 10:43-44), now he recognizes that the Spirit was present in these events from the beginning. The Spirit did not wait upon Peter to finish his sermon. Nor is it ever the preacher who is in control of the power of the word.
What Power Did I Have?
Instead, the preacher Peter remembers, just like the women at the resurrection (Luke 24:8) that the power rests in the word and promise of God. That remembrance leads to the culminating piece of the argument. It comes in the form of a condition intended to silence the opposition with its now apparent truth. “If God gave them the same gift as to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, then what power did I have to stand in the way of God?” (11:17; a more accurate translation than that of the NRSV).
The argument here in the original Greek is in the form of a condition of fact, impossible to show clearly in English. It underscores the reality of the conclusion. It is a done deal. The argument is as persuasive as the experience of the Spirit’s presence. The opposition is silenced; only the praise of God remains. It is a question of power, after all, and the power belongs to God. God has decided to give the gift of faith and the repentance that leads to life that accompanies it.
Finally, in the context of the power of the resurrection promise, that last phrase is important. When the church here evaluates its mission, it reconfirms what has been true from the beginning. This is God’s mission. It is not just absolution, but repentance itself that is the gift of God (see Luke 1:17; 3:3,8; 5:32; 15:7; and especially 24:47 as well as Acts 5:31). This is the key to the transforming power that this story and the message of Easter hold in store for all who hear and believe its promise.
Commentary on Psalm 148
J. Clinton McCann, Jr.
In its songs of praise, Israel regularly invites an extraordinarily expansive congregation to praise God —
“all the earth” (Psalm 66:1; 96:1; 98:4; 100:1); “the peoples” and/or “nations” (Psalm 67:3-5; 96:7; 117:1); “the many coastlands” (Psalm 97:1); “heavenly beings” (Psalm 29:1; see 103:20-21). This remarkable inclusivity reaches its culmination in Psalm 150:6, the final verse of the Psalter: “Let everything that breathes praise the LORD!” Well, almost — actually, Psalm 148 issues an invitation to praise God that is even more expansive than Psalm 150:6. It invites not just “everything that breathes,” but rather everything that is to praise God!
Psalm 148 is well-positioned to be the most expansive of all the songs of praise. It is the central panel of a collection of songs of praise — Psalms 146-150 — that concludes the Psalter; and the collection is marked by the fact that each of these five psalms begins and ends with “Praise the LORD!” Between the initial “Praise the LORD!” that opens the psalm and the “Let them praise” of verse 5 that marks the concluding lines of the first section (see verse 13), there are seven grammatically identical invitations to praise. This is probably not coincidental, since the number seven represents wholeness or completion. That Psalm 148 invites praise from the whole creation is also suggested by the repetition of “all” (verses 2, 3, 7, 9-11, 14), as well as by the phrases “from the heavens” (verse 1) and “from the earth” (verse 7) that occur in the opening lines of each of the first two sections. “Heavens” and “earth” constitute the entirety of creation — that is, the whole universe, animate and inanimate, is invited to praise God.
Contemporary praise music is sometimes viewed as shallow and boring. To be sure, this assessment may not be entirely fair; but in any case, it is worth noting that there is absolutely no way that Israel’s praise music can be construed as boring. When one gathers a congregation that includes all peoples and nations, all creatures, and even more, there is bound to be some excitement!
In his assessment of verses 7-13, Erhard Gerstenberger hints at this excitement when he suggests that “the text is crowded.”1 In contrast to verses 1-6, verses 7-13 contain only one invitation to praise that is a grammatical imperative. The scarcity of verbs is compensated for by the expanded number of invitees in verses 7-13 — a total of twenty-three, and thus the “crowded” conditions that Gerstenberger notes. But the gathering of a universe-encompassing crowd seems to be precisely the poet’s point. That the crowd consists not only of various kinds of people (verses 11-12) but also of other creatures, plants, and features of creation (verses 7-10) virtually guarantees that this praise-service is going to be challenging and exciting.
After the incredible expansiveness of verses 1-13, verse 14 sounds strangely restrictive, mentioning “his people” and “his faithful ones… who are close to him.” Given verses. 1-13, it would seem that all peoples and all creatures “are close to him,” so what is going on in verse 14? Certainty is elusive, but the shape of the canon is the best clue.
Recall, for instance, the book of Genesis and its movement. The story appears to become significantly more restrictive with chapter 12; but the creation-wide dimension is still in view, since Abraham, Sarah, and their descendants are to effect a blessing for “all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:3; see Psalm 67 for next week). Here, particularity is put in the service of universality; and here is a pertinent canonical clue for understanding the apparent tension in Psalm 148 between universality and particularity. In short, God’s particular people (verse 14) are called, in essence, to bless the whole creation. This suggests an interpretive direction for the ambiguous phrase, “praise for all his faithful” — that is, praise is not a privilege but the vocation of enabling the whole creation to praise God. As Terence Fretheim puts it, “God is enthroned not simply on the praises of Israel [see Psalm 22:3]; God is enthroned on the praise of his creatures.” Thus, Fretheim continues, Psalm 148 “contains an implicit call to human beings to relate to the natural orders in such a way that nature’s praise might show forth with greater clarity.”2
Psalm 148 suggests that God will not properly be praised until the congregation includes not only all people, but also all living things and the inanimate features of creation. Obviously, the ecological implications of this vision are profound and far-reaching. In the season of Easter, we might put it like this: Just as the resurrection offers the promise of life to us human beings that are beset by the forces of sin and death, so it also offers the promise of life to the “whole creation [that] has been groaning in labor pains until now” (Romans 8:22). From this Easter perspective, the redeemed resurrection-community consists of people together with the whole creation. Such an Easter perspective is not unlike the praise-perspective of Psalm 148. We — people, living creatures, and the features of the whole creation — form a single worshiping community!
If this be the case, we are called to claim our kinship with every living creature, for God’s sake. To be sure, we might want to claim such kinship simply as a matter of self-interest. As biologist E. O. Wilson points out, “So important are insects and other land-dwelling arthropods that if all were to disappear, humanity probably could not last more than a few months.”3 But beyond self-interest, we honor the creatures because they belong to God.
Psalm 148 might remind us that the first biblical covenant in Genesis 9 includes not only God and human beings, but also “every living creature” (Genesis 9:10, 12, 15-16) and “the earth” itself (Genesis 9:13). God apparently really does love the world, the whole world! And God invites us to love it too, for God’s sake, for creation’s sake, and for our own sake too. From the perspective of Psalm 148 (and the entire Bible), we human beings will not truly know who we are except in covenant community with God, with all peoples, with every living creature, and with the earth itself. Praise the Lord!
1 Erhard Gerstenberger Psalms Part 2 and Lamentations Forms of the Old Testament Literature 15 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 2001) 449.
2 Terence E. Fretheim “Nature’s Praise of God in the Psalms ” Ex Auditu 3 (1987):29.
3 Edward O. Wilson The Diversity of Life New Edition (New York: W. W. Norton and Co. 1999) 133.
Commentary on Revelation 21:1-6
On this Fifth Sunday of Easter, we continue to celebrate and to ponder the mystery of Jesus’ resurrection.
The gospel accounts are clear that this is the same Jesus whom the disciples knew and followed, and yet they also insist that there has been change: Jesus has been glorified, exalted, made alive beyond death’s power. Paul struggles with the same mystery in 1 Corinthians 15 in talking about our resurrection, insisting that these bodies will be raised, and yet transformed into “spiritual bodies,” as a seed is transformed into a green, growing plant. Resurrection promises both continuity and discontinuity: the same, but totally different.
Revelation 21:1-6 extends that same mysterious promise to all of creation. It is caught up into Jesus’ resurrection, into the victorious life of the slaughtered Lamb. There is, on the one hand, continuity here. Verse 5 says that everything will be made new, not that everything will be replaced by new and different things. God is faithful (verse 5b), and creation is not being abandoned, discarded, or allowed to go to hell.
Yet there is discontinuity, because “the former things” will be gone (verse 4). Which “former things”? Surely not everything in a strict sense: the Lamb’s victory over death, the faithful witness of God’s people, the mercy of the One on the throne have not disappeared. Rather, those evils which had occupied much of the earlier part of Revelation — the blasphemy of human arrogance, the rebellion against God, the empire’s violent oppression, the power of the beast and Babylon to deceive the nations, the faithless compromise of the churches, all that had brought woe and wrath upon the world — is all gone. And it is gone for good.
For those who enjoy a good day at the beach, the note in verse 1 that there is no more sea may not seem like good news. However, in the narrative of Revelation, the sea has been the source and the operational base for the evil forces lined up against God and God’s people. It is from the sea that the beast, the personification of empire’s deadly reach, had come. It was over the sea that Babylon had ruled as a tyrant. With the sea removed, there is no chance that the world will slip again into the nightmare of sin.
Salvation is envisioned in this text not as a return to Eden or a retreat back to nature, but as a city. The cities of Revelation had seemed like evil places, places of temptation and compromise, of persecution and suffering; cities were sometimes the throne of Satan (2:13). John had called the churches to come out of Babylon (18:4). Yet in the end, salvation is envisioned as the life of a teeming, inhabited city. Our own cities may be places of surprising joy, but they are often places of distressing poverty, violence, and evil. John’s vision reminds us that this is not God’s will for human life or human community, and that these things too, by God’s grace, will be ended and made new. Salvation is brimming with relationships, and all that is good about human community will be redeemed.
The New Jerusalem descends from God. In John’s vision, the final hope is not that we go to heaven when we die. Salvation is not us going to God, but God coming to us. For John, salvation does not mean that the Jerusalem which was destroyed by Rome will be rebuilt, because salvation is not found in any place, whether geographic or heavenly. Salvation is found only in God. We often speak about salvation as “going to heaven,” but that is adequate only if we realize that “heaven” is a metaphor for dwelling in God.
John’s declaration in verse 3 draws on Ezekiel 37:27, which to exiled Israel, promised restoration and the presence of God. However, where Ezekiel promised Israel would be God’s singular “people,” John’s text talks about God’s “peoples.” Is John claiming that the church is gathered from every nation of the earth (5:9)? Or might we hear something even more startling, that those peoples of the earth who had been deceived by the beast and ruled by Babylon (13:7, 17:15) will, in the end, be reclaimed by God?
God will wipe away every tear (verse 4a). This is surely one of the most moving images in scripture. The connection to the former things passing away (verse 4b) is crucial here. The promise is not only that God will wipe away any tears that might happen to linger on our cheeks after that Last Day, but that God will reach back through time to wipe away all the pained tears ever shed.
God will not just comfort us and help us to forget the bad things, but God will redeem the whole sorry story of human history. This is part of the deep hope of apocalyptic texts: salvation cannot come for me, in its full sense, as long as the terrible effects of my sins continue to ripple through the world. Because of this, “individual salvation” is an oxymoron at best, and perhaps heresy at worst. The promise here is that the chain reaction of human sin will be ended, and all the tears will be wiped away. The tears that God must wipe away are not only the tears we shed, but also the tears we cause.
We do not create this new heaven and earth; the New Jerusalem comes down from God, and thus comes only as a gift. We can discern its outline already in the gospel of Jesus, crucified, and risen. Because God is with us already — in the proclamation of the Gospel, at the table of our Lord, and in the Spirit filling the church — we are witnesses to that coming new city, with our words and with our lives. We carry gracious hints of its coming when we live out costly love for one another (John 13), and when we practice startling welcome to those otherwise left outside (Acts 11).
The Gospel of John could be summed up by a number of different key words.
It could be called a gospel of life, a gospel of light, of believing, of knowing, of sending and being sent, a gospel of signs, or, above all, as we will see from this passage, a gospel of glory and of love. Throughout John, the understanding of any key word eventually leads to all the key words. They draw meaning from each other, or more accurately, from their connections to the words and works of Christ. They resist definition, serving more as pointers to Christ. One knows what these words mean to the extent to which one knows this incarnate Word sent from God into the world.
Jesus tells Nicodemus, “We speak of what we know and bear witness to what we have seen” (3:11). Later he explicitly connects “understanding” with his “works”–“even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father” (10:37-38). Life, light, believing, knowing, glory, love–the meanings of these words do not lie in the dictionary; they lie in the actions of Christ. They describe life and a way of life, and they can be known only as experienced in their incarnation.
Gospel of Glory
One cannot preach on the glory mentioned in verses 31-32 without setting it in the context of the whole of John. The meaning emerges within the narrative. The glory is inherent in the Son, something he had in God’s presence before the world was made (17:5) and that he brings with him into the world (1:14). Those who are his can see that glory, the ultimate outward sign of inward grace and truth (1:14-18). At the same time, it is inherent in him, however, it does not reach its fullness until he has completed the work his Father sent him to do (7:39; 17:4). Thus, although his glory is revealed to the disciples at Cana (2:11), promised to be shown again following the illness of Lazarus (11:4), and promised again to Martha at Lazarus’ tomb (11:40), in a real sense, only with the arrest, crucifixion, and death does the hour finally come for him to be glorified (12:23; 17:1).
As always in John, this glorification of Father and Son is not something between them alone; it does not stop with Christ. The capacity to glorify God extends to Christ’s followers and is laid upon believers as a charge–“My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples” (15:8). Believers are empowered to do the same works that Christ did, and even greater works. Whatever works believers ask him to make possible, he will do, so that the Father will be glorified in the Son (14:12-14). The Father will not only be glorified in the Son, but also in the community of faith.
Our actions show God’s glory, too. At least, we are charged that it be so. Jesus prays, “All mine are yours and yours are mine, and I have been glorified in them” (17:10). Here, in the midst of this high ecclesiology, is no sign of Paul’s dictum that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Here the focus lies on promise and possibilities, looking at the fullness of God’s gifts: “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one … so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (17:22-23). As was true for Christ is true for us. We cannot fully show the glory until we have completed the work God has sent us to do. Or, more positively, we show the glory as we complete that work.
Gospel of Love
As stated with regard to “glory,” one cannot preach on the commandment to love (verses 34-35) in isolation from the larger narrative. Only in its depiction of Christ can we see what it means to love one another as Christ has loved us.1 This is crucial, since Christ establishes love as the defining characteristic of believers (verse 35). All the works mentioned above that show God’s glory are at their core works of love, and if we complete no other work, we have done what we are called to do.
This work, however, is demanding, is no mere feeling, but stands as an enduring, abiding will to do whatever God sends us to do. Jesus states this starkly, three times. “If you love me you will keep my commandments” (14:15), “Those who love me will keep my word,” (14:23), and “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love” (15:10a). Love of God and obedience to God become almost synonymous.
However, this is not obedience out of a joyless sense of duty or command. This love/obedience flows out of communion with Christ. It is who we become, the more we come to know God. As imperfectly as we might incarnate love ourselves, the goal is that love constitutes the essence of who we are and what we do. God will always call on us to love. And if we love as Christ did, that love is strong, enduring, and faithful; we will love to the end (13:1). This love is not easily shaken or deterred from its primary task, which is simply to express itself in action, drawing from God’s unlimited supply. Perhaps Jesus’ promise in Matthew is better known–“wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20), but in John the promise is made more richly–“Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them” (14:23).
This love flows out of his abiding presence among us. When we live in his love, we can, if called upon, fulfill the highest form of love. “There is no greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (15:13). These are high standards for a high calling. We might look at our friends and wonder–if the moment ever came, would we be willing to die for them?
The Reverend Joachim Alexandropoulos was an Orthodox priest on a Greek isle in World War II, now memorialized at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. The Nazis came one day, demanding that he provide them, the next day, with a list naming every Jew on the island. The next day he handed them a list containing only one name, his own. He loved them to the end, indeed. We might never be tested to those utmost limits of love, but even if we are not, we are still called to fulfill whatever works of love lie before us. Who knows what those might be. In this passage, Christ’s new commandment calls on us to seek them out.
1For a brief exposition of the Greek words for love and their meanings in John, see the gospel commentary for the 3rd Sunday of Easter.