Lectionary Commentaries for April 24, 2016
Fifth Sunday of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 13:31-35

Elisabeth Johnson

As is the case with many lectionary texts, something is lost when this passage is not read in its literary context.

The context of this passage, of course, is John’s account of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples.

In this account, we hear that about many things that Jesus knows, and about how he responds to the knowledge that he has. He knows that his hour has come to depart from this world and go to his Father (John 13:1a). How does he respond? “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (13:1b). He knows that the Father has given all things into his hands, and that he has come from God and is going to God (13:3). How does he respond? He gets up from the table and takes on the role of a slave, washing his disciples’ dusty, dirty feet.

Jesus also knows who is about to betray him (John 13:11), and he is very troubled by this knowledge (13:21). How does he respond? He announces the imminent betrayal to his disciples, and then proceeds to feed the betrayer: “So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot” (13:26). Judas then leaves to do his dirty work, and the narrator adds, “and it was night” (13:30).

It is at this dark moment that our text begins, “When he (Judas) had gone out, Jesus said … ” We might expect a speech about how evil Judas is and how awful the consequences of his actions will be for him. But Jesus instead focuses on his mission and preparing his disciples for what is to come. He speaks of being glorified and of glorifying God (John 13:31-32), which in Johannine language is a reference to his elevation on a cross (3:14; 12:23-28). Then he tells his disciples in tender words (“little children”) that he will be with them only a little longer, and that where he is going, they cannot come (13:33).

This conversation continues after our lectionary text, with Peter asking, “Lord, where are you going?” and Jesus responding, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward” (John 13:36). Peter responds, “Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you” (13:37), to which Jesus responds by predicting Peter’s denial of him (13:38).

Yes, Jesus also knows that Peter, one of his closest companions, will deny him. Yet his parting words to his disciples focus not on blame for their past and future failures, but rather on preparing them for what is to come, promising that although he will no longer be physically present with them, they will not be abandoned.

In the coming chapters Jesus will talk about the Paraclete, the Advocate who will teach and advise and comfort them. Now he focuses on the need for his disciples to live in community, to love one another as he has loved them (John 13:34).

This “new commandment” — “that you love one another as I have loved you” — is in parallel with what Jesus has already told his disciples: “You call me Teacher and Lord — and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (13:13-15).

The “new commandment” is also paralleled in John 15:12-14: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.”

These two parallels to John 13:34 help to flesh out the meaning of “loving one another.” On the one hand, loving one another as Jesus has loved encompasses the mundane; it means serving one another, even in the most menial tasks. On the other hand, this love encompasses heroic acts of great risk; it extends even to the point of giving one’s life for another.

The love of which Jesus speaks, then, and which Jesus demonstrates in his life and death, is a love which extends from the mundane to the heroic and encompasses every kind of self-giving act in between. Jesus tells his disciples that it is by this kind of love that everyone will know that they are his disciples (John 13:35).

It is often noted that John’s Gospel focuses on mutual love within the community of disciples, and does not speak of love for those on the outside, or of love for enemies. It is true that Jesus commands his disciples to love one another. Nevertheless, he also declares God’s love for the world (John 3:16), which surely includes those outside the community of faith. Jesus demonstrates the depth of God’s love for this often-hostile world in his death on the cross.

Here in chapter 13, Jesus demonstrates his love for the same disciples who will fail him miserably. Jesus washes and feeds Judas who will betray him, Peter who will deny him, and all the rest who will fail to stand by him in his hour of greatest distress. The love that Jesus demonstrates is certainly not based on the merit of the recipients, and Jesus commands his disciples to love others in the same way.

We disciples of Jesus have continually fallen far short in our love for one another as well as in our love for those outside the community of faith. Theological and ethical arguments often descend into personal attacks and name-calling; personal interests often trump the common good of the community; those in need of compassion find judgment instead.

Jesus could not be clearer: It is not by our theological correctness, not by our moral purity, not by our impressive knowledge that everyone will know that we are his disciples. It is quite simply by our loving acts — acts of service and sacrifice, acts that point to the love of God for the world made known in Jesus Christ.

First Reading

Commentary on Acts 11:1-18

Mitzi J. Smith

The Jewish leaders in Judea, the circumcised, criticized Peter for sharing a meal with the uncircumcised, the Gentiles (cf. Galatians 2:11-14).

This situation betrays a dichotomy between what is and what is not. Peter proceeds to tell how it happened that he engaged in table sharing with Gentiles, the uncircumcised. God sent Peter a vision of a carnal feast consisting of bottom feeders or scavengers. It was a nightmare for an orthodox Jewish man. According to the Levitical food prohibitions in the Torah, Jews were not to indulge in (or with) certain flesh (Leviticus 11). Based on the question that the circumcised asked Peter, it seems that he may have been using the dream both to explain the baptism of Cornelius, a Roman centurion, and by extension to justify his table sharing with them. Does baptism erase those distinctions? In the dream God annuls those distinctions prior to baptism. Even though it was the Lord who told Peter in the vision to eat the food before him, Peter responded that he absolutely could not. Such cuisine had been prohibited. But the Lord trumps tradition and Torah instruction based on God’s original creative authority and act: you cannot make profane or unclean what God has created clean.

This horror flick played out three times in Peter’s dream (Acts 11:10), after which three men from Caesarea showed up at Peter’s door, requesting his presence and prepared to escort him to Cornelius home (11:11; cf. 10:3-8). Peter interprets God’s disruption of his sleep and his biased thinking as the Spirit teaching him not to make distinctions “between us and them” (11:12). Even as God corrects our faulty theological anthropology, it takes time to undue years of putting tradition above God and of bias behaviors, stereotypes, and rhetoric. An “us and them” mentality should haunt our human sensibilities if we would experience and benefit from our common humanity. We need to allow our biases and stereotypes to be checked. It is imperative that we engage with others different from ourselves, in more than superficial ways. And most of the time it will not happen when “us” keeps our distance from “them.” This construction of others who are different from us as “unclean” based on those differences signifies a belief in our superiority. If we get too close, live too close, interact too much, we risk contamination and becoming unclean too. Sometimes our self-definition is constructed upon differentiating ourselves from others, instead of upon who we are in God. We can talk about bearing crosses but we actually seek ways to avoid risks that disrupt the boundaries and biases that safeguard our group privilege. In fact, many think the only people who should live with risk (of violence, homelessness, and hunger) are minorities and poor people. Somehow we have convinced ourselves that those people, “them,” are unclean anyway; that they are accustomed to risk, to death, to the absence of salvation or wholeness.

Significantly, Peter does not mention Cornelius by name in his apologetic response to the interrogation from the Judean circumcised brothers. He refers to Cornelius as “the man,” (Acts 11:12) and he references him using third (he/his) and second person (you) singular pronouns. Perhaps, this is evidence of how difficult it is to see others as fully human, fully clean after years of seeing and treating them as other than clean and human. Many white brothers and sisters and some people of color deny that they ever perceive or treat people who are racially or economically different from themselves with bias. This is despite being entrenched in racialized, class-conscious institutions and traditions that presume people of color, women and others to be inferior. But the only way we begin to put an end to making distinctions between “them” and “us” is to learn to recognize and admit our biases and their impact on human relationships. Racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, and other biased behaviors and thinking are not godly; they are motivated by fear of the other and not by love of humanity. “God shows no favoritism” for one human being other another.

Before Peter showed up at Cornelius’s house, God had first talked with Cornelius in a vision (Acts 10:1-7). Peter preached good news at Cornelius’s house, but it was not the first good news Cornelius had received from God. The preached word is filtered through fallible human beings like Peter, Paul, and Mary. But God does not always limit God’s self to a third party witness. God has one-on-one encounters with human beings regardless of their religious affiliations and creeds (the Romans were religious people; as a Roman, Cornelius likely feared the God of Israel but also the gods of Rome, Acts 10:1-2). God does not create religion; humans do. God created the world and all living and life-giving things in it. God will disrupt and interrupt the boundaries humans construct.

Before Peter baptized them, God poured out God’s spirit upon the Gentiles. God’s spirit will work despite, through, or prior to our ritual constructions. This is comforting knowing how often we get things wrong and how often we persist in making distinctions between “us” and “them” based on race, language, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, our fears, and other differences, real and constructed. “The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us,” 11:12. The Spirit counseled Peter to accept what had already been true about God: God does not show favoritism.


Commentary on Psalm 148

Paul O. Myhre

Psalm 148 poetically reflects on the essence and expression of praise.

In a poetic flourish of word images readers and hearers are invited into complex worlds of thought where everything from inanimate to animate life are encouraged, incited, invoked, or commanded to praise God. The content of this praise is unspecified other than it is praise of and to and for the God for and by whom all existence exists.

The writer explores an eternal now that is alive with singing, sighing, and swaying with winds and sounds of praise. The author reflects on common or unrecognized things and beings that make up a range of worlds with a poet’s hope that somehow words spoken or written can soar and take flight. It seems the author is expressing a hope for a few words patterned in rhythmic pulse to carry on their wings human minds into worlds of what might be possible, already exists, and may have always existed from the foundation of creation itself. It isn’t a flat or easily determined praise that is invoked, but one that permeates all existence and is embedded in time and space.

I am convinced that poetry — psalmic poetry – has a capacity to inspire human minds to consider familiar and unfamiliar terrains of human experience. It can provoke reflection on the activity of God in the world and beyond the world from the heights to the depths and everywhere in between. It can broaden horizons and lift spirits beyond the mundane to the sublime. The poet has a capacity to break through well-ordered thoughts and sprinkle them with raindrops of inspiration. Simple words combine to swiftly turn into torrents that flood everything one thinks they know and cuts new courses through well-managed mental landscapes to form patterns of thinking unknown previously.

Psalm 148 poetically interrupts dark night minds with fireworks of color and sound. It is a call to remember who we are and who we will be. It is an incitement to reflect on the moment in which one exists and in the stream of time where one exists. People can hear or read the words of the psalmist. It is an invitation for reflection about existence itself as owed to God. This is not just about individual human existence, but pertains to all of existence as owed to God. That alone is cause for praise. But that isn’t the only reason for this praise. The Psalmist breaks it down to the core — God creates and preserves that which God has created forever. Verses 5-6 interrupt the invocation river of praise like a boulder around which the river flows. It is a resting place for thought, but not a conclusion to thinking. Instead it serves as an orientation marker — on the river from the sky of praise down to the earth of experience where praise moves with human and non-human hearts in an ever-flowing stream.

The Hebrew word for praise that is used by the psalm writer is Hallelu. It is from the Hebrew root Halel. This word can be translated into English as praise and could be understood as something that is infused with gratitude, honor, and reverence. Perhaps one might be able to say that this is something that is embedded in the molecular structure of all things. People share much with the created order at the atomic and subatomic levels. Carl Sagan stated in the series Cosmos, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”1

The Psalmist reflects on the textures of creation as the realm in which praise might be present. The subtle to the not so subtle can embrace praise and give rise to praise. Any thing can be the locus for praise: a drop of wasp venom, a grain of sand, a whirling electron, a quite moment, a rivulet of water coursing down a 100 year old window pane that is thicker at the bottom than at the top due to the steady pull of gravity, a human hand holding 10,000 grains of sand, a child’s laughter, or an old person’s resolve. The things and the movement of things can be sites of praise for God has made all that moves, all that doesn’t move, all that breathes, all that whirls in solar systems, galaxies, and atoms across spans wider and smaller than the human eye, computer, or imagination can go. There is something greater in the psalmist’s words that cannot be easily touched. It can be spoken about. It can be written about. New songs of praise may be created in response to it. Yet, all are derivative. All are echoes or reverberations with a ubiquitous praise that already resounds in gravitational waves and permeates dark matter. It bounds over soaring peaks and falls with winter snow.

Perhaps what the Psalmist is after here is a wake up call to human perception. That which can be perceived by human senses is only a fraction of what is presently occurring at any given moment. The sound of radio waves and microwaves coursing through the air and through our bodies cannot be easily discerned yet it is there. The sound a dog can hear exceeds human hearing. The sight of an eagle which can spot minute details over a mile away is evident, but not perceived because the human eye cannot see the same sights. Human senses are themselves sites for praise. Not just praise for their existence, but to the worlds of existence they can open to human minds. Even more the axon-dendrite trails of thought that fire in different regions of the brain can be loci for praise. As you read these words the trails of electrical impulses course though your brain like an electrical storm on a hot summer night.

As verses 5-6 can serve as a boulder in a flood of praise, verses 13-14 can serve as focus for all praise. The God who was, is, and will always be is a creating God whose very being or splendor is beyond human capacities to understand and yet can be recognized in part because people have been created by this very same God. This psalm places the faithful ones close to the heart of God. Perhaps this is a reminder to the people of Israel to not loose sight of their special place in the order of the universes that God has and is continuing to create. Humility can rest at the place where pride may want to reside when one sees their place in the bigger scheme of God’s creation and the rivers of praise that rumble and turn, slide and bubble, and seep deep into human consciousness.


1 Cosmos, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tLPkpBN6bEI

Second Reading

Commentary on Revelation 21:1-6

Israel Kamudzandu

The End of Revelation is fascinating and perplexing in that most people’s expectations about the message of Revelation are not what they have always been taught.

In Revelation 21, people do not go to heaven as most people have been taught but rather God comes down to earth to dwell with mortals — “the new Jerusalem descends from heaven,” and God makes a home among mortals (21:2-3). There is no prediction about the end times, no rapture and no punishment but God comes to be the home of humanity. This interpretation of Revelation 21 is very complex to the world of academic scholarship because most of we have heard about Revelation goes against our contemporary world of predicting the end of the world. While Jerusalem is the focus of Jewish identity, faith, and hope, in Revelation Jerusalem signifies “the election of a new people and the sealing of a new covenant.”1 Theologically, chapter 21 claims a new creation, one in which God Himself will have his hand upon and it will be a home like no other.

The poignancy of Revelation 21:5-6 is that the new creation is framed by God’s direct speech, “See, I am making all things new.” God’s new creation must replace this deadly, torn, raped, angry, sick, evil, revengeful, hurtful, and painful world. The church is called to make a choice. First, the church is called to be on the side of God and to be part of the new creation. Second, the church is called to make a choice to turn to God or to the world and the later will lead unbelieving Christians who are focused on entertaining people rather than offering new life. Dying to old life and living into the newness of God is the call and message of Revelation and the new creation emphasized in chapter 7 is strictly “theocentric.”2 John sees and experiences the new heaven and the new earth and summons all believers to see what God allows him to perceive. Like in the book of Genesis, readers are informed that God is the origin of all things and in Revelation, interpreters are given an envelope message, namely: God is the origin and the end of all things. It is this envelope that God’s people are called to always live into, to remember, to be shaped and informed both spiritually and theologically.

Paradoxically, it is probably hard to persuade Christians in North America and Europe to think about heaven because the worldview represented by these two worlds blinds people in the same way Babylon did during the time of John. On a different note, Christians from the Global South are born and raised in a worldview that orients them to an understanding of heaven, which in many African villages is referred to as “Village.” In African theology, a village is a place where all humanity will be gathered and it is not an ordinary world but a spiritual world where God resides with so called “Living — dead.” The Roman Catholic Church has renamed the “the living — dead,” as “saints.” The point I seek to make is that Revelation challenges all Christians not to settle into this contemporary global empire but to have a working understanding of a “new heaven and new earth.”

In another way, John struggles to find a language to express and describe a new created world order. Spiritually, John calls readers to see this world as one in which God will transform what we know today into something that is beyond human imagination. All we can do is to desire to be part of the new heaven and the new earth. Scholars of the New Testament are aware of the pagan oracles predicted by Greco-Roman gods about a future of bliss and this is not what John was shown but rather, he was privilege to view a future filled with life, hope, and peace. In this new heaven and new earth, all the pain of humanity such as crying, mourning, death, terrorism, HIV/AIDS, cancer, and human brokenness will be no more (Revelation 21:4). This new heaven and new earth is only a divine world and it is a vision in which the Dream of God is made manifest to those who are loved by God and the ones who have faith in him (Isaiah 65:17 -25).

Christians are not called to escape into this new world but rather to partner with God in ways that will allow the power of God and the Lamb be experienced in this world. That is the reason why God comes down into the world to dwell with his people and that coming down is basically the New Jerusalem that comes out of heaven. In other words, Revelation does not rely on the notion of eternal life and John does not deny it either but what he believes is that this New Jerusalem begins in the present moment and every human being must experience its joy and goodness in the present moment. Thus, the dream of God that is also shared by Isaiah 65:17-25 and also presented in Revelation 21 is not an eternal world but must be realized in human history. It is a world where zip codes do not divide people but that all God’s people have access to every area, including access to health care, education, transportation, housing, worship, and authentic life (Genesis 1-2).

The role of the church is clearly spelled out in this chapter because God’s plan for a new reality is not only done by God. Like in Genesis 12-22, God involved humanity in the person of Abraham and creation is still done in partnership with humanity. Thus, a new world order for authentic humanity will come about when human beings, particularly the church is involved in this new creation. In Genesis, humanity is the summit of God’s creation and therefore, God calls on believing humanity to be involved in making God’s dream come true in this world. When human beings refuse to partner with God, God will probably shed a tear and envisions a new plan to redeem and restore the cosmos.

Prayer: God, open our ears and eyes to the newness of your creation and make us active partners so that your dream will be realized here on earth. Amen.


1 Wilfrid J. Harrington, Sacra Pagina: Revelation (Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1993), 209.

2 Bauckham, New Testament Theology, 164.