Lectionary Commentaries for May 23, 2010
Day of Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 14:8-17 [25-27]

Mary Hinkle Shore

While most seminarians learn that John 13-17 is “the farewell discourse” in John, Gordon Fee refers to these chapters more simply as “table talks.”1

Jesus is at the table with the disciples. Knowing that he has come from God and is going to God, Jesus spends his last evening with his own. He eats with them. He washes their feet. He gives them a new commandment (“Love one another,” John 13:34). He talks with them about his relationship with the Father and the Spirit. He promises them “another Advocate” (John 14:16), and he intercedes for them and for those who will come to believe through them.

All of this happens around the simplicity and intimacy of an evening meal. Throughout the evening, Jesus speaks again and again on three themes:

1.  He is leaving
2.  His followers are staying.
3.  The Holy Spirit will be with them so that they may continue his work.2 

Again and again, the disciples get stuck on point number one. In various ways, they ask, “Could we go back to that thing you said about leaving?” Peter asks, “Lord, where are you going?” and “Why can’t I follow you now?” (John 13:36f). A few verses later, in response to Jesus’ comment that, “You know the way where I am going,” Thomas says, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:4f). Jesus answers by saying that he is the way; to know him is to know both the way and the destination, which is communion with the Father.

Then it is Philip’s turn. “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied” (John 14:8). From the perspective of those being left, the question makes sense. “Please, Jesus, could you give us something to hold onto? Show us this Father you talk so much about. That will be enough.” From the perspective of Jesus, however, the question raises doubts about whether the disciples have seen anything of the One he has tried–through all the works he has done–to show them. “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and still you say, ‘Show us the Father? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father'” (John 14:9). Here is echoed the observation at the beginning of John’s gospel, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (1:18). Jesus lives, lays down his life, and picks it up again, all in order to make God known. Why? Because humanity cannot be in relationship with One whom they do not know.

For the same reason, Jesus asks the Father to send the Spirit. The reference to “another Advocate” is intriguing. The modifier implies that the idea of someone called to another’s side to help, comfort, intercede, and instruct is not new in John. The Father has already sent one such Advocate, Jesus. Now Jesus will ask the Father to send “another Advocate to be with you forever, the Spirit of truth” (John 14:16f).

The way John tells the story, one can imagine Jesus coming up with this promise almost on the fly: Philip’s question reveals just how far his beloved disciples are from knowing all he has wanted them to see and believe, and so the third point of that three-point plan comes into focus for Jesus, and he shares it with the others. In the context of the disciples’ fears and questions, the Holy Spirit (spiritual though this member of the Holy Trinity may be) is Jesus’ concrete, down-to-earth answer to the need that the disciples have made so clear. Since Jesus is leaving, and his followers are staying, the Holy Spirit will be with them so that they may continue his work.

Two of the ways Jesus speaks about that continuing work are puzzling to modern ears. Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it” (John 14:12-14). Scholarly conjecture on what Jesus means by “greater works” includes the theory that Jesus is talking about the quantity of work, rather than its quality. Jesus has “other sheep” to be brought into the sheepfold (John 10:16). The work of gathering them in is greater than any work he has yet accomplished in the gospel. Millennia of testimony to the love of the Father and the Son–greater work than the Son’s three-year ministry–will be carried out by his disciples and “those who believe in me through their word” (John 17:20).

The second puzzle is the promise, “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” Andrew H. Wakefield suggests that the parent/child relationship offers an analogy for what Jesus is promising here.

         If we extend the analogy just a little, we may
         be able to think of these promises as the same
         sort of hyperbole that parents use when they
         tell a child, “I would do anything for you!”
         The child may say, “Really? Then I want a
         tattoo; I want a pet elephant; I want a
         Ferrari!” The child has missed the point. The
         hyperbole shows the parent’s infinite love for
         the child, a love that will seek the good of
         the child even above the parent’s own good….
         The hyperbole is a way of expressing the
         intimate relationship between loving parent
         and child–and that relationship is not simply
         about giving and receiving.3

This promise is neither a blank check nor an invitation to blame one’s own ineptitude at prayer in the name of Jesus when such prayers go apparently unanswered. Instead, this promise is part of Jesus’ assurance that he will not leave his own orphaned. Through the Spirit, the other Advocate, Jesus will keep working as he has so far, in ways that reveal God’s great and abiding love for them.

1Gordon D. Fee, “Expository Articles: John 14:8-17,” Interpretation 43/2 (1989): 170-174.
2Fee, 171.
3  Andrew H. Wakefield, “What Happens When We Pray,” Review and Expositor 104 (2007): 806.

First Reading

Commentary on Acts 2:1-21

Matt Skinner

If a roomful of people given the ability to speak foreign languages sounds electrifying, try imagining a churchful of prophets.

The visible and audible signs of the Spirit receive nearly all the attention in Pentecost liturgy, art, and wonder. But Acts 2 speaks of another Pentecost sign. Although that sign may be relatively understated in the text, it has the most powerful and long-term effects. It is a manifestation of the Spirit that we continue to experience on a regular basis, although churches usually neglectfully assume that it’s relegated to the repertoire of clergy and scholars. I’m talking about prophecy.

“What Does This Mean?”

Backwoods Galileans speaking foreign languages attract attention among the other Jews in Jerusalem — both residents and pilgrims celebrating the Feast of Weeks (also known as the Day of the First Fruits, Shavuot, or Pentecost). Capturing attention is one thing; making sense is another. The cosmopolitan crowd expresses curiosity and scorn. They clamor for an explanation, for meaning. Peter’s entire speech in 2:16-36 offers his answer to their foundational question, “What does this mean?” (2:12).

Peter’s answer begins with a turn to Joel. He does not quote the Septuagint version of the prophet’s oracle exactly, for he subtly reshapes Joel 2:28-32a to make it more fitting to the current occasion. Peter makes at least three significant revisions:

1. He changes the opening clause from “After these things” to “In the last days.” Peter sees himself announcing a concluding, culminating era in human history. The times have changed.

2. He inserts the word my before “slaves.” While Joel referred to “slaves” as an explicit socioeconomic class, Peter broadens the identification of this group. They are God’s slaves.

3. He adds an additional “and they shall prophesy” at the end of 2:18. Peter emphasizes why God’s Spirit is bestowed on “all flesh,” given to young and old, to women and men. It is given so that they will prophesy. The Spirit in Acts is a Spirit of prophecy.

Peter retrieves Joel’s oracle from storage and makes a few alterations so it will be appropriate for the current occasion. He is not correcting or misquoting Joel as much as he is adapting the prophet’s old words for new use in new circumstances. Joel’s original testimony about God has accumulated new meaning in light of God’s deeds through Jesus Christ and his sending of the Spirit.

Therefore, Joel offers a resource by which Peter can answer his audience’s question. Corresponding with the three revisions listed above, the oracle allows Peter to:

1. Interpret the times. What does Pentecost mean? The gift of God’s Spirit indicates that something new in human history has begun. The times have changed.

2. Interpret the community created by the Spirit. What does Pentecost mean? The Spirit has come to mark the church–every member of it — as belonging to God and as God’s agent in the world. They are God’s slaves.

3. Interpret the work of the Spirit-filled community. What does Pentecost mean? The foreign languages are not an instance of trickery or mass hysteria. God is at work here, equipping people to communicate about God. The Spirit prompts them to engage in prophecy. The community of faith is a community of prophets.

What Is Prophecy?

Peter does not speak of prophecy as predicting the future. Instead, prophecy is truth-telling. It is naming the places and ways where God intervenes or initiates in the world. It is a component of proclaiming the word of God and identifying God’s salvation at work.

Peter’s sermon does more than name the notion of prophecy. It also demonstrates it. We learn what prophecy is by watching him do it.

From Peter’s reference to Joel, we see that prophecy speaks to the present time. (Remember, he is answering a very pressing question: “What does this mean?” What’s happening now?) But prophecy finds promises and images from the past that allow it to speak as it does. It draws from prior testimony about God’s activity (scripture). It also uses ideas and promises that point toward the future, for all of Pentecost and its prophetic message points toward the day of the Lord and the salvation God will ultimately accomplish (2:20-21).

The rest of Peter’s sermon (2:22-36) does similar things. In a complex exegetical argument, it looks to scripture and the story of Jesus to show that Jesus’ death, resurrection, and exaltation provide the basis for the outpouring of the Spirit. (I have previously written on the rest of the sermon and the remainder of the Pentecost narrative here, here, and here. ) Peter is at pains to show that the events of the day point beyond themselves to reveal that Jesus is Lord and Messiah, and that God’s salvation is at hand. This is what prophets do; they show how present events might connect to God and God’s purposes.

Called to Make Meaning

Prophecy carries a lot of semantic baggage among us, thanks to “prophecy seminars,” documentaries about Nostradamus, and other dumb ideas. Another word that captures what Peter describes and does in Acts 2 is interpretation. He makes sense of the crowd’s experience. He offers a theological basis for what the crowd is experiencing, and for what they must do to share in the salvation God has prepared.

Note that Peter is not primarily an interpreter of scripture. First and foremost he is an interpreter of the present time and the gospel. Scripture becomes helpful as a means by which he makes sense of those things.

Peter also refers to a community full of visionaries and dreamers. He is not the only one equipped to make meaning. That work belongs to all who receive the Spirit, both then and now. Our churchly Pentecost observances fail if they create nostalgia instead of equipping interpreters or prophets. This passage and its wider context challenge us in a variety of ways.

  • The Spirit impels its prophets outdoors. Pentecost begins in indoor seclusion and moves to public proclamation.1  Christians give theological meaning to things not for their own sake, but for the world’s.
  • It is too easy to view Peter as the resident expert, the one who makes sense of things so others can watch from the sidelines. However, Peter insists that God’s Spirit is poured out widely, across social boundaries. The Spirit empowers interpretation that happens corporately. Also, Peter and other luminaries in Acts do not receive all the answers along with the Spirit. Throughout the narrative they must live into God’s future, themselves susceptible to error and reliant on others to make sense of God’s ways. This is the choppy work, the inspired work, of all God’s people.
  • Acts does not regard Pentecost as an entirely singular occurrence. This scene introduces a sequence of occasions in which the Spirit mobilizes Jesus’ followers and inaugurates new directions for ministry and community. See the Spirit at work in Acts 4:23-37; 8:14-17; 10:1-11:18; 13:1-4; 15:1-35; 19:1-7. The Spirit continues to nudge believers toward new horizons. Also, Pentecost hardly describes the church’s work in total. For one thing, in Acts 2 no Gentiles are on the scene or clearly envisioned as part of the gospel’s future. Not yet. When that time for radical inclusion comes, the new stage of the church’s existence will need a little prophecy to make sense of it, too.


1 Note that the conclusion of the story (2:42-47) describes movement back indoors, as the Spirit creates a community marked by fellowship, worship, unity, and charity.


Commentary on Psalm 104:24-34, 35b

Matthew Stith

It is a blessing to the preacher when the movement of a passage of Scripture offers a ready guide to interpretation and proclamation. This reading from Psalm 104 is a case in point.

A quick glance at the text reveals a three-part structure:
•Verses 24 through 26 describe the wondrous character of God’s creation;
•Verses 27 through 30 describe God’s providence;
•Verses 31 through 35 turn to praise.

In tracing the flow from creation to providence to praise, the preacher will find a number of possible points of contact with virtually any congregational context.

The Wonders of Creation (24-26):

In the portion of the Psalm that precedes this reading, the Psalmist has offered an extensive catalogue of the many things that God has created. Accordingly, we have the exclamation of verse 24, “How manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.” It is, in one sense, a summary of what came before.

Nevertheless, the crowning example of the sea and its most awesome creature (Leviathan) serves perfectly well to illustrate the point without reference to those earlier verses. What God has created is awesome beyond the comprehension of mortals.

No ancient Israelite could even begin to claim full comprehension of the sea, with its vastness, unpredictability, and dangerous power. Indeed, despite all the efforts of science and exploration that lie between the ancients and our own time, the sea remains in many ways mysterious and in all ways uncontrollable.

The claim here is that God created and therefore has dominion over not only the sea, but even its most dangerous and terrifying inhabitant, the whale/sea monster Leviathan. If there are such incredible wonders in the creation, the power, wisdom, and skill of the creator must be even more incredible.

Preachers might adapt this argument for the wonder of God from the wonders of creation to the needs of the congregation by considering other wonders of creation that are “closer to home,” more accessible to the people’s experience and context.

Dependence upon Providence (27-30):

A natural question arising from looking at the near-infinite diversity of creatures is, “How do they all find what they need to survive? How can the world provide for so many different needs?”

The Psalmist turns the improbability of the world furnishing a suitable niche for so many different creatures into another theological observation: it all depends on the providence of God. Whatever lives, says the Psalm, is receiving life, breath, and sustenance from the hand of the Creator. And if that providing hand were ever to be closed, no creature could survive.

The existence of life, then, is an argument for the providence of God! Preachers may find here a useful point of contact with congregations in which there is uncertainty and anxiety about the future. God provides for all creatures — and this should give us confidence that God is able to provide for us, come what may.

There is also a potential connection in this portion of the Psalm to the liturgical context of Pentecost. The relationship in verse 30 between God sending out his spirit and the creation and renewal of the world dovetails nicely with the Pentecost story of God sending out his spirit for the creation and renewal of the church.

Praise the Lord! (31-35):

While one might well be tempted to focus on the Pentecost connection mentioned above as the culmination of the treatment of the Psalm, it would be a mistake to disregard the Psalmist’s chosen conclusion. The movement from contemplation of the creation through recognition of God’s providence must, in the logic of the Psalter, lead to praise.

The proper response of the creature to the Creator is always one of reverent celebration, and the recognition of how extensively God has provided and sustained us is cause for the Psalmist to break out in joyful superlatives.

Praise should come forth “as long as I live,” and “while I have being.” The Lord’s glory is so clearly shown in his creation and providence that the creaturely life must be one of thanksgiving and praise. How else could one respond to such a God?

By excluding the first half of verse 35 from the reading, the lectionary leaves this question as a hypothetical, presumably to be answered with an implied “In no other way.”

But verse 35a indicates that the Psalmist knew, as does everyone else, that there are other responses to God’s majesty and generosity than endless praise.

In the typical terminology of the Psalms, those other responses, the ones that reject some aspect or another of the goodness and wonder of creation, are attributed to “sinners” and “the wicked.”

Congregations may (and indeed should) be uncomfortable with this language of obliteration. After all, every congregation is made up of sinners! Still, there is no escaping the fact that the praise of God envisioned and practiced by the Psalmist includes the desire that such wickedness will be decisively and permanently dealt with.

Seeing the wonders of creation and providence doesn’t just encourage us to say “Wow! God’s pretty great.” Instead, they demand that the blight of sin be removed, so that the creation may be entirely what God intends it to be.

Here is the final opportunity for a productive connection to the congregation’s life. As so often happens, God has found a different, better way to answer the Psalmist’s prayer than the Psalmist could have imagined.

In Jesus Christ, God has indeed dealt decisively with the blight of sin, not by slaughtering sinners, but by redeeming them. This good news should set off an even more exuberant round of praise than the Psalmist’s! But no better beginning could be made to such news than that which closes the Psalm, the first “Hallelujah!” (or, Praise the Lord!) of the Psalter.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 8:14-17

Beverly Gaventa

Anyone who reads this commentary has heard it hundreds of times: “I’m spiritual but not religious.”

A Google search yields 1,360,000 results for that sentence, and Robert Fuller’s 2001 book on the topic estimates that twenty percent of American people identify themselves with some sort of expression. The statement is revealing, not just for its implied disdain for the life of religious communities, but also for its reduction of “spirituality” to a personality trait. To say that “I” am “spiritual” here is on par with saying that “I” am patient or thoughtful or generous; it is a description that is all about “me.”

The celebration of Pentecost invites us to reflect on the spirit (or spirituality) as something other than a trait attached to certain individual personalities (and presumably not to others). In the context of biblical tradition, spirituality, instead, is a gift poured out by the Holy Spirit, one that astonishes and empowers in the present even as it anticipates God’s future triumph. Romans 8:14-17 is among the texts that provide us a glimpse of the Spirit’s work.

Admittedly, at first glance, the text presents preachers with real challenges. As is so often the case, the demarcation of the lectionary is awkward. Verse 14 follows closely on what has come before in verses 12-13, which is tightly connected all the way back to 8:1 or perhaps even to chapter 7, and it is hard to make sense of any individual snippet on its own. More frustrating is that the language of “slavery” and “fear” and “crying out” (to say nothing of “suffering”) has little place in our contemporary religious lexicon. This makes it hard to understand what Paul means and harder still to know that what he means might be considered good news.

Careful attention to the context helps. The passage is something of a hinge between the first half of the chapter, with its contrast between the work of God’s life-giving Spirit and the death-dealing work of “flesh” (which here is a shorthand reference to merely human ways of thinking and living), and the second, where Paul forthrightly confronts the fact that the life-giving Spirit does not preserve Christians from a human present that is still overwhelmingly marked by suffering and pain.

Verse 14 identifies those led by God’s spirit as being God’s sons and daughters. The NRSV reads “children,” but the word is literally “sons.” This is important since, until this point in the letter, every reference to a “son” has been to Jesus Christ as God’s own son (as in 1:3 and 8:3). The application of this term to the community begins the important work of locating them in God’s own family.

Verse 15 unpacks this connection between being “led by the Spirit of God” and being God’s children. Using the “not this but that” formula that Paul often uses, he contrasts a “spirit of slavery” with a “spirit of adoption.” Following on Paul’s self-identification as a slave of Christ (1:1, where the NRSV reads “servant”) and his contrast between being “slaves of sin” and “slaves of righteousness” in Romans 6, this contrast seems a little inconsistent.

But the question for Paul is always to whom or what one is enslaved (as Bob Dylan rightly puts it, “You Gotta Serve Somebody”). Here, the slavery is “to fear” (NRSV: “to fall back into fear”). This anticipates the end of Chapter 8, with its litany of those things that might provoke fear (hardship distress, persecution, famine, etc.). This slavery to fear gives way for Christians because “you have received a spirit of adoption.” This is what being God’s slave looks like–it  looks like being adopted into the family.

Much is made of the fact that Paul says that “we” address God here as “Abba,” echoing Jesus’ address of God as “Abba” in Mark 14:36. It is also important to understand that this calling out to God as one’s own parent is enabled by the Spirit. It is this cry to God that overturns Paul’s earlier characterization of human existence. In 3:13-14, he cites scripture about the vileness of human speech and concludes in 3:19 that “every mouth is silenced.” The “I” of Romans 7:24 has cried out for rescue. This new cry to God as father means that the Spirit has opened human mouths. Even if Paul will go on to say in verse 26 that we scarcely even know how to address God, a beginning is made, one that will culminate in the glorification of God in 15:1-13.

The Greek of verse 16 is quite ambiguous, making it unclear whether the Spirit testifies “through” our spirit, “with” it, or “to” it. Resolving that question is less important than noticing the shift again to the language of “children” (this time with a different Greek word, tekna). The claim that “we are children of God” sets the stage for the crescendo of verse 17. Not all children in the Roman world were heirs, making the move here from “children” to “heirs of God” and then to “joint heirs with Christ” quite dramatic.

The crescendo grows dissonant, however, with the last few lines of verse 17. Being a “joint heir” with Christ means that we “suffer with him so that we might also be glorified with him.” With the ominous word “suffer” Paul anticipates the second half of this chapter, where the whole created order cries out for God’s final victory. Being adopted by God is a glorious thing, but not by standards most folks–then or now–would recognize as glorious.

Throughout this passage, as elsewhere, the pronouns are plural; “we” not “I” and “you” is plural rather than singular. And repeatedly the language is that of reception: “you received” rather than “you achieved.” Far from being our possession or an individual personality trait, Paul’s “spirituality” is a gift, a gift to the community, and a gift that does not exempt believers but plunges them right back into the world’s sufferings and pains, empowered and confident in the future God is bringing about.