Lectionary Commentaries for May 15, 2016
Day of Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


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

Barbara Lundblad

Joseph is in love with Maria.

This sounds like a biblical story, but it is not in the Bible. These two young people live in Mary Gordon’s story, “Temporary Shelter.” Joseph has loved Maria since the two of them were children and his mother went to work for Maria’s father. He is drawn to Maria’s Jewish roots, even though Maria and her father have left that tradition behind. And she is drawn ever more deeply into the life of the Roman Catholic convent near her home. Now, Joseph was losing her. He remembered the day when it all became clear:

That day in the convent she was far away from him, and knew it … He saw Maria rise up on the breaths of the face-less nuns, rise up and leave him, leave the body she loved that did always what she told it, that could dance and climb or run behind him and put cool hands over his eyes and say, “Guess who?” as if it could be someone different. But in the chapel she rose up and wanted to leave the body life that she had loved. Leave him and all their life together.1

Maria was not the only one who wanted to leave the body life she had loved. This longing is at least as old as the Greek philosophers who desired to get beyond the weight of matter to live in the realm of pure spirit. Many religions, and perhaps voices within all religions, claim that life-with-God can only be attained by being freed from the bonds of earth and the body. To be with God is to be in some other place, if not geographically, then in a spiritual trance, an out-of-body experience where we will be closer to God and farther from this earth.

Jesus seems to begin there in John 14: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” We cherish this strong image of closeness — “where I am, there you may be also.” But how can we rise above the grass, above the living room chair, above this tired or tempting body-life? How can we enter the pure life of the Spirit to be with Jesus?

Before we let go of earth, Jesus has more to say. We know this chapter is the beginning of Jesus’ farewell discourse, his last lecture series to his disciples. Jesus moves beyond his opening promise to say some startling things: “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” (John 14:12.) If anyone other than Jesus had said those words we would call it blasphemy. Greater works than Jesus? How can that be?

Jesus is not talking about heaven here; he’s talking about earth. A bit later in this same chapter Jesus says, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.” Jesus will not bend down to wash their feet; they will wash each other’s feet. They will remember that night when he took the basin and towel, when he bent down and surprised them saying, “Guess who?”

Jesus promised to be present with the disciples in a different way: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.” But forever wasn’t postponed to a time after death; forever included life on this earth. The Spirit of truth, the Advocate will come here. Jesus’ presence will be deeper than memory and closer than heaven. Jesus will forever be messed up with this body-life, this earthiness which some tell us to discount, even disdain.

Though this promise is surely personal, it is primarily communal. These words are Jesus’ last words to the community of disciples that would become the church. Maybe if the church were pure spirit, it would be more satisfying. In his book Costly Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about Christ’s body, the church: “The body of Christ takes up space on the earth,” he said — as buildings take up space, also cars, dirt, flowers, rocks, skateboards, and people. Then Bonhoeffer went on, “A truth, a doctrine, or a religion need no space for themselves. They are disembodied entities … that is all. But the incarnate Christ needs not only ears or hearts, but living people who will follow him.” The body of Christ takes up space on the earth.

Pentecost is often called “The Birthday of the Church.” Those of us who are part of the church know we are not what Jesus called us to be. We spend too much and share too little; we judge too many and love too few; we wait too long and act too late. We’ve heard people say, “Show me a church where ministers aren’t self-serving, where hypocrisy has been purged away, where love is genuine, and I’ll become a member.” They’ll wait a long time, for such a church takes up no space on this earth. 

Jesus spoke these words to his disciples before he went away from them. This is Pentecost in John’s Gospel. The body of Christ must claim space on the earth. We who dance and climb, who run and get knocked down, we who lie on the grass and sit watching the late-night news — we are not alone. The Spirit of truth, the Advocate comes, surprising us at every turn, saying, “Guess who?”


Mary Gordon, “Temporary Shelter,” in Temporary Shelter (New York: Ballentine Books, 1988) 17-18.

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.1

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.2 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 This commentary was originally published on the site on May 23, 2010.

2 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

Jerome Creach

Psalm 104 presents a glorious picture of God as creator and a sweeping view of the world God made.1

The main subject of the psalm is the order of the world and the sovereignty of the God who created and maintains it. This subject in turn instills confidence that God can and will order the lives of those who seek God by keeping them in God’s purpose and away from evil.

Psalm 104 draws from theological ideas similar to those in the creation story in Genesis 1:1-2:4a and the flood story in Genesis 6-9. In Genesis 1:1-2:4a God creates the world by pushing back the waters that covered the earth so there is a place for plants to grow and animals, including humans, to flourish. The flood story states that when God saw that human beings were completely bent toward evil (6:5) God decided to reverse creation and start over (note in 7:11 the flood occurred when the waters were allowed to cross the boundaries God had made).

But after the flood God realized that humans were still inclined toward evil (8:21b). Nevertheless, God decided to allow the world to remain intact (8:21a). This promise is the most basic sign of God’s grace. God determined to be patient with human beings and not to punish them as they deserve to be punished.

Psalm 104:24-30 describes again God’s mastery over all the creatures of the earth. God is even the master of Leviathan, the mysterious sea creature sometimes conceived as a symbol of chaos and evil (Psalm 74:14). The section ends with two important claims: God gives all creatures their food (104:27-28) and God gives them the breath of life, without which they could not survive (verses 29-30). The second point says essentially the same thing as Genesis 2:7 which reports how God made the first human being from the dust of the ground and then breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.

Verses 24-25 give a particularly interesting testimony to God’s sovereignty and mastery over the creation. These verses begin much like the psalm begins, by lauding God for the marvelous works of creation. Verse 24 makes a new statement, however, that “in wisdom you have made them all.” The term “in wisdom” could also be translated “by wisdom.” The expression suggests that God created with great skill and insight and that all things made have a purpose. This statement is important for understanding the next two verses.

Verses 25-26 highlights the sea, which ancient Israelites often saw as mysterious, uncontrollable, and perhaps even evil (note that Pharaoh in Exodus is closely associated with the sea and Jonah flees from God on the sea). As if to deny that the sea is outside God’s creative purpose, verse 25 lists the sea and all its creatures as among those things God made “in wisdom.” Verse 26 emphasizes this wisdom by naming Leviathan, the great sea monster, as part of God’s plan: “there go the ships, and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.”

Leviathan is often listed in the Old Testament as a dreaded creature that is untamable, like the sea itself (Job 41). Therefore, the statement about Leviathan is a particularly important claim that God is master over the creation that no creature is beyond God’s control. But verse 26 may make an even more radical claim than the translation given indicates. Leviathan appears here not as a fearsome creature, but one that “frolics” and plays (see the NIV translation). The translations above assume that the end of the verse means simply that Leviathan plays in the sea (NRSV, “in it;” NIV “there”).

But there is another intriguing possibility that would speak even more strongly to God’s creation of Leviathan with a purpose. The words “in it” (NRSV) are actually one word in Hebrew. The word is a combination of a preposition that can mean “in,” “by,” or “with” and a pronoun “it.” Our translations assume “it” refers to the sea, thus Leviathan sports and plays “in it.” But “it” could refer to Leviathan. If Leviathan is the intended antecedent then the verse is saying God made Leviathan “to play with it.”

In other words, not only is Leviathan not a creature God dreads or sees as an enemy, it is God’s pet or plaything. This image of God playing with the great sea monster offers comfort for all those who feel the world around them is chaotic and unruly; it assures them that God is ultimately in control even though they may feel out of control.

Verses 31-35 conclude the psalm with calls for God to be praised and honored. The first part of the final verse is not part of the lectionary reading, but it actually illustrates the theological point of the rest of the psalm. Verse 35a asks that “sinners be consumed from the earth.” The petition is consistent with the rest of the psalm in that the order of God’s world will not ultimately accommodate rebellion against God’s rule.

It may be helpful to note, further, that the main Hebrew manuscript used to translate the Old Testament (known as the Masoretic Text) actually reads “Let sins cease.” NRSV and NIV are translating “sinners” because that word appears in a manuscript from the Dead Sea Scrolls. The translators thought “sinners” was more logical since the term “wicked” appears as a parallel word later in the verse. Regardless of which wording is most accurate, however, the notion that God would cause “sins” to end is consistent with the spirit of the psalm.

God created the world with order and purpose and anyone or anything that acts against that purpose essentially tries to undo the good creation God established. Thus, the final petition of Psalm 104 is not really a prayer against particular people, but against the forces of evil with which people sometimes cooperate against the wishes of the Creator.


1 This commentary was first published on the site on May 19, 2013.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 8:14-17

Cynthia Briggs Kittredge

These four verses come midway in the ecstatic account of post baptismal Christian life that runs from Romans 8:1 through Romans 8:39.

The word “spirit” is repeated and concentrated (I count it twenty-two times — five times in these four verses). The frequency of the word conveys the exuberance of the baptismal experience, and the variety of different ways the spirit is described — “you in the spirit,” “the spirit dwells in you,” “you have the spirit” (Romans 8:9) displays the diverse and multiple ways that the spirit is imagined and located. Although the NRSV translation makes some references to “spirit” “Spirit,” and others “spirit,” the Greek makes no distinction between upper and lower case forms of the word. Here in these verses, “spirit of God,” “spirit of slavery,” “spirit of adoption” prepare for the claim that the cry of “Abba, Father!” is evoked by the interaction, the intervention (“bearing witness”) of the spirit of God with our spirit. Krister Stendahl has argued that behind this passage is glossalia, speaking in tongues under possession by the spirit. In the scriptural world of imagery here, God’s spirit is present at creation, linked to the resurrection, and given at baptism. The plenitude of references to spirit in this baptismal prayer suggests that a preacher might explore and celebrate the omnipresence, creativity, and activity of the spirit in the Christian life.

Slavery and adoption

In the apocalyptic perspective of this passage, history is envisioned as a battle between opposing forces, a struggle about to be concluded by the intervention of God. In the action of Jesus Christ, those who participate in his death and resurrection through baptism will not be condemned, but will become children of God. The opposition is between being “sons,” translated in the NRSV as “children” (“all who are led by the spirit of God are sons of God”) and slaves, the “spirit of slavery” and the “spirit of sonship,” translated in the NRSV as “spirit of adoption.” While slaves do not have rights of inheritance, sons do, so those who receive the spirit recognize and address “Abba, Father” become heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.

As in Romans 6-7, the primary opposition is between life and death, and its parallel opposition: freedom and slavery. Slavery is equivalent to death, and becoming a “son” or a “child” of God, is parallel to life. “Falling back into fear” characterizes slavery. Katherine Grieb has written about the traditions of the Exodus that undergird this passage: the people of Israel are children of God whom God creates, elects, and delivers from slavery in Egypt. The redemption in Christ is parallel with the delivery of Israel in the exile. Preaching might capitalize upon and develop the intense and suspenseful drama of the battle in which victory is at hand through the work of Jesus Christ. While much of Christian tradition interprets slavery and freedom as spiritual states, the imagery of this passage and the exodus traditions that underlie it, speak of liberation from slavery. African American biblical interpretation has read Romans this way and found in the New Testament inspiration to work for real freedom. In the contemporary world, slavery continues to exist as sex-trafficking, human labor trafficking, and exploitation. The gospel of freedom motivates current readers to mobilize to oppose all forms of human slavery.

Gender and liberation

The transformation from “slaves” to “sons” and “heirs” describes the move from death to life and from slavery to freedom accomplished in baptism. The NRSV translation of huoi as “children” obscures its male referent and masks the patriarchal assumptions in which the metaphors of adoption, sons, and heirs operate. At the same time society’s customs around adoption are not merely reflected by the text, but challenged, as indicated by the use tecknoi “children” in verses 16 and 17. As interpreters of scripture for the present, preachers can amplify dimensions of a text and minimize others. To develop the inclusivity of the children of God made heirs through baptism, they might reflect on another baptismal prayer, Galatians 3:28. Phoebe, Junia, Prisca, and the other women addressed in Romans 16 are evidence that women are part of the first person plural “we” of Romans 8 with whose spirit God’s spirit bears witness. To become children of God is to experience transformed relationships in a new community created by resurrection. The feast of Pentecost celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit to the disciples and God pouring God’s spirit upon “all flesh” (Acts 2:17).