Lectionary Commentaries for April 25, 2010
Fourth Sunday of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 10:22-30

Frank L. Crouch

This passage focuses on Jesus’ identity and his relationship with the Father.1

Although the gospel itself emphatically declares Jesus’ identity from the opening sentence (1:1), his identity and the source of his ministry remain a puzzle for many throughout the rest of the story. After two disciples’ initial encounter with Jesus, one of them calls him “Rabbi” and “Messiah” (1:37-41). Nathanael calls him “Rabbi,” “Son of God,” and “King of Israel” in one packed sentence (1:49). Nicodemus calls him “Rabbi” and “teacher who has come from God” (3:2). In Samaria, the woman at the well proclaims him “prophet” and “Messiah” (4:19, 29), while the rest of her city follows with “Savior of the world” (4:42). At the feeding of the 5,000, the crowd understands him as “prophet” and wants to declare him “king” (6:14-15).

After these initial descriptions, the question of his identity becomes more hotly contested. The crowd follows Jesus from the feeding to the other side of the sea, and in the ensuing debate, the authorities dismiss him as merely “Jesus, son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know” (6:42). However, as the debate ends, Peter declares him to be the Holy One of God (6:66-69). In a different crowd’s dispute, he is conflictingly described as a “good man” and as a deceiver (7:12); as demon-possessed (7:20) and as “prophet” (7:40). Some assert and some deny his identity as “Messiah” (7:41-43).

Debate continues more heatedly when the authorities directly ask him who he is and who he claims to be (8:25, 53). They disparage him as a demon-possessed Samaritan (8:48, 52), then seek to kill him as (implicitly) a blasphemer (8:57-59). Opposition intensifies when authorities question the man born blind. They call Jesus a Sabbath-breaking sinner (9:16, 24). The man simply calls him “Jesus” (9:11), then “prophet” (9:17), then “Lord” (9:38).

In our own time, debate over Jesus’ identity continues. In one place are those who claim to rely solely on science and reason, who would see Jesus as, at best, misguided and, at worst, delusional (they would say demon-possessed, if they believed in demons).  In a different place would be some “spiritual” people who adhere to a vaguely-defined higher power or, perhaps, people of other faiths who might view Jesus sympathetically as at least a good man, a wise teacher (rabbi), or a prophet. In a different place again would be believers who understand him as Messiah, Son of God, Savior of the World, and Lord. How we engage those who hold different views of Christ remains a vital question for individuals and communities of faith.

In John, Jesus offers his own arguments regarding his identity. In the verses leading up to this passage, Jesus proclaims himself “the gate of the sheep” and “the good shepherd” (10:7, 11, 14). Some counter by repeating that he has a demon. Others defend him because he healed the man born blind (10:19-21).

In our passage, his opponents demand, “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly” (10:24). Jesus’ response has two components. First, “I have told you, and you do not believe.” For some, words– no matter how clearly spoken– hold any persuasive power. He has already told them plainly, to no effect. Second, Jesus simply maintains, “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me.” He had used that argument before at Bethzatha (5:36-38). He extends his argument later, declaring that if people will not believe his words, they should get all they need to know from his works (10:37-38; 14:9-11).

Jesus’ argument means that our preaching and our worship–our words–are not enough to persuade skeptics of the truth of the gospel. Even Jesus did not place maximum confidence in his words but depended more on the persuasive power of his works. Lest we be tempted to say, “Yes, but he is Jesus and we are just us,” Jesus later asserts, “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these” (14:12). As crucial as preaching and worship are, even more crucial is our total ministry. If those around us do not believe the gospel on the basis of what happens on Sunday morning, perhaps they will believe–or not believe–based on what we do the rest of the week.2

This leads to Jesus’ final assertion of his identity in this passage, “The Father and I are one” (10:30). Jesus has just described his capacity to give eternal life and his power to preserve the lives of believers, capacities that his Father has given to him (10:28-29). This assertion of oneness connects with the larger theme of Jesus’ works. Although his statement in 10:30 seems to stand in contrast to 14:28–when he says “the Father is greater than I”–the resolution to this apparent contradiction lies in his life and actions. His works show that he is in the Father and the Father is in him (10:37-38). It does not deny the Nicene Creed’s understanding of the relationship of the Father and the Son to say that in John, Jesus’ oneness with the Father can be expressed “functionally”–we know who he is by what he does.3 Because of Jesus’ works and how he carried out his works, he–and only he–can rightfully say that he and the Father are one.

1 Gendered language for God and Christ is an inherent aspect of the fourth gospel, just as gendered language about God’s quest for the lost is an inherent aspect of the parable of the woman and the lost coin (Luke 15:1-10). 

2 I cannot find the exact citation, but these words are widely attributed to Alice Walker, “Anybody can observe the Sabbath, but making it holy surely takes the rest of the week.”

3 This understanding calls for much more exploration than can be undertaken here.  However, for example, earlier Jesus has stated “I can do nothing on my own” [the Father is greater than I] …I seek to do not my own will but the will of the one who sent me” [I and the Father are one] (5:30).  Several other passages in John blend this contradiction into complementary aspects of the same reality: “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me” (7:16).  (My teaching is from him [the Father is greater than I], yet all my teaching is from him [I and the Father are one].)  See also 8:16, 26, 29, 42; 12:44-45; 13:20; 14:24.

First Reading

Commentary on Acts 9:36-43

James Boyce

The Success of the Apostolic Mission

The lessons from Acts for the Sundays of Easter continue their witness to the power of the Spirit and the Resurrection of Christ Jesus. For summary comments on perspectives and themes of Luke-Acts that provide background and setting for this lesson, see the introductory comments on the lesson from Acts for the 2nd Sunday of Easter.

It is important to review the narrative of Acts between last Sunday’s lesson and this one to set the stage for the hearing of this brief but poignant story. After the dramatic conversion stories of Saul and Ananias, we hear of Saul’s powerful preaching of Jesus the Messiah, and its dramatic effect on hearers who are amazed at the witness of this former persecutor of the disciple community.

In action fit for a TV serial, plots to kill him become known, and Saul escapes by night through the Damascus wall. But his attempts to join the disciples in Jerusalem are met with fear until Barnabas vouches for him by recounting the story of his encounter with the risen Lord. Once Saul is accepted, the success of his bold preaching occasions yet more plots to kill him, leading to his being whisked off and back to his home country of Tarsus in Asia Minor. Still, the narrative now summarizes with some sense of amazement, the church continues to grow as it lives in peace enlivened by the fear of the Lord and empowered by the Spirit’s encouraging presence.

A Sanctuary of Death and a Grieving Community

In the midst of these success stories, which include Peter’s healing activity in the area of the seacoast port of Joppa, comes this poignant story of sorrow and loss. In the midst of comfort, success, and growth, there is the painful reminder that the last enemy of death still lingers and threatens this early Christian community’s and our own present day community’s confidence and faith in the power and promise of Jesus’ resurrection. The grand schema of God’s apostolic mission to bring the gospel to all nations and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8) does not skip over the implications and the reality of the promise of Christ’s resurrection for the pain and suffering of individual lives, then or now.

The vivid description and careful detail of this story describe shock at a sudden death, the preparation for burial, the viewing and visitation of the mourners, all too familiar to ones who have walked with numbness through such scenes at the death and funeral of a loved one. Though brief in extent, the seven verses of the story hardly mask the deep sorrow and loss of those who care and grieve or the relief and joy of those who in these few moments have experienced the transforming power of the resurrection from death to life. We identify readily with those in the story because we have all been there.

The opening two verses literarily imitate the shocking reality of death. In contrast to many unnamed disciples, the author begins by naming Tabitha, taking time to honor her by translating her name and praising her life for its devotion to “good works and acts of charity” (9:36). Verse 37 begins with Luke’s signature “and it came to pass in those days” (see Luke 2:1; 4:2; Acts 2:18). Accordingly, the reader might expect a story of success and promise, much like the story of the righteous Zechariah and Elizabeth that begins Luke’s narrative (Luke 1:5-25). Instead, before we are through the next sentence, Tabitha has become ill and died. We are shocked by the suddenness. The simple direct narrative of the unnamed “they” who wash and lay her out in an upper room hardly masks the love, the care, and the grief of the community who have experienced her acts of mercy.

Still in shock, the community grasps for any hope and cries out in desperation for Peter to come without delay, carefully strengthening their appeal by sending “two men” to carry their request. Peter responds by immediately coming, and upon his arrival is ushered into the “upper room” so recently identified (9:37) as the sanctuary of death. But it is also the sanctuary of grief and the outpouring of love as her friends gather around him, eager even in their weeping to detail their loss by the parade of tunics and clothing she has made, the signs of her loving and caring life. That those gathered are “all the widows” (9:39), witnesses both to the culture and the society where the poor have their suffering multiplied, and to the fact that these women have been no stranger to death. The fact that they have been in such an upper room before does not ease their grief.

An Upper Room: From Death to Resurrection

With his concluding “while she was with them” (9:39), the narrator certainly recalls another upper room and one who “was with them” in a story that moved from death to resurrection (see Luke 24:44f). Now one senses another power present as Peter calmly ushers them out, kneels confidently in prayer, and then addresses the body with the command, “Tabitha, arise” (9:41). The double sense, as usual, is intentional in its recollection of the resurrection.

Immediately, Tabitha opens her eyes and sits up, and Peter calls all the saints and widows and “presents” her to them alive, much as they have so recently “presented” to him the clothing and remnants of her acts of mercy that were reminders of her death (9:39). The story only leaves to the readers’ imagination to fill in the joyful reunion that must have accompanied Tabitha’s return to her community. But the story does conclude with a brief reference to the circulation of the story and to its occasioning many to respond in faith in the risen Lord.

As suggested above, the details of this story will find immediate recognition in the experience of those who grieve at the death of a loved one. As such, it provides the preacher the opportunity in the midst of the season of Easter, in the context of worship, to witness to the promise and the power of the resurrection of our Lord to enter into the real places of daily life, to address even those darkest times of human grief and loss. At those times this story reminds us that even “good works” and “acts of charity” are not sufficient protection against the signs of death that stalk us and surprise us.

This story will not answer all our questions. For example, why do we not today experience the same resurrection of loved ones that was given to Tabitha and the early Christian community? But what the story does bring is the clear and certain witness to the power of our Lord’s resurrection, and to the good news that not only at times of death, but at other dark times, the Spirit of the risen Lord enters our world to bring life and healing and hope.


Commentary on Psalm 23

J. Clinton McCann, Jr.

Everybody knows Psalm 23. In an era of increasing biblical illiteracy, this is an encouraging sign.

But what may concern us about Psalm 23 is its reputation — that is, it is known for the most part as a “funeral psalm.” To be sure, it is not a bad thing that Psalm 23 speaks palpably and powerfully to persons in situations of death and loss; and this ability of Psalm 23 coheres quite well with its appearance in the lectionary during the season of Easter. After all, in my tradition and many others, a funeral service is more properly known as a Service of Witness to the Resurrection, which is what we especially remember and affirm during the season of Easter.

But what about those days when no one that we know well has died, and there is no funeral to preside at or attend? How do we hear, appropriate, and proclaim Psalm 23 on a warm, sunny April Sunday morning when life seems quite ordinary, maybe even quite good? To begin to address these questions, it is helpful to know that Psalm 23 is not known primarily as a “funeral psalm” in other parts of the world.

Consider Philip Jenkins’s suggestion, growing out of his experience in the Global South, that we North Americans read Psalm 23 as “a political tract”:

          Read Psalm 23 as a political tract, a rejection of
          unjust secular authority. For Africans and Asians,
          the psalm offers a stark rebuttal to claims by
          unjust states that they care lovingly for their
          subjects — while they exalt themselves to the
          heavens. Christians reply simply, “The Lord is my
          shepherd — you aren’t!” Adding to the power of
          the psalm, the evils that it condemns are at once
          political and spiritual, forces of tyranny and
          the devil. Besides its political role, Psalm 23
          is much used in services of healing, exorcism
          and deliverance.1

To virtually no Christian in the United States does it occur to interpret Psalm 23 “as a political tract;” and probably never do North American Christians read Psalm 23 expecting to be instructed about “the evils that it condemns.”

How might we preachers change this situation? To begin with, perhaps we can help people consider how we live daily in a context that Douglas John Hall describes as “the kingdom of death”2 — that is, we are constantly surrounded by forces that diminish the abundant life that God intends. To be sure, most North Americans will not view themselves as victims “of unjust secular authority;” and so most North Americans will need help identifying the “forces of tyranny” at work among us. Consider, for instance, Thomas Merton’s assessment of our situation:

          Even though there’s a certain freedom in our
          society, it’s largely illusory. Again, it’s
          the freedom to choose your product, but not
          the freedom to do without it. You have to be
          a consumer and your identity is to a large
          extent determined by your choices, which are
          very much determined by advertising. Identity
          is created by ads.3

In a context in which advertising is pervasive — something like an extraordinarily well-financed educational curriculum — and in which we virtually “have to be a consumer,” it is not surprising that our society is characterized by what Alan Greenspan, former chair of the Federal Reserve, once called “infectious greed.”4

Indeed, it may be that greed is one of the primary “forces of tyranny” Psalm 23 condemns by way of its simple affirmation that “The LORD is my shepherd, I have everything I need” (verse 1; my translation). Notice that what the shepherd provides for the sheep are the basic necessities of life — food (“green pastures”), drink (“still waters”), and protection (“right paths”). In short, the shepherd “keeps me alive”(verse 3a, my translation). In the second section of the psalm (verses 5-6), the gracious host also provides the basic necessities of life — food (“a table”), drink (“my cup overflows”), and protection (“you anoint my head with oil”) — leading to a situation of safety and security, or in short, life as God intends.

The issue is life; and in accordance with God’s character (“see for his name’s sake” in verse 3), God wills and actively works for life (see verse 6a, which is better translated “Surely goodness and faithful love will pursue me all the days of my life”). In contrast to us busy and industrious North Americans, who are inclined to view life as an achievement — we make a living, we say — Psalm 23 affirms that life is essentially a gift.

As such, the appropriate response is not greed, but rather infectious gratitude! Such gratitude may even mean that we are free to do without, or at least free to be content with enough. It may mean that we do not have to be a consumer. Instead of being compelled to consume, we are set free to share, quite literally, for God’s sake — to share our food, our drink, our sources of security, and to share even with the enemies who are with us at the table God prepares (verse 5).

Quite appropriately, M. Douglas Meeks discerns a distinct continuity between the message of Psalm 23 and the meal that we Christians call the Eucharist, which means “thanksgiving” or “gratitude;” and there are implications for our daily behavior:

          The celebration of the Lord’s Supper is under
          orders from God the Economist and is a concrete
          instance of God’s providential oikonimia
          [= “the law of the household,” the root meaning
          of the English word “economy”] with
          implications for all eating and drinking 
          everywhere. For this reason, the disciples of
          Jesus should pray boldly for daily bread (Luke
          11:13). They should keep the command to eat
          and drink, recognizing that it includes the
          command that they should share daily bread with
          all God’s people. . . Psalm 23 depicts the work
          of God’s economy overcoming  scarcity in God’s
          household [= the world].5

As it turns out, then, Psalm 23 is not only “a political tract,” but also an economic manifesto! Appropriately for the Easter season, it calls us to life, lived as God intends — in humble gratitude to God and in solidarity with God’s world-encompassing household.

1 Philip Jenkins, “Liberating Word: The Power of the Bible in the Global South,” Christian Century, July 11, 2006, 26.
2 Douglas John Hall, The Stewardship of Life in the Kingdom of Death (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), especially 33-51.
3 Thomas Merton, The Springs of Contemplation: A Retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1997), 110.
4 Greenspan is quoted in Phyllis Tickle, Greed: The Seven Deadly Sins (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 18.
5 M. Douglas Meeks, God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 180.

Second Reading

Commentary on Revelation 7:9-17

Walter F. Taylor, Jr.

When Revelation 7:9-17 is read as an isolated unit, much of its meaning is lost.

To grasp the passage’s fuller meaning we need to go to chapter 6, where the first six seals on the scroll are opened. After the sixth seal is opened (verse 12), the physical foundations of creation are rattled. Destruction reaches such a pitch that all people hide. Key is their question in 6:17. Now that the day of wrath has come, “‘Who is able to stand?’

When John the Seer reaches that point in his visions, he stops. The suffering and destruction of the first six seals are overwhelming, and so he introduces a break, a timeout that he uses to lift the vision of God’s people from the difficulties of the present to the glories of the future. In 7:1-8, the angels of God seal the 144,000. The sealing, with a likely reference to baptism, sustains the church on earth. The designation of twelve tribes times twelve thousand people per tribe envisions the church in this world as part of God’s army in battle with the powers of evil. The opening vision of chapter 7, then, is of the church militant.

The fulcrum on which the passage balances is the difference between verse 4 and verse 9. In verse 4 John “heard the number.” In verse 9 he “looked.” What he sees is a vast international, multi-racial, multi-lingual throng of people so great that no one could count it. Although scholars differ in their understanding of how the people in 7:1-8 relate to the people in 7:9-17, I think that in the latter verses we have the church in heaven, or what we sometimes call the church triumphant.

John gives us a preview of the way things are to be. The people he sees wear white robes and carry palm branches. The robe is an important piece of clothing in the Bible. It signals not only outward clothing, but reveals who the person is, what her or his status is. And so the prodigal son is given a new robe, not just so that he would have something clean to wear but as an indication of his restored place in the family (Luke 15:22). Believers, then, wear the white robe of purity, and they carry palm branches as signs of victory and joy following war.

The “crying out” of the multitude in 7:10 connects us with 6:10, where impatient martyrs resting under the throne of God also cry out–in that case for justice. 7:10 gives an answer, as the unnumbered throng praises God. The word salvation, for which they praise God and the Lamb, is indeed in Greek the word salvation, but that term can also be used for victory, which would be appropriate in this view of the final future.

In verses 11-12 heavenly beings join in the singing. As we might expect in Revelation, they use seven terms to praise God. The center one is often the most significant, and it is the word thanksgiving. We will see why.

In verses 13-14 we have a temporary reversal of the way apocalyptic literature usually functions. One of the heavenly beings asks John the meaning of the vision. John appropriately turns the question back to the elder, who as the heavenly being is the one to interpret. The NRSV, unfortunately, mistranslates his response. “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal,” should be translated as “these are they who are coming ….” The participle that means coming is present tense and refers to an ongoing action: those who are killed are still coming. Note that the church has not been “raptured” out (a non-biblical doctrine often foisted onto Revelation); the church suffers.

The martyrs, in one of John’s reversal of images, “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Any college freshman knows that washing something in blood (or red in general) does not turn something white. But here the blood of the Lamb purifies the martyrs and takes away their sin (see 1:5, 5:9, 12:11; Isaiah 1:18), and so their robes are white.

The preacher can easily skip over verses 15-17, but they contain great words of comfort. Believers stand before God’s throne and worship God. God, in turn, will shelter them. The word translated as shelter is the word that also is translated as dwell (21:3, e.g.). God’s presence, God’s shekinah in Old Testament terms, will remain with them. Old Testament associations lie behind almost every statement in the interpretation of the elder, especially Isaiah 49:10 and 25:8. In a world in which subsistence was the normal pattern of life, the vision of no more hunger or thirst communicated at a visceral level. Relief from the sun and from heat reflects life in the Middle East. Sunbathing among peasants was not a vacation activity! People in fact had to protect themselves from the sun, as I learned when I taught in Cairo, Egypt, in 2009.

In the final verse, John once more plays with language and images. It is the Lamb who will be the shepherd (also in 12:5, 19:15) who leads God’s people to the “springs of the water of life.” “And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (see also 21:1-4).

With that vision in their minds and hearts, those who listen to the reading of Revelation are ready to experience the breaking of the seventh and final seal–which is followed immediately by the next cycle of seven end-time woes, that of the trumpets (8:1-2). They continue their journey through John’s visions by having given thanks to the one who has saved them and who provides everything needed for life.

So who is able to stand? Those whom the Lamb has washed. With that word of encouragement, this persecuted minority–the first-century church–is able to move ahead, because they know where God is taking them. And today’s believers know the same.