Lectionary Commentaries for April 21, 2013
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Commentary on John 10:22-30
Commentary on Acts 9:36-43
In Acts, the gospel is relentlessly expansive.
That the gospel would reach the corners of the world is certainly promised in Acts 1:8 but is not a new chapter in God’s involvement with the world from Luke’s perspective. In fact, the first two chapters of the Gospel of Luke melodically imagine the good news reaching the despised of the world (see the songs of Mary and Zechariah) as well as Israel and the Gentile world alike (see Simeon’s song).
Even these theological harmonies, however, are not innovations for Luke. Instead, they reach even further back into Israel’s story of blessed children born to long-grieving parents, of prophetic pronouncements, of theology and song. The gospel looks beyond the narrow confines we too often seek to draw. In Acts, the spirit constantly pushes the boundaries, forcing Jesus’ earliest followers to question and wonder to whom God has sent the good news.
Such an expansive impulse is exemplified in our passage. Also exemplified in our passage, however, is the underlying theological conviction that God’s action in the world is not innovative but consistent with God’s previous interactions with God’s people.
The beginning of our passage introduces us to a faithful woman named Tabitha but whose Greek name is Dorcas. Her dual names likely suggest that she was herself a cultural hybrid of sorts. In some way, she straddles the cultural line between Judaism and the wider Greco-Roman world. That is, she is at home both in the comfortable cultural confines of her faith but also in the different cultures that surround her.
She is remembered as a person of deep faith and creativity. Luke recalls her good works and acts of charity, drawing our attention back to other faithful people like the centurion in the Gospel of Luke who asks for Jesus’ healing of his servant (Luke 7:1-10). Moreover, when Peter arrives, her friends present tangible evidence of her artistry and work. Perhaps these clothes were created for the sake of those who lacked them. The narrative does not specify this. And yet this small memento of her life is what her friends cling to desperately.
Peter’s arrival brings hope in its wake. One wonders, however, what Tabitha’s friends expected when they called Peter. Did they want Peter to know about this extraordinary believer? Did they wish for the memory of her dear friend to be shared with this pillar of the burgeoning church? Did they perhaps hope for a miracle beyond miracles? Did they perhaps hope against hope for a reprieve from death?
In the narratives of Scripture, they had reason to hope. This and other scenes in Luke-Acts purposefully echo previous stories of God’s sustenance and grace. Both Elijah (1 Kings 17:17-24) and Elisha (2 Kings 4:18-37) pray for God to bring the dead back to life. In this same pattern, Jesus himself brings breath back to the dead (Luke 7:11-17; 8:41-42, 49-56). This miracle is thus perhaps unexpected but not unparalleled. Nearly invariably, death can claim a victory, but throughout the stories of God’s involvement with God’s people, that rule is broken in spectacular fashion.
“Many believed in the Lord.” However, belief does not emerge from a dazzling display of power. Belief is rooted in hope and in trust. So, when the residents of Joppa see Tabitha restored to life, they do not join this community of believers so much because they are stunned by this miraculous act of healing but because of what it might mean for them and for the world. If death is no longer a barrier between us, can we dare hope that the ills that plague us, our families, and our communities might also be healed by a God who cares so deeply for us?
The last verse of our passage would be easy to miss as it seems like a simple aside that mentions Peter’s next destination as Simon the tanner’s home. But here once again, Luke’s literary artistry creates a vibrant transition. After all, it is on the roof of Simon’s house where Peter will see a vision that will lead him to welcome Cornelius and his retinue. This encounter will then lead to Peter’s realization that God shows no partiality (Acts 10:34), welcoming individuals and communities from every corner of the world.
This life-giving gospel is truly and relentlessly expansive. Are our ministries, our communities up to the call to be equally relentless in opening our doors to anyone who might join us? Are our ministries, our communities equally willing to be relentless about leaving the safe confines of the church’s walls and reach out to a dying world with words and deed of life and grace?
In these weeks after Easter, it may be that our wonder over the resurrection may have abated somewhat. Perhaps we have heard the story repeatedly, and our hearing has grown dull. Perhaps Lazarus and Tabitha seem altogether too ordinary. But any of us who have tasted the power of illness and the bitterness of loss can never lose sight of this dazzling miracle. The gospel looks out over a world characterized by death, illness, and loss and yet declares that eternal life is the new order of the day, that Jesus himself embodies and assures us of the promise that death will not have the last word and that no boundary can ever cleave us apart from one another.
Commentary on Psalm 23
Notice this Psalm’s emphasis on our active Lord.
In this one Psalm, the Lord is shepherd, host and priest. Shepherding is hard work; constant work, at least. Minimally, it requires skills in leading, restoring, comforting, remaining present, preparing meals, and anointing.
It is no wonder that Bobby McFerrin’s musical “commentary” on this Psalm is a dedication to his mother (McFerrin even changes the pronouns of the psalm from “he” to “she.” “She makes me lie down in green meadows . . . She restores my soul.”) Psalm 23 plainly reveals a God who loves and cares for God’s children like one who has carried a child in her very womb cares for that child. So, thanks to Mr. McFerrin, I will add to the list above; the Lord is shepherd, host, priest, and mother.
Before reading on, I encourage you to listen to the performance of McFerrin’s rendering of Psalm 23 performed by the male ensemble, Cantus. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=91TbjlaS4kc).
In addition to adding “mother” to the list above, listening to this piece of music provides me with a number of other discoveries about the Psalm. First, the pace encourages me to slow down as I engage the Psalm. It is a temptation to race through the reading, especially with such a familiar biblical text. But the gorgeous, lingering chords in the music remind me to linger with the poetic phrases in the Psalm itself.
The first line of the musical piece, “The Lord is my shepherd, I have all I need,” takes its time, even elongates the word “need.” This same phrase of the music provides a second new awareness about the Psalm; there is such a long pause after “need” and before the next line that one might think that is all there is to say. Indeed, the climax of the Psalm is the first line; because the Lord is our shepherd, we have all we need … period. This alone makes for a thoughtful Easter sermon theme!
Third, McFerrin captures the Psalmist’s grateful confidence that is sustained throughout the Psalm. Notice how while the Hebrew does not repeat the word ‘ak in verse 6, McFerrin repeats the word “surely.” Doing so captures the confident sense of the whole Psalm. Combine this with the grateful stance of the Psalmist as he acknowledges what the Lord has done for him and one is led to some profound homiletical potential.
In Psalm 23, we not only find out about the one who is expressing thanksgiving, but the one about whom and to whom thanksgiving is being expressed. Psalm 23 is about God just as much as it is about the Psalmist. Better said, it is about the relationship between the Psalmist and God.
This is yet another possible angle for the preacher to take in the sermon. Encourage your hearers to consider how their speech about God reflects their relationship with God. Do they speak about God in ways that express their gratitude for all God has done (as modeled in verses 1-3, 6)? Do they express their thanksgiving directly to God (as modeled by the Psalmist in verses 4-5)? How might your sermon model both?
If you and/or your congregation are inclined to engage a more traditional hymn than Bobby McFerrin’s music, some of these points also arise from Isaac Watts’ hymn based on this psalm, “My Shepherd, You Supply My Need.” The title itself suggests that Watts also might have claimed that the climax of the Psalm is the opening line. You will note how Watts mirrors the shift in the Psalmist’s speech (from third person to second person in verse 4 and back to third person in verse 6) as he moves from the first to the second stanza. Much of Watts’ hymn text reflects the Psalmist speaking to the Lord.
Changing the voice to second person highlights the prayerfulness of this Psalm, thereby emphasizing the more intimate relational aspect between God and God’s children. When we sing the hymn, we all join the Psalmist in praying to the Lord, thereby emphasizing the intimate relationship between God and us!
Note the last line of Watts’ hymn, “Here would I find a settled rest, while others go and come; no more a stranger or a guest, but like a child at home.” With this we come full circle to emphasizing that the Psalm highlights the Lord’s role as mother, as one who creates a safe and welcoming place called home. The Psalm’s emphasis on home is one reason we often hear it at funerals.
While preachers will want to be very attentive to the Psalms’ Wirkungsgeschichte (the history of its effect) and its powerful associations with the “heavenly home” addressed at the time of the funeral, it is worth the preacher’s consideration to explore that we are children at home in this world, here and now. We are challenged to think of this as a Psalm for now as we move about our days on this Earth. What would it look like for you to emphasize in this Easter season that the Lord pursues (the English translation “follow” from the Hebrew is too weak) us all the day long, beginning this day? Indeed we dwell in the house of the Lord our whole lives long, including now.
Finally, back to McFerrin. Did you notice that he adds a doxology to the end (“Glory be to the father…”) even though that is not in the Psalm? Brilliant. Yes, since grateful confidence moves one to doxology, a doxological stance is simmering all the way through the Psalm.
If you are not inclined to utilize the traditional Gloria Patri as McFerrin does, consider this Sunday’s text from Revelation: “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen!” An Easter-season sermon based on this Psalm has the potential to draw out a grateful confidence in our present and active Lord leading us all to join in doxological praise.
Commentary on Revelation 7:9-17
Prior to the opening of the dreaded seventh seal, Revelation delivers an amazing and hope-filled surprise: a “salvation interlude,” assuring God’s people they are protected.
Just when we are expecting even more destruction with the opening of the seventh seal there is a delay. The scene shifts. Four angels stand at the four corners of the earth, holding back destructive winds. Their mission is to hold back the judgments until God’s people can be “sealed” (7:1-8).
Even in the most difficult sections of Revelation, God’s judgment is not unrelenting. A similar “salvation interlude” will interrupt the trumpet sequence, between the sixth and seventh trumpet (Revelation 10-11). The interludes function rhetorically to shape the identity of God’s people as “protected, separated, praising, persecuted, and vindicated,” as Peter Perry describes1 — preparing the community to persevere in its witness even in the midst of the hardships that lie ahead.
Today’s text — a favorite for funerals and All Saints Day — portrays the multitude of God’s people standing before the throne of God, “sheltered” by God’s tabernacling presence. The scene divides into two sections, a heavenly vision (Revelation 7:9-12) and its interpretation (7:13-17). Worship and praise are central to both sections. Since those who belong to the lamb are said to be a multitude “that no one could count” (7:9), any literalistic fixation on the number 144,000 in the earlier vision of twelve tribes (7:4) is thus undermined.
“From every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues” (7:9; see also 5:9) underscores the multi-ethnic character of the people of God. Cuban scholar Justo Gonzales compares the multicultural perspective of Revelation to mestizo literature, addressed to people of a mixed cultural heritage.
John may have been a recent refugee to Asia Minor from Palestine following the trauma of the Roman-Jewish War. For Gonzales, Johns’ dual identity as a Jew writing to Greek-speaking people in Asia Minor, in a land and language not his own, places him in a situation similar to people with hybrid identities today: “The mestizo is at home in two places, and is not quite at home in either.”2
The white-robed multitude sings songs and waves Palm branches. Their daring hymns voice counter-imperial claims, saying that salvation, blessing, glory and power belong to God alone. Palm branches in the hands of these worshipers are a possible allusion to the Feast of Tabernacles, an Exodus link (Leviticus 23:40-43). For Revelation, a dramatic new Exodus is being undertaken not in Egypt but in the heart of the Roman Empire. Led by the Shepherd-Lamb Jesus, God calls Christians to “come out” of Rome (Revelation 18:4), in the same way that the Israelites came out of Egypt.
After the vision, one of the elders gives its interpretation, a typical apocalyptic question-and-answer format. The question-and-answer section also helps cement John’s identity with his community, since he — like them– has to ask for interpretive help. People who belong to the lamb’s multitude are those who have come out of the great thlipsis (“tribulation”). This word, which recurs throughout Revelation, is key to understanding the situation that John shares with his communities (1:9). The “tribulation” (thlipsis) of Revelation’s audience was not state-sponsored persecution but rather the social, economic, and religious marginalization of those who refused to participate in Roman imperial system.
In an incongruous combination of colors, the multicultural multitude washes their robes in the Lamb’s blood to make them white. This may be a reference to the washing away of sin commanded in Isaiah 1:16-18 (“though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow…”).
Those who come through the tribulation now “serve” God. Like a shepherd, God tenderly cares for the people — a wonderful image for Good Shepherd Sunday. The verb “shelter” (skenosei) invokes tabernacle imagery, the sense of God’s radiant presence or dwelling as a canopy or tent over us (see Ezekiel 37:27). The longest of Revelation’s hundreds of Old Testament allusions draws from Isaiah 49:10, the call to return home from exile: God’s people will not hunger or thirst on their journey through the wilderness, nor will any scorching wind or sun touch them (Revelation 7:16, a contrast to the sun’s scorching of evildoers in Revelation 16:7).
In an amazing combination of imagery, the Lamb Jesus now becomes also the shepherd, tending the flock, leading people to springs of water, and wiping away all their tears (a quote from Isaiah 25:8). Led by their Shepherd-Lamb, God’s redeemed people will come through the tribulation into God’s new Promised Land.
“Who is able to stand?” was the rhetorical question left dangling at the end of the dreaded sixth seal, after the four seals’ deadly horsemen and the fifth seal’s depiction of Rome’s victims under the altar. The interlude of Revelation 7 has given God’s people their answer to that question by depicting their identity as a redeemed community, wearing white robes and singing. By the end of the interlude of Revelation 7 all of us as God’s people can confidently answer: “With God’s help, we are able to stand.”
1Peter Soren Perry, The Rhetoric of Digressions: Revelation 7:1-17 and 10:1-11:13 and Ancient Communication (WUNT, 2. Reihe 268; Tuebingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009), 217.
2Justo Gonzales, For the Healing of the Nations: The Book of Revelation in an Age of Cultural Conflict (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1999), 59.
One of the stunning parts of this text is the location.
Jesus is walking through Solomon’s Porch during the festival of lights, or Hanukkah (verse 22-23). This place is important; it was the porch or portico on the east side of the Temple and was called the “Porch of Judgment.” From this location, the King would make his judgments and exercise justice for those who were brought before him. And here is Jesus strolling through this historic location, physically embodying justice in this place of justice — something his life and teachings were all about.
And into this setting again comes the identity question: “Hey, Jesus, stop keeping us in the dark. If you’re the Messiah, just tell us straight out” (verse 24). My belief is that Jesus is getting pretty tired of these questions. This need to question Jesus’ identity is sometimes called the messianic secret of John. John has used the term messias two times to explain to non-Jews who Jesus is. It is the equivalent term to christos, or the anointed one. But the questioners still don’t get it.
When I was a child I asked some fairly obnoxious questions of my parents. They were pretty typical kid questions. “Why?” “What does that mean?” “How do you know?” I was asserting my need to question the reality around me. I would love to say that this need to question authority and test the limits of my perceived reality stopped in my early years but, like many others, at times I continue to need proof for statements that are made to me.
This is what is happening in this text. Jesus has given the people around him numerous examples of his identity (verse 25). He has performed miracles and has become the Word made flesh. He has had others question his identity repeatedly. This was normal at the time. Folks who taught or prophesied were often asked to give proof of their deeds and the power behind their gift. But the questions in this passage go beyond that. They are questioning not only his identity but if his power is verifiably from God (verse 25). And as I hear that doubt creep into their questions, I am reminded that doubt is a constant companion to faith.
Faith and Doubt
Many in our communities of faith experience doubt. They doubt their abilities to overcome difficult situations, they doubt if they will make it through without succumbing to an old addiction, they doubt their friends or parents are aware of how much pain they are in, and they doubt God’s presence in their lives and their connections to God. Doubt and questioning are normal parts of our lives as people and as persons of faith.
When we acknowledge that reality from the pulpit and in our teaching, we give permission for people of faith to admit their doubt and make it normative. And we empower folks to claim their own journeys. So often in church we talk about faith and that is a powerful thing to talk about, but to not claim the flip side of faith, the perpetual travelling companion of faith — doubt — means we are not leaving room for the real life experiences of people. Even the most faithful have moments of doubt.
My grandmother used to say that “God never gives us more than we can handle. I just wish God didn’t have such faith in me.” It’s a common saying and for me it expresses the doubt she felt in handling things all on her own. Then she would immediately start telling us that she really was not alone in the journey.
Jesus is saying much the same thing. He is telling the doubters that he is one with God, that he knows his followers, and that they know him (verse 26-27). He is continuing a strand of teaching from earlier in the chapter. He is using the same vivid image of sheep to describe his followers from the Good Shepherd passage (10:1-18). And he is declaring that he knows all who follow him and they know him for who he is. This is also a continuation of the questioning from the previous week’s text. Jesus is once again providing proof that his actions are sanctioned by God (verse 25).
Again we hear the allusion to a thief coming to steal the sheep of Jesus’ flock, but his followers are protected by One who is more powerful than any thief coming to do them harm (verse 28). There are two marks to being part of Jesus’ flock: hearing his voice and following him. The folks who are once again pestering him about his identity are not part of this flock.
You are preaching this text to people who have known hard times, who have been afflicted by disease and lost loved ones, who have been addicted and known loss, who have not felt protected from loved ones who abuse or belittle them. This is the context into which we are called to bring the Gospel message of peace and grace. This is the context into which we are called to bring a word of hope. We are called to help folks hear the voice of the shepherd and to follow him in their lives.
So how do we do this? We do it by being aware of what is going on in our communities and being true to that reality in our preaching. We do it by providing a way out of the lostness — by providing again or for the first time a chance to be invited into a relationship with God. We do this by reminding our people of the gifts of God’s unmerited grace and forgiveness. We do that by once again bringing our people to the font to remember the gift of grace at baptism and to the table to remember the abundant hope we receive from the body and blood of Christ shared in the sacrament.