Lectionary Commentaries for April 7, 2013
Second Sunday of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 20:19-31

Susan Hylen

What is a disciple to do in the wake of Jesus’ resurrection?

Following the Easter story of Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene, two parallel stories in John explore the responses of disciples to the message of his resurrection. Although Thomas is often singled out as deficient in belief, his story shares much in common with the response of the disciples as a whole. The twin accounts present the disciples as both believing and disbelieving. The gift of the Holy Spirit enlivens the disciples to continue Jesus’ ministry without rendering them perfect believers.

Thomas is missing when the other disciples encounter Jesus. Yet he hears from them the same proclamation they heard from Mary Magdalene: “We have seen the Lord!” (20:25; cf. 20:18). Like Thomas, the disciples were not immediately transformed by Mary’s proclamation of the good news. They remain behind locked doors, where they are gathered out of fear (20:19). Like Thomas, the disciples only respond with joy to Jesus’ presence after he shows them his hands and his side (20:20, 27). Although “doubting Thomas” gets his reputation from this story, his response of unbelief is not unique, but instead is typical of disciples of Jesus.

There are two theological issues at stake in the portrait of the disciples vis-á-vis Thomas. The first is the question of whether the disciples achieve perfect or complete belief following Jesus’ resurrection. Much of the language of the Farewell Discourse (John 14-17) has led readers to expect that it will. Jesus has spoken of a future time when the disciples would “know” (14:20), “testify” (15:27) and “do greater works” than Jesus has done (14:12). Although they manifest doubt during Jesus’ earthly life, the language of the Farewell Discourse suggests a future time when the disciples overcome these deficiencies. Many scholars read the resurrection stories as just such accounts, where the disciples’ belief is seen in its maturity.

However, the disciples are not presented simply as believers, even after Jesus’ resurrection. Even after his first appearance and the gift of the Holy Spirit (also foreseen in the Farewell Discourse (14:16-17), the disciples remain behind locked doors the second week as well (20:26). They proclaim the Easter message, “We have seen the Lord!” but their actions do not fully match their understanding. Although the narrator proclaims “blessed” the one who has not seen and yet has believed (20:29), this is true of none of Jesus’ disciples. Instead, John portrays the disciples as still reaching toward belief in Jesus.

Even Thomas’s confession, “My Lord and my God!” (20:28) does not mark the completion of his faith. His statement is a significant confession, but it is not the end of the story. In the next chapter, Thomas is named as one of seven disciples. The pattern is familiar: they initially do not recognize Jesus (21:4), but come to understand him (21:7). Yet they finish with a question about his identity that they dare not ask even as they know the answer (21:12). Although John’s language projects a future time in which disciples will understand Jesus, that perfect knowledge always lies outside the boundaries of the Gospel story. The disciples embody a belief that reaches toward but never quite achieves complete understanding of Jesus.

The second theological question these verses raise explicitly is the reader’s relationship to Jesus’ disciples. What is expected of later followers of Jesus, and should they understand themselves as like or unlike the disciples of the story? In verses 19-23, Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit onto the disciples. Is this a special possession of the early church? Some interpreters imagine “the disciples” here as a limited group of the twelve (minus Judas and Thomas) who are commissioned as official apostles with particular duties that raise them above the level of the average believer. Jesus’ words to them, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them…” (20:23), reinforce the perception for many that the disciples have a unique role.

Yet it may be better to understand the disciples as a group that reflects John’s understanding of discipleship as a whole. As is often the case in John, “the disciples” who appear in 20:19 are unnumbered and unnamed. Although John clearly knows of the designation “the twelve,” he uses the phrase to identify disciples who are part of Jesus’ most intimate group of associates (6:71; 20:24) rather than to specify the actions or characteristics of the group.

Although readers may be primed to expect Jesus’ last supper to be eaten with the twelve (cf. Matt 26:20; Mark 14:11), or that he will appear to the eleven alone in his resurrection (Matt 28:16; Mark 16:14; Luke 24:33, 36), John specifies only that “the disciples” are present in each case (13:5; 20:19). This designation suggests a more open-ended group of people included in Jesus’ words and actions.

But what then does it mean for Jesus to breathe out the Holy Spirit and to tell this larger group of disciples, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them”? The passage is a commissioning scene, but it is a commissioning of the church as a whole, not an elite group of leaders. John’s language seems to grant broad powers to the church to forgive or retain sins. It may help to remember that throughout John’s Gospel “sin” has referred to the rejection of Jesus and his ministry (e.g., 8:24; 9:41; 15:22-24). Jesus’ presence already reveals and condemns people’s belief or unbelief (cf. 3:17-19; 5:22). In Jesus’ absence the church steps into this role. The image is not a narrow one of a priest assigning penance but a broader recognition that the church becomes the arbiter of acceptance or rejection of Jesus.

Even so, part of our modern difficulty with this text may be that Jesus leaves this authority in the hands of disciples who are not themselves free from sin. John seems well aware of this, having positioned the story of commissioning in the midst of the disciples’ struggle to come to terms with their resurrection faith. Instead of trying to “solve” the problem of this responsibility granted to the church, I would say instead that the passage seems consistent with John’s portrait of the disciples. They are called to do much more than they are capable of. Yet they occasionally achieve great clarity, and in those moments they manifest the hope of the resurrection.

First Reading

Commentary on Acts 5:27-32

Kyle Fever

The apostles were doing what they believed they were commissioned to do. 

Unfortunately, this conflicted with what others believed and how others lived. In this particular instance the apostles’ witness conflicted with the ideas of the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem. Later in Acts 19 Paul’s witness will conflict with the town of Ephesus and the economy that revolved around worship of the goddess Artemis.

The earlier stage of the current episode finds the apostles in prison because of their witness (Acts 5:12-19). But why? They just wanted everyone to know Jesus loved them, didn’t they? After all, isn’t that the essence of the gospel message? If this is the case, something doesn’t quite compute. Nowhere in Acts does anyone proclaim Jesus’ “love.” Such a benign message would not land the apostles in prison, either. While we’re not given clear reasons why the leadership did not agree with the disciples’ proclamation of Jesus, it is clear that they were doing something disagreeable that brought persecution.

We shouldn’t too quickly demonize the Jewish leadership. They, like the apostles, were acting out of their own convictions and concerns. Perhaps the problem is not just what the apostles said or did, but how they did it. According to Acts the apostles were imprisoned and warned because of their teaching about Jesus and healing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits (Acts 5:16). In other words, they were drawing public attention. It probably did not help that they were drawing public attention to carrying on the message of a Jewish man who was executed on a Roman cross, a message that not only upset certain conceptions about God’s anointed one, but also implicitly challenged claims associated with Roman rule.

We Must Obey God Rather Than Any Human Authority
After refusing to obey the Jerusalem authorities’ orders to keep quiet, Peter and the apostles find themselves on the defense in a courtroom setting. They remind Peter, “Did we not tell you to keep quiet?” Peter’s first response is not, “I’m sorry, sirs, we shall not go about publically proclaiming the name of Jesus any longer.” To the contrary, what he says carries the same effect of giving the authorities the middle finger.

Peter’s statement (“we must obey God rather than any human authority”) stands within a long tradition that appealed to a higher, transcendent authority to legitimize or challenge certain behaviors or actions. One is reminded of Sophocles’ Antigone where the decrees of Creon are set in opposition to the divine laws of the gods. What is the purpose of such appeals? Are they rhetorical ploys, the effect of saying, “We’re the ones doing what God wants, not you.” In part, yes. But these appeals also intend to call into question what manner of living should make the world go around.

Humans Crucified, but God Exalted
Ancient rulers often defined existence in their kingdoms, whether establishing new law or being law themselves. Peter’s statement in verses 30-31 uses language that commonly described ancient rulers: leader (“ruler”) and savior. These two verses bring Jesus rulership and his crucifixion together, highlighting the offense of calling Jesus “Lord”:

The God of our fathers raised up Jesus,
whom you had killed,
by hanging him on a tree;
God exalted him at his right hand as leader and savior

This powerful and poetic statement can be summed up in terms of overturning. First, the actual death of Jesus is overturned by God’s rising of Jesus. Jesus’ death is not the final word, but for Acts it is the pathway into new life of repentance and renewal. The resurrection legitimizes and empowers the witness of the community, symbolizing that death to the ideologies of power and dominance in the old system results in new life.

Second, Peter’s statement overturns the meaning of Jesus’ death by relating it to God’s exaltation of Jesus. I do not suggest this in the Johannine sense (John 8:28; 12:32), but in the sense that Jesus’ Lordship over all is achieved through his cross. It is important to see the juxtaposition of Jesus’ death and his exaltation as ruler and savior. The defining element of Jesus’ lordship and thus the economy of his kingdom is one of overturning earthly power and dominance. The cross is the red carpet that leads to the subversive lordship of Jesus and defines his kingdom. If ancient rulers defined the nature of their kingdom, then Jesus’ kingdom is very unlike anything the apostles knew from the Greco-Roman world of the first century. The point is not unlike the one made in Luke 22:25-26.

The rhetoric of obeying God rather than humans serves to highlight that ceasing from public proclamation of Jesus would be submitting to the power hungry modes of existence that typified the world. Jesus’ resurrection says there is something better.

Repentance and Forgiveness
Peter’s short message concludes proclaiming “repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” Ultimately the entire public hubbub relates to God’s offer of repentance and forgiveness. The apostles’ message that challenged and called Israel to God is brought not in judgment but, as we see in Acts 2–4, in acts of renewal and in the extension of forgiveness, which are extended even to those who scoffed at the message and found it offensive. Public proclamation of Jesus in obedience to God rather than humans intends not to cut off those who oppose; it intends to serve and even to suffer for doing it, pressing on to witness to God’s renewal of all things.

Going Off the Rails
In 1980 Ozzy Osbourne released a song called “Crazy Train.” The chorus of the song is ridiculously simple, but very evocative: “I’m going off the rails on a crazy train.” What the apostles were doing must have seemed like this to much of the surrounding world. The Pharisees and leaders certainly seem to think this. Drawing attention to the public proclamation of Jesus as Lord was indeed crazy. This crazy train, Peter is clear to note, does not have a human conductor, and God is taking it right off of the rails. This is not to condone going off of the rails for its own sake or irresponsible witness to Jesus Christ. Much depends on how one evaluates the rails in the first place. What to the authorities of the time seemed like going off the rails was accurate. But that’s because from the perspective of Acts, the current rails on which the human train journeyed were no longer bringing God’s forgiveness and renewal, but actually hindering it.


Commentary on Psalm 150

Shauna Hannan

Dare I suggest considering a sermon on something other than John 20 this Easter 2?

I recommend a worship service filled with unrestrained praise to the tune of Psalm 150. This is not altogether unrelated to John 20, for it mimics Thomas’ move from a restrained disciple toward a proclamation of unrestrained praise, “My Lord and My God.”

Psalm 150 provides guidance on praising the Lord in few words. In only six verses, we learn who, where, and how to praise, the motivation to praise, and who/what should do the praising. Since the majority of the Psalm focuses on how to praise the Lord, so will the following comments. But, first, a quick summary of the other guiding elements.

Yahweh is to be praised in his sanctuary (temple language) and in his mighty expanse (read: no limits). Why should Yahweh be praised? Because Yahweh is praise-able; Yahweh is worthy of our praise. Who should be praising Yahweh? You, me, and all that has life; all that breathes. Again, read: no limits. “All that breathes” brings us full circle to the actions of the one who is to be praised. Our identity is defined in terms of Yahweh’s identity as the one who breathes first. Without the “praisee,” there would be no “praisers.”

Now to the major question of the Psalm (assuming that being the focus of the majority of verses signifies “major”). How are we to praise the Lord? In short, the Psalm suggests “according to the Lord’s surpassing greatness.” The Psalm does not say we are to praise God according to God’s actions. Instead, we are to praise God according to God’s being. The next six verses flesh out how we are to understand the Lord’s surpassing greatness. Essentially, the Lord’s surpassing greatness is highly sensory and diverse; it is not to be missed in its aural, kinesthetic, and visual grandeur.


This Psalm comes off the page and meets the faithful right where it counts — the ear (“Faith comes through hearing”). Spend a little time imagining the cacophony (!) created when the following instruments are mixed: trumpets, lute, harp, tambourine, strings, pipe, clanging cymbals, loud clashing cymbals. This is no ordinary composition of sounds.

Aurally, the choice of instruments defies logic. The Lord’s surpassing greatness is difficult to miss and defies a certain organizational logic. This Psalm suggests we do the same to return praise. A number of composers through the ages have helped us do so: Bruckner, Britten, Rutter, Franck. More and more I am keenly aware of how the church’s musicians have been helpful commentators on the Psalms. Indeed, it is through music that we praise the Lord.

That we sing the praise of God is not accidental custom. Music performed, sung, enacted is so much a dimension of praise that words of praise without music need not be musical in rhythm and elegance if they are to serve as praise.1

When the preacher crafts a sermon of unrestrained praise, the preacher is praising the Lord. The preacher need not actually sing words for them to be musical (in most cases, this is to be avoided). All language is musical. Consider the musicality of Psalm 150 in its original language. It looks musical:


Hal’lu el b’kodsho,

Hal’luhu birkia uzo

Hal’luhu bigvurotav,

Hal’luhu k’rov gud’lo

Hal’luhu b’teika shofar,

Hal’luhu b’nevel v’chinor.

Hal’luhu b’tof umachol.

Hal’luhu b’minim v’ugav

Hal’luhu b’tziltzelei shama,

Hal’luhu b’tziltzelei tru’ah

Kol han’shama t’halel yah.


It sounds musical: http://www.mechon-mamre.org/mp3/t26f0.mp3

Praising the Lord requires many sounds; even sounds that are not traditionally considered worshipful. Stand at the busiest street corner in your community and tune into the sounds around you. In what way(s) might that cacophony be praising the Lord?

Psalm 150 reminds us that praising the Lord will not be a silent endeavor. This is not surprising since the one we praise is not silent; God speaks creation into being.


We praise God through sound, yes, but also through the movement of our bodies as Miriam did (Exodus 15:20); praise him with tambourine and dance.

It is no wonder that worship is filled with movement. Lest you think there is not much dancing in church, compare your sanctuary experiences to your cinema experiences. There is a lot more movement in the sanctuary, isn’t there? Comparatively, even the stereotypically stiff Northern European Midwestern worshipper is a mover: we enter, we stand, we sit, we rise and go forward to lead prayers and read scripture, we move around the sanctuary to share the peace, we move forward to receive communion, we stand and sit again, we kneel. Those who are willing to defy logic, even dare to “shake it” a bit while singing, are praising the Lord. So, we praise the Lord with our voices and with our bodies. We praise the Lord in word and deed.


Finally, there is a visual element to praising the Lord. The first handwritten, illuminated Bible manuscript in 500 years (The Saint John’s Bible) is a project commissioned by Saint John’s Abbey (Collegeville, MN).2 Welsh calligrapher Donald Jackson and his fellow “scribes” have crafted a masterpiece worth experiencing.

The book on Psalms contains fewer bold iconographic illustrations than some of their work, but the intricacies are stunning. All subtleties are thrown aside, however, for Psalm 150. This is the only Psalm that is illuminated in all gold leaf, making the text dance right off the page. Indeed, Psalm 150 visually explodes off the page in praise.

A sermon based on Psalm 150 will no doubt be “over the top” as it “pulls out all the stops” in praise of the one who surpasses greatness. Hyperbole abounds, as it should, in the grand finale of the Psalter. And yet, it is not a finale at all, but a beginning. For those of us who have received our vitality from one who breathes life into us (read: all of us and all of creation), there is much joy and delight in joining in the symphony of unrestrained praise.

1James L. Mays, Psalms (Louisville: John Knox, 1994) 450.


Second Reading

Commentary on Revelation 1:4-8

Eric Barreto

We were not the intended audience of Revelation.

That is, John did not write primarily to modern Christians. After all, how could he have written to people living thousands of years later in a world radically different than his? Plus, why would the church have preserved these texts, pondered them, interpreted them if their intended audience remained in the distant future?

And yet these are the words of God for us today. These are living words of great theological depth too often neglected by some Christians or poorly interpreted by others. Too often, our fellow believers have dwelt on the fireworks of Revelation, on the dragons and horsemen that populate its pages, and thus have missed the contextual, theological, and Christological reflections that anchor this vision of God’s future.

This is the word of God for us today. They are words for us, however, by the means of some of the earliest believers in Christ Jesus. It is these faithful Christians of Asia[1] who are the first recipients of Revelation’s visions but also the seven letters with which John opens his marvelous composition. Thus, these opening verses invite us to read the rest of this text in light of the everyday experiences, struggles, and successes that marked these early Christian communities.

This is the word of God for us today even when the symbolism of Revelation baffles us. It is virtually certain that the earliest readers of Revelation knew the code with which John writes, even if we have lost the needed cyphers after all this time. John must have known that his writings would have been comprehensible, for he was not an esoteric psychic but a prophet, even a pastoral theologian. The letters that begin Revelation note his pastoral concern for these burgeoning communities. In many ways then, Revelation is akin to the Pauline correspondence. So, we ought to read Revelation as the reflections of faithful Christians on a broken, baffling world. How we ought to live is the question that drives Revelation.

This is the word of God for us today in a rule marked by the raw exercise of political power. The shadow of the Roman Empire would have fallen mightily on the earliest readers of Revelation. Notice the litany of praise attached to Jesus, “the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth” (verse 5). The first acclimation confesses the truthfulness of the gospel embodied in Jesus Christ. The second trusts that death will not have the final say. The last is a bold and potentially treacherous statement.

The political ideology of Rome holds that the power of Caesar is absolute. Within this political ideology, their military and economic might only validates imperial dogma. To claim, therefore, that Rome is a servant of the true monarch of the world is to pledge allegiance to God alone. Such a confession will later serve as the theological backdrop of Revelation 18, where the demise of “Babylon” (that is, Rome) accompanies the victory of Christ.

This is the word of God for us today, not tomorrow. In many ways, Revelation is a text much more about the present than it is about the future. Notice verses 5b-6. Jesus has “freed us from our sins,” crafted a “kingdom” in our midst, and named us “priests.” These are not promised realities alone but tangible benefits that these seven churches can taste. We too as children of the same God can follow in their footsteps. Thus, Revelation is not oriented around anxiety and fear as so much twisted eschatological imagination has proposed. This book — and Christian eschatology more broadly — is about hope in a God we can trust and expectation for a future God has crafted.

This is a word about God for us today. The closing verse of our reading has Jesus famously declaring that he is the Alpha and the Omega, the A and the Z, the beginning and the end, the dawn of the world and its dusk. The eschatology of Revelation is thus not about providing a road map to the end of days, but Revelation is fundamentally about the character of God. Revelation is thus a radical way to shape how we relate to God and one another today. Eschatology is a posture of trust in God and God’s work. Revelation is not about bold predictions about days yet to come. The book is about seeing the work of God in the seemingly ordinary, unremarkable moments that fill our lives.

So, let me challenge preachers to take up this brief pericope. One excellent way to do this is to pair this short reading with two of the seven letters in chapters 2 and 3. In those letters, we discover vibrant communities whose strength belies their weaknesses. Revelation warns them to be wary of complacency. In those letters, however, we also discover afflicted communities whose faith and resilience was being constantly tested by their neighbors and their cultural contexts. Revelation exhorts them to lean into their faith in a Christ who holds the future in his hands.

In these too brief portraits of our faithful ancestors, we might just see our own struggles and successes reflected back to us.

[1]Asia in antiquity referred not to the whole continent but a region of the Roman Empire in modern day Turkey.