Lectionary Commentaries for April 18, 2010
Third Sunday of Easter
Commentary on John 21:1-19
Frank L. Crouch
Commentary on Acts 9:1-6 [7-20]
Saul: A Change of Plans
Each of Luke’s stories is particular. God is doing a new thing. Yet each story is God yet again making good on God’s promises. This story of Saul’s encounter with the risen Jesus on the way to Damascus was clearly a favorite of Luke, since he tells it three times in Acts (see Acts 22:6-16; 26:12-18). Like the series of speeches in Acts that repeat the same old story of salvation, the problem for the preacher is not the lack of material, but how to tell the whole story with the kind of imagination and vision that can capture and place our present stories within the grand story of God’s people from the beginning. As background for the lessons from Acts in the season of Easter it will be helpful to revisit the overview of Luke’s witness to the resurrection and the themes of Luke-Acts in my comments for the 2nd Sunday of Easter.
Luke is a master of narrative and of little words. As the story begins, an important word is “still” The resurrection has come, but Saul and the powers of evil are “still” at work and effective (9:1; Greek: eti). Saul has “official “letters” authorizing wholesale arrests of those who belong to “the Way” (9:2). Ironically, Saul is also “on the way” to Damascus and all signs point to his success.
And then “it happens!” (9:3; Greek: egeneto). This favorite word of Luke, often omitted in translations (see Luke 2:1; 24:4), signals the surprising entry of God into ordinary events. A light flashes “around” Saul and he wisely capitulates to the voice, that in the quick exchange twice identifies the object of Saul’s persecution as not Christians, but “me,” “Jesus” (9:45).
The command quickly cuts to the chase (9:6). “Get up and go into the city.” There is no argument or explanation, and one gets the sense objectives in Damascus will be changed. “And you will be told what it is necessary for you to do” (the original Greek). The “it is necessary” links this story to Luke’s common emphasis on the sure and certain destiny of God’s promise and mission (forty times in Luke-Acts; see Luke 4:43; Acts 1:16; 4:43; and last Sunday’s 5:29). Furthermore, that what is spoken will come from the outside and leaves no doubt that another is in control of Saul’s destiny.
To end the reading here leaves the story unfinished, with a “to be continued” that begs attention to the longer reading for the day. The repeated references in verses 7-9 to opened eyes which see nothing and the mention of “three days” invite recollection and anticipation of the resurrection and of new beginnings, much as in the story of the Emmaus disciples in Luke 24.
Ananias: A Second Conversion
Now the story shifts to Damascus to a disciple named Ananias, and thus to one of Saul’s former targets. The close parallelisms of the accounts of Saul and Ananias suggest that there are really two call stories and thus, two conversions taking place here. To his obedient “Here I am, Lord,” Ananias receives the same cryptic “Get up and go,” but with explicit instructions regarding the object of his mission: Saul (9:11). When the voice adds reference to Saul’s “prayer” and vision of one coming to lay hands on him so that he can regain his sight, the narrative already anticipates the effective promises of God and invites us into a future that even Ananias is not quite ready to see.
Instead Ananias responds, “I have heard from many …how many evil things he has done.” Ananias knows too much about the ways of the world and about persons like Saul. Even after the reference to God’s “name” (9:14); even after the promise to Mary that with God “all words” are possible (Luke 1:37), the past still seeks to define and control the present. But in the promise of God’s word, then, as now, the ways of the world are being rearranged.
So the command needs repetition along with supporting rationale. “Go, because..” Because Saul is God’s chosen vessel who will carry God’s name. Surprise, surprise! Saul’s name will be added to the list of those who “call upon the name” and now will bear this name to strange places and to strange peoples like Gentiles and kings, and yes even to the children of Israel.
Three times the “name” is mentioned here, joined with talk of what Saul “must suffer for the sake of my name” (9:16). While perhaps suggesting Saul’s imitation of the suffering of Christ, the word “suffer” also implies one who is “passive” and no longer in control. In the promises of God things are set in motion that are out of our control. God chooses; God calls; God’s name is advanced as God does a new thing in light of the resurrection of Jesus.
So now Ananias obeys. He goes, enters, and lays hands on Saul. His address, “Brother Saul” is a telling sign of the new relationship underway in fulfillment of the promise. It is sealed in baptism as the sign of the Spirit’s presence and outpouring.
“For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus” (9:19). This concluding remark leaves much unspoken about the changes implied in the Damascan community of believers. One would like to know some of the dynamics that those “some days” with Saul entailed. Instead what we hear is that Saul “immediately” began to proclaim Jesus as the Son of God in the synagogues (9:20) Two relations, two communities, the new community of the disciples and the old community of the synagogue are both being transformed by this new preaching of Jesus as the risen Lord.
God Shapes a New Community
In this story a profound transformation takes place between Saul’s opening threats and his concluding preaching in the synagogues that Jesus is God’s Son. The two conversions are a vision, a sign, of how the name of the risen Lord takes shape and unfolds in the lives of believers, then and now. In this story disciples and non-disciples alike are swept up in the necessary plan of God’s design.
The story of Saul and Ananias invite us to ponder how we will look at our own world when God takes our “no way,” and our “we’ve never done that before” and transforms them into “yes.” Like Saul’s and Ananias’ new vision, God rearranges our ways of seeing, being, and acting. God changes our world.
It is not far from the Damascus road to Paul’s later word to the Romans about a “God who gives life to the dead and brings into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17). How do we imagine what God is doing? Where God is leading us? What will be our response when God says to us, “Get up and Go, because I have chosen you and am commissioning you for the life of a new community?”
Commentary on Psalm 30
Psalm 30 is an Individual Psalm of Thanksgiving.
This genre presupposes a past experience where the poet was in trouble, prayed about it, and received an answer in a dramatic way from God. Only a small number of such Psalms are in the Bible (18, 34, 40, 52, 66, 116, and 130). Considering that only a third of the Psalms are laments, we may be surprised at the small number of this kind of Psalm.
The occasion is very personal. Someone has had a near-death experience. Previously, this person felt very secure and confident, but the brush with death changed everything. Now, the whole purpose and center of life is praise.
When and by whom was it written? The superscription suggests it was David’s work, composed for use at the dedication of the Temple. This cannot be so, for David was already dead before Solomon began constructing it. Labeling the Psalm as “Of David” is better translated as “For David,” implying that it should be used by the reigning king. Some have thought that the word ‘Hanukkah,’ translated as ‘dedication,’ refers to the event celebrated even today by the Jewish community in December for eight days. However, that holiday began in 165 B.C.E. when the temple was rededicated after its desecration by Antiochus IV, the Syrian emperor. Based on the content of the Psalm, it appears far older than this event.
As a Psalm of Thanksgiving, we would expect Psalm 30 to be comprised of certain elements. It refers back to a time of distress (verses 2a, 7b), to a call for help (verses 5, 6, 7), and to God’s answer, a deliverance (verses 2b, 3, 11). God’s graciousness and power (verses 1, 5, 7a), and the actual thanksgiving (verses 1, 4, 12) are, of course, essential elements of such Psalms.
The structure of Psalm 30 shows a good deal of repetition. Samuel Terrien analyzed it so as to find the pattern a, a’, b, b’, etc.1 We will follow this arrangement in the comments which follow.
In Verse 1, we find the basis for the thanksgiving, echoed later in verse 11. The present situation of the Psalmist is contrasted with an earlier one. There is no longer any reason to fear. Foes did play a role in the past, as they did for a good number of Psalmists (cf. Psalm 31:18). Possibly, these foes thought the writer was previously getting what was deserved because of sinful conduct. But there is no confession of sin, only admission of an earlier attitude of self-confidence. In ancient Israel, one’s experience of grief or joy was not only expressed in facial expression or words, but also in clothing.
Verses 2 and 10 should also be parallel. They are remembrances of what was said to God in the time of trouble. They were desperate but hopeful cries, knowing that Yahweh is gracious (verse 10).
Verses 3 and 9 reflect an ancient world-view shared by Israel with its neighbors. The underworld (Sheol, the Pit) was part of the observed three-story universe. Those who died, while buried in the ground, were connected to a kind of half-life in this lower level of the earth. Worst of all, they were cut off from contact with God. Part of the Psalmist’s petition in verse 9 is an argument against the Psalmist’s death, since it will cut off God from the Psalmist’s praise, and reflect negatively on God’s faithfulness.
Verses 4 and 8 should, but do not, reflect the same idea. The earlier verse calls for others to join the Psalmist in praise for the healing that took place (verse 3). The latter verse is just another way of telling what the Psalmist’s petition was, which continues in verse 9.
Verses 5 and 7 again seem to express, in two different ways, the way the Psalmist experienced the life-threatening episode. It was not only physical suffering; it was also thought to be the result of God’s anger, a hiding of God’s face. But it was short-lived, somewhat like a bad night followed by a good morning and continuing on in life-long divine favor. Verse 7 says that the author thought that his mountain stood firm until the death-threat suddenly emerged. When all is going well, pride may indeed go before a fall.
Verse 6, if Terrien is right, is the focal point of the Psalm. Now, the writer sees things very differently than before the emergency. A great change of attitude has taken place. But this verse does not express what the new attitude really is. We have already heard it in verse 1, and it concludes in verse 12. The psalmist is now in a life-long mode of praise.
We have all met people near death and in depression and pain. At times, it may be our own experience too. It is part of human existence. Whether it will be felt as a divine visitation of disfavor or punishment is another matter. Some suffering we do bring on ourselves because God’s world does not make exceptions to the consequences of our actions. If and when reprieve comes, there may also be a changed attitude toward everything, especially toward God.
In pastoral counseling one may enter with the relieved sufferer in a far more intimate way than is possible from the pulpit. Should one announce that suffering and the shadow of death are divine punishment? Is death the consequence of sin or only the natural end of life necessary to make room for the next generation? It seems our bodies were meant to serve us for a limited life span. The next life will be different, and thus Jesus’ resurrection is the key event which changes us from lamenters to praisers. Surely not all sufferers escape death as the Psalmist did. Should or will they praise God anyway? In an age where medicine plays such a great role in healing, do people still see God’s involvement in the process?
1Samuel Terrien, The Psalms (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003).
Commentary on Revelation 5:11-14
Walter F. Taylor, Jr.
Certain questions in life we ask repeatedly.
“Who is in charge?” “What’s for dinner?” “How are you?” Revelation 5 helps us ask–and answer–a lifelong question, “Who is Jesus?”
The setting for the answer given by John the Seer is heaven. Following the letters to the seven churches (chapters 3-4), Revelation shifts in 4:1 to heaven. In the fourth chapter, John’s vision centers on God’s throne and on praise to God. While chapter five is also a vision of heaven, the chapter begins on a note that is several octaves below the high point reached at the end of chapter 4. God in 5:1 holds a scroll sealed with seven seals. An angel searches for someone who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals, but no one is found who is worthy. If the seals are never broken, God’s plan for the defeat of evil and the full coming of God’s reign will never happen.
So, John appropriately breaks into tears. At that point an elder tells him to stop weeping, because the Lion of Judah has conquered and is worthy (verses 2-5). John turns to see the lion, but what he sees instead is “a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered” (verse 6). The Lamb goes to the throne and takes the scroll. The elders immediately fall before him and worship.
Our passage begins as the chorus of praise to the Lamb continues to grow: many angels, the four living creatures, and the elders once again sing with a loud voice. There are so many that they number “myriads of myriads” (a myriad is ten thousand) and “thousands of thousands,” that is, a number so large no one could tally it.
And what they sing is, “Worthy is the Lamb.” Worthy (the Greek axios) was a well-known political term in the Greek-speaking part of the Roman Empire. Just as today the band plays “Hail to the Chief” when the President of the United States enters a large gathering, so in the first centuries the crowds were trained to shout, “Worthy! Worthy! Worthy is the emperor!” when the Roman emperor appeared in public. Revelation constantly engages in a struggle with the powers of evil, symbolized and centered in the Roman Empire. It is the Lamb, Jesus, who is worthy, not the emperor, no matter how much power he claims.
What about this Lamb? Why is he worthy? “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered.” Lamb is the favorite title for Jesus in the book of Revelation, and the Lamb remains always the crucified one, even when he is also the resurrected one and the Lord of the world. There is no path to worthiness–just as there is no road to Easter–that does not pass through the cross.
Because of his worthiness John assigns seven attributes to the Lamb–not six, not eight, not one hundred, but seven! Seven, of course, is the number of completion and perfection. Often when this kind of list has an odd number of items, the one in the center is the most important. Attribute number four is “might.” That attribute might seem to be at odds with the image of the slaughtered Lamb, but it signals that this Lamb is able to carry out his task. He is powerful enough not only to open the seals of the scroll, but also to engage and defeat the powers of evil.
Then, in verse 13, as if the chorus is not big enough, “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them” join in the song. But they expand their song to include “the one seated on the throne,” who has already been praised in chapter 4. To that one and to the Lamb “be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” This verse shows the high Christology of the author. The throne of both God and the Lamb is the same, and so the worship offered to each is also to both. Thus chapter 4 praises God. 5:1-12 praises the Lamb; and 5:13-14 praises both together. Both chapters end on a strong universal note: in 4:11 the heavenly chorus worships God as the creator of all things, and the chorus in 5:13 is composed of every creature in the whole creation.
The only thing left to do is to say, “Amen”–which is exactly what the four living creatures do in verse 14.
We need to put 5:11-14 into the context of what follows, as well as into the context of what has preceded. In what follows, the six seals are opened, and the end-time woes or sufferings begin, and the battle with evil is engaged once again. But those listening can handle the images of destruction and death, because they know that the message does not stop with the coming of the four horsemen, the plagues, and violence, but goes beyond them to the word of salvation and joy announced in our text. The glimpse of heaven also reminds us that the decisive victory has indeed already been won–which is why we are in the season of Easter. The future triumph is already present in heaven. What is left for us to do is to join in the worship.
Readers from liturgical traditions may have identified that 5:11-14 is part of communion liturgies such as that in the Evangelical Lutheran Worship book, page 101. Although unfortunately the Scriptural sources of the liturgy are not listed in that book, “This is the Feast” comes straight out of Revelation.
How about a sermon on the Third Sunday of Easter that does just one thing: it praises the Lamb. No exhortation, no ethical bite, no stewardship emphasis, just praise. Praise for what Jesus has done for us. Praise for the one who is the Lamb. And praise for the one who is forever the slaughtered Lamb while still being the resurrected Lord.
In this third resurrection appearance (verse 14), Jesus comes to the disciples once again, or at least to the seven who are mentioned (verses 1-2).
Peter stays “in character” here as the one who continues to bumble around before realizing what he is actually called to do. His first act in response to two resurrection appearances and the “Johannine Pentecost” (20:22-23) consists of convincing the others to go fishing. His actions follow a typical human pattern–an intense spiritual experience soon fades, and one returns to the same things he or she has always done.
But, Peter’s return to his previous life will be radically transformed. His fishing expedition becomes a new experience of abundance, mirroring Cana’s 120-180 gallons of wine (2:1-11) and the twelve baskets of food left over at the feeding of the 5,000 (6:1-14). The nets that had been empty when used under the disciples’ own power are filled almost to bursting with a word from the risen Christ, who then prepares them a meal (verses. 3-13). This “last breakfast” once again transforms a moment of deprivation and insufficiency into a feast, with unexpected blessing made available for all.
Attention turns to Peter, whose three-fold denial at Jesus’ trial (18:15-18, 25-27) and rapid return to his old occupation are graciously redeemed and redirected in conversation with his Lord (verses 14-19). The terminology of this conversation–with its repeated questions, “Peter, do you love me?” and assertions, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you”–requires study, starting with the words used for “love.”
It has long been noted–and often noted in misleading ways–that Greek has three words for love (eros, philos, and agapē) where English-speakers must make do with just one.i These three Greek words are often considered to be in something of a ranked order. Eros is placed at the bottom as a self-centered, selfish love that cares little for the well-being of its object. Philos is described as better than eros, but still second-rate, merely consisting of the love between friends, which can be deep, meaningful, and other-directed, but which cannot compare with agapē. Agapē stands in this ordering as the highest form of love, like God’s love for the world (3:16), a pure, selfless love that could only have a divine source.
In this reckoning, one might expect Christ to lead Peter from a lower form of love (eros or philos) to its highest form, agapē; but this is not, in fact, what happens. Jesus’ first two questions use agapē and Peter answers with philos. However, in his third question, Jesus changes the terminology, asking Peter finally, “Peter, do you love me (philos)?” and Peter answers, apparently correctly, “Yes, Lord, you know everything, you know that I love you (philos).” Here and elsewhere in John, the understanding of agapē and philos do not fit the expected scheme. This suggests that the long-standing interpretation is misguided, and it has implications for our own understanding of how God calls us to love.
It is true in John that God’s love or Christ’s love is often expressed as agapē, and numerous times the word carries that highest meaning (3:16; 8:42; 10:17; 11:5; 13:1; etc.). At the same time, agapē and philos can be used synonymously, as in 3:35, where the Father loves the Son (agapē) and in 5:20, where the Father also loves the Son (this time with philos). Further, when describing how judgment takes place–“and this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world and people loved darkness more than the light” (3:19)–the word used for this love of the darkness is agapē. Some people love darkness with an intensity that matches the saints’ love for God.
In addition, at the end of Jesus’ ministry, when John explains why some authorities believed in Jesus but did not confess him publically, it says, “for they loved (agapē) human glory rather than the glory that comes from God” (12:42-43). This agapē is deep and heartfelt. It involves them to the core of their being, and it is entirely misdirected, the “right” love for the wrong things. As the Eagles’ song says, “these things that are pleasing you, hurt you somehow.”ii Just as agapē can be a love that comes from God and leads to life, it can also become desperately distorted, directed toward things that turn us away from God.
When Jesus himself clarifies the highest form of agapē, he does so in terms of philos. Love for friends is no second class love here. “No one has greater love (agapē) than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends (philos)” (15:13). In fact, Jesus goes on to define his relationship with his disciples in terms of friendship–“I do not call you servants any longer … but I have called you friends (philos)” (15:15). Jesus calls Peter not just to love but to love others and love them to the end (see 13:1). Peter’s restoration to renewed relationship is also a restoration to a new kind of leadership. Fisherman no longer, he is called to feed Christ’s sheep (verses 15-17) and because of that feeding, eventually to die: “Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old…someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go” (21:18). After indicating to Peter “the kind of death by which he would glorify God,” Christ says to him again, “Follow me” (21:19).
This kind of love, whether it is called philos or agapē, involves an inherent expectation of “doing.” Love is as love does. This is love as courage, love as risk, love as not wavering, regardless of what we are called to do. Christ calls Peter and us, as individuals and as communities of faith, to follow him even where we would not otherwise go, even where we might not want to go. The times in which we live are no time for “we have never done it that way before,” no time for returning to what we are used to. These times, more than ever, are times that call for the best love of God, friends, neighbors, and enemies that we can muster. Or, better yet, these times cry out for the love to which God calls us and that God will bring to life within us for the sake of others.
iFor the sake of this discussion, I’m working only with the nouns agapē and philos. I do not use their verbal forms, agapē/agapaō and philos/phileō. For each word, the noun form and the verb form come from the same root word and have the same basic meaning. The point here is the definitions of the words, not the grammar.
iiFrom “Desperado,” by Glenn Frey and Don Henley.