Lectionary Commentaries for April 14, 2013
Third Sunday of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 21:1-19

Karyn Wiseman

Killing worms did not sound fun. 

In fact it sounded down right cruel. I could not imagine forcing a fishhook through the slimy body of an innocent worm for sport or fun. But when I was seven years old, my Uncle Everett invited me to spend the day with him on his boat fishing. I had never gone fishing before and loved my uncle, so the invitation was accepted. But before we left he made sure I was ready for the day — I had to put the worms on the hook. I was appalled. I was scared my soul was in jeopardy or whatever a seven-year-old thinks about an endangered soul. So Uncle Everett asked, “Can you do it, kid?”

Evidently I wanted to go in the boat and spend time with him more than I was concerned with my soul. So I said yes. And off we went.

The first 30 minutes was exciting. I got to help gas and drive the boat and I learned about my uncle’s saucy speech habits. Then we started fishing and I was tasked with baiting the hook. And then it got exceptionally boring. We had to wait long periods for bites and several times we failed to land our catch.

I learned that day that fishing is not my thing. There is a lot of preparation, waiting, and disappointment in fishing. And this is exactly where we enter this text — in a moment of frustration for these fishermen. They have been fishing all night to no avail. They are tired and disappointed. They just want to go home.

Fishing – A Resurrection Appearance Story
This chapter of John is likely an addendum written by another, but the questions of its origin should not keep us from the richness of the images. In a story very similar to one in the Gospel of Luke (5: 1-11 which was a call story), Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, Zebedee’s sons, and two other disciples were together fishing in the Sea of Galilee (John 21:2). They have returned to their previous vocation and head back to shore with empty nets after some time fishing.

And there stands Jesus. His call to them is to go back out and try again and he gives them instructions as to the next step. He tells them to put the nets out on the right side of the boat. And they follow his instructions (verse 4-6). While the Lucan story is rightly called a commissioning story, this appearance to the disciples is the third (fourth if counting Mary Magdalene, who was not a disciple officially) resurrection appearance story in John. In this setting we experience a recommissioning of sorts.

The amazing thing to me is that the disciples did not know who he was at first but they went back out. Was it their desperation for a catch, a love of task, a desire for success, a sense of the specialness of the man calling them to return to their task, or something else? Whatever it was, they ventured back out and found huge success. Their nets were overflowing. They catch 153 fish (verse 11). Why that number? Many have guessed but it may simply imply all of the community of believers. The number for most simply implies that many were caught.

They have breakfast with the man they now recognize as Jesus. It is a Eucharistic event despite the lack of wine and that no Eucharistic celebration consisted of fish previously. And it is at this meal that they receive a recommissioning from the Lord. They are reminded who they are and what they were originally called to be. They are challenged to get back in the boat and try again — in more ways than one.

A student of mine was told by his supervising pastor, while out knocking on doors during an evangelism campaign, “Mike, you look like a man knocking on doors, hoping and praying no one answers the door.” That’s how many of us act at times when Jesus calls us to be disciples and to cast our nets again and again for the catch Jesus calls us to attempt. The disciples did as Jesus suggested, while we say, “Please let no one be home” or “Oh wow, I hope no one asks me about my faith.”

Following the call of Jesus means putting your nets back into the sea even though you are tired and had no success, it means knocking on another door even though you are hoping against hope that no one answers.

This is the kind of text that allows for some creative discussions of what church and ministry might look like if we dropped our nets on the other side and if we really followed Jesus. But you need to be attuned to your particular community to be true to what this call might look like lived out in your context.

Three Questions for Peter
The second part of this passage is related to Peter and his relationship to Jesus. Peter is mentioned first as one of the disciples on the shore in the earlier part of this pericope. This now allows for a conversation of great importance. Earlier, Peter denied Jesus three times (18:17, 25-27). And in this exchange, Jesus reinstates Peter into the fold by asking him three times to take care of his sheep (verse 15-17). Peter’s importance is being reinforced and his death foretold (verse 19).

As this exchange occurs, the other disciples, who had been so present in the fishing scene, disappear. This happens because the church, without Jesus physically present, needed Peter as the rock Jesus intended him to be. The call to “feed my sheep” — to love and lead Jesus’ followers — is an important moment for next step in the church to come (verse 15-17).

Preaching familiar texts like these can bring such amazingly creative possibilities. Embrace the reality of the fishermen doing something that might seem absurd to others and one who denied the Lord to become the rock that leads a church.

First Reading

Commentary on Acts 9:1-6 [7-20]

Eric Barreto

One of Luke’s primary protagonists enters the literary stage in a most suspect way.

The first time we hear about Saul (7:58), Luke tells us that he was standing guard over the coats of those who would execute Stephen in brutal fashion. But he’s not just a passive witness. No, he “approved of their killing him” (8:1a). Moreover, Stephen’s is not the only Christian life whose taking he has approved. As we move to chapter 8, Saul’s portrait as arch-persecutor is only enhanced as Acts recounts that “ravaging the church … dragging off both men and women,” he shut them all behind bars. And then Luke turns to the impact of these persecutions; leaving the reader for a moment wondering what role this Saul might play in this story.

Of course, Acts was written by a Christian for other Christians. That is, Luke’s readers know who this Saul is; they know what turns his life will take. In short, they and we know how the movie ends! But by introducing him in this way, Luke establishes the dramatic u-turn Saul’s life is about to take. In doing so, he draws a portrait of calling that continues to shape how we understand God’s graceful but not always subtle or easy pull on our lives.

The beginning of chapter 9 finds Saul continuing to persecute the faithful followers of Jesus. This scene reveals something crucial about the character of the discipleship of these early believers. Later on, Acts 11:26 will recount that it was in Antioch when the faithful are first called “Christians.” How then was this group known prior to this? In chapter 9, these people are known as followers of “The Way.” There is a rich irony, of course, that Saul travels great distances, traverses miles of road persecuting these followers of “The Way” only to be struck down on the way to Damascus. Plus, Saul’s call will also be characterized by a life on the road in his many journeys around the Mediterranean.

“The Way” is a powerful metaphor for Christian identity. Instead of being identified by a set of beliefs, these faithful communities were known by their character in the world. Christian faith was a way of life and one that impelled individuals and communities to leave the safe confines of home and church to walk on the road God had set out. “The Way” suggests that faith is a living, active way of life.

But let’s return to Saul. As he draws near to Damascus and a slew of new persecutions, Saul is struck by a heavenly light and addressed by a heavenly voice. This voice belongs to none other than Jesus himself. Jesus’ presence should serve as an excellent reminder that his ascension is not the inauguration of a time when Jesus is absent from the life of the faithful. If anything, in Acts, Jesus’ presence is that much more palpable in the life of these Christian communities, a presence to which the risen and ascended Lord now refers.

Jesus asks Saul why he has sought to persecute him. That is, when Saul afflicts the faithful, he actually persecutes Jesus himself! Whenever Christians are harassed and abused, Jesus is most palpably present with the oppressed. That too is distinctive characteristic of “The Way”.

Jesus’ instructions to Saul are specific but elliptical. Go into the city, and there you will discover what you need to do. Here, we learn something essential about this narrative. To me, calling this narrative an account of Saul’s conversion misses half the story. Saul does not just turn away from a previous way of life; more importantly, he is called, commissioned to walk in a new “Way.” Even more than a conversion, Saul’s monumental experience on the road to Damascus is a call, a commissioning akin to the call of Isaiah or one of the twelve.

God, however, works in unusual ways in Acts. Instead of continuing to dictate instructions from the clouds, Jesus calls upon a disciple in the city named Ananias. Naturally, Ananias resists these instructions. Even being in Saul’s presence could be a death sentence!

But the Lord is unrelenting and reveals to Ananias in one brief sentence the nature of Saul’s call: He will bring the gospel to kings and Gentiles alike. And he will suffer for the sake of the gospel. In brief form, we learn what shape Paul’s ministry will take in the remaining chapters of Acts. Luke also reveals what is central to the gospel. The good news is expansive and broad. It reaches to the widest edges of the world seeking the lost, but God also turns to the powerful of the world and demands justice, grace, and peace. Yet this good news comes with a price, a price we must wonder if we are willing to embrace as Jesus’ disciples.

The story of the call of Saul/Paul is a stirring and famous story. Luke himself repeats this tale three times in the rest of Acts (also in chapters 22 and 26). It is clearly of importance to a narrative hoping to shape not just what Christians know about the early days of the church but how these stories might shape an imagination for community in our current day.

How might the story of this dramatic call on a dusty road to Damascus give us a new imagination? Encourage people to wonder if their zeal, like Saul’s, has been misdirected and even destructive. Encourage them to expect God to ask them to do difficult things and go to unexpected places. Encourage them not to exclude their supposed enemies from the work God might do in the world.


Commentary on Psalm 30

Shauna Hannan

In his article, “Psalms in Narrative Performance,” Walter Brueggemann writes about making generic Psalms concrete: “To re-narratize the Psalms is to protest against vacuous generalization and to focus on concreteness wherein real people live real lives of agony and ecstasy.”1

Brueggemann unapologetically suggests we update the subscriptions of Psalms. Psalm 30 is more than “A song of dedication of the temple. Of David.” It is “A song of thanksgiving for emotional healing. Of Marcie.” It is “A song of affirmation of vocation. Of Gail.” It is “A song of being restored into community. Of Brian.” No longer are these only David’s poems; they are ours. Consider “Marcie.” You know plenty of Marcies. They are in your community and in your congregation.

Psalm 30

A Psalm. A song of thanksgiving for emotional
healing. Of Marcie.

You have heard Marcie cry to the Lord and you prayed for her when she could not do so herself. And now, a breakthrough. “O Lord, my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me.”

Marcie does what the Psalmist does in verses 1-3, she prays to the Lord in thanksgiving, “Look what you have done. You have raised me up from the lowest of lows.” An ascent.

And then you notice Marcie telling her story to everyone (verses 4-5). She cannot help it. It’s her Easter story. She exhorts those around her, “Give thanks to his holy name.” She acknowledges the momentary Good Friday pain, “For his anger is but for a moment . . . weeping may linger for the night,” before the Easter joy trumps, “his favor is for a lifetime . . . joy comes in the morning.” It does no good to cover up the pain. Go ahead and acknowledge the pain for joy will come in the morning. Marcie testifies to this, and her heartfelt, lived proclamation is broadcast.

At some point, you notice that Marcie becomes more open and more articulate about the Pit, about that moment (verse 5a). She is far enough from the experience that she can now confess her previous overconfidence, “I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’” She still lives with the memory of her dismay when it seemed as if God’s face was hidden from her. It’s one thing to confess this to you, her pastor, or her closest friends — it’s another to confess it to God. But she does.

She confesses to God that she bargained with God à la Abraham (Genesis 18:23f.) She encouraged God to consider, “What’s in it for you, God? What profit is there for you if I stay in this low place? Will the dust praise you?” While Marcie may have negotiated in desperation, even on this side of that desperation the memory of her bargaining has remained with her. Her faithful self-awareness leads her to sing God’s praises and tell others of God’s faithfulness.

Marcie knows it was not her pleading that has brought her to this place of new life. She knows the Lord is the one who has turned her “mourning into dancing.” The Lord is the one who has removed her sackcloth and clothed her with joy (verse 11). She recognizes that the Lord did not do this so that she can return to a place of prosperity (verse 6), but so that her ascent to new life can focus on praising and thanking the Lord.

And praise and thank the Lord she does.

These four clear sections of Marcie’s story not only reflect the usual structure of a song of thanksgiving, they are a microcosm of the entire biblical story. The cry in Exodus 2:23-25, as Brueggemann reminds us, turns into dance in Exodus 15:20-21. The “Lord if you had been here” (John 11:21) turns into “Lazarus, come out!” (John 11:43). The “They have taken away my Lord” (John 20:13) turns into a simple but profound dialog: “Mary!” “Rabbouni!”

Even more, the movement of these four sections in Psalm 30 does not simply reflect the biblical story, it reflects the structure of our lives; it is our story as God’s people. Life is filled with rising up from labored breathing to filled lungs, from hunched shoulders to upright torsos, from Sheol to praise, from mourning to dancing, from death to life.

On this Sunday of Easter, craft the major moves of your sermon so that they reflect the four major moves of the Psalmist’s song of thanksgiving. Remind your congregation that this is the structure of our lives. Better yet, invite them into the movement from death to life. Some will already be dancing their praises and thanksgiving. Others will be crying for help, weeping, or feeling dismayed. Others are negotiating with God. All have their place in this Psalm.

The preaching task, especially in the Easter season, is to acknowledge the dancing even while offering the reminder that joy will come in the morning and the Lord’s favor is for a lifetime.

The pericope from John (21:1-19) reminds us that giving praise and thanks is not always a big production. Sometimes (usually?) the signs of rebirth are evident in the concrete elements of life: people gather, they work, they eat, they tend to one another, they love. Jesus’s resurrection appearance to his disciples turns their mourning into dancing. It is probably not too far-fetched to think that on that day by the Sea of Tiberias, the disciples began to sing, “I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up . . .”

1Walter Brueggemann, “Psalms in Narrative Performance,” in Performing the Psalms, ed. Dave Bland and David Fleer (St. Louis: Chalice, 2005) 9-29. 

Second Reading

Commentary on Revelation 5:11-14

Barbara Rossing

Where can we hear the Lamb’s “new song” (Revelation 5:9) being sung in the world today?

Revelation makes vibrant connections between worship and justice, between liturgy and political transformation. Singing is a profound source of hope in the book of Revelation, as Kathleen Norris writes:

I am attracted to the Revelation also because it was Emily Dickinson’s favorite book of the Bible, and because it takes a stand in favor of singing. In fact, it proclaims that when all is said and done, of the considerable noises human beings are capable of, it is singing that will endure. A new song — if you can imagine — and light will be what remains. I find this a cause for hope.1

Revelation 5 introduces the Jesus as the slain and risen Lamb whose praise is joined by “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea” (Revelation 5:13). All heaven breaks loose in singing when the lamb is found worthy to open the scroll. Revelation is rich in such worship scenes. The hymns of Revelation are familiar from Handel’s “Messiah” (“Worthy Is the Lamb Who Was Slain”), from Charles Wesley’s hymns (“Salvation to God Who Sits on the Throne”), and from the liturgy (“This is the Feast of Victory for Our God”; “Holy, Holy, Holy”). More than fifteen hymns are sung in Revelation, all giving encouragement to Gods people on earth from the perspective of heaven. No book of the Bible has had more influence on Western music and art than Revelation.

John of Patmos envisions a liturgy where animals and all living creatures join us in cacophonous singing. This vision can serve as a corrective to our anthropocentric tendencies to neglect the truly cosmic dimension of God’s praise. The Easter Eucharistic Preface underscores this witness of all creation: “Therefore with Mary Magdalene and Peter, with all the witnesses of the resurrection, with earth and sea and all their creatures, we praise your name and join their unending hymn.”

In order to understand the full significance of this worship scene we must view it in context — both the literary context of ancient apocalypses and the first-century context of Roman imperial theology. Beginning in chapter 4, Revelation follows the typical genre of an ancient “apocalypse” (the first word in Revelation 1:1) in which a representative seer goes on a journey up into heaven and then returns with an urgent message to the community.

On this journey up into heaven (Revelation 4-5) John sees the divine throne and God as “the One seated upon it,” surrounded by heavenly worshipers. The clear message is about allegiance: Only God and God’s Lamb Jesus are worthy of our worship, not the Roman emperor or any imperial power. This radical message is transformative for John and for his first century communities in Asia Minor.

The hard-hitting political role of this worship scene becomes even more apparent if we consider the root meaning of the word “apocalypse”– apo, “from,” and kalyptos, “covering.” John’s Apocalypse is an exposé, a pulling back of the curtain to uncover the truth about the Roman Empire. In a role analogous to that of Toto in the climactic scene of the film “The Wizard of Oz,” Revelation pulls back the curtain to expose the fact that Rome is not the great eternal power it claims to be. Rome must not be worshiped.

As preachers, we can invite worshipers to savor the liturgy and join in the hymn of all creation, even while we also observe that radical liturgy demands saying “no” to false allegiances and claims. As Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza argues, Revelation’s frequent use of hymns, doxologies, halleluiahs, amens and descriptions of heavenly liturgies serves “not for the sake of persuading his audience to participate in the daily or weekly liturgy,” but rather “for the sake of moving the audience to political resistance . . . If the author would write today, he might say: ‘Don’t salute the flag, salute God’; or ‘Don’t pledge allegiance to the state, pledge it to God’.”2

Revelation does not strictly follow the genre of apocalypse, however, but throws in some surprises. Most surprisingly, Revelation introduces Jesus not as the expected fierce apocalyptic lion (Revelation 5:5, from Genesis 49:9), but rather as a “Lamb” (literally the diminutive word, “little lamb”). No other Jewish apocalypse portrays its hero as a Lamb. This is a depiction of Jesus in the most vulnerable way possible, as a slaughtered victim. Jesus Christ is God’s Passover lamb who has been raised, and who now is worthy of our worship.

The powerful metaphor of Jesus as “the Lamb who was slain” will become the central christological symbol of the entire book. This scripting of Jesus as a lamb is an obvious signal not to interpret the imagery of Revelation literally, but rather metaphorically. Just as Jesus was not literally a four-legged sheep or lamb, so Revelation’s other symbols and numbers should not be read literally. Revelation’s profound truth is not as a series of predictions to be figured out, but rather a deeper-than-literal truth — a journey into God’s vision of hope for our world.

1Kathleen Norris, Introduction to Revelation (New York: Grove Press, 1999), vii.

2Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Revelation: Vision of a Just World (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), 103.