Lectionary Commentaries for May 4, 2008
Seventh Sunday of Easter (Year A)

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 17:1-11

Jaime Clark-Soles

Chapters 14-17 are known as Jesus’ Farewell Discourse.

In it, he takes his disciples aside and prepares them for his departure, instructing them, warning them, and equipping them. The Discourse ends with his Farewell Prayer in which he directs his speech not to the disciples, but to God. Three themes are prominent and none is new in John: glorification, knowledge, and unity.

Whatever the relationship between Jesus and God entails, glorification is a substantial part of it. In 7:39 we learn that believers had not yet received the spirit because Jesus had not yet been glorified. The bestowal of the spirit in John is entirely dependent upon Jesus’ death and resurrection. In John, the death and resurrection are not a denigration of any sort; rather, they are described in terms of coronation, exaltation, and glorification. What was yet-to-be in 7:39 is now realized in chapter 17 as Jesus says, “Father the hour has come.” The glory build-up starts in chapter 12, with the end of Jesus’ public ministry and turn to his closest companions.

The process starts with Mary anointing Jesus’ feet for his burial, and Jesus’ indication that: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23). It’s an interesting feature of John that the passion, resurrection and ascension are all considered as one moment rather than individual, linear, discrete events. Whereas they often call chs. 1-12 The Book of Signs, scholars usually designate chapters 13-21 The Book of Glory. Glory (doxa) and glorify (doxazo) appear forty-two times in John, most of them in 13-21. More than one-third of all NT occurrences of the verb “glorify” occur in John.

While most occurrences appear in the latter part of the gospel, the reader is made to understand from the beginning that the incarnation is about beholding of the glory of God: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). The rest of the gospel details the evidence of that glory and, more surprisingly, our own participation in it.

God’s glory in John is more like being at the very heart of a fireworks display rather than watching it on TV.  One sees the light, feels the thunder of it, finds oneself breathless, is caught up in the majesty and power and wonder and extraordinary transcendence of it all.  She looks around and finds that others have come seeking something of this wonder and so, for a moment, she is connected with other pilgrims who have braved the journey rather than settling for a second-hand account of the thing.

John’s notion of God’s glory is informed by the Old Testament which speaks much about the glory of the Lord (kavod adonai). As in many other places in John, Exodus looms large in the author’s imagination. Consider Exodus 40:35:  “Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled upon it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.” Here’s the point: the glory of the Lord is God’s presence. With every word he or she can muster, the author of John pushes to intimacy. The incarnation, glory, love, father, mother, son, one, knowing–every last word declares that God created this world, with the help of Jesus, for the single purpose of unity with all of creation. Intimacy and unity. Jesus came to reveal that as God’s sole intention, to model that unity, to complete that unity. Jesus glorified God by completing the works God sent him to do.

The baton gets passed in the same way, of course, from Jesus to believers who will do greater works than Jesus. Now believers glorify God when they reveal God’s love to the world God created and will love to the end (3:16), even as that world shows resistance here and there, even hatred. No matter; the job is done, Jesus has conquered the world (16:33). John’s tenses are confusing to us because he often speaks as if something in the process of happening or not yet happened has already happened. But from God’s perspective, these things are so certain that they can be spoken of as complete. This is why believers go forth in confidence with undying hope despite the way things appear.

The author has not given up on the world. Jesus prays for the world later in ch. 17. If he had given up on the world, Jesus would not have equipped the disciples with power equal to his own to do their part in unifying the world to God. Believers do, indeed, belong to Jesus, have been given to him, but everything belongs to God and will ultimately be drawn into unity with God (cf. 12:32).

Knowledge and Eternal Life
Eternal life is defined in this passage it may surprise those more familiar with Matthew or Revelation. How does John define eternal life? Is it escaping fiery flames of hell or singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” with the cherubim and seraphim at some future glorious appointment? No, it’s being in relationship with God and Christ, what John calls “knowing” and it’s available in its entirety now.  Recall that Jesus “knew” everything about the Samaritan woman. Of course, he did, since we already learned in 2:25 that he “knew” what was in everyone and had no need for anyone to tell him anything. This is the deepest kind of knowing, as in Ps. 139. When all is said and done, what deeper desire exists than to know and be truly known, understand and be truly understood, love and be truly loved? According to John, that’s the meaning of life.

This gospel specializes in knowing language (ginosko, oida) and loving language (agapao, phileo), because they go together, though it might be counterintuitive to us. Our minds may assume the opposite, in fact–we take great pains to disallow true knowledge of ourselves since we assume that the more someone knows the “real” me, the less love they will have for me. As knowledge goes up, love goes down; if we want love to remain high, then we’d better work hard on passing ourselves off as “loveable.” John will not countenance such notions. One cannot deeply love that which one does not know. And knowing depends upon authentic relationship and regular encounter with the beloved.

Is it any wonder that four great examples of discipleship in John are the Samaritan woman in ch. 4, the blind man in chapter 9, Mary in chapter 12, and Thomas, of all people, in chapter 19? What do they have in common? They participated in ongoing relationship and encounter with Jesus. Both the Samaritan woman and the blind guy have lengthy, increasingly deep dialogue with Jesus and as they do, they understand him more and more to the point where they “know” him and understand that he is the source of their lives and loves them like no other. This leads them to worship him and testify to others about him.

Mary is described as one whom Jesus loved (11:5) and John makes it clear and that she, her brother Lazarus and sister Martha regularly spent time with Jesus. Thomas may be a less obvious hero, but he’s a hero nonetheless in this Gospel. He sticks with Jesus even though he discerns trouble is in store (11:16); he asks questions when he doesn’t understand (14:5); he’s not gullible or prone to flights of fancy but he’s willing to believe when confronted with raw glory (chapter 20). On the basis of all of this, Thomas comes to fully know Jesus such that he declares him to be “My Lord and My God” (20:28).

A cord of three strands is not easily broken, Ecclesiastes insists, so how much more so a cord of four strands: believers are unified with God, Christ, the Spirit and one another. Therefore, we are strong and equipped to do greater works than Jesus. There’s no reason we can’t just as effectively demonstrate and reveal God’s love for everything in God’s cosmos as did Jesus. This is an empowering word, to be sure; it’s also a challenging word because we cannot pretend to be waiting for something God has yet to provide before we get on with the work at hand; we can’t wring our hands and say, “If only….” To be sure, the road will be rough enough that Jesus feels the need to offer prayers for our protection as we go; we know, then, that we are in good hands. We have all we need to testify to God’s love in ways that will bring abundant, eternal life to all of creation. So, rise, let us be going (14:31). 

First Reading

Commentary on Acts 1:6-14

C. Clifton Black

Though Luke 24:51 intimates it, Acts 1:9 is the only place in the New Testament that graphically depicts the Lord’s ascension.

The surrounding text is a semicolon between two exclamation points: Jesus’ resurrection (Luke 24:1-49) and subsequent forty days of his appearances (Acts 1:3), and the Day of Pentecost on which the church is dramatically anointed by the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-47). Befitting a semicolon, this Sunday’s lection invites a pause for contemplation, perhaps for course-correction. For a welcome change let’s not just do something. Let’s stand there.

After coming together, as Jesus’ followers must (Acts 1:6, 13-14), they ask him a question that, like many of our own ever since, reveals them staring into a rearview mirror: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” In other words: Will the enemies occupying our land and our aspirations now be routed? Will the Lord at long last declare our independence? (See, for instance, Psalm 20; Joel 2:30-3:21; Zech 8:1–11:17; Luke 21:7-9; 24:21.) They continue to equate political fulfillment and personal benefit with God’s kingdom (Luke 19:11). The church’s learning curve is steep: To this day some confused Christians do the same. Again comes the Lord’s correction, still piercing the anxiety-mongering, bestselling Gnosticism of Left Behind: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority” (Acts 1:7; also Mark 13:32; Luke 12:40; 17:22-24). The question of Jesus’ disciples and his response is echoed in this text’s conclusion. There, instead of driving in reverse, they gaze upward and are brought up short by two men dressed in white (Acts 1:10-11; cf. Luke 24:4-7): What’s the point of staring into heaven? When it’s time for God’s celestial envoy to return to earth, that event should be altogether conspicuous (Acts 1:11; Luke 21:25-28; Rev 1:7). Meanwhile the church is charged with responsibility that can be fulfilled only by looking forward, not backward or upward.

The Lord’s charge comes with a promise: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Skittish about evangelism, most of us find Luke’s equivalent of Matthew’s great commission (Matt 28:18-20) unnerving. Welcome aboard: The apostles of Acts reacted likewise (Acts 9:8-9, 13-14, 26; 10:14-16; 11:1-3; 15:6-7a). The Risen One unfolds the map his disciples will follow (Jerusalem: 2:14–8:3; Judea and Samaria: 8:4-25). To what “the ends of the earth” refers–the outermost reaches of the inhabited world (like Ethiopia: 8:26-40), the Gentiles’ conversion (10:1-11:18), the gospel’s delivery to Rome (28:11-31), or something beyond the story in Acts–is (a) unanswerable and (b) small spuds. Plainly this mission originates in Judaism’s heart and splays outward, transgressing all boundaries and their attendant prejudices. The church is not a club with a voluntary code for elite insiders. Like-minded propaganda existing only to underwrite our comfort zone is no gospel at all.

Apostles being what they are–blessed yet fractured messengers–the Lord’s marching orders would be terrifying, nay impossible, apart from his assurance that the power to obey lies not in themselves but rather in a bona fide God-given energy: the same Holy Spirit that has owned the stage from the beginning of Luke’s drama. This is the Spirit that has filled John the baptizer (Luke 1:15), overshadowed Mary (1:35), stirred Elizabeth (1:41), unstopped Zechariah (1:67), and inspired Simeon (2:25-26). The Lord’s Spirit has anointed Christ himself (3:22; 4:1, 18). If Jesus needed and received Holy Spirit, then his emissaries can and should depend on God’s faithfulness to deliver all necessary wherewithal. On Pentecost (Acts 2:1-42) that is exactly what will happen. On this day, with this promise, Mary the mother of Jesus has returned (1:14). Let the church learn from her how to respond: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

Just what is expected of Spirit-endowed apostles? To be witnesses (martyres) of Jesus (Acts 1:8; also 2:32; Luke 24:48). This is sine qua non for a disciple of this Lord. In spite of its manifold later connotations, its particular expression is not uniform. It entails preaching for some, though not for most. It literally costs the life of some martyrs, though not that of everyone. For us all John V. Taylor may have gotten it right:

To engage in the mission of God, therefore, is to live this life of prayer: praying without ceasing, as St Paul puts it, that is to say, sustaining a style of life that is focused upon God. This is indeed to engage in the mission of the Holy Spirit by being rather than by doing. To realize that the heart of mission is communion with God in the midst of the world’s life will save us from the demented activism of these days (The Go-Between God [1973] 227 [emphasis added]).

If for some that feels like sticky piety, too loosely engaged with the world’s suffering, let us remember that Christ, the Lord to whom the church testifies, resisted diabolical temptations (Luke 4:1-13; 22:31), exploded religious parochialism (4:23-30; 10:29-37), cast out demons (4:31-37; 8:26-39), healed the sick (4:38-39; 8:42b-48), supped with sinners (5:29-32; 19:1-10) and forgave their sins (5:20; 7:36-50), preached blessing on the poor and woe to the rich (6:20-26), defied politicians (13:31-33; 22:66–23:12), and realigned warped visions of God’s kingdom (14:1-18:14). Jesus even raised the dead (7:11-17; 8:49-56) and died merciful and righteous to the end (23:26-49). Every aspect of his life patterned that to which the whole church testifies. He accomplished nothing, however, apart from prayerful communion with God (3:21; 5:16; 6:12; 9, 28-29; 22:41). Neither did his earliest apostles (Acts 1:24; 9:11, 40; 10:9; 13:3; 20:36). And neither can we (Luke 6:28; 11:1-2; 18:1; 22:40, 46).

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11

A.K.M. Adam

These verses repeat and recast the pattern that 1 Peter has been emphasizing through the past weeks’ lessons. Believers should expect to share the defamation that the world directed at Christ.

They should interpret this as a positive sign that they are replicating his way in the world successfully enough to offend their neighbors. In a series of verses that the lectionary framers omitted, the letter emphasizes that this does not constitute a call simply to annoy authorities: “If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, a criminal, or even as a mischief maker” (or “meddler” in many translations) (4:12-14). The familiar pattern of heavenly relief following temporal discomfort serves to relocate the context of the recipients’ suffering from their immediate circumstances to their eventual vindication–a gesture that risks platitudinous promises of “pie in the sky,” but which nonetheless stands true, and makes a powerful theological point if is expounded sensitively.

The criticisms of pie-in-the-sky preaching arise in part from a general disbelief that anyone should expect more in the future than can be foreseen to result from earnest work toward social change. Such a premise–though understandable, granted the disheartening persistence of poverty, tyranny, and cruelty–stands squarely athwart 1 Peter’s appropriation of the gospel; somebody who discounts the reality of some eschatological consummation of all things ought probably to preach on different a text, if not reconsider the preaching vocation altogether. The Bible places predominant emphasis on the assurance that God will bring a glorious resolution out of the apparently disastrous conditions of daily life, apart from which 1 Peter’s expression of confident faith would be empty.

The hope of an eschatological restoration falls under suspicion even in some circles that accept the broad premise that God will deliver people from their miseries. Some preachers have emphasized eschatological hope in order to attenuate believers’ commitment to active discipleship in the present. If one begins with an exaggerated (un-Pauline) emphasis on faith alone as the ground of salvation, and then relegates all the blessings of creation to an otherworldly fantasy realm, one might dissuade congregations from attending to any matter other than their personal adherence to a congregation’s norms of belief (lest they be left behind). When preachers dissociate the hopeful anticipation of a greater future from believers’ conduct of their mortal lives, they endanger, perhaps even poison, their congregations’ spiritual well-being.

The sound path that 1 Peter articulates accepts the hope of a future consummation as a point of orientation for daily life; the glory of that end (emphasized twice in today’s lesson) serves as a beacon toward which we should orient our lives, and by which we can see more clearly the conditions in which we find ourselves. At the same time, our role is not to hunker down and cultivate a passive self-congratulatory piety! The verses omitted from this morning’s lesson invoke the prospect of divine judgment, but not as retribution against the oppressors: “[T]he time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God; if it begins with us, what will be the end for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” Judgment calls the church to account before it turns to its enemies, and 1 Peter anticipates that the righteous will attain salvation only with difficulty (“If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinners?” says 4:18, quoting the Septuagint’s version of Proverbs 11:31–literally, “if it is hard for the righteous one to be saved, where will the impious and sinners be found?”).

1 Peter packs the letter, and this passage, with very firm counsel on how to live out the vocation of God’s new people who know they stand under judgment. We should refrain from obvious transgressions such as murder, theft, or miscellaneous wrong-doing, but also from sticking our noses into others’ business. Vest our hopes in God alone, but not to the exclusion of serving others; rather, we should humbly, eagerly, seek opportunities to do good. Our determination to order our lives in accordance with the good, the generous, the humble, the trusting, prepares us to inherit and rejoice in the kind of world for which God is preparing us.

In other words, the good things that 1 Peter (in concert with abundant other scriptural witnesses) promises us are not a substitute for earthly suffering; the letter makes it plain that “suffering” in general doesn’t matter, but that those who suffer as a result of their steadfastness and their unashamed adherence to the gospel should understand that their sufferings would end. Appropriate fidelity and trust in God, however, motivate believers to continue growing in humility and diligent service–adaptations that set us at odds with worldly culture in many ways, but which orient us rightly to enjoy the everlasting world for which we are forming our souls. As strangers and sojourners in the ways of greed, exploitation, and control, we encounter resistance as a matter of course. Such resistance (understandably) daunts some hearts and revitalizes others; for just this reason, 1 Peter urges his readers to bind their burdens to the God who empowers us to sustain them, and ultimately to prevail over them.

Without the orientation toward Christ, the morning star who knows no setting, we falter and stray into futile ways. We lose our sense of a transformed belonging to a different people, and instead conform ourselves to the cultures among whom we pass our days. All the more vigorously, and all the more joyously, then, 1 Peter redirects our attention to the God of glory who will at the end establish us in the ways of patience, humility, and mutual service for which we’re preparing now. Learning to find joy in service among sisters and brothers whose burdens we can share attunes us to far greater joys when we emerge into the resplendent light of Christ’s eternity.