Lectionary Commentaries for May 10, 2009
Fifth Sunday of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 15:1-8

Susan Hedahl

John’s Gospel for this Sunday moves into an agrarian mode by focusing on vines and the vine grower.

The image, of course, has an Old Testament history with the vine used as a metaphor for the people of Israel, in both positive and negative ways.

One entry into this passage could be some history and information on oenology! For parishioners who have visited the Napa Valley in California or some of the well-known Italian or French wineries, they will appreciate the rich history of wine-making that depends so completely on the welfare of the grapevines and the arts and expertise of the vine grower.

Just as circuitous and complex as a vine and its branches, so too are these brief verses. What are some of the key and inter-related themes for this Easter season text?

The most obvious is the identification of relationships: God as the Vine Grower; Jesus as the Vine and we as the branches. Jesus’ role as the vine is twice identified, in verse 1 as “the true vine” and in verse 5 as “the vine.” This is the life source of the branches.

It is God who tends to the flourishing of the branches, and likewise will “remove[s] every branch” (John 15:2) that gives no yield. What is the key for this work of the vineyard? It is abiding. With almost mantra-like force the word “abide” is repeated eight times.

Perhaps the sole exposure to the word “abide” has been in the very self-focused hymn: “Abide with Me.”1  The hymn’s mood tends more towards the realities of ceasing activity than increasing it. This passage from John, however, takes the activity of abiding into the briskness of daylight and opportunity.

What is the meaning of abiding in Jesus, the Risen One during this post-Resurrection season?

First, the relationship of abiding means that we cannot “go it alone” in our spiritual lives, what Parker Palmer once described as a “free floating spirituality.” Jesus notes the impossible cannot happen: “the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless you abide in me” (John 15:4).

It is no secret that one can be deeply engaged in “things of the Church” in publicly meaningful ways, and yet the activities may not be truly connected to Christ. In that case, the vine grower eventually gets around to pruning such branches.

The possibilities of going it alone in American society are widespread and inviting. Carried over into the spiritual life, this fact can have devastating results. Dependency and inter-relatedness are rarely valued to the extent that individualism is. This passage flies in the face of such attitudes with a very different type of invitation to reliance on God.

Is the process of reliance on the vine an easy one? Hardly. The Vine Grower will deal with the branches in a manner that will alter their very being and formation. And to those who think abiding is a free ride, Jesus reminds them that “every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit” (John 15:2b).

If you have clipped your shrubs way back, you may experience the sense of reluctance in having to strip down once luxuriant branches for a greater and unseen future good. But what are the alternatives?

Removal of self or the removal of entire congregations from the reality of abiding in the Vine prompts Jesus to warn that “you can do nothing” (John 15:5). The string of verbs says such branches will be “gathered, thrown and burned” (John 15:6). In selecting between submission to or departure from the Vine, it is truly an all-or-nothing proposal.

Second, beyond the fact of reliance, abiding in Christ the Vine means change! John 15:5 notes that abiding means the opportunity to “bear much fruit.” What does that mean? This passage does not define ‘bearing fruit!”

As with any lively metaphor, it invites the listeners and preachers to expand on its possibilities in their own lives. We are free to make much of metaphors and this one is no exception. It means plenty, abundance, life-giving and pleasing. But what might that be?

The preacher is invited to contextually explore the possibilities of this question with any given group of listeners. Would bearing fruit mean? A renewal of hope for a dying congregation? A recommitment and new unity of purpose in a congregation ripped by conflict? A congregation beginning to see and respond to the poor, the hungry and the imprisoned in their community in a way they had not before?

Abiding in Christ establishes a communication element that does not exist outside of the divine-human relationship. Jesus invites those who are intent on abiding in him to “ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15:7). What an amazing directive!

The asking can only be done in Christ as part of the abiding, since that involves “my words” as well. Jesus’ invitation is to pray in the spirit of abiding and to do so with full awareness of the surrounding environment of his word of life to all people.

There is something unnerving about Jesus’ words. What if entire congregations wholeheartedly prayed this way? Then what? When was the last time any of us who preached invited a congregation to pray in this deliberate and specific fashion?

Jesus’ words show a readiness to respond to requests from the abiding ones for two reasons. The giving of good things to God’s abiders glorifies God in the presence of those who may doubt God, thus serving as confirmation of God’s activity.

Furthermore, as a result of the human asking and the divine giving, Jesus says “you become my disciples” (John 15:8). The asking proves and is part of the process of discipling, both to those who wish to abide and to those who witness the lives and actions of the abiders.


1“Abide With Me” in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), #629.


First Reading

Commentary on Acts 8:26-40

Richard Jensen

The post-Easter texts assigned for this year contain several readings from the Book of Acts.

These texts come in no particular order, save for the fact that the Sunday of Pentecost features the Pentecost story from Acts 2. Acts is a book carefully structured by Luke to do many things, not the least of which is to paint a broad canvas of the Spirit’s work in growing the church from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.

I strongly recommend that at some point in the Easter season you help your parishioners see the big picture of Acts. Tell the broad story of Acts in story form. We find that story’s outline in Acts 1, verse 8: “But 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.”

Other Pentecostal stories in Acts begin with the “Jerusalem Pentecost” story in Acts 2. Then, in the section preceding the text for this Sunday [Acts 8:4-24], we have the “Samaritan Pentecost.” Imagine! Even the Samaritans receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. God is moving on and out.

In this week’s text we have the story of Spirit-led Philip as he moves into completely new territory by baptizing an Ethiopian eunuch. The church is moving outwards.

In Acts 10-11, we have the “Gentile Pentecost” featuring a Roman centurion (!) and a stunned-by-the-Spirit Peter who becomes a missionary in no-man’s-land. The elders in Jerusalem are furious about Peter’s missionary work. (cf. Acts 11:1-18). Finally, in Acts 19:1-7, Paul is at the “ends of the [known] earth” in Ephesus laying on hands for a Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit. What a mission story this is to tell! I pray that you can tell it in such a way that your hearers are excited about the early growth of the Christian Church.

Today’s story begins with Philip answering the angel’s call to go south on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. Philip had witnessed the conversion of many Samaritans (cf. Acts 8.9-25), and will now bear witness to another outsider: an Ethiopian eunuch. The story of the eunuch’s conversion is followed by the conversion of Paul. All three stories lead us to the “Gentile Pentecost” in Acts 10-11 and the “conversion” of a Gentile Centurion.

First, the Ethiopian eunuch. We know he is a man of African descent: the first ever baptized! He is a eunuch and as such, according to Deuteronomy 23:1, he was half a man, unable to enter “the assembly of the Lord.” He was a minister of Candace, the queen of Ethiopia. Finally, he was neither a proselyte nor a Gentile, but one who lingered on the edges of Judaism. Indeed, he hungered to know the truth of a text from Isaiah which he was reading when Philip joined him.

Talk about barriers being broken down! It is incredible that Philip would baptize such a person and wash him into the world of Jesus Christ, the One who was like a lamb led to the slaughter. 

This is sheer miracle – a miracle full of the grace of God in the person of Philip and the waters of renewal. The impossibility of this event is made possible by the unbelievable reach of God’s grace. Here lies the key to this story. It is also the key to salvation for you and all who gather with you in your church each weekend. Preach it!

The Good News is also there in the text the eunuch was reading. What passage of the Old Testament is more powerful in pointing to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth” (Acts 8:32, quoting Isaiah 53:7).

We know the end of this story – the lamb of God who is slaughtered is raised from the dead. And this life is meant for all people, all children of the earth. These stories in Acts shout that message out on every page. Samaritans, eunuchs, Gentile centurions: all are embraced by God’s Lamb.

One option for a sermon on this text is to move from the sweep of mission in the Book of Acts (so clearly focused in this week’s text) to the state of mission in the southern hemisphere today.

Philip Jenkins, for one, writes of the incredible growth of the Christian Church in Africa and Latin America. The south is rapidly replacing the north as the population home of Christianity. We are witnessing the birth of a pre-Enlightenment Christianity sweeping vast areas of the southern globe. The Holy Spirit is alive there filling people with God, driving out demons, and healing diseases. This is the Christianity for the poor! It is powerful. And it is much like the Christianity of the Book of Acts. Thus, the stories told in Acts live with us today. The spirit of this book of mission is contemporary and relevant in our time!

Another focus for a sermon on this incredible text can center on Holy Baptism.

The story of our text raises the issue clearly: who is worthy to be baptized? An Ethiopian eunuch, that’s who. The last person in the world one would expect to be baptized. And to whom should we offer this sacrament of Baptism today? Let the Ethiopian eunuch be our guide! Who are the last and the least people in the world we are called to baptize today? Tell stories of people today who seem as far removed from God as is this eunuch. They are some of our most worthy baptismal candidates.

That’s the whole story of the Book of Acts. God’s grace is wildly inclusive. The church is moved out to the ends of the earth and reaches out still today.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 22:25-31

James Howell

How odd is it, during Easter, to return to the Psalm of Good Friday, the chilling scream of the crucifixion?

We would prefer to move on, to get over it, to sound the resurrection trumpet and roll the stone back to erase the unhappy memory of Good Friday.

But the crucifixion is always the Gospel. You can’t get to Easter without Good Friday, and the resurrected Jesus still bears the wounds in his hands and side (John 20:27). The triumphant hymn by Matthew Bridges proclaims the eternal union of not just the Psalm but the salvific act in Christ: “Crown him the Lord of love; behold his hands and side, rich wounds, yet visible above, in beauty glorified.”1

And the fact is, Jesus the Messiah came, but the Messianic era has not exactly dawned. The ache persists, sin grows like kudzu, and we still cry out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Much has been written about the need for the Church to recover the “lament.” We have forgotten how to lay our sorrows down before the Lord — or have we? Perhaps too many of our prayers are half-hearted laments; we plead to God for help and express our discomforts. What we then do not have is patience. We lack an understanding that in this realm, on this side of eternity, God does not swiftly reply, righting all wrongs and smoothing our paths.  We want to piece together a brief lament, a quick prayer request, even strengthened by a prayer chain from friends — and God should intervene now and give us what we ask for.  We would really prefer to skip right over the lament, but God lets us stay with the pain, God invites us to meet God in the darkness.

Evocative Images
The Psalms are indeed, as Christoph Barth put it, a “School of Prayer.” They are not a primer in how to make your prayers effective but a lesson in how to find God and live in union with God. Psalm 22 illustrates the wide range of emotions, yearnings, and destinies in our life with God. If we read past its rightly famous first verse, we are jostled by the rich language of the Psalm and the grand reversal that arrives late in the day but just in time.

In Preaching the Psalms, Clint McCann and I recommend two approaches to preaching a Psalm.2

First, one can explore an image, which is not taken literally, but fruitfully probed as evocative. Or second, one can explore the movement within the Psalm, a shift in the mood of the one praying. In Psalm 22, both approaches are fruitful.

The images are startling and hyperbolic. Graphically and poetically, they elicit a deep emotional resonance within us. The Psalmist moves from a child on its mother’s breast to being surrounded by bulls, from being poured out like water to feeling like hot wax, from a broken old piece of pottery to growling dogs.

In addition, we not only preach the images of the Psalm, we might imitate the Psalmist and deploy a few imaginative metaphors ourselves.

Lament to Praise
Like most Psalms, the 22nd is not a still life, portraying only the agony of an ancient Psalmist or Christ breathing his last. Instead, the Psalm exhibits a drama, an inner movement that transports the reader to a new place, an unanticipated destination. The reader is taken on a pilgrimage from sorrow to joy, from desolation to hope, from cross to glory.

Psalm 22 is a lament, and like virtually all laments, there is an inevitable miracle of grace, a mind-boggling shift from lament to praise.

Here we see that the lament is not about me expressing my inner angst or pouring out my soul. Rather, the lament is about God who knows my grief but does not leave me alone and perhaps even joins me in the pit. God lifts the poor from the ash heap. Indeed, God feeds the poor, and with an explosion of scope, all nations come around to worshipping God!

When Jesus, in his hour of dereliction, recalled the 22nd Psalm, was it simply to utter the cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1). Had he not memorized the entire Psalm, as good Jewish boys would?

Did he, even on the cross, fast forward in his mind to that turn to praise, the dawn of the new day pledged in its closing verses which we read now, appropriately, during Easter?

The praise and hope in the face of darkness is no utopian fantasy. What the Psalm voices will happen! And it will happen because of the cry at the beginning of the Psalm.

Once Christ was forsaken, we never will be. God’s plan for humanity, for the very earth itself and the universe, will be fulfilled because God forsook Jesus and let him suffer in order to embody the wondrous love of God. So great was that victory hinted at in Psalm 22, even those “who sleep in the earth” shall bow down! Perhaps Paul had this Psalm in mind when he languished in prison, bearing much physical pain, when he spoke of Christ emptying himself, humbling himself, obedient unto death on a cross (cf. Philippians 2:7-11).

Notice that the raging “Why?” is never fully answered. Our query, “Why do bad things happen?” is not resolved. But we hope. For we have sung the Psalm with God’s people, who have borne every conceivable agony over countless centuries. And we find ourselves carried forward on the tide of their faith, on the surging wave of the powerful grace of God.


1“Crown Him with Many Crowns,” verse three in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), #855.
2James C. Howell and J. Clinton McCann, Jr., Preaching the Psalms (Nashville: Abingdon press, 2001).


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 John 4:7-21

David Bartlett

Years ago I heard William Sloane Coffin preach on this text.

He summed up its claims in a classic Coffin aphorism: “The opposite of love is not hate; the opposite of love is fear.”

In the first instance, this epistle’s claim, “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18), is about the relationship between believers and God who is creator and judge of the world. If God is exclusively understood as the God of power, or demand, or even justice, then we approach God with fear — both in this life and in the life to come.

But if understood first as the God of love, perfect love, then we approach God with confidence. God’s love is perfect and our love is perfected because we trust in God’s love. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

Note the sentence carefully. It is not “we ought to love because he first loved us” as if God’s love were the ground for a new imperative. It is “we can love because he first loved us.” God’s love is the ground for a new possibility.

Human analogies are never entirely adequate but they are entirely unavoidable. Watch the growth of a child and notice that the child who can give love is the child who has received love. Love grows from love while from apathy grows only coldness, fear, and retreat.

Implicit in our passage, too, is the second claim. Perfect love casts out fear in human relationships and even imperfect love diminishes fear perceptibly.

A small child received a jack-in-the box for Christmas and, to the parents’ surprise, was not delighted by the puppet’s popping out but terrified. Not entirely daunted though, the child turned the handle once again until the puppet jumped out again. This time the child kissed the puppet he had feared.

The child was far from fearless. But by loving, he sought to put fear in its proper place.

Remember that for 1 John, the right understanding of Christian faith and practice lies in a right understanding of John’s Gospel, surely the central scripture for the community that heard this epistle read aloud.

Try thinking of 1 John 4:9b-10 as an explanatory gloss on John 3:16:

  • John 3:16 – For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
  • 1 John 4:9b-10 – God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.

1 John provides its own interpretation of the Gospel for this somewhat later community.

It suggests that “eternal life” is not only life in the world to come, but that it is life in the present, through faith in Jesus Christ. Here the epistle sounds very much like the Gospel.

But the epistle also takes on language more like that of Paul and the synoptic gospels than that of John’s Gospel. Jesus is sent, not just to reveal God but to be “the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

Both in this stress on Christ’s atoning death and in its stress on a coming day of judgment, 1 John sounds more like emerging Christian orthodoxy than it does like the somewhat idiosyncratic theology of the gospel.

If 1 John is written in part to dissuade Christians from believing a Christology that is almost docetic and a spirituality that is almost Gnostic, the epistle writer does so by claiming for this community a reading of John’s Gospel that is quite orthodox, both in its doctrine of the atonement and in its hope for last things.

Nonetheless, we continue to have in our passage two great themes of John’s first epistle which are further iterations and elaborations on the gospel.

There is the distinction between those who abide in God and those who do not, the distinction between insiders and outsiders. Again, the great word “abiding” provides the link between humans and God. Loving Christians “abide” in God and God “abides in them” (1 John 4:16).

And there is the strong claim that the love of God is always manifest in love of other Christians. “Those who say, ‘I love God’ and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20). Again, as in John’s Gospel, this is expressed as the one true commandment.

1 John 4 is much loved by a certain strain of humanist: “If God is love why have two words for the same thing.” It is at least somewhat easier in a skeptical age to believe in love than to believe in God, they say.

But for the epistle, the affirmation is not a simple equation. God is love, but love is not God.

“Love” is an abstraction and a quality of God’s own self. “Love” is personification and God is person. Love is some thing. God does things, sends a Son, atones for the sins of the world, and gives commands.

What the author of 1 John is most worried about is that Christians will think faith is about abstractions like Truth and Love without attending to the crucified one who was and is both loving and true.