Lectionary Commentaries for May 17, 2009
Sixth Sunday of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 15:9-17

Susan Hedahl

One way the Easter season can be described is “trekking through John’s Gospel!”

The preacher’s attempts to traverse this part of the gospel mountain will need to focus on new details in order to avoid repetition of the themes from the past week. The wording of this pericope does not merely repeat earlier themes, however, but subtly weaves in other concepts, results, and outcomes.

Jesus’ assertions in this passage are neatly book-ended by the same injunction to love. An interesting question to pose in verse 9: how has Jesus loved us as God loves Jesus? What is this mirror image supposed to tell us about Jesus’ love for his people, the love in which we are to abide?

The characteristics and actions of this love are multiple and could form a sermon by themselves. God’s love towards Jesus is demanding, full of presence and promise, rich in public displays of God’s power. It prunes, cleanses, molds, forms, challenges, and supports Jesus in his ministry. This is the love of Jesus Christ in which we are invited to abide.

But what are the parameters for abiding? Where is the direction book, the how-to-manual for this abiding?

Abiding is not only a state of mind and spirit. Jesus emphatically says the road of abiding consists in keeping his commandments (John 15:10). Jesus again urges his disciples to do this since he has kept God’s commandments, and the results of such abiding were observable in all he did.

In both verses 9 and 10, one is reminded of a parent leaning over a young baby, with smiles, trying to elicit smiles, and with gestures encouraging the baby to do the same as the parent. Jesus’ use of himself as the model for love, and for commandment keeping, is anchored in daily life. One imagines his encouragement: “You can do this! You can do this because I have done it, and I am here to show you how to do it.”

Verse 11 focuses on what might be considered an odd outcome to keeping Jesus’ commandments — joy. And not just any joy, but the joy of Jesus the Christ, a complete fulfillment yielding this response.

Joy over what? What does this mean? Surely it does mean an exuberance of faith that nothing can destroy. It means a deep-seated sense of happiness that is not merely emotion alone, but also a lively pleasure in the things of God.

Given the grim stereotypes often applied to Christian faith by outsiders, these words of Jesus effectively combine human action (the fulfilling of his commandments) with a radical human emotion as their effect (joy). Abiding in Jesus the risen Lord is not a matter of grim-faced respectability or dour commandment keeping−it is a joy, a holy hilarity!

Foremost among these commandments−as the direction book now begins to unfold more clearly — is “that you love one another, as I have loved you” (John 15:12). Jesus speaks of “commandments” earlier, but now he speaks of only one: love one another. He extends the depths and extent of this love by saying the greatest expression of love is dying for one’s friends.

Biblical commentators have pointed out some interesting issues of which to be aware of in verses 12 and 13. Here, Jesus is speaking of love between and among friends. What about the enemies? The strangers? Would one go to one’s death for love of these as well?

While these words of the chapter are taken from Jesus’ conversations with friends and disciples, the preacher may consider widening the impact of Jesus’ commandment to avoid some of the limiting in-house views of this passage.

One significant change in relationality, stemming from the arguments in verses 12 and 13, is Jesus’ clarification of how he regards his disciples. They are not strangers, nor merely disciples, and certainly not just servants: they are friends.

Jesus notes the reason he calls them “friends” is he has shared the riches of all he has with them, in terms of his relationship with God. “I have made known to you everything…” (John 15:15). Here Jesus’ offer of the intimacy of friendship is overwhelming. To appropriate Jesus the Risen Lord is to be invited into friendship with God.

Friends of God. The reality of friendship with Jesus offers, in one of America’s favorite words these days, transparency. To know the Risen Christ is to know the heart of God.

One of the most unnerving parts of this passage is Jesus’ assertion that he has chosen the disciples to do the work of God, to bear fruit. He is clear about this: “you did not choose me but I chose you” (John 15:16a).

There is a giftedness about this verse. We received something we did not create, go searching for, or earn on our own. It resembles the glorious feeling of being asked to be someone’s spouse, best friend, beloved; the chosen-above-all-others. If we ask, “Whose name is on this gift?,” the answer is, “mine!”
But there is also responsibility attached to this election of the works of fruit bearing. Not only are we to do it, but we are to bear “fruit that will last.”

What does that mean? Obviously, some ‘fruit’ does not last. Short-sightedness, impetuosity, selfish interests masked as the work of the Church, raw ambition disguised as false humility in the service of God: the list is long and everyone can knowingly add to it through observation of the fruits that rot rather than last.

Positively, bearing fruit means making wise choices and decisions for the work of and on behalf of God. It means acting thoughtfully over a life time; discerning what thoughts, words, and actions best serve the intentions of a loving God in this world, most clearly seen in the figure of the Risen Christ.


First Reading

Commentary on Acts 10:44-48

Richard Jensen

How can we ever forget the celebration in Chicago’s Grant Park the evening that Barack Obama was elected our forty-fourth president?

The crowds were overflowing. The excitement was palpable. There before our eyes, we watched Oprah Winfrey and Jesse Jackson with tears of joy streaming down their cheeks.

What were the crowds so overjoyed about? Among other things, they were celebrating the fact that a malignant barrier in our culture had been broken down. The barrier between black and white in this country had experienced a major ripping apart.

Today’s text, placed in context, should produce no less joy!

The text is part of a much larger story, told in Acts 10:1-11:18, that tells of the Spirit-infused breaking down of barriers between Jews and Gentiles.

It begins with Cornelius a Gentile, “a devout man who feared God” (Acts 10:2). And it ends with the incredible announcement by the church officials in Jerusalem that “God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18). Incredible. An ages old racial barrier has been broken. Somewhere in your service this Sunday you ought to lead your people in a Grant-Park-like-celebration of this barrier breaking text.

As I pointed out last week, Acts 10-11 are part of Luke’s arc of storytelling that fulfills Jesus’ promise in Acts 1:8. The Spirit-empowered disciples will lead a mission that begins in Jerusalem, moves out to Judea and Samaria, and on to the ends of the earth. Today’s text deals with the moving out of the church in to the hearts and lands of the Gentiles.

This entire story, Acts 10:1 – 11:18, cries out to be told. Few of our people know this story. Tell it today! Tell this whole story. That’s my sermon advice for this week.

Let me give you two quite different ways of telling this story.

The first is what I have called “alternating” the story. In his commentary on Acts, Gerhard Krodel breaks the story down into seven scenes.1 

Tell, don’t read, each scene. Act some of them out if possible. Share one or two of the scenes with the children gathered around you. If you have the capacity to do so, project pictures for the scenes. There is a real drama here!

After each scene you may wish to make a point about that scene. Alternate from scene to idea, scene to idea. This is a typical approach to preaching in the African American community. Make what points seem most relevant to your community.

Please note: I often point out to pastors my belief that the Biblical story is almost always more important than the points we make about them!

The seven scenes of the story are as follows:

1. Acts 10:1-8 – The introduction of a Roman citizen and soldier: Cornelius. A devout man. God is at work in Cornelius long before Peter shows up! Clearly it is God who takes the initiative to break down the barrier between Jews and Gentiles.

2. Acts 10:9-16 – God has the hard work of convincing Peter to break the Gentile barrier. Note that it takes three visions to get through to Peter. His life as a faithful Jew has meant that Peter cannot conceive of eating common meat or evangelizing common people (like Gentiles). We’re talking real miracles here.

3. Acts 10:17-23a – The messengers of Cornelius arrive at Peter’s house. The Spirit works overtime on Peter!

4. Acts 10:23b-33 – An unprecedented meeting between church representatives and Gentiles. Imagine what it was like for Peter to set foot for the first time in his life in a Gentile house! Barriers are falling indeed.

5. Acts 10:34-43 – The horizontal miracle of barrier breaking is the horizontal implementation of the vertical dimension of Peter’s message of salvation.

6. Acts 10:44-48 – This week’s text. The word of Jesus is preached. The Spirit works. Tongues are spoken. Gentiles are baptized. This is the heart of the matter.

7. Acts 11:1-18 – Will the Church receive these Gentile Christians? Circumcision presented a serious obstacle. But Peter ate with the uncircumcised! How dare he. And Peter gives his defense. It’s almost pathetic in its pleading. Thankfully, the church officials recognize in the event of the Spirit that “…God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18). The barrier has been broken down. Celebrations begin!

A second approach is to tell the story just as it is. Your hearers ought to be amazed by it! Follow the story with a word of gospel proclamation to the Gentiles of today, to those on the outside, to those beyond the barrier. It might go something like this:

God is saying to all who live beyond the barrier of separation from God: I have come to life in Jesus Christ and in the presence of the Holy Spirit to break down all that separates you from me. As with Cornelius, I have heard your prayers. I have come to visit your house no matter how humble it might be. I pour out my spirit of life upon you. I break down the barriers of sin, Satan, and death that have kept you from me. Even to you this day I give the possibility of repentance unto life.

In these words, or similar words, the congregation has heard you speak the gospel to all humankind. That’s a cause for celebration!


1Gerhard Krodel, Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Acts (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1986).


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 98

James Howell

“Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre … and the sound of melody! With trumpets … make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord!” (Psalm 98:5).

Once in a while I try in my mind to imagine the sound of ancient musical instruments and the mindset of the ancient Israelites who played them.

When they thought of God, their first reflex was Praise. Our first reflex might be far more utilitarian: I ask God for stuff, I measure God by whether God seems to be doing what I need, or else, I question God.

But Israel praised.

Praise is our amazement at God and God’s greatness, our recognition of the power and tenderness of the creator. Praise enjoys and celebrates God’s love, and it is our best attempt to feel, say, or sing something appropriate to God. Praise doesn’t ask “What have you done for me lately?” but instead exclaims “How great Thou art!”

Psalms scholar Walter Brueggemann explains praise for us: “All of life is aimed toward God and finally exists for the sake of God. Praise articulates and embodies our capacity to yield, submit, and abandon ourselves in trust and gratitude to the One whose we are. … We have a resilient hunger to move beyond self. God is addressed not because we have need, but simply because God is God.”1

Praise doesn’t “work.” It is not productive, and it isn’t even about me. Praise means being lost in adoration of the beloved, being awestruck by beauty. Praise is downright wasteful in terms of possible ways to spend your time. To think of God like a lover, one on whom you might dote for hours, requires considerable imagination, a radical reshaping of the soul.

Israel praised with makeshift instruments which craftsmen labored over — and their sole purpose was to produce sound that would rise to the skies and be heard by God. Psalm 98 speaks of the lyre. Wasn’t the lyre the instrument Orpheus played in that mythological story? Sailors constantly shipwrecked when seduced by the songs of the sirens. Odysseus managed to sail past their perilous rocks by stuffing wax in the ears of the rowers and strapping himself to the mast of the ship; but Orpheus simply pulled out his lyre and played a song more beautiful than that of the sirens, and the rowers listened to his song and sailed to safety.

Praise is our best counter to evil in the world. If we are “lost in wonder, love, and praise,” there is not much chance we will stumble into tawdry sin, or find ourselves jaded and cynical. Praise is the cure for despair and loneliness. If we “make a joyful noise to the Lord” (cf. Psalm 100:1), we experience a quiet in the soul, a community of love.

Psalm 98 praises the Lord “for he has done marvelous things… He has made known his victory” (Psalm 98:1-2). Weaving the universe into existence, fashioning the delicate petals on a rose, crafting massive canyons, musing in wisdom, promising eternal bliss−we could expend every minute of every day noticing some new aspect of the greatness of God.

Of course, the most marvelous “thing” God ever did was to visit us on earth. Jesus, by simply showing up on earth, by teaching, touching, suffering and rising, was and is marvelous. Jesus is the victory of God, and our only sensible response is to praise.

The Lord reigns!
Psalm 98 is part of a little cluster of Psalms (93 through 99) whose primary theme is: “The Lord reigns! The Lord is King!”

Worshippers in ancient Israel must have had considerable hutzpah to travel for miles in caravans over rocky, dangerous terrain in order to press with the crowd into the temple and shout: “The Lord is King!” They must have known their temple was a pipsqueak among ancient temples.

Their God (whose ‘name’ was ‘Yahweh’) must have seemed like the weakling on the playground of bigger, more impressive deities (like Marduk or Ea of the mighty Babylonians, or Osiris or Horus of the wealthy Egyptians).

All other gods could boast of military triumphs, vast hordes of gold, and shinier cultic objects. If success was the measure, the gods of the Assyrians or the Phoenicians had superior reasons to elicit praise from their subjects.

Why this foolishness in Israel? Was it panache or lunacy? Or was it a profound faith that could stand boldly in the face of being the laughingstock of other nations and still affirm that “Our Lord is King! (And yours isn’t.)”? Did they understand the true nature of the true God?

I suspect they did, although it was when Jesus arrived that the world was treated to the ultimate display of what exactly a King looks like. Jesus lay in a manger instead of a palace. Jesus surrounded himself with poor, clueless fishermen instead of a slick bureaucracy. Jesus recruited an army of grateful lepers instead of well-drilled regiments. Jesus rode a wobbly donkey instead of a sprightly stallion. Jesus assumed a cross instead of a throne, a crown of thorns not gold and jewels.

Psalm 98, not once or twice but three times, proclaims the Lord’s victory. The Hebrew word translated “victory” is yeshu’a — the very name Jesus assumed when he won the stunning victory that was becoming flesh and dying.

Christians who strive for power in America or any other place on earth misconstrue the heart of our faith. We are historically wary of power.

When J.R.R. Tolkien told his scintillating stories of the hobbits in The Lord of the Rings, and their quest not to possess the ring of power but to destroy it, he articulated in fable form the essence of Christianity. It is not about us wielding power, but is a yielding to the power of God.

Or perhaps it is the wisdom to intuit that with our God, with Jesus, we glimpse a very different and much better type of royalty.

Want to see power? Watch Jesus touch the untouchables. Watch Jesus wash the feet of those who would gladly have washed his. Watch Jesus surrender his very life, so powerful was his love. Watch Jesus forgive the very people who just spat on him and drove nails into his flesh. Watch Jesus breathe his last — and then quite fantastically show up three days later.

“The Lord is King!” And our only reply is the way Isaac Watts rephrased this Psalm: “Joy to the world!”
The world still mockingly laughs, or yawns. But we know and praise the Lord who is king. We pray that the world will rejoice and revel in the Lord’s kingship.

Until they do, we rejoice for them, on their behalf, raising a chorus of “Joy to the world; let earth receive her King!”


1Walter Brueggeman, Israel’s Praise: Doxology against Idolatry and Ideology (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1988), 1.


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 John 5:1-6

David Bartlett

In his splendid study of the Epistles of John, David Rensberger points out that with 1 John 5:1, the emphasis of our author shifts from love to faith and belief.1

Yet, throughout this homily, the twofold stress of John’s gospel is recapitulated and refined. Christian life requires both faith in Jesus and love of the brothers and sisters.

Notice what faith looks like here. It requires the twofold confession that Jesus is the Christ (1 John 5:1), and he is the Son of God (1 John 5:5).

I suspect that this twofold requirement represents our author’s interpretation of the very last verse of the Gospel of John, before the epilogue of John 21: “But these things are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).

One issue at stake for our author’s community is whether the Messiah was fully incarnate in human flesh, or was instead a kind of spiritual Christ only pretending to take on humanity.

In that case, this epistle’s reading of John 20 might be somewhat different than that of the NRSV: “These things are written so that you may come to believe that the Messiah, the Son of God, is Jesus.” That is, true faith consists not in believing that the Messiah/Son of God appeared in Jesus like form, as if the human were divine. True faith consists in believing that in Jesus the divine (God’s Word) becomes human.

With this reading, it might be better to translate 1 John 5:1 and 5:5 a little differently, too. “Everyone who believes that the Messiah is (really) Jesus has been born of God” (5:1), and “Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that the Son of God is (truly and entirely) Jesus?” (5:5).

That might help us understand the puzzling Christological claim of 1 John 5:6. “This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood.”

The water seems to refer to the waters of baptism (cf. John 3:5), and it may be that for our author’s opponents, Jesus’ baptism was the point where the divine Word took on the appearance of flesh.

But if the baptized Messiah might only appear to be human, the crucified Messiah is inescapably human. Blood binds the godhead to the world. Again the passage echoes John’s gospel. When the soldier pierces Jesus side with a spear, “at once blood and water came out” (John 19:34).

In the classes I teach on the Gospels, students sometimes want to make a distinction between what Jesus does as a human (argues with the Syro-Phoenician woman) and what Jesus does as God (heals her daughter).

Granted, there are times in the Gospel of John where Jesus seems so close to his Father that he has one foot in heaven. But the epistle writer warns his people against any sense that the divine being “Messiah” and “Son of God” was only masquerading as this human Jesus. He insists again and again on what the Gospel says most clearly in its great overture: “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14) — by the water and the blood.

The First Epistle of John is rather like the movement of a classic symphony. A theme is introduced by the strings and seems to disappear, only to return again played this time by the woodwinds.

In these six verses familiar themes of the epistle recur with fresh nuances. And again, each theme reminds us not only of the first chapters of this epistle, but of John’s Gospel which must have served as scripture for this community.

Though the epistle’s stress has shifted from the emphasis on love to the emphasis on belief, it is clear that love of God is inseparable from love of one’s Christian sisters and brothers.

In 1 John 5:2, the order of priority shifts. It is not that we know we love God because we love the sisters and brothers. Rather, we know that we love God’s children because we know that we love God.

The twofold loyalty to God and to brothers and sisters is inseparable. We know we love God because we love others; we know we love others because we love God. And there is no love of God without the love of one’s neighbor.

What if we turned our homiletical strategy around to fit this passage? Our usual sermon is “You really shouldn’t be here worshipping God unless you love your neighbor.”

A sermon on this passage might say, “I notice that you are here worshipping God and doing so in good conscience, therefore — even more than you may realize — you are one who loves your brothers and sisters, too. I can tell by your piety the potential for your loving kindness.”

The life of faith is a life within family. God is the parent in this family; believers are brothers and sisters. As in any healthy family, the community grows both in parental and in sibling love and loyalty.

However, the family of faith is defined over against the world without.

The family consists of all those who confess that the Messiah is Jesus; the world is those who deny it. In the context of this epistle, we suspect that the world is not only those who have no faith. Now, it is also the world of those whose inadequate Christian faith leads them away from the truth.

Lastly, the family of faith lives under the Spirit. For this Epistle as for John’s Gospel, the Spirit testifies to Christ. And like Christ, the Spirit is not only true, but truth.


1David Rensberger, Westminster Bible Companion: The Epistles of John (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001) 81.