Lectionary Commentaries for May 24, 2009
Seventh Sunday of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 17:6-19

Susan Hedahl

The genre of this passage will have a direct bearing on the preacher’s choice of sermonic approaches:

the appointed pericope features approximately the first half of Jesus’ prayer for his disciples just before his crucifixion.

Unlike the synoptic portrayal of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane (not present in this Gospel), we have a detailed prayer featuring Jesus as mediator for his disciples.

One option the preacher may wish to explore is offering listeners a preliminary reflection on the nature of prayer generally before addressing this particular prayer. An element to include in such a reflection is acknowledgement of the echoes of the Lord’s Prayer found in verses 11, 15 and 17. Given the many historical layers of this passage, such an overview may prove quite useful whatever the direction of the sermon.

One of the most difficult aspects of this text is the issue of “the world.” Jesus makes several points about the relationship of “the world” which the preacher must keep in mind.

From the perspective of the biblical text, the world signifies the origin of the disciples. They did not come from outside of society but from inside of it, from the everyday people. However, in belonging to Jesus, the disciples have been separated from the world. Still, they must continue to do ministry in it (cf. John 17:18).

But what exactly is “the world?” It should not be defined to mean a place antithetical to the goodness of creation. Rather, it is the persons and forces opposed or indifferent to the things of God embodied in Jesus.

How do today’s preachers speak of “the world” in terms of the Christian faith?

Various aspects of Jesus’ prayer continue to reflect the struggles and hopes of Christ’s disciples today.  It may be wise for the preacher to include some information about the historical context and situation in which the listeners to John’s gospel might have found themselves. Then, he/she may move into the way contemporary listeners might hear this passage. Jesus’ petitions to God are still meaningful in terms of being in, but not of, the world in order to function effectively and lovingly as disciples.

H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic work, Christ and Culture (1951) may be of assistance in sorting out the stances Christians take towards ‘the world.” Niebuhr lists five perspectives: Christ against culture; the Christ of culture; Christ above culture; Christ and culture in paradox; and Christ the transformer of culture.

Obviously, these views have been historically and therefore denominationally conditioned. Yet, the issue of “the world” has not evaporated. Individual Christians and congregations must finally confront the question of what it means to be committed to the Risen Lord, and in doing so, they will need to understand what it means to not be “the world.”

Any sermon on this topic will realistically seek to delineate the ever-present tensions Christians experience between the world and God.

By way of example, a couple of years ago an ELCA bishop visited a seminary. In the process of discussing what it meant to train congregations in stewardship, the bishop sadly and wisely commented: “I don’t know if our people understand the radicality of the Gospel in terms of how counter-cultural it is. I wonder if we are simply too deeply enmeshed in the culture to see how we have departed from the faith — and all without intending to do so.”

As Jesus’ prayer works with the dynamic of ‘the world’, this passage certainly reflects the heightened tension of his farewell to his disciples. Its main elements, which constitute Jesus pleas’ on behalf of his disciples, include what it will take for them to continue functioning as disciples after he leaves them. These elements are:

Verses 1-5 show the stress exhibited in Jesus’ words as he speaks about his self-understanding in terms of his own mission.

Verses 6-9 include the gift of God’s words Jesus has shared with them.

Verses 10-13 include Jesus’ sharing of all that he has with the disciples, his pleas for their protection so their unity is not disrupted, and finally the gift of joy.

Verses 14-19 conclude with the affirmation of the disciples’ placement squarely in the midst of human life and the process of God’s truth working in them a holy life.  Verse 17, connecting God’s word to truth and the holy life, may even prompt some historical memories from older listeners as this verse was sometimes the preface to a sermon in some Lutheran Midwestern pulpits.

One possible sermon construct could consist of a sermon introduction on the general nature of prayer and the various types of prayer. The preacher might then move to the outline of this particular prayer of Jesus, particularly in light of its historical context. Next, the preacher can discuss the key and often troublesome concept of ‘the world.’ Finally, the sermon may look at what Jesus’ prayer as our Mediator means today in the context of the particular congregation.

Another possible approach to this text is to look at the reality of mediation. What does it mean to mediate for or on behalf of someone? What is of primary concern to Jesus as he acts, through prayer for his disciples, as a mediator?

Most importantly, the preacher might also tie together the concept of mediator and the tasks and challenges of mediation with the theology of the cross. Certainly given the placement of this prayer prior to the crucifixion, the preacher can point to what makes a difference to God at the foot of the cross in terms of the needs and aspirations of God’s people.

Above all, any sermon must seek to catch the intimate and urgent tone of Jesus’ love and passion for his God and his disciples.

This prayer is many things: leave-taking reflections; summary words; a call to spiritual struggle and commitment; and most of all, a prayer for someone who loves his followers deeply. Can parishioners hear in the sermon that these realities are unchanged?


First Reading

Commentary on Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

Richard Jensen

We begin our examination of this Sunday’s text by looking at its context in Luke-Acts.

Luke begins this book with Jesus’ charge to the disciples. Jesus ordered them to wait in Jerusalem until they had received power from the Holy Spirit, in order to be witnesses to the gospel to the ends of the earth.  Next comes Jesus’ ascension into heaven. Afterwards, the disciples returned to an upper room in Jerusalem. There, the disciples and the women with them devoted themselves to prayer.

In those days, Peter stood up to announce that it was necessary, according to Holy Scripture, to appoint a disciple in place of Judas (whose vile end is narrated). It is important to note that this reorganization of the twelve was the first item of apostolic business. Clearly this is a very important reality in the early church’s mission!

Interestingly, both the defection of Judas and the necessity of replacing him by a more worthy one is connected to Old Testament prophecy.

We read the texts of prophecy in Acts 1:20. The references to Psalm 69:25 and 109:8 seem to have been stretched a bit in order to apply to their situation. Apparently, Peter quotes the Old Testament passages using a hermeneutic of reading Scripture that differs from some of our own.

In verses 21 and following, we read that the chosen one must become a witness to Christ’s resurrection. Two men are nominated: Joseph Barsabbas and Matthias.

Eusebius notes that Matthias was one of the seventy disciples of Luke 10:1. Later tradition claimed that Matthias was a missionary to the Ethiopians.

When I was a child and we picked sides for teams, we would often “draw straws.” That’s how the fact that the disciples “cast lots” first strikes me. What kind of a method is this?

But casting lots was not viewed as a haphazard process in biblical times. Rather, it had a respectable history in Hebrew lore (cf. Proverbs 16:33).

We have no knowledge of whether or not this was a practice in the early church. Some commentators note that the story of the selection of Matthias does not advocate the idea of apostolic succession. What is clear, though, is this method facilitated a decision that was in accordance with the will of God for the mission of the church.

So, the first business of the early church was the election of a new twelfth disciple, implying both horizontal and vertical dimensions.

Horizontally, the purposeful structure of discipleship for the life of the church is vital to the church’s mission on earth. Structure is vital to the carrying forth of God’s will for the world, thus presenting us with a contemporary question. What is God’s structural will for us as we seek to carry out God’s missionary purposes in the 21st Century?

But there is a vertical dimension to the story as well: discerning God’s will!

God’s will is crucially important for informing our structures of mission in the world today. A sermon on this text could certainly deal with this reality of our common life together as God’s church in the world. How do we structure ourselves for mission?

My sense, however, is that the question on the minds of our hearers would have more to do with how to discern God’s will for their own lives.

About twenty years ago, a denominational church paper produced a series of articles based on the questions most commonly asked by people in the pews. The most commonly asked question was: “How do I figure out God’s will for my life?”

People want to know the true purpose of their lives. Let me suggest three things that can be said in answer to this question.

First, we know the framework of God’s will for our lives in this world: we are called to love God and to love our neighbor (cf. Matthew 22:36-40 and 1 John 4:20-21). 

All the decisions we make about our lives ought to be framed within these two great commandments. Our lives are not our own to do with as we please. We are called to love God by loving our neighbor. This is the framework in which our lives ought to be lived.

Second, we know we live our lives under the canopy of God’s forgiving love.

This is a very important reality. I do not believe that God’s specific will for our life is revealed to many of us for “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).

We can pray and pray for God’s specific will to be revealed to us, but few of us will have our prayers answered. So, as Martin Luther advised, we will have to choose boldly our path. We don’t often know for certain which is the right path. We choose, knowing that God’s forgiving love will sustain us in the midst of lives’ many decisions.

And third, we know that nothing can separate us from the love of God.

In Romans 8:28 we read, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God…” God is at work in the midst of our decisions.

In a sense, this passage from Romans tells us that God is always working to make the best out of our decisions. Our bad decisions do not separate us from God. As people claimed by Jesus Christ and committed to Jesus Christ, we choose, we decide, and we act.

We act in the assurance that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 1

James Howell

How fascinating: the book of Psalms, the prayer book of the Bible, the hymnal of ancient Israel, opens with a poem about ethics, lifestyle, and decisions.

It is as if the secret tip is being shared before we bother praying or worshipping. The goal is a changed life. God requires a decision, it’s black and white, and God wants to pervade the part of you that chooses. A thousand little decisions and the occasional Big Decision: do you “walk in the counsel of the wicked or delight in the law of the Lord?”

Once the choice is framed this way, it’s no choice at all, is it? I mean, you would never knowingly choose evil or destruction. Will I jump off a cliff? Or sit down to a sumptuous dinner with those I love? Will I ruin my life? Or fulfill my destiny?

But if the choice is so easy, why then do we find our ears perking up to the whispering of wickedness? And why would our attitude toward “the law of the Lord” not be fairly characterized as “delight?”

The “counsel of the wicked” is sneaky, isn’t it? The devil doesn’t jump out in a red suit, breathing fire, and wielding a blazing pitchfork. No, the devil dresses up like an angel of light, promising you the moon.

The “good life” is defined by society in ways that mimic the good life God offers, yet different enough to fool us. Then, we are led to a vapid life that pays little attention to God and leaves us hollow inside: wealth, pleasure, leisure — not evil−but a bit out of kilter with God’s adventure, which would be the richness of generosity and prayer, the pleasure of service and worship, and the leisure of Sabbath rest and silence in the presence of God.

Society says, “Don’t break the law, maximize your portfolio, travel and relish the party circuit.” But the Psalm shakes its head and pities us for missing out on the “delight in the law of the Lord.”

Part of our quandary is this: Robert Frost wrote “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry that I could not travel both…”1  But we think we can travel both — and not only both, but other roads as well. I’m in a clearing, four roads diverge, and I can’t miss a thing:  I’ll take all four!

But we cannot take four, or seven, or even two. You wind up splintered, divided, out of focus. The “road less travelled,” the way of him whose delight is in the law of the Lord, seems boring or restrictive, when in fact it is the true joy of every heart.

“Blessed is the man…whose delight is in the law of the Lord.” Some scholars like to translate “blessed” as “happy,” although we had better be careful. Our frenetic quest for “happiness” can deflect us from God.

My friend and Psalms scholar Clint McCann put it well: “For Psalm 1, happiness involves not enjoying oneself but delight in the teaching of God. The goal of life is to be found not in self-fulfillment but in praising God. Prosperity does not involve getting what one wants; rather, it comes from being connected to the source of life.”2

Delight in the law of the Lord
How do we learn to praise? How do we become “connected to the source of life?” We block out time for prayer, we never miss worship, and we become daily students of Scripture.

But it’s even more. Of the blessed one, Psalm 1 says “On God’s law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:2). At Qumran, the Essenes took this seriously, and scheduled it so that somebody from their village was studying and copying Scripture by hand twenty four hours a day, three hundred sixty five days a year.

We can’t stay up all night reading the Bible, and we have to earn a living, eat, clean the house, and exercise. But is there a way to make “the law of the Lord” a streaming, omnipresent reality in our daily routine?

We begin by making a devotional regimen as essential as brushing our teeth. Maybe we plant little mnemonic devices (a cross, a printed prayer, a picture of St. Francis) in the desk, bathroom, kitchen, or car.

But can we begin to conceive of God as a constant companion?

Sometimes I travel alone, and it’s not as much fun as traveling with my wife, my children, or a friend. We share in the joy of walking together, settling down for a meal, and chatting over the highlights and challenges of the day.

Without these companions though, can we comprehend that we are never alone and God is there beside us wherever we find ourselves?

I talk to myself more than I like to admit. Can I talk instead to God? Can what I studied when I opened my Bible last night or this morning come alive in a seemingly un-religious situation? Do I behave differently if God is there?

Isn’t the comfort of God’s lingering presence the holy solution to the nagging loneliness we bear deep inside?

And don’t underestimate the crucial need we have to become diligent students of Scripture. I know some people love Bible study, and to others it feels corny and irrelevant. But, Jesus called “disciples” – a word which means “students.”

God wants to be known, understood, reflected upon in the mind, and explored intellectually. We are wired to discover immense fulfillment in the simple probing of the heart and nature of God, in the mental stimulation of reliving the Bible’s stories and singing its songs.

Like a tree
The Christian life is not pretending to be somebody I am not, but rather discovering who I really am, and then being that person, authentically and zealously.

Thomas Merton said, “A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. It ‘consents’ to His creative love. It expresses an idea which is in God’s mind. So the more a tree is like itself, the more it is like Him.”3
 
What if I think of myself as an idea in God’s mind? The more I consent to be what God made me to be, the more I am like God.

Trees never try to be something else, like wart hogs or sledge hammers. They are content to be trees. But you and I struggle. We can be whoever we want to be, but the less I am in sync with God’s plan, the more hollow I become. I cannot find truth and meaning just any old place.

Jesus said, “You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16). Am I like a tree?

My life is not my own: I depend on the sun, the rain, the grace and power of God which I do not control but only soak up as precious gifts. I live in the light, but my roots go down deep where it is dark.

Holiness is not a matter of gritting our teeth and diligently trying to do what God requires. We may grit our teeth, and we do try hard. But I am not able to do what God wants of me. I am not capable of the life God wants for me.

A changed life is the gift of God’s Spirit. Paul described this new life, the life for which we were made, as “the fruit of the Spirit;” not “the fruit of my good intentions.” “The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things” (Galatians 5:22).

We feel our arms stretched upward, our roots deep, and we are trees giving glory to God, swayed only by the wind of the Spirit, watered by the grace of Baptism.


1From the poem “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost.
2J. Clinton McCann, Jr. and James C. Howell, Preaching the Psalms (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001).
3Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1972).


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 John 5:9-13

David Bartlett

In looking at the first letter of John for these weeks of Eastertide, we have suggested that this epistle is really a sermon.

It lacks the salutation and farewell of a typical first century letter, and the style and movement of the work suggest an extended homily rather than the give and take of correspondence.

We have further suggested that the occasion for the homily is some kind of growing division within 1 John’s community. The division is, in part, over the right interpretation of the text that that community holds sacred — the book we call The Gospel of John.

Thus, the occasion for the sermon is a community dispute, and the text for the sermon is John’s Gospel.

In today’s verses, written as the sermon draws to a close, we watch the epistle writer draw on themes that are familiar to us from the Gospel — witness, Sonship, faith, and eternal life.

Witness

The theme of witness is central to our Fourth Gospel:

  • At the beginning of the Gospel, John the Baptist bears witness to Jesus (John 1:7, 8, 15, 32).
  • Jesus bears witness to himself and the Father bears witness to him (John 5:31, 32; 8:18).
  • The beloved disciple bears witness to the events of crucifixion and resurrection (John 19:35; 21:24).
  • After Jesus’ death and return to the Father, the Paraclete will bear witness to the truth of the gospel. (John 15:26)
  • Finally — implicitly at least — the Gospel itself becomes a witness whose testimony is true and fully to be believed (John 20:31).

In the passage just preceding today’s text, the author reminds the congregation that there are three witnesses to the reality of Christ’s incarnation — the water, the blood and the Spirit. This Spirit is surely the Paraclete whom Jesus promised to bring testimony about him.

Today’s passage claims the testimony of yet another witness, God’s own self — understood here as God the Father (1 John 5:9).

This epistle, like the Gospel it interprets, presents a kind of trial for the world. Those who read it are the jury, and they are asked to decide whose testimony is true — the world’s or that brought by both the Spirit and the Father.

In the case of John’s Gospel, the world testifies that Jesus is a false prophet misleading the people who rightly should follow only Moses.

And in the case of this epistle, the world’s testifies that “Jesus” is only the illusory appearance of a human, conveniently disguising the eternal Son. In classic terms, the “world” testifies to a docetic Christology.

Now, the division between believers and the world is not between the church community and those outside but between groups within the church.

In light of the testimony of the Father and the Spirit, the jury (the congregation who hears this homily) has to judge whose testimony is true. But ironically, it is not the Father or the Spirit who is judged; it is the jury that will finally be convicted either of truth or error.

Sonship

In the Gospel of John and in this letter, the primary title for understanding Jesus is the title “Son” (cf. John 10:36, 11:4, 17:1).

There are, of course, the dangers of an unnecessary exclusivism when we preach only about God as Father and Jesus as his “Son.” The easy translations do not work as well as they should. “Parent” is oddly impersonal. You do not introduce me to your “parent” but to your mother or father. And “child” is usually juvenile.

The epistle wants to insist that the relationship between God and Jesus is entirely personal and entirely grown up. And the epistle wants to insist that the relationship between Jesus and those who believe is entirely personal and grown up, too. Whatever language we can use to convey the strong bonds between God and Jesus, and between God, Jesus, the Spirit and the believers, will bear true witness to what the epistle intends.

Faith

The way in which believers lay claim to their part in this personal relationship is through faith (cf. John 3:16, 20:31).

Often in the New Testament, “faith” is primarily a matter of trust or commitment. But in John’s Gospel and in this epistle, faith is primarily a matter of “belief.” However, it is not so much “belief that” as it is “belief in;” belief in Jesus as God’s own Son.

“Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts. … I write these things to you, who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:10, 13). Notice how 5:13 echoes John 20:31, “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.”

In our time, we appropriately rejoice in the gifts of an inclusive church and an open table.

And yet this epistle, like John’s Gospel, reminds us that right belief does matter for full life. The wobbly Christology of John’s opponents — a phantasmal Jesus barely concealing an ethereal godhead — wobbles for our time, too. Full faith demands full flesh and full incarnation. Otherwise what is redeemed is only some phantasmal us.

Eternal Life

In the Fourth Gospel and in this epistle, eternal life does not refer exclusively to life beyond the grave (cf. John 3:16, 6:54). Eternal life is full life, now and in the world to come.

When the epistle says that those who “believe in the name of the Son of God may know that they have eternal life” (1 John 5:13), it does not mean that the faithful believe now and have eternal life later. Those who believe know that they have eternal life because the belief, the faith, is itself eternal life, real life.