Lectionary Commentaries for May 31, 2009
Day of Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Sharon H. Ringe

For the early Christian communities, Pentecost marked a liminal moment when people’s gaze shifted from looking back at their memories of Jesus,

to looking ahead to what they must trust to sustain their life after his death and resurrection had passed into history and memory. That same sense of being on the boundary between phases of life is a recurring feeling through the life of the church, as we are pushed by the experiences we encounter to reaffirm the basis of our faith and confidence. At its heart is the experience of the Holy Spirit.

Only the Author of the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts writes of a specific day in the life of the Jerusalem community when the spirit is given. The other New Testament writers are less specific about the timing of that experience. In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus is said to interpret the Spirit for the disciples prior to his death, namely, in the long discourse after dinner on the night of his arrest (13:31-17:26). No tongues of fire or rushing wind are promised as the accompaniment of the Spirit’s arrival in this story. No unexpected languages will prompt snickered charges of drunkenness in mid-morning. Instead, the Spirit in John is identified by two terms that fit with the somber judicial tone of “witness” and “testimony” characterizing this Gospel from the beginning (see for example 1:6-7, 19-23; 3:11; 4:39, etc., as well as 15:26-27). The first is the “Spirit of truth” and the second the “Paraclete” (paraklētos) or “Advocate.” 

The first of these terms links the Spirit and Jesus, who identifies himself as the truth (14:6). The latter term, “Paraclete” (paraklētos) or “Advocate,” has always challenged translators. In English, it has been read as “Comforter” (KJV), “Helper” (NKJV), “Counselor” (RSV, NIV, New Living Bible), “Advocate” (NRSV), or simply transliterated as “Paraclete” (NJB). Other modern Western languages show a similar range of choices. The Greek word is made up of the participial form of the verb “to call” and the preposition “beside” and thus means one who has been summoned or called to the side of another–literally, an “advocate,” or, by extension, a helper or legal representative in a trial or other arena of judgment.

The Holy Spirit is mentioned only five times in the Gospel of John, and three of them are in today’s passage. Previously, the Spirit is introduced in 14:16, where the Spirit is called both the Spirit of truth and “another Advocate,” which begs the question of the identity of the first. If we have been following the unfolding picture of Jesus’ role in John, however, we recognize that this is how Jesus has been described, namely, as one who stands like a defense attorney beside his followers, accompanying them in moments of joy as well as of trial.

Losing that presence had to be a grief-laden prospect for Jesus’ followers and a grief-laden reality in the community he left behind. The good news of the gift of the Spirit, though, was that the same help and assurance continued in their new reality: “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (14:26). The Spirit would be a teacher who would complete the teaching begun by Jesus. She would remind them of Jesus’ teaching when time, grief, fear, or simple human forgetfulness takes it away. The Spirit would be sent by “the Father” in Jesus’ name. We must be careful not to read into this passage the later creedal discussions about relationships among the persons of the Holy Trinity, for those came long after this Gospel was written. This initial promise is simply a word of assurance that the presence of the Holy Spirit will continue to know God’s presence as they did when Jesus himself was with them.

The courtroom setting and language also frames the introductory verses of today’s lection. In 15:26, we are told that Jesus will send this Advocate from the Father, in a picture of the seamless collaboration between Jesus/Son/Word/Sent One and God the Father/Creator/Sender. Both the Advocate and the followers have the duty to testify–presumably to the world beyond the community of believers–on Jesus’ behalf, just as Jesus has made God known. The community’s witness thus incarnates the witness of the Paraclete. Similarly, Jesus himself was the Word made flesh (1:14). There is a temporal separation between them–he must “go” so that the other can “come” (16:7)–but an integrated witness to God’s will and ways.

The language and tone of these portions of Jesus’ farewell discourse suggest that for John’s community, the transition from being a band of Jesus’ followers to being a community with its own responsibility to witness to all that Jesus has been was not easy. However, this Spirit/attorney, while being a reassuring support to Jesus’ followers and accompanying them in their times of trial, shows another side in 16:8-11. This defense attorney becomes at the same time the prosecutor who exposes the errors in the world’s versions of sin, righteousness, and judgment that are not viewed through the lens of Jesus Christ. In this way the Holy Spirit, through the faithful witness of the community, continues and completes Jesus’ “lawsuit” against the values of the world that he has been waging from the beginning of the Gospel (for example, 3:19; 8:26; 9:39; 15:26-27). Jesus’ words and deeds have made visible the identity of God. So also the Spirit will continue to make God visible in the life of the church.


First Reading

Commentary on Acts 2:1-21

Richard Jensen

One could preach many sermons on this marvelous text making a whole variety of points.

Our denominational emphases will lead us to a wide range of ideas that need to be emphasized in preaching this text.

It is a problem for us that the Pentecost story in Acts 2:1-2:47 is cut in half by the pericope system. The whole of Acts 2 is a unit of Lukan thought that ought not be divided.

This story is a kind of summary of Luke’s second volume. Luke’s first volume led us from the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem to the climactic events of his life in Jerusalem. Acts, on the other hand, moves us from Pentecost in Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.

To Jerusalem. From Jerusalem. That’s Luke’s outline.

Luke tells this story in three parts:

  • Acts 2:1-13, the miracle of Pentecost
  • Acts 2:14-40, Peter’s keynote address
  • Acts 2:41-47, announces a summary of the Pentecost story and points to the messianically restored, Spirit-filled church that is the true Israel

A first recommendation for preaching is that you tell this whole story, Acts 2:1-47, in your own words.

You can tell this story in various ways for various people. Call up the kids to hear part of the story. Project appropriate visuals to help people follow the story. Enact the story. Be creative!

A favorite dictum of mine is that the biblical story is almost always more important than our points about the story. You might wish to simply tell the story and close with a prayer. It is vital that we bring these stories alive to people so that they carry them in their inner being.

You might ask at the end of your telling of the story, “Where do we fit into this Pentecost tale?” Acts 2:38 gives the basic answer to that question. We are invited to a life of daily repentance and remembrance of our baptism. We are invited to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Holy Baptism is a foundational moment when the gospel message of forgiveness of sins was spoken and the gift of the Holy Spirit washed over our lives for the very first time.

In my tradition, this text could be seen as a call to a daily renewal of trust in the forgiving promise and the gift of the Spirit offered to us in this sacrament instituted by Jesus Christ. In other traditions, emphases will be found in underscoring God’s gracious act of forgiveness and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

You could also tell this story making your points as you go. What follows is intended to help you see some possible directions you might take. In this brief space, we can only scratch the surface of the depths that are before us.

Verses 1-4: Pentecost was a Jewish festival which was celebrated fifty days (hence pente) after the first harvested sheaf of the barley harvest (cf.  Leviticus 23:15-16). That’s why Jews from all over the world were in Jerusalem at this time.

A sound of mighty wind was heard. We remember that the Hebrew word we translate as spirit means wind or breath. This is, therefore, an event of the coming of the Holy Spirit.

There were also tongues as of fire. Wind and fire signal the presence of Yahweh. The disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit and they began to speak in other dialects.

Verses 5-13 record the incredible event of the disciples preaching the good news of Jesus Christ in the tongues of the grand variety of people who were gathered that day. Babel is reversed. Scattered peoples and languages can all understand the mighty works of God. Here, too, Luke drives home his point that the works of God are meant for all peoples. This is a very important reality in the multi-cultural world that we now inhabit.

Verses 14-21 give us Peter’s sermon. His first point is that what has been witnessed on this wonderful Pentecost day is the fulfillment of the prophet Joel’s words. God is pouring out his spirit on all flesh! Whoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved (Acts 2:21). This may be the theme of the entire episode.

Verses 22-36 give us a sermon about Jesus. Imagine! Pentecost Day, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and the sermon is about Jesus. Jesus is the author of Pentecost. Note verse 23 – we dare not miss this reality about Pentecost. Clearly, Jesus is its author!

Your sermon on this Sunday must also center in the work of Jesus. Israel can then know (cf. Acts 2:36) that God has made Jesus both Lord and Christ, Yahweh and Messiah.1  It is Jesus who mediates the Holy Spirit; who is able to perform healing miracles through his community; to whom prayers are to be addressed; who is the appointed judge of the world; and who is inseparable from and subordinate to God.

Verses 37-40 are the invitation to salvation which we have touched on briefly above. The call to repentance is the universal call to all people to turn from their own ways and to turn to God in Jesus Christ. God offers the Holy Spirit, new life, and forgiveness of sins to all who will receive.

Lastly, verses 42-47 give us a glimpse of the church as an alternate community in human history. They centered their life on the teaching of the apostles, fellowship, and the breaking of bread. Signs and wonders were performed. Today, many of the fast-growing churches in the global south exhibit these marks of healings and works of social justice. The church always works for the good of the whole community.


1See Luke’s birth story in Luke 2:1-14, especially verse 11 for this same reality of the dual nature of Jesus. God enthrones Jesus as Lord and Christ.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 104:24-34, 35b

Matthew Stith

It is a blessing to the preacher when the movement of a passage of Scripture offers a ready guide to interpretation and proclamation.

This reading from Psalm 104 is a case in point.

A quick glance at the text reveals a three-part structure:

  • Verses 24 through 26 describe the wondrous character of God’s creation;
  • Verses 27 through 30 describe God’s providence;
  • Verses 31 through 35 turn to praise.

In tracing the flow from creation to providence to praise, the preacher will find a number of possible points of contact with virtually any congregational context.

The Wonders of Creation (24-26)

In the portion of the Psalm that precedes this reading, the Psalmist has offered an extensive catalogue of the many things that God has created. Accordingly, we have the exclamation of verse 24, “How manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.” It is, in one sense, a summary of what came before.

Nevertheless, the crowning example of the sea and its most awesome creature (Leviathan) serves perfectly well to illustrate the point without reference to those earlier verses. What God has created is awesome beyond the comprehension of mortals.

No ancient Israelite could even begin to claim full comprehension of the sea, with its vastness, unpredictability, and dangerous power. Indeed, despite all the efforts of science and exploration that lie between the ancients and our own time, the sea remains in many ways mysterious and in all ways uncontrollable.

The claim here is that God created and therefore has dominion over not only the sea but even its most dangerous and terrifying inhabitant, the whale/sea monster Leviathan. If there are such incredible wonders in the creation, the power, wisdom, and skill of the creator must be even more incredible.

Preachers might adapt this argument for the wonder of God from the wonders of creation to the needs of the congregation by considering other wonders of creation that are “closer to home,” more accessible to the people’s experience and context.

Dependence upon Providence (27-30)

A natural question arising from looking at the near-infinite diversity of creatures is, “How do they all find what they need to survive? How can the world provide for so many different needs?”

The Psalmist turns the improbability of the world furnishing a suitable niche for so many different creatures into another theological observation: it all depends on the providence of God. Whatever lives, says the Psalm, is receiving life, breath, and sustenance from the hand of the Creator. And if that providing hand were ever to be closed, no creature could survive.

The existence of life, then, is an argument for the providence of God! Preachers may find here a useful point of contact with congregations in which there is uncertainty and anxiety about the future. God provides for all creatures — and this should give us confidence that God is able to provide for us, come what may.

There is also a potential connection in this portion of the Psalm to the liturgical context of Pentecost. The relationship in verse 30 between God sending out his spirit and the creation and renewal of the world dovetails nicely with the Pentecost story of God sending out his spirit for the creation and renewal of the church.

Praise the Lord! (31-35)

While one might well be tempted to focus on the Pentecost connection mentioned above as the culmination of the treatment of the Psalm, it would be a mistake to disregard the Psalmist’s chosen conclusion. The movement from contemplation of the creation through recognition of God’s providence must, in the logic of the Psalter, lead to praise.

The proper response of the creature to the Creator is always one of reverent celebration, and the recognition of how extensively God has provided and sustained us is cause for the Psalmist to break out in joyful superlatives.

Praise should come forth “as long as I live,” and “while I have being.” The Lord’s glory is so clearly shown in his creation and providence that the creaturely life must be one of thanksgiving and praise. How else could one respond to such a God?

By excluding the first half of verse 35 from the reading, the lectionary leaves this question as a hypothetical, presumably to be answered with an implied “in no other way.”

But verse 35a indicates that the Psalmist knew, as does everyone else, that there are other responses to God’s majesty and generosity than endless praise.

In the typical terminology of the Psalms, those other responses, the ones that reject some aspect or another of the goodness and wonder of creation, the complete sufficiency of providence, are attributed to “sinners” and “the wicked.”

Congregations may (and indeed should) be uncomfortable with this language of obliteration. After all, every congregation is made up of sinners! Still, there is no escaping the fact that the praise of God envisioned and practiced by the Psalmist includes the desire that such wickedness will be decisively and permanently dealt with.

Seeing the wonders of creation and providence doesn’t just encourage us to say, “Wow! God is pretty great.” Instead, they demand that the blight of sin be removed, so that the creation may be entirely what God intends it to be.

Here is the final opportunity for a productive connection to the congregation’s life. As so often happens, God has found a different, better way to answer the Psalmist’s prayer than the Psalmist could have imagined.

In Jesus Christ, God has indeed dealt decisively with the blight of sin, not by slaughtering sinners, but by redeeming them. This good news should set off an even more exuberant round of praise than the Psalmist’s! But no better beginning could be made to such news than that which closes the Psalm, the first “Hallelujah!” or “Praise the Lord!” of the Psalter.


Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 8:22-27

Elisabeth Johnson

In exploring our lectionary text, it is helpful to review briefly the argument Paul has made leading up to it.

Having described the conflict we experience as those enslaved to sin and death (Romans 7:14-25), Paul presents our only hope of deliverance. God sent his Son “in the likeness of sinful flesh” to deal with sin (8:3) and has given us his Spirit to dwell within us, so that we are now led by the Spirit of God (8:9-14).

The Spirit bears witness that we have been adopted as God’s children and have become joint heirs with Christ (8:15-17). Because we are joint heirs with Christ, we can expect to share in both his sufferings and his glory (8:17).

Paul is confident that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us” (8:18), yet he does not gloss over the present reality of suffering. The suffering to which Paul refers is not limited to persecution for the sake of following Christ. Instead, Paul is speaking in general terms of the suffering we all experience in “this present time,” since we are part of a world in bondage to sin, death, and decay.

Paul speaks of the whole creation experiencing this bondage and “waiting with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (8:19). He says further that “the whole creation has been groaning together (sustenazei) in labor pains until now, and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan (stenazomen) inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (8:22-23).

The “groaning” we experience together with creation is not futile or despairing but looks with hope toward the new world being birthed.

Both birthing and adoption imagery are used to describe this reality of living in the now and not yet of salvation. While the creation experiences labor pains, we who have been adopted as God’s children and have received the first fruits of the Spirit (8:15-16) still await the completion of our adoption, “the redemption of our bodies” (8:23).

This redemption will mean life and freedom for all creation. Life in the meantime is characterized by hope and patience — a watchful, expectant waiting that does not give in to despair, even when little evidence of redemption is in sight (8:24-25).

We are not left alone in our waiting and struggle, for “the Spirit helps us in our weakness” (8:26). Even though we don’t know how or what to pray, the Spirit intercedes for us with “inarticulate groans (stenagmois)” (8:26). The NRSV translation, “with sighs too deep for words,” obscures the parallel between our “groaning” and that of the Spirit. Just as we groan together with the whole creation (8:22-23), the Spirit groans together with and for us, interceding for us according to the will of God (8:27).

Our grasp of God’s will and the future God has in store for creation is limited at best. How can we pray for what we have not seen and have difficulty imagining? The Spirit gives voice to what we cannot articulate but hope and long for in our inmost selves.

Many aspects of this text open up potential paths for preaching. On Pentecost Sunday, the preacher may want to emphasize the work of the Spirit.

Paul is clear that the gift of the Spirit does not mean we have already “arrived” spiritually. Rather, the Spirit is the first fruit of our adoption as God’s children, an adoption that still awaits completion. Life in the meantime is characterized by suffering and struggle. Paul emphasizes the Spirit’s solidarity with us in our weakness and our solidarity with the whole creation in its suffering.

For any who might be tempted to think that life in the Spirit means escape from the world, Paul’s understanding of the Spirit’s work is a healthy corrective.

Too often in our culture we hear preaching suggesting that followers of Jesus can bypass suffering. We hear this, for instance, from “prosperity gospel” preachers who suggest that the right kind of faith and prayer will bring health and prosperity. Yet Paul asserts that the life of faith is not validated by such external signs. Rather, “we hope for what we do not see” (8:25).

Paul also insists that there is no exemption from suffering for believers. Being children of God indwelled by the Spirit does not remove us from the suffering of creation but draws us ever more deeply into solidarity with our suffering world.

As joint heirs with Christ, we can expect to share in his sufferings (8:17) on behalf of a world in bondage. As the Spirit of Christ dwells within us, at odds with the powers of sin and death, we experience conflict and suffering, yet we are not driven to despair. The Spirit groans with us and intercedes for us, giving us hope in the promise of redemption.

Paul’s emphasis on solidarity with creation also offers a strong counterpoint to a type of apocalyptic theology popular in our culture — theology that describes the end as a time when believers will be snatched away to heaven while unbelievers and the rest of creation are left behind to suffer bloodshed and destruction.

In stark contrast to this “left behind” theology, Paul testifies to God’s will of redeeming the whole creation together with the children of God.

Certainly Paul speaks elsewhere of future judgment, but it is judgment for all, including the children of God (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:10-15; 2 Corinthians 5:10). Our only hope is in God’s deliverance through Christ’s death and resurrection, for “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). Our redemption means hope for the whole creation, which “waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (8:19).

As children of God and joint heirs with Christ indwelled by his Spirit, we are one with creation in suffering, longing, and hope.