Lectionary Commentaries for October 25, 2009
Reformation Day

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 8:31-36

Matt Skinner

These verses promise good news to those who desire to be Jesus’ disciples: He and only he brings true freedom.

At the same time, these verses take us into the teeth of the Gospel according to John’s pointed polemic against the people represented by the characters called “the Jews.” It is imperative that congregations come away from their encounter with this text understanding that “the Jews” mentioned in 8:31 do not stand for all Jews (neither all Jews of Jesus’ time nor all Jews of any time) or for an abstract notion of Judaism. To make this passage imply that Judaism is an enslaving religion or that Jesus somehow stood outside of Judaism is to misunderstand the passage, the historical setting in which it was written, and its enduring theological implications. Consulting a reputable commentary on John will re-acquaint preachers with this Gospel’s polemical bent and help them guard against perpetuating old forms of anti-Judaism and creating new ones.

These six verses are cut from a tightly-constructed dialog (8:21-59) that resembles a courtroom deliberation over Jesus’ identity. In the larger episode, Jesus takes the divine name as his own and tells his interlocutors that they are estranged from God and their Abrahamic ancestry. While the lectionary’s sharp knife keeps the core dispute of 8:21-59 hidden, in doing so it also carves out space for preachers to consider the six verses on their own terms. That is, congregations will hear 8:31-36 as a mini-dialog more or less dislocated from the most problematic and controversial aspects of the wider narrative context. This allows a sermon to direct focus toward the rich language Jesus uses.

Dwelling with Jesus
Jesus’ first comment, in 8:31-32, oozes with promise. Three things follow from the initial “if,” which he speaks to people who had already expressed belief in him:

If you continue in my word, [then]:

  • you are truly my disciples
  • you will know the truth
  • the truth will make you free

Getting a sense of how John uses several of these words shows that Jesus’ point here is rather simple and focused, even if it is all-encompassing. He says that remaining connected to (or “dwelling in”) him and his message is the true measure of discipleship. It is what separates people who are really free from those who appear to be Jesus’ followers for a time. It is the path to truth and freedom. (Talk of “dwelling” fills John. See especially 15:1-17.)

What Is This “Truth”?
Perhaps you have heard John 8:32 ripped from its Christological context and turned into an abstract platitude. But, in this Gospel, “truth” does not refer to a philosophical ideal or the opposite of falsehood; it is knowledge of God as revealed in Jesus’ own self. Knowing this “truth” is knowing God, God made present in Jesus, who is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (14:6). Jesus makes this clear in 8:36, when he substitutes “the Son” for “the truth,” saying that the Son makes people free. “As “Son” and “truth,” Jesus himself is the very revelation of God (1:18; 5:19-27; 14:8-10).

We live in an era in which we have come to understand that claims about truth are rooted in our contextuality and invariably contested. It is interesting that Jesus does not present himself as a self-evident truth. That is, he does not expect his hearers to grasp the fullness of his claim all at once or to assess its validity through logic or research. They will come to know him as “the truth” if they live with him and remain connected to him and his word. Experience, not deduction, is the key.

What Is This “Freedom”?
Only in this passage does “freedom” language appear in John. Jesus’ mention of freedom offends his hearers, who insist they have always enjoyed freedom (even though, ironically, Jesus and his Jewish contemporaries live under Roman rule). But Jesus contends that without him they live as slaves. First, they are enslaved to sin, living as oppressed people. Second, this slavery relegates them to inferior status; because of it they cannot claim a permanent place or identity in God’s family. Jesus then shifts his household metaphor to suggest that, as “Son,” only he can ensure true freedom and secure membership in God’s family.

The banal repetition of “freedom” in American political rhetoric makes it difficult to distinguish among various kinds of freedoms. Nothing in this passage envisions modern concepts of personal liberties; the principal focus is on freedom from sin’s clutches. Still, this passage finds new ways of offending modern audiences. To say Jesus brings freedom implies that people live in slavery, and we do not like to hear that we are enslaved in any way. So much of our modern lives tries to reassure us that we are, or should be, free from any constraints. We aspire to self-realization, self-actualization, self-sufficiency. We perpetuate myths that we are at the mercy of no forces that we cannot control. These are not necessarily the same thing as “sin,” but they point up ways in which we resist God and really need a liberator.

Remember the Reformation!
If you are preaching on this text because liturgical planning materials directed you to do so for Reformation Day, then it is important to think about this text in the context of that festival. While Reformation Day, by definition, includes an element of looking into history, back to Luther’s deed of 1517 and all the streams that converged to bring about the Protestant Reformations, remember that the day’s primary purpose is to focus on the present and future by considering our own need for renewal and reformation. Resist the temptation to preach history, ecclesiology, or interreligious polemic. Let me suggest three theological directions this text might point us on such a day.

The Radical Centrality and Sufficiency of Christ
The audacity of Jesus’ claims in this passage too easily wash over many church folk who have grown accustomed to hearing such talk. Jesus’ words in these verses may launch an extended debate further into John 8 about Abraham and Jewish identity, but they also apply to every other form of hope, identity, system, or whatever. Jesus declares all those other things insufficient. The point is not just that Christ alone–to the exclusion of all others–brings true freedom from sin and true belonging in God’s household. It is also that Christ himself does it. Jesus does not announce new dogma or new confessions to which one must subscribe. He demands an encounter with himself. One must dwell with him and with his word.

Our Resistance to Freedom and Tendencies toward Vilification
Interpreters puzzle over the “they” in 8:33, and why it seems that the people “who had believed” in Jesus (8:31) resist him and eventually are told by him in 8:47 that they are not really “from God.” First, this underscores Jesus’ insistence that true liberation comes from dwelling with him, not from just believing or assenting. Second, this forces John’s readers (and our congregations) to consider what Jesus says from their own perspectives as people who profess to believe in Jesus. Jesus speaks to people who are apparent insiders, people drawn to Jesus, people who believed, not to an easily ostracized “other.” Even “believers” today resist discipleship and Jesus’ gift of unqualified freedom.

Therefore, those who take this passage simply as a contrast between Christianity and other faith systems (or between Protestantism and other Christian traditions) commit an awful mistake. Beware of those who use the text and the Reformation Day context to vilify the “other.” Certainly the strong Christological statements Jesus makes in these verses draw attention to his conversation partners and their function in John. I have already written above (and elsewhere) that preachers bear the responsibility to educate congregations about how and why the Gospels depict Jesus criticizing his Jewish contemporaries. This text calls for reflection on Christians’ tendencies to use scripture as a weapon while simultaneously domesticating the challenges it poses to us.

The Realities of Our Slaveries
To take seriously Jesus’ claims about setting us free is to take seriously the proposition that we are all enslaved to powers beyond our ability to master. The addicts in your congregation will nod inwardly when they hear this, but others may need more coaxing to see their particular bonds. Reformation Day offers a suitable occasion for considering the ways in which we often find ourselves enslaved to particular religious identities, heritages, and practices, all the while pretending that dwelling in those things is the same as dwelling in Jesus and his word.

First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 31:31-34

Dennis Olson

The book of Jeremiah is dominated by doom and gloom, condemning the people of Judah for their great sin and announcing the imminent destruction of the nation and the exile to Babylon that would come in 587 BCE.

A Diamond in the Rough
In the midst of this dark valley of despair and judgment in the book of Jeremiah, however, a dense cluster of promise oracles concentrated in Jeremiah 30-33 radiate like a dazzling diamond. They radiate with bright promises of hope, comfort and restoration. These four chapters proclaim that after the judgment of exile is over, God will indeed bring God’s people back to the land of Judah and restore them as a new and faithful people once again. The new covenant passage from Jeremiah 31:31-34 is a key element of a new future that only God can create. “The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (Jeremiah 31:31).

The Old Covenant
God promises that this new covenant “will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors” (Jeremiah 31:32). The old covenant was the one made on Mount Sinai after God had led the people out of the slavery of Egypt (Exodus 24:7-11). Its basis was the Law, the Ten Commandments written on stone (Exodus 20:1-17), which parents were to teach diligently to their children (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). Some features of the old will remain. God will continue to be the initiator of the covenant rooted in God’s gracious action on behalf of the people (Exodus 20:2; Deuteronomy 9:3-5). The Law will remain as the norm for living as God’s people. The goal will be the same: to love God and to love neighbor as God’s chosen people in the world (Exodus 19:5-6; Leviticus 19:18; Deuteronomy 6:5).

The New Covenant: A Re-Written Heart
What then is new about the “new” covenant? First, the new covenant involves a surgical procedure, re-writing the human heart. The biblical understanding of the “heart” is that it is the center of human intellect and will, knowing what is right and having the desire to do it. Under the old covenant, the Ten Commandments were written on tablets of stone and posted for all to see (Exodus 24:12).

The trouble with such external guidelines is our old heart’s desire to resist them as outside interference and imposition upon our own internal yearnings to go our own way. The old heart, Jeremiah proclaimed, is deeply engraved with an evil inclination to rebel against God and God’s law: “the sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron, with a point of diamond it is engraved on the tablet of the heart” (Jeremiah 17:1).

Jeremiah promises that God will replace this deeply engraved sinful heart with a new heart engraved with God’s law, written in God’s own handwriting (Jeremiah 31:33; see Ezekiel 36:26 for a similar image). People will obey not because they are supposed to obey but because they naturally want to obey. Obedience will become habitual and second-nature. We will love God and neighbor just for the fun of it, often without even realizing what we are doing. “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food?” (Matthew 25:34-40).

The New Covenant: No More Sunday School!
A second element in the new covenant is the elimination of religious education: “No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, . . . says the LORD” (Jeremiah 31:34). The old covenant stressed one person teaching the faith to another (Deuteronomy 6:7). The new covenant stresses God’s action in getting inside our hearts and reprogramming our words, actions, habits and feelings to conform naturally to become the faithful servants of God we were created to be.

Of course, we still have religious education programs in our congregations. The church remains a people on the way but not yet fully there. But one day we will not need human teachers to mediate God’s growth (1 Corinthians 3:6). In the interim, however, we require creative and energetic teachers and preachers to be instruments of God’s work of making disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19).

The New Covenant: Forgiveness in a New Key
A third important item in God’s new covenant is a generous forgiveness that wipes the slate of the past totally clean. From the least to the greatest, “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:34). We often place tight limits on forgiveness, just as Peter asked Jesus how many times we forgive those who wrong us–“seven times?” Jesus, reflecting a new covenant kind of forgiveness corrected Peter, “No…seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:22). This forgiveness is generous and extended to all, from the wretched and despised to the great and the honored.

The New Covenant: Jesus and the Lord’s Supper
In the Christian tradition, Jeremiah’s new covenant becomes the basis for naming the second part of the Christian canon as the “New Testament” or “New Covenant.” However, the most powerful actualization of Jeremiah 31 is in the person of Jesus and in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Jesus eats the old Passover meal and re-creates it into a new covenant meal. Jesus lifts the Passover cup of wine and proclaims on the eve of his death and eventual resurrection: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sins” (1 Corinthians 11:25; Matthew 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20). The sacramental meal internalizes the body and blood of Christ into our hearts and bodies, breaks down barriers, levels the field as all are welcomed, and offers forgiveness even to those disciples who betray, deny or abandon Jesus when he most needs them.

Now and Not Yet
Although we confess that Jesus fulfilled the new covenant in his life and ministry, the promise of the new covenant has not been fully realized in us. We continue to wrestle with our old sinful hearts. We still need our teachers and preachers. We struggle to distribute forgiveness beyond our small and limited doses. Jeremiah’s new covenant remains a hope, but it is a hope that is underway and a hope that is certain to arrive fully in God’s good future: “the days are surely coming, says the LORD, the days are surely coming” (Jeremiah 31:31).


Commentary on Psalm 46

Rolf Jacobson

“A Mighty Fortress is Our God”–the hymn, which according to Ulrich Leupold, “more than any other epitomizes Luther’s thought and personal experience”–is a rather free paraphrase of Psalm 46.

For that reason, the psalm is assigned for Reformation Sunday. But as Leupold notes, Luther “did not write [the hymn] to express his own feelings, but to interpret and apply the 46th Psalm to the church of his own time and its struggles.”1  This is a fine summary of the preaching task–to interpret and apply the biblical text to our own time and struggles. So why not preach this Reformation Day on Psalm 46?

The Text of the Psalm
The psalm is tightly composed, with three, three-verse-long stanzas and two refrains:
Stanza 1 (verses 1-3)
Stanza 2 (verses 4-6)
Refrain: “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.” (verse 7)
Stanza 3 (verses 8-10)
Refrain: “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.” (verse 11)

An important note about the text of the psalm is necessary, because some recent modern editions of the Book of Psalm “restored” (a fancy scholarly term meaning “fussed with”) the text of the psalm to include the psalm’s refrain after the first stanza, too. The Lutheran Book of Worship of 1978 and The Book of Common Prayer of 1977 both used a version of this psalm with the refrain so restored.2 

More recently, however, postmodern sensibilities have rightfully undermined scholarly confidence in the ability to fuss with the biblical text in these ways. So here is the point: Just be aware of which text your congregation is using. The commentary here does not supply the supposed missing verse. If you are still using a version that “restores” the refrain after the first stanza, adjust your interpretation accordingly.

Stanza One–The Roaring of Creation and God “our Refuge”
In the first stanza, the hymn juxtaposes the steady and secure image of God as “refuge” with the image of the earth and seas in uproar. (For more on the key Hebrew term “refuge,” see last week’s commentary on Psalm 91:9-16.) The image of “earth” shaking and “sea” roaring is an image of creation itself in rebellion against God’s creative order. This image is a reminder that the fallen condition of creation goes beyond mere human disobedience. The fallen condition encompasses all of creation, all of nature. Thus, the “law” that the psalm names is the reality that creation itself is broken and in rebellion against the Creator. Earthquakes and tsunamis cause destruction. Disease and disability strike. Death awaits all. And the “gospel” that the psalm names is the one trustworthy source of security that can be relied upon in the midst of this roaring rebellion: God is our refuge, “therefore we will not fear.” Notice that similar to other poems of trust, such as Psalm 23, the strategy of the psalm is to name the very real reasons there are for fear, and then to confess trust in God in the midst of those fears.

Stanza Two–The Roaring of the Nations and the River of God
The second stanza of the poem intensifies both the threat that is named and the promise that is proffered. The first stanza remained at the more universal level, naming the universal threat of creation in rebellion and offering the general promise of God (using the generic term elohim) as refuge. The second stanza focuses in more specifically on the national identity of God’s chosen people. It refers to the nations (Hebrew: goyim) that threaten “the city of God” (AKA: Jerusalem) and the refrain employs both the personal name of “the Lord” as well as the epithet “God of Jacob”–a reference to the nation’s ancestral patriarch.

All of which is to say that in the second stanza the poem intensifies the sense of threat by naming the national threat that empires such as Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome and many smaller nations posed to the descendants of Jacob throughout Israel’s existence. This intensification of the naming of the threat also balances the first stanza by naming a second, more particular and more direct way in which the fallen condition of sin affects human–through human sin.

Yes, all of creation is fallen and in rebellion, but human sin and rebellion is more nefarious, or at least more potent–if only because the combination of human intelligence and will make evils such as genocide and war possible. Thus, “the nations are in an uproar” (the Hebrew verb hamah is used both for the nations in verse 6 and the sea in verse 3) summarizes the intensification of the rebellious threat.

The corresponding promise that the second stanza offers is the presence of God with the people. Here, God’s presence is metaphorically described as “a river whose streams make glad the city of God.” There was and is no river in Jerusalem, of course, but that is not the point of the poetic flourish. The point is rather the powerful promise resident in the stark image of the refreshing and life-sustaining river to a city and people in an arid climate under siege by an invading army. The image of the river flowing from the throne or habitation of God was, moreover, a metaphor known throughout the ancient Near East and one that found its way into the promises of the New Testament (Revelation 22:1-2).3 

The promise of the presence of God with the people in the city was a key element of the theology of the southern kingdom of Judah. The city, and in particular its Temple, was “the holy habitation of the most high.” According to this theology, God had chosen both the Davidic monarchs and the City of David, Jerusalem. This “dual election” included the promise of protection for both (see Psalm 89; Isaiah 7:1-17; 2 Samuel 7:1-7). In the refrain, which we can imagine the entire congregation singing, the words of trust become almost a creedal confession of confidence: “The Lord of hosts is with us.”

In the New Testament, this theology modulates to a new key, with Jesus coming as both the presence and habitation of God and as the fulfillment of the promise of the Messiah (the royal descendant of David)–who is present wherever two or three gather in his name, to the end of the age.

Stanza Three–Be Still and Know that I am God
The psalm’s final stanza culminates with a statement of trust that is cloaked as an invitation and then with a promise. The invitation is the imperative cry, “Come!” which occurs in Psalms 95 and 66 in calls to come, see what God has done, and therefore to praise God. Here, the call is not so much to praise God, but to come and be silent–to witness God’s powerful ability to crush rebellion and then to be silent.

In the end, God even speaks the promise: “Be still, and know that I am God.” To know, in Hebrew, does not mean just to acknowledge something intellectually, but to internalize or to embody the truth fully. And then God’s voice closes the psalm by asserting God’s exaltation over both spheres of creation that have been in rebellion against God in stanzas 1 and 2 of the poem: “I am exalted among the nations” (stanza 2) and “I am exalted in the earth” (stanza 1).

That is the promise of both the psalm, and in a larger sense, of the entire Bible. That the God of Jacob and the Lord of Israel will, in the end of all thing, prove a faithful refuge for those who are caught in the fallen condition of creation and humanity.

The Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge.

1In Luther’s Works 53: 283.
2This restoration to the psalm can be found in such important scholars as Hans-Joachim Kraus [Psalms 1-59 (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1988) 458-9]. The argument is entirely internal, assuming that because the Hebrew word selah follows each of the three stanzas, the refrain should follow also. But here is no external textual support, either in ancient Hebrew manuscripts or among the ancient versions, for such a change to the psalm. If you read this footnote, you can now impress your colleagues in your text study. What does selah mean? Glad you asked. Nobody knows, but the best guess is that it was a musical or liturgical direction calling for some now unknown action to take place.
3For what it is worth, certain psalm scholars have argued that this psalm must have originated in some other city, since the mention of the river does not fit Jerusalem, and that the psalm was only “adopted” by Jerusalem. This argument misses the poetic power of the image of river and betrays a way of interpreting the Bible that is, in my view, hopelessly enslaved to a literalistic hermeneutic.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 3:19-28

Bryan J. Whitfield

I’ve been having trouble breathing, and today my ear-nose-and-throat specialist told me I need surgery to correct a deviated septum.

He needs to put things right so air can flow in and out as it ought. He is enthusiastic about the prospect and assures me my quality of life will improve once things are straightened out.

In writing to the Romans, Paul describes God’s process of putting us right, of straightening us out. He introduces this theme immediately after his salutation and thanksgiving with his statement of purpose in 1:16-17. The good news has the power to change our lives.

After this statement of purpose, Paul explores the flip side of his theme, concluding that all of our relationships with God stand in need of repair. We have all lost the glory God gave humans in creation. We have turned away from God and God’s splendor. Because of sin, none of us stand in right relationship with God (3:23). Having established that dark side of the truth, Paul returns to his theme in chapter 3, spelling out in more detail the ideas he introduced briefly in 1:16-17.

Paul’s core conviction is that the gospel reveals “the righteousness of God.” For some of us, that phrase conjures up an image of a God who judges rightly between the good we have done and the evil we have committed and then decides our fate. We line up, and God counts off: “Number seven, you go to heaven! Number six, you are in a fix!”

Martin Luther once hated the phrase “the righteousness of God.” It made him shudder all over. He wrote: “Who can love such a God who deals with sinners according to such a standard of justice? We are all sinners, and none of us stands a chance. Will not such a God devour us all like a consuming fire?”1

But while reading Romans, Luther discovered that God’s righteousness does not consist in weighing out punishment or favor. For Paul, God’s righteousness is not simply a quality God has. It is primarily an activity, a righteousness that God bestows on us. God gives this righteousness to us to make our relationship with God right. In the words of the NEB, “it is God’s way of righting wrong” (3:22). Such an understanding of the righteousness of God stands in sharp contrast to any reward-and-punishment logic. God sets us right, not on the basis of our attempts to put things right, but by “grace as a gift” (3:24).

The process by which God bestows such righteousness is a matter of debate, as the footnotes to 3:22 and 3:26 in the NRSV indicate. If we adopt the reading of the main text that focuses on “faith in Jesus,” we underscore that Jesus is the object of our faith. If we adopt the alternate reading that focuses on “the faith of Jesus,” we stress that God gives righteousness to us on the basis of the faithfulness of Jesus. In that case, Jesus becomes the example of faith or faithfulness for us. God’s gift comes to us through Jesus’ death, but it is the human Jesus who has offered himself. His obedience opens up new life for us.

The most significant question, however, is not about how justification works, but for whom. Who is this good news for? Paul’s unswerving answer is everyone: “there is no distinction” (3:22). This good news is for the Greeks and the non-Greeks, for the Jews and the non-Jews. It is for the civilized and the savage, the educated and the ignorant, the haves and the have-nots. It is for us all, for all of us sinners stand in need of redemption (3:23). Just as sin and guilt are universal, so is God’s grace. As Paul will argue later in the chapter, the fundamental belief in the oneness of God underwrites God’s equal treatment for all (3:29-30).

Desiring to put all of us in right relationship, God shows no partiality on the basis of those adjectives we love so well. God does not judge between us on the basis of our skin color, our culture, our race, our nationality, our gender, or our sexual orientation. God loves us all, accepts us all, and desires to put us all in right relationship. That truth challenged the status quo in Paul’s day, and it continues to challenge us in ours.

It was good news for me to learn I will be breathing more easily once my doctor straightens out my crooked nose. But my insurance company and I will both pay for that operation. How much more wonderful to know of God’s free gift through Christ that sets right a most fundamental deviation–our attempts to build our lives and center our loves on self rather than God. Because of what has happened in Christ, God rights our wrongs in a new way that forever changes us and our world. That is a transformation for which none of us could pay. It is gift. It is grace. That is good news for all of us.

1Martin Luther, W.A. 40:11, 3331, 25 and 444, 36, as quoted in Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1957): II/1, 378.