Lectionary Commentaries for May 1, 2011
Second Sunday of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 20:19-31

Karoline Lewis

Here we are again.

Don’t we kind of feel like this every year, the Sunday after Easter? If you are fortunate enough to have a seminary intern, do you decide that it’s her turn to preach? Or, if you are in a multiple staff situation, do you draw straws for who gets this Sunday? Doubting Thomas. Every year. Every Second Sunday of Easter in Years A, B, and C. And, if we had a Year D — a year for John, well, I guess logically it would be there, too.

Of course, the working preacher could bypass Thomas altogether and focus on John’s Pentecost (20:19-23). But then you wouldn’t have John to preach on for Pentecost Sunday and my Brainwave co-host Matt Skinner has written a fine commentary on that part of today’s text. So, we are stuck with Thomas.

Getting Unstuck
Is there a way to get unstuck from our first reactions to this text? Maybe all we need is a few reminders to remove the “ho-hum” from this disciple. For example, let’s start with the name we have assigned to Thomas for all of these many years — Doubting Thomas. Of course, the word is not “doubt” but a very Johannine word, “unbelieving” (apistos). While that doesn’t have the same ring to it as the usual moniker, it is certainly more true to what it means to believe in John’s Gospel.

Always a verb, never a noun, believing for John is a statement of abiding in Jesus. To believe in Jesus is not an assertion of certain doctrinal commitments, nor is it something that is strong one day but wavering the next. To believe in Jesus is the same thing as saying “I abide in you and you abide in me.” It is a creedal assertion only insofar as it affirms the existing relationship between Jesus and the believer. Believing in John’s Gospel is certainly a confession that Jesus is the Word made flesh, but the existential, ontological reality of the incarnation intimates that a confession of faith is more so a confession of a relationship.

Another reminder that might dislodge our tenuous reactions to Thomas can be Thomas’s own confession. His seemingly simple words, “My Lord and my God,” essentially summarize the entire Gospel. One should capitalize, bold, or italicize the “and” in his statement. Jesus is Lord, our Lord, but Jesus is also God, the “I AM,” the dwelling of God in the flesh.

And notice the pronoun — “my” Lord and “my” God, not “the” Lord and “the” God because again, confession is not assent to dogma but a claim about relationship. To what extent does Thomas need to see this flesh again in order to know John 1:14? There is a sense that Thomas’s request brings the Gospel full circle. Thomas’s confession takes us all the way back to the beginning of the Gospel. In the beginning was the Word, the Word was God, and the Word became flesh. We are reminded that for this Gospel, incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and the ascension are all one event, interchangeably a part of the Word made flesh.

A final note that might succeed in loosening our mired and misinterpreted Thomas is the ending of the chapter ends. These words are written for a purpose: so that you may “come to believe/continue to believe.” For those working preachers out there who anxiously await references to text critical issues, here’s your moment. There is equal textual evidence, both internally and externally, to read an aorist subjunctive or a present subjunctive for “believe.” This Gospel is for those who are yet to believe in Jesus as well as for the current believers to be sustained in their faith.

Locked Doors
If we have been successful in getting ourselves unstuck from centuries of giving Thomas a bad rap, we now find ourselves behind closed doors. Twice Jesus will meet the disciples as “I am the door” from chapter 10. Our typical readings of John 10 locate “I am the gate” exclusively in the context of shepherding and sheep or with the phrase “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” But the word in chapter ten is door, again used here in chapter 20.

Jesus as the door is the life giving image, providing pasture, protection, and provision. Jesus was also the door in chapter 18, standing between the disciples who safely in the garden and the 600 plus soldiers who stand outside of the garden ready to arrest him. The provision that Jesus gives is fully realized in that locked room when Jesus breathes into them (emphusao) the Spirit. Thomas is not there for that first giving of the spirit. The story of Thomas reminds us once again of the grace upon grace through Jesus. Jesus comes back for Thomas because he will not lose a single one of those whom the Father gave him (18:9). 

Seeing is Not Believing
Well, it just depends. This is a full sensory Gospel. Sometimes it’s tasting (John 6), sometimes it’s smelling (John 11), sometimes it’s hearing (John 10), sometimes it’s touching (John 13:23), and sometimes it is seeing. This is what it means to be human and to experience relationships as human beings. A full, intimate, meaningful relationship will encompass the entirety of who we are and what it means to be human. God wants nothing less than this kind of relationship with us.

We tend to forget that the disciples who did happen to be in the room when Jesus became “I am the door” once again also needed to see for themselves. Jesus’ first resurrection appearance is for Mary in the garden, to which she responds by going to the disciples and saying, “I have seen the Lord!” Now, the disciples do not say “Great! That’s amazing! We believe you!” There is no response to her announcement. Instead, Jesus finds them (as he did the blind man who had been thrown out) huddled somewhere with the doors locked for fear that they too would be thrown out of the synagogue — their families, their community.

They have to have their own encounter with Jesus. He appears to them and they rejoice when they see the Lord (20:20). The disciples then say the same words of Mary to Thomas, “We have seen the Lord,” but Thomas has to have his own encounter with the risen Christ. When the Samaritan woman at the well goes to her town to tell of her encounter with Jesus, they go to Jesus and “abide” with him, saying to her, “It is no longer what you said, but we have heard for ourselves.” This is not a slight against her but confirmation that believing in Jesus is not about believing in someone else’s experience of Jesus, but having your own encounter with the Word made flesh. It’s a belief system that makes sense if incarnation is taken seriously.

On this first Sunday after Easter, these words are for us. You can believe in the resurrection all you want, but in the end that’s not the point. The resurrection is not only just the resurrection, as incredible as that is, but that Jesus is the Resurrection and the life. Belief and life are synonyms in the Fourth Gospel, as promise for our future, but even more so as grace in our present.


First Reading

Commentary on Acts 2:14a, 22-32

Mitzi J. Smith

The book of Acts is the narrated story of God’s mighty acts among early communities of believers (in Judea and in the diaspora).

God promised to pour out God’s Spirit without favoritism in the last days. God promised to send God’s Spirit upon a group of disciples gathered in a second story room. And like opaque fog crawling under, over, above, and around the San Francisco Bay Bridge, God’s Spirit aggressively crammed itself into that room and sat on every man and woman present.

Pentecost constituted an intentional act of God, just like the resurrection of Jesus. Assuming the role of spokesperson, Peter speaks plainly (apophthengomai): God raised Jesus. God performed miracles, wonders and signs through Jesus (verse 22b). Through the anointing of God’s Holy Spirit, the apostles Peter, Paul and others testify about what God did in Jesus and what God is doing with, for and before them.

God acts
Peter’s speech focuses on the activity of God. Grammatically, the vocative case signifies the several ways that Peter addresses his audience: “Jewish men and all those sojourning in Jerusalem (verse 14a),” “Israelite men” (verse 22a), and “men, brothers” (verse 29). Although the Greek grammar is exclusive, we know from 1:14 that women were also present at Pentecost.

Those gathered share a religious commitment (some are proselytes, 2:10) and/or an ethnicity, a sacred event in a sacred space and time, a history of nation building and nationalism as the children of Israel/Jacob and of God, and a fictive kinship. The group shared as well in the signs, wonders, and miracles that God performed in and through and beyond Jesus. Historically, God through Moses performed signs and wonders to engender the liberation of their foreparents from Egyptian bondage and for freedom to worship God. 

While Peter makes clear what God has done, he also explicitly declares the culpability of his audience: “You took away (aniereo) [Jesus’ life] when you fastened him to the cross” (verse 23b). But God countered this annihilating deed when God raised Jesus, freeing him from death’s power (verse 24); God had a plan (verse 23). The declaration that “God raised Jesus” was a proclamation or kergyma (from kerusso, the Greek verb meaning I preach/proclaim) among early believers in Jesus as God’s Messiah (4:10; 5:30; Galatians 1:1; Romans 4:24, 8:34, 10:9).

When God raised Jesus, God “destroyed the birth pangs of death.” It is paradoxical to connect birth pangs with death. Perhaps, this statement signifies how God robbed death of the re-creative power associated with birth. Women experience birth pangs as life struggles to emerge from their wombs; painfully, life gives way to life. But by removing the “birth pangs of death” (odinas tou thanatou), God assures that death would have no tentacles or reach beyond the womb of the grave or outside the phenomenon of death itself. And death and its accompanying pain need not and will not last forever.

Pitch your tent in hope
Because of what God has done in Jesus, David testified that he would not be shaken, but he will rejoice. David lived in hope that he also would not be abandoned to Hades. It is because of what God has done in Jesus that we can “pitch our tents (kataskenoo) in hope” (verse 26); no matter where we locate ourselves (or where others, including death, locate us) we are not beyond God’s reach. Instructively, the biblical patriarchs did not pitch their tents where altars had already been built, but they often erect altars wherever they pitched their tents (Genesis 12:8; 26:25; Exodus 33:7). God is omnipresent and so is divine hope. In this sense, we are always the visitors, the tent-pitchers, and God is the permanent resident. Reaching down, God snatched Jesus from death’s eternal embrace. God would not let Hades corrupt God’s son.

“We are all witnesses (martyres)” that God raised Jesus. As witnesses, God gives the disciples this new proclamation. Jesus lives because God raised him! God does not ask his witnesses to die in Acts, but to speak boldly (paresia) about how God acted and continues to act (4:31; 9:27; cp. 4:29). As witnesses of Jesus, we too ought to live and be glad; to promote life and gladness among our sisters and brothers. We are connected.

God saves on both sides of the cross
God never ceases to be God even when a part of God’s self, God’s only son, is crucified. God does not sanction murder or death, but God risks God’s own self and God’s son so that others might be saved. God rescues from death and corruption both those who build and/or erect crosses and those for whom crosses are built. We build crosses for others out of ignorance and from a failure to recognize our common humanity. Septima Clark (1898-1987), educator and civil rights activist, may have had certain kinds of “cross-building” in mind when she wrote:

[O]ne can never really see into the heart, the mind, the impenetrable soul of another. Yet when I read of the kidnapping of the Lindberg baby, … the murder of Emmett Till, the lynching of Charles Mack Parker, the suffering of Strom Thurmond’s wife, and quite recently the anguished search of Governor Nelson Rockefeller for his son, I saw faces, white faces, lowly and high born, impoverished, affluent–all merging into one face of infinite pain forged in the crucible of suffering…But I see another face, kindly, loving and to me a lovely brown face out of days long gone; and seeing my father’s face and feeling my father’s love for all his fellows, I am moved deeply. My heart hurts for those lonely and lost, those frantic to find a future endurable, those who have stood by helpless and watched loved ones being destroyed by merciless power structures and unprincipled individuals who were destined instead in the providence of God to be their brothers [and sisters].1

The final vocative in Peter’s speech, “Men, brothers [and sisters]” (verse 29), signifies our connectedness. Regardless of who builds the cross or hammers the nails, as sisters and brothers we are in this thing together. Are we building crosses for and crucifying one another or do we occupy ourselves with laying common foundations? Our common ground lies in what God did and is doing among us. God promises, sends, and pours out power; God destroys death and death dealing; God lifts up and exalts life; and God calls us to do likewise.


1 Septima Clark, “Echo in my Soul” in Can I get a Witness. Prophetic Religious Voices of African Ameircan Women. An Anthology, ed. Marcia Y. Riggs (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1997), 158.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 16

Mark Throntveit

Psalm 16 is a very problematic psalm, and for a gaggle of reasons:

1. Most scholars consider this to be a Song of Confidence or Trust like Psalm 23, yet it begins with a very lament-like plea for help in verse 1. Recent scholarship, helpfully, sees this “plea” as a devout desire for continuing protection in general rather than a specific request.

2. The intractable verses 3-4 are among the most untranslatable verses in the book of Psalms, if not in the entire Old Testament. Some translations, like the New Revised Standard Version and the Revised English Bible, take “holy ones in the land” and “nobles” as an orthodox community of saints towards whom the psalmist is positively disposed. Other translations, like the New American Bible, the New Jerusalem Bible, and the Jewish Publication Society’s Tanak, take them as vile Canaanite deities that the psalmist rejects. It is impossible to decide which is correct. Regardless of one’s decision in this matter, the psalmist is clearly opting for Yahweh over other gods.

3. Virtually everyone reads the first word of verse 2 as “I say” (some LXX witnesses, Syriac) despite its clear reading of “you have said” (amart) in the Masoretic Text. If the correct reading is “I say,” verses 2-4 must be read as a powerful confession of trust. If the correct reading is “you have said,” then verse 4 must be seen as the psalmist’s coldblooded rebuke of the spineless waffling between someone’s alleged trust in Yahweh in verse 2 and their pandering to other “gods” in verse 3. Again, there is no practical way to resolve this enigma.

4. Ever since Peter preached on this text at the first Pentecost (Acts 2), the church has read this psalm as a messianic prophecy of Christ’s resurrection. More on this later!

5. The psalm’s structure and progression of thought continue to baffle one and all with its obscurity. The following is tentatively offered as a barely possible structural presentation of the psalm that assumes:

  • “holy ones in the land” is a positive term (see #2, above),
  • I say” is the correct translation of the first word of verse 2 (see #3, above),
  • and separates the psalm into two parts (1-6, 7-11):
    A Confession of trust in Yahweh (1-2)
    B Yahweh’s holy ones favored (3)
    B’ Those who choose another god rejected (4)
    A’ Confession of trust in Yahweh (5-6)

*****

A Yahweh as counseling teacher (7)
Yahweh always before the psalmist (8a)
Yahweh at the psalmist’s right hand (8b)
B Inner joy of the “heart” (9a)
Outer security of the body (9b)
B’ Inner deliverance from Sheol (10a)
Outer deliverance from the Pit/corruption of the grave (10b)
A’ Yahweh as guiding teacher (11a)
Psalmist before Yahweh (11b)
Psalmist at Yahweh’s right hand (11c)
This view of the structure sees the psalm as essentially a Confession of Confidence or Trust, at least through the first six verses. The parallels between AA’ and BB’ strengthen this perception. The last half of the psalm becomes an extended reflection on the psalmist’s joy and security that comes from recognition of Yahweh as God, especially as that is seen in the divine instruction offered at every turn.

Recent attempts to understand this psalm have drawn attention to four terms in verses 5-6 associated with the distribution of the land among the tribes of Israel after the occupation of the land of Canaan, as recorded in the book of Joshua (chapters 13-17):

The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup;
you hold my lot.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
I have a goodly heritage (Psalm 16:5-6)

This may mean the psalmist is trying to describe his joy at the goodness of his experience of life at the hand of the LORD in terms of God’s gracious gift of the land long promised to Abraham. Just as God had distributed each portion of the land by lot with boundary lines indicating the heritage of the tribes, so the psalmist has received only goodness in his “pleasant places” from God.

But now the second half of the psalm comes into play. The psalmist is not waxing eloquent upon his possession of the promised land in a woodenly literal way; rather, it is the teaching, counsel, guidance, and revelation of the LORD (7-8, 11) that call forth his praise. These expressions of gratitude in turn frame the psalmist’s declaration that his inner being (“my heart,” “my soul,” [kevodi sounds like kevedi “my liver” in Hebrew!], “me,” [literally, “my throat”]) will “be glad” and “rejoice,” while his external being (“my body”) will “rest secure” and not experience the “corruption” (LXX) of “the Pit” (9-10).

Be that as it may, the obvious reason for the inclusion of Psalm 16 as a response to this week’s First Reading from Daniel is found in verse 10 and its possible allusion to life beyond the grave. A similar promise is contained in Daniel 12:2. Should the preacher “go there?” The psalmist, after all, has reinterpreted the traditional land/inheritance imagery of Joshua to sing of his own experience with God. Whether the preacher wants to “go there” in the sermon . . . (as Peter did!), try the psalmist’s own spiritualized re-telling of the occupation of the promised land, or stay with the more contextual reading offered here is strictly a matter of personal choice.


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Peter 1:3-9

Daniel G. Deffenbaugh

The First Letter of Peter is addressed to several Gentile Christian communities living in northern Asia Minor, a geographical region usually associated with the Apostle Paul.

The author of the epistle was most likely an elder of a community established in Rome that could trace its origin back to the teachings and traditions of Simon bar Jonah. This conclusion is based on two internal characteristics of the text: the Greek is more eloquent than one would expect from an Aramaic-speaking, Galilean fisherman, and there are clear references to historical circumstances that are consistent with a late first-century date, well after Peter’s death (c. 64 CE). The recipients of this epistle appear to be enduring the kinds of persecutions that had increasingly become a part of Roman policy toward followers of Christ. Peter’s letter is thus an offering of encouragement featuring rich theological insight into how the present circumstances conform to the will of the Father, to the suffering of the Son, and to the sustaining work of the Spirit.

Peter’s Jewish background appears to be the dominant lens through which the events in question are being interpreted. The voices of the prophets can be heard in this text, and we will see that the work of Christ is illuminated by drawing on the ritual imagery of Passover (1:18-19) and the Exodus narrative. Not to be overlooked in this pericope (1:3-9) is the clear reference to the experience that Peter himself had shortly after Jesus’ resurrection when he and the apostles were confronted by the risen Christ and were themselves given new life in community as ekklesia, those “called out” and set apart for God’s purpose (John 20:19-29).

This defining event in the life of the church might be thought of as a kind of post-resurrection creation story, one inaugurating in a very tangible way the presence of God’s Kingdom on earth. Like the Creator in the Garden kneeling over the lifeless form of Adam, Jesus — the Word, through whom all things were made — breathes the breath of the Spirit into the broken body of his disciples. From this point onward they become the new Adam, the enduring incarnation of Christ living as those set apart to fulfill God’s will for creation.

The problem, of course, is that this new Adam has to withstand “for a short time” the lamentable defects of an old and fallen world, and this is the impetus behind Peter’s words of encouragement. While our tendency today is to think of “new birth” in highly individualistic terms, the concerns of the solitary person are here secondary to the experience of the body of believers. The regeneration is not simply the result of one’s baptism; on the contrary, the faithful are ever in the process of being born again. The church as community is moving toward that final day when the pangs of birth will finally be resolved, “at the last time” (1:5). 

Peter is speaking directly to the new Adam: through the resurrection “God has given us a new birth into a living hope” (1:3). And with this hope for the future, Peter’s words of encouragement serve a purpose similar to that of the risen Christ speaking to a huddled and fearful group of disciples: “Peace be with you” (John 20:21). Even more, Peter can repeat to these newly baptized Christians the charge that so profoundly convicted him of his own life’s calling all those years ago: “As the Father sent me, so am I sending you”(John 20:21).      

As the new Adam living in an old world, the church can draw on a wealth of tradition reaching back as far as their father Abraham. Just as the great patriarch wandered in faith and hope toward an inheritance which had been promised to him by God, just as the Hebrews sojourned in the desert on their way to Canaan, and just as the exiles held out hope in Babylon awaiting the day when they could return to Zion, so too must the faithful keep ever before them their faith in God. The first step toward the New Jerusalem began with the resurrection of their savior, Jesus Christ, and through their faith in his sacrifice they will surely reach their divinely appointed destination.
We can imagine that the words of the Psalmist must have provided great comfort in this context: 

I keep the Lord before me always,
for with him at my right hand,
nothing can shake me.
…For you will not abandon me to Sheol,
You cannot allow your faithful servant to see the abyss (Psalm 16:8,10).

The Psalmist concludes with words that are equally applicable to our first-century epistle: “You will teach me the path of life…” (16:11). Peter will subsequently embark on a series of instructions for how these resident aliens can maintain their faith amidst their embattled circumstances. For now, though, the good news has been established: through the resurrection of Christ and the comfort of the Spirit, God continues to work toward the consummation of history, the establishment of God’s Kingdom. This is where we can enjoy our truest citizenship.

What should give us pause as we reflect on the contemporary significance of this passage is just how irrelevant it has become in our daily lives. Despite a resurgence of interest among some in the possibility of being eternally left behind, Peter’s eschatological perspective really has little or no bearing on how most of us live. Even more striking is the way that suffering has come to be interpreted not as political persecution but rather as an assault on our personal health; we endure an illness but have little fear that our faith will ever be contested by the powers that be. Indeed, the powers themselves, more times than not, claim the Prince of Peace as one of their own.

Should we be concerned that our expressions of faith no longer defy the dictates of empire, that our lifestyles rarely oppose the “path of life” offered by our free market economy? Would Peter himself recognize the church today as moving in all things toward the hope of a heavenly Jerusalem, or would he see this new Adam as fallen once again, compromised in the pursuit of earthly power and perishable gold?