Lectionary Commentaries for May 22, 2011
Fifth Sunday of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 14:1-14

Sarah Henrich

Oh, the honesty of Thomas and Philip.

Perhaps the best choice for us as we hear and wrestle with the complexities of this passage is to imitate that honesty.  This passage from Jesus’ farewell discourse, which began in John 13, is a series of dialogues that turn on honest questions.  How we ought to cherish responses made with wrinkled brow and slight shakes of the head, responses that echo many of our own wonderings.

The passage opens with Jesus attempting to reassure his disciples.  After he had washed their feet and eaten with the twelve, Jesus foretold his betrayal by Judas (13:26-28) and his betrayal by the loyal Peter (13:37-38).  He has commanded his disciples to love each other (13:34) even as he predicts his own departure.  No wonder the Twelve are upset and confused.  Who is to be trusted?  What does Jesus mean that he is going somewhere that they cannot come (verse 33)? 

If we think back to John 10:1-10, how poignancy of hearing that the shepherd you have been following is opening a door you cannot enter is confusing, dismaying.  In light of Judas’ departure to betray Jesus, who will be the shepherd who knows the names of his sheep, who protects, and who provides what is needed?  What will happen next?

In the face of his negative prediction about Peter’s betrayal, almost as if such a betrayal does not matter, Jesus says, “Don’t worry.  Trust God and trust me.”  One can translate the pistuete in 14:1 (occurring twice) as either an imperative or an indicative form.  “Trust me” or perhaps better, “Keep on trusting me” would translate the imperative.  “You do trust me” would be the indicative.  There’s something so appealing to our contemporary cynical ears about hearing Jesus say, “Don’t worry…just trust me” that it is hard not to go with that translation.  So 14:1 can suggest that the disciples’ hearts ought not to be troubled since they still trust God and Jesus as they always have or because they will replace being troubled with belief or trust as commanded.  I opt for the imperative.  “Trust God and trust me,” Jesus says and then follows up with reasons for asking them to trust in the face of impending chaos.

You have noticed that rather than “believe in me” I use the word “trust.”  This is, of course, optional for you.  But trust evokes the intimate relationships that this passage takes for granted, while among us “believe in” often seems to ask for a declaration of assent to a variety of dogmas.  Take your pick!

So Jesus begins with reassurance.  But both Thomas and Philip continue to be troubled.  Thomas first says straight out, “We don’t know.”  We don’t know where you’re going, We don’t know how to stay on the way or even find the trailhead.  It almost feels like Thomas is saying, “Jesus, get real.  Please.  We don’t have much time.”  A scene from “True Grit” (and many other westerns) comes to mind.  The little group seeking a killer fear that the trail has gone cold, making it too late to find their quarry.1 Thomas and Philip are both puzzled about how to follow, how to spot the trail when they don’t know where Jesus is going or what the Father looks like.

This anxiety about being left alone is clouding their vision, their perception, and their hearts.
Jesus moves away from talk about going away and returning (verses 3 and 4), to again asking them to trust (or believe) that he and the Father are one.  To see Jesus is to see the Father.  And they have seen Jesus’ face, heard his voice, and even more importantly, have seen what he did, his works.   It should be enough.  To know Jesus is to know the Father. 

We can imagine Thomas and Philip and the others with them thinking back over the works Jesus has accomplished.  What do they say about Jesus?  About the Father?  Water to Wine?  Lazarus to life? A brown bag of bread and fish to a banquet?  Healings? Works that bring healing, delight, abundance, life itself?  These would be the works of God, Father and Son.  When the “Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”  The preacher could well explore how difficult it is to recognize The Father or God in the face of the familiar one, whether Jesus himself or his later followers.  There are so many works of provisioning that we simply take for granted.  “Show us the Father.” 

There are other important threads to follow in this passage.  If we do trust Jesus, when he says to us, “Amen, amen I say to you (verse 12),” we listen up.  And here is the stunner of this passage.  All those works that we were just encouraged to recall, along with Philip, Thomas, et al., will be small potatoes compared to what we will do.  Insofar as we ask in Jesus’ name, as one of his sheep, as people abiding in him as he abides in the Father, we “will do greater works than these.”  Jesus promises his assistance, his support, his power. 

This is a terribly difficult word to preach for surely there are always those among us whose heartfelt prayers have gone unanswered and whose hearts have been broken, whose trust shattered by Jesus’ failure to keep this promise.  We come up with things to explain this, usually words that blame the “unsuccessful” prayer for not being fully in Jesus’ name, or praying in accord with Jesus’ will or doubting or being impatient or not being able to see the real answer to prayer.  These all may be accurate, but not valuable.

There is a promise in verse 14.  All we can do is pray “our heart’s desire” as one wise Christian once said to me.  Like Thomas and Philip and even Peter at the end of John 13, there is room in this relationship for honest acknowledgement of our confusion, our lack of power, our frustration when our requests seem to go unheard.  What young person has not felt this way with her parents or teachers?  What spouse has not known this grief?  Who has not had to deal with some bureaucracy and not come away with some of these feelings?  But in most of those human experiences, trust is not destroyed.  How much more here as we are called to continue to trust and abide in Jesus as we make our requests.  The message for us, as for our honest forbearers, may well be to look again at the faces before us if we would see Jesus and the Father.  Might we think again about the great works, the blessings that have been accomplished for human healing, delight, and abundance and see the Father at work among us?

Since Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life…the true door into the sheepfold where life abounds, in all those places where truth and life are served, we see him.

1 www.nytimes.com/2011/01/02/movies/awardsseason/02grit.html.  Accessed 1/25/2011.

First Reading

Commentary on Acts 7:55-60

Matt Skinner

Sermons on this passage require preachers to inject some storytelling into their messages.

It’s one of the lectionary’s more bizarre selections, and that’s no slight honor. The main problem is that the action described in these six verses–the gruesome murder of Stephen at the hands of an angry mob–is entirely dislocated from the situation that triggers it. It’s foolish to expect that everyone will know what you are talking about if you just casually refer to “Stephen’s sermon” or “the story of the church’s first martyr.” For this passage to mean anything at all during a church service, you need to flesh out the wider story, explaining who this Stephen is, who his assailants are, and what he does to offend them so.

The next challenge is to fill in that backstory without embarking into a detailed explanation of Stephen’s speech (Acts 7:2-53), which is long and whose theological rhetoric is meandering at best. The basic point to establish, if you’re trying to be mindful of the lectionary’s overall perspective on the Easter season, is that the biblical traditions about Easter and its proclamation are not all about victory, wonder, and rejoicing. Stephen’s story constructs a grim memorial to remind us that the stakes are high. Jesus may be Lord, but he will still be resisted. His resurrection does not stop the human race–including religious people–from spilling blood and resisting the prophetic remonstrations of God’s spokespeople.

No one pages through the New Testament without repeatedly reading about violent resistance. The story of Stephen gives us much to consider, lest we forget the atrocities that are part of the Christian legacy–those inflicted upon people of faith, as well as those inflicted by them.

The Art of Dying

Another challenge facing preachers, made worse by the stark brevity of these stripped-from-context verses, is navigating the odd contrast between Stephen’s serenity and the unspeakable violence. The temptation is to soft-pedal one in favor of an excessive focus on the other. I’ll say more on this contrast in a moment. First, consider the portrayal of Stephen.

Certainly Acts presents Stephen as the prototypical martyr–not a rogue proclaimer of the gospel but an agent of God, guided by the Holy Spirit. His vision of the resurrected and exalted Christ confirms a key point of his sermon (as well as Paul’s sermon to the Athenians in next week’s reading from Acts 17:22-31)–that God is not confined to a particular place (7:48).1 It also makes certain that Stephen himself will be vindicated, because Jesus is.2 Finally, in an exemplary way Stephen shows forth Christ through the grace he exhibits, both praying for his killers as Jesus did (Luke 23:34) and likewise dying faithfully (Luke 23:46; Psalm 31:5).

A preacher therefore might very well compose a narrative sermon about Stephen, creatively walking a congregation through his story, beginning with his selection as one of the Seven (Acts 6:1-6) and continuing into his public ministry as a man “full of grace and power” who does “great wonders and signs among the people,” according to Acts 6:8. (Wasn’t this guy supposed to be waiting on tables? Look how in Acts God finds unexpected ways for the word to be proclaimed!) According to the account of Stephen’s death, he never stops bearing witness to Jesus; he does so up to his dying breath. And Jesus brings him comfort, even as his life comes to a terrifying end.

But if we dwell too intently on images of a smiley Stephen, all pious and cherub-like, we risk passing over the ugliness of a crowd crushing a man’s skull, one hurled rock at a time.

If we make this passage only about Stephen, we might neglect to notice the stones littering the ground around us, which either implicate us or cause us to cry out for deliverance from cycles of violence.

The Art of Killing

Remember, the people who kill Stephen are neither the local hooligans nor the Roman soldiers who nailed Jesus to a cross. They are, ostensibly at least, upstanding members of religious communities: regular members of synagogues, elders, religious professionals, priests. They are guardians of vital traditions.3 They are important people who possess a lot of leverage in religious discourse; political discourse, too.

But why do these people go to such an extreme? Are they just terrible people? True, he issues some pointed accusations, and he challenges the theological basis for the centrality of the Jerusalem temple. But where did they ever get the idea that stoning was a justified response to anything?

Oh, yeah.

This is hardly the only stoning that scripture describes, and like the others it issues a stark reminder of the potential for violence in religiously-influenced conflict. It’s the kind of violence that the Bible does not allow us to disown, entirely. The old canards don’t work, either. We cannot make this or other texts say: “Old Testament, temples, law, violence: bad. New Testament, Jesus, grace, gentleness: good.”

And so another homiletical possibility emerges, one that makes us ask hard questions about a church history and a contemporary society replete with oppression and violence. How do these terrible proclivities of human society connect to a story about a cross and empty tomb? Does the Easter message, as we retell and reenact it, merely give us one more example of humanity’s propensity for violence? Does Easter give a warrant to hope for an end to bloodshed, or does it reiterate that faithfulness to the gospel will only provoke more of the same? More disturbing, does our Christian witness imitate what it suffers, by promising violent retribution for those who oppose the gospel?

These questions are not easily answered, especially when we admit that the New Testament belongs to a time period in which publically identifying oneself as a Christian was often far more frightening than most people reading this commentary can imagine. The questions become more difficult to navigate when we acknowledge that comfortable, middle-class Christianity currently exercises an unduly weighty influence on how the faith is articulated, lived, and valued (as well as on how the Bible is interpreted).

Preachers who want to look honestly at the uglier sides of this text have at their fingertips many stories capable of provoking the uncomfortable questions. There are stories around us that demonstrate humanity’s reliance on violence to protect our fears and ignorance (see: Matthew Shepard, plus scads of racially motivated lynchings). There are stories of violence as the hopeless expressions of a shattered soul (see: the most recent shootings in schools and workplaces). There are stories that remind us of some of the deepest challenges facing local and global politics (see: the January shootings in Tucson, Arizona, and the Taliban’s killing of Christian aid workers last August). There are stories that illustrate violence’s effectiveness as ruling powers’ defense against the radical claims of the gospel (see: Jean Donovan and the three other churchwomen brutally killed in El Salvador in 1980).

Then there are the traditions, rights, and prerogatives–religious, political, economic, and social–that we insist on maintaining, even if they require us to eliminate someone in the process.

If the Easter story means anything, it had better mean that God promises an end to this way of doing business. And that God can save us from ourselves.

1 For discussion of the ascended Jesus “at the right hand of God,” see my commentary on Acts 1:6-14, published for the seventh Sunday of Easter.

2Stephen’s story also confirms a number of promises Jesus made about life in the wake of the cross. Jesus (Luke 21:12-15) and the Holy Spirit (Luke 12:11-12) will equip his followers to bear faithful witness before hostile audiences. Some of his followers will be killed for their witness (Luke 21:16).

3 It’s also the case that Acts uses this scene, which serves as the capstone to three Jerusalem trial scenes, to confirm the Jerusalem-based Jewish leadership as theomachoi, people at war against God (Acts 5:39).


Commentary on Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16

James Limburg

The last words that Jesus spoke from the cross, according to Luke, were taken from this psalm:

“Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last.” (Luke 23:46; see Psalm 31:5).  The last words of Stephen before he died as a martyr were also from this psalm, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” (Acts 7:59).

My Times Are In Your Hand

The fact that Psalm 31contains one of the “seven last words from the cross” is reason enough to consider it for preaching. It is in fact possible that Jesus recited the entire psalm or at least longer parts of it, with Luke reporting only this verse. 

The psalm is thus associated with the death of Jesus and of Stephen. A portion of it (verses 9-16) is assigned by the lectionary to Passion Sunday (also known as Palm Sunday) in all three series, A,B, and C, with the focus on verse 5 as the antiphon. Because of these associations, the psalm has long been used at the time of death. 

Psalm 31, however, also has something important to say about the life of the believer.  Our approach here will be to consider the psalm as a whole, as the basis for a sermon. The theme is that of trusting in the Lord, no matter what.

We may note the way the word or concept of “hand” occurs in the psalm.  In the words prayed by Jesus from the cross the psalmist addresses God, “Into your hand I commit my spirit” (verse 5). Later on, the psalmist again addresses God, entrusting his life to the Lord, “My times are in your hand” (verse 15). In verse 20 the psalmist declares that the Lord holds the Lord’s people safe, presumably holding them in his hands (verse 20). Twice the psalmist refers to the hand of the enemy (verses 8, 15b).  In verse 15a the psalmist puts his life in the hand of the Lord. Finally, verse 20 declares that the Lord shelters and “holds” his people, presumably in his hands.

Psalm 31 as a Lament

The psalm may be classified as an individual lament, exhibiting the elements typical of that genre. Taking Psalm 13 as an example, we identify those elements as:

complaint in you, I and they forms (13:1-2)
call for help (verses 3-4);
affirmation of trust (verse 5);
vow to praise God (verse 6).

In Psalm 31 these elements are scattered about; they will be identified in what follows. 

Into Your Hand (31:1-8)

Psalm 2:12 promises happiness to those who “take refuge” (the same Hebrew word as found in 31:1) in the Lord; Psalm 31 begins with the one praying claiming that promise. The imperatives in this call for help section pile up: “do not let…deliver…Incline…rescue…Be a rock of refuge…a strong fortress” (verses 1-3).

After these urgent requests, the writer expresses trust in God with the words Jesus quoted from the cross: “Into your hand I commit my spirit.” That trust is based on previous experience with the Lord, who has redeemed the one praying (verses 8,22) and who has proved faithful (verse 3)

The affirmation of trust theme continues in verses 6-8. After putting himself in the Lord’s hands, the psalmist recalls that the Lord has delivered him from the hand of enemies (verse 8). A “broad place” means a place of safety and security.  The psalmist has put his life in the hand of One who had proved to be a rock, a fortress, a trusted guide and that One has proved to be faithful.

In Your Hand (31:9-18)

Verses 9-13 describe the acute situation of the one praying. Here are a series of I complaints
where the psalmist tells of the suffering of the entire person, including eyes, soul, body. This is no short-termed trouble, but one that has been going on for years, in fact for a lifetime (verses 9-10). With verses 11-13 the psalmist shifts into they complaints. He has even heard rumors that some are plotting to murder him!

With verses 14-15 the psalmist shifts into statements of trust, focused in the statement, “My times are in your hands!” Verses 16-18 are a call for help asking God to deliver the psalmist from his enemies.

You Hold Them Safe (31:19-24)

The psalm winds up on a series of positive notes of praise and trust (verses 19-20). The promise of Psalm 2:12 proves to be true: if you take refuge in the Lord, you will be happy, and the Lord will take you as a guest in the Lord’s “shelter” (Hebrew, sukkah), also the word for the small shack still used by Jews today to celebrate the wilderness experience. The final words are no longer addressed to God, but to the congregation. The psalmist takes the role of teacher, with some words of instruction: “Love the LORD, be strong and take courage.”

My Times Are In Your Hand

A couple of years ago I read Juergen Moltmann’s autobiography, entitled simply Weiter Raum in German or in English, A Broad Place. Moltmann took the title from verse 8 of this psalm, as a description of the good life the Lord had given him.

For preaching, one could center on the words in verse 5 as quoted by Jesus on the cross and also in shortened form by Stephen. As a psalm of trust, the psalm comes to focus in verse 15. We could catch the sense of the psalmist from our post-Easter perspective somewhat as follows:  “Despite all the personal distress of physical pain (verse 10) and failure of my friends (verse 13), I am not giving up on you Lord.  You are still my God. Through your son Jesus Christ, “You have redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature” (v. 5; Luther’s Small Catechism). Now I put my life, all my times, in your hand (verse 15). And then I am going on with my life, loving you, caring for my neighbors, and living each day with strength and with courage (verses 23-24).”

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Peter 2:2-10

Daniel G. Deffenbaugh

Of all the ecclesial images employed in Peter’s letter to the exiled converts of Asia Minor,

the root metaphor that best describes the Christian community is the “spiritual house” (oikos pneumatikos) or “household of God” (2:5). We have seen in our consideration of earlier pericopes that the symbolism of Exodus also plays a prominent role in Peter’s thinking. The newly baptized Christians have in many respects taken on an identity as resident aliens, of a people living “outside the house” (paroikous; 2:11) of the dominant culture. Yet in many ways they remain “house slaves” (oiketai; 2:18), bound in some respects by the social and political conventions of their workaday world, if for but a short while. In all things they are called to endure their suffering and exile in the manner of Christ, the suffering servant (2:21).

Despite this situation, Peter offers his readers the assurance that they, like the wandering Hebrews before them, can derive comfort from the knowledge that a place has been prepared for them by God. Eventually the old “house” from which they have been exiled will be transformed completely into the “home” for which they have been longing when Christ is finally revealed (1:13). The seed of this homecoming has already been planted in their midst and it grows in them on account of their baptism (1:23).

Though they are presently suffering the injustices of a world that they once claimed as their own, they must nevertheless be aware that the Spirit of God is even now working in them collectively to usher in the heavenly kingdom. Peter affirms that they have been accepted into a new family, and here they can experience four fundamental features of what it means to be “called out” as church.      

First, the household of God is a place where Christians can attain spiritual nourishment. In their baptism they have “taste[d] and seen that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8), but this is not a once-for-all event. On the contrary, like newborn infants who yearn for their mother’s breast, the Christians to whom Peter is writing must partake daily of “spiritual milk” — literally, a “milk that does not deceive” — lest they fall back into their old habits and pursue the false fare of their former traditions.

Peter’s use of the imperative here accentuates how central this seeking is to the believer’s new life in Christ. That some churches in the second and third centuries eventually took up the practice of administering honey and milk to the newly baptized attests to how powerful this imagery was to the lives of the faithful.

Second, the household of God is where those nourished on Christ will “grow into salvation” (2:4) through the formation that takes place in community through the work of the Spirit. Here is where the metaphor of being built (oikodomeisthe; 2:5) into a spiritual house reaches its fullest expression and serves as a guiding principle for what follows. We have to wonder if the recent memory of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, with its chiseled megaliths lying scattered and broken, is in part the inspiration behind Peter’s reliance on stone imagery in these verses. Though the traditional dwelling place of God is gone, a new house has in fact arisen in its place with a royal priesthood in attendance. While the old stones appear to be dead, the living stones of the church, founded on the cornerstone of Christ, will now be the light that overcomes the darkness.  

This brings us to a third and often overlooked aspect of what it means to be God’s house in a hostile world. Though Peter’s use of the phrase “living stones” is primarily a reference to the church’s grounding in the Word of God, we cannot discount a secondary contextual meaning, especially given its relevance to our current ecological embarrassments.

As John H. Elliott explains in his exhaustive commentary, in antiquity objects that were perceived as firmly rooted in the earth were often referred to as “living.” Imposing megaliths, for example, seemed to possess an inherent integrity; their vitality was a function of their being rooted in place. And this remains instructive for the contemporary church as we reflect on what it means to carry the “living stones” tradition into the twenty-first century.

While it has become commonplace these days to describe the coming Kingdom as a reality far removed from the plane of this world, there is really nothing in Peter’s eschatologically-oriented letter to suggest such a notion. For him, the revelation of Christ was destined to happen in the midst of creation itself, and it was here that Christians were called to be a priestly community in anticipation of the event.

Thus the church — whether then or now — like “living stones” must in all things resist the temptation to disparage this present world for some heavenly realm yet to come. The household of God is at once built on the spiritual cornerstone of Christ and rooted deeply in God’s good creation.      
Finally, the church is a spiritual community whose fundamental vocation is the proclamation of the good news (2:9), not only in word but also — and perhaps primarily — in deed. Peter will go on in this chapter to describe what it means to offer up to God “spiritual sacrifices” (2:5), to be so identified with the suffering of Christ that the household is willing to endure patiently the injustices of those who have rejected and stumbled over the cornerstone. Alone, of course, these Christians could never survive the discrimination and abuse that is too often the lot of resident aliens. But as a holy nation, God’s own people, they can find refuge and strength in the nourishing, formative, living, and evangelical household of God and thereby live in hope toward the coming of Christ’s Kingdom on earth.