Lectionary Commentaries for May 29, 2011
Sixth Sunday of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 14:15-21

Craig R. Koester

The Spirit plays an essential role in Christian faith and yet is something many find hard to deal with in preaching.

The art in our churches pictures episodes from Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. But the Spirit is more challenging to portray. The Spirit’s dove may hover above Jesus on stained glass windows, but the Spirit often remains on the margins when it comes to proclamation. And this is a problem.

On the one hand, some people equate the work of the Spirit with a particular kind of experience, such as excitement in worship or speaking in tongues. Others are content with a kind of vague spirituality that seems to be mainly a sense that there is something “out there” that we cannot name. So what might the gospel say about the work of God’s Spirit?

At the last supper Jesus has been telling the disciples about his coming departure, which raises the disturbing prospect of separation (John 13:33, 36; 14:2, 5). In years to come he knows that the disciples will feel like “orphans.” Easter will be a joyous reunion, but the resurrection appearances will not continue indefinitely. As the years pass, people will be called to believe in a Jesus they have never seen or heard. Jesus’ words and actions will be conveyed to them through the tradition of the church in a world that may seem indifferent at best and hostile at worst to the message about a crucified Messiah.

In this passage Jesus anticipates the Easter moment when he says, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you” and “because I live, you also will live” (14:18-19). The Easter message is that life rather than death has the final word, and this is crucial for faith. In John’s gospel, faith is a relationship with a living being. For there to be authentic faith in Jesus, people must be able to relate to the living Jesus–a Jesus who is not absent but present. Otherwise faith is reduced to the memory of a Jesus who died long ago.

But here is the conundrum: Why would anyone believe that authentic life comes from a Jesus who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, a Jesus whom they cannot see? The honest answer is that no one would believe it–apart from the work of the Spirit. For it is the Spirit who makes the presence of the living Jesus and his Father known.

Coming to faith is analogous to falling in love. One cannot fall in love in the abstract. Love comes through an encounter with another person. The same is true of faith. If faith is a relationship with the living Christ and the living God who sent him, then faith can only come through an encounter with them. And the Spirit is the one who makes this presence known.

John’s gospel calls the Spirit the paraklētos or Advocate, a term for someone who is called to one’s side as a source of help. In modern contexts someone may serve as an advocate in the court system, in the health care network, or in an educational institution, while other advocates may press the legislature to act on behalf of a certain cause. A quick reading of John may give the impression that the Spirit is the Advocate who brings our case up before God in the hope that God will do something merciful for us. But here the direction is the opposite. God has already given the gift of love unstintingly through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and such love is what creates genuine life. The Spirit is the Advocate who brings the truth of that love and life to people in this time after Easter, which makes faith possible.

Jesus calls the Spirit “another” Advocate, which assumes that Jesus also was an Advocate (14:16). Jesus and the Spirit have some similar functions. For example, Jesus and the Spirit both come from the Father and are sent into the world. Jesus communicates what he has received from his Father and the Spirit declares what he has received from Jesus (7:17; 16:13). If Jesus glorifies God, the Spirit glorifies Jesus (16:14; 17:1). Both of them teach, bear witness to the truth, and expose the sin of the world (3:20; 7:14; 14:26; 15:26; 16:8; 18:37). And in both cases, the reaction is the same: the world refuses to recognize and receive Jesus or the Spirit (1:11; 14:17).

Yet calling the Spirit “another Advocate” does not mean he is “another Jesus.” The Spirit continues Jesus’ work without taking Jesus’ place. As the Word made flesh, Jesus reveals God through the life he lives and the death he dies. But the Spirit does not become incarnate and is not crucified for the sin of the world.

The Spirit will disclose the truth about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, but will not replicate these events. After Jesus’ return to the Father, the Spirit remains with the disciples; but this does not mean the Spirit replaces Jesus. Rather, the Spirit discloses the presence of the risen Jesus and his Father to the community of faith.

Jesus also says that the world cannot receive the Spirit of truth because it neither sees nor recognizes it (14:17). Here he refers to “the world” as the realm where people are alienated from God. “The world” consists of those who are hostile to Jesus and his followers (15:18). Saying that the world cannot receive the Spirit does not mean that an unbeliever cannot become a believer.

Rather, it means that “the world” estranged from God cannot receive the Spirit while remaining unchanged. For the world to receive the Spirit means that it is no longer “the world” in the Johannine sense. It loses its identity as “the world,” for it is no longer alienated from God.


First Reading

Commentary on Acts 17:22-31

Matt Skinner

The gospel sounds different everyplace it is told.

That’s because the gospel does not exist in some unadulterated form in isolation from human language, culture, or presuppositions. It’s always enfleshed in some way–linguistically, culturally, personally. How would we understand it, or recognize it as good news for us, if it weren’t? Then we’d all be gnostics, which would be insufferable. Take my word for it.

A Sermon Tailor-Made for the Athenian Elite

Paul’s sermon to the Athenians illustrates both the inescapable reality of this enfleshing and the importance of paying attention to it. This sermon is like no other in Acts, because Athens is a cultural context like no other in Acts. In Acts 17 the gospel comes to one of the ancient Mediterranean world’s centers of intellectual sophistication. There it endeavors to find a foothold. Watching it do so, we learn something about Christian preaching and Christian faith.

The book of Acts has fun telling the story. Ancient historians described Athens as a very intellectually curious and very religious place. Acts does much of the same when it says, tongue in cheek, that the Athenians “would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new” (17:21).

Extending the humorous undertones, it seems that Paul does not come to Athens to preach, but to wait for Silas and Timothy while things cool off in Thessalonica and Beroea (17:1-15). But he cannot restrain himself, having become too aggravated by the locals’ religious vitality that he understands as laudable but ultimately misguided.

Although he had just been forced out of two other major cities, in Athens a crowd of intellectuals (or wannabe intellectuals; the narrative leaves us wondering) enthusiastically ushers Paul before the Areopagite council, the city’s governing authorities. He is not in legal jeopardy; the amused crowd wants its leaders to hear what he has to say.

Paul does not disappoint in this, the only major speech in Acts addressing a polytheistic audience (save, to a degree, Acts 26). Flashing his cultural bona fides, he quotes two Greek poets to the elite crowd. “In him we live and move and have our being” is probably from Epimenides (6th century BCE), and “We are his offspring” likely comes from Aratus (3rd century BCE). In these rhetorical moves, Paul secures a basic point of agreement with his audience: neither party thinks that deities dwell inside manufactured things (17:24-25). Everyone knows better than that. (Compare Stephen’s comments in Acts 7:48, which formed the context for last week’s reading from Acts 7:55-60)

Laying a foundation of common ground is an important part of this speech. (That’s what this passage commends for Christian preaching.) After acknowledging the Athenians’ religious fervor, Paul launches a critique of simplistic notions of idolatry in 17:24-29. Handmade gods have their limits. God appoints the natural order, precisely so that God may be found in human existence. We should infer that his audience nods and replies, “Amen.”

The Scandal of Resurrection

Up to 17:30, Paul does not say anything especially controversial. The climactic moment comes then, at his mention of repentance, judgment, and resurrection. At that point the speech is interrupted and the audience divides into those who scoff, those willing to hear more, and those (men and women) who believe. What happens?

By referring to Jesus’ resurrection and implying that all people will likewise be raised from the dead, Paul steers the Athenians toward a notion of communing with the Divine that does not square with their presuppositions. To a crowd interested in the immortality of the soul (and an accompanying contempt for bodies and the limitations they impose), Paul preaches about a God who resurrects bodies. It’s a difficult thing for the Athenians to hear as good news. Why would people want to keep their bodies? It strikes them as icky.

In the end, Paul cannot preach the gospel without making reference to the particularity of Jesus. He roots the significance of Jesus in humanity’s yearning for knowledge of the Divine. Jesus fits within basic Greek religious ideas, but he also confounds them. He brings something new, something unfamiliar.

Christian Preaching

As I mentioned earlier, this passage commends preaching that seeks to establish a foundation of common ground with an audience. The uniqueness of the Athenian sermon within the book of Acts allows it to emphasize this point: you don’t need to quote the Bible or recite the history of Israel in order to explain the gospel. Sometimes poetry, natural theology, and human experience provide an excellent starting point.1

Some may object, however, that by including this peculiar sermon Acts risks confusing the gospel with Athenian religion or somehow “baptizes” the cultural assumptions of Paul’s hearers. Such objections are exposed as foolish when we consider that the whole of Acts (Luke, too) offers us a presentation of “all that Jesus did and taught” (Acts 1:1) that is clearly integrated with assumptions and religious longings nourished within other cultures–Galilee’s, Judea’s, Lystra’s, and so on. One cannot bear witness to the gospel if one cannot find a way to help audiences make sense of it according to what they hope for and according to what they know.

Christian Faith

This passage also characterizes the Christian faith as a faith about resurrection. Paul takes his audience’s context seriously, but he also tells these people something that blows their minds. Something surprising. Something potentially distasteful. The resurrected Jesus still has a body–a different kind of body, sure, but a body nonetheless.

So that sermons on this passage don’t veer toward marveling at those silly Athenians or diagramming foolproof strategies for evangelism, preachers should take account of Easter’s insistence on embodied resurrection. This is a topic that makes people squeamish in places beyond Athens, too. Bad theology has left far too many Christians thinking that they should despise embodied existence. Bad cultural assumptions have left others thinking that they should adulate bodies. Revisit 1 Corinthians 15 and think with your congregation about what Easter promises for us, as flesh-and-blood creatures who look to a flesh-and-blood Savior.

Then preach the sermon again–but differently–when you talk with adolescents learning to navigate their own corporeality and to construct their identities in light of it. And again when you feed the hungry. Again when you visit your shut-ins, the local hospitals, and the memory-care facility.

Because the gospel isn’t embedded in just our peculiar linguistic and cultural matrices. It’s in our whole selves, as well. Thus it’s connected to our embodied existence, which itself is also pretty peculiar.


1 Some commentators have questioned whether this sermon is adequately “Christian,” because Paul never explicitly refers to the cross but focuses instead on the resurrection. I’d say these commentators must be operating with defective criteria for what is required for “Christian preaching.”


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 66:8-20

James Limburg

I Love To Tell the Story

I recall from Sunday School days in a small Minnesota church that it was always one of my favorite songs. Somehow our group assembled for “opening exercises” always got cranked up singing the refrain: “I love to tell the sto-ry, ’twill be my theme in glory.” I was disappointed when the “green book” (Lutheran Book of Worship, 1978, 390) left out that word, “’twill” replacing it with “I’ll sing this theme in glory”). But now I’m happy to see that “’twill” is back in the 2006 red book, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 661). Twice the singer of this Psalm invites the congregation to pay attention to a story he has to tell. First, the psalmist invites listeners to “come and see what God has done,” (verse 5) and then he tells what God has done for God’s people. Second, the psalmist invites the congregation to “come and hear…and I will tell what God has done for the psalmist (verse 16). In what follows I will outline the movement of the psalm and then make some comments about preaching on this text.

Calling Planet Earth (66:1-4)

Psalm 65 ended with a picture of Planet Earth with its blue seas, amber grain fields, green pastures, abundant harvests and flocks of cattle. These hills are alive, says the psalmist, with the sound of music (65:9-13).

With Psalm 66 the psalmist continues the “earth” theme but now addresses the inhabitants of this beautiful blue planet, all of them! (“all the earth” occurs twice, for emphasis, verses 1 and 4).  The psalmist invites all citizens of the planet to praise God. God’s people respond to this invitation with joy, while God’s enemies cringe in fear.  In both cases the human inhabitants of the earth recognize the awesome-ness of God!

Telling the Story: What God has Done for God’s People (66:5-12)

After a general declaration about the awesome-ness of God, recognized by all the “children of Adam” (Hebrew), that is, all “mortals” (NRSV), the psalmist gives a specific example of what God has done for Israel.  Here he refers to the exodus and the crossing of the river Jordan (Joshua 3:14-17).  Since both events are well-known to the congregation, the psalmist only alludes to both stories. The difficulties of the time of the exodus and the testing in the wilderness are recalled in verses 9-12. But the bottom line, says the psalmist, is that “you have brought us out to a spacious place.” (verse 12)

Telling the Story: What God has Done for Me (66:13-20)

In the first segment of this psalm the focus was on the awesome deeds God has done for “all the earth” (verses 1-4). One could think of God’s blessings on the entire earth, the “just and the unjust,” (Matthew 5:45 RSV) as described in Psalm 65:9-13).  Part 2 of the psalm recalled God’s awesome deeds on behalf of Israel (verses 5-12). And now the psalmist makes it all personal. First, he reports that he has made certain offerings that he promised to make (verses 13-15).

Then he issues an invitation, similar to the one made in verse 5. There it was “come and see.” Now it is “come and hear.” He announces that he will “tell what [God] has done for me” (verse 16). Like a warm-hearted evangelical Christian, the psalmist gives his personal testimony. The story is a simple one, told here in the barest outline. “I cried aloud to him…truly God has listened, he has given heed to the words of my prayer.” Put simply the one giving testimony says, “I prayed. God answered my prayer. Praised be God!”

Tell Me a Story

When the Bible speaks about God, it most often does so by telling what God has done. In other words, when the Bible speaks of God, it tells a story.

The Bible as a whole follows the pattern of a story, beginning in the Old Testament with creation and continuing through the call to Abraham and Sarah and the ancestors. It goes on with the story of the Exodus from Egypt, the giving of the commandments, the wandering in the wilderness, the conquest of the land, the monarchy and finally the exile. The New Testament picks up the story, telling about Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises and spelling out the meaning of his death and resurrection. The book of Acts picks up the story of what God has done, climaxing in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. When Peter preached at Pentecost time in Jerusalem, some in the audience said of the preaching of the apostles, “Cretans and Arabians, we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” (Acts 2:11 RSV)

It was Elie Wiesel who concluded a short anecdote with the line, “God made man because he loves stories.” Inclusive language would dictate that we re-phrase it something like “God made humans because God loves stories.”

Now that my wife and I are grandparents we often get the request from one of our grandchildren, “Tell me a story.” Of course we always comply. In fact, I made a point of writing up a number of the Bible’s stories in a short form to be read to grandchildren. When possible, I would throw Ben or Eleyna, Kai or Elin or Mara into the story. Once I asked Ben, age 8 at the time, if he liked the Bible stories that I had written and his parents were reading to him. He gave the answer he knew I’d like, “Yes, Opa, I like the stories.” Then he paused. “But I like them best when they’re about me!”

Ain’t it the truth! And isn’t that the task of the preacher and teacher? To tell these old, old stories — in ways that make them about you, or me? 


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Peter 3:13-22

Valerie Nicolet-Anderson

Suffering and harm are not the most popular topics when it comes to discussing the Christian life.

The sufferings of the early Christ-believers
In our society of instant gratification, it is not easy to seriously consider the idea that there is merit in facing difficulties for the sake of an idea or a belief. Depending on when one dates 1 Peter, the situation referred to in 1 Peter 3:13-22 could range from mild abuse and mockery at the hands of the families of these new Christ-believers, to open, official, harsh persecution by Roman officials under Domitian (81-91 CE). In reflecting upon the message of the epistle, it is not necessary to know for sure what kind of suffering the early Christ-believers were facing. Clearly, identifying one’s self as a Christ-believer in the first century CE was not something as common and mainstream as it is in certain places of the world today. Christianity as one of the leading world-religions did not yet exist as such.

Why one should accept to suffer
In this context, the addressees of 1 Peter had to prepare themselves for the consequences of their belief. The author of 1 Peter 3:13-22 uses several strategies to encourage his addressees to being willing to suffer for their faith.

The first strategy he employs is to get the Christ-believers to focus on the future; both theirs and their attackers.

The passage has a strong eschatological flavor. Even if the Christ-believers experience difficulties in the days ahead, they should be assured that not only will they gain future rewards (1 Peter 3:13-14) but those who attack them will be punished (1 Peter 3:16). The language of blessing and the fact that those who are attacking the Christ-believers will be put to shame gives this passage a strong eschatological flavor. Being blessed (makarioi) happens in the end times for those who have followed God’s will. Knowing that their present suffering is not in vain is meant to give endurance to the Christ-believers.

The next strategy he employs is to remind them of the tools and resources available to them. They can defend their faith in respectful ways. Yet the author of 1 Peter goes further than that. He reminds his addressees that they have the necessary intellectual tools to take on those who might challenge them (1 Peter 3:14). Their faith might be mocked by others and derided as irrational, but the Christ-believers have tools and resources to give a reasonable and rational account of what they believe. Because of the assurance that the ultimate reward is not dependent upon them, the Christ-believers can defend their beliefs with integrity but they need not be aggressive or mean (1 Peter 3:16). They can argue in respectable ways.

The third strategy he employs is to give them comfort in the knowledge that Christ himself suffered. The author of 1 Peter uses Christ as an example that suffering can be a part of the path of a faithful Christ-believer. The story of Christ presents two comforts to the Christ-believers. It helps them understand that being righteous and obedient to God’s will does not provide a protection against pain and suffering.

In his perfect obedience, Christ suffered and died. It also helps them understand that suffering does not necessarily need to be seen as a sign of divine displeasure. Rather it can be and often is a part of a life that is lead righteously and respectably. While the Christ believers are not invited to seek suffering for the sake of suffering, they are encouraged to not shrink from their beliefs for fear of possible sufferings. Sufferings should be expected, and they are equipped to deal with them. Christ triumphed over them and they can hope to triumph over them as well.

Suffering in Present Christian Life
This understanding of suffering has interesting implications for the lives of present-day Christians. It invites them to reflect on the place of suffering in their own lives as Christ-believers. A good majority of Christians in the world today suffer little from persecution, at least, not as a direct result of their faith. In fact, at the beginning of the 20th century, it was quite common to equate a good Christian life with worldly rewards, in a prosperity theology that left little room for hardship. In such a context, what does suffering for one’s faith mean? How can one translate this suffering into one’s rather comfortable life in a prosperous country, where Christianity is one of the dominant religions?

Perhaps suffering in this case means being willing to renounce certain things in the name of Christian faith. Perhaps it means taking time away from other activities that one enjoys in order to serve the Church. Or perhaps it means accepting that the rewards of the Christian life may not be immediate, in the forms of more money, more friends, better status or a better job. But the “better life” might be hindered because one gives preeminence to one’s accountability to God rather than to the world. Perhaps suffering means pushing against the ways of the world in order to create a more just and more egalitarian society.

Conservatism of 1 Peter
Here we touch on the issue of 1 Peter’s conservatism. In 1 Peter, the acceptance of suffering in the hope of an eschatological reward means that one should remain in the situation in which one is found, even if it means being in the hands of a harsh master (1 Peter 2:18-19). In that context, acceptance of suffering means to endure what is, without trying to change it, because of a future reward that will justify the one who suffers.

This can be used to justify an attitude of quietism which refuses to take on the injustices of the world. It is important to remember that the situation of Christians today, especially in North America and in Europe is very different than the situation of the Christ-believers for whom the New Testament authors were writing. They were a minority, with very little power or money to change things, let alone challenge the dominant Empire. In contrast, Christians today are often on the side of the Empire. Perhaps suffering in this case precisely means challenging the established order in order to keep a clear conscience (1 Peter 3:21).