Lectionary Commentaries for June 5, 2011
Seventh Sunday of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 17:1-11

Craig R. Koester

The lectionary places Jesus’ prayer concerning glory at the end of the Easter season, but in John’s gospel the prayer occurs at the end of the last supper, so that it leads into the passion.

Keeping the literary context in mind is important when preaching this passage. The word “glory” (Greek doxa) can have a fine sense of honor or brightness, yet the key to its role in John’s gospel is that it has to do with the way God is made known to human beings.

John’s gospel assumes that people were created by God for relationship with God. That is why the prayer can say that eternal life means knowing the one true God and Jesus Christ, whom God has sent (John 17:3). According to John’s gospel, eternal life comes from a relationship with the eternal God. It begins now in faith, as people come to know the love of the God who made them. And such life has a future through the promise of resurrection. Yet the gospel also recognizes that “No one has ever seen God” (1:18). God’s presence is hidden until God chooses to reveal it. The theme of glory has to do with the way revelation takes place.

First, Jesus glorified God on earth by finishing the work God gave him to do (17:4). In a basic sense this means he honored God through his obedience to God’s commands. During his public ministry Jesus taught what God wanted him to teach, and performed the healings and other works that God wanted him to perform. Such faithfulness honors God (8:49). In another sense, however, Jesus glorified God by revealing God’s power.

Biblical writers sometimes use the term doxa or “glory” for the way the power of God is brought within the realm of human experience. According to John’s gospel, Jesus made divine power visible by the miraculous signs he performed. At the beginning of his ministry Jesus manifested his glory by turning water into wine at Cana (2:11); and at the end of his ministry he revealed the glory of God by calling the dead man Lazarus back to life (11:40). By other miraculous acts, Jesus revealed divine glory by revealing divine power.

A second element in Jesus’ prayer concerns the glory he will resume in heaven once his ministry on earth is over. This heavenly glory is something that the Son of God enjoyed before the world existed. To share in such glory is to share in divine honor, divine majesty, and divine power. It was out of love that the Father gave the Son such glory before the foundation of the world, so that sharing in God’s glory means sharing in God’s love.

By means of his passion Jesus will return to the Father and enter a heavenly glory that his followers on earth cannot fully perceive, but can hope to see in the future. Therefore, Jesus concludes his prayer by asking that those whom God has given him may one day be with him in God’s presence, to see the fullness of the glory that God gave to him in love (17:24).

The prayer traces a movement from glory on earth to glory in heaven, and given only the lines we have considered thus far it would be easy to bypass the cross without comment. Yet the prayer–like the rest of John’s gospel–connects glory to the crucifixion itself. When Jesus enters Jerusalem at the end of his ministry, he says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified,” and he compares himself to a seed that must fall into the earth and die (12:23-24). When Judas leaves to carry out the betrayal, Jesus says, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him” (13:31).

The gospel links glorification to the process that culminates in the crucifixion. And this brings us back to John 17, where Jesus says that he has glorified God on earth by finishing the works that God gave him to do. The Greek word for “finish” is teleioō, the word Jesus will utter at the time of his death when he says tetelestai, “it is finished.” If Jesus glorifies God on earth by accomplishing God’s works, then he glorifies God by the crucifixion that completes these works. The question is how he does this.

Given the way Jesus manifested divine glory by miraculous acts of power during his ministry, we might expect a battery of miracles to occur during his crucifixion. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the crucifixion is framed with displays of divine power. The eerie pall of darkness is a visible sign of supernatural force, and the dramatic tearing of the temple curtain reveals the hand of God. God’s glory seems palpable in Matthew’s account of the earth quaking and the saints rising on Good Friday (Matthew 27:45-54; Mark 15:33-38; Luke 23:44-45). The irony is that these signs of divine power are missing from John’s gospel. If readers are to see glory in the crucifixion, they must see it in another way.

Put briefly, if the signs reveal God’s glory by displaying divine power, the crucifixion reveals God’s glory by conveying divine love. The crucifixion completes Jesus’ work of glorifying God on earth, for by laying down his life he gives himself completely so that the world may know of Jesus’ love for God and God’s love for the world (John 3:16; 14:31).

By his resurrection and ascension Jesus returns to the heavenly glory that God prepared for him in love, and Jesus prays that his followers will one day join him in the Father’s presence to share in this glory and love (17:5, 24-26). To the eye of faith, however, the glory of the exalted Lord is already present in the crucified body of Jesus. If glory defines what the crucifixion is, the crucifixion defines what glory is. The crucifixion manifests the scope of divine power by disclosing the depth of divine love.


First Reading

Commentary on Acts 1:6-14

Matt Skinner

Unfortunately, Jesus’ ascension has become easy to overlook. Therefore it’s easily considered irrelevant.

Creativity-impaired liturgical traditions keep it hidden from plain sight when they insist we observe it on Thursdays. But even more damaging is the widespread ignorance of what the ascension might mean for our knowledge of who Jesus Christ is and our understanding of what Christians are supposed to be doing with themselves. Because so many churchgoers struggle to figure out how to relate the Easter confession of “Christ is risen” to the post-Pentecost challenges of “real life”–again, it’s the infamous disconnect between Sunday and Monday–this ignorance is really a shame.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not asking preachers to use their sermons as opportunities to lecture about arcane doctrinal or historical ruminations on the ascension. Rather, by imaginatively taking congregations into the drama of these early verses from Acts, preachers will help them discover how the ascension connects Jesus to life in the here and now. It establishes Jesus as Lord of all and calls Christians to participate boldly–yet attentively–in his ongoing presence among us.

A Scene Rife with Expectations

Context really matters for understanding this passage. A sermon will benefit from accentuating the high degree of anticipation that suffuses the text. The Acts of the Apostles begins where the Gospel according to Luke left off: with grandiose expectations (see, for example, Luke 22:28-30; 24:46-49), all fueled by an emerging recognition that God changed everything on the original Easter morning.

Before Jesus departs to an other-worldly existence, he lays out a few additional promises. After reaffirming that his followers “will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come,” he declares that God will empower them to be witnesses across the Roman world, beginning right where they are. In time they will move throughout the broader Roman province of Judea, northward into Samaria (a region not exactly on good terms with the kind of people who constitute Jesus’ current followers), and ultimately to points unknown, “the ends of the earth.”

Everyone–the people in the story and readers, too–expects God to do something: to clothe Jesus’ friends with power and to call them into action. The apostles also understand the messianic import of what lies ahead; their question to Jesus about the restoration of Israel is perfectly reasonable. The Messiah is expected to purify the land and rule over the nations. Is this finally the time?

The Ascension Begins a New Chapter and Expects Others to Come

Jesus’ promises affirm that his ascension is not the end of a story; rather, his departure initiates the next chapter in the story of God’s salvation. While his words include a command (to remain in Jerusalem for the time being), their dominant thrust is descriptive, almost matter-of-fact: he tells them what God will do, and what their lives will look like as a result. No requests. No orders. No threats. No exhortations.

Power, Holy Spirit, testimony about Jesus and forgiveness of sins, participation in God’s reign, expansion across cultural and geopolitical lines, opposition (implied by the judicial connotations of the word “witnesses,” and stated clearly by Jesus back in Luke 12:11-12 and 21:12-17)–God has impressive things in store for these people as soon as Jesus moves on.

Jesus’ ascension takes him to the right hand of God (see Acts 2:32-35). But what does that mean? “The right hand of God” is not a place, as if we could find Jesus and his Father sitting in a throne room somewhere, or sharing a booth in a heavenly tavern. The reference is not so much to location but to status: Jesus receives power and authority. Call it sovereignty, glorification, or whatever.

By virtue of his elevation to this status, Jesus reigns over all creation. Creation is his. He has a role in everything. Therefore he is present throughout all creation through the Holy Spirit. Contrary to some popular assumptions, this event does not put Jesus out of play until the end of all things. He and the kingdom he inaugurated are not on an extended break.

If our images of Jesus ascending contribute to a sense of Jesus’ removal from human society and our daily experiences, then we’ve missed the point of the ascension, at least as Acts 1 describes it.

Don’t get caught up in parsing the symbolic sights and imagery of the ascension narrative. Acts, operating out of its own cosmological assumptions, resists our questions of Where? and How? What Acts insists is that Jesus departs from his followers so that he might exercise his authority and influence over all things, places, and powers. The ascension does not mean the cessation of his ministry. It does not mean Jesus’ absence. It does not mean the suspension of God’s activity to reclaim the world. Quite the opposite.

The Ascension Leads Us to Be Expectant, Not Frantic

As I mentioned, the verses preceding the ascension turn our attention toward what God will yet do, even as they claim that Jesus’ followers will play a part in God’s plans. And the plans are ambitious.

This makes verses 10-14 especially interesting. When the two messengers in robes, those angelic figures, call Jesus’ cloud-gazing apostles back to their senses, they do not order them to get to work. Although there is urgency in the admonishment to stop staring slack-jawed into the sky, the moment’s urgency does not result in immediate action.

The first great act of the apostles occurs when they hike back to Jerusalem . . . and wait.

Indeed, in time the apostles and the rest of Jesus’ followers will be moving outward and bearing witness to Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit. But not yet. In time the realities about which Jesus spoke–the kingdom of God, forgiveness of sins, release from the things that bind people–will come into clearer view.

We may find the waiting period at the beginning of Acts easy to skip over, as a brief narrative interlude building suspense for the eventual coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2. Yet the interval makes an important point about how God will interact with these people. Presumably the Holy Spirit could have come immediately after Jesus’ ascension; but God waits. Rather, God has Jesus’ followers wait. I like to think that in this waiting they learn, or begin to learn, that they are to be a responsive community, a community that waits upon God to initiate. Whether they walk back to Jerusalem from the ascension with eager energy or paralyzing fear we do not know. All we know is that they have to wait.

The waiting has an active quality to it, going beyond merely sitting around and contemplating the past and future. The apostles wait secluded in a “room upstairs,” where they are “constantly devoting themselves to prayer” along with others who followed Jesus, both men and women. The group remains sequestered, yet expectant. In their waiting they obey Jesus’ recent commands; but, even more, they also express a readiness for the wild stuff yet to come.

The waiting period conditions them to be attentive to God, so that they might respond when the time is right.

They wait in a context of enormous and not fully explained expectations. They live in uneasy anticipation of the new realities that Jesus has initiated. Living like this requires just as much courage as if Jesus had told them to go out immediately and change the world using their own brains and muscles.

They wait, not because they see it as their only option, but because they expect big things to come from God–things in which they will be privileged to play important roles.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35

James Limburg

God of Power, God of the People

Some of the psalms are among the easiest parts of the Bible to understand.  The comforting message of Psalm 23, the expression of wonder at the night sky in Psalm 8, or the confession of sin in Psalm 51 are examples. These psalms speak directly and need no commentary.

Psalm 68, however, is not a part of this group. In fact almost every commentator comments on how difficult this psalm is to understand. For example, the notes in the Jewish Study Bible (New York: Oxford, 2004) say simply, “many consider it to be the most difficult psalm in the Psalter.”

In reading through the psalm, however, it seems to me that these difficulties have been exaggerated. Parts of the psalm are quite clear and can in fact aid in understanding and bolstering one’s Christian faith. In what follows, we shall concentrate on the two sections listed in the lectionary. But for an introductory access to the psalm note verse 19: This short verse could be at the start of one’s daily prayer:

Blessed be the Lord,
Who daily bears us up;
God is our salvation!

The Face of God (68:1-3)

Psalm 67 begins with a wish, “May God be gracious to us and bless us, and make his face to shine upon us.” The language is reminiscent of the benediction in Numbers 6:24-26. Though not apparent in the NRSV translation, Psalm 68 links up with that “face” imagery from Psalm 67. It
expresses the wish that those who hate God “flee from his face” (verse 1 in Hebrew; NRSV has “before him”). Verse 2 strengthens that wish. Verse 3 expresses the wish that the righteous be joyful “before the face of God” (verse 3 in Hebrew; NRSV has “before God”). The picture at the beginning of this psalm is that of God’s people freed from persecution by enemies, celebrating joyfully in the presence of God.

Sing to the Rider of the Clouds and the Rescuer of the Homeless! (68:4-6)

Now the script for the celebration is supplied. A worship leader calls the people to sing a hymn!  This section follows the typical pattern of a hymn as exemplified in Psalm 113, with a call to praise (113:1-3) followed by reasons for praise (113:4-9). 

These verses sound a triple call to the congregation to praise God: “sing to God, sing praises to his name, lift up a song to him.”  They indicate that there are reasons for praising God: 1) God is mighty, using the clouds as a chariot (see also Psalm 104:3); 2) God is also merciful, concerned about individual persons who need help. God is a Father to orphans and Protector of widows who also cares for the homeless and prisoners (verses 5-6).  This short hymnic fragment thus perfectly exhibits the pattern of the hymn. It offers an invitation to praise the Lord, and indicates that such praising makes sense because of what God has done and continues to do.

Drum Major for the People, Provider for the Needy (68:7-10)

The psalm continues to give reasons for praising God. The imagery shifts from God as Cloud Rider to the picture of God as leading a parade of his people as they march through the desert!  To use an image that Martin Luther King liked, God is a Drum Major! The whole earth quakes at the magnificence of this event (verse 8). But the merciful  dimension of God’s action toward the people is also present: God sends rain on the crops, as a Good Shepherd provides a place for them to live, even the needy among them (verses 9-10).

Power Move (68:32-35)              

This closing section again follows the pattern of a hymn. Two imperatives “Sing…sing” call  all the kingdoms of the earth to praise God, the Lord (verse 32). This time the reasons for praise are all about power. The Hebrew word for power is ‘oz, occurring here four times. God is once again the Cloud Rider (verse 33; see also verse 4) who calls out with a powerful  (Hebrew ‘oz; NRSV “mighty”) voice, probably referring to the roaring thunder. Verse 34 speaks twice about God’s majesty and power in the skies. Finally, the psalm declares that God does not hoard all that power, but passes on power to the people, the people of God (verse 35).

God of Power, God of the People

The God of whom this psalm speaks is a God of power. This is a God who rides on the clouds and whose power is not limited to the earth but extends to the entire universe (68:34, “in the skies”). This God acts with power in history, driving away enemy armies (Psalm 68:1, 11-14, 21-23, 30-31 and in nature, through earthquake, thunder, and rain (Psalm 68:8-10).

This God, however, is not power hungry. God gives power to the people of God (68:35). And God watches over the powerless: the orphans, widows, homeless, and prisoners (68:5).

The preacher on this Sunday may choose to focus on the prayer of Jesus in John 17 or the account of the Ascension in Acts 1, or the comforting words from 1 Peter. The theology of this sturdy psalm fills in something of the background for understanding all three of these accounts.  When Jesus was lifted up and taken into heaven he became the “cloud rider,” now seated at the heavenly throne of power. And the God to whom Jesus prays is the Father and Protector not only of the orphan and widow (Psalm 68:5) but of all God’s people (John 17:11). This God is the Holy Father who gives his Son Jesus authority over all people (John 17:1-2,11). Believers who are suffering can let their weight down on the promise that they should “Cast all your anxiety on [God]  because he cares for you,” knowing that “the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 5:10-11).  


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11

Valerie Nicolet-Anderson

Talking about the “fiery ordeal” they were suffering (1 Peter 4:12), this passage opens with strong words which are not easily reconciled with the experience of the Church in the 21st century, especially in Europe and in North America.

The Church and Suffering
At the time of Peter, Christ-believers could experience this fiery ordeal in a variety of ways. They could be mocked because their practices were considered strange. They could become isolated from their families because of their decision to join the Christ-believers movement. Or at a deeper level (if one dates 1 Peter during the rule of Domitian [81-96 CE] when organized persecutions of Christ-believers did take place), they could suffer at the hands of the state.

Being a Christ-believer in the Roman Empire
Even if one argues for an earlier date for the writing of 1 Peter and thus recognizes that there were no imperial persecutions at the time, one has to accept the fact that the first Christ-believers movements were unsettling for the Roman Empire. Christ’s death was related to political issues. And the churches that Paul had established in Greece and Asia Minor were constructing modes of being in community that were in tension with the dominant imperial mode of understanding the organization of the world.

Christ-believers, whether Jewish or Gentiles, did not necessarily participate in the imperial cult and were encouraged to develop communities in which differences in social status did not play as much of a role as they did in the surrounding imperial world. As such, the Christ-believers could be perceived as a threat for the established order which made them the victims of mild to severe repercussions. As Miguel A. de la Torre points out, “the early churches were persecuted not for what they believed but for what they did. They preached a message of liberation. To preach good news to the poor, freedom to the imprisoned, sight for those blinded, and liberation to the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19) is to reject conformity with the prevailing power structures”.1

Thus, suffering was not necessarily something that struck the early Christ-believers as strange or unexpected. In fact, the New Testament writers go to great lengths to show that suffering was more or less part of the experience of being a follower of Christ. 1 Peter does the same, reminding his addressees that, since Christ suffered, Christ-believers can expect to suffer as well (1 Peter 4:13).

Without developing a theology in which suffering needs to be pursued, the author of 1 Peter encourages his addressees to see suffering as the counterpart of the blessings that they will experience when God will restore them and the world (1 Peter 5:10). Part of their responsibilities as Christ-believers are to be in solidarity with others, who suffer in the world because of Christ, and to resist the devil, which, as the strong metaphor of the prowling lion represents well, will not rest until it finds ‘someone to devour’ (1 Peter 5:8). Since the devil is not resting, neither should the Christ-believers.

Should the Contemporary Church be Suffering?
If, as de la Torre indicates, suffering and hostility towards the church in the 1st century was profoundly related to the subversive role of the early church amidst the Roman Empire, should Christians today be wary of the fact that, in many places, the Christian church no longer provokes hostility? In fact, in many places in Europe, polite indifference is the most common expression towards the Church; the way most people relate to the church.

Perhaps the issue lies on the focus of Christian churches. 1 Peter reminds us that what is at stake in the sufferings of Christ-believers is not so much what they believed but what they did. Because they believed that Christ was Lord, and not Caesar, they strived to establish communities marked by love and solidarity rather than by hierarchy and a system of patronage and debt.

De la Torre suggests that contemporary churches might become more relevant if they again focused on “orthopraxis (correct action)” rather than on “orthodoxy (correct doctrine)”.2 In seeking this path, contemporary churches might need to advocate for “social disorder”3 and accept that, with social disorder comes the fear of suffering at the hands of the privileged, without certain control over the outcome of their struggle.


1 See Miguel A. de la Torre, “1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11. Theological Perspective”, in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor eds., Feasting on the Word. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. Year A. Volume 2. Lent through Eastertide (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 533-534.

2 See Ibid., 534

3 Ibid.