Lectionary Commentaries for June 12, 2011
Day of Pentecost (Year A)

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 20:19-23

Matt Skinner

Liturgical observances of Pentecost are informed almost entirely by the familiar story in Acts 2,

with images of fire, prayers offered in multiple languages, and attention to the church’s prophetic vocation. “The Johannine Pentecost,” as this passage is sometimes called, gets much less attention.

That makes sense, since in John’s Gospel Jesus does not impart the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost (the Jewish Feast of Weeks, or Shavuot, which falls on the fiftieth day after Passover). Here, the Spirit comes on Easter, during Jesus’ first post-resurrection appearance to a collection of his followers. (Earlier in the day, outside the tomb, he spoke to and commissioned only Mary Magdalene.) Also, in this passage we encounter the Spirit with less of a universal tone (in comparison to Acts); the focus here is more particular, focused on the identity and sending of a community.

The Spirit, at Last

In John, this is an incredibly weighty and long-anticipated scene. The Baptizer introduced Jesus in John 1:33 as “the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” Jesus himself has said that his ability to give the Holy Spirit “without measure” would offer proof that he is from God and speaks the words of God (3:34). He promised that “rivers of living water”–a metaphor for the Spirit–would flow from his innermost being (7:38-39; see the CEB and NET translations of these verses, which are superior to those in the NIV and NRSV). And of course Jesus has had much to say about the coming “Advocate”:

  • It is “the Spirit of truth,” who dwells with believers forever yet cannot be received by “the world” (14:16-17).
  • It is the Holy Spirit, sent by the Father, who will teach Jesus’ followers everything and remind them of all he told them (14:26; cf. 16:13).
  • It is the Spirit, whom Jesus sends “from the Father,” and who testifies about Jesus and equips people to offer testimony about him (15:26-27). This Spirit glorifies Jesus (16:14).
  • It is He who can “prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment” (16:8-11).

The close connections John draws among Jesus’ promises about the Spirit, his glorification and ascension, his intimacy with the Father, and his commissions to his followers caution us not to skip over “the Johannine Pentecost” too casually, as if it serves merely as a final “Good bye, and good luck” from Jesus to his friends.

With this culminating scene, the christological climax of John’s Gospel (Jesus’ departure as the exalted Christ) is part and parcel of the Gospel’s apostolic impulse (the equipping and sending of the men and women who believe in him). That is, in the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ followers receive nothing less than the fullness of the glorified Son. Their lives (ours, too) can therefore accomplish ends similar to his life’s, insofar as they reveal God.

Important Details

Fear colors the scene, as Jesus’ followers have secured themselves from the authorities (that is the referent of the problematic expression “the Jews” in 20:19). Note, then, the importance of the language that introduces Jesus’ commission: “Peace to you.” Jesus gives peace not “as the world gives” (14:27); he gives peace that provides solace in the face of persecution, a promise of new possibilities, and confidence in his ability to overcome “the world” (16:33). (In this Gospel, “the world” usually indicates a hostile and ignorant response to the truth that Jesus embodies.)

Recalling the moment when God breathed life into the original earth person in Genesis 2:7 (cf. Ezekiel 37:9), Jesus breathes the Spirit of life into (not merely “on”) his followers in John 20:22. A new creation is afoot. This creation does not replace “the world.” It engages it.

“Forgiving” and “Retaining” Sins

The final verse requires some attention in a sermon, because many people experience “the Johannine Pentecost” like this:

  • Jesus bestows peace upon his worried followers. Great!
  • Jesus fills them with the Holy Spirit. Great!
  • Jesus tells them they can forgive or retain other people’s sins. Huh?

The things mentioned in verse 23 (“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained”) sound at first hearing like responsibilities that few of us would choose for ourselves. Maybe fewer of us would trust an institutionalized church to wield them. What is Jesus talking about?

It is imperative that we make sense of this verse in light of all that has come before it. Too many mistakes have been made in the past by those who have read John 20:23 in isolation or with a sloppy connection to the unrelated words of Matthew 16:19. We must attend to how the Johannine Jesus has already characterized the problem of “sin,” the role of the Holy Spirit, and the nature of his ministry. If not, we risk perpetuating a legacy of misuse and polemic that has muddied this verse across the history of its interpretation.

Jesus is not appointing the church as his moral watchdog; nor does he commission it to arbitrate people’s assets and liabilities on a heavenly balance sheet.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus talks about sin as unbelief, the unwillingness or incapacity to grasp the truth of God manifested in him. To have sin abide, therefore, is to remain estranged from God. The consequence of such a condition is ongoing resistance. Sin in John is not about moral failings; primarily it is an inability or refusal to recognize God’s revelation when confronted by it, in Jesus. (Note what Jesus, says, concerning the world, in John 15:22: “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin.” Cf. John 9:39-41).

Consequently, the resurrected Christ tells his followers (all his followers) that, through the Spirit that enables them to bear witness, they can set people free (“set free” or “release” is a better translation than “forgive” in 20:23) from that state of affairs. They can be a part of seeing others come to believe in Jesus and what he discloses.

Failure to bear witness, Jesus warns, will result in the opposite: a world full of people left unable to grasp the knowledge of God. That is what it means to “retain” sins (“retain” is the opposite of “set free”). Jesus is not–at least, not in this verse–granting the church a unique spiritual authority. He is simply reporting that a church that does not bear witness to Christ is a church that leaves itself unable to pay a role in delivering people from all that keeps them from experiencing the fullness that Jesus offers.

Jesus Lives

Receiving the Spirit, the church receives Jesus. And so the church receives Jesus’ own capacity to make God manifest, bringing light to the world. The Trinitarian intimacy inferred from John’s presentation of these ideas is striking, but even more so is the intimacy expressed between the Divine and humanity.

Such intimacy between God and us is but one consequence of the rich Easter confession about what happens when God raises a corpse to new life. Jesus lives, yes–not apart from us, but in and through us.

We Christians tend to be cautious folk. Too many churches have locked their doors to a vibrant understanding of the Holy Spirit’s role in their midst. We don’t know how best to bear witness to Christ in a world populated by multiple religions and plagued by ecclesial hypocrisy. Maybe it would inspire us to bold and creative witness if we saw the risen Jesus miraculously pass through our barricaded doors. But probably all it takes is a preacher who can help us see that this same Jesus is already present, dwelling within us and eager to enlist us to carry on his work of setting people free.

First Reading

Commentary on Acts 2:1-21

Mitzi J. Smith

We encounter God as God walks among us.

God’s strollings and interventions necessarily require human remembering and/or interpretation. God acts in our finite world through humans and on behalf of humans. Luke’s Pentecost story constitutes the only account we possess of the event. Yet for contemporary believers this narrative carries diverse implications for Christian life and ministry. The importance, function, and manifestation of the Spirit vary from denomination to denomination.

In Acts 2, God sends God’s Spirit (pneuma) upon many for many to see. One hundred and twenty disciples, including eleven apostles, Jesus’ mother Mary and his brothers, and other female and male co-laborers and supporters of Jesus’ ministry gathered in a second-floor room waiting to receive the Holy Spirit (1:14). While engaged in collective prayer, they elect Matthias to replace Judas by the casting of lots and more prayer. Praying and waiting neither replace nor exclude activity.

Spirit incarnation
When Pentecost had fully arrived, forty days after the ten-day Passover celebration (Deuteronomy 16:9-12), the disciples were all “of one [mind] at the same place [and time]” (homou epi to auto) (2:1; cf. 2:44). Luke metaphorically describes the Spirit’s entrance into the house as a rushing violent wind. It filled the entire house so that no space escaped its occupation. The wind morphed into forked tongues of fire (2:2-4). What was first only felt and not seen became a recognizable and expressible image–an incarnation of God’s Spirit. Despite the oneness of the group, God’s Spirit manifested itself as a divided fiery image that sat upon each member individually and giving to them the ability to speak in distinct foreign languages. Just as the Spirit filled the house, it filled the people enabling them to speak plainly (apophthengomai) in fleshly-languages. The festival attendees were astounded because they recognized the persons who spoke in their various birth dialects to be Galileans (2:7). The Spirit embodied the familiar speech contexts so as to render its incarnation capable of interpretation. 

Translation required
Significantly, the first act of God’s Spirit at Pentecost honors the diversity and individuality of the believers. God’s Spirit does not first insist that the Spirit induced testimonies sound the same or employ the same grammatical inflections and conjugations and phonetics.  Devout males, Jews and proselytes, from every nation, and who had traveled from Africa, Rome, and Asia hear this group of disciples speaking to them about the mighty acts of God in their own languages (2:8-11). God’s acts remain God’s acts in every language and culture. Confounded, the men do not agree about how to interpret the event that they have all witnessed together at the same time. Some translate what they hear as babble resulting from a midday drinking binge (2:13). Others cannot settle on one interpretation. Even the outpouring of God’s spirit at Pentecost requires interpretation. Whenever God interjects or translates God’s self into human history, interpretation is required. Theology, exegesis, hermeneutics, and preaching constitute human attempts to translate God-events into human language. Our God-talk is as diverse as our tongues. It is our language. It is never synonymous with God.

Pentecost depicts a God who honors the polymorphic nature of human language and culture with no prerequisite or expectation for uniformity. God’s Spirit in its fullness, unbridled and unrestricted, desires to sit on and to speak through individuals. We cannot use the Spirit to construct a pneumatology that paints the voice and activity of the Spirit as univocal or one voice representing all ethnicities, races, genders, cultures, or classes of people. God determines the time, the place, the channel, and the program content.

Signs benefit humans
Peter assumes the role of translator speaking plainly (apophthengomai) to the crowd. The same Greek verb signifies how the Spirit enabled the disciples to speak plainly (apophthengomai) in other languages, 2:4. Peter’s words constitute the prologue to the first and paradigmatic missional speech in Acts. Peter immediately dispels rumors of an inebriated Galilean posse by declaring the scene to be a spiritual “latter rain.” The Joel text that Luke inserts derives from the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible).

Luke recontextualizes and alters the text. For example, at 2:17 Luke adds, “In the last days, God says,” as well as “and they will prophesy” at 2:18. Luke implies that they are living in the final days; in those days the Spirit will not discriminate on the basis of social status or gender. The altered Joel quotation relegates the wonders (terata) to the heavens and the signs (semeia) to the earth. The Spirit incarnates in fleshly language for our benefit. We often get this twisted. God raised Jesus, and God continues to intervene, to incarnate, and signify on the earth.

God acts
God promised and poured out the Spirit through human flesh and articulated in human language. Pentecost is sandwiched between the promise and the scriptural explanation from Joel. What God promises, God pours out. Luke demonstrates continuity between prophecy and fulfillment. The incarnate fulfillment is also paradigmatic–an exemplary embodiment of God’s Spirit. This embodied event affects every human sense: the sound and feel of torrential winds; the feel and sight of forked tongues of fire sitting on each one; and the sight and aurality of foreign language spoken by a Galilean posse. Sometimes we feel the Spirit; often we hear the Spirit; and we see the Spirit. We cannot mandate how, when, where, and to what extent God acts. This text describes a particular manifestation of God’s Spirit and promise. It is not a generic prescription nor is it a panacea.

God incarnates on God’s terms. We cannot manipulate God’s Spirit. We pray for and hope for God’s Spirit to act in us, upon us, and through us, but on God’s terms. The Spirit makes visible and tangible God’s promise to be present, to empower, and to compel testimony. Witnesses testify about God who interjects God’s self into diverse cultures, languages, and life situations making God’s presence felt, heard, and seen, and compelling us to interpret, as best we can, what we have felt, heard, and seen. 


Commentary on Psalm 104:24-34, 35b

Matthew Stith

It is a blessing to the preacher when the movement of a passage of Scripture offers a ready guide to interpretation and proclamation.

This reading from Psalm 104 is a case in point.

A quick glance at the text reveals a three-part structure:

  • Verses 24 through 26 describe the wondrous character of God’s creation;
  • Verses 27 through 30 describe God’s providence;
  • Verses 31 through 35 turn to praise.
    In tracing the flow from creation to providence to praise, the preacher will find a number of possible points of contact with virtually any congregational context.

The Wonders of Creation (24-26)

In the portion of the Psalm that precedes this reading, the Psalmist has offered an extensive catalogue of the many things that God has created. Accordingly, we have the exclamation of verse 24, “How manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.” It is, in one sense, a summary of what came before.

Nevertheless, the crowning example of the sea and its most awesome creature (Leviathan) serves perfectly well to illustrate the point without reference to those earlier verses. What God has created is awesome beyond the comprehension of mortals.

No ancient Israelite could even begin to claim full comprehension of the sea, with its vastness, unpredictability, and dangerous power. Indeed, despite all the efforts of science and exploration that lie between the ancients and our own time, the sea remains in many ways mysterious and in all ways uncontrollable.

The claim here is that God created and therefore has dominion over not only the sea but even its most dangerous and terrifying inhabitant, the whale/sea monster Leviathan. If there are such incredible wonders in the creation, the power, wisdom, and skill of the creator must be even more incredible.

Preachers might adapt this argument for the wonder of God from the wonders of creation to the needs of the congregation by considering other wonders of creation that are “closer to home,” more accessible to the people’s experience and context.

Dependence upon Providence (27-30)

A natural question arising from looking at the near-infinite diversity of creatures is, “How do they all find what they need to survive? How can the world provide for so many different needs?”

The Psalmist turns the improbability of the world furnishing a suitable niche for so many different creatures into another theological observation: it all depends on the providence of God. Whatever lives, says the Psalm, is receiving life, breath, and sustenance from the hand of the Creator. And if that providing hand were ever to be closed, no creature could survive.

The existence of life, then, is an argument for the providence of God! Preachers may find here a useful point of contact with congregations in which there is uncertainty and anxiety about the future. God provides for all creatures — and this should give us confidence that God is able to provide for us, come what may.

There is also a potential connection in this portion of the Psalm to the liturgical context of Pentecost. The relationship in verse 30 between God sending out his spirit and the creation and renewal of the world dovetails nicely with the Pentecost story of God sending out his spirit for the creation and renewal of the church.

Praise the Lord! (31-35)
While one might well be tempted to focus on the Pentecost connection mentioned above as the culmination of the treatment of the Psalm, it would be a mistake to disregard the Psalmist’s chosen conclusion. The movement from contemplation of the creation through recognition of God’s providence must, in the logic of the Psalter, lead to praise.

The proper response of the creature to the Creator is always one of reverent celebration, and the recognition of how extensively God has provided and sustained us is cause for the Psalmist to break out in joyful superlatives.

Praise should come forth “as long as I live,” and “while I have being.” The Lord’s glory is so clearly shown in his creation and providence that the creaturely life must be one of thanksgiving and praise. How else could one respond to such a God?

By excluding the first half of verse 35 from the reading, the lectionary leaves this question as a hypothetical, presumably to be answered with an implied “in no other way.”

But verse 35a indicates that the Psalmist knew, as does everyone else, that there are other responses to God’s majesty and generosity than endless praise.

In the typical terminology of the Psalms, those other responses, the ones that reject some aspect or another of the goodness and wonder of creation, the complete sufficiency of providence, are attributed to “sinners” and “the wicked.”

Congregations may (and indeed should) be uncomfortable with this language of obliteration. After all, every congregation is made up of sinners! Still, there is no escaping the fact that the praise of God envisioned and practiced by the Psalmist includes the desire that such wickedness will be decisively and permanently dealt with.

Seeing the wonders of creation and providence doesn’t just encourage us to say, “Wow! God is pretty great.” Instead, they demand that the blight of sin be removed, so that the creation may be entirely what God intends it to be.

Here is the final opportunity for a productive connection to the congregation’s life. As so often happens, God has found a different, better way to answer the Psalmist’s prayer than the Psalmist could have imagined.

In Jesus Christ, God has indeed dealt decisively with the blight of sin, not by slaughtering sinners, but by redeeming them. This good news should set off an even more exuberant round of praise than the Psalmist’s! But no better beginning could be made to such news than that which closes the Psalm, the first “Hallelujah!” or “Praise the Lord!” of the Psalter.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13

Valérie Nicolet

The more I read the letters to the Corinthians, the more I appreciate the courage and boldness of this community as they wrestled with what it meant to be people of faith.

The Community at Corinth
They engaged the apostle Paul in what seems to be a lively discussion. We don’t get that from many other communities. In Romans, we do not get a clear sense of who the Christ-believers really were. In Galatians, Paul is so upset that we learn more about the apostle’s rage and ardor than we do about the community. But in this letter to the Corinthians, things are different.

We learn a lot about the members of these early house churches. They came from different social backgrounds. They did not necessarily lead lives that would traditionally be qualified as saintly. And most interesting to us, they seemed to have had great conversations with Paul. It is not that Paul simply told them what to do, and that was the end of it.

What I like about the Corinthians is that they challenged Paul; they offered their own ideas about his gospel and defended their interpretations at least as passionately as Paul argued for his own. Thus, the relationship between the Corinthians and Paul can serve as a healthy model for integrating dispute and disagreement into the modern, post-modern, or emergent church which still thinks about what it should become and how it should behave in the world.

In this particular installment of the disagreement between the Corinthians and Paul, Paul is reflecting upon the diversity of gifts at play in the community at Corinth. Apparently, their house churches had plenty of people feeling like they brought something special to the life of the church: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment of spirits, tongues, and interpretation of tongues (1 Corinthians 12:8-10). Because of that diversity of gifts, there seemed to have been some talk among the Corinthians about whose gift was best.

Spirit as a uniting force
Paul’s answer begins with the spirit. In the passage directly after this one, he will use the metaphor of the body to strengthen his argument (1 Corinthians 12:12-31) and bring the discussion to a temporary close in chapter 13, with the famous reflection on love. But here, in 1 Corinthians 12:4-13, he focuses on the spirit. It would be more natural to have the passage start at 1 Corinthians 12:4, which begins a new argument in the discussion, yet the lectionary reading includes the second half of verse 12:3: “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit”. It introduces the central element of the passage, and already provides a unifying force behind the various gifts of the community.

The recognition of Jesus as Lord cannot happen unless the spirit is at work within the person who confesses “Kurios Iesous“. Establishing this as a premise of his discussion about gifts, Paul can then remind his addressees that they do not recognize Christ as the Messiah through their own abilities and, thus, they have no preliminary grounds for boasting. Rather, they are all dependent upon the spirit in their ability to confess Christ as Lord as well as in the variety of gifts that they bring to the community. The spirit functions as an enabling force, but the spirit also levels the playing field. No one can pretend that they did not need the spirit to recognize the lordship of Jesus or to develop their own particular gifts.

Paul is careful to clarify that it is the same spirit (to auto pneuma, repeated four times in the passage) that acts in everyone. It is not only that the gifts are activated by the spirit in each person, they are actually triggered by the same spirit, suppressing any opportunity to claim that one gift has a better “pedigree” than another. Rather the spirit gives them each their own particular value.

The Value of Gifts
As Paul often does in his dealings with his communities, he walks a tight rope in his arguments. He refuses to say that one gift is better than the other and insists upon the unity forged by the spirit, which permits him to describe the community as one unified body (1 Corinthians 12:12-14). Yet, at the same time, he does not want to say that the particular nature of each gift does not matter. Recognizing one’s gift and the form of that gift is important. Knowing how to use these gifts matters as well (see the discussion later on about speaking in tongues in 1 Corinthians 14:2-25).

Thus, in a way, after having made a strong argument about the equality of each gift, Paul delineates matters more precisely, and insists on the proper use of gifts. Gifts are all given by the spirit, but they are not all the same, and so, particular gifts matter. However, what Paul wants to avoid is people focusing on a particular gift to the detriment of others and exalting the people who practice that particular gift (which in Corinth appears to have been the gift of speaking in tongues). Christ-believers need to move away from a state of mind in which one judges the achievements (or lack thereof) of others. Rather, they need to concentrate on the manner in which each and every gift is used so that the body of the community can remain united.

Finding one’s Gift
The problem of the Corinthian community seemed to have been that there were too many people claiming the special value of their own particular gifts, too many people wanting to be involved and participate in the life of the community, and thinking that their involvement was better than that of their neighbor. Paul needed to level the playing the field and bring unity where there was division.

Today, many churches wish they had this problem. They wish more members would become more actively involved. And most members wish they could identify (in themselves) a gift of the spirit for which they could boast. But what if they can’t?

Perhaps what our congregants need to hear this Pentecost Sunday is an affirmation that the spirit is at work in each of us, that the spirit has given different gifts to each of us, that these gifts can and should be celebrated, but more importantly used for the building up of the kingdom because they are given by the spirit, not to create division but unity, for we are the community of God.