Lectionary Commentaries for May 13, 2012
Sixth Sunday of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 15:9-17

James Boyce

If last Sunday’s lesson ended on the note of disciples glorifying God the Father through the bearing of “much fruit,” then in this Sunday’s continuation that fruit fairly bursts open as a veritable flood in the exercise of love.

Though reference to love has been completely absent in verses 1 through 8, the repeated reference to it now (5 times as verb or noun in verse 9 alone; 11 times in the lesson as a whole) clearly gives love the center stage. The effect is now to interpret the whole of the passage on vine and branches in terms of love.

As background it will be helpful at the outset to review the remarks from last Sunday on Jesus’ words in John 14-17 as part of the address of the resurrected Lord to a post-resurrection disciple community. The lesson for today might be divided into two major sections, the first (9-12) focusing on the abiding relationship of love that binds Father, Son and disciples into one, the second (13-17) focusing on the empowering love of the Son by which he laid down his life for his “friends.”

“Just as” Love

Love is to be seen above all in the love of the Father as shown forth in the love of the Son. Our thoughts are intentionally directed back to the announcement of the depth of God’s love for the world as evidenced in the giving of the Son. “God so loved…” (3:16). In the interconnected and unfolding message of John’s gospel, it is as if every word and every passage mutually interpret one another. Using a modern analogy, one might imagine that every word in the gospel were hyperlinked to every other word in the gospel, so that “clicking” on one word necessarily explodes and expands into every other word as its commentary and frame of meaning and understanding.

One of those important words in the first section (9-12) is a simple word variously translated as “so,” “as,” or “just as” (Greek kathos). In the original this word essentially frames the whole section. “Just as the Father has loved me…;”  “…just as I have loved you” (9, 12). “Just as” is a key motif (31 times in the gospel) in John’s “theology” for what it reveals about the mutual relationship of Father, Son, and disciple community. As the Father has loved, so the Son loves. The Son’s love imitates and mirrors the Father’s love. The Son’s deep love in the giving of his life for his friends is no accident, but stems “just so” from the way the Father has loved the Son. To “abide in the Son’s love is to know oneself as abiding in that same love which originates in the relationship of Father and Son.

Abiding in Love

The abiding relationship of vine and branches of last Sunday’s lesson, which culminates in the bearing of much fruit, is now given further delineation in terms of love. If abiding is not for its own sake but has an end or a purpose, now that purpose takes shape in love. Love is the fruit of the abiding relationship of Father and the Son, just as it is of the Son and those who follow his words.

Those “words” of Jesus are characterized in this lesson as Jesus “commands” (5 times as verb or noun). Consistent with John’s “just as” theology, even these commands which Jesus calls upon his disciples to keep are simply an extension of the commands of the Father which Jesus has already kept. Jesus asks nothing of his disciple community that he has not already modeled in the abiding love which he has with the Father. In this way abiding, loving, and keeping commandments are all bound up together in a mutual relationship.

Lest we miss it, the first section concludes with a direct and clear statement of the outcome or fruit of this abiding love. The commandments of Jesus are not general or scattered but focused and specific: “This is my commandment, that you love one another” (12). The repetition of these words again at the conclusion of the second section (17) underscores their importance as a key to understanding the end goal of all this talk of abiding love (Incidentally, this repeated literary structure in 12 and 17 also makes clear that the NRSV’s translation of verse 17 cannot be correct. The text should read “I am giving you this command, that you love one another.”)

No Greater Love

If love for one another is the goal of our abiding in Jesus’ love, then the model for that self-giving love is stated clearly in the memorable beginning words of the second section (10-17). There is no greater love than that shown in the giving of one’s life for one’s friends. Though stated in general terms, the “laying down of one’s life” is a pointed reference to God’s giving of the Son, and in the narrative an only slightly veiled reference to and anticipation of the passion and death of Jesus on the cross. The power of God’s great love in Jesus, confirmed in Easter’s promise of the resurrection, always has its frame of reference and its power in Jesus’ giving of his life on the cross.

Jesus now speaks of the power of that giving of life to transform the disciples’ relationship and calling into a new status. These disciples are no longer to be counted as “servants” but as “friends.” In the cross and resurrection they have come to know what this “greater love” has power to accomplish in them through their unity in the abiding relationship with Jesus and the Father. Jesus’ words now make it further clear that the power to respond to his command to love one another comes from Jesus’ own prior love and calling: “I have called you…; I have chosen you…; I have appointed you… (15, 16)

Whatever You Ask

The key guarantor of this abiding relationship that will usher in the fruit of love is the power of prayer. Prayer, too, is grounded in the mutual abiding relationship of Father, Son, and disciple community. “The Father will give you whatever you ask in my name (16). When this promise is linked immediately with the repeated reference to Jesus’ command to “love one another,” it is clear that “whatever we ask” defines and directs Christian prayer toward the fulfilling of the command to love for the other. The promise that such love can be fulfilled resides in the giving that has already preceded in Jesus’ love on the cross.

This confidence in the power of prayer (16-17) mirrors a similar promise in last Sunday’s lesson (see 15:7-8). If there prayer is grounded in “abiding in me” and “my words,” here it is grounded in Jesus’ announcement “you did not choose me, but I chose you.” If there we hear that the Father is glorified in the bearing of much fruit, here we now know that such bearing of fruit is to be found in the fulfillment of Jesus’ command to “love one another.”

Mutual Joy

To be called and appointed for such an exercise of love is for the Christian neither mere sentimentality nor drudgery. There can be no simple sentimentality in a love whose depth is to be seen in a life laid down for one’s friends. At the center of this text and at the heart of love stands the cross of Jesus. Nor can there be any painful drudgery in Jesus’ promise that all of this abiding love, this life given for us and for the other, has as its goal “so that your joy may be complete” (11). The abiding relationship in love of the Son with the Father is mirrored and modeled in the Son’s laying down of his life for the world.

Jesus came so that we might experience an overflowing life (John 10:10). Jesus expresses here the longing and the promise that his joy might be in us and that only in such abiding love and joy is the wholeness of life that the Father’s love has in its purview and promise. Just as the power of this love for our lives comes when we draw power from the vine, so our joy comes from knowing that we have been chosen, called, and sent. The abiding power of that love in and through us has power to renew and transform us and the whole of creation.


First Reading

Commentary on Acts 10:44-48

Jacob Myers

This is the best kind of transition: it’s tight, provocative, and suggestive of the theme of the entire story.

In Acts 10:44-48 Luke displays his narrative prowess by seamlessly resolving one storyline (begun with the introduction of Cornelius in 10:1) while simultaneously setting the stage for the ethnic and theological drama about to unfold in Jerusalem (11:1 ff.). At the same time, Luke lets this scene reverberate the theological melody of the entire book: the universal outpouring of the Holy Spirit (2:17).

This passage is a continuation of Peter’s vision and obedience to go to the Gentiles. It marks a major shift in Peter’s ministry; it is Peter’s conversion of sorts.1 Since 9:32 Peter has been touring the region of Judea, Galilee and Samaria, witnessing the Spirit’s work among the Gentiles. Note that since the great dispersion (8:1) Peter has served as a witness in the passive sense; i.e. he is witnessing the work of the Holy Spirit among the Gentiles. In our pericope, Peter is a witness in the active sense; he is bearing witness to the Word and directly through him the Spirit makes herself manifest.

Peter was summoned to Joppa from Lydda to raise Tabitha, a woman of holy works, from the dead. So when he arrives in Caesarea at Cornelius’s request, Peter is coming off a big win — a feat unparalleled since the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry! There is little wonder why Peter arrives in Caesarea with a bit of an entourage; if the dead heed the words of this apostle what else might be capable through him?

There are strong resonances in this pericope with some of the most profound scenes in Acts up to this point. The outpouring of the Spirit among the Gentiles echoes the Spirit’s work at Pentecost (2:1 ff.), and especially Peter’s pronouncement that the Spirit would be poured out on all peoples (2:17). Peter’s rhetorical question in 10:47 (“Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people?”) mirrors the words of the Ethiopian Eunuch in 8:36 (“Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?”). And even as this text reflects core themes in Acts, it opens up several transitions in the text as well.

Character formation

This text is powerful from a literary point of view and if Hollywood decided to render this pericope as a feature film they would try to enlist an actor like Denzel Washington or Tom Hanks — a profoundly emotive thespian — to play the role of Peter. The scene has everything: a conflicted character torn between custom and conviction; a rising tension produced by the presence of Peter’s compatriots (oi ek peritomes pistoi); a climax rendered through ecstatic catharsis; and a denouement with dispelled anxieties and the invitation of friendship. There’s even a trace of the supernatural that leaves the characters in amazement. Somebody call Tom Hooper!

And yet the formation of Peter’s character through this text, indeed the need for formation, arises from ethnic prejudices that Peter was slowly beginning to shake. It appears that the Holy Spirit was steadily whittling away the hardness of Peter’s heart toward those others he had been taught to avoid. It is clear from Peter’s Pentecost speech that he has yet to grasp the full scope of Joel’s prophesy quoted in 2:17 (“I will pour out my Spirit on all people”), for four times in his Pentecost sermon Luke reminds us that Peter is addressing his fellow Israelites (2:14, 22, 19, 36).

Following the great dispersion motivated by Stephen’s murder and subsequent persecutions of the believers, Luke explicitly states that Peter and the apostles remain in Jerusalem. Luke’s narrative arch in the Book of Acts follows the Spirit out of Jerusalem; in other words, if the tendency of the early evangelists (perhaps ours as well) was to bear witness to the good news among their own ethnic group, the Spirit breaks through such ethnocentrism, leading them to proclamation before other peoples.

Ethnic re-negotiations

Peter’s rooftop trance re-negotiates his ethnic sensibilities. We may learn much from the constructive proposal on reading ethnic negotiations in Acts by Eric D. Barreto. Barreto writes, “As a constructed social reality, ethnicity is a projection of our own anxieties and hopes, an inclusive impulse to identify who we are but also an exclusive effort to distinguish between ‘us’ and ‘them.'”2

Today’s lectionary is a case in point for Barreto’s argument. In 10:28 Peter reminds all of Cornelius’ close friend and relatives, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean” (emphasis added). Peter’s vision has not only re-negotiated how he relates to those of other ethnicities (the external relation), but also who he is in relation to others (the internal relation). Acts 10:44-48 is an overwhelming confirmation that Peter is leaning into his own identity according to God’s plan.

Theological overtures

The Holy Spirit falls when Peter is still speaking these words. In other words, that flashy rhetorical flourish he had crafted in his early morning sermon prep was never experienced; that breathtaking display of poetic piquancy went unheard by the gathered Cesareans. This pericope reveals without equivocation that the Holy Spirit is the true preacher. The Holy Spirit makes the Word (logon) manifest through — or perhaps in spite of — our words (rhemata). 

Sometimes we, like Peter, are called to a ministry of proclamation and proximity. It is difficult to measure who received the greater blessing in this pericope: Cornelius or Peter. What we can be certain of is that God was at work through the Spirit to tear down ethnic barriers so that God’s very Word could be heard. This Word has the power to re-negotiate our preconceptions of others, about what they can or cannot do. Moreover, the Word has the power to transform our own character as well by leading us into proximity of the others whom God loves.


Notes

1 Richard I. Pervo, Acts: A Commentary, Hermenia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), 258.
2 Eric D. Barreto, Ethnic Negotiations: The Function of Race and Ethnicity in Acts 16, WUNT II 294 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010), 183.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 98

Mark Throntveit

Talk about inclusive!

Not only are trained musicians called upon to make a joyful noise to the Lord, but just about everything else as well: The sea and everything in it, the world and its inhabitants, even the hills are invited to join in the new song of praise for God. Just by being what it was created to be, nature spontaneously praises God and proclaims God’s purpose in creation.

In terms of its content and supposed setting, Psalm 98 is an Enthronement Psalm like Psalms 47; 93; and 95-99. But it is also a fine example of the Hymn of Praise. Hymns of Praise typically begin by inviting others to join in praise and then offering reasons for that praise as Miriam sang following the crossing of the Red Sea, “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea” (Exodus 15:21). The section presenting the reasons for praise becomes testimony of what God has done. We praise God by telling others how God has acted in our lives. Psalm 98 follows this pattern exactly . . . and in stereo:

A  Invitation “Sing to the Lord” (1a)
B  Reason for praise “for . . .” (1b-3)

A’ Invitation “Make a joyful noise to the Lord” (4-9a)
B’ Reason for praise “for . . .” (9b)

The distribution of the two sections adds to the stereophonic balance of the psalm. In the first section (verses 1-3) a very brief invitation is followed by an extended presentation of the reasons while just the opposite, extended invitation followed by brief rationale, occurs in the second section (verses 4-9b).

Psalm 98 thus makes a compelling case for all creation to join in praising God, for all nations to join in the new song, recognizing that God alone is God, the creator of the universe whose power and majesty call for our response of praise . . . So why don’t we feel like joining in?  Why does praise leave us cold?  In a wonderful little book, Praying the Psalms, Thomas Merton suggests:

Praise is cheap, today. Everything is praised. Soap, beer, toothpaste, clothing, mouthwash, movie stars, all the latest gadgets which are supposed to make life more comfortable — everything is constantly being “praised”. Praise is now so overdone that everybody is sick of it, and since everything is “praised” . . . nothing is praised. Praise has become empty . . . Are there any superlatives left for God? They have all been wasted on foods and quack medicines.1

But our situation is more serious than this. This psalm presupposes something that we are far from experiencing, today. When we leave our worship services, following prayers and hymns that praise God as the creator and redeemer of the universe, we soon experience the deep contrast between our worship and the rest of our lives. Our world is not the world of praise the psalm envisions. All nations do not acknowledge God or praise his name. Most of the world seems to get along quite well without benefit of divinity.

In fact, the situation we face is just the opposite of that faced by our psalmist, who lived in a world full to the brim with “gods,” each competing for allegiance. Every nation had their own, and sometimes two, or three, or twenty-three. Throughout its long history, Israel had to struggle against the temptation to worship these false gods as they were wooed and seduced on the midway of this carnival of idols. 

How different from our experience! Instead of the psalmist’s world, where sun, moon, and stars are falsely worshiped as gods, we live in a world that refuses to recognize the God who created the sun, moon, and stars. How can this psalm, addressed to a world awash in too many gods speak to us in a world with room for none?

For starters, we need to admit our post-modern difficulty with this psalm’s insistence on God’s rule, a difficulty that often comes under the guise of pluralism. But not the kind of pluralism that rightly recognizes that people are different, that they have differing religious beliefs, and that they should be allowed to live their life of faith and worship as they please. I mean the kind of pluralism that moves beyond tolerance and begins to believe that reality, itself is pluralistic; that truth, itself is relative; that there can be no one true God; that the Lord does not reign; or that Jesus Christ is only Lord for people like me. This is what drains faith of any content, and urges us to declare that, therefore, it doesn’t matter what we believe as long as we’re sincere.

Psalm 98 is utterly opposed to this idea of a fragmented world where the claims of God have no bearing on the rest of our lives. The frame at the heart of our psalm “make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth . . . make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord” (verses 4a, 6b) declares that God is creator of heaven and earth and thus God of all life and all people, whether they acknowledge it or not, whether they are religiously inclined or not, whether they worship other gods or not. The inclusiveness of the psalm proclaims the exclusiveness of the truth that there is only one God to whom alone belongs our worship and praise.


1Thomas Merton, Praying the Psalms, (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1956), 5.


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 John 5:1-6

Brian Peterson

Verse 1 once again unites what this author has repeatedly refused to separate: belief in Jesus and love for one’s brothers and sisters in the church (loving “the child” at the end of verse 1 is a reference to any other believer, not to Jesus).

Elsewhere in 1 John, the sign of being born from God has been love; here, the mark of being born from God is proper Christological belief. This does not indicate a contradiction within 1 John, since anyone who believes in Jesus as the Christ will love the Father who sent him, and anyone who loves the Father of Jesus will also love all God’s other children. 

At the end of the previous chapter (4:20-21), the author argued that one could identify love for God by whether or not there was love for the brother or sister in faith. In 5:2 the author turns that equation around. One loves God’s children by loving God and keeping God’s commandments.  Though it may seem as though the author is just writing in circles, this is not nonsense. Love for God and love for God’s children are integrally connected. They both flow from the belief that God sent the Son for our sake, and one love cannot exist without the other.

Although the mention of “commandments” in verse 2 could be taken to mean the moral code of the Torah or more narrowly the 10 Commandments, there is no focus on the Law in 1 John; in fact, the word “Law” never appears in the Johannine letters. The “commandments,” which the author does mention frequently, have already been identified as two united concerns: belief in Jesus as the Son of God, and love for one another (3:23).

In the first part, what is called for is not simply belief in God, but belief in God specifically as the one revealed in the Son. Proper Christological confession is a commandment, since from the Johannine perspective neither faith nor obedience is possible without the revelation brought by Jesus. The second focus of what is meant by “commandments” has to do with mutual love. Although the world may be spoken of as the ultimate scope of God’s love in sending the Son (John 3:16; 1 John 2:2), it is particularly within the community of the church, informed by faith and empowered by the Spirit, where love can be learned and lived. Thus love for God does not consist of ecstatic experiences or private feelings, but of concrete, public, and visible obedience: by confessing faith in God’s Son, and by loving God’s other children.

Obedience to these commandments is not a burden (verse 3) because those who have been born from God through faith have conquered the world (verse 4). Language about “conquering” or “victory” (the verb and noun share the same root in Greek) has appeared earlier in this book, where the author wrote about victory over the evil one (2:13-14) who is “in the world” (4:4).

Faith is victory over the world not because believers wield the world’s power in a superior way, but because faith means confessing the Son of God and loving God’s children, the very things that the evil one tries to prevent (4:1-4). Victory over “the world” does not require spiritual heroics or ascetic denial of creation. Instead, victory is found through faith in what Jesus is and has done; nothing else is needed. 

Verse 6 contains the most problematic section of this pericope. Jesus is described as the one who came not just “with” water, but “by” or “with” (there is probably no distinction to be made between the two prepositions here) water and blood. The puzzle about what this means has occupied interpreters from the earliest times of the church. Some have suggested that this is a reference to Baptism and Eucharist, though that suggestion is unpersuasive since there is no other sign that sacramental teaching has been a point of contention for this community. The mention of blood almost certainly refers to Jesus’ death. Though there may be a faint literary echo of the blood and water that came from Jesus’ side in John 19:34, that verse probably is not the primary referent since the word order there is different.

More likely is that the mention of water is meant to recall Jesus’ baptism. Perhaps those who have left the community claimed that Jesus’ ministry, begun with his baptism, was saving but that his death was not. Perhaps they even espoused the heresy for which there is later evidence, that Jesus became God’s Son only at his baptism and that the divine incarnation abandoned the human Jesus at the crucifixion. Despite these uncertain possibilities of interpretation, what is certain is that the author insists that the “blood” is a crucial part of the Son’s “coming,” i.e. of his saving mission. Of this the Spirit is witness (verse 6b), a claim that may recall how Jesus gave the Spirit from the cross in John 19:30, but surely also points to how the Spirit bears witness to the saving importance of Jesus’ death through the faithful confession of the church.

The insistence that Jesus’ “coming” included his bloody death is a reminder that the victory claimed in 1 John 5 turns normal assumptions about “victory” on their heads, and it is a reminder about what the church claims at all times, but with particular focus in the Easter season. In the cross and resurrection of Jesus, God’s love has been revealed, and God’s love has overcome all possible opposition. The deadly decisions and judgments of the world have been overturned once and for all.

This overcoming of the world is not a profound fable or inspiring mythology, but is reality made concrete in the community of the church, as God’s love overcomes the divisions, animosities, and death that the world would promote, maintain, and exploit. Those who believe have overcome the world because their life, love, and identity are not determined by the deceptions of the world, but by the object of their faith, Jesus as the Son who was crucified and raised.