Lectionary Commentaries for May 27, 2012
Day of Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

James Boyce

Perhaps nothing breathes more strongly than the promise and presence of the Spirit in John’s so-called “farewell discourse” of Jesus (John chapters 14-17), portions of which have occupied our attention during the last several Sundays of Easter.

Now it is Pentecost. Pentecost stands as the culmination of Easter’s reflection on the promise of the resurrection and as a transition to the season of the Trinity.

So the lesson for today invites reflection on the assurance of the resurrection promises, now explored and made real in the varied dimensions of Christian life and mission. That “abundant life” is the promise of the unfolding love of God, shown in the glory that is for us in the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ and in the abiding presence of the Spirit, who confirms that promise in our hearts and sends our communities into the world to bear witness to that good news.

We hear that promise and witness in the opening verses of today’s lesson. Jesus says “when the Advocate comes…” (26). As we have noted in previous Sundays, though within the narrative of John’s gospel, Jesus speaks these words of comfort to his disciples just prior to his passion as he seeks to console their sense of abandonment and fear, these words surely are also surely meant for a community who now lives in the sure and certain truth of the resurrection. As heirs of Pentecost this community now has indeed received that promised Spirit. Now our communities of hearers, just as those first disciples, are comforted, encouraged, and sent with Jesus words of promise.

One in Promise and Mission

The opening words of this reading for Pentecost underscore the presence and the unity of the Trinity. Jesus promises the coming of the Spirit, the Advocate (parakletos); he claims that the mission and sending of the Spirit occurs by his authority; and he assures us that this Spirit can be trusted as true on at least two counts — the Spirit comes from the Father, and the Spirit exercises its mission chiefly not in bearing witness to self, but in testifying to the good news already made known in the resurrection of the Son (15:26). A similar assertion of this oneness of the promise and mission of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit concludes the reading for the day. “All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I have said that [the Spirit] will take what is mine and declare it to you” (16:15).

So if the Spirit’s identity and mission is centered in bearing witness and making present for us the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise and mission as risen and glorified Lord, then the Spirit’s identity is also centered in modeling and empowering that same witness in the community of Jesus’ disciples. Witness to the unfolding love of the Father in the sending of the Son belongs to the essence of the Trinity. Jesus’ disciple communities are gathered into that essence as we too are called and sent as witnesses to the promise made real in the “word made flesh”:  “You are witnesses, too, because you have been with me from the beginning” (15:27).

Jesus’ words of promise, mediated through the witness of the evangelist, intend to make effective for us, too, the experience and the reality of the mission of salvation and life that God has in store through the Son for all those who believe (cf. 3:16-17). The Spirit is the sign and the guarantee of that life (6:63) now that the promised glory of the Son has been revealed on the cross (1:15f.; 7:39). From the beginning to end of John’s gospel, and certainly in the words of this lesson, we hear again of that oneness in relationship along with that oneness of purpose that has marked God’s sending of the Son and the completion of the Son’s mission of love on behalf of those who have been handed over and chosen to belong to the Son. In Pentecost we celebrate that oneness in sending and mission, and we celebrate too that we as believers, not only are the objects of that love and mission, but that we are called, empowered, and sent to join that mission of the Trinity.

The Witness of the Spirit

The witness of the Spirit has a two-fold focus. First focus is in the Spirit’s witness on behalf of Jesus. That witness about Jesus has at least two aspects. It is a witness that the mission of the Father and the Son has indeed been completed. The cross was not some travesty or failure of God’s intent. From creation nothing has happened apart from the Word (1:1-2). The Word became flesh and dwelled among us (1:14). It was necessary that the Son be “lifted up” on the cross so as to confirm the depth of the Father’s love for the world (3:14-17). At the point of being lifted up, Jesus the Son declares the fulfillment of that mission: “It is finished” (19:30) A second aspect of this witness is that the Spirit gives power to the community of believers not to identify themselves as abandoned or forsaken, but rather as empowered and sent to bear witness to the world that in the events of the Son God’s love has indeed been made real and present for all the world.

Of Sin, Righteousness, Judgment

In a second focus we see that the witness of the Spirit is not arbitrary or isolated, but belongs integrally to the presence and role of the mission of the Trinity (16:13). The Spirit speaks only that which belongs to the oneness of the identity and mission of the Father and the Son. That witness of the Spirit is characterized by Jesus in our lesson as having three specific matters of content: to “convince” all the world about “sin,” about “righteousness,” and about “judgment” (16:8; “convince” is a much better translation here than the NRSV’s “prove the world wrong;” the Spirit’s role is one of witness or testimony to that which has been made known in the sending and mission of the Son).

Each of these three items is further explained in the subsequent three verses (9-11).
It is noteworthy that Jesus says “sin” has to do with the matter of belief. The Spirit teaches us that sin at its heart is not a matter of actions or morality, but has to do with whether and how we will receive and believe in the Son as the one whom God has sent into the world. John the Baptist testifies to the arrival of the Son with the words “Here is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world“(1:29). Later John says, “This is the judgment, that they did not believe in the one whom God sent (3:18). Sin stands exposed precisely at the opportune moment of decision between faith and unbelief. Jesus says that it is always for us the moment of that decision (Greek kairos; see 7:6). The Spirit’s role is to bring Christ present for us and so to face us with that point of decision and faith.

Secondly, Jesus says, the Spirit convinces us about “righteousness,” which has to do with Jesus returning to the Father. That Jesus is at the point of returning to the Father is the signal that the role of Jesus in his sending and mission has been completed. Righteousness has to do with Jesus’ testimony that all that the Father has given him to do has been accomplished in his death and resurrection. The glory of the Son has been truly seen. God’s righteousness has been made known in God’s love and sending of the Son. Now the Spirit will be present to continue to convince the disciple community that this is true.

Thirdly, the Spirit convinces us about judgment, and that judgment is precisely that in the actions of the Trinity the ruler of this world has been condemned. If there is then any judgment, that judgment has to do with all that would not believe that what God is about in the Son is to show God’s love and to bring that abundant life to those whom the Son has chosen and for whom he has given his life as the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. “For God sent the Son into the world, not for the purpose of standing in judgment over the world, but in order that through him the world might be saved” (3:17).

Now that issue of judgment has been met. Salvation has indeed come in the fulfillment of the Son’s mission. Now the Spirit has come to make good on that promise and to continue to convince those who hear the witness of the Son that this is indeed good news and true. Such conviction is also the invitation to join in that witness which is indeed for all the world to hear —  to become agents of that same convincing for those “other sheep” for whom Jesus also died and was raised, to the end that all may be one, even as the Father, Son and Spirit are one in purpose and mission.


First Reading

Commentary on Acts 2:1-21

Jacob Myers

The less closely one reads this pericope, the easier it is to preach!

The Spirit descends upon the apostles who are gathered in prayer and miraculously communicates God’s Word to a radically diverse assembly, resulting in the conversion of thousands. However, through closer scrutiny such simple conclusions are frustrated.

Richard I. Pervo, in his commentary on the Book of Acts, rightly observes that Pentecost is the most titillating and least comprehensible episode in Acts, noting, “The story collapses at the slightest breeze.”1 Pervo is correct on exegetical, even logical, grounds, and the history of interpretation on these verses reveals various attempts at bolstering the shaky foundation on which the Pentecost narrative rests.

For instance, scholars are at a loss to make sense of Luke’s wonky list of Pentecost observers gathered in Jerusalem — a motley patchwork of Elamites, Cretans, and Arabs sewn together with folks from Egypt, Lybia, and Rome! The list seems to come undone; it unravels even as Luke stiches together this devout assembly of nations (ethnoi). Some have tried to hold the list together spatially, as a geographical configuration from East to West (Fitzmyer) or according to compass points with Jerusalem at the center (Gaventa). Others read these verses as a Lukan gloss on an existing list (Barrett), or as a political situation of an earlier time (Conzelmann). And for others still, these verses are described as “odd” (Marshall) or “problematic” (Pervo). The fairest approach might be simply that “hypotheses abound, but none can be proven” (Johnson).

What is clear is that the way in which commentators construe verses 5-13 — labeled the “table of nations” by scholars — tips each writer’s hand as to his or her interpretative approach to Acts. Scholars with a narrative slant account for these verses literarily. Luke Timothy Johnson, for example, argues that the Pentecost narrative is a Lukan narrative device directed more to the readers than the Diaspora Jews in Jerusalem.2 Critical approaches engage the scribal tradition to account for interpolation and redaction that might account for Luke’s peculiar list. All of these approaches have their merits and as preachers it is incumbent upon us to learn all we can from these methods of interpretation. But for me, these approaches don’t preach, as we like to say.

I find the absurdity of the list theologically significant. In fact, Pervo’s statement about breezes is particularly apropos, for indeed it is the rushing wind of the Spirit being poured out upon the gathered faithful at Jerusalem that collapses — I prefer the word, deconstructs — a certain “story” and thereby allows a new story to shine through. I am not arguing this on historical-critical grounds (à la Pervo); rather, through an ethno-theological reading, the profundity of Luke’s deconstruction may be felt and a sermonic approach conceived.

What if Luke’s intention in today’s lection is to break apart a theology that is wrapped up in ethnic identity? What if he has crafted this “table of nations” to weaken the prevailing ethnic infrastructure so that a new foundation might burst forth according to Luke’s theological vision, a vision that transcends facile ethnic divisions without forsaking the importance of ethnic identity? What if we are catching a glimpse of God’s bigger vision for God’s people?

Returning to the list of nations represented among the Pentecost observers, the construction is most tenuous. Consider, the inclusion of the archaic duo of the Medes and Elamites. The Elamites were nearly wiped out by the Assyrians in 640 B.C.E. and were eventually absorbed into the Parthinian Empire. The Median Empire entered into a political alliance with Babylon and was later absorbed into the Achaemenid Empire by Cyrus II. As a distinct ethnic group, the Medes had been extinct for over five-hundred years!

F. F. Bruce notes that the Parthenian, Medic, and Elamite regions housed descendants of the ten tribes of Israel and members of the two tribes who did not return from exile.3 Other examples could be drawn from the list of nations, but this example sufficiently highlights Luke’s theological intention. I believe that Luke’s list is a theological response to the apostles’ question in 1:6: “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Recall that Jesus’ response was oblique: they were not to know the times, but they would receive power when the Holy Spirit would come upon them. Now the Holy Spirit has indeed come and the apostles’ hopes for a renewed Israel are expanded beyond the apostles’ limited scope of vision.

The outpouring of the Spirit is far greater than any had expected. As Peter’s sermon proclaims, God’s Spirit shall be poured out upon all flesh and everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved. Luke is casting particular ethno-religious concerns in a universal vision for the restoration of all people. We, with the apostles and gathered believers, now understand the significance of Jesus’ instructions that they wait in Jerusalem. The fullness of time coincided with the day of Pentecost, when the Jews of the (eschatological) diaspora were gathered together in one place to disseminate the miraculous events to the entire world.

What we have in the Pentecost narrative is an ethno-eschatological unveiling (apokalupsis) that deconstructs a theology of ethnic exclusionism toward a broader theological vision. As such, it foreshadows Peter’s vision in the Cornelius narrative (10:9-23) in which Luke makes a more profound “subversion of [a] facile ethnic divide,” as Eric D. Barreto so convincingly argues.4

By my reading, the Pentecost narrative is a reframed ethno-theological answer to the apostles’ ethno-political question in 1:6. Luke shows us that written into the very structure of the “kingdom of Israel” is a certain diffusion that simultaneously structures the possibility of Israel and the impossibility of “restoring the kingdom to Israel” (1:6). Hence Jesus’ oblique response. The others ethnoi at once supplement and restore the kingdom to Israel, presenting to Luke’s Jewish readers, and us as well, a richer ethno-theological vision for God’s people.


1Richard I. Pervo, Acts: A Commentary, Hermenia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), 59.
2Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, ed. Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., Sacra Pagina 5 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2006), 14.
3F. F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles (London: The Tyndale Press, 1951), 84.
4Eric D. Barreto, Ethnic Negotiations: The Function of Race and Ethnicity in Acts 16, WUNT II 294 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010), 91.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 104:24-34, 35b

Cameron B.R. Howard

Psalm 104, a hymn of praise to God as creator, is remarkably comprehensive in its survey of earth and space, flora and fauna, topography and geology.

The psalm’s list of these diverse aspects of creation extols God’s greatness, with particular attention to God’s control of and power over that creation. Like any good poet, the psalmist provides no dry recitation of species’ names, but rather paints a picture of the landscape using vibrant imagery and powerful metaphors.

The lectionary reading for Pentecost Sunday excerpts verses 24-34 and 35b from Psalm 104. In the opening verses of the lectionary unit, readers get an extended taste of the descriptive style that fills the preceding verses. Having devoted only a line or two to most other aspects of creation throughout the poem, the psalmist lingers over these observations of the sea in verses 24-30. I can almost see the psalmist standing on the beach with one arm draped around God’s shoulders, the other arm gesturing to the ocean stretched out before them. Together God and the psalmist survey the vastness of the sea and the tiny ships perched atop it, and, at the psalmist’s prodding, they reflect on the dependency on God shared by all creatures under and above the water.

Though initially we may balk at such a scene, which imagines God with mundanely human characteristics, the psalmist capitalizes on the notion of God’s “body” as the metaphorical basis by which to describe God’s power over creation. God has an open hand (verse 28) or a hidden face (verse 29); God can look on the earth and touch the mountains (verse 32). These images recall the similarly anthropomorphic features of God in the second account of creation at Genesis 2-3. In that story God shapes dirt into the first human (Genesis 2:7a), God breathes into that human to animate him (Genesis 2:7b), and God takes walks through the garden (Genesis 3:8).

At the same time, Psalm 104 also recalls the taming of chaos and the cosmic scope of the first account of creation at Genesis 1. Psalm 104 emphasizes order, limits, and separation; the waters stay within their boundaries (verse 9), and the sun and moon mark proper times and seasons (verse 19). Likewise, Genesis 1 recounts God’s separation of light from darkness, waters above from waters below, and the waters of the earth from dry land. Thus, the attributes of the creator God so distinct in Genesis 1 and 2 — cosmic vs. earthy, distant vs. close — are combined to great effect in Psalm 104. Just as the psalm’s list of elements of creation seems comprehensive, so, too, does the psalm imagine a litany of characteristics of the creator God. 

The detail with which creation is described in Psalm 104 also recalls Job 38-41. The Joban accounting of God’s control over creation issues directly from God in a speech delivered out of the whirlwind. By contrast, the catalog of creation in Psalm 104 comes from the mouth of the psalmist and is addressed to God. Excluding the opening line of the psalm, the first thirty verses use second-person address to the deity: “You are clothed with honor and majesty…,” “You cause the grass to grow…,” “You have made the moon….”

Direct address to God is common throughout the psalms, including visceral demands for God’s attention and assistance. The kind of prolonged, detailed accounting of God’s actions presented in Psalm 104, however, is often delivered in a third-person mode and used to exhort human beings to praise God.1 The extent to which the psalm tells God God’s “business” can strike us as particularly bold, pushing the boundaries of testimony. What kind of hubris leads the psalmist to tell God what God has done? How bold must one be to drape one’s arm around God’s shoulders and be God’s guide through God’s own creation: to pray, as the psalmist does at verse 31, that God might rejoice at God’s own works?

If we consider Psalm 104 as a whole, the psalmist’s boldness must be born of wonder. The delight with which the psalmist surveys God’s creation allows the psalmist to glimpse, however imperfectly, God’s own joy at what God has called “good.” At verse 31 the psalm has shifted from second-person address to a tone of petition and first-person reflection. The psalmist does indeed sing out of joy, in hopes that the song will be pleasing to God.

The lectionary apportionment skips over one half-verse in the last lines of this psalm: verse 35a. Such a precise omission begs for our attention, not necessarily to challenge the lectionary’s editorial discretion, but certainly so that we may understand the psalm in its fullness. In the omitted verse, the psalmist hopes that the wicked will be eliminated from this otherwise magnificent creation.

As scholar William Brown remarks, “Shock is elicited from even the most familiar reader of psalms, not because the language of imprecation raises its head, which is nothing new to Psalms, but because it has found its way precisely here, in a psalm that revels so wantonly in the wonder and diversity of God’s creation.”2 The verse seems to interrupt the flow of what has been a powerful eruption of praise. Even the perfect harmony of all that God has made can be threatened by sin. The petition carries overtones of the wisdom tradition, in which the wicked are the ubiquitous counterpoint to the righteous (see, for example, Psalm 1).

This half-verse reminds us that the creation described by the psalmist is, in the end, not a Genesis 1 world or a Genesis 2 world; it is a Genesis 3 world, one in which human sin inhabits God’s good work. Psalm 104 is made all the more remarkable because it testifies so ebulliently to God’s power and the goodness of creation, even when the psalmist is clearly aware of the constant efforts of the wicked to do and say otherwise. In Psalm 104 we are reminded that God’s sovereign, creative power persists, and we are called to testify to that power with joy.


Notes

1See, for example, Psalm 105. Psalm 89, though, uses a rhetorical strategy very similar to that of Psalm 104.
2William P. Brown, Seeing the Psalms: A Theology of Metaphor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 162.


Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 8:22-27

Audrey West

What if, for a moment, we were to set aside the fact that our text comes out of Paul’s theological magnum opus, and instead, hear it as our people will hear it on Sunday morning?

What if we ignored theories of Romans or reasons for Romans or narrative substructures of Romans and listened, instead, to the movement of the Spirit on this day of Pentecost?

Don’t get me wrong.  I am a firm believer in the importance of literary context, and I like a good narrative (or the hint of a narrative, or at least a narrative sub-structure) as well as the next preacher.  But on Pentecost, perhaps it serves well to attend to liturgical context, where the appointed readings paint three very different pictures of the Holy Spirit.  It blows through the house like a violent wind and dances on heads like tongues of fire, empowering people to speak in other languages so that all might hear what God has done in Jesus Christ (Acts).  It stands beside us as the Advocate who speaks from God in order to guide us into the truth (John). 

And when all those words are inadequate, when all that speaking cannot express what is deepest within us, the Spirit intercedes on our behalf with wordless, inexpressible groans (Romans).  It was true in the time of Paul and the Gospel writers, and it remains true today: the Spirit is as close as wind and words and no words.  One task of the preacher is to help people to experience — to see and hear — this powerfully intimate work of the Spirit in their midst.

Already and Still

The Spirit in this passage hovers over two equally true realities.  On the one hand, our adoption papers have already been served; we have a place in the family of God.  Together with the whole of creation, already we are caught up in God as heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17).  Already we have tasted the fruits of the Spirit, the life-giving, life-altering reality of living within God’s embrace.  How might you name that reality for your congregation?  What does this “already” look like in their own experience, not just in church at the festival of Pentecost, but in the Monday through Saturday realities of their lives?

At the same time, although the adoption is sure, life on this side of the eschaton still is characterized by suffering, not only for us but for the whole of creation.  Paul names creation’s suffering by comparing it to the groans of a woman in labor (sustenazō, verse 22), painful cries from the depth of her being during that time between times when she does not yet know whether the outcome will be life or death.  He does not name concrete examples, but the preacher can, whether it is global warming, the devastation of war, pollution-dumping industry, or any of the other myriad ways that the earth groans under human bondage to sin. 

We, too, suffer in ways large and small as we groan inwardly (stenazō, verse 23) while we wait for the fulfillment of our adoption, and even the Spirit groans (“sighs,” stenagmos ,verse 26) as it gives voice to our deepest longings.  This shared “groaning” is testimony that God is present in the midst of our greatest need, even when we do not have the words to name it.

Expectant Hope

Standing at the center of the passage is hope.  For Paul, hope is not pie-in-the-sky optimism that disavows the reality of sin and suffering, as if one simply needed to stop worrying and be happy.  True hope is born out of the assurance that what we see and experience — the groaning reality all around us — is not the end of the story.  This is hope as a woman in labor hopes: breathing through the pain, holding tight to a companion, looking ahead to what cannot yet be seen, trusting that a time will come when this pain is but a memory. 

The preacher must be aware of those in the congregation who have lost hope but do not dare to admit it.  Whatever their circumstances — financial crises, broken relationships, devastating illnesses, unending losses — they have landed in a place where there is not one ounce of strength left to endure what is before them.  For these the promise of God is a lifeline: when we cannot hope for ourselves, the Spirit hopes on our behalf, the church endures with us, the whole creation groans in solidarity.  We are not alone.

Waiting with Endurance

Many a pastor learned in CPE the importance of a ministry of presence; that is, those times when a pastoral visit is less about what is said than it is about being there.  This seems to be the thrust behind the Spirit interceding for us with sighs too deep for words: a sign that the Spirit is present in our midst, even when no words are exchanged.  That presence can make it possible for us to endure.

The NRSV translates the end of verse 25, “we wait for it with patience,” but the Greek is hypomonēs, “endurance” — we wait with endurance.  Another verse from Romans illustrates the reality: “[S]uffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”  (Romans 5:3-5) 

Knowing that God is present in the midst of our greatest need is good news that enables us to endure.  What does that look like where you are?   Sometimes the Spirit might be with someone in her/his suffering in the form of a brother or sister in Christ by their side.  Narrating that presence for the gathered community is one way the preacher can make visible the ground of our unseen hope.

Finally, a benediction postscript: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13)