Lectionary Commentaries for January 17, 2021
Second Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 1:43-51

James Howell

Having just invited Andrew and Peter to go to Galilee with him, Jesus “found” Philip. 

“I once was lost, but now am found.” Interesting to ponder the way the mobile God finds people who are not particularly on the hunt for God. And then Philip “found” Nathanael. One of the ways God finds people is through God’s people—although notice Philip claims to have done the finding himself: “We have found him” (verse 45).

Jesus finds not one, not even two, but four, and eventually more. He does not seem interested in solo spirituality, or the lone believer. We believe to find ourselves in Jesus’ community, together. We need one another, we need good company. We need friends. These men probably were friends prior to Jesus materializing. They certainly knew Zebedee and his sons, James and John. All from the same small hometown, Bethsaida. Archaeologists cannot quite agree on where it was, but it is fascinating to visit Et-Tell, where some of the houses excavated have fishing hooks lying on the floor. A real place, with real people.

And their friendship changes. They had no doubt done business together. They had probably enjoyed meals, an evening stroll, and they knew one another’s families. Friends. But once they follow, their friendship shifts into one of serving together. Aristotle thought of friends as those who help you to be wise and virtuous. Augustine saw friendship as the way to help one another to love God. I wonder if they were mutually surprised by themselves, dropping everything and traipsing off after somebody they never heard of five minutes before. Jesus must have been immensely, hauntingly attractive, beautiful, compelling.

Philip has so little to go on—and yet he has everything: he has seen Jesus’ face. So he finds Nathanael, who is skeptical. Philip does not launch into any logic; he alludes to Scripture but does not quote anything. He grabs him by the hand (at least in my imagination he does!) and says “Come and see” (verse 46). That is the witness, right? Not a sledgehammer of truth, but an experience that makes you sure that if somebody else simply saw, it would be enough.

Our calling is always to Come and See. We do not ponder anybody at a distance. I often say if you only hang around with people like yourself, you become arrogant and ignorant. We go to others, to those not really expecting us. And we find both Jesus and ourselves there. A rich donor was visiting Calcutta and met Mother Teresa. She pulled out her checkbook and said “How can I help you in your work?” Mother Teresa pressed the checkbook back into the woman’s purse, took her by the hand and said, “Come and see.” She led the woman into an impoverished barrio, and found a hungry, frail child. “Care for her.” The woman took the child in her lap, wiped her brow, and fed her. Transformative. Mother Teresa was right when she said “When we care for a child, we are caring for Jesus. When we love the unloved, we are loving Jesus.”

I am forever intrigued by what Jesus says to Nathaniel. Jesus recognizes him, prompting Nathaniel to ask, “How do you know me?” Jesus answers, “I saw you under the fig tree” (verse 48). I do not really know what to do with that. There is no moral to it. Just worth pondering and playing with: Jesus saw him under the fig tree. He noticed him.  

Paul McCartney crooned, “I saw her standing there.” Or sticking with the Beatles: “I’ve just seen a face I can’t forget … Falling, yes I am falling…” Or even their “I’m looking through you, where did you go? I thought I knew you, what did I know? You don’t look different, but you have changed…” Play around with these and other ideas of seeing, being seen, being noticed.  Why was Nathaniel under the tree? Seeking shelter from a sweltering sun? Looking for figs? Who knows? I love preaching that just opens up a biblical moment, leaving room for people to find themselves, see something you maybe missed.

What do we see when we see a face? Martin Luther King (again, his weekend!) dreamed of a day when we could see facial color but also more deeply—into the “content of character.” God sees this clearly; we—and all the others—are seen fully by God.

Jesus’ clinching words intrigue: “You will see heaven opened, and angels ascending and descending” (verse 51). Can we sing “We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” in worship? Clearly alluding to Genesis 28, when Jacob was not praying or seeking God. He was on the run, anxious, exhausted, trying to sleep with a rock for his pillow. He dreams of traffic between heaven and earth, and when he wakes up stunned, he says, “Surely the Lord was in this place but I did not know it” (Genesis 28:16). Maybe Nathanael and Philip thought the same thing. This is the spiritual life: not eyes closed in prayer, Bible open, kneeling at the altar or singing a hymn. It is being out and about—and God was and is there, although you might realize it only in retrospect.

Two ladder nuggets—in closing. Stephen Covey said you can spend your life climbing the ladder of success, “only to discover it’s leaning against the wrong wall.” St. Catherine of Siena thought of Jesus’ cross as a wooden ladder to heaven, and even of his crucified body as that ladder on which we climb toward God. The first rung is the nailed feet: we humbly shed our selfish will. The next rung is his open, pierced side: we press in to glimpse the abyss of divine love. Finally we scale to his face: we are moved by love to obedient holiness.


First Reading

Commentary on 1 Samuel 3:1-10 [11-20]

Cory Driver

The story of the calling of Samuel is a familiar one for veterans of Sunday school. 

What is discussed less, however, is how the calling of Samuel signals tectonic shifts in Israelite society and religion, and inaugurates a period of prophetic critique of Israelite leaders. Samuel and Eli both witness God’s removal of Eli’s family from power and the transfer of that power to Samuel. 

The spiritual context of this passage is immediately clear in Scripture: “The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread” (1 Samuel 3:1). The Israelites are no longer witnessing God lead them, and they no longer hear God’s laws or prophesies. The blame for that, at least in 1 Samuel, is largely laid at the feet of one man: Eli the priest. 

Eli is a terrible leader. He mistakes Hannah’s silent prayer of deep devotion for drunkenness (1 Samuel 1:13). Nowhere in Scripture is Eli, the leading priestly and prophetic figure of his time, said to hear from God. Rather, we are reminded continually, as a rhetorical device, that Eli’s senses have grown dull (1 Samuel 3:2). 

The worst crime of Eli was that he did not control his sons, who were also his subordinate priests. Hophni and Phinehas stole the best portions of sacrifices from God for themselves (2:12-17). And if that was not enough, they also raped the women who were serving/guarding the entrance to the tent of meeting (1 Samuel 2:22). Instead of controlling his sons and protecting the people of Israel from their abuse, Eli seems to have spent much of his time sitting on a throne (1 Samuel 4:13, 16). For Eli’s ineffective parenting and failure to effectively judge even his own priestly sons, God had already pronounced judgment on the house of Eli—through an unnamed man of God, rather than speaking to Eli directly (1 Samuel 2:27-36). 

Samuel’s first act as a rising prophet would be to prophesy judgment to Eli, who sat on a throne but did not prevent abuse of God’s people or perversion of ritual worship. Much as his mother’s song in 1 Samuel 2 set the scene for the overturning of rulers and raising up of the lowly, the first words of God that Samuel received (1 Samuel 3:11-14) set the tone of prophetic judgement on callous, abusive, unfaithful rulers in the rest of the books of Samuel and Kings. 

Before Samuel could speak God’s words to those in power, however, he had to realize who was speaking to him. As Samuel lay by the ark of the covenant, he heard a voice crying out his name. His response immediately was “hineni” which the NRSV translates as “here I am.” 

The term usually reflects a willingness to respond with action to one’s master. Scripture is full of instances of God’s servants responding this way. After Abraham said hineni in Genesis 22:1, God called him to the mountaintop with Isaac. When Jacob said hineni in Genesis 31:11, God called him to return home to face Esau. Moses said hineni in Exodus 3:4 and God called him back to Egypt. Isaiah said hineni and God called him to prophesy judgement in Isaiah 6:8. Ananias said hineni (idou ego in Greek) in Acts 9:10 before God commanded him to heal Saul, the arch-persecutor of the Church. When one says hineni to God in Scripture, one is about to be called to a journey of difficult service. 

Even when he thought it was just Eli calling him, Samuel was ready for service. Eventually Samuel and Eli both realized that God was speaking to the boy. Eli seemed to know that the message would not be a good one for him (1 Samuel 3:17). The message that the unnamed man of God delivered to Eli before was confirmed through Samuel: Eli’s family would be removed from service because of their terrible abuses of power.

In the place of Eli’s family, Samuel now began his rise to power. Unlike Eli, Hophni, and Phinehas, Samuel was not a priest (though he offered sacrifices, see 1 Samuel 7:9). Instead of spending his time confined in the tabernacle offering sacrifices, Samuel traveled the countryside in a circuit, prophesying and judging Israel (1 Samuel 7:16). Samuel’s prophetic tenure represents an intentional departure from the tent of meeting/tabernacle/temple as the center of the biblical story. 

Instead, prophets will speak to kings and people wherever they find them. The tabernacle/temple compound will, of course, continue to be profoundly important throughout Scripture. But after Samuel’s rise was precipitated by a crisis of corruption of priests, concerns about purity in the earthly temple ritual continued as a source of suspicion and disappointment for the rest of Scripture. 

In Samuel’s travels around Israel, it became apparent to all who observed his ministry that he was profoundly careful to serve God well. Even if the Hebrew of verse 19 is not clear about whose words were prevented from falling to the ground, the effect was that all Israel knew Samuel was trustworthy as a prophet (1 Samuel 3:20). 

In 1 Samuel, even before the first king was anointed, those who sat on thrones allowed abuse and stole for themselves that which was meant for God. It was Samuel’s thankless task from the very beginning to announce to his supervisor that the words of his mother, Hannah, were already coming true: 

The LORD kills and brings to life;
    He brings down to Sheol and raises up.
The LORD makes poor and makes rich;
    He brings low, he also exalts (1 Samuel 2:6-7).

Samuel revealed that Eli’s deeply problematic leadership was over, and Samuel’s tenure as judge was about to begin. God’s passionate disgust at abusive leadership and raising up young prophets to undo the abuses of their elders who ignored God and failed to protect innocent people will be a theme that returns through much of the rest of Scripture.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18

Shauna Hannan

The homiletical possibilities for Psalm 139 are numerous and varied, ranging from satisfying to complex to potentially problematic.1

Satisfying

My nephew was born on the day I started working on this commentary. When the picture of Mason James arrived, my initial thoughts were, “There you are. What were you doing in there all of these months?” And then I read:

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb (verse 13).

“How did you go from a hoped-for dream of your parents to flesh and blood, bones, muscles and those long, skinny fingers and those cute ears?” I wondered. Then I read:

My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance (verse 15).

I wanted to shout, “Mason, you are perfect.” Yet this acclamation paled in comparison to his parents’ “You are perfect!” which pales in comparison to God’s “You are PERFECT!”

My hope for this little guy on his first day, his birth day, was that one day he would realize and pray with the psalmist,

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made (verse 14).

As we all know, context changes how we read biblical texts. Mason’s earlier-than-expected entrance into this world affected the center of gravity of Psalm 139 for me. That might be the case for you too. If there are newborns in your congregation, highlight God’s deep relationship with them from the beginning … and even before that … and from this day forward.

The words of this Psalm are similarly powerful for those of us who are well beyond our days of birth. To recall our own humble beginnings and God’s intimate involvement in that dawning is to bring us to pray with the Psalmist,

O Lord, you have searched me and known me (verse 1).

Complex

While the verses included in the lectionary seem to compel preachers to emphasize the pleasing imagery identified above, the omitted verses cannot be overlooked. Since life’s delights are often peppered with complexities, attending to the “spicier” verses helps the preacher model a way to call a thing what it actually is (Luther’s definition of a theologian of the cross). When preaching on Psalm 139, that means being honest about the complexity of being known.

Some people struggle with a fear of really being known even as they desire to be known. Some go to great lengths not to be known by hiding their true identities even (especially?) from God. It cannot be assumed that verse 7 is received as good news for all.

Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? (verse 7)

Once again, context changes how we view biblical texts.

A colleague reminded me that while this Psalm’s references to “hand” (verses 5, 10) can be comforting and serve as a guide, they can also weigh heavily. “Being so close to God is as burdensome as it is beautiful.” The Psalmist admits, one cannot flee (verse 7) from the one for whom darkness does not overwhelm (verse 11). Why would he flee from something beautiful? For some the thought that God lurks and works even in dark places (in Sheol and in the womb!) might be burdensome.

The complexity of being known is a rich homiletical theme for this Sunday’s epiphany sermon. As the primary preaching text, Psalm 139 could be illustrated by Samuel’s story of being known and sought out by God (“The Lord called Samuel again, a third time.”), and Nathaniel’s story of being known and seen by God (“Nathaniel asked Jesus, ‘Where did you get to know me?’”).

Ultimately, the Psalmist recognizes that when the knower is God, the vulnerability is worth it. The Psalmist resigns to God’s inescapable presence in his life and embraces it by confirming his own identity in light of how God sees him:

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well (verse 14).

Problematic (?)

Although Psalm 139 takes a noticeably ugly turn at verse 19, this too cannot be ignored. One possible way to attend to the often-ignored verses at the end of the Psalm is to imagine what it might be like to be so convinced of one’s intimate connection with God that an assault on one’s own identity is an assault on God, and an assault on God’s identity is an assault on oneself. No wonder the Psalmist is passionate. The intimacy between one’s own identity and God’s identity might be prompting Paul’s question: “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?” (I Corinthians 6:19)1

I can imagine a sermon progressing from 1) a simple and pleasing articulation of what it is to be known, to 2) identifying and illustrating the complexities of being known, to 3) proclaiming that the God is a trustworthy and faithful knower, to 4) describing our own identity as the people of God in light of who God is and what God does. Even more, this is a wonderful opportunity for the preacher to describe the hearers’ identity according to how God sees them. “You are fearfully and wonderfully made” might pale in comparison with how God actually sees them, but this glimpse might be just the epiphany that prompts some to embrace it for themselves and to the glory of God.2


Notes:

  1. Commentary first published on this site on Jan. 18, 2015.
  2. For a helpful article on imprecatory Psalms, see Joel L. LeMon, “Saying Amen to Violent Psalms: Patterns of Prayer, Belief, and Action in the Psalter” in Soundings in the Theology of Psalms: Perspectives and Methods in Contemporary Scholarship, ed. Rolf A. Jacobson (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 93-109.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 6:12-20

Melanie A. Howard

Throughout 1 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul encourages the Corinthian congregation toward unity, urging them to “be united in the same mind and same purpose” (1:10).

Likewise, while Paul recognizes the different giftings of the members of the congregation, he uses the metaphor of a body to capture both the distinctives of individual members alongside the fundamental unity that they share in Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-31). Here in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, Paul takes another approach to the unified body metaphor by instructing the Corinthians about how their individual actions may be negatively affecting the whole of the congregation. 

As he does in his discussion of the proper practice of the Lord’s Supper (11:17-34), Paul plays with the notion of the body as both an individual entity and a metaphor for the whole of the congregation. Indeed, for Paul, one’s own body is a sort of microcosm for the whole collection of individuals who make up the congregation. Harm to one individual’s body is a harm done to the whole of the congregation. Thus, the individual body is important not only because of its relationship to Christ himself but also because of the ways in which individual bodies are joined together in the macrocosm of the whole congregation. 

Against spiritual libertinism

Paul begins his discussion in this section in a way that is not dissimilar from other parts of the epistle where he contends with the Corinthians’ views by seemingly quoting their own words against them (see 1 Corinthians 7:1-2; 8:1, 4, 8; 10:23). As he will indicate again in 1 Corinthians 10:23, Paul here attributes to the Corinthians the claim that “all things are lawful.” It may be that Paul finds himself in the position to disprove a claim to spiritual libertinism or perhaps even strains of Gnosticism that would suggest that a more sophisticated spiritual position obliterates the need to attend to bodily concerns. Paul will suggest that this is incorrect both in terms of the corporate body of believers in the Corinthian congregation and in the individual’s physical body. 

The extent to which a spiritual libertinism seems to have affected the Corinthian congregation is obvious from 1 Corinthians 5:1-13. In that passage, Paul is appalled as he recounts the sexual exploits of a man with his father’s wife, and he is even more disappointed in the behavior of the Corinthians who have not only failed to condemn this behavior but have actually celebrated it (5:2). It seems that for the Corinthians, such actions may have been celebrated as evidence of one’s spiritual maturity. Paul disagrees. Paul has already found himself at pains to convince the Corinthians that while they may have been set free by Christ (see Galatians 5:1; Romans 6:18), such freedom does not constitute the liberty to do whatever one pleases under the guise of spiritual freedom.

The body and Christ

Part of Paul’s deep concern with the physical body arises from the close relationship that he understands existing between the body and Christ. In verse 13, Paul makes an analogy suggesting that the relationship between stomachs and food is comparable to the relationship between the Lord and the body. That is, the intimate, in-dwelling relationship of food to the stomach points to a similar relationship between the Lord and human bodies. 

This idea of an intimate relationship between the believer’s body and the Lord continues just a few verses later. The crux of Paul’s argument comes in verses 16-17 as Paul develops an analogy to marriage to describe how the Corinthians might best understand their relationship to Christ. Paraphrasing from Genesis 2:24, Paul reminds his audience that spouses who are united become one flesh. That is, they are joined in a bodily fashion. However, Paul continues in verse 17, the union between the believer and Christ is of an even deeper and more important significance: it is not simply the union of flesh but the union of spirit. 

We might better understand Paul’s analogy here by considering his teachings on the marriage union later in 1 Corinthians 7. In the context of that discussion, Paul emphasizes that a married individual cedes authority of their body to their spouse (7:4). The verb that Paul uses there is the same one from 6:12 where he quotes the Corinthians’ own words against them. Thus, a connection emerges between these two chapters. An individual becomes one flesh with their spouse (6:16) and thus grants authority to the spouse over that flesh (7:4). In the same way, one becomes one spirit with Christ (1:17) and thus grants authority to Christ over both flesh and spirit alike. 

Bodies as temples

The connection between flesh and spirit continues into verse 19 as Paul indicates for the second time in the epistle that the Corinthians’ body is the temple of the Spirit (see also 3:16). This joining of body and Spirit, then, suggests that rather than being subsidiary to more important spiritual matters, the body is central to such things. Furthermore, the body becomes an important conduit whereby an individual gains access to the very presence of God, much in the same way that ancient temples would have promised access to the divine.

This passage, then, offers a helpful corrective to the mild Gnosticism that continues to permeate some streams of Christian thought today where spiritual matters are prized over bodily ones. Although Paul addresses one particular abuse of the body in the form of sexually suspicious practices (verses 15-16, 18), we might expand his reasoning to any number of other abuses to which we might subject our bodies: over-eating, under-eating, poor nutrition, lack of exercise, lack of sleep, and any number of other ills that we may allow to befall our own small temples of the Holy Spirit. In a time where the COVID-19 pandemic continues to make us aware of the fragility of bodies, Paul’s words serve as a timely reminder that in caring for our bodies, we honor our own spiritual union with Christ, yielding authority of spirit and body to Christ’s life-giving desires for both.