Lectionary Commentaries for May 2, 2021
Fifth Sunday of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 15:1-8

Gennifer Benjamin Brooks

The imagery of the vine and the relationship of the branches, appendages to the main source of nourishment, has long been used to describe the church. 

Gail R. O’Day posits two questions in her “Reflections” on the text of John 15:1-17 that I think have great significance as one considers the great divide in church and society. They also relate to a more challenging issue with respect to how areas of the church have recently been in such great conformance to society, even when there is clear evidence that these societal norms are contrary to the teaching of Jesus. O’Day asks: “What does it mean for the church to live as the branches of Christ, the vine? What would “church” look like if it embraced this model for its corporate life?”1

These questions transcend the challenge of being “church” virtually because of the strictures necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. It speaks of the interrelationship wrought by and required for true community. It speaks also of mutuality, evidenced in love of neighbor, expressed to those outside of our immediate and normal circles. The imagery speaks of interdependence rather than the independence and self-dependence so highly valued in these United States.

This text follows in a straight trajectory from that of the previous Sunday’s gospel text. If the preacher has begun the work of helping the congregation to recognize the fully inclusive nature of the fold that belongs to the Good Shepherd, of which they are a part (although in this text John uses a different analogy), the message is the same. As the sheep follow and are cared for by the Good Shepherd, so too the branches cling to and are nourished by the vine. However, there is an additional feature to this human/divine connection. There is a word of warning for those who will choose to be part of the vine. There is the possibility of being pruned, cut off, if one does not use the nourishment received from the vine to good purpose. Nancy Blakely considers this “a word of judgment.”2 Instead, I would prefer to see this as a word of guidance for preachers and for the people.

Too often individuals of significant financial worth speak of themselves as “self-made,” denying the many who contributed to their position. In the United States, the role of enslaved Black Americans in building the nation at all levels—including the building of the nation’s Capitol that was recently overtaken by insurrectionists—has often been denied or dismissed. The role of persons considered “immigrants”—ignoring the fact that all families except Native Americans began as immigrants—is also often dismissed or devalued by society and unfortunately too often by the church. And yet, John offers from the lips of Jesus a different image for those who are members of the Body of Christ.

The image of the sturdy vine that continues to thrive beyond all challenges that come against it can be a helpful one for the church. The branches, the people individually, congregations, or even denominations, cannot continue to grow and to thrive within the Body of Christ unless they hold closely to the teachings of Christ. If that were the case, what the church would look like in its corporate life is a representation of all people with all their differences and a true image of diversity. The guiding principle by which all would be transformed into the image of Christ is boundless love of God and neighbor. In addition, because of that love, each person would seek to bring others into the beloved community to become fully a part of the Body of Christ.

In my childhood, I was caught by the notion of “a star in my crown”3 from a favorite hymn at revival services. I learned then that as Christians we were required to go out and win souls for Christ and that each time someone responded to our evangelization and gave their life to Christ, we earned a star. I don’t hear that song sung anymore, and my unsophisticated faith has matured since those days, yet the idea that we are called to do more than sit on our laurels (if they even exist) once we ourselves have received Christ, is set at naught by this text. Jesus’ words say just the opposite. Each of us is called to receive Christ as Lord and once we have made that initial declaration, we are adjured to take our leading and our sustenance from Christ who is the vine. But our responsibility does not stop there. 

Bearing fruit means engaging for ourselves as individuals and as the church in those activities and tasks that recognize and invest in the goodness of God’s love by spreading that love to the neighbor whom we are called to love. The specifics of bearing fruit are left to the community as a whole and to each individual who receives the nurture that both Christ and the community provide. Each and all must come to the realization that we are not self-made. Yes we are individuals, but as Christians the individualism so admired by the world must take a back seat to the reality that all that we are and have are as a result of the abiding grace of God. 

All are evidence of God’s love and that love must be spread abroad, thereby bearing fruit. It is not about judgment; it is about growth. Because as the dead branches are removed, those that remain adhered to the vine become stronger and contribute to the health of the vine. That is a message that in this time carries much urgency for the contemporary church in all its divisions for the sake of the diversity that is the true Body of Christ.


Notes

  1. Gail R. O’Day, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 9 (Luke-John), (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 760.
  2. Nancy R. Blakely, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Year B, Volume 2, Lent-Eastertide), (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 472.
  3. E. Hewitt & John R. Sweney, “Will there be Any Stars in My Crown?” 1897.

First Reading

Commentary on Acts 8:26-40

Matt Skinner

One reason why the book of Acts makes for great Easter preaching is the narrative’s flair for the dramatic. 

Since the overall story is about a man raised from the dead, the arrival of God’s Spirit to empower ordinary people to attempt extraordinary things, and the perseverance of a religious movement that asks its members to imitate the communitarian ethos of a man crucified by the Roman authorities, perhaps no individual episode can be considered too incredible. Acts, like Easter, urges you to put cautious rationality on the shelf and follow an unrestrained God into the world, wondering as you go what else might be possible. Both Acts and Easter want your imagination to run wild.

The passage about an Ethiopian court official who has a divinely orchestrated discussion with Philip is outlandish, but not much more than the memorable stories that surround it in Acts 8-10. The encounter on a road connecting Jerusalem to Gaza is about expanding horizons—Philip’s, the Ethiopian’s, and ours. It provokes a question upon which the church still ruminates, as it makes one new discovery after another: what will it mean for all of us if the gospel is indeed good news for all people, without exception?

In Acts 1:8 Jesus declares that his followers will be his Spirit-led “witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” By the time Acts 8:26 rolls around, they have been in all those places except one: the ends of the earth, wherever that is. The narrative is beginning to branch out, and that centrifugal movement will accelerate as soon as Acts 9 begins. If any readers are wondering how far the church’s witness might go and whom it might reach, Acts 8:26 answers: very far and every kind of person. Don’t be surprised.

This is a rich story with so many details that deserve discussion. Consider the bizarre circumstances and heavenly coordination, the appearance of Isaiah 53:7-8, and the scribal addition in verse 37. You can search for other Working Preacher commentaries on this passage to help with those topics. For now, let’s focus specifically on the court official and how his identity has great theological significance for the larger story Acts tells.

Scholarship has subjected this unnamed person and his body to a tremendous amount of scrutiny. People want to know exactly who he is and how he got to where he is in life. We should apologize for invading his privacy and trying to attach definitions to him from afar. The narrative leaves many details ambiguous. For example:1

Described as an Ethiopian, where is he from and how did that affect how he contributes to the story and its symbolism? Judging from his queen’s Nubian title, Candace (the Latinized form of Kandake), he probably hails from Meroe, south of Egypt. The term used to describe him, “Ethiopian” (literally, “burnt face” in Greek), indicates the dark skin color of his people, but it also could have resonated with other Greco-Roman literature that speaks of “Ethiopians” as people who lived on the fringes of the inhabited world. Greco-Roman authors sometimes use the term when characterizing sub-Saharan Africans as residents of a totally different land, almost a parallel society. Some authors referred to that society with a romanticized respect, while others viewed it as inferior. Both perspectives exhibited Greco-Roman xenophobia, but the point is that the appearance of an Ethiopian in Acts might well elicit thoughts of “the ends of the earth,” from a Roman’s limited outlook on the world. 

Identified repeatedly in the passage as a eunuch, is he really castrated or is that merely a term for a court official? A few scholars have tried to argue for the latter, but the evidence strongly supports the former.

Did he become castrated by choice, through violence, or was he born that way? All of those options are possible, and none of them would have been unheard of. It appears that, for him, castration was a condition for his position in the queen’s court. I’m not sure the answer to the question matters much for interpreting the passage. Considering it, though, does accentuate another question, concerning how his body might have elicited condescension or derision from his contemporaries.

How would others have viewed him and his manhood, as a eunuch? Eunuchs did not fit conventional notions of gender in the Roman world. They were simultaneously men and nonmen, neither male nor female. Sexually impotent, they were powerless and thus often scorned according to Roman constructions of masculinity and virility.

What kind of social standing does he have? Assuming the story is told from a Greco-Roman point of view, one might consider him as despised and lacking status because of his identity as a eunuch—even more so if he is enslaved. Yet Acts describes him as powerful. He’s an official, in charge of the queen’s treasury. He’s literate and wealthy enough to have an Isaiah scroll and use of a chariot. 

Is he a Jew or a gentile? He could be either. I think we should assume he’s Jewish, however. There were and still are Jewish communities in Africa. Because Acts describes Cornelius and his household as the first gentile converts (11:18; 15:7), the narrative seems to indicate the court official is Jewish. But the question reminds us that we should also beware of drawing too solid a line between Jews and gentiles, at least with regard to how Acts describes Jews, proselytes, and “God-fearers.”

How did he experience his time in Jerusalem? Acts does not say. Because of Deuteronomy 23:1 (see also Leviticus 21:16-23) some assume that the eunuch would have been forbidden from doing in Jerusalem what Acts says he came to do: worship. But that would depend on where in the city he was and what kind of worship he came to perform.

All of the ambiguity that this character radiates has an effect. From the perspective of the dominant Greco-Roman culture that Acts represents, this joyful convert does not conform to the rules set by standard boundaries. He is powerless yet powerful, strange yet impressive, ignorant yet knowledgeable. He—indeed even as inscribed on his own body—projects a sense of liminality. That doesn’t mean he is by definition oppressed or an object of pity. It means he might represent surprise, subversion, and expanse. 

He reminds us that the good news will not travel to the ends of the earth primarily because of focus groups, strategic plans, and demographic analyses. It will do so because individuals will gladly carry it there, because they recognize that it speaks to them no matter who they are or how others measure them. Those individuals recognize that the good news acknowledges their worth and dignity. The good news thwarts the prejudices that religions and societies keep falling into.

Let this passage direct attention toward the horizons. Reflecting on this story, Justo L. González writes, “In studying the history of the Church and its missionary progress, we repeatedly see that the great movements, the most notable discoveries of unsuspected dimensions of the gospel and of obedience to it, usually appear not at the center but at the margins, at the periphery.”2 The Ethiopian reminds us that those of us who situate ourselves around ecclesial “centers” might be inclined to expect too little from the good news or to underestimate its capacity to bless and include others. Our imaginations grow rigid and unresponsive.

Preachers have a delicate balance to maintain with this passage. It’s important to emphasize the court official’s capacity to embody an unfamiliar, complex, fluid identity, at least if we observe him from the perspective and norms from which Acts was written. But at the same time we can’t duplicate the bigotry in that perspective and view him as an oddity or gawk at his distinctiveness. Don’t treat him as a portal to a foreign world. Recognize him as a mirror held up in front of the church, collectively. Whom do you see? Who’s missing? Why? 

Earlier I mentioned that, as I read this text, the Ethiopian eunuch recognizes that the good news Philip shares with him acknowledges his own worth and dignity. I believe that because it’s he, not Philip, who first raises the topic of baptism. He simply sees the water and, on his own, does the reasoning: baptism is for him. Whatever Philip tells him about Jesus, the court official discerns on his own the fitting outcome for him. Inclusion. Participation. Belonging. As a result, he stands prominent not only as the Christian church’s first convert (that we know of) from sub-Saharan Africa but also as the church’s first constructive theologian from there.


Notes

  1. For details and a relatively recent bibliography on most of these questions, see Brittany E. Wilson, Unmanly Men: Figurations of Masculinity in Luke-Acts (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 113-49.
  2. Acts: The Gospel of the Spirit (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2001), 118.

Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 22:25-31

Eric Mathis

Anne Lamott has famously said, “Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.”1

While Psalm 22 cannot be reduced to these words, it does seem as though this contemporary perspective might be similar to the perspective of the Psalmist.

From darkness to dawn

Psalm 22 is a familiar Psalm of Lament that begins in the dark with one of Christ’s final statements on the cross: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” However, this Psalm was not intended to be prophetic, and its original form was not Christocentric, even though Christians today will inevitably read it as Christocentric, making the connection between this Psalm and the words of Christ just as early Christians might have done.

Psalm 22 is the lament of a conflicted individual, and this is evident in the tension established early in the Psalm. Accusatory statements like “I cry by day, but you do not answer” (v.2) and “I am a worm” (v. 6) are juxtaposed with declarative statements such as “You are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel” (v.3) and “You took me from the womb; you kept me safe” (v. 9). Indeed, the first twenty-one verses of the Psalm display an individual in distress, full of contradictory statements about the human plight and the goodness of God.

It is not until the final verses of the Psalm that the Psalmist’s timbre changes. Though initially conflicted, the Psalmist has waited, watched, worked, and persevered. Verse 25 shows that dawn has arrived for the Psalmist, who summons the whole community to experience the transformation the Psalmist has experienced and offer thanks and praise to God.

From individual to community

The first twenty-four verses of this Psalm remain in the first person voice, and they are an explicit dialogue with God. But, verse 25 becomes a testimony of sorts that answers the disruption presented in the litany of complaints and questions in the earliest verses of the Psalm. Verse 25 alters the tone of the litany and sets the individual, and even the whole community, towards a “right and creative relationship” with YHWH. Truly, “the individual’s experience should correspond to that of the community and should deepen its faith.”2

From verse 25 onward, the Psalmist establishes the strong implication that what YHWH has accomplished for the individual, YHWH will accomplish for the whole world. From the weak, the poor, and those of the lowest status in the community who must seek help from YHWH (v. 26) to the ends of the earth and all nations (v. 28-29), those who remember the Lord, turn to the Lord, and worship the Lord (v. 27) will find a generative faith (v. 30-31) that will eventually confirm and testify to the past, present, and future deeds of God.

Implications for preaching

John Goldingay uses this Psalm to offer a counter argument to a common mode of Christian comfort: assuring those in suffering that God is present with them in their suffering. Psalm 22 shows us a contrast Goldingay says that “God was not present with this suppliant and does not expect us to pretend that this is so when it is not.” Rather, Psalm 22 invites those of us who experience suffering to find ways to remind God and us of God’s faithfulness, to remind God and us of God’s involvement in the world, to plea with God to change, and to believe strongly enough in our argument that God will, in fact, respond.3

To give this Psalm an explicitly Christocentric focus on the fifth Sunday of Easter might be to trace the dark days of Christ suffering on the cross to the promise that came with the dawn of the resurrection. Verses 25-31, when viewed from the dark days of Good Friday and Holy Saturday to the dawn of the resurrection, promise that all those who are weak and call upon the name of God in their weakness will eat and be satisfied. In biblical times, this might have been the Psalmist (Old Testament) or Christ or Christ’s disciples (New Testament), but its implications are ever contemporary. Yes, even we when faced with suffering—whether we find ourselves among the weak or the powerful—will move from darkness to dawn and proclaim the deliverance that comes from God to God’s people. This is the Psalmist’s story. This is Christ’s story. This is our story. And, this is the story for generations to come. Thanks be to God.


Notes

  1. Commentary first published on this site on May 3, 2015.
    Quotation by Annie Lamott via Twitter, April 28, 2013: https://twitter.com/annelamott/status/328518801312317440?lang=en
  2. John Goldingay, “Psalm 22,” in Psalms, Volume 1: 1-41, ed. Tremper Longman, III, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 337.
  3. Goldingay, 341.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 John 4:7-21

Sherri Brown

First John 4:7-21 calls its recipients to recognize the presence of God in their relationships, in terms of love for God and for one another, despite social, cultural, and mainstream challenges. 

For analysis of the structure of 1 John, see the previous week’s commentary

The author’s closing appeal to his new community focuses on the divine attribute that embodies all others—that God is Love. This is revealed in the love of the believing community for one another that manifests in full when God is present in all their relationships (1 John 4:7-21). Indeed, God is the foundation of all love which, in turn, actualizes a faith that conquers the world (1 John 5:1-12). 

The author therefore begins his final appeal with the imperative for his “beloved” (a strong reflection to the Beloved Disciple of the Gospel as their model of faith and love), then repeats the “new commandment” of the Gospel, “let us love one another,” with a novel focus on origins, “because love is from God.” The author follows this command with his characteristic formulation of the children of God: “everyone who loves is born of God and knows God” (verse 7).  God’s love is witnessed by the gift of the incarnation and atoning sacrifice of God’s Son and is perfected in the ongoing mutual indwelling love of the community (verses 9-10). Typical to Johannine narrative ethics, the indirect implication is that we are compelled to do likewise. God’s love is perfected when it manifests in our relationships both with our “inner circles” and those we consider “other” (verses 11-12).

The language of being and abiding in God and love comes to the fore in these verses as the author demands the presence of God in all our relationships. The Holy Spirit is operative in this activity of the ongoing abiding of God in the world. Our love in action in the world is simply the culmination of our believing and living in the love of God. This is what sustains us (verses 13-16). The paradox is that it is in this humility that we find our boldness. We love because God first loved us and there is no fear there (verses 17-20). The heart of this closing appeal is therefore: “The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also” (verse 21). And our family extends far beyond our kin to every human being in God’s good creation. 

We must, therefore, challenge ourselves to push beyond our comfort zones to do new things. This, indeed, is how we love as Christ loved, and as God loves us. Sacrifice can be life and limb, and when it is it should be honored as such. But it doesn’t have to be. Every time we step beyond where we’d rather be, what we’d rather do, into what might embarrass or negatively impact us in order to share God’s love, we answer this call. This is our summons. God is love. Be bold. Don’t fear. Share yourself. Do love. This is what will sustain us in unity, strength, and the abiding love of God.