Lectionary Commentaries for May 9, 2021
Sixth Sunday of Easter
Commentary on John 15:9-17
Gennifer Benjamin Brooks
Commentary on Acts 10:44-48
Jerusha Matsen Neal
There is a classic sermon tactic that breaks a story in two. It draws listeners into the flow of a narrative, and when they’ve become invested in the outcome, it cuts away from the scene. The listeners wait, suspended in narrative tension, as the preacher exposits, analyzes, and frames her question for the day.
But those familiar with the trope know that the end of the story is coming. They won’t be left hanging. If the preacher has chosen her story well, there will be surprise and delight in the resolution. The questions she has raised will come into focus and resolve in the sermon’s closing credits.
Perhaps this is what the lectionary’s architects had in mind when they started Easter with the first half of Peter’s Acts 10 sermon (verses 34-43)—and then cut away from the scene, just as Peter is calling his Gentile listeners to repentance. We are left suspended for four weeks, waiting for a resolution to one of the early church’s most formative, divisive questions: what difference does Easter make for the Gentiles? What difference does Easter make for the world?
And here, on the sixth week of Easter, the penny drops. Or more accurately, the Spirit falls—and several insights come into focus:
First, the God who raised Jesus from the dead is a big God—and a free God. Beverly Gaventa underscores the Spirit’s “unprecedented gift” coming to an unexpected community and at an unexpected time. “Nowhere else does Luke narrate an event in which the gift of the Holy Spirit comes prior to baptism.”1 Acts 10 makes plain that God will do as God will, and that ecclesial practices and norms do not have the final say on the boundaries of the community. To underscore the point, Carl Holladay notes that the centurion Cornelius’ home is located in Caesarea, “the Roman capital of Judea and thus a symbol of Gentile power.”2 This was not simply a Gentile household; it was a really Gentile household. No wonder Peter’s circumcised companions are amazed.
Second, Pentecost is more than a one-time event. Peter himself notes the similarities between the events of Pentecost and this “Gentile Pentecost” (verse 47b).3 Luke shapes these verses in ways that echo the sequence of events of Israel’s Pentecost in Acts 2. Pentecost is still two weeks away in the liturgical calendar—which means that for lectionary preachers, the Spirit’s gift to Cornelius’ house frames and foreshadows that celebration. Significantly, it encourages the church to see Pentecost as more than an in-house celebration that is over and done. I’ve done a number of children’s sermons that describe Pentecost as the church’s “birthday” (and I’m all for serving birthday cake at the fellowship hour!). But the metaphor is not quite right. Pentecost is less of a birthday—and more of a block party. It does more than celebrate a historical event; it breaks into the street and redefines the neighborhood. And every time it happens, it remakes our understanding of ourselves. Pentecost brings an ongoing, mysterious movement of God into view. And that movement is still at work in the world, stretching our identity, loyalties, and love in response to a resurrection God—and indeed, in response to that resurrected One!
If the first half of Peter’s sermon disrupts the “imperial project of the Roman Empire” through its witness to Jesus as “Lord of all” (verse 36), today’s verses disrupt notions of identity that determine and dictate one’s “future and…life prospects.”4 Willie Jennings stresses the connection between both themes and Christian baptism. Baptism accomplishes more than the forgiveness of sins—or even an embodied joining between Christ and disciple. As Acts 10 makes clear, there is a “joining of Jew and Gentile” in the outpouring of God’s Spirit. This does not result in a betraying of identity, but it does prohibit any notion of Easter that maintains the status quo. In Jenning’s words, “in the home of a centurion, a rip in the fabric of space and time has occurred…that will open up endless new possibilities of life with others.”5
Jennings’s point steers preachers away from the bookend approach to Eastertide described at the start. These final five verses of Acts 10 do not resolve questions or tie up loose-ends; they open up a new, beautiful set of disruptive possibilities. What does Easter mean for the world? And more to the point, what does Easter mean for us? The Spirit’s noisy interruption of Peter’s sermon convicts our “lust for the normal”6 and asks us to see an Eastertide that is not fading into denouement but is, in fact, calling us to an ongoing, costly way of life. Listeners are still hanging at the end of Acts 10, stunned at what this passage might mean for the ways we negotiate our lives, finances, hierarchies, and cultural comforts. Are we ready for such “rips” in the fabric of our expectations? This story’s end is not the end of the story. This end is only a beginning.
- Beverly Gaventa, Acts, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 172.
- Carl Holladay, Acts: A Commentary, The New Testament Library (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016), 240.
- Robert Wall, The Acts of the Apostles: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections, The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 167.
- Willie James Jennings, Acts, Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2017), 9.
- Ibid., 115.
Commentary on Psalm 98
Psalm 98 is the fifth psalm in a group of six psalms in Book Four of the Psalter known as the Enthronement Psalms (Psalms 93, 95-99).1
The Enthronement Psalms celebrate the reign of God as sovereign or king over all humanity and, indeed, over all creation. In their opening words, they cry out to all who will hear, “O come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!” (95:1); “O sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth” (96:1); “The LORD is king! Let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad!” (97:1).
Psalm 98 continues many of the themes that occur in the Enthronement Psalms surrounding it. The singer once again cries out, “O sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things” (verse 1). The people and all of creation are then instructed to “make a joyful noise” in verses 4 and 6 (see Psalm 95:1, 2—all from the Hebrew root rua’); “break forth into joyous song” and “sing together for joy” in verses 4 and 8 (see 95:1 and 96:12—all from the Hebrew root ranan) and “sing praises” and “melody” in verses 4 and 5 (see 95:2—all from the Hebrew root zamar). The words of praise in Psalm 98, though, move beyond the praise the reader encounters in previous Enthronement Psalms, incorporating musical instruments in the praise of God as sovereign—the lyre, trumpets, and the sound of a horn (Hebrew shofar) in verses 5 and 6. In verse 7, the psalm singer invites all of creation to add its own “instrumental mix.” The sea and all that fills it, the world and all that live in it are invited to “roar”—literally “make the sound of thunder.” And in verse 8, the floods are invited to “clap their hands,” and the hills to “sing together for joy.”
But why should all humanity and all creation join in celebratory song of God’s reign? Verses 1-3 and verse 9 frame the psalm and provide the rationale for such an extravagant display of praise. In the NRSV translation of Psalm 98, the word “victory” is repeated three times in verses 1-3. The verbal root of the word is yasha’ and means “deliver” or “free.” The “right hand” and the “holy arm” of God are able to deliver humanity, and, indeed, all of creation from the many oppressions with which we and it are faced.
Verse 9 states that God not only delivers, but comes to judge the earth and the world. This verse is rich in imagery and promise. “The earth” and “the world” are used in parallel structure to describe what God is coming to judge. The word translated “earth” is ‘erets, and identifies the whole of the earthly realm (Genesis 1:1, etc.); tebel is translated “world” and has a more narrow reference of meaning as earth’s habitable space. The word occurs fifteen times in the Psalter, with six occurrences in the six Enthronement Psalms in Book Four.
The one additional appearance of tebel in Book Four occurs in Psalm 90. There, we read in verse 2 that God “formed” the earth—‘erets, and the world—tebel. The word translated in the NRSV as “formed” is the verb hiyl, a verbal root that occurs most often in the Hebrew Bible in connection with the birthing process (see, for example, See Deuteronomy 32:18; Isaiah 13:8; 26:17, 18; 51:2; 66:7,8; Jeremiah 4:31; Job 15:7; 39:1; Psalm 51:5 (7); Proverbs 8:24, 25; 25:23). Thus, in Psalm 90, we have a depiction of the creator God, writhing in childbirth, bringing forth the earth and earth’s habitable space. Thus, we are permitted to see the creator God giving birth to the world that all creation calls home.
Verse 9 continues by stating that God will judge the world, that habitable space, with “righteous and equity.” The words “righteous” and “equity” are rich with both ethical meaning and sheer simplicity. “Righteous” is tsedek, a word to which we Christians often attach overtly religious overtones. The basic meaning of the word in Hebrew is “to do the right thing.” In any situation, what would a worshiper of the creator God do? What would be right for ALL concerned—not for some and not others, not for some right now and others later, but for all right now in the this time and space? “Equity” is the English translation of the Hebrew word yashar, which means, literally, “upright, straight, to the point.” Judging with “equity” means judging with a clear view of equality for all and a firm sense of right and wrong—not equality and right for those of privilege, but equality and right for all of the earth and the habitable spaces of the world.
In summary, then, Psalm 98 celebrates God as sovereign over the earth and the habitable world; invites all of creation to celebrate God’s sovereignty not only with song but with the loud clamoring of “musical instruments”; and assures it celebrants that God will deliver from oppression and judge all of creation with righteous and equity. What a reason to celebrate!
But, what does it actually mean to celebrate God as king, as sovereign? After all, we are here, in the habitable world, the tebel; God is there, in the heavenly realm. How does/can the judgment and righteous and equity of God play itself out in the tebel? At the end of all things, whenever and wherever that might be, God WILL set all things right. In the meantime, I maintain that those who embrace the message of our creator God and, indeed, all of creation—roaring, clapping, singing together—are the hands, the feet, the voices of judgment, righteousness, and equity in this world, the tebel. May we embrace our task, and may we enable, to the best of our individual abilities, all of creation to undertake the task.
- Commentary first published on this site on May 10, 2015.
Commentary on 1 John 5:1-6
For analysis of the structure of 1 John, see the commentary on 1 John 3.
First John 5:1-6 is the heart of the final summons of this epistle’s closing appeal that calls its recipients to understand God as the foundation of love that manifests in faith which, despite any and all evidence to the contrary, conquers the world. God is love, but the author further insists that this love results in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus, Christ and Son of God who reconciles humankind to one another and to creation.
The author’s closing appeal focuses on the divine attribute that embodies all others—that God is Love. This characteristic is revealed in the love of the believing community for one another that manifests fully when God is present in 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 back to the Beloved Disciple in John’s Gospel as their model of faith and love); then repeats the “new commandment” of the gospel, “let us love one another,” with a new focus on origins, “because love is from God” (1 John 5:1-3; see John 13:34-35). Thereafter, he can confirm the initial gospel commandment: “believing that Jesus is the Christ” and Son of God (1 John 5:1; see John 1:11-13, 17-18; 14:1).
The familial language for this relationship first introduced in John’s Gospel continues here in parent-child imagery. Filial love is what sustains and forms a relationship that abides through life’s ups and downs, trials and successes. This baseline can further open us to the unexpected gifts received when we take risks and encounter others where they are regardless of stereotypes or any other preconceived biases or notions.
The potential surprise is that obedience to these commandments offers true freedom in relationship (verse 3). The result of this love is the victory of faith, and this faith conquers the world (verses 4-5). The author has already affirmed the atoning sacrifice of Christ; now he upholds that the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God has life, and this life in faith conquers all the dangers of this world (verses 6-12).
Who is it that can take on the world?
Who can live as Christ lived in faith and freedom?
Who can persist through challenge and trial?
Who can change things for the better for those they encounter from all walks of life?
Who can dwell in love, mercy, and grace?
The one who believes. And this can be each and every one of us, despite our insecurities, perceived faults, or any other mode of self-doubt. The atoning sacrifice of the one who comes by water and blood, incarnation and expiation, and indeed transforms the world around us. But it also imbues us with life, inspiration, and a vocation to which we are called to respond.
Love is a word, the meaning of which I take very seriously.
As a result, I find it difficult to use in relationships with both family members and friends. The difficulty comes, you may have guessed already, because of the facile way in which it is used in our world. Friend is also a word that I use somewhat sparingly because of its deep meaning to me. Perhaps, having grown up in the church this text may be one of the bases of my notion of both friend and love. Jesus puts these two keywords together in his statement “No one has greater love than this to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (verse 13). I doubt that in the modern understanding of both love and friend that many would put the two together in quite this way or be willing to love a friend sufficiently to give up their life.
Emily Askew notes: “Love in this passage is not a psychological state, nor is it anywhere described as an internal quality. Love is an action—a really difficult action. The definition of love here is a radical willingness to die—not for your child or spouse, but for a fellow follower of Christ.”1 Certainly this meaning is nowhere in the minds of most, if not all, members of the congregation when they hear the words of Christ’s commandments that call Christians to love God and neighbor. And yet that is what this text, this message from Jesus, calls us to embody. How can we give up our lives for others? What can we do to show that depth of love for others within and outside the church?
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year, I watched the movie Selma and saw again the record of persons who willingly laid down their lives, risking pain and even death for the cause of justice. Truly they epitomized the meaning of this love of neighbor of which Jesus speaks in this text. In the second march on Selma, one saw not simply Black people or Christians; there were people of many races and cultures and religions. There were certainly people from all walks of life bound together by love; love of neighbor that made them willing to move out of their comfort zone, certainly aware, based on previous events at that time, that their presence and participation could result in bodily harm or even death. And yet they came.
So how can a preacher explain and respond to the call to love, to be a life-giving friend in these times? Certainly Jesus died for us all, but I would wonder at the preacher who calls the congregation to consider actual physical death. However, it may be possible to consider laying down one’s life in ways other than physical death. Perhaps looking at the meaning of the phrase “lay down one’s life” from another perspective might be helpful.
What does it take to set aside all that one believes about others, to set aside the prejudices that prevent or stifle friendship, in order to join others in being truly the Body of Christ? What would it take to set aside even for a moment the familiar and the cherished, whether simply beliefs or practices, in order to stand in for another, especially someone different, perhaps even someone on the margins? That might well be a form of laying down one’s life that a congregation that has been encouraged to embrace true diversity might be open to hearing or even doing.
Mid-2020, we witnessed the call for justice for many Black persons who had died undeservedly at the hand of law enforcement officers. We saw and heard the cries that Black Lives Matter and we saw protesters that called for equal justice. We also saw looting and violence perpetrated by some who came with a specific charge to disrupt the peaceful protests, and by others who simply took advantage of the situation for their own selfish purposes. But the best of those times, seen in the wide mix of people who participated both in the USA and across the globe, was evidence of this love that willingly puts oneself at risk because of the love of neighbor that Jesus requires of his followers.
There are many, perhaps including some preachers and some congregants, who do not understand or support the meaning of “Black Lives Matter.” Perhaps to say Black Lives (also) Matter may help to make the meaning plain. What it says is that as a diverse community under Christ and all connected to the one source (as I discussed in my commentary two weeks ago), all people matter equally. But in a society where Black lives are devalued as less than, where they are dehumanized as though they do not also contain the same Imago Dei as all other human beings, it is not enough to say that all lives matter. It becomes imperative that the church acknowledge that love of neighbor must be extended equally to those of a dark hue in a way that epitomizes one’s life laid down for one’s friends.
Being members together in the Body of Christ makes us all friends, all neighbors, and therefore makes all our lives, regardless of color, matter. So yes it is important the church acknowledge, where society does not, that Black Lives Matter. But that is not all. The church that is committed to the love that Jesus calls us to live, must offer that life-giving friendship openly and equally to all people, regardless of color. It is a serious charge, a dangerous charge, and a life-risking endeavor. But Christ requires it of the church that is committed to bearing fruit that will last. And it is Christ who says: “I am giving you these commands so that you will love one another.”