Lectionary Commentaries for May 16, 2021
Seventh Sunday of Easter
Commentary on John 17:6-19
Commentary on Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
Jerusha Matsen Neal
The most obvious preaching text for Ascension Sunday is Acts’ account of Jesus’ ascension itself (Acts 1:1-11). But because the opening of Acts is the lectionary text for the church’s mid-week Ascension Day celebration (May 13th), the Ascension Sunday preacher finds herself grappling with a less familiar set of verses.
Less familiar or not, these verses are relevant to the moment. They don’t describe the ascension; instead, they deal with the implications of it. They show a church grappling with the what, why, and how of communal life in light of Jesus’ bodily absence.1 These are significant ecclesial matters, and they deserve the preacher’s attention. More than this, they point to the significance of Jesus’ ascension in the first place.
The what of ecclesial life:
“…a witness with us to his resurrection” (verse 22):
Even in these early, pre-Pentecost days, Peter has a sense of purpose. The designation of “witness” has already been spoken by Jesus (verse 8), and the term will surface again in Peter’s Pentecost sermon (Acts 2:32). The role of the early church is to live into this “witness” vocation, even at the cost of its life.2 The replacement of Judas, therefore, is not primarily about the church’s self-maintenance. It is about the church’s urgent need to be witnesses to Jesus’ risen person.
The why of ecclesial life:
“…the scripture had to be fulfilled” (verse 16):
The lectionary framing removes Peter’s exegetical work with the Psalter (Psalm 69:25, 109:8b), but his understanding of the church’s life as being part of a larger divine promise and fulfillment grounds his use of scripture. There is a “divine necessity” to the actions that are being taken by this small, growing community.3 This reading of the biblical text not only connects the early church’s self-understanding with the narratives and history of Israel; it also stresses the agency of God. It is God’s faithful action to God’s promises that fuel Acts’ narrative. For all of the church’s participation in this new resurrection reality, God’s leading is primary.
The how of ecclesial life:
“…show us” (verse 24):
Discernment in a community is no easy thing, but this passage gives us a snapshot of a particular community doing that brave, provisional work in a particularly fraught time. Preachers needn’t get distracted by the “casting lots” method; Beverly Gaventa notes, “Acts depicts the communication of God’s will to the community in a multitude of ways, no one of which appears to be normative.”4 The point is not the method; the point is the posture. The community leans into its trust of God’s goodness. They search the scriptures, and they commit to communal practices of prayer. They acknowledge their limits and decide criteria for moving forward that center their “witness” vocation. And then, they cast lots—reframing the lots cast for Jesus’ clothing, an act meant to humiliate (Luke 23:34), with lots cast to strengthen the witness of his disciples, honoring his final command (verse 8). To follow the example of the early church is not to commit to a rigid practice of decision making or a particular structure. It is to recognize our own need to lean on divine guidance, to trust God’s ability to speak, and to faithfully act in response.
All of which brings a preacher to why the ascension matters for the church. In Acts, the ascension keeps Jesus from being boxed into human strictures, lineages, and practices. It keeps this early faith community dependent on Jesus’ present-tense action—which is finally what allows believers to be witnesses to Christ’s resurrection in our own day and time. Devon Singh argues that at the heart of the church’s imperialist project was an inability to face the implications of the ascension. It was easier to replace Jesus with rituals, institutions and political structures.5 But Acts 1 describes a church that knows it is not in the driver’s seat, even as it actively embraces its call. This discernment work might look ordinary, but it is holy ground.
Willie Jennings notes that “a common thing, a selection process, has been placed in an extraordinary setting, in the upper room before Pentecost.”6 No one had any idea what was coming next. When churches put the what, why, and how of their identity in service of Jesus’ resurrection-witness work, there is a similar hallowing of the ordinary. Committee meetings and Bible studies can become upper rooms where the Spirit waits to fall.
- For a deep dive into Jesus’ body as both absent and present in Acts, see Brittany E. Wilson’s The Embodied God, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021).
- The Greek word “witness” is related to the word “martyr.”
- Carl Holladay, Acts: A Commentary, The New Testament Library (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016), 88.
- Beverly Gaventa, Acts, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 71.
- Devon Singh, “Fragile Belief and the Empty Throne: Theology and Politics after Ascension.” Invited paper for Australian Catholic University Rome Seminar, Rome, Aug 2018.
- Willie James Jennings, Acts, Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2017), 27.
Commentary on Psalm 1
Psalm 1 is a wisdom psalm that serves as the preface to the psalter, sharing literary and theological relationship with the Torah.1
Torah–the first five books of the Hebrew Bible—is traditionally translated as the “law” but may be more accurately read as “instruction” or “guidance.” Torah is God’s guidance for God’s creation about how best to live both individually and communally. So, it is fitting that the Psalms—this collection of praise begins with some guidance about the possibilities of life. The author offers two ways, mostly often understood as the “good way” and the “wicked way.”
The good way
Psalm 1 begins with happiness. But, this concept of happiness is commonly misunderstood in contemporary contexts. Our understandings of happiness are often warm, fuzzy, and without complication. In contrast in Hebrew, happy is ‘ashre, which derives from the verb, ‘shr, meaning to go straight or to advance.2 Such an understanding of the emotion evoked by the psalmist suggests that following the instruction of God allows the individual to move forward, to develop, to grow in life. The “good way” is not devoid of problems, anxieties, or heartache. However, this way in relationship with God, grants us the freedom to evolve as human beings.
Further, the author suggests that the imperative for God’s faithful is to “delight in the instruction…and meditate [on it] day and night.” Historically, Christians have read this command as God’s requirement for blind obedience and acquiescence to God’s word. However, here, rather than meditate, the Hebrew word, hgh3, can be translated as “to groan, utter, speak, or plot.”
The spiritual practice commonly outlined by Psalm 1 has commonly been read as a kind of silent, solitude practice of meditation. However, for this to be true of the author’s context it would presume that the author’s audience had someone else tending to their basic needs for survival. Such readings create a classism around the text and around God. Very few people in the ancient world, or today, have the luxury of sitting in solitude with Torah all day.
However, reading hgh as plotting, moaning, and speaking suggests that rather than passive reception of God’s word, our call is to act meaningfully and intentionally towards God’s guidance. In this context, our relationship with torah or instruction should be to read, question, discuss, engage the text in ways that impact our daily living. Meditation then becomes active participation in the world in ways that demonstrate God’s presence in the world.
The result of such nuanced reading of God’s instruction should be a reality where we are not so easily moved and not devoid of spiritual life. Here, the author describes fruit bearing trees with deep roots that have a constant water source. Ancient Israel was a largely agrarian society that understood prosperity in terms of agricultural production and weather.
Water is commonly understood as a biblical metaphor. In various texts (Psalm 32, 69, Lamentations 3) water is understood as a source of trouble visited upon human beings. In Exodus 14, water is a barrier to freedom that is removed by God for the Hebrews coming out Egypt before consuming God’s enemies—the army of pharaoh. In Proverbs (18, 20) water symbolizes depth and purpose for humanity. Here, water is a constant source of nourishment for the tree—which symbolizes humanity and life. It is important to note that the water never consumes or moves the tree, but instead establishes roots and bears fruit.
The wicked way
In contrast to the stability established in Psalm 1:1-3, here the compares the wicked to chaff. Chaff is the unusable material separated from wheat during the threshing process. Again, the author uses the agricultural context of ancient Israel to establish a metaphor. Threshing floors were spaces often on the periphery of a community where farmers would create a circular space in which to gather recently harvested grain. Here they would beat the grain against the ground with a winnowing fork and the light chaff would be carried away by the wind while the grain would call to the ground and remain on the threshing floor. Thus metaphorically, threshing floors often mark a point of transition for biblical characters who encounter them. They are spaces where they are separated from the chaff of their life.
In this text the author establishes the wicked as those who are without substance or weightiness. They are the people from whom the primary “good group” should be separated. The author’s language is somewhat ambiguous about who constitutes the wicked. Wickedness is not defined in direct correlation with goodness. Thus, we should be careful to define the wicked as those who have different theologies, opinions, or lifestyles as others.
Instead the wicked “will not stand in the judgement … nor … in the congregation of the righteous” (verse 5). We might connect the depiction of the wicked in verse 5 with the author’s description in verse 1 of those who “sit in the seat of scoffers.” Unlike the righteous who are advancing, the wicked are stagnant. They are the ones with no opinion, no belief, nothing for which they are willing to live, grow, evolve, or fight. The wicked are those who live outside of community and/or accountability. Wickedness here may be equated to stagnation.
The psalms include a variety of forms to encapsulate the range of human experiences and emotions. The wisdom from which this body of work begins should not focus on establishing an invisible enemy so much as it reminds us of our capacity to be skeptics who scoff at the desire for meaning in life. The author offers an alternative path that propels us down a path of discovery alongside God.
- Commentary first published on this site on Sept. 8, 2019.
- Brown, Francis, S.R. Driver, and Charles Briggs. A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1907), 80.
- Brown-Driver-Briggs, 211.
Commentary on 1 John 5:9-13
Three particularly Johannine words stand out in this passage–words important both in John’s Gospel and in 1 John: believe (pisteuô), witness (both the verb martureô and the noun marturia), and life (zoê).
Although our pericope begins at 1 John 5:9-13, the preceding verses in chapter 5 are critical to understanding the passage, which returns to the Christological controversy dividing the community.1 1 John 5:1-5 emphasizes the importance of believing that Jesus (the human Jesus) is the Christ and Son of God. Verses 6-8 center on the theme of witness, naming three witnesses unified in their testimony concerning Jesus Christ: water, blood, and Spirit.
This trio of witnesses is almost certainly an allusion to John 19:34, where a soldier pierces the side of the crucified Jesus, and blood and water flow out. The narrator adds in verse 35: “He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.” The narrator’s comment assures the reader that the beloved disciple, whose testimony is the foundation for John’s Gospel, was an eyewitness to Jesus’ death.
This eyewitness testimony to the water and blood flowing from Jesus’ side is important to countering those who deny the full humanity of Christ. The fact that the author of 1 John insists that Jesus Christ came “not with the water only, but with the water and the blood” (1:6), perhaps indicates that the dissident group emphasized Jesus’ baptism as the moment that demonstrated his endowment by the Spirit and his filiation to God, but not his death on the cross. The author counters that the human death of Jesus is indispensable to testimony about him. He further asserts that “the Spirit is the one that testifies” (to the one who came by water and blood), “for the Spirit is the truth.” The triple witness of water, blood, and the Spirit declares unequivocally that Jesus Christ suffered and died a real human death (5:7-8).
The theme of witness continues in verses 9-12. Verse 9 begins with a conditional statement in which the condition is assumed to be true: “If we receive human testimony (and we do), the testimony of God is greater, for this is the testimony of God that he has testified to his Son.” The testimony of God is not different from the testimony of the Spirit, but one and the same, since the Spirit is the Paraclete sent by God (see also John 14:16-17; John 15:26).
The author writes not to convince unbelievers but to fortify the faith of believers who have this testimony within them (verse 10). “And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (verses 11-12). In verse 13, the author again echoes John’s Gospel in stating the purpose of this writing: “so that you may know that you have eternal life” (see also John 20:31).
Life (zoê) and eternal life (zoê aiônios) are virtual synonyms in John’s Gospel and in 1 John. In John 17:3, Jesus prays to God: “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Eternal life begins here and now for those who believe in Jesus Christ and know the only true God. It is abundant life (John 10:10), life that death cannot destroy (John 11:25-26).
The author of 1 John asserts that believers can know that they have passed from death to life because they love one another (1 John 3:14). Love is evidence for everything that matters in the Johannine literature: that we are children of God, that we abide in Christ, that we are his disciples, that we have eternal life.
Far from being an escape from this world, eternal life in the Johannine understanding is a call to authentic human existence in the world, a call to embody the love of God made known to us in the Word made flesh.
- See my commentary on 1 John 1:1–2:2.
This prayer shows the proximity of the end of Jesus’ ministry.
It is as if Jesus is wrapping up his ministry by telling God what happened and what will be needed as the disciples move forward.
There is a tapestry of correlations between Jesus, God, and the people following him. Threads, patterns, and connections interweave in this ever-expanding tissue. Jesus, God, and the people following him are woven together. Through these threads flow love, care, and mutuality.
Jesus names how they are connected. What connects them is the gift of God in Jesus. The gift of God swirls together in each being, forming a chain of correlations that affirms and enacts the gift in each participant: God, Jesus, and us.
We could also say, based on what Jesus is talking about with his disciples later, that the receiving of Jesus by the people is also the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit will open the hearts of the people to receiving Jesus as the gift of God as they become bearers of the gift to the world. The unity of these participants shows the place where they belong, and that belonging shows the light of life that flows through these relationships. Jesus’ light was lit both by God’s light in him and also by the response of the people in accepting Jesus’ light, the light of God.
These correlations are only possible in the world, the material thread that also holds everything together. This world, created by God, is also a gift of God. Jesus came into the world to live God’s light fully. However, the world has also rejected the light of God, has denied the gift, subjugated people, and pushed down the poor, the women, and the oppressed. This is a dangerous world—so dangerous that Jesus asks God to protect his people from this world! This world of death and violence hated Jesus and his people. This world of sin tortured Jesus and put him on the cross. From this world of destitution, we indeed need protection. We live in this world but it feels like we don’t belong here because what gives life is constantly being destroyed.
However, there is a very harmful interpretation of the word “world” that understands the whole planet as the world to which we don’t belong. This interpretation denies everything that lives on earth as a gift from God. The consequence of this thinking is serious: if we are not from this world, what is the point of caring and fighting for the life of the planet? In fact, the end of this world must entail the destruction of nature, for it is a sign that the end of time is near, that God’s parousia and Jesus’ arrival is at hand.
At this point we need to make a distinction that will help us understand the world we live in and must deny and the world that we live in and must work for. Perhaps we could make a distinction between the world and earth. The world is that part of our planet that lives in patriarchal structures, necropolitics, police violence, prisons, militarization, attacks on the poor, closing of borders, some rich people getting richer while everybody else becomes poorer, and the whole destruction of the earth.
The earth is the part of the planet that has to do with our most primal sources of living, the part of who we are. We are all made of soil; those who live in sync with the natural world, who don’t live by desires of consumption but care for the poor and the animals, rivers and oceans, birds and insects, live in the earth-gift of God. When Jesus becomes human, he is both God’s gift to the earth and the earth himself.
With this distinction between world and nature, we must be careful not to get into what philosopher Alfred North Whitehead called the “bifurcation of nature into two systems of reality,” namely humans and nature. We are NOT separated. Rather, we are the extension of each other, life in fullness but also tension, death in many relations and configurations. There are many possible worlds within the earth, who is also a plural being.
Thus, what is at stake for us in this text is this: we must fight against the world of death that keeps separations and thrives on capitalism, and the power of few people who are destroying people, animals, and all living beings in this living place called Earth. This world of destitution lies in the hands of those who produce evil and of the Devil. We do not belong to that world nor do we belong to the Devil or these forms of evil, even though we can be and do evil! Because of that, Jesus called us into sanctification, which is the becoming of who we and the earth are in God: sacred people living in sacred places with all forms of sacred life, without distinction. The world of destruction has desecrated the world of God, the earth, and all its beings, including humans.
The earth of God also lives in this world of death, but our work as Christians is to be sanctified, both individually and collectively, by God. Reclaiming our sanctification in God means to become one with God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, God’s people (which are all the people), and the world/earth of God. All are sacred and being attacked by the desacralization of life and thus at risk of disappearance. The end of the world cannot be subsumed by the end of the earth as signs of God’s second coming. We must rapidly change our eschatologies and our ways of living in sanctification so Jesus’ prayers can continue to reverberate across the earth.