Lectionary Commentaries for May 23, 2021
Day of Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

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

Cláudio Carvalhaes

Pentecost! A time of being both uprooted and deeply grounded. 

Like the wind, the Spirit moves us in different ways, sending us to other places and nesting us into other ground. To experience Pentecost it is necessary to search for change and to allow ourselves to be changed. Changes mean new forms of consciousness, awareness, commitments, and agency. What is it in your life that needs to be changed? Like seeds, we must learn to let go and die so we can sprout into life! Be uprooted from ways of thinking and believing and be taken by the Spirit, flowing with God’s grace to more expansive and necessary ways of living our faith in our world today.

In this text, Jesus is offering his “so long” talk to his disciples. It is about time for Jesus to go, but he assures them they will not be alone. They will have each other and the presence of God through the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ swirling talk moves in various correlations while also showing how the Spirit will be manifested in them. Jesus is placing himself in the past while the Spirit is what comes next, continuing the work of God and/in Jesus. 

The One who is coming will take care of us. While Jesus prays in John 17:6-19 for God to protect the disciples, here Jesus makes explicit that it is the Spirit who is going to protect them. This protection will come by advocating, testifying, speaking truth, glorifying, and “prov(ing) the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment.”

The Spirit is the paraclete who will advocate for us and the earth. The Spirit will hear our pain, moaning, desperation, and utterances, and will bring it all to God in “proper language” (Romans 8:26). The Spirit will testify Jesus to us and hold on to the subversive memory of Jesus. When we then testify about God’s glory and justice in Jesus, it is the Spirit working on us. When the Spirit testifies in us, we feel the presence of God and can offer our testimonies on how God acts in us, manifests in the world, transforms people, and brings life where there was only death. 

While the Spirit will build in us the glory of God and the memory of Jesus, the testifying of the Spirit will also speak truth to us when we go away from God, when we lose our ability to listen and feel the Spirit’s voice and presence. If the Spirit of God is the Spirit of truth, the truth that will set us free, then this is a process and truth that will challenge our ways of living. 

When our worship to God is detached from justice and becomes a ritual by which nobody is changed, the prophets will carry the voice of God’s truth and remind us of our moving away from God and into our own need for a safe and cozy religiosity that doesn’t demand anything from us. When we shape the radical message of Jesus to the programs of our churches, to empty spiritualities and to living a life that trusts more in our bank account than in God, we have lost the presence of the Spirit. Sin, righteousness, and judgment will come. As Jesus said “sin, because they do not believe in me; righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.” But what does that mean today?

For us, the sin of not believing in Jesus is not the lack of faith but rather, the sin of splitting belief and practice, word and action, walk and talk. When we are set on beliefs but our beliefs do not mean change of mind and heart, actions of justice, going after those suffering, and restituting what we have destroyed on earth, then our sin continues, clamorously alive behind our comfortable beliefs.

When Jesus talked about righteousness, he was saying: you will see me no more, but your attitudes and actions will be seen. That means that our lives will show if we live a life of righteousness or not. It has to do with what Jesus said in Matthew 7:16: “You will know them by their fruits.” What are our fruits? If we produce fruits of peace, justice, healing, transformation, and care, we will live a life of righteousness. But if we live a life whose center is only ourselves and our families, then we will be judged by the Spirit. 

As for judgment, Jesus says: “because the ruler of this world has been condemned.”

The ruler of this world is the structure of death that spins round and round with spirits of sickness, destruction, poverty, brutality, violence, hunger, greed, consumerism, and so on. Patriarchy and capitalism are the structures from which the ruler of this world lives and enacts death. The ruler of this world is turning this life-giving world into a world of death and pain. This world is not the creation of God, the world God made, but rather the corruption of God’s world of life, the tilting of the world off balance. It is this off-balance world that is turning the whole earth off balance and we are now moving toward climate catastrophe. Curved into ourselves, our sins contribute to the ruler of this world, making us be concerned only with our own pain and demands for happiness, forgetting that every single action we do has ripple effects on others. Caring only for us, having health insurance just for a few, housing just for some will necessarily mean the exemption of health insurance and housing for many others. 

During this Pentecost, our call is to both live a spiritual life bent inward to find our own healing (not selfishness), and also bent outward, as a demand to care for others near us and elsewhere. It is only with a spirituality grounded in the Spirit that we can keep changing and being transformed (Romans 12:1-3).

Pentecost is a call for the church to live in the full power of the Spirit. Not in the power of budgets, programs, personal peaceful interiority, or a sort of consumer self-realization. Rather, it is a call to act upon our inward and outward selves together, as the prophet Micah reminds us: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”


First Reading

Commentary on Acts 2:1-21

Gilberto Ruiz

Acts 2:1-21 narrates the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the disciples. The author of Luke-Acts had highlighted the Spirit’s role in Jesus’ ministry (for example, Luke 3:22; 4:1, 14, 18) and anticipated its bestowal on Jesus’ followers (Luke 3:16; 24:49; Acts 1:4-5, 8). This scene in Acts is often extolled for its vision of unity. We may benefit from taking a fresh look at what this vision of unity entails.

At the end of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus had instructed his disciples to remain in Jerusalem until “clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). They are in Jerusalem during the feast of Weeks (Acts 1:1) named “Pentecost” (Pentēkostē) in Greek because it was celebrated on the fiftieth day after Passover. This agricultural festival (see Exodus 34:22) eventually came to commemorate the giving of the Law, but whether it did so by the time Acts was written is uncertain. Regardless, the Mount Sinai theophany (Exodus 19:16-19) informs the passage. Similar phenomena (loud sounds, fire) mark the Spirit’s arrival (Acts 2:2-3; see also 2:19). As the Sinai covenant constituted a foundational event for the people of Israel, so also is this Pentecost a foundational moment in the formation of the church.

Though Pentecost was one of three Jewish pilgrimage festivals (alongside Passover and Booths, see Exodus 23:14-17; Deuteronomy 16:16), Acts 2:5 draws attention not to pilgrims but to “devout Jews from every nation” who resided in Jerusalem. The cosmopolitan atmosphere of Jerusalem allows the author of Luke-Acts to highlight the effects of the Holy Spirit in spreading the gospel (Acts 2:5-13). To the amazement of all present (verses 7, 12), the panoply of different languages spoken is no barrier to the disciples’ communication. Despite the accusation of drunkenness (verse 13), we should not conflate this event with the speaking in tongues that Paul describes as unintelligible in 1 Corinthians 12-14 (see also Acts 10:46; 19:6). The disciples’ speech is clearly understood by their international audience (Acts 2:6, 8, 11).

In Acts 2:14-21 we hear the first part of Peter’s speech before the Pentecost crowd. Peter’s introduction in verse 14 makes clear that, even as their spokesperson, he stands in solidarity with the other disciples. After dismissing the charge of inebriation (verse 15), Peter in Acts 2:16-21 recites Joel 2:28-32 to interpret the event the crowds have witnessed. Joel proclaims that, whereas formerly granted to individual prophets and kings, God’s Spirit will now pour out onto “all flesh,” regardless of gender (sons/daughters), age (young men/old men), or social status (male/female slaves) (Acts 2:17-18). Such universalism doubtless appealed to the author of Luke-Acts, for whom the salvation Jesus brings is for all (Luke 3:6). Likewise, the Spirit is available to all who call on Jesus, whom Peter will identify as the referent of “Lord” in Joel 2:32 (Acts 2:21) later in his speech (Acts 2:36).

Peter’s quotation of Joel is not exact. He adds an introductory expression from the Greek translation of Isaiah 2:2 (“in the last days,” verse 17) that places in an eschatological context the events just witnessed. Even the mention of wine by skeptical members of the crowd (verse 13) anticipates this eschatological turn, wine being a prophetic symbol of God’s bounty in the eschatological age (see Joel 3:18; Amos 9:13-14). The apocalyptic image of fire described in Joel 2:30 (Acts 2:19) appears with the advent of the Spirit on the disciples (verse 3). The author of Luke-Acts thus sees the Pentecost event as inaugurating the eschatological era portended by Joel and other prophets. This era, the time of the church still ongoing today, culminates in the day of the Lord’s return (verse 20).

The sequence of events in Acts 2:1-21 is commonly interpreted as the reverse of Genesis 11:1-9, the Tower of Babel episode when God stymies communication between the tower’s builders by confusing their language. The Holy Spirit—and, by extension, the Christian gospel—is said to restore the unity among the different peoples of the world that was lost at Babel. The vision of unity proposed by this reading is appealing, to be sure, and the two episodes are certainly connected. The verb used for “confuse” in Acts 2:6 (syncheō) appears in the Septuagint’s translation of Genesis 11:1-9, and its noun form is used for the city of Babel’s name (Sygchysis, literally, “Confusion”).

But Acts scholar Eric Barreto asks us to consider the implications of this reading and whether it accurately reflects what happens.1 Barreto points out that this interpretation sees difference as a problem to be solved, an assumption that leads interpreters to overlook the fact that no restoration of a common language occurs in Acts 2. Instead, the Galilean disciples are heard in all the dialects represented by their audiences (verses 6, 8). What we witness, then, is the Holy Spirit validating difference and working through it, not erasing difference and working despite it. The oracle from Joel cited by Peter affirms this vision through its vivid language of “all flesh” to describe the Spirit’s permeation of persons of all genders, ages, and social status.

Calls for unity have been strong in the US context as of late. In thinking with this passage for the purposes of sermon preparation, perhaps we can ask what unity means for the church. Does Acts’ famous Pentecost scene call us to imagine a unity that is monolingual and univocal, a church with only one language and one voice? Or, as Barreto suggests, can we strive for unity without erasing difference, but rather affirming it? Is the Spirit found in a church where all members look, think, and act alike, or in a church that works together and takes difference as a starting point for manifesting the Spirit?


Notes

  1. Eric D. Barreto, “Whence Migration? Babel, Pentecost, and Biblical Imagination,” in Latinxs, the Bible, and Migration, ed. Efraín Agosto and Jacqueline M. Hidalgo (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 133-47.

Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 104:24-34, 35b

J. Clinton McCann, Jr.

Ecological activist and author Bill McKibben suggests that “environmental devastation stands as the single great crisis of our time, surpassing and encompassing all others.”1

If he is correct or even close to being correct, then Psalm 104 may be more important now than it ever has been in its centuries of existence. In a word, McKibben’s proposal for beginning to move toward solutions for environmental devastation is this: “Humility, first and foremost.”2

McKibben supports his proposal with a careful reading of the Book of Job; but Psalm 104 also supports his proposal, because Psalm 104 puts humankind, as it were, “in its place.” To be sure, biblically speaking, humanity occupies a special place in the created order, but not the only place! Psalm 104 is an eloquent reminder that we human beings share our space with a vast array of God’s “works,” including an “earth … full of your [God’s] creatures [or “creations,” according to the Common English Bible]” (verse 24). Humility is in order!

Creator of all

The lection begins with verse 24, which has been preceded by a poetic cataloguing of some of God’s “works”—the heavens, the clouds, the wind, the waters, the mountains, the valleys, springs, the hills, wild animals, birds, plants, rocks, moon, sun, and finally, “People” (verse 23). It might be possible to conclude that since people occupy the final position in this cataloguing, humanity is the climax of creation (as in Genesis 1). But the context does not seem to support such a conclusion. There is no elaboration upon humanity’s status or vocation—no “image of God” here. Rather, the poem moves immediately in verse 24 to a celebration of the multiplicity of God’s “works.” Humans are one among “all” that God has made. In the cataloguing itself, it is noteworthy that “The trees of the LORD” are mentioned (verse 16), but we hear nothing about “the people of the LORD.” Again, humility is in order!

Valuing creeping things and leviathan

Following the expansive exclamatory celebration of verse 24, attention turns immediately to the sea and “creeping things innumerable” (verse 25). There is still no elaboration upon the human being. While human-made ships are mentioned, we hear nothing about sailors. So again, humility is in order!

Not surprising, given the mention of the sea, is the appearance of Leviathan (verse 26), the mythic sea monster that often symbolizes the threat of chaos. But here, Leviathan’s image has been altered. Leviathan is no threat at all; he just plays in the water. Or, if one renders verse 26b as it could be translated, “and Leviathan that you formed to play with him,” then perhaps God’s image (at least as traditionally understood) has been altered! God is not only a master worker, but also a playful creator. This rendering would suggest perhaps that verse 26b anticipates the psalmist’s request in verse 31b, “may the LORD rejoice in his works.” God really does enjoy the world, the whole creation in all its manifold and majestic fullness. Yes, this includes people; but God also enjoys all those other creatures and features of creation, even Leviathan! Humility is in order!

Provider for and sustainer of all

As Psalm 104 moves beyond verse 26, God is celebrated not only as creator, but also as provider and sustainer. “Food” and “good things” for “all” (verses 27-28) derive from God’s beneficent care (see also Ps 145:15-16). Food, of course, is a basic necessity of life; and another basic necessity is in view in verses 29-30—air or “breath” (or “spirit,” New Revised Standard Version Bible). Human beings breathe about once every five seconds. On the one hand, respiration (that is, re-spiriting) can be understood as a natural process. But for the psalmist, the breath of life is construed fundamentally as a divine gift. The final line of verse 30 suggests that every breath we take is a new creation! Our existence and the ongoing existence of the world are grounded in God’s commitment to and enjoyment of life. Imagine what difference it might make if we viewed every bite of food we eat and every breath we take not simply as natural processes, but also as gifts. We would be a lot more inclined to gratitude and humility!

Humility, gratitude, joy, and praise

And this is the direction that the psalmist is moving as Psalm 104 concludes. Humility is evident is the psalmist’s desire to please God rather than self (verse 34), as well as in the psalmist’s invitation to his or her self to “Bless the LORD” (verse 35). The word “bless” connotes not just praise, but also submission—that is, a humbling of the self. But praise is present too. The psalmist cannot keep from singing (verse 33), and it is appropriate that the first hallelujah (“Praise the LORD!) in the Book of Psalms concludes Psalm 104. The psalmist’s celebration of life as a gift yields a life characterized by humility, gratitude, joy, and praise.

An ecological Pentecost

What Psalm 104 may help us contemplate and appreciate is that humility, gratitude, joy, and praise are, properly understood, ecological activities! Or at least, they are the foundation for ecological sensitivity and action, for they motivate us to love and enjoy the creation in all its majesty and multiplicity as much as God loves it and enjoys it. To love and enjoy the world will naturally mean “to serve it and preserve it” (Genesis 2:15, a better translation than NRSV’s “to till it and keep it”).

The use of Psalm 104 on the Day of Pentecost derives largely from the word “spirit” in verse 30, but the connection is deeper than a mere catchword. Rather, it suggests that the ongoing life of the church is a divine gift from the same God who energizes the ongoing life of the world. The theological effect is to inject an explicitly creational dimension into our thinking about the church. The birth of the church meant and means the ongoing existence of a community that knows that it owes its life to God, and that is called to share that good news. The church will be not just in the world, but for the world, including “all” that God has made (verse 24). Perhaps the Day of Pentecost should also be called the church’s Earth Day!


Notes

  1. Commentary first published on this site on May 24, 2015. Quotation is from The Comforting Whirlwind: God, Job and the Scale of Creation (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 2005), 15.
  2. McKibben, 32.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 8:22-27

Jennifer V. Pietz

While the text in Acts 2 for the day of Pentecost celebrates the initial arrival of the Holy Spirit, Romans 8:22-27 describes the ongoing reality of life in the Spirit. 

At first glance, we might prefer Acts’ portrait of the Spirit spontaneously uniting a diverse crowd of people into an idyllic community to Paul’s description of groaning, pain, and weakness. But sitting with Romans  8:22-27 reveals an equally powerful portrait of the Spirit’s work that both challenges and comforts the contemporary world.

The text comes in the midst of Paul’s assurances that God’s gift of Christ has already freed humanity from the powers of sin and death that held them in bondage (for example, Romans 8:1-4). The Spirit of the risen Christ is available to all now, bestowing true life through union with Christ (for example, verses 9-11). Like Peter in Acts 2, Paul declares that God’s eschatological era of salvation is presently upon us. 

But Romans 8:22-27 clarifies that the full realization of this redemption still lies in the future. In the meantime, there is groaning.

The entire creation is personified as groaning in pains of childbirth (verse 22) because it still experiences the detrimental effects of people behaving as though the God of all creation has no claim on their lives (for example, Romans 1:18-25). Christians are also caught up in this groaning, longing for their full participation in God’s restored creation (verse 23). Even the Spirit groans while interceding for these saints in their weakness (verses 26-27).

A couple of themes in Romans 8:22-23 are worth highlighting. First is the interconnectedness of human creatures with all creation in both the struggles of the present time and the longing for God’s promised redemption. Just as Romans calls people to recognize that they are not independent from God, it also calls Christians to recognize that their lives and ultimate destiny cannot be disconnected from the fate of the entirety of God’s creation.

A second, related theme is that the realm of the Spirit’s redemptive activity is the created world, in all its imperfection. The Spirit’s work is not to lift Christians out of embodied life in this world to dwell in some ecstatic state, but rather to continually transform human life—together with all creation—into the fullness of God’s intentions. This process is painful and often messy, as the image of the creation in labor pains implies. The gift of new life is beautiful, but it emerges out of struggle.

In light of the events of the past year, these themes provide timely possibilities for preaching. Amidst a global health crisis and urgent struggles for social justice, there is increased awareness that things are not right. Our text’s affirmation that God is not yet finished with the world resonates with our experiences, opening up space for our collective groaning and longing for something better. It also gives hope that we are not on our own in the struggle—God’s Spirit is groaning right along with us, expressing our pain, fears, and dreams to God as petitions too deep for us to put into words. The text also invites us to consider the ways in which life in the Spirit empowers us to deeply engage a hurting world, trusting that the Spirit is constantly working in human weakness to bring about God’s full liberation and wholeness.

Circumstances have also forced us to recognize the interconnectedness of all people and creation, which can move us to embrace the other-centered life in the Spirit that Paul describes throughout his letters. For instance, when daily life as we knew it largely came to a halt across the world early in the pandemic, air pollution dropped in dramatically visible ways that demonstrated the human capacity to impact God’s creation—whether for good or for ill. Romans 8:22-27 reminds us of the ongoing groaning of creation even as we start to embrace a return to “normal” life.

We have also seen that one country or community’s health and safety depends on that of all of its neighbors, so that equitable access to health care and other resources is essential for everyone to flourish. This presents a challenge to those of us who experience some degree of privilege—how might the Spirit be leading us to work for change that benefits those who have been denied such privilege? What would it look like to walk in solidarity with everyone in our communities, recognizing that God is committed to the wellbeing of the whole world?

The Romans text also invites us to reflect on both the beauty and frailty of embodied existence—realities that are accentuated amidst illness, isolation, and the accompanying longing for human touch that was prohibited for so long. We are reminded that the Spirit’s redemptive work encompasses all aspects of who we are, including our bodies. The text thus presents a holistic vision of life in the Spirit that calls us to care for ourselves and each other in all aspects of our lives, as we wait in hope for the fullness of divine redemption.