Lectionary Commentaries for June 5, 2022
Day of Pentecost
Commentary on John 14:8-17 [25-27]
Commentary on Acts 2:1-21
Though we celebrate Pentecost every year as a central event and season, the richness and complexity of Luke’s account in Acts 2 provides a wealth of potential connections to explore between the story and the lives of our faith communities. In what follows, I identify three elements of the story that in my experience are often not addressed in our remembrances of this pivotal event in the history of the church.
But first, a word on the boundaries of the passage suggested by the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). Here is a clear case where the RCL’s common and unfortunate practice of truncating passages should be resisted. Please read all of Acts 2:1-42! Also consider including verses 43-47, as it details the kind of community emerging from Pentecost and characterizing the life of the early church. If you fear attention spans will wane due to its length, perhaps present the story as a dramatic reading with several readers. This is too important a story to chop in half.
The disciples take up Jesus’ ministry of the Kingdom
Jesus has twice told the disciples that they would take up Jesus’ ministry of witness once they have been empowered by the Spirit, first in Luke 24:48-49 and then again in Acts 1:1-8. But we often speak of the “witness” the disciples are to embrace as simply or primarily their verbal proclamation of the good news. But the witness the Spirit activates is to the very arrival of the Kingdom of God among them (see Acts 1:3), and not just for Israel, but for all of humanity (see Acts 1:6-8).
This is why Luke presents as integral to the early believer’s testimony the very same kind of counter-cultural community (see 2:43-47; 4:32-37) and healing Jesus initiated among his disciples. Theirs is a Spirit-baptized ministry of word and deed that continues Jesus’ work of establishing the reign of God “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (1:8). Simply put, the disciples are to pick up where Jesus left off. As with Jesus, their witness to the Kingdom unfolding among them will soon elicit deadly animosity from those who zealously guard the status quo.
A tough kerygma to swallow
There are multiple indications in this and preceding episodes that the “good news” was rather difficult news for Jesus’ disciples and many of his followers to initially wrap their heads around—and for good reason. There simply was no precedent in Israelite tradition (at least none that we are aware of) for the notion that God’s messiah would be crucified. In fact, this was counter-intuitive to the extreme. The messiah was to cast down the Romans and their elite allies from their lofty thrones, and banish their oppressive ways, not fall victim to them!
It is thus no surprise that the primary activity Luke attributes to the risen Jesus is helping his disciples make sense of this very strange good news. In three successive episodes of Luke 24, Jesus presents an initial moment of disclosure, leading to confusion/misunderstanding, leading to corrective instruction, leading to understanding, leading to proclamation by those who initially misunderstood. That same pattern is replicated here in Acts 2 and in passages to follow. The corrective instruction that first an angel (Luke 24:6-7), and then the risen Jesus (Luke 24:25-27; 24:44-49; Acts 1:1-8), and now Peter, and then others will provide is grounded in the testimony of Israel’s Scriptures to the incredible events that have unfolded and are still unfolding in their midst.
This really was part of God’s plan! But even now, and even with a spectacular miracle occurring right before them, many will not believe (see Acts 2:13). For to do so is to embrace a major paradigm shift in how the Kingdom was to arrive and what it means to welcome God’s saving reign in their midst.
The story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 is a strange one. But set within the context of the Primeval History (Genesis 1-11) it functions as a parallel to the fall story of Genesis 3. Once again humanity chooses to resist God’s intentions for humanity—this time God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and multiply in it” (Genesis 9:7). They also again choose to “play God”:
“Come, let us build ourselves a city with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad on the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4)
Humanity’s primordial calling was to fill the earth and care for it so that God’s intentions for creation to blessed with abundant life could be realized. Now, humanity wants to stake its camp in one corner of creation and build walls and towers. They also brazenly attempt to stake their claim in heaven. But God confounds their tongues, and scatters them abroad to foil their evil designs. As a result, the Primeval History ends with creation in a state of desperate alienation, between humanity and God, and between humanity and one another. God’s attempt to salvage creation through flood and a new beginning is in serious jeopardy.
In Genesis 12, we see God embark on a new strategy for reconnecting with humanity and returning creation to blessing. God covenants with Abram and Abram’s descendants so that someday “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). The Spirit’s incredible miracle at Pentecost, where the tongues of all nations are made intelligible to all present—as the early believers make ready to return blessing “to the ends of the earth”—signals both an end to the curse of Babel and the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abram. For now, with the advent of God’s new age made possible through a descendant of Abraham, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21). The promise of repentance, forgiveness and a life empowered by the Holy Spirit is “for you, for your children, and for all who are far away” (Acts 2:39).
Alternate First Reading
Commentary on Genesis 11:1-9
On Pentecost Sunday, the Church celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit to the early followers of Jesus after his ascension. It is a day to proclaim and remember the power of the Spirit in our own lives today.
Praise God, who infuses us with the rush of a mighty wind and fills us with fire!
Praise God, who out of love for us sent the Holy Spirit to live within us!
The Tower of Babel story—found in our lesson from Genesis 11—is often read in contrast to the Pentecost story in Acts 2. In many interpretations, the story of Pentecost reverses (and thereby resolves) the “problem” of the Genesis story. Babel creates numerous languages; the people’s languages are confused so that they do not understand each other. Pentecost, however, unifies these languages because the Spirit allows all to understand one language.
This traditional interpretation has some weaknesses. First, it misunderstands the Acts 2 story, which does not claim that the people’s languages are unified but notes that each person understands in their own language.
“And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” (Acts 2:8, NRSV)
There is not a single language at Pentecost.
Second, the interpretation falls into a common theological trap of finding a problem in the Old Testament and a solution in the New Testament. It implies that the Tower of Babel story cannot stand alone as an inspiring word but needs Acts 2 to resolve the matter theologically. This interpretation may not explicitly proffer an understanding of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, but it implicitly does this theological work. It ignores how the Old Testament passage stands on its own without reference to a New Testament passage. It encourages us to allow the Acts 2 passage to set the parameters for interpreting Genesis 11. (Would we ever claim that a New Testament passage plants a seed that ultimately flowers theologically in the Old Testament?)
Do we have to understand these two stories as a problem and solution?
How do we think about diversity?
Underneath the comparison between Genesis 11 and Acts 2 is a deeper question: Is diversity of language (culture, religion, et cetera) a problem to be solved? It seems that the traditional interpretation of these passages takes this premise as a starting point. We might imagine some good intentions behind this understanding such as a call for unity among deeply fractured communities. Yet, we must continue to explore the question.
Is diversity the result of divine punishment and humanity’s great pride?
Is this the moral of Genesis 11?
Looking around at the variety of butterflies or breakfast cereals, many of us would not want to claim diversity as punishment. Likewise, we do not ascribe our children’s high school French class to God’s retribution (although our kids might!). In fact, we often celebrate and seek to foster greater diversity in our communities. It is a value, not a penalty.
God’s plan for diversity
Genesis 11 has often been read as a story of sin and punishment, but there is another way to read.
We can see Genesis 11 as a narrative that makes the opposite point: humanity’s desire for uniformity and God’s yearning for diversity. The Babel story places us on the side of uniformity and sameness and God on the side of multiplicity.
Notice the repetition of the word “one” in the passage:
11:1: “Now the whole earth had one language and the same [in Hebrew, this is the word for “one”] words.”
11:6: “And the LORD said, “Look, they are one people, and they have one language…”
God seems concerned about the oneness of the people and their language. It is this uniformity that is the problem. Sameness is not God’s will for God’s people. Monologue, monolingual, monophony—these are not the dreams of God!
In addition, the people are concerned about being dispersed or scattered (verses 4, 8, 9). They want to remain in the same place together.
But God calls them toward variety and diversity. God creates God’s dream for more languages and cultures which are spread out throughout the earth.
Come, Holy Spirit: a prayer
Come, Holy Spirit, witness to us also in our many languages.
Speak in the language of our need. Let us hear how our deepest hungers, desires, and aspirations can be fulfilled by your goodness.
Speak in the language of our fear. Let us hear how our worries about the future, about each other, and about ourselves, can find rest in your care.
Speak in the language of our gratitude. Let us hear how our honest thanks relates us, not only to those with whom we live, but also to you, the Lord and Giver of life, and, indeed, to the whole world.
Speak to us in the language of hope. Let us hear how our deepest yearning and our expectations are not just wishful thinking, but responses to your promise.
Commentary on Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
This creation psalm celebrates the goodness, splendor, complexity, and interrelatedness of creation, which reflect God’s wisdom.1
With strategic repetition of “your works” throughout the chapter, Psalm 104 celebrates the world as evidence of God’s wisdom in creating and sustaining the world, such that everything connects with everything else.
The phrase “Bless the Lord, O my soul” appears in Psalms 103 and 104, joining these two psalms as a larger celebration of God’s creation and as a guide for the people to pray in praise of God for creation. The psalmist agrees with Psalm 103 that God rules over all that is, and Psalm 104 expands upon this by detailing God’s works of creation.
Verse 24 begins with a new vocative, “O Lord,” proclaiming God’s sovereignty and dominion over all of the earth and the heavens, all of which are God’s creation. The psalm is somewhat reminiscent of Genesis 1 but is not intended to be read as a narrative.
Humankind are workers within God’s ordered world, built upon interdependence between all living things. The whole world depends on God for sustenance, and none can survive without God. As the creator and source of life, God will always be sovereign, but God guides creation like a loving and compassionate parent. God has made creation and providence continuous with each other, just as those are continuous within God’s very self.
Verse 30 points to God’s ruach, or breath, which brings life to our physical and spiritual lives simultaneously. Just as God raised the dry bones (Ezekiel 37:1-14), God’s breath/Spirit is our complete source of life in every possible meaning. The psalmist is suggesting that the purpose of creation is life itself and that delight in life must always be rooted in deep connection to God.
Creation exists in polyrhythm, and just as God’s life-giving breath animates all of creation, humanity is to echo this life-giving breath with their praise of God.
Similarly, because the world was created with interdependence, everything we do impacts God’s world, and also God. Ecology and theology cannot be separated because every human action impacts God’s creation, therefore, they impact God as well. Note that in verse 16, the psalmist refers to “trees of the Lord” but never to “people of the Lord,” which suggests that humans are not above creation but rather are one piece within its majestic whole. God tasked humans to serve creation and take care of it, not to rule over it and exploit it for human gain. Human interference in the delicate balance of interconnectedness threatens the system which God has put into place.
This begs us to consider the root cause of our contemporary concern with environmental justice. Is it rooted in preserving our way of life for future generations (self-interest), or is it rooted in praise for God the Creator (worship)?
Wickedness is a jarring discord between the world and what it was created to be. Wickedness seeks to disconnect and deal harm, whereas the world was created for life-giving interconnectedness. As J. Clinton McCann referenced, “we have seen the wicked, and it is us!” (McCann, 1100).
The mention of the sea monster Leviathan recalls the ancient association between the ocean and chaos and between sea monsters and evil. Even these, this psalmist says, are subject to God, for God has ordered the chaotic waters to become life-giving springs (verses 6-13) and quieted the sea monsters (verses 25-26).
The psalmist wishes that God would rule over creation for eternity and that this will bring God joy. While verse 35a seems disconnected from the rest of Psalm 104, the psalmist so rejoices in creation that he wishes wickedness were not at work attempting to dismantle what God has built.
This also points to the fact that those who view themselves as part of creation cannot praise God and tolerate wickedness within the world. Either one lives in praise of God as creator/life-giver/sustainer, or one undermines God’s sovereignty by seeking to harm what God has made.
Verse 35 also offers the first instance of “hallelujah” in the psalter, which is one of the reasons this passage tends to be used on the Day of Pentecost in celebration of God’s spirit (breath, wisdom) over creation. Just as God is the source of life for all of creation — physically, cosmically, and spiritually — God has created the church and sustained the church, through which all humankind and creation are interconnected.
What amazes you about creation? For what do you find yourself repeatedly praising God? How does God reveal God’s self through creation? What responsibilities do humans have to and for creation, and how does your preaching form your congregation in this regard?
- Commentary first published on this site on June 9, 2019.
- Brueggemann, Walter, Israel’s Praise: Doxology against Idolatry and Ideology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988).
- Cotter, Jim, Psalms for a Pilgrim People (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse, 1998).
- deClaissé-Walford, Nancy, Introduction to the Psalms: A Song from Ancient Israel (St. Louis, Chalice Press, 2004).
- Mays, James L., Preaching and Teaching the Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006).
- Mays, James L., Psalms: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994).
- McCann, J. Clinton, “Psalms,” In The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol 4, ed by Leander E. Keck, et al. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996).
- Reid, Stephen Breck, Listening In: A Multicultural Reading of the Psalms (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997).
Commentary on Romans 8:14-17
On Pentecost the Holy Spirit is center stage, rushing as a wind through the early church and inflaming the hearts of Jesus believers. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, God’s Spirit is likewise a powerfully animating force. In this moment of celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit, described in today’s gospel reading as the Advocate, Paul writes of the “Spirit of God.”
Paul’s letter to the church at Rome describes God’s Spirit bearing witness with our spirit. The Greek verb summartureo is a compound composed of the words “with” and “to witness.” One possible translation is “bears witness with.” While Paul could have simply written that God’s Spirit witnesses our spirit, the text here emphasizes that God’s Spirit witnesses with our spirit. The emphasis is on the relationship between God and God’s people, that God’s Spirit is intimately involved with ours.
To what does God’s Spirit bear witness with our spirit?
God’s Spirit witnesses that we are children of God. As children of God freed and forgiven, God’s Spirit reminds us who we are when we’re fearful. When we’re suffering. When we think we’re “not enough.” God’s Spirit reminds us that God made us in Their image. We’re beloved as God’s children, and there’s nothing we can do about it.
Paul presses on that to be children of God is also to be heirs of God. To be heirs is not only to be brought into right relationship with God but to be joint heirs with Christ. To be an heir of God is also to be in relationship with Christ. Jesus is the heir of God, the first within a large extended family. Being adopted into God’s family means that Jesus is our sibling and that we too can cry out to God as a child cries to a parent, to Mom or Dad.
We too become heirs with God when we respond to the call into a cruciform life, a life shaped by the cross of Christ. This cruciform life means shaping oneself to the continuous movement from life to death to new life, to dying to ourselves and rising in love and service to our neighbor—just as the early church in Jerusalem, described in Acts, broke bread together, cared for the needs of the saints, and shared all things in common.
Paul continues, that to be a joint heir with Christ means to suffer with Christ. Here there is another compound verb, sumpascho, made up of the words “with” and “to suffer.” The same thing that happens to one happens to another.
We suffer with Christ so that we might be glorified with Christ. Guess what? There’s yet another compound verb, sundoxazo, “to glorify with.” While it may be easy to go in the direction of glorifying suffering, it must be asked who is suffering and why. Is it people who are already marginalized, already being asked and expected to suffer, who are then to glory in that suffering? Are there other ways of approaching suffering? There is a reminder here, that when we suffer, Christ is present with us in the midst of it.
In these compact verses there is an intense intimacy implied in all this “with-ness.” Just as God is in relationship with Godself: Parent, Child and Spirit, so we are called into relationship with each person of God—into relationship with God as Parent to whom we cry, into relationship with the Anointed One with whom we suffer, and into relationship with God’s Spirit who bears witness to our very spirit.
How does the Spirit of God bear witness to our spirit that we are children of God?
The Spirit empowers the church into the life-long work of dying to the body and the flesh, and being raised again to new life. While it is easy to read this passage as being against our physical bodies, against our human creatureliness, for Paul the “body” and “flesh” are theological categories associated with the law, sin and death.
The text here is not necessarily against our physical bodies, but against the things that separate us from God. These powers can be both within ourselves—our minds, bodies and spirits—and outside ourselves, in other people and in the forces that structure our lives.
In fact, the physical body is not only the place of encounter with God through God’s animating Spirit, but is also the very place where God overcomes the powers of death on the cross. It is a mistake to make an easy equivalence between Paul’s use of “body” and “flesh” and our fearfully and wonderfully made human bodies.
In Romans, dying to the “flesh” and the “body” means dying to a spirit of slavery. It means dying to fear and those forces which hold power over us. To be a child of God is to be an heir, not to be a slave but a member of the household of God, free from fear and free from the power of death.
Who is this Spirit of God?
In the immediate literary context of this passage Paul builds an argument that distinguishes between a series of opposites centered around death and life. On the one hand is the law of sin and death and walking according to the flesh. The mind set on the flesh is death. All these associated ideas lead to slavery. On the other hand is the law of the spirit of life, walking according to the spirit, and a mind set on the spirit which is life and peace. These ideas are associated with freedom.
Jesus undoes these binary oppositions by coming in the flesh and being raised by God from death to life. God’s Spirit is the power that animates this movement from life, through death, into new life. There is no debt, no obligation to live according to the rules of the flesh. Living according to the flesh means death, but life comes through the Spirit overcoming death.
Paul writes to the believers in Rome that if the Spirit of God, this Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead, dwells in them, God who raised Christ will also be an animating, life-giving power in our own bodies through God’s Spirit dwelling in us. It is this “with-ness”—this Spirit that is with and for us—that rushes in on Pentecost.
The Gospel text for today offers us an alternative approach to experiencing the Spirit this Pentecost Sunday, not in roaring wind and tongues of flame followed by dynamic preaching to an international audience, but in Jesus’ final promises to his friends of comfort and guidance to come, shortly before they step out into the darkness of his arrest and crucifixion.
Philip’s question, with which this text begins, is a response to Jesus’ reassurance that the way to the place where he is going, which is a source of fear and anxiety as they sense the impending crisis, is already accessible. Jesus himself, their friend and the one who is the embodiment of God’s love for the world from before time, is the way to the heart of God. That promise comes shortly after Peter’s insistence that he will follow Jesus to death, which he will not do, and that in turn has followed on the threefold commandment to love, which seems to have fallen on deaf ears.
The promise of the Spirit does not come to completely faithful, courageous people, already loving one another and the world boldly, already worshiping in spirit and truth. It comes in the midst of confusion and fear, which has made them unable to grasp what he is saying, and it is the answer to that. Jesus makes the promise of the Spirit, emerging from the mutual love of the Father and Son for one another and for us, into which they and we are invited, at the very moment when such grace seems most beyond their grasp and ours. In this text Jesus tells them that simply in their love for this person they know, they are opening their hearts to the presence of God in them in the form of another Advocate, the Spirit of truth, who will guide them and embolden them for love.
A trial motif moves through this Gospel from the testimony of the witness John, whose story begins in the prologue alongside the story of the pre-existent creative Word being made flesh, through Jesus’ own testimony to his unity with God, and finally on to Jesus’ trial, where Pilate asks Jesus, the one who is not only the way but also the truth, what truth is. The term Advocate (or Paraclete, which is an English transliteration of the Greek) in 14:16 and 26 picks up this motif and underscores how the Spirit of truth dwelling in Jesus’ own (the ones on the final night, 13:1, and us now, 17:20) comes alongside us to bear witness in us to all we need to know, as we are ready to receive it, and through us to the love of God in the world. These are the first of four uses of the term in John (see also 15:26; 16:13), all in these five chapters when the narrative pace slows as Jesus comforts and instructs them and us for life in the world, which is both threatening and beloved. It appears elsewhere only in 1 John 2:1, where it refers to Christ. The Spirit is another Advocate who dwells in us as the Father dwells in the Son and Jesus dwelled in the world. When the physical presence of Jesus is no longer available, still the way, the truth, and the life are in us.
Jesus and the Father will make us know their presence in us, Jesus says, because when we love Jesus, we will follow his commandments, and the only explicit commandment Jesus gives us in John is the new commandment given threefold in 13:34-35: love one another, love one another, love one another. Jesus repeats and elaborates on the commandment in 15:9-17. When we love Jesus, we will live in love, and the Spirit will then be available to guide us in that life of love.
Jesus in John shows us what living love looks like in his own life of making God’s love for the world known. He enacts love, and says we also will do this (14:12-14), in words and works: in dangerously truthful testimony to political and religious authorities; in a ministry of boundary-breaking healing and of feeding the physically and spiritually hungry; and in a life of humility (including Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet), friendship, and prayer. He tells us that we are to follow his example (13:14-17), and he also gives us additional instruction on what loving God and one another looks like for the rest of us, who are not the vine or the shepherd but branches and friends of the one who is those things. As Peter responds three times to Jesus’ threefold love question in 21:15-17, Jesus responds to him: feed, tend, feed. Then he says, “Follow me.” And he adds not to get too excited about how our neighbor’s life of service looks but to do our own following, the love that we can do.
These things, this alternative good news of Pentecost suggests, are ways we can live into fullness of life in the Spirit, who is breathed over us, dwells in us, advocates for us, and flows through us to the world in witnessing love.
The peace Jesus then gives, not as the world gives, is the very presence of God in them and us. So when he tells them again not to let their hearts be troubled (14:27) as he said it before, immediately following Peter’s dashed hopes for heroism, it is now in light of the Spirit in them and us, who makes an untroubled peaceful heart possible when our own efforts fail utterly.
The Spirit moves, blows, and flies from John’s testimony to the descent of the dove, who remains on Jesus in the first chapter of this Gospel, to Jesus’ encounter with the disciples cowering behind locked doors for fear of the religious authorities after the resurrection. There Jesus breathes the Spirit over them as he speaks it here in comfort and courage. They and we, he promises, are never orphaned (14:18). We are sons and daughters of God (1:12). As Jesus was God With Us in the flesh, now the Spirit dwells in us making us God With One Another, loving as Jesus commanded us to do.