Lectionary Commentaries for May 7, 2023
Fifth Sunday of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 14:1-14

Angela N. Parker

As I delve into John 14:1-14, I am surprised by something that I normally witness in Pauline literature. The Apostle Paul often writes to his churches and embodies an understanding of a singular heart or singular body in relationship to the plurality of people in the congregation. For Paul, multiple people are to share a singular heart or body for Christ. Similarly, in John 14:1, Jesus begins his statement with the words mē tarassesthō hymōn hē kardia. Most translations state this phrase as “Let not your hearts be troubled.” However, the words for “hearts” is actually in the singular form. So Jesus says to his disciples, “let not your (plural) heart (singular) be troubled.” I have never noticed that Jesus’ statement in the Gospel of John highlights the idea of the disciples possessing one singular heart as a collective group of people.

Historically, in Johannine interpretation, scholars argue that the community in which the Gospel of John grew up was a community that had been separated from the synagogue. This group, no doubt, was experiencing loneliness and despair about their place in the world. The Johannine Jesus begins by comforting this community with a reminder about their collectivity of heart. After the discussion between Philip and Jesus about knowing the way to the Father, Jesus replies that he is the “way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” As I ponder the collectivity of heart that begins this passage, I wonder if 14:6 actually serves as the paradigm of Christian exclusivity that many people often interpret it to mean. Many contemporary Christians use 14:6 to argue that the only way to “eternal life” is through belief in Jesus. There is no allowance for the mystery of God to be revealed in any other religious systems such as Jewish or Islamic faith. I would argue that such an interpretation is not our major take-away from this text.

To begin, Philip asks Jesus how they will know “the way.” In Greek the term hodos is the word for way, road, or highway. While the term can serve as an understanding for an actual road or way, hodos can also mean a journey or a trip. However, there is also a connotation that serves metaphorical purposes. Hodos can also represent the “way” or the “way of life” that connotes behavior. In Acts of the Apostles, the first Jesus-followers called themselves “people of the way” (Acts 9:2). In the times prior to the writing of the Gospel of John, philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle thought of the philosophical systems as methodical hodos. Jesus is teaching in the same vein as these philosophers. Philip is asking the question in a literal highway sense but Jesus is answering metaphorically.

Moreover, Jesus adds alatheia (truth) and zoe (life) to his metaphorical equation. As Jesus was walking in such a way that was leading him closer and closer to death, his words and actions testified to the truth of God. But as I ponder Jesus testifying to the truth of God, I am swayed by meanings beyond the traditional definitions as provided by my Bauer, Danker, Arendt, and Gingrich lexicon (which is based only on Christian understandings of words). Delving into a more expansive lexicon, the Liddell Scott, one connotation caught my eye in their four-pronged definition of truth (which is the opposite of a lie or false appearance). In Liddell Scott, an understanding of truth also connotes “a true event, realization of dream or omen.”1 Immediately, a line from Maya Angelou’s poem, “Still I Rise” came to my memory: “I am the dream and the hope of the slave.”

Is it possible that Jesus as the truth of God represents the “dream and hope” of God? Jesus serves as our example of what it means to walk on the way. Just as I think of myself as the dream and hope of my enslaved ancestors, I love this idea of thinking about Jesus as the “dream and hope” of God since it seems to me that the dream and hope of God leads to an understanding of what “life” then looks like. Christian interpretation from the times of plantation Christianity until today has espoused a dream of eternal life that does not pay attention to what life on earth looks like.

Specifically, scholars such as Albert J. Raboteau have argued that Christianity in the antebellum South compensated for the death, despair, and harms done to enslaved people by emphasizing an “otherworldly, compensatory” salvation that comes in the hereafter.2 It seems to me that when we take “the way, the truth, and the life” together, this passage cannot mean an exclusive and imperialistic meaning that some espouse today. The Johannine community was a disconnected community that sought connection during difficult times. Perhaps, that is the message for singular-hearted people. We must be people of the way, being the dream and hope of God, as we participate in abundant life while here on earth together.

Further, as he talks about going back to the Father, Jesus states in verse 12 “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.” Our greater works must exhibit the way, the truth, and the life for communities that continue to be disconnected and denied access to all of the areas that can bring abundant life such as quality food, access to medical care, affordable housing, and continued dignity no matter what their identities are. That is the way, the truth, and the life for a collective people with a singular heart.


  1. Henry George Liddell et al., A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 63.
  2. Albert Raboteau, Slave Religion: The Invisible Institution in the Antebellum South. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 290.

First Reading

Commentary on Acts 7:55-60

Amy G. Oden

This is a disturbing story. Stephen speaks truth to power and is stoned to death. The post-Easter world is not warm and fuzzy. Our Easter trumpets are jarringly silenced by shocking human brutality.

It’s a tough passage to preach. Check out all the great commentaries from past years on this site. For this commentary, I’ll focus on one theme: the gaze (atenzio), but with a twist. Invite your congregation to explore the connection between prophetic speaking and a gaze fixed beyond the noise, a gaze fixed on Jesus.

The gaze

Stephen “gazed to heaven” (verse 55) and invited others to gaze with him, using the imperative “Look” (verse 56). This gaze (atenizo) is more than mere physical sight. It implies a deeper perception, an intentional focus of awareness on Jesus—“he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (verse 55). While everyone around him is upset, caught up in the drama, outraged, Stephen maintained a steady focus beyond the fray, beyond the noise, his eyes fixed on Jesus. Stephen gazes, not to some escapist other-world, but to the reality of Emmanuel, God-with-us.

Stephen’s gaze here recalls Jesus’ gospel refrain about having “eyes to see” and “ears to hear.” In the gospels, Jesus invites listeners to intentional awareness that God is up to something in the midst of everyday life, even right here! This way of seeing continually expands one’s frame of reference, freeing one from the bondage of reactivity to the latest drama or from defensive postures. In one sense, it is as much a way of being as a way of seeing.

Stephen’s gaze is a prophetic and defiant act. This kind of gaze refuses to hand over one’s consciousness to the loudest voice or the most frightening bully. His gaze is a prophetic stance that proclaims the reign of God, the kin-dom, right here and right now, even in the face of an angry mob who wants to dominate his gaze and colonize his consciousness. Eyes fixed on Jesus liberate our attention from those who wish to dominate it.

The prophetic gaze

What is the connection between speaking truth to power and this gaze upon the glory of God? Perhaps this story of Stephen shows us the prophetic gaze. Stephen has just spoken hard truths to his leaders, some of whom are surely his friends. His account spares no feelings as he details the people’s disobedience in resisting the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:2-53).

The prophetic gaze does not shy away from injustice, or gloss over transgression. The prophetic gaze does not avoid the painful truth. However, its eye is NOT focused on the transgressors.  This may be counterintuitive for many contemporary Christians.

Whereas so much of our own prophetic speech today is focused on “them,” whoever the political or theological opponents are, Stephen’s prophetic gaze is not on the transgressors. Rather, Stephen’s prophetic eye is on “the heavens” or, we might say, “the kin-dom” or “the reign of God” or “God’s life here and now.” Stephen refuses to give the angry mob the power of center stage and reframes his own experience within the redemptive work of God. The transforming turn in verse 55 is toward the wider, more true reality. This changes everything!

Stephen’s gaze allows him to see “the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (verse 55). If he focused solely on the Sanhedrin, indeed he might be paralyzed with terror or outrage or sorrow.  But because he continues to focus on God-with-us even in this horror, he is steady, he is clear, he continues to bear witness to the love of Jesus. Even as he is being stoned, his words, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (verse 60) reveal he is rooted in love. This is what radical, prophetic defiance looks like. Focused on Jesus, we are freed from blaming, defending, explaining or winning.

Of course, we can decline the invitation to see. The Sanhedrin refused to see what Stephen was talking about and “covered their ears against him” (verse 57). Their anger, some translations say “seething,” tells us that he hit a nerve.

The invitation

How might we hear an invitation to this sort of gaze? How might we orient ourselves toward this kind of seeing? The kind that says, “Look! See the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God!”

We are trapped in cycles of reactivity, eager to focus on our opponents, to prove we are right. Our gaze too often is fixed on those wrong-doers, or people who vote wrongly or misinterpret the Bible or bully others. We give them our power by focusing our energies on them, allowing them to completely occupy and preoccupy our gaze.

Stephen shows us another way. If, instead, we got curious about what God is up to in all of this, what might we see? If we turned our gaze to Jesus, what might we learn? What larger, more expansive vision of God’s redemptive life might we gain?

The prophetic gaze requires imagination. We must cultivate our capacity to imagine God’s kin-dom, as Jesus did again and again. He gives us many images and stories to help us expand our prophetic gaze, to see the kin-dom at hand, among us now.

Invite your congregation to imagine with you how to wrest their attention away from those they deem wicked and instead fix their gaze on Jesus. Offer a story, image or example of “seeing the glory of God’ in the midst of this very place.


Commentary on Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16

Joel LeMon

This psalmist is a refugee.1

In fact, the Psalter is “refugee literature,” in a very real sense. It’s written by refugees, for refugees.2 The Psalms give voice to those who yearn for a place of safety and protection. Moreover, the voice of those refugees is so clear and compelling that the Psalms heighten our attention to the cries of those seeking refuge in our midst.

From its opening verses, Psalm 31 presents the fundamental relationship between the psalmist and God: “In you, O Yahweh, I seek refuge” (verse 1). This imagery of the psalmist as refugee and God as refuge recurs explicitly at the beginning and end of the psalm (especially in verses 1-4, 19-20). But the logic of the relationship underlies the entire psalm.

After its opening affirmation of God being a source of protection (verse 1a), the psalmist makes an immediate plea for God to provide that protection (verse 1b-4). The refugee desperately needs deliverance, salvation, and guidance as he tries to evade capture (verse 4).

In the subsequent verses, the refugee issues an assertion of trust in Yahweh alone, that no real power resides elsewhere (verses 6-8). “Idols” are worthless, but Yahweh is of inestimable worth, since Yahweh can lead the refugee to “a broad place” (verse 6). This delivering power of Yahweh provides a strong contrast to the threat of detention, of being ensnared in a net by the enemies (verse 4).

After the bold affirmations of verses 3-8, the refugee turns again to a description of his oppression. He is grief-stricken, worn out. He is completely “wasting away”: eyes, soul, body (verse 9), strength, and bones (verse 10). The refugee is faced with the terrifying reality that he is ceasing to exist.

This bodily disintegration corresponds to his lack of integration within the community that surrounds him. They deride the refugee and are terrified by him (verse 11). They either run away from the refugee (verse 11) or make plans to get rid of him (verse 13). All of this social dis-ease prompts the refugee to think of himself as one already dead (verse 12).

He is a broken vessel (verse 12) no longer useful, something only to be thrown out. Fields of broken vessels, i.e., potsherds, were the ancient equivalent to our modern dumps or landfills (see also Jeremiah 19:2; Job 2:8). That is where the refugee finds himself, as nothing more than human trash.

The psalm is marked by a back-and-forth movement between bitter complaints and sublime confidence—between petitions (verses 1-2, 9-13, 16-18) and affirmations of trust (verses 3-8, 14-15, 19-24). This common movement in the psalms attests the complex emotional state of those seeking refuge. Refugees are alternately terrified by the threats of those who would seek to harm them and hopeful for a new experience of safety.

The psalm ends with expressions of hope and confidence, based on the refugee’s own experience of God’s power and goodness. God has established a pattern of delivering those who seek God’s sheltering presence (v. 20). Thus, the final strains of this psalm are an exhortation to all refugees to take courage and rely on God’s faithfulness and justice.

Preachers should pay particularly close attention to a psalm like this in a political climate like ours. This psalm provides a stark reminder of the plight of refugees in every age. Though the identities and threats change, the experience of refugees remains consistent. They exist at the dangerous periphery of society. They are both feared by those communities and themselves afraid.

This psalm reminds us of God’s fundamental identity as refuge. Over and over, in a cascade of images, Psalm 31, like so many others, portrays God as the place of protection for those seeking refuge. Reading this psalm helps us recognize God as refuge and ourselves, and so many others, as refugees.

Psalm 31, in the larger context of Christian Scripture also helps us identify God the Son as a refugee too. Luke’s Gospel puts this psalm of refuge on the lips of Jesus on the Cross. Indeed, his very last words are an affirmation that he relies completely on God as refuge (Luke 23:46). The resurrection and glorification of Jesus testify God’s ultimate faithfulness to refugees.

In the Bible’s complex theological witness, God is both refuge and refugee. That reality should align our own communities toward refugees. And it defines Christian ministry as a ministry of and for refugees.

Psalm 31 is a prayer for refugees to pray. But it is also a prayer for those of us who do not immediately identify ourselves as refugees. The immediacy of the rhetoric focuses our attention on those who are even now seeking refuge in our midst.

When we read verse 1, “In you, Yahweh, I seek refuge,” we cannot help but hear our own voice. And we realize that we are all refugees. We share a theological kinship with all who seek refuge and share profound responsibility to minister to them.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on May 14, 2017.
  2. On the many forms of the imagery of God as refuge and their implications for the theology of the Psalms, see Jerome Creach, Yahweh as Refuge and the Editing of the Hebrew Psalter, JSOTSup 217 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1996); and William P. Brown, Seeing the Psalms: A Theology of Metaphor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 15-30.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Peter 2:2-10

Joel B. Green

When 1 Peter turns from its extended introduction (1:3-12) to the body of the letter, the first major section (1:13—2:10) explores the identity and vocation of Peter’s audience. The shift is easy to spot, since Peter moves from an emphasis on what “is” to what “ought to be.” A celebration of God’s mercy and clarity about our place in God’s liberating narrative (1:3-12) leads to a call to actually be God’s people (1:13—2:10). “Dwelling in a strange land” (1:17 Common English Bible), God’s people are called to holiness—not in terms of negating whatever characterizes “the world,” but through distancing oneself from one’s former lifestyle and through imitation of God (for example, 1:14-17).

The last subunit of this section of the letter brings these motifs to a climax (2:4-10) characterized by appropriating Israel’s Scriptures in order to show these Christ-followers who they are, their status before God, and the nature of faithfulness as they live as “chosen strangers in the world of the diaspora” (1:1), as “immigrants and strangers in the world” (2:11). Peter reads the Scriptures christologically in order to guide the church in the formation of its identity and pursuit of its mission. To put it differently, Peter interprets the story of Israel, the story of Christ Jesus, and the story of these Christ-followers in parallel, rooting his audience deeply in both the scriptural past and Christ’s career.

The language of honor and shame pervades this material (rejected, chosen, precious, shame, honor), but we should note how these terms are used. Perspective is all important. What matters is God’s valuation of human beings, not appraisals more at home in the Roman world. Gender, genealogy, age, physical attributes, abilities—such typical barometers of who is up or down, who is in or out, are altogether missing. What matters instead is God’s choice and God’s election, both expressions of God’s grace. From the usual perspective, then, Christ and his followers are humiliated, rejected, and ostracized. From a perspective animated by Christ’s suffering, however, they are God’s elect, honored.

We find the Christological turning point in Peter’s citation of Isaiah 28:16 (1 Peter 2:6), which is set within an Isaianic oracle of judgment that leads to the promise of a new community realized as God restores God’s people and institutes God’s righteous rule. A “cornerstone” is not only the stone set at the corner of two intersecting walls (as the name implies). Importantly, it is the one prepared and chosen for its exact 90° angle, which serves as the basis for the construction of the whole building. Choosing the right cornerstone is essential not only to the aesthetics of the building but also to its durability. Obviously, as they set out to build, God (and those who adopt God’s perspective) and those who reject Christ have radically different bases for assessment. And these different perspectives reach their sharpest contrast in their appraisal of Christ’s suffering—for those who disbelieve, the site of vicious ridicule; for those who believe, the site of God’s saving work in the world.

For those who refuse God’s perspective, Jesus Christ is experienced as an obstacle (leading to stumbling and falling). Faith, then, allows one to see what could otherwise not be seen (leading to honor from God). From one point of view, Jesus and his followers are humiliated and ostracized, but from the other they are God’s elect, God’s honored. Accordingly, humans respond with trust or with disbelief and the consequences of those responses, whether trust or disbelief, have been pre-set (1 Peter 2:7-8).

Peter builds a parallel between Christ and Peter’s audience:

  • Christ, the living stone—Peter’s audience, living stones
  • Christ, rejected by humans—Peter’s audience, shunned strangers in the world
  • Christ, God’s elect—Peter’s audience, God’s elect
  • Christ, honored by God—Peter’s audience, honored by God

This does not put Peter’s audience on the same level as Christ. Rather, on account of Christ’s having been raised from the dead, they are like “living stones” who are acceptable to God through Christ.

Peter develops the identity of God’s people further, drawing especially on Israel’s narrative.

  • Rebirth involves incorporation into a new community, described here as the new temple that shares in God’s honor and symbolizes God’s presence and power.
  • Rebirth entails membership in the holy priesthood involving “spiritual sacrifices,” such as holiness of life (1 Peter 1:15) and mutual love (1:22).
  • Rebirth inducts them into a “chosen people”—disparate people who find commonality in their shared patterns of life, their share in Israel’s story, and their share in Christ’s story.
  • Rebirth into a holy nation and royal priesthood, borrowing language from Exodus 19:6 and so recalling the character of God who hears the distress of God’s people, acts on their behalf, and invites them into a covenant relationship. That covenant entails among God’s people that they exemplify God’s holy character and that they “proclaim the excellence of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).

Borrowing language from Hosea (1:6, 9; 2:1, 23), Peter drives home the gracious work of God in creating a community of people that previously did not exist (1 Peter 2:10). Using the language of Israel’s judgment and restoration, Peter sketches the significance of new birth for his audience of Christ-followers and celebrates the saving mercy of God.

Although 1 Peter 2:2-3 is not integral to the unit of Peter’s letter we have just discussed (2:4-10), it clearly prepares for it—first, by speaking to the potency of God’s word; and second, by helping to introduce the notion of new birth that anticipates what follows. The ideas of being nourished by the word and growing into salvation are filled out further by the stone imagery and references to peoplehood that follow.