Lectionary Commentaries for May 28, 2023
Day of Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 20:19-23

Angela N. Parker

As I travel the country teaching Bible to churches in new ways that address White supremacy, biblical authority, and the belief that Black lives do matter to God, I am struck by the sense that many of us have not experienced sustained peace since 2020. I think that collectively as a society the multiple pandemics of Covid-19, racial injustices, the surge of White Christian nationalism, and rising gun violence have left many of us holding our collective breath waiting for the next tragedy to occur. Many of us desire a double portion of peace so that we can breathe again. In today’s passage, Jesus does that for the disciples. Accordingly, in the following reflection, I believe a double portion of peace is necessary because it

  1. frees the disciples from fear
  2. stresses the importance of Jesus’ breath in our lives, and
  3. ushers in the Spirit to an empowered community.

John 20:19-23 begins with the disciples in a locked room because of “fear of the Ioudaioi.” Most translations render the term as “the Jews.” The phrase “fear of the Jews” occurs in John 7:13; 9:22; and 19:38. Scholars note that these literal words in the Gospel of John seem to show this group as the betrayers of Jesus or, at the very least, accomplices to the Roman empire as they condemned and executed Jesus by crucifixion. While other gospel narratives usually state that the “scribes and Pharisees” did the betrayal, the Gospel of John seemingly takes the consequences of the charge further to a generalization of guilt upon an entire group of people (in other words, The Jews). While the Gospel of John does appear to provide a growing differentiation between Jesus’ followers and Jewish people, I must caution interpreters in contemporary society that they not uphold any anti-Semitic thought and statements during sermon prep that lumps all Jews together as Christ-killers.

Pondering what it means to hide away in fear, the beautiful part of this passage is that the greeting eirēnē hymin (peace to you all) frames the idea of Jesus showing his hands and side while the disciples see and rejoice. The text beautifully shows that in order to move away from fear, the community must constantly expect Jesus to show himself beyond any fears that lurk within the mind of the community. Thereafter, the community can come back to life after receiving the breath of Jesus.

In this particular pericope, after reiterating the second “peace to you all,” Jesus breathes (enephusesen) on the disciples and tells them to “Receive (the) Holy Spirit.” This is where the breath of Jesus becomes important. The use of enephusesen is what scholars call a hapax legomenon, meaning this is the only time the word appears in the Greek New Testament. Greek readers of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) would recognize the word in Genesis 2:7 where “ … the Lord God … breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.”1 As a community hiding in fear, I would classify the disciples as “socially dead” and awaiting the breath of Jesus that mirrors the Genesis narrative. This breath brings them back to life.

The concept of “social death” was ushered into academic conversations through the work of Orlando Patterson.2 While studying slavery, Patterson noted that subject formation under slavery equated to social death that undid, eliminated, and distorted the basic conditions of relationality within human life. Because the Johannine community was losing connection to their Jewish friends and neighbors by following Jesus, they were feeling the impact of the deprivation of their interpersonal contacts.3 Although not engaging Patterson, in my own work, I discuss stifled breath.4 Stifled breath is similar to social death, since both concepts point out the inability to give full-throated voice to one’s identity in the midst of living in fear through lost connection. The disciples lived in fear because of their identity as Jesus followers after Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus’ breath transforms fear into bold living and leads out of social death into community that can uphold and support our varying identities.

Finally, with breath that moves the community from stifled breathing to receiving the Holy Spirit, the Spirit then empowers the forgiveness and release of sin. However, John 20:23 has been difficult for interpreters to understand since it seems to give an extraordinary amount of power to the disciples to forgive sin, which directly contradicts other Gospels’ understanding that only God can forgive sins (see Mark 2:7). Indeed, scholars recognize the harshness of this power in their commentary but interpret the passage as a mandate for “future sanctification of generations of believers.”5 However, I question that mandate for all believers for all time to be under the authority of a presumed group of men as the only model for community leadership. In order to understand the last verse of this pericope, we must begin to understand the sentence in the context of John’s Gospel.

John 20:23 is a complex sentence. The basic construction of the sentence is two main clauses and two subordinate third-class conditional clauses. Third-class conditional clauses state what is not yet happening but what is probable to happen in the future. Accordingly, “If you all forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you all retain the sins of any, they are retained.” In my translation, I add the word “all” in order to highlight the idea of communal forgiveness and retention. When I say community, I am not imagining only the remnant of “twelve” (since the text does not specify) being in the room but a large group of disciples that included the women who told them that Jesus was alive. Jesus releases the Holy Spirit onto a community of both women and men who throughout the Gospel have been suffering continued estrangement from their community of origin. It seems to me that the writer is giving authority back to a community that has the felt sense of lost authority.

Further, in Johannine thought, the term hamartias (in other words, sin) connotes a state of being sinful which is also then paired and paralleled with belief.6 For the gospel writer, the ultimate sin is unbelief. Therefore, if we take the Gospel of John seriously, we must recognize that this verse is in a particular situational context and does not appear to give blanket authority to a presumed group of men to safeguard the sanctification of all future generations of believers. I would argue that this verse is a prompt for the Johannine community to come out of their locked room, accept into their community all of those who proclaim belief in Jesus, and release those who would continue to ostracize them.

Circling back to the multiple pandemics that opened my reflection, it appears to me that the greatest sin of contemporary Jesus followers is the disbelief that we can leave our locked rooms and tackle pressing issues in our communities. We can tackle the sanctification and glorification of guns in our present society. We can tackle the sanctification of White Christian nationalism. We can tackle police reform. Jesus has given us a double portion of peace to breathe again. Let us be Jesus followers that transform society instead of being fearful disciples who are holding our collective breath.


  1. All scripture comes from the New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise indicated.
  2. Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death: a Comparative Study. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982).
  3. Here I take seriously J. Louis Martyn’s work that points out the language of aposunagagos as an anachronism that signifies being expelled from the synagogue. The Johannine community is suffering loss of community. See Martyn, J. Louis. History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel. 3rd ed. (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003). See also John 9:22; 12:42; and 16:2.
  4. Parker, Angela N. If God Still Breathes, Why Can’t I?: Black Lives Matter and Biblical Authority. (Chicago: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2021). As a Black woman, I experienced stifled breath when I was trying to conform to particular White male biblical scholar viewpoints.
  5. Moloney, Francis J. Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of John: Volume 4 (pp. 972-973). Liturgical Press. Kindle Edition.
  6. See John 9:34; 9:41; 15:24, 19:11. See also Hansen, Steven E. “Forgiving and Retaining Sin: a Study of the Text and Context of John 20:23.” Horizons in Biblical Theology 19, no. 1 (1997): 24–32. https://doi.org/10.1163/187122097X00021.

First Reading

Commentary on Acts 2:1-21

Jeremy L. Williams

Pentecost, in many Christian circles, is acknowledged as the birthday of the Church, but we need not forget that it is a deeply Jewish holiday. One could argue that the event in Acts 2 not only presents the genesis of the Jesus movement, but it also provides glimpses into how Acts understood first and second century Jewish practices. This should not be a surprise, because Christianity began amongst Jewish people. All of the protagonists in Acts are Jewish, and most of the other characters are too, especially prior to chapter 10. Tending to the Jewishness of Pentecost provides an opportunity to better understand why this setting appropriately inaugurates the movement for Acts.

Shavuot or “The Festival of Weeks” occurs seven weeks after Passover and begins on the fiftieth day after, hence its Greek name Pentecost. This is one of the three festivals for which some Jewish people would make pilgrimage to Jerusalem (the other two are Passover and the Feast of Booths/Tabernacles). Pentecost is a harvest festival where families bring the first fruits of their harvest in anticipation of God blessing the remainder of the harvest (Exodus 23:16; Deuteronomy 26:5-11). This made Pentecost already symbolically rich for imagining the beginning of a bountiful ingathering, but in Acts’ case what was reaped was not produce, but people.

Pentecost’s rich symbolism was also connected to it being the day that commemorated the Israelites receiving the Torah or Law. Many Jewish people in the first centuries of the Common Era believed that Moses received the Torah on Mount Sinai, and they understood that the Torah contained two components: 1) the written Torah, which was what God inscribed Godself and 2) the oral Torah, which was verbally passed down from generation to generation. One had to be taught both components of the Torah, but one especially had to receive the oral Torah from a teacher, because aspects of it would not even be written down until the Mishnah at the end of the second century CE. The idea of oral Torah can be useful for reading Acts. In Acts, the Holy Spirit is the one through whom even Jesus teaches (Acts 1:2). On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit appeared through images of fire, clouds, and loud noises similar to the theophany when God gave the Torah at Sinai (Exodus 19:16-19). Similar to later Jewish texts, Acts is also considering what oral Torah looks like after one cannot keep the written Torah because of diaspora and the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.

Diaspora as depicted in Acts 2:5-11 is significant for understanding ancient Jewishness and reading Acts. Acts 2:5 notes that “there were devout Jews (Ioudaioi andres eulabeis) from every nation (ethnous) under heaven staying in Jerusalem.” The term ethnē is generally used to refer to non-Jewish people or those called “Gentiles” or “pagans.” Acknowledging this, one way to translate this verse is that “there were devout Jews from all non-Jewish/Gentile places staying in Jerusalem.” Acts 2:5 debunks a major trope of anti-Jewish readings of Acts that suggests that ancient Jewishness was particular while Christianity was universal and open to everyone. The presence of Jews (Ioudaioi) amongst every group of people under heaven insinuates that Jewishness was anything but particular. It had found homes all across the Mediterranean and beyond. In line with that, Christianity does not offer a new universal vision, but it relies on Jewish understandings of cosmopolitanism.

Acts also uses Jewish Scriptures to make meaning of this movement that seemed so strange to the audience in Acts that onlookers wondered if the apostles were drunk (Acts 2:12-13). Acts has Peter appeal to Joel’s prophecy to explain what was occurring on this special Pentecost—the first Pentecost of the last days (Joel 3:1-5). The Hebrew Bible prophetic concept of the last days was punctuated by the Day of the Lord (hēmeran kuriou), which would culminate history with dynamic ecological displays and radical egalitarianism. Such are on display in the passage from Joel. There are “portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist.” Again, we see images that recall the theophany at Sinai.

Joel writes that God’s spirit would be poured upon all flesh (sarka). The pouring does not discriminate by gender; the passage deliberately names daughters, when often sons (uioi) could be used to refer to children regardless of sex or gender. Furthermore, we can take this to mean that all (with an emphasis on all) genders have access to the pouring out of God’s spirit. The pouring does not discriminate by age either. Young people will see visions and the elderly will dream dreams (Acts 2:17). The pouring does not exclude those on the lowest rungs of the social ladder—enslaved men (doulous) and enslaved women (doulas). It is worth noting that those who are named as receiving the pouring out of the Spirit are relatively powerless without the Spirit. Although Joel declares that God will pour out God’s spirit on all flesh, the wealthy, the patriarchs, the able bodied, and the enslavers are not named. This is not to suggest that they are not included, but perhaps by tending to those who are chronically ignored and overlooked, the prophet highlights that those who think they are safe because of their wealth, gender, ability, or domination of others are the very ones who need new tongues to call on the name of God and be saved.

Further reading

Cynthia Baker, “From Every Nation under Heaven: Jewish Ethnicities in the Greco-Roman World,” Prejudice and Christian Beginnings: Investigating Race, Gender, and Ethnicity in Early Christianity, 94-115.


Commentary on Psalm 104:24-34, 35b

Elizabeth Webb

In Psalm 104, the world that God creates and recreates is not just ordered, but rhythmic, each created thing a note that contributes to the Spirit’s song.1

The whole of creation is like a song of joy sung by the Spirit of the Lord.

Looking at the whole of Psalm 104 helps us to see more deeply the significance of the portion of the text appointed for today. The psalm begins with a hymn of praise for the glory of the Creator, “clothed with honor and majesty, wrapped in light” (verses 1b-2a). That glory is manifest in the manifold works of creation, in the rhythmic ordering of the world and all its parts.

The ensuing song of creation closely, although not slavishly, follows the cadence of the creation narrative in Genesis 1. God is praised for stretching out the heavens “like a tent” (verse 2b), for establishing the foundation of the earth (verse 5), and covering it with the deep (verse 6), and for rebuking the waters to flee to their appointed places, “so that they might not again cover the earth” (verse 9). The moon is made to mark the seasons, and night and day establish a natural rhythm for nocturnal creatures and for human beings (verses 19-23). Verse 24 reads, or sings, like an elaboration on God’s assertion of the goodness of created things; the multiplicity of creatures, and the wisdom with which they are made, further elucidate the meaning of “good.” Psalm 104 is like the poetry of Genesis 1 set to music, singing the wondrous order that God has brought forth.

The musicality of the psalm is further enhanced by its emphasis on the interdependence of God’s creatures. Springs that “gush forth in the valleys” provide water for wild animals (verse 10). Vegetation is made to grow in order to supply food for cattle and human beings (verse 14). God not only made trees, but made various trees as homes for different birds (verses 16-17).

Mountains are created to provide homes for goats, and rocks to provide homes for “coneys” (mostly likely the hyrax, a small hoofed mammal indigenous to parts of the Middle East and Africa2; verse 18). Everything that God has made exists for another creature’s survival, and even enjoyment; birds “sing among the branches” of trees that grow alongside streams of water (verse 12). Interdependence is the order that God has given to the world, so that each created thing sounds a note in an ongoing harmony.

That creatures are made not only to survive but also to enjoy life underscores what is perhaps the central motif of the entire psalm, and particularly of the passage for today: joy. God delights in the creation, and we, the created, delight in this world and in the God who made it. The world is made from joy and for joy.

The “gushing forth” of springs and the joy of birdsong in the trees alongside (verses 10-12); the abundantly-watered “trees of the Lord” (verse 16); “wine to gladden the human heart, oil to make the face shine, and bread to strengthen the human heart” (verse 15)—these point to a world made not just for the satisfaction of need but also for the happiness of its inhabitants. In these works God rejoices (verse 31), and all creatures return that joy not only by rejoicing in God (verse 34), but also by delighting in the things that God has made.

It is by understanding joy as a central theme in this text that we can understand the role of Leviathan in the passage for today. Verse 24 operates as a summation of what has come before: God is praised for the multiple wonders of the earth, and for the wisdom with which they were made. The psalmist then turns to the sea and its inhabitants, as the crowning example of the wonder of creation. “Innumerable creatures” inhabit the sea, “living things both small and great” (verse 25). The greatest of these is the Leviathan.

In other texts, like Psalm 74:14, Leviathan is among the monsters of chaos and evil that God vanquishes at the beginning of creation. God’s response to Job consists in large part of a challenge to Job to overpower Leviathan as God has done (Job 41). Thus references to Leviathan tend to operate as vehicles for proclaiming divine might over the forces of chaos. In Psalm 104, however, Leviathan is simply another creature that delights in the world that God has made; Leviathan’s purpose in the created order is “to sport” in the sea (verse 26). The joy with which God creates is reflected in the playfulness of the sea’s most dreaded beast. Thus joy triumphs over chaos in a way that raw power cannot: by winning it over.

When God provides, creatures thrive, “they are filled with good things” (verse 28). If God’s face were to turn away from the creation, God’s creatures would be dismayed (verse 29a); God’s presence and attentiveness are necessary for the fullness of life of all God’s creatures. The removal of divine breath, of spirit, results in death, but the sending forth of the spirit of God brings life, and renews that which has been reduced to dust (verses 29b-30). The God whose look causes the earth to tremble, whose touch causes mountains to smoke (verse 32), and for whom sin and evil are offending breaches in the harmony of creation (verse 35a)—this God is most powerfully made manifest not in acts of might but in moments of joy.

There is joy at the foundation of the earth, in the dew on the grass, in the romping of a dog, in the quiet of cricket song on a summer night. There is joy in the wondrous interdependence of God’s creatures, in the necessity in which we exist for one another. There is joy in the winning over of the chaos that continues to threaten God’s harmonious creation. There is joy in the gifts of life and spirit that we receive from God, and in our rejoicing in those gifts. For this joy, we offer God our joyous praise.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on June 8, 2014.
  2. Encyclopedia Britannica, “Hyrax,” http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/280175/hyrax, accessed 5/19/14.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13

Valérie Nicolet

The more I read the letters to the Corinthians, the more I appreciate the courage and boldness of this community as they wrestled with what it meant to be people of faith.

The community at Corinth
They engaged the apostle Paul in what seems to be a lively discussion. We don’t get that from many other communities. In Romans, we do not get a clear sense of who the Christ-believers really were. In Galatians, Paul is so upset that we learn more about the apostle’s rage and ardor than we do about the community. But in this letter to the Corinthians, things are different.

We learn a lot about the members of these early house churches. They came from different social backgrounds. They did not necessarily lead lives that would traditionally be qualified as saintly. And most interesting to us, they seemed to have had great conversations with Paul. It is not that Paul simply told them what to do, and that was the end of it.

What I like about the Corinthians is that they challenged Paul; they offered their own ideas about his gospel and defended their interpretations at least as passionately as Paul argued for his own. Thus, the relationship between the Corinthians and Paul can serve as a healthy model for integrating dispute and disagreement into the modern, post-modern, or emergent church which still thinks about what it should become and how it should behave in the world.

In this particular installment of the disagreement between the Corinthians and Paul, Paul is reflecting upon the diversity of gifts at play in the community at Corinth. Apparently, their house churches had plenty of people feeling like they brought something special to the life of the church: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment of spirits, tongues, and interpretation of tongues (1 Corinthians 12:8-10). Because of that diversity of gifts, there seemed to have been some talk among the Corinthians about whose gift was best.

Spirit as a uniting force
Paul’s answer begins with the spirit. In the passage directly after this one, he will use the metaphor of the body to strengthen his argument (1 Corinthians 12:12-31) and bring the discussion to a temporary close in chapter 13, with the famous reflection on love. But here, in 1 Corinthians 12:4-13, he focuses on the spirit. It would be more natural to have the passage start at 1 Corinthians 12:4, which begins a new argument in the discussion, yet the lectionary reading includes the second half of verse 12:3: “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit”. It introduces the central element of the passage, and already provides a unifying force behind the various gifts of the community.

The recognition of Jesus as Lord cannot happen unless the spirit is at work within the person who confesses “Kurios Iesous“. Establishing this as a premise of his discussion about gifts, Paul can then remind his addressees that they do not recognize Christ as the Messiah through their own abilities and, thus, they have no preliminary grounds for boasting. Rather, they are all dependent upon the spirit in their ability to confess Christ as Lord as well as in the variety of gifts that they bring to the community. The spirit functions as an enabling force, but the spirit also levels the playing field. No one can pretend that they did not need the spirit to recognize the lordship of Jesus or to develop their own particular gifts.

Paul is careful to clarify that it is the same spirit (to auto pneuma, repeated four times in the passage) that acts in everyone. It is not only that the gifts are activated by the spirit in each person, they are actually triggered by the same spirit, suppressing any opportunity to claim that one gift has a better “pedigree” than another. Rather the spirit gives them each their own particular value.

The value of gifts
As Paul often does in his dealings with his communities, he walks a tight rope in his arguments. He refuses to say that one gift is better than the other and insists upon the unity forged by the spirit, which permits him to describe the community as one unified body (1 Corinthians 12:12-14). Yet, at the same time, he does not want to say that the particular nature of each gift does not matter. Recognizing one’s gift and the form of that gift is important. Knowing how to use these gifts matters as well (see the discussion later on about speaking in tongues in 1 Corinthians 14:2-25).

Thus, in a way, after having made a strong argument about the equality of each gift, Paul delineates matters more precisely, and insists on the proper use of gifts. Gifts are all given by the spirit, but they are not all the same, and so, particular gifts matter. However, what Paul wants to avoid is people focusing on a particular gift to the detriment of others and exalting the people who practice that particular gift (which in Corinth appears to have been the gift of speaking in tongues). Christ-believers need to move away from a state of mind in which one judges the achievements (or lack thereof) of others. Rather, they need to concentrate on the manner in which each and every gift is used so that the body of the community can remain united.

Finding one’s gift
The problem of the Corinthian community seemed to have been that there were too many people claiming the special value of their own particular gifts, too many people wanting to be involved and participate in the life of the community, and thinking that their involvement was better than that of their neighbor. Paul needed to level the playing the field and bring unity where there was division.

Today, many churches wish they had this problem. They wish more members would become more actively involved. And most members wish they could identify (in themselves) a gift of the spirit for which they could boast. But what if they can’t?

Perhaps what our congregants need to hear this Pentecost Sunday is an affirmation that the spirit is at work in each of us, that the spirit has given different gifts to each of us, that these gifts can and should be celebrated, but more importantly used for the building up of the kingdom because they are given by the spirit, not to create division but unity, for we are the community of God.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on June 12, 2011.