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  • Pastors who need inspiration and idea starters for their sermons
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  • Anyone who wants deeper insight into each week’s lectionary passages

These background notes cover every assigned text in the Revised Common Lectionary for each Sunday and major observance throughout the year.


Writer Mark Ellingsen

Mark Ellingsen, Pastor, Theologian, AuthorMark Ellingsen, author of Lectionary Scripture Notes, is a minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) and a professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated magna cum laude from Gettysburg College and has received four degrees from Yale University. He has authored many titles, most recently Lectionary Preaching Workbook for CSS Publishing Company….read more


Maundy Thursday, Cycle A

God’s love shines through the Cross and changes us. This is a Sunday for reflection on the Atonement, the love of God and its implications (Justification and Sanctification by Grace), along with some reflection on our Sin.

Psalm 31:9-16
This is a prayer for deliverance from personal enemies attributed to David. Since it is not likely that David is the author or even the agent in collecting this and other Psalms attributed to him (Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, p. 512), it seems appropriate not to contend that the song is only about David, but rather to read it as a pertaining to the Davidic line, to pertain to Jesus as a prophecy of his sufferings. The psalmist begins by articulating his distress and grief (v. 9). The reference to soul [nephesh] in this verse is not an embrace of the notion of soul in Greek philosophy or as most of us understand the term, but a mere reference to the life-source. The psalmist proceeds, claiming to be in sorrow — scorned, a broken vessel, and the object of schemes (vv. 10-13). He prays for vindication that we may be saved by God’s steadfast love. Awareness is expressed that our whole life is in God (vv. 14-16).

Application: On a Sunday when we observe our sinfulness in contributing to Christ’s death and the tragic condition of our sinful plight, the text celebrates the conquest of God’s love (Justification by Grace). The idea of our whole life being in God and so in Christ has rich implications for living the Christian life (Sanctification).

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Good Friday, Cycle A

How the Cross changes everyday life. The texts and the nature of Good Friday direct us to the doctrines of Christology (the suffering of Jesus and how he then identifies with us in our suffering), Sin, Atonement, Justification by Grace, and to some extent Sanctification.

Psalm 22
The Psalm is a lament prayer for delivery from mortal illness attributed to David. The superscript’s designation to the leader according to the deer of the dawn is probably a set of instructions to the music leader in the temple about the melody to be used.

The Psalm begins with a cry for help and defense from forsakenness (vv. 1-2), quoted by Jesus on the cross (Mark 15:34). This suggests that the Psalm can be read as applying to Jesus’ Passion, an especially appropriate reading since this is labeled one of the Psalms traditionally attributed to David, Jesus’ ancestor through Joseph’s lineage. Other references foreshadowing the crucifixion are provided, such as the experience of being scorned, despised, and mocked (vv. 6-7), being forsaken (v. 11), as well as being poured out like water as enriched by evildoers (vv. 14-16) and clothes being divided (v. 18). The psalmist also confesses that God has kept Israel and him safe since birth and that Elohim has been his God since then, a remembrance inspiring the psalmist’s prayer (vv. 3-5, 9-10).

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Easter Day, Cycle A

The Resurrection: its reality and impact. As a day of celebration of what God has done in Christ, Justification by Grace and its implications for Christian life (Sanctification) are the primary themes.

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
This thanksgiving for deliverance in battle is one of the Egyptian Hallel Psalms (Psalms of Praise) used after the Passover meal. They are called “Hallel” Psalms because of their use of the Hebrew word halal, which means “Praise the Lord.”

The song begins and continues with praise to God and his love (vv. 1-2). Yahweh is identified as the psalmist’s strength and salvation (v. 14). Verses 15-16 are praising works of the right hand of Yahweh and may be an ancient victory song. Reference is made to not dying but living, to being punished but not being given over to death (vv. 17-18). This suggests the Cross-Resurrection sequence, as the concluding call to rejoicing (v. 24) invites an Easter reading. Reference to the gates of righteousness and the gate the righteous enter, though originally intended to refer to entering the Jerusalem Temple (vv. 19-20), imply the outcome of Easter, the righteousness associated with Justification by Grace (Romans 3:21-26). Then the joy and awe that follow from this awareness of what Yahweh has done is expressed (vv. 21, 23-24).

The Christological interpretation further reflects in verses 22-23 and its reference to the stone the builders rejected. This is frequently attributed to Christ in the New Testament (Matthew 21:42; Acts 4:11; 1 Peter 2:7). The legitimacy of applying these texts to Christ and Easter, as living voices of the present, has been suggested by eminent Old Testament scholar Brevard Childs (Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, p. 523). He notes that the final editors of the collection do not seem to have been concerned to present them as bound to their place of origin, for they could be sung any time.

Application: Interpreting the Psalm in light of the Theme of the Day, it seems appropriate to move from the text to a proclamation of how Christ has overcome death, and as a result we have much to celebrate (Christology, Atonement, and Sanctification). A sermon on the joy and sense of awe associated with the Christian life (Sanctification) is a related option. Noting the Egyptian origins of the Psalm also opens the way to a celebration of multiculturalism, how celebrating the Resurrection takes root in Africa and all over the world (Church and Social Ethics).

Acts 10:34-43
This book is the second half of the two-part early history of the church attributed to Paul’s Gentile associate Luke (Colossians 4:14; 2 Timothy 4:11; Philemon 24). It is particularly concerned to affirm the universal mission of the church (1:8), a theme reflected in this story of Peter’s confession of the gospel justifying his efforts to convert the Gentile Cornelius in Caesarea. The background of the lesson is that Cornelius is reported to have summoned Peter as a result of a vision, and then Peter has a similar vision (vv. 3-17). Peter visits Cornelius and then proceeds with the confession (eventually culminating in the pouring out of the Spirit on Peter and other Gentiles, as well as their baptisms [vv. 44-46]).

In his confession Peter refers to God showing no partiality [literally "God accepts no one's face," ouk prosopolaptos] and finding all with faith acceptable (vv. 34-35). He proceeds to recount the ministry of Jesus who, anointed by the Spirit, preached peace and did good, healing all who were oppressed by the devil (vv. 36-38). Testimony is also given to Christ’s death and resurrection, as well as his appearances to those chosen by God who ate and drank with him (vv. 39-41). Recognizing Jesus at meals or gaining special insights from him on those occasions is typical of all the gospels, including Luke (7:36ff; 9:10ff; 10:8; 11:37ff; 14:7ff; 24:30-31, 42-43). Peter claims to be commanded by these witnesses to preach that those who believe receive forgiveness of sin (vv. 42-43).

Application: At least two possible sermon directions emerge. One can focus on Peter’s comment about how Jesus appeared to the disciples while they were eating (v. 41), noting the importance of the Lord’s Supper for encountering the risen Christ and his love. If we are looking for Christ we can find him in the sacrament (Sanctification). Another direction is to focus on God’s impartiality, saving all with faith (Church and Social Ethics). This point can be made by developing the Greek concept of impartiality as not attending to faces (to ethnicity, gender, and so on).

Colossians 3:1-4
The book is a circular letter which, much like Philippians, was either written by Paul from prison (4:3, 10, 18) late in his career or by a follower of Paul who had a hand in assembling the collection of his epistles. These conclusions follow from the fact that the epistle includes vocabulary and stylistic characteristics different from the indisputably Pauline writings. The letter addresses Christians in a town in Asia Minor (the most eastern part of modern Turkey) near Ephesus, whose church, though not likely founded by Paul, was basically in line with his teachings, though threatened by ascetic teachings (2:21, 23), ritual practices rooted in Jewish traditions (2:16), and philosophical speculations (2:8, 20), all of which were related to visionary insights, and perhaps even the heresy of Gnosticism. This lesson is part of a discussion of the Christian life.

The lesson begins with a comment by the author that having been raised with Christ we are urged to search the things that are above [ano] (v. 1). Then it is noted that the faithful seek the things above, for we have died and our lives are hidden [keruptai] with Christ (vv. 2-4). Subsequently exhortations to put to death certain earthly behaviors follow (vv. 4ff). It seems possible to interpret these references to dying to the things of the world and rising in terms of baptism where we are buried with Christ (2:12ff). But in that case these references to the Christian life must be understood as transpiring between times, for in a sense we have died to sin but in another sense the lifestyle of his is not yet realized in full, as we remain sinners (Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, Vol. 1, p. 141; Ibid., Vol. 2, p. 175).

Application: The text invites sermons on how Easter changes the faithful, makes us people who are brand-new, having died to the old, destructive ways of the past. As Christ died and rose, so what is destructive in our lives is dead (albeit in hidden ways, since sin continues to plague us, though it cannot have the final say) and the new way of living with openness to Christ’s future is open (Sanctification).

John 20:1-18
This last gospel to be written (probably in the last decade of the first century) could not have been composed by John the apostle, though perhaps by one of his disciples. As we have previously noted, hints of that possibility are offered by the first post-biblical church historian Eusebius of Caesarea, who claimed that the book was written on the basis of external facts made plain and then inspired by the Spirit developed into a “spiritual gospel” (presumably one not based on eyewitness accounts of the author) (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 1, p. 261). It is especially preoccupied with making clear that Jesus is the Messiah for a Jewish Christian community in conflict with the synagogue and Jewish society. Certainly these verses about the resurrection reflect this concern with Jesus’ messianic character.

The Johannine version of the story combines two traditions of Easter accounts found in the gospels — the resurrection appearance tradition and the empty tomb tradition (stories that say nothing about seeing the risen Lord) (Rudolf Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition, pp. 287-288). This Johannine account does not introduce the appearance tradition until later in the narrative. Bultmann also notes that for John “the Resurrection of Jesus, Pentecost, and the parousia of Jesus are one and the same [eschatological] event” (Jesus Christ and Mythology, p. 33).

In accord with the Synoptic Gospels (except Luke 24), Mary Magdalene is given credit for first recognizing the Resurrection (or the empty tomb) (v. 1). John’s version is the only gospel to claim that this happened to her alone. She is reported as running to tell Simon Peter and “the one whom Jesus loved” (John or the Christian community for which the gospel was written). She reports that the body must have been removed (v. 2). The two disciples hurriedly proceed to the tomb, with the one who Jesus loved getting there faster than Peter (vv. 3-4).

At first only seeking the linens that had wrapped the body of Christ, the disciples enter the empty tomb, and not understanding the scripture [Old Testament] promises regarding the resurrection they return home (vv. 5-10). Mary is reported to have remained outside the tomb weeping, and angels sitting where the body of Jesus had laid comfort her. She professes her agony over where the body has gone (vv. 11-13). With these words, Jesus appears. At first she does not recognize him and his efforts to comfort her (vv. 14-15). He then calls her name, and she recognizes him (calling him “rabbi”). Jesus asks Mary not to hold him, because he has not yet ascended to their Father, to their God (vv. 16-17). She goes and reports these things to the disciples, claiming she has seen the Lord (v. 18). John does not make clear if the disciples actually believe her testimony, since a personal appearance later in the day is reported (vv. 19-23).

Application: One option for this text is to note how Mary did not recognize Jesus until he recognized her. The resurrection makes no sense if we try to figure it out. Only when we are wrapped up in God’s word is it possible to believe it (Theological Method and Justification by Grace). Another option is to recognize how the resurrection is related to Christ’s second coming, a sign of a new era. Easter is about a fresh start (just like the second coming will be a new day). All the bad things in our pasts have been destroyed. Thanks to Jesus’ rising, tomorrow is the first day of our new lives (Sanctification and Realized Eschatology)!

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Author of
Lectionary Scripture Notes
Mark Ellingsen is professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Mark Ellingsen

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