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Easter 6, Cycle A

The great things God’s love does. The texts provide a witness to the great things that God’s love and grace do (Providence, Justification by Grace, Sanctification, and Revelation).

Psalm 66:8-20
The text is a liturgy of praise and thanksgiving. The reference to Selah just before the lesson begins is a liturgical direction that probably indicates the call for an instrumental interlude before the singing begins. The first verses of the lesson (8-12) may be part of a general hymn of praise, following a hymn about God’s creation praising him (vv. 1-4) for his providential activity (vv. 5-7). The people are called on to bless God so that their praise can be heard, for he has kept us among the living (vv. 8-9). God is said to have tested the flock (vv. 10-12), but the psalmist pledges to come to the temple with burnt offerings, paying his vows (vv. 13-15). Those who fear God are called on to listen to the witness of what he has done (v. 16). When the psalmist cried to him with praise and had he instead loved sin, Yahweh would not have listened (vv. 17-18). But God has listened. He is to be blessed because he has not rejected the psalmist’s prayer or removed his steadfast love (vv. 19-20).

Application: A sermon emerging from this song will focus on God’s providential care which preserves us even while we face tests and hard times in life. Such an awareness of God’s love inspires praise and thanksgiving, even by the created order itself (Sanctification and Creation). There is a logical fit between the themes of this text and the First Lesson.

Acts 17:22-31
Reading once more from this second half of a two-part history of the church traditionally attributed to Luke, a physician and Gentile associate of Paul (Colossians 4:14; 2 Timothy 4:11; Philemon 24), we note again that there is some dispute about the date of composition, whether it was composed before Paul’s martyrdom (in 65-67 AD) or much later, after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 AD. In any case the author’s stress on the universal mission of the church (1:8) and so an effort to validate Paul’s ministry reflects in this lesson. This text clearly undertakes this agenda in reporting on Paul’s speech to the Athenians.

While waiting in Athens for Silas and Timothy to arrive, Paul experiences despair over the idols in the city and engages in dialogue with some philosophers (vv. 16ff). He stands up in front of the Areopagus (the hill west of the Acropolis [the heart of ancient Athenian cultural life]) commenting on how “religious” [literally "fearful or addicted to gods," deisidaimonesterous] the Athenians were (v. 22). He notes that in studying the objects of worship [sebasmata] in the city there is one altar with the inscription, “to an unknown God” [agnostos theos]. Paul proclaims what they already worship as unknown — the God who made the world and does not live in shrines and is not served by human hands. This God needs nothing since he gives life to all (vv. 23-25). The apostle proceeds to describe how God made all the nations from one ancestor, allotting their times and boundaries so they would search for him (vv. 26-27). He seems to borrow from the seventh or sixth century BC Greek philosopher Epimenides in claiming that “in God we live, and move, and have our being” (v. 28). Since we are God’s offspring it is wrong to think of the deity like gold, silver, and an image of art (v. 29). (This is a conventional piece of Jewish wisdom [Isaiah 44:9-20].) God is reported to have overlooked human ignorance but now commands all to repent (a central theme for Luke, who inseparably connects repentance and salvation, while not identifying them [Hans Conzelman, The Theology of St. Luke, p. 228]). For he has fixed a day on which the world will be judged in righteousness by a man he has appointed and of this he has given assurance by raising him for the dead (vv. 30-31).

Application: The most apparent sermon strategy is to review Paul’s argument for the existence of God, based on creation (a cosmological argument), supplementing this with data drawn from the natural sciences (esp. physics or biology) or on grounds of the human tendency to make gods (drawing here on insights from Paul Tillich, Martin Luther, or new insights of evolutionary theory regarding the religious nature of homo sapiens). There are promising insights about God’s relation to creation (that he is not somewhere up in the clouds) in Epimenides’ observation in verse 28. A sermon on our idolatry (v. 29) is also a legitimate option (Sin). And God’s forgiveness and our repentance, as what sets the Christian vision aside (Justification by Grace), is also suggested by the text.

1 Peter 3:13-22
Again we consider this late first-century pastoral exhortation (circular letter) was probably written by an elder in Rome claiming to be Peter to a Gentile church at the lower levels of the socio-economic spectrum in Turkey. The latter date and high-quality Greek make it unlikely to have been a work of the apostle. This lesson is a discussion of the obligations of Christians, dealing with suffering and also with questions of what Christ did when he descended into hell. The author begins by noting that there should be no harm if we are eager to do good (v. 13). If we do suffer while doing what is right, we are blessed (v. 14a). No need to fear but in their hearts the faithful are said to sanctify Christ as Lord (vv. 14b-15a).

The author provides counsel for patience in persecution, noting that we should always be ready to make a defense to anyone who demands an accounting of the hope the faithful have; yet that defense should be done with gentleness, he claims. The conscience should be kept clear, so that when maligned for their good behavior, Christians may put these critics to shame (vv. 15b-16). It is better to suffer for doing good than for doing evil (v. 17). For Christ, it is claimed, also suffered for sins once for all, in order to bring us to God. He was put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit (v. 18). (The term spirit [pneuma] in this text seems to refer to the eschatological existence in which Christ and believers are placed, the non-worldly, eternal sphere [Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, Vol. 1, pp. 334-335].) Christ is also reported as having gone to the spirits in prison [phulake] who did not in former times obey during Noah’s building of the ark and only eight persons were saved (vv. 19-20). Baptism is said to have been prefigured by the flood and now it saves us, not as a removal of dirt, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience through Christ’s resurrection (v. 21; cf. Genesis 6-8). He has gone to heaven to be at the right hand of God with angelic beings (the authorities [exousion] and powers [dunameon]) (v. 22).

Application: Several possibilities for sermons are suggested by this text. Counsel might be given those who suffer (for we are blessed when that happens if we have been doing good) (Sanctification). We also receive guidance when enduring criticism for living morally and good. We have every reason to make arguments for the value and sanity of the Christian lifestyle. Christ is offered both as our example in these cases, but also insofar as his atoning work and baptism (another possible sermon topic) has by grace given us the good conscience we need to have the courage to meet the suffering, love, and engage the critics. The vision we have of him in his glory also gives us courage to meet these life challenges (Realized Eschatology). And finally the comments in verse 19 suggest a sermon on how Christ preached in hell to those who had not believed (a second chance for the unfaithful extended by our loving God; cf. Revelation 2:10) (Eschatology).

John 14:15-21
We have previously noted the well-known fact that this is the last of the gospels to be written, probably not until the last decade of the first century, and so not likely by the apostle John but by a follower of his. It is also good to be reminded that the gospel’s aim was to encourage its readers to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God (20:31). In line with this overall agenda, the lesson is another portion of Jesus’ Farewell Discourse after the Last Supper. For in these verses Jesus offers reflections on the relation the faithful have to the glorified Christ. He begins by noting that if one loves him, his commandments will be kept. He promises that he will ask his Father to send the faithful another advocate/comforter [parakletos, a term for the Spirit unique to John] to be with them forever (vv. 15-16). This is the Spirit [pneuma] of truth, whom the world cannot receive. But the faithful know him because he abides in them (v. 17).

Jesus assures the faithful that he will not leave them orphaned and is coming to them (v. 18). In a little while the world will no longer see him, but the faithful will. Because he lives they will also live (v. 19). On that day the faithful will know that the Son is in the Father and they are in him and he in them (v. 20). Jesus adds that those who have his commandments and keep them are those who love him. And those who love him will be loved by the Father, and Jesus will love them and reveal himself to them (v. 21).

Application: The text invites sermons on the Holy Spirit as our counselor (regarding what to do and who we are) and advocate. We are also invited to reflect on the Spirit’s role in linking us in an intimate union with Christ (Pneumatology and Justification by Grace as Union with Christ). This opens the way to preaching on the companionship we have with Christ in face of loneliness, anxiety, and despair. And the union we have with Christ helps account for the love that we embody which makes clear we love the spontaneity by which such love transpires (Sanctification).

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Authors of
Lectionary Scripture Notes
Norman A. Beck is the Poehlmann Professor of Theology and Classical Languages and the Chairman of the Department of Theology, Philosophy, and Classical Languages at Texas Lutheran University
Dr. Norman A. Beck
Mark Ellingsen is professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Mark Ellingsen