THEME OF THE DAY
What God does to get us to love.
The focus of this day on what Christ does for us (with His Sacrifice and the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper) leads to consideration of what difference that makes in our daily lives (Sanctification).
This is a thanksgiving for healing and/or deliverance. God is praised for healing us, a witness made amidst the whole congregation in The Temple (vv.1-2,18-19). Reference is made to lifting the cup [kos] of salvation [yeshuah, or safety] (v.13). This is probably a libation made in thanksgiving offered in fulfillment of the vow made by the Psalmist when suffering (Exodus 29:40). But for Christians, the reference reminds us of the saving cup from which we drink in The Lord’s Supper. The Psalmist identifies himself as a servant of the Lord, the child of a servant girl, yet has been set free [pathach moser, loosed bonds] (v.16). If read in relation to the New Testament this could also be applied to Jesus (especially the verse 15 reference to how precious the death of the faithful is to the Lord as well as the comment about the sacrifice in v.17). Or it could be that the Psalmist speaks for the faithful and is celebrating how precious Jesus’ death is. The way in which the Psalm ends with Hallelujah (“Praise the Lord”) suggests the validity of this second way of reading the Psalm.
Application: Read Prophetically, at least two possible sermon directions emerge. Stress on the cup of salvation opens to the way for sermons on The Lord’s Supper (that we actually receive Christ in the bread and wine). Or the focus could be on Christology (how Jesus fulfills the Old Testament Promises) and how His Work sets us free – looses bonds (Justification By Grace). Another option would be to do tend more to the Psalmist’s gratitude for what God has done (to offer praise for the alleviation of suffering — Sin and Sanctification).
Exodus 12:1-4 (5-10)11-14
We have previously noted that like all of the first five Books of the Old Testament, Exodus is the product of several distinct literary strands, all originating between the 10th and 6th centuries BC. The Book is so named for the Greek term referring to the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. Its Hebrew name (meaning “These are the names”) refers to the first words of the text’s Prologue. This Lesson, describing the establishment of the Passover, is probably the work of the P (Priestly) strand of the Pentateuch, an oral tradition dating from the 6th century BC transmitted by Temple Priests or those inclined to regard the Jewish faith primarily in terms of Temple sacrifice. Some Old Testament scholars contend that P reinterpreted an earlier nomadic Spring festival, the Festival of Unleavened Bread, as a memorial of the Lord’s deliverance of the people from Egypt. Also see vv.14-20; Deuteronomy 16:1-8; Numbers 9:1-14; Ezekiel 45:21-28.
The account in this Chapter follows the description of the final plague the Lord worked against Pharaoh, which does not succeed in liberating the people (ch.11). The month of Nissan (March-April) is to be designated the beginning of the year (v.2). On the tenth of that month, each family is to take a lamb [seh] or share a lamb with its closest neighbor and divide the lamb (vv.3-4). The lamb is to be one year old and without blemish (v.5). Instructions are then given to put the blood [dam] of the lamb on the doorposts and lintel in the houses of the people (there were the holy places of a house). The lamb was to be eaten the night it was killed and instructions are given on how it is to be prepared and what is to be eaten (vv.7-9).
The blood that is on the doorposts represents a kind of sacrifice to Yahweh, most appropriate since it functions for the Hebrews as a symbol of life (Genesis 9:4; Leviticus 17:11), and as such must be
returned to God (Leviticus 17:3-6; Deuteronomy 12:16). The lamb is to be entirely consumed, except for the remains to be burned the next morning (v.10). Instructions are given on the attire one is to wear when eating the lamb, which should be consumed hurriedly (v.11). Presumably this is because people must be ready for the march in commemoration of Israel’s hasty Exodus after the angel of death passed over [abar] the people of Israel.
Passover explained how the Lord would strike down the first born of all living things in Egypt, but the blood on the door posts would be a sign for Him to pass over that house so the plague would not destroy them (vv.12-13). Henceforth the day was to be one of remembrance, a celebration of perpetual observance (v.14).
Application: If the lamb’s blood is understood as prefiguring Christ’s Sacrifice, then sermons on this text might clarify Christ’s Atoning Work. It would also be possible to focus on the Passover origins of the Lord’s Supper or to comment on how just as Jews celebrate their liberation (Justification By Grace and Social Ethics) in thanks, so may the Christian faithful (Sanctification).
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
In a Letter to a troubled church in Corinth which he had established (Acts 18:1-11), Paul critiques certain reportedly aberrant practices pertaining to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, addressing those practices which were exacerbating factions in the church (vv.17-22). He begins to do this by claiming to report what he received from the Lord (v.23). This may be a reference to the fact that Jesus Himself did not directly teach Paul, but what he has learned is from the traditions of Christ, the Church’s liturgical heritage. The Words of Institution for the Sacrament are cited. We are to remember Christ [anamesis] (vv.24-25). Of course the Hebrew equivalent zakar entails that when we remember someone they are really present, as remembrance at Shechem summoned God to engage Israel in covenant (Joshua 24). Paul proceeds to testify that as often as the bread and cup are eaten and drunk we proclaim Christ’s death until He comes (v.26). There is a testimony here to Christ’s Atoning Work and to Eschatology.
Application: A sermon on this text can offer the faithful an opportunity to appreciate how The Lord’s Supper builds community (Church and Sanctification). Another option would be to emphasize v.26 and relate the Sacrament to Eschatology, pointing out that the sharing we do in the Meal with Christ and with each other is a sign of what life will be like in heaven or when Christ comes again.
Again we note that this Book is the last of the four Gospels to be written, probably not composed until the last two decades of the first century. It is very different in style in comparison to the other three (so-called Synoptic) Gospels. In fact it is likely based on these earlier Gospels. The Book has been identified with John the Son of Zebedee, the Disciple whom Jesus loved, and this claim was made as long ago as late in the first century by the famed theologian of the early Church Irenaeus (Ante- Nicene Fathers, Vol.1, p.414). It is likely that it was written by a disciple of John.
Recently, though, some scholars have suggested an alternative account of the origins of John’s Gospel. Appealing to the writings of a late first –early second century Bishop Papias, who may have implied that John’s Gospel was the result of eyewitness origins, such scholars have argued that the Book is in fact an authentic historical testimony to Jesus (Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, esp. pp.423ff;; cf. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol.1, pp.154-155). Regardless, of its origins, though, most scholars agree that the Book’s main agenda was probably to encourage Jewish Christians in conflict with the synagogue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God (20:31).
We consider in this text the most recent of the accounts of events surrounding the first Lord’s Supper. In fact, unlike the Synoptic Gospels, this account offers no report of the actual Words of Institution for the Sacrament, but instead recounts preparation for the Supper with Jesus washing the Disciples’ feet and then predicting His betrayal. This retelling of the story in terms of speeches by Jesus is typical of this Gospel, written late in the first century, probably not by John the son of Zebedee, but perhaps by a disciple of his who according to the writer of the earliest history of the Church Eusebius of Caesarea perceived the external facts made plain in the Gospel and inspired by friends and by the Spirit composed a spiritual gospel (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol.1, p.261).
The account begins with the claim that before the Passover Festival Jesus knew it was time for Him to depart and go to the Father. Loving those who were His, Jesus is said to have loved them to the end (v.1). This failure to relate the Last Supper to the Passover Meal is unique to John’s Gospel. It is noted that the devil had already put the idea of betraying Jesus in Judas Iscariot’s heart (v.2). Jesus is said to come from God, receiving all things from the Father, and knows He is to return (v.3). He proceeds to wash the Disciples’ feet (vv.4-5). (This account is also unique to John’s Gospel.) Hosts did not undertake such tasks among the Jews in the first century. In so doing Jesus makes clear that He recognizes Himself to be assuming the role of a Servant (R. Alan Culpepper, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel, p.118).
Peter protests against his Lord washing his feet. Jesus responds that unless one is washed they will have no share of Him (vv.6-9). The Atoning Work of Christ on The Cross is here prophesied .
Jesus says the Disciples are clean, but not all of them, indicating His knowledge of His betrayal (vv.10-11). Some New Testament scholars (notably Oscar Cullmann, Early Christian Worship) contend that the reference to being cleaned by water connotes Christian baptism as preparation for receiving the Eucharist. For a discussion of this controversy, see James Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the new Testament, pp.168-169). Pertinent texts for adjudicating the viability of this identification with Baptism include John 2:1-11; 4:7-15; 5:2-9; 7:37-39; 9:7; 13:1-16; 19:34.
Jesus explains the significance of His washing the Disciples’ feet, though He Himself was their teacher and lord. It is an example to the Disciples (vv.12-15). Servants are not greater than their master, nor messengers [apostolos] greater than the one who sent them. If these things are known there are blessings if they are done (vv.16-17). These comments by Jesus here are also unique to John’s Gospel, and where parallels exist in the other Gospels they are not uttered like they are here at The Last Supper.
After further discourse and the identification of Judas as His betrayer (vv.18-20), Jesus leaves the room of the Supper. John has Jesus launch into His “Farewell Discourse.” He notes that now the Son of Man [huios tou anthopou] has been glorified and God glorified in Him (vv.31b-32). In a previous analysis of the Gospel we noted the Gospel of John’s unique understanding of this title. The author seems to understand the title in a Gnostic way, that is as a designation for the pre-existent one who became man and must be exalted again, though combined with the earliest Christian meaning of letting Jesus be understood as Messiah, an apocalyptic figure who at the end of time will come down from heaven and hold judgment (Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, Vol.2, p.37; Ibid., Vol.1, p.49). This understanding of the title certainly fits the themes of this Lesson, esp. the teaching of Christ’s saving work (His exaltation) and Eschatology.
Jesus then adds that He will only be with the Disciples a little longer. They cannot go with Him (v.33). He gives them a new commandment [entole kainos] – to love one another as He has loved them (v.34). By this everyone will know who His Disciples are (v.35).
Application: The text affords an opportunity to proclaim how what Jesus does and has done for us gets us to love. His humility stimulates this and so love in us (Christology [see the discussion of Son of Man, above], Justification By Grace, and Sanctification). The reminder that we need to be cleansed by Baptism is also a Word that emerges in the text in accounting for how we become self-sacrificing/ humble enough (see Romans 6) to love.
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
For most of us who have been accustomed since our childhood to observe this day as Maundy Thursday and to associate this night with Jesus’ words of the institution of the Eucharist on the night when Jesus would within a few hours be seized in the Garden of Gethsemane, it seems somewhat strange that we read Jesus’ words of the institution of the Eucharist in the 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 text from the Apostle Paul rather than from one of the Synoptic Gospels. Of course, in the Revised Common Lectionary the Words of Institution (Mark 14:22-25; Matthew 26:26-29; and Luke 22:14-20) are read each year, but only in the context of the lengthy Liturgies of the Passion, one of them each year. Unless we are rigidly bound to follow the Revised Common Lectionary with no deviation, we can, of course, supplement the reading from John 13:1-17, 31b-35 of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples on Holy Thursday each year with a reading of the Words of Institution from one of the Synoptic Gospel texts each year. We would then, however, have a nearly duplicated reading of the Words of Institution from Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 within the same service.
The Johannine reading that has the Johannine Jesus washing the feet of each of his disciples, even of the feet of Judas Iscariot, may appear at first and has often been considered to be an illustration of Jesus’ humility. A more detailed study of this text in John 13, however, indicates that what the Johannine Jesus is represented as doing here is not an act of humility, but of control. Simon Peter was not given the option of refusing the washing. Neither was Judas Iscariot or any of the other disciples. Jesus also, not Peter, had the choice of how much of Peter’s body Jesus would wash. In addition in this text, the Johannine Jesus does not merely urge his disciples to love each other; the Johannine Jesus commands them to do this. As leaders in worship in the Church we are not, of course, the Johannine Jesus. We should, however, use appropriate care when we talk about humility and when we attempt to be humble, so that our actions will be genuine and not be expressions of a false humility.
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
It is essential that we look closely at the context in which Paul presents the Words of Institution of the Eucharist here. We can easily overlook the fact that Paul’s primary concern in 1 Corinthians 11:17–14:40 is not the Words of Institution. Instead, Paul’s primary concern is to command the followers of Jesus in Corinth to change the ways in which they were eating food when they were gathered together. The ones who were affluent had not been sharing their food with the ones who were poor. Apparently, even when they used the Eucharistic words, they were not participating together, but separately. Some of them were very disrespectful of others in the community of believers. Because they were not resolving these difficulties and problems, Paul sternly chided them for their behavior. He was not scolding them for their lack of intellectual understanding of the mystery of the Eucharist. He was chiding them for their segregated behavior, for not eating and drinking in the Eucharist together, for not having love for and respect for one another.
It is tragic and disrespectful to Jesus and to Paul that even into the 21st century the “sharing of pulpit and altar fellowship” is still so limited within the Church, even within the same denomination, as it is in my own Lutheran Christian denomination. If Paul, not to mention Jesus, were physically present and evaluating us today, Paul, as Paul indicated in 1 Corinthians 11:17–14:40, would chide us sternly, not because we have not achieved a single identical understanding of the mystery of the Eucharist, but because of our segregated behavior, because so many of us refuse to receive the Eucharist together with others or to permit others to receive the Eucharist with us. Many of us who are Lutheran Christians refuse to permit even other Lutheran Christians to join with us at our altars and in our pulpits, because we have decided they these other Lutheran Christians are not “Lutheran” enough, that they do not segregate themselves sufficiently from other Christians who are not Lutheran Christians. What would the Apostle Paul, whom especially we who are Lutheran Christians claim to honor so highly, say about us and our failure to honor the Church as the “Body of Christ,” comprised as Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 12 of many diverse parts (ears, eyes, feet, etc.)?
We need much more serious study of Scripture in the Church, especially of Scripture in the context of other Scripture. We need to study and to use the Words of the Institution of the Eucharist in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 in the context of 1 Corinthians 11:17–14:40, not isolated from their context as we do in the Holy Thursday selections in the Revised Common Lectionary. It would be preferable on Holy Thursday to be using the Words of Institution in the context of their place in Mark 14, Matthew 26, and Luke 22 in successive years, not every year as they are in a secondary position in 1 Corinthians.
Exodus 12:1-4 (5-10) 11-1
This text in the Priestly tradition in which the Israelite Passover observance is commanded and which is read when the Seder meal is celebrated in Jewish homes today provides a segment, but only a small segment, of the background for the Christian Eucharist. The sacrificial slaughter of an entire yearling sheep or goat to be eaten during the course of one night by a family or two neighboring families has evolved for Jewish families today into the use of only a single bone of a lamb as a symbol of the entire lamb in a Jewish Seder. There is a lamb bone on the table, but meat from a lamb is not necessarily a part of the menu for the Seder meal today.
There is very little direct connection between the Israelite Passover observance as commanded in Exodus 12 and the bread and wine by means of which we as Christians receive the “Body” and the “Blood” of Christ in the Eucharist. There is symbolism, however, in the belief that we have as Christians that because of the death and resurrection of Jesus as the Christ in which we as Christians participate in the Eucharistic action, God “passes over” our sins and we, like the ancient pre-Israelite slaves in Egypt, are spared. It is important that we make this connection on Holy Thursday.
Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19
There are a few connections between these portions of Psalm 116 and the other texts selected for this day in our lectionary. Somewhat like the Israelite slaves in Egypt, the psalmist testifies that the Lord has set the psalmist free from that which had enslaved the psalmist, in this case a very serious illness. We as Christians can link the reference by the psalmist to “the cup of salvation” that the psalmist will raise up and will call upon the name of the Lord to the cup within the Eucharist, especially on this Holy Thursday.
THEME OF THE DAY
A vulnerable God struggles to overcome our sin.
The texts and the Day prod preachers to sermons on our Sin, the Atonement, and Justification, all extolling God’s love and overcoming of evil.
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 [mayim] as enriched by evil-doers (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).
A prayer for healing follows, pleading for Yahweh’s Presence and deliverance (vv.19-21). He concludes with a vow of the sick one to offer a formal thanksgiving in The Temple on recovery (vv.22, 25). (Or it is also possible that the Psalmist has received a response from God, and the rest of the Psalm is a song of joyful praise in gratitude for deliverance.) The hymn to be sung follows (vv.23-31). Reference to fear [yare] of the Lord (v.23) does not connote being terrified by God, but is just a term for worship and obedience to Him, and the comment that God did not to hide His face (v.24) is a Hebraic phrase for “remaining in relationship” with us. Among this hymn’s other references to praising God include acclamation and affirmation of His hearing cries of the afflicted [ani] (v.24), His caring for the poor/afflicted (v.26), as well as the praise God will receive from the whole earth and the nations (vv.27-28), the dead (v.29), and from posterity (vv.30-31). This praise could be applied to the God Who raised Jesus.
Application: Several possibilities for sermons emerge from this text. Read Prophetically it affords opportunity to reflect on Jesus’ sufferings for us and how these events were all planned by God in advance (Atonement). We are reminded that God is truly vulnerable, for He suffered and died for us. Another possibility is to remind hearers that this is truly Good Friday, that God overcomes all the suffering Jesus endured, all the suffering in our lives, that His conquest of sickness and evil and suffering is evident in His dominion of the word as well as in His care for the poor and the praise rendered Him by the dead and posterity (Justification By Grace, Social Ethics, and Providence).
Isaiah 52:13 — 53-12
This Lesson is derived from Second Isaiah, the second of three distinct literary traditions that comprise the Book and were edited into one after the Hebrew people had returned from Exile in Babylon in the second half of the 6th century BC. This Lesson, then, does not seem to have been written by the historical Prophet to Judah for whom the Book is named. Rather, it was likely generated soon after the conquest of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587-586 BC. It is a portion of the Book of Consolation, a series of eschatological prophecies. This particular text is the so-called Fourth Servant Song. We have previously noted that there is much dispute about the identity of the Servant in these songs (42:1-4; 49:1-6: 50:1-6; 52:13- -53:12). Historically the Church has claimed the referent of these texts is to an individual (the Messiah, and specifically to Jesus). But many scholars understand them to refer to the role the nation of Israel would play in propagating God’s Mission.
The first 10 verses of Chapter 53 are a congregational reflection on the Servant [ebed]. Other verses in Chapter 52 and the last 2 of Chapter 53 purport to be God’s Word.
This Lesson is a song of God’s exalting His disfigured Servant, how He will be exalted (52:13-15; 53:12b). Although in its historical context the song is intended to depict Israel’s restoration, several passages (see below) can be read canonically (in relation to the New Testament and commemoration of this day) as prefiguring Christ’s Atoning Work. The Servant is said not to have a desirable appearance (not a form of majesty)(53:2). He was despised [bazah] and rejected [chadel] (53:3). He is said to bear our infirmities and was wounded for our transgressions. He took the punishment that made us whole (53:4,5). He was oppressed and afflicted, like a lamb [seh] led to slaughter (53:7). His death is said to have been a perversion of justice (53:8). Reference to the Servant’s tomb/grave [qeber] being with one who is rich (and wicked) is most suggestive of Jesus’ burial in the tomb of the rich man Joseph of Arimethea (53:9; cf. John 19:38-42; Matthew 27:57). Yet it is noted that it was the Will of the Lord to crush the Servant; it was an offering for sin (53:10). For the righteous [tsaddiq] Servant makes many righteous [justifies many -- tsadaq], bearing away [nasa] the sins of many (53:11-12).
Application: Read Prophetically (identifying the Suffering Servant with Christ), sermons on this text can proclaim that we put Christ on the Cross with our sin. Like the Psalm of the Day this text also affords opportunity to reflect on Jesus’ sufferings for us (Atonement). We can remind ourselves of God’s vulnerability, how Christ came to us with no desirable appearance. The dynamics involved in Justification By Grace (God bearing away our sins) are also possible sermon themes. We should keep in mind if the sermon moves in this direction that the concept of righteousness (and justification) in the Old Testament is not to imply faultless conformity to a moral norm, but to living in right relationship with God (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol.1, pp.370-371).
The Book is an anonymous treatise which, given its argument for the superiority of Christ’s Sacrifice to those of Levitical priests, was likely written prior to the destruction of The Jerusalem Temple in 70 AD. Remarks in 2:3-4 suggest it was written by a member of a generation of Christians after the Apostles. Modern scholars are inclined to regard the Book as a sermon, perhaps modified after it was delivered to include travel plans, greetings, and a closing (13:20-25). The Christians addressed are thought to have been in danger of falling away from their confession (3:1; 4:14; 10:23). They had endured persecution (10:32-36).
In this text, after a brief citation from Jeremiah (31:33-34) concerning the New Covenant ushered in by Christ the High Priest, with new laws written on the faithful’s hearts and minds (vv.16-18), exhortations to the faithful are offered. Forgiveness of sin and writing the Lord’s laws [nomos] on the hearts [kardia] and minds [dianoia] of the people, giving them forgiveness [aphesis], are said to be the essence of the New Covenant (vv.16-18). Reference is then made to the Blood of Jesus giving confidence [parrhesia] to enter the sanctuary [the Presence of God] through the curtain (which is said to refer to His flesh) (vv.19-20). In accord with the Book’s agenda, Jesus is said to be a great priest [hierus megus] (v.21). As a result, the faithful can approach a public confession in full assurance [plerophoria, full conviction], for their hearts are clear from an evil conscience [suneidesis, a knowing with oneself] and so may hold fast in hope (vv.22-23).
The text then calls for those addressed to provoke [paroxusmos, literally excite] each other to love and good deeds (v.24). The author would have the faithful not neglect meeting together (unlike some who do not) for the Day [hemera] of the Lord (the End Time) is approaching (v.25). This eschatological orientation had been anticipated by the Hebrew Prophets (Isaiah 2:12; Joel 1:15; 3:14; Amos 5:18; 8:9).
Application: The Lesson offers opportunities to proclaim the direct access we now have to God as a result of Christ’s High-Priestly Sacrifice (Atonement and Justification By Grace). But consideration might also be given to the implications for living the Christian life that this intimate contact with God might offer to the faithful (Sanctification). We might also highlight the Eschatological character of lives lived in spontaneous love and Christian fellowship.
John 18:1 — 19:42
We continue to examine the newest account of the Passion, a Gospel, which as we have noted, was probably not written by the Apostle John but by a disciple of his seeking to present a spiritual Gospel which places a strong emphasis on Christ’s divinity. Though by no means a majority in the guild, a handful of scholars hold out for the likelihood of the Gospel being based on eye-witness testimony (Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, pp.423ff.). The account reports that following His High Priestly Prayer (ch.17), Jesus and the Disciples reportedly journey across the Kidron Valley, between Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives (18:1). Judas leads Roman soldiers, Temple police, and Pharisees to arrest Him (18:2-3). (Of the four Gospels only John mentions a role for Roman soldiers in the arrest.) Jesus asks them, though He already omnisciently knows the answer, whom they seek and when His Name is mentioned He uses a phrase suggestive of His identification with God (with the Name Yahweh), claiming “I am He” [ego eimi] (Exodus 3:14; Isaiah 43:10-11,25). John’s version of Jesus regularly identified Himself this way (8:12; 12:46; 14:6; 15:1,5). With this identification of Himself, Jesus’ arresters fall to the ground in honor of the Name (18:4-8a). He urges that His followers be released in order to fulfill earlier prophecies that He would lose no one (18:8b-9; cf. 6:39; 17:12).
Jesus stops Peter from taking arms to free Him (though Peter did cut off the ear of one of the High Priest’s men [vv.18:10-11]). He is brought by soldiers (the “officer” in most English translations refers to the commander of the Roman cohort) before Annas, the father-in-law of the High Priest Caiaphas, who had advised that it would be better to have Jesus killed as representative of the people of Israel than to have the people and The Temple attacked by Roman authorities (18:13-14). Meanwhile Peter seems to have denied Jesus outside the gate of the High Priest’s courtyard. Another Disciple known by the High Priest enters the courtyard with Jesus (18:15-18). Unlike the other Gospels where Jesus first sees the Sanhedrin (on John’s account He had already been judged by this body [11:47-53]), Jesus simply is judged by the High Priest Annas. In the interrogation Jesus claims that all know or have heard His teaching (18:19-21). He is struck for insubordination and sent to Caiaphas for formal trial before the Jewish Sanhedrin (the official Jewish court made up of seventy priests, scribes, and elders, presided over by the High Priest) (18:22-24), but as noted, we never receive a report of such a trial. Meanwhile Peter denies Jesus again after being accused of being a follower by a relative of the one whom he had injured defending Jesus (18:25-27).
Jesus is brought to Roman Governor Pontius Pilate. Jews do not enter headquarters lest they become unclean for Passover by interaction with Gentiles (18:28). Pilate tries to have the Jews punish Jesus themselves, but they note that they are not permitted to inflict capital punishment. (18:29-32). In response to Pilate’s questions Jesus noted that His Kingdom [basileia] is not of [ek, literally “out of”] the world and that His followers are not defending Him (18:33-36). (John’s Jesus does not emphasize the Kingdom of God as much as other Gospels, so these references to Jesus’ Kingship may be the result of John’s dependence on Mark and other Gospels or a way to assert the divinity of Jesus as this Gospel aims to emphasize. Yet in John’s version of the trial, John emphasizes more than the other Gospels the political accusation that Jesus claims to be king.) After more exchanges with Jesus, during which Jesus claims to have come into the world to testify to the truth [aletheia], Pilate surmises that Jesus has claimed to be a king, but failed to comment on the truth of His testimony. He then offers Jesus’ release to the Jews, but the crowd prefers the release of Barabbas the bandit/robber [lestes, a Greek term sometimes identified with political revolutionaries] (18:37-40).
Pilate then has Jesus flogged and mocked by clothing Him in purple robes which were king-like attire. (Flogging in the Roman Empire was generally reserved for those sentenced to death.) Others mockingly call Him king of the Jews [Basileus ton Ioudaion] (19:1-3). His wearing a purple robe symbolized royalty. Pilate claims to find no case against Jesus regarding alleged political insurrection, but chief priests and police call for His crucifixion, contending He should die for he has claimed to be Son of God (19:4-7). After this exchange Pilate is fearful. (While the translation says “more fearful”, the Greek term mallon, might be translated as “rather” so as to be best translated “rather fearful.”) Jesus refused to answer further questions (19:8-9). Angered, Pilate threatens Jesus with the power he has over Him, but Jesus responds that Pilate’s power depends on God. The one who handed Jesus over is said to be guilty of greater sin (19:10-11). Pilate then tries to release Jesus, but Jews claim He is the enemy of the Emperor. Pilate finally announces Jesus as King of Jews, asks if He should be crucified, and then hands Jesus to the crowd at noon (19:12-16). Jewish custom was to slaughter Passover lambs on the day of preparation at Noon for the Festival.
Jesus carries The Cross to Golgotha (Aramaic for “skull”). He is crucified between two others, with an inscription on The Cross [stauros], “Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews” (Iesus ho Nadzoraios ho Basileus ton Ioudaion, not precisely the same wording as in the other Gospel accounts [cf. Luke 23:38; Mark 15:26]) (19:17-20). Chief priests try to have the inscription changed to make clear that Jesus only claimed to be King of the Jews. Pilate refuses (19:21-22). At the Crucifixion Jesus’ clothes are divided by soldiers and they cast lots for His tunic, fulfilling Psalms 22:18 (19:23-24). In the presence of his mother, her sister Mary of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene, Jesus speaks to the Disciple he loved (identity uncer- tain, though in the tradition it is said that this is John) to care for His mother (19:25-27). Knowing the end is near Jesus sought to fulfill Scripture (Psalm 69:21) by receiving sour wine on a hyssop (a shrub whose branches are too short for this purpose, but is used at the Passover) in response to His thirst (19:28-29; cf. Exodus 12:22). He then proclaims it is finished/completed [tetelestai] and dies (19:30).
Because the Sabbath (and with it the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, an ancient Spring festival) would dawn in the morning and Jews did not allow bodies to be left on a cross, Pilate ordered the legs of the crucified broken (19:31-32). No need to do that in Jesus’ case for He was already dead; instead His side was pierced. Eyewitness testimony is claimed regarding His death (19:33-35). Scripture is thereby fulfilled, with reference to not breaking the bones of God’s Chosen (as Passover sacrifices cannot have bones broken, as per Exodus 12:46) (19:36). Jesus being pierced is said to fulfill Zechariah 12:10 and its claim that the one pierced will be mourned at the end (19:37).
Joseph of Arimethea, a secret disciple of Jesus, gets permission from Pilate to take His Body. With a leader of the Pharisees, Nicodemus (see 3:1-15), they embalm the Body and lay it in a tomb. (Only in this Gospel does Nicodemus play such a role.) Reference to the 100 pounds of embalming material Nicodemus is said to have brought for the task is really about seventy-five pounds in modern Western weight measures (19:38-42).
Application: The Lesson’s length affords several alternatives noted when the text was considered on Good Friday last year. Sermons might start by helping the faithful see themselves and their sins in the actions surrounding Jesus on the way to The Cross. From that perspective the love and grace of God are all the sweeter and more compelling for everyday life (Justification and Sanctification). The question of what truth is, posed in the dialogue with Pilate, could also be explored (the truth being that Jesus in the Messiah). The apparent affirmation by Jesus of divinity (see the use of the phrase “I am” described above) opens the way for a sermon regarding why it is important for Him to be divine if His Word on The Cross is to save us, for only God can save us (Christology). His reference to His Kingdom being not of the world opens the door to sermons explaining the healthy tensions between church and state (Social Ethics). Finally the Atonement itself could be proclaimed and explained, how it involves not only Jesus’ sacrifice to God but also His conquest of the forces of evil operating in this story.
As followers of Jesus reminisced about the suffering that Jesus had experienced while he was being tortured and crucified by the Romans and about the significance that they saw in Jesus’ suffering for their own lives, no texts within the Hebrew religious traditions were more helpful to them in describing the crucifixion of Jesus than were the Psalm 22 and the Isaiah 52:13–53:12 readings that have been selected in this lectionary for Good Friday each year.
Followers of Jesus used the vivid details of these texts as they told and retold their descriptions of Jesus’ crucifixion in order to fill in the gaps within their own knowledge and recollections of that horrible event. Most of the portions of these two texts that could not be used in their recounting of the events during the crucifixion of Jesus because they did not “fit” Jesus’ situation were simply not used. Psalm 22, as a detailed individual psalm of lament, and Isaiah 52:13–53:12 both served well to depict what his followers concluded must have been Jesus’ inner struggles as he was dying and to depict how Jesus had suffered, even though neither of these two portions of the Hebrew religious traditions were originally intended to describe the thoughts of Jesus or of anyone else who was dying on a Roman cross centuries later.
Our Christian hymns written to express Jesus’ thoughts as he was dying develop these details even further than the New Testament texts develop them, and as we sing these hymns the words that we sing are implanted into our memory. It is important that we read the entire Psalm 22 within its own life situation before we use the Psalm in telling the story of Jesus’ passion and death.
Most of that which has been written about Psalm 22 above applies also to this climax of what we as Christians call the Suffering Servant Songs of the Isaiah traditions. We can, of course, merely continue to see these texts as amazingly accurate prophecies that describe in vivid detail Jesus’ suffering hundreds of years before he was crucified. We can also say that it was necessary for Jesus to suffer and to die in a specific way in order that he might fulfill these Scriptures. It will be in much greater accord with what actually happened, however, and more helpful to the people whom we serve if we suggest within our proclamation that followers of Jesus probably used details from Psalm 22 and from the Isaiah 52:13–53:12 texts as they told and retold what they understood about the death of Jesus during the decades after his crucifixion. Is this not essentially what we ourselves do when we prepare and share sermons and homilies to express our faith and to encourage other people in the development of their faith in God? We too use what we can and what works best within the religious documents that are available to us.
If these entire two chapters are read, the time that will be used within the service for this reading will mean that if there is a sermon or a homily these proclamations will be very brief and will probably provide very little reflection over most of the details in the reading. If, because of the length of the reading, there will be no sermon or homily of reflection at all, the impression will be given that everything written in the two chapters is simply a compilation of historical facts.
There are three segments in this extensive reading in which the narrative depicts the Jews as extremely cruel and sadistic in their insistence that Pilate order the crucifixion of Jesus. It would be admirable if we would shorten the reading somewhat by not including these three segments (John 18:28b-32; 38b-40; and 19:4-16a) in our reading. These are the three segments that are the least edifying, the least historically verifiable, and the least appropriate for Christian proclamation. It would be even more desirable to begin our reading with John 19:16b and read until the conclusion of the suggested reading with John 19:42. This is the portion of the two chapters that actually depict actions on Friday rather than on Thursday evening.
It is not surprising that when we compare the passion accounts in all Four Gospels, we see that in the Fourth Gospel Jesus speaks quite extensively, unlike the other three in which Jesus says only a few words. This is consistent with what we have seen throughout the Fourth Gospel in which the Johannine Jesus is basically in charge of the entire situation, even until he dies on the cross with the words, “It is finished,” i.e., “I have completed everything that I have come to do.”
Also, as we compare the passion accounts in all four of the Gospels, we see that although in the Synoptic accounts there are said to have been various women present at the scene of the crucifixion of Jesus, no mention is made of the mother of Jesus being there. Also, in the accounts in Mark and in Matthew it is stated that all of Jesus’ male disciples had fled, including Peter who had at least gone along to enter the courtyard of Caiaphas to attempt to see what the bodyguards of Caiaphas would do to Jesus. Apparently the Fourth Gospel presents a different scene in order that its hero, “The Disciple whom Jesus Loved,” would be shown as continuing Jesus’ responsibilities by taking the mother of Jesus into his own home, or, if the “Beloved Disciple” is a symbol or representative of the Johannine community, into its home. This Johannine story about the mother of Jesus and the “Beloved Disciple” being present during the crucifixion of Jesus is not primarily a contradiction to the Markan and Matthean accounts. It merely presents a different scene for a different purpose.
As an encouragement for those who read or hear this text to enter into the most holy presence of God, made possible because of the blood shed by Jesus on the day that for us has become a Good Friday, this text is appropriate for our use on Good Friday every year. In the words of the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, let us rejoice in our new and life-giving access to God through the “curtain” that Jesus as the Christ has opened for us.
Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9
The prayers and the supplications of Jesus mentioned in Hebrews 5:7 help to bring this document somewhat closer to the depictions of Jesus in the Four Gospels. The designation of Jesus as “a ruler-priest after the order of Melchizedek” in 5:9 takes it farther away from them. We experience an echo of this “great high priest” language applied to Jesus the Christ in the Great Thanksgiving portion of our Holy Communion liturgy. There are those among us, however, who are still somewhat less than comfortable with this “great high priest” terminology in our Communion liturgy, even after many years of usage.
Finally, these texts selected for our use on Good Friday provide the setting for a general appeal for sensitivity during our Good Friday experiences. Our Jewish friends tell us that even now in this country they are at times still somewhat uneasy on this day that we as Christians designate as Good Friday. They remember the instances that their parents and grandparents have told them about verbal and physical abuse suffered by their people in Europe when after “Good Friday” worship services Christians poured out from their church buildings to attack Jews. Some of them remember the abuse that they themselves experienced within this country from Christian children who ridiculed and chased them as “Christ-killers.” There are many Christian people who do not realize that it was a Jew who was crucified by the Romans on that first “Good Friday,” and that it was a Jew who became our Lord and Savior within the process of Christian theological development. Rembrandt realized this when he asked a Jew to pose for him while Rembrandt painted his portrait of Jesus, but most other Christian artists have not and neither have most Christian preachers. Perhaps on Good Friday this year, and every year, we might remember this and in some way share the fact that Jesus lived and died as a Jew. If we do this, we might even be able to invite Jews whom we know to join with us in some way on Good Friday in our remembrance of the crucifixion of Jesus the Jew by the oppressive Roman occupation forces in Jerusalem.
THEME OF THE DAY
This Festival’s focus on the Good News of Christ’s Resurrection (Justification By Grace) should explore the surprising transformations it makes in Church, Christian life (Sanctification) and Social Ethics.
This thanksgiving for deliverance in battle is one of the Egyptian Hallel Psalms (Psalms of Praise) used after 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/mercy [chesed] (vv.1-2). Yahweh is identified as the Psalmist’s strength [oz] and salvation/safety [yeshuah] (v.14). Verses 15-16, praising works of the right hand of Yahweh may be an ancient victory song. Reference is made to not dying [muth] but living [chayah], 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 [tsedeq] 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 [gil] and awe that follow from this awareness of what Yahweh has done in becoming our salvation [yeshuah, safety, ease) are expressed (vv.21,23-24).
The Christological interpretation further reflects in verses 22-23 and its reference to the stone [eben] the builders rejected becoming the chief cornerstone [pinnah]. This is frequently attributed to Christ in the New Testament (Matthew 21:42; Acts 4:11; I 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: The Psalm offers opportunities to proclaim that God gives life and salvation through death, that He takes what seems to be of no account or a sign of defeat, and gives life and power through these means (Justification By Grace and Atonement).
As is well known this Book is comprised of two or three distinct strands. Only the first 30 Chapters, from which this Lesson is drawn, may be assigned to the work of the historical Prophet to Jerusalem and the Southern Kingdom from 742 BC to 701 BC, a period during which the Northern Kingdom had been annexed by the Assyrian Empire. The second and third sections of the Book originated immediately before the fall of Babylon (in 539 BC) or soon after the Babylonian Captivity ended.
After a psalm of thanksgiving, the Lesson is an eschatological discourse following those begun in the previous Chapter. This is the so-called Isaiah Apocalypse. It prefigures references to the end of the world in Revelation. The text notes that on the day promised, a festival is to be made for all people on Mount Zion (the older and higher part of Jerusalem, associated with the site of God’s rule [24:34]) (v.6). The king usually celebrated his enthronement with feasts (I Kings 1:24-25). The shroud and sheet to be destroyed by God (v.8) may refer to funeral garments or to the curtains in the Temple Tabernacle separating people from the sanctuary where God was thought to abide. Death [maveth] is to be swallowed up [bala] forever at this time (v.8). This reverses the Canaanite myth that death swallows up everything (5:14). The Lord is said to wipe away [machah] all tears [dimah], as well as the disgrace of His people/reproach (v.8). Reference is made to the salvation [yeshuah, also translated as “safety” or “ease”] of this people (v.9).
Application: The text affords opportunity to proclaim the joy of the Resurrection (Justification By Grace) and the vision of the End Times it affords (Realized Eschatology). The destruction of the shroud which limited the laity’s vision of God in the Jerusalem Temple suggests that the Resurrection gives the faithful direct access to God. Old ways of ordering religious life no longer maintain their authority in light of Easter (Church and Theological Method).
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; II 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 had a similar vision (vv.3-17). Peter visited 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 [dektos] (vv.34-35). The Hebrews already knew God was not partial (Deuteronomy 10:17-18; Sirach 35:15-16 ). What was new here was that God operates without regard to social or ethnic barriers. He proceeds to recount the Ministry of Jesus Who, anointed [chrio] by the Spirit [pneuma], preached peace [eirene] and did good, healing all who were oppressed by the devil. His calling Christ Lord of all would have amounted to proclaiming Christ’s deity over that of Zeus and Osiris, about whom such a claim was made (vv.36-38; cf. Plutarch, Isis and Osiris, 355e). Testimony is also given to Christ’s death and Resurrection, as well as His Appearances to those chosen [hand-picked] 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, for Jesus is their Judge (vv.42-43). This summary of Jesus’ life replays key themes of the Lucan narrative (1:8,22; Luke 3:22; 24:48).
Application: This alternative First Lesson provides good opportunities to proclaim the universal character of the Resurrection, how it unites all people (Justification By Grace and Social Ethics). Sermons could also focus on Christ’s Presence in the Communion Meals.
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
In a Letter to a troubled church in Corinth which he had established (Acts 18:1-11), seeking to address various doctrinal and ethical problems, Paul responds to critics of the idea of whether there is a resurrection of the body, as these critics were Greeks who believed in the eternality of the soul (v.12). This teaching is part of the Gospel he has received, Paul claims, and so to deny the resurrection [anastasis] would be to deny the faith that has saved the Corinthians (vv.1-2). (This particular pericope never gets us to the verses in which Paul actually argues for a resurrection of the faithful based on the reality of Jesus’ Resurrection [vv.12ff.].) Paul recounts this Gospel. Its focus is on Christ’s death for our sins in accord with Scriptures (the Hebrew Bible; see Psalm 16:10; Hosea 6:2) and the Resurrection [egeiro] on the third day, also in accord with Scriptures (vv.3-4). He then proceeds to list those to whom Jesus has appeared, highlighting Cephas/Peter, and then adds his own name to the list as the least of the Apostles (due to his earlier anti-Christian activities) (vv.5-9). Paul then proceeds to defend his ministry, claiming by the grace of God he is what he is and that that grace [charis] has not been in vain. He claims to have worked harder than any of the Apostles. But then he adds it was not he, but the grace of God within him, that did the work (v.10).
Application: The text affords occasion to reflect on how the Good News of Easter (Justification By Grace) can compel us to work for the Lord (Sanctification).
Hints of that possibility that this Gospel was not composed by John the Apostle, though perhaps by one of his disciples, are offered by the first post-Biblical Church Historian Eusebius of Caesarea. He 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 eye-witness accounts of the author) (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol.1, p.261). But a late first-early second century Bishop Papias, seems to have implied that the Gospel was likely the result of eyewitness origins (Richard Bauckham, Jesus and he Eyewitnesses, pp.423ff.; cf. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol.1, pp.154-155). In any case, the Gospel 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’ account of 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). (Magdalene probably means that she came for the town Magdala on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee.) 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 claims that the Body must have been removed (v.2). The two Disciples hurriedly proceed to The Tomb, with the one whom Jesus loved getting there faster than Peter (vv.3-4).
At first only seeking the linens [othonion] 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 [mnemion] weeping and angels [aggelos] sitting where the Body of Jesus 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 “rabbouni,” a variation of “rabbi”). Jesus asks Mary not to hold Him, because He has not yet ascended [anabaino] to God their Father (vv.16-17). She goes and reports these things to the Disciples, claiming she had seen the Lord [kurios] (v.18). John does not make clear if the Disciples actually believed her testimony, since a personal appearance later in the day is reported (vv.19-23).
Application: The joy and enthusiasm of the witnesses to the Resurrection can afford occasion for sermons on the joy, enthusiasm, and surprise that the Easter Word can afford Christians (Justification By Grace and Sanctification).
As the Lukan playwright presents it, Peter announces to Cornelius in this text that Jesus as the Risen Christ has been appointed by God to be the judge of both those who are living and of those who have died and that everyone who believes in Jesus as the Risen Christ receives forgiveness of sins through Christ’s name. Peter and all of us are to be eyewitnesses of this and to share the message as eyewitnesses.
The reading of this very significant expression of Jewish hope has become traditional for us as Christians on Easter Day. We realize, of course, that the expression of hope in Isaiah 25:6-9 is still largely futuristic for Jews, for us as Christians also, for Muslims, and for others. They wait. We wait. Must we have animosity toward each other as we wait? Is our animosity pleasing to God? What can we do together as we wait? Dare we include questions such as these within our Easter message this year? Perhaps we can no longer afford not to include them.
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
This beautiful, extensive “individual hymn of praise” used by the Israelites as the last in the collection of Hallel psalms (Psalms 113-118) in the Psalter has its decisive futuristic element in 118:17, “I am not going to die — because I am going to live! And I am going to declare the deeds of the Lord.” In its original setting this meant that “I am going to live longer in this present life as I know this life here and now” because the Lord God has rescued me from death and has given to me a new lease on life. Later, for Jews within apocalyptic circles and for Christians, this “I am going to live!” became “I am going to live eternally!” The future growing out of the present became the future after life and death here.
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
The Easter message is stated clearly and unequivocally within each of the four New Testament texts selected here for the second reading and the Gospel on Easter Day. The Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:4 wrote that Jesus as the Christ “was raised from the dead on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.” The Lukan playwright in Acts 10:40 has Peter proclaim to Cornelius that “God raised Jesus from the dead on the third day as the Christ, and gave the Risen Christ the ability to become visible to whomever the Risen Christ wished.” The writer of the Gospel According to Mark in Mark 16:6, speaking through the words of the neaniskos (young man) in the empty tomb says, “Do not be astounded. I know that you are looking for Jesus, the man from Nazareth who was crucified. He has been raised from the dead! He is not here. See the place where they placed him.” The writers of the Gospel According to John in John 20:18 have Mary Magdalene joyously announce to the male disciples, “I have seen the Lord!”
This Easter message is expressed joyfully and enthusiastically within our Easter hymns and throughout our Easter liturgies. Certainly it is to be expressed joyfully and with enthusiasm in the reading of all of these texts and in our proclamation of the Easter message. Anything less would be totally inappropriate on this most important day of our Church Year.
It is often noted that Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, writing prior to the formation of the Four Gospels, placed his emphasis on appearances of Jesus as the Risen Christ rather than on the empty tomb, the Easter setting in each of the Four Gospels. If we use 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 and John 20:1-18 on Easter Day, our emphasis also should be on appearances of Jesus as the Risen Christ, including the appearance to Mary Magdalene. The difference is that Paul cited a variety of appearances of the Risen Christ, primarily to males and to the more than five hundred that would presumably have included women, while in John 20:1-18 the dramatic appearance is to a woman, Mary Magdalene. What shall we do with this?
As the Lukan playwright presents it, Peter announces to Cornelius in this text that Jesus as the Risen Christ has been appointed by God to be the judge of both those who are living and of those who have died and that everyone who believes in Jesus as the Risen Christ receives forgiveness of sins through Christ’s name. Peter and all of us are to be eyewitnesses of this and to share the message as eyewitnesses.
Among the Easter accounts within the Four Gospels, this is the most fully developed and complex. The text begins and ends with Mary Magdalene. Told by Mary Magdalene that the stone had been rolled aside from the entrance to the tomb and that the body of the Lord had been taken from the tomb, Peter and “the disciple whom Jesus loved” are said to have run to the tomb. That the other disciple ran faster than Peter and arrived first at the tomb is usually considered to be an indication that Peter was relatively old and could not keep up the pace of the younger “disciple whom Jesus loved.” Within the context of the Fourth Gospel, however, in which “the disciple whom Jesus loved” is repeatedly portrayed as “one up” on Peter, there is the possibility, perhaps even the likelihood, that “the disciple whom Jesus loved” is more than a single individual, that this “disciple” is a symbol, a self-designation of the Johannine community, while it considered Peter to be a representative symbol of the much larger extended Markan community. The Johannine community was then perhaps in its document claiming to have been “reclining close to Jesus” at the meal on the night on which Jesus was betrayed (John 13:23-25). The Johannine community then was claiming to have been present at the foot of the cross to be given and to accept the responsibility from the Johannine Jesus to take the mother of Jesus into its care, thereby doing what the Johannine Jesus previously had done (John 19:26-27). The Johannine community then was perhaps claiming in its document to have outrun Peter and the Markan community to the empty tomb and was the first to “believe,” as it claimed in this John 20:3-8 text. The Johannine community then is the one about whom the Johannine Jesus says to Peter in John 21:20-23, “If I want ‘him’ (or ‘it’) to remain until I come, what concern is that to you?” The Johannine community then, not merely a single individual, is the witness concerning all of the things that are written in the Fourth Gospel. The Johannine community then is said to have been the one who has written the Fourth Gospel (John 20:24).
There is a certain arrogance in the claim in the Fourth Gospel that there was one disciple “whom Jesus loved.” Did not Jesus love all of his disciples? There is still a certain level of arrogance if the community was symbolically claiming that it rather than Peter and the larger Markan community was especially loved by Jesus, but the arrogance is more understandable and acceptable if was the community members who felt that they were special, that they were especially loved by Jesus, than if one person is said to have been the one “person whom Jesus loved.” A community of faith may feel that its members are especially loved and blessed and happily express that within the community and even discreetly beyond the community without saying explicitly, “We are better than you are!” Perhaps this is what happened and what we have in the Fourth Gospel, the validating document of the Johannine community, the document in which it expressed its faith and its claims.
It is of great interest also to note the progression from Mark to Matthew to Luke to John in who is presented as announcing for God the Easter message to followers of Jesus. In Mark 16:5-7 the message is announced by the neaniskos (a young man) here clothed in white. We note that the word neaniskos is used in Mark 14:51-52 to describe the young man in the Garden of Gethsemane who, after the twelve disciples of Jesus had fled, remained until some of the bodyguards sent by Caiaphas to seize Jesus reached for him, when he tore loose, leaving his garment and running away “naked.” Now in Mark 16:5-7 it is a neaniskos clothed in white who announces for God that Jesus has been raised from the dead. We cannot be certain, but if this first Gospel was written by John Mark, it is possible that John Mark was that neaniskos, who was in Gethsemane along with the twelve somewhat older young followers of Jesus, the young teenager who lived with his mother in Jerusalem and in whose home the women who had come with Jesus to Galilee may have been guests, providing meals for Jesus and his male disciples who had come with him from Galilee, while Jesus and the other males camped each night in Gethsemane. In the Gospel According to Mark, much of the material (chapters 11-16) is about Jesus in Jerusalem, so much so that some commentators have described Mark as a passion account with an extensive introduction. This may have been because the young man John Mark had seen and been with Jesus only during the final week of Jesus’ life. Rather than for John Mark as the writer of this Gospel to make the critically important proclamation, “Jesus has been raised from the dead!” he may have put himself into his Gospel as a minor character in 14:51-51 but as a major character in 16:5-7 who made this announcement. (For a literary portrayal of this and of many other incidents in the life of Jesus portrayed as a man, see my movie script, “Jesus, the Man,” available at the Texas Lutheran University Bookstore www.tlu.edu.)
Instead of the neaniskos clothed in white in Mark 16:5-7, the Matthean redactors in Matthew 28:2-7 portray an angel of the Lord clothed in white as making this all-important announcement. The Lukan redactor expanded Mark’s neaniskos clothed in white in Luke 24:4-7 into two men who were in clothing as bright as lightning! The Fourth Gospel redactors went one step farther by having two angels in bright apparel (John 20:12-13) appearing to Mary Magdalene. Had there been a Fifth or Sixth Gospel, we might expect that the announcement would have been made by a whole chorus of angels, much as the Lukan writer has a chorus of angels announce the birth of Jesus to the shepherds in the field in Luke 2:13-15. We continue this progression in our Easter worship services as we and our congregations’ choirs and our congregations joyously sing the Easter hymns and proclaim the Easter message.
The secondary source that has been most helpful to me in my appreciation of the resurrection of Jesus accounts in the Synoptic Gospels is a short book written by the British Baptist scholar Norman Perrin just before his death at the University of Chicago in 1976 as a result of both cancer and heart disease. In his The Resurrection According to Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977) Perrin explained how the passion and resurrection of Jesus account in the Gospel According to Mark depicts the failure of Jesus’ male disciples to believe and trust in him, and how these disciples fade away after Jesus is seized in Gethsemane. Even the women followers of Jesus, who, although unlike the men, they are with Jesus in Mark’s Gospel watching from a distance as Jesus dies on the cross, watching also as Joseph of Arimathea places the body of Jesus in Joseph’s tomb, and preparing to anoint the body of Jesus early in the morning after the sabbath, when told by the neaniskos that Jesus has been raised from the dead, fail Jesus because they say nothing to anyone about what the neaniskos has said to them, because they are afraid.
Perrin described the resurrection of Jesus account in Mark 16:1-8 as a “primordial myth,” an almost primitive, primeval expression of the theme and experience of “suffering/death/the overcoming of death,” evidences of which Perrin wrote “are found everywhere in human culture” (page 34).
The readers and hearers of the passion and resurrection account in Mark that ends, or rather that is left unended with the words “for they were afraid,” do not have the assurances of appearances of Jesus as the Risen Christ that are provided by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 and by the redactor-writers who produced Matthew 28, Luke 24, John 20-21, and the various “endings” attached after Mark 16:1-8 in later centuries. The readers and hearers of the passion and resurrection accounts in Mark are given no expressions of proof of Jesus’ resurrection, or of their own! So also it is for us as we read and hear Mark’s “primordial” story. They, and we as well, who live after the “ascension” of Jesus, do not physically see Jesus the Risen Christ. The first readers and hearers of Mark’s story, and we as well, read, hear, and believe. They, as we as well, have no physical proof. Together, we live by faith, a primordial, primitive, primeval faith. That is why Perrin resonated so well with Mark’s account. What about you? What do you think about this? If you use Mark’s story, what will you proclaim and how will you proclaim it?
Since the only texts selected from the Older Testament for the Sundays after Easter in Series A, B, and C of this lectionary are the readings from the Psalms, with selections from the Lukan literary drama Acts of Apostles used for the First Reading instead of texts from the Old Testament, the selections from the Psalms should be given special attention during the coming six weeks.
Who could disagree with the beautiful statement of the blessings that are the result of people living together peacefully, as expressed in the first verse and throughout Psalm 133? Who would not enjoy the analogies utilized in this wisdom psalm? The statement in verse one has universal application, especially appropriate for us as Christians during the Easter season and throughout the year. The analogies that follow verse one are thoroughly Israelite-Jewish, but useful also for us.
At first glance, this text follows Psalm 133 very well, providing an excellent example of how productive and harmonious it is when members of a religious community live together in peace and harmony, sharing their resources for the benefit of all. Attempts at communal living and sharing are common within past and current religious communities, including Christian communities. Various Christian monastic communities have functioned well for long periods of time. Others, such as John Calvin’s Geneva and a number of communities in the USA during the 19th century, were viable only for a generation or two. What the Lukan playwright depicts as problems beyond this text in Acts 5:1-11, however, is fairly typical of the attempts at communal sharing within religious communities.
What degree and level of sharing do you consider to be most advantageous within the congregation in which you serve? Would it be desirable to have a higher level of sharing within your congregation, perhaps for a relatively brief period of time, for example during the Easter season each year? Would a very high level of communal sharing be more likely to be successful in a small, new “mission” congregation supported by other congregations than in a large, well-established congregation? In your opinion, how much communal sharing is ideal within a Christian community of faith?
Like the Luke 24-13-49 text and unlike the Mark 16:1-8 texts considered above, this John 20:19-31 text is a proof of Jesus’ physical resurrection account. It is somewhat different from Luke 24:13-49, however, in that here in John the Risen Christ is depicted as passing through doors without opening them, as a “spirit,” while at the same time having the same body as before his death, even having scars from wounds inflicted upon him prior to his death. Here he has the same body, but it is a body that no longer has the mortal limits of time and of space.
Here Jesus as the Risen Christ greets his disciples with a message of peace. Here he shows to his disciples his wounded hands and side. He breathes on them and tells them to receive the Holy Spirit. He gives to them power to forgive and to retain sins. He tells them to believe.
Within our worship services this coming Sunday, we shall want to share within the congregations in which we serve everything that Jesus is said to have shared with the disciples in this text. Many of our claims within the Church are based on accounts such as John 20:19-31. We believe because those who have delivered to us these traditions have believed. We are called to deliver these traditions to others.
It is regrettable that those who wrote the Gospel According to John included the words dia ton phobon ton Ioudaion (which is usually translated into English as “because of the fear of the Jews”) in 20:19. The Johannine community had apparently experienced “fear of the Jews” in its recent past (probably during the decade of 81-90 C.E.) because of its contention with Jews who remained Jews. It is likely that negative experiences of frustration over the inability of members of the Johannine community to attract Jews to believe what the members of the Johannine community believed about Jesus had caused pejorative statements about the Jews in general to abound as the members of the Johannine community told their own story.
Grammatically, the genitive case in the Greek expression ton Ioudaion can be translated into English either as a subjective genitive “the Jews’ fear,” that is, because of the fear that the followers of Jesus as Jews had of the Roman occupational authorities who had tortured and crucified Jesus, or as an objective genitive “the fear of the Jews,” in which the Jews are the object or reason for the fear that the disciples of Jesus had. If John 20:19-31 were a documentary of the activities of the disciples of Jesus the third night after Jesus had been crucified by the Romans, these disciples of Jesus could indeed be portrayed as being afraid as Jewish followers of Jesus that the Roman authorities who had killed Jesus as a threat to Roman security in Jerusalem might come to seize, torture, and crucify them also.
The Four Gospels are not objective documentaries, however. Instead they are largely theological accounts, expressions of faith. Within the context of the Fourth Gospel, in which in most instances “the Jews” are presented as opponents of the Johannine Jesus and of his followers within the Johannine community, we must translate into English within the context of the Fourth Gospel and of the perspective of the Johannine community during the last decades of the 1st century.
Nevertheless, we can and should translate the words dia ton phobon ton Ioudaion with sensitivity. We can include some nuances when we translate these words into English during this the 21st century. Accordingly, in my The New Testament: A New Translation and Redaction (Lima, Ohio: Fairway Press, 2001), I have translated John 20:19 as follows: “During the evening of that day, the first day after the sabbath, while the doors where the disciples were staying were locked because they were afraid of what Annas and Caiaphas might do to them, Jesus appeared and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ ”
Incidentally, the expression dia ton phobon ton Ioudaion is the only overtly anti-Jewish expression within chapters 20-21 of the Fourth Gospel. Most of the anti-Jewish polemic in the Fourth Gospel is centered in chapters 5-12.
1 John 1:1–2:2
This reading from the beginning portion of 1 John complements the John 20:19-31 Gospel selection for this day beautifully. It is made-to-order as a companion reading for the account of the disciples of Jesus seeing the Risen Christ with their own eyes and of Thomas being asked to touch the hands and the side of the body of Jesus where the nails had pierced his hands and the sword had gashed into his side. It also expresses very well the concept of atonement accomplished by the Christ, who is described as the expiation for our sins.
Having had the most convincing proof of Jesus’ physical resurrection story from the Fourth Gospel traditions as our Gospel reading this past Sunday, we turn now for next Sunday to the most convincing proof of Jesus’ physical resurrection story in the Gospel According to Luke (Luke 24:36b-48).
We are grateful for these proof of Jesus’ physical resurrection stories, even though by faith even without them and with only Mark 16:1-8 we could believe that God raised Jesus physically from the dead. We are grateful for them because they indicate belief that after God has also raised us from the dead we too will be able to eat food, to touch and be touched, etc. We express our belief through the use of these texts that we too shall not be limited to a “spirit” existence. More than any other factor, this belief that after God has raised us from the dead we shall be able to relate to God and to one another physically has made Christianity the religion that has the largest number of members in the world today. It is not our ethical system nor the exemplary manner in which we have lived that has led to the immense popularity of Christianity. Instead, it has been this teaching and belief in a meaningful physical being after death and resurrection that has been the most attractive feature within Christianity. (The Greek concept of the immortality of the “soul,” for example, did not result in the ongoing development of a major “world” religion, although some of this concept was incorporated into Christianity. The Sikh concept of the faithful member being “absorbed” into God did not make Sikh religion widely attractive either.)
We are called to proclaim this physical resurrection belief clearly and joyfully. We should proclaim it with the firm conviction that God is active and will continue to be active in our history through Jesus Christ our Lord, without in any way attempting to restrict God to our own limited understanding and experience. This is the challenge that we face throughout the year, and especially during the Easter season and on this Third Sunday of Easter in Series B.
This is a typically Lukan account in style, vocabulary, and literary genre. Just as in other accounts that are peculiar to Luke-Acts, this story provides answers in vivid literary drama to questions that “Theophilus” or any other Christian who “loves God” might ask during the last two decades of the first century of the common era. It provides the same answers for us also today.
There are two distinct portions in this text. Luke 24:36b-43 is a “proof of Jesus’ physical resurrection” story. It answers questions that must have been asked frequently among the followers of Jesus decades after his death, questions such as “Was it a spirit of Jesus or the spirit of Jesus that the disciples saw?” “Could this appearance have been merely the result of the imaginations of those first disciples?” “Is their testimony of having seen Jesus alive again perhaps only the wishful thinking of those who missed him and his presence so much after his death?” The answer given to all of these questions in this Luke 24:36b-43 account is the confident affirmation that Jesus was indeed and in every way physically present when he appeared to his disciples numerous times after his resurrection. He had the marks of his crucifixion on his body. The scars remained. Even more convincingly, he actually ate a piece of fish, this story says. A disembodied spirit does not eat fish!
The second part of this text (Luke 24:44-48) is a Lukan “fulfillment of scripture” account in which the disciples of Jesus are given specific directions and told that they are to anticipate a gift of power from God. It anticipates the Acts of Apostles sequel to Luke’s Gospel. We notice because of Hans Conzelmann’s The Theology of St. Luke that the Lukan “Stay in Jerusalem” command is significantly different from Mark’s and Matthew’s “Go to Galilee.” In view of the menu items (bread and fish) served in the feeding of the multitudes accounts and in this story about Jesus eating fish, it is surprising that fish sandwich meals have not been more significant within Christian communities.
1 John 3:1-7
The most obvious connection between this text and the Luke 24:36b-48 Gospel selection is “We do know that when the Son appears we shall be similar to the Son, because we shall see the Son just as the Son is” in 1 John 3:2b. Because the relationship between the Son and the Father is so intimate, there is ambiguity in texts such as 1 John 3:2b about whether the masculine pronoun is intended to have the Father, the Son, or God as its antecedent. It is also difficult to determine whether “he” (the Son) or “what we shall be” from the previous sentence should be considered to be the subject of “is revealed” in 1 John 3:2b. Church usage throughout the centuries, including the juxtaposition of Luke 24:36b-48 and 1 John 3:1-7 in this lectionary, suggest that the Son, or the Son and the Father as God, should be considered to be the subject of “appears” or “is revealed” here.
For those of us who have been sensitized by the Holocaust and the long history of the horribly damaging effects upon Jews, as well as of the dehumanization of Christians, caused by Christian anti-Semitism, it is deplorable that we have texts with verses such as Acts 3:13b-15 and 3:17-19 in this lectionary, to be read in Christian corporate worship settings.
A decision was made by Roman Catholic liturgical experts during and after Vatican II to use texts from Acts of Apostles rather than from the Older Testament as the “Old Testament” First Readings during the Sundays in the Easter Season after the Day of Easter in each of the three years of the lectionary cycle. This was done because presumably there were very few texts in the Older Testament that could be construed, even with the most skillful fine footwork of casuistry, to be “predictions” fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus. These liturgical experts and their ecclesial superiors and administrators unfortunately, in spite of their very commendable development and approval of the document Nostra Aetate, in which the Roman Catholic Church rejected the history of Christian anti-Semitism, included blatantly anti-Jewish verses such as Acts 3:13b-15, and 3:17-19 in their lectionary. The other Christian denominations and groups and their leaders who have used the lectionary developed by the Roman Catholics after Vatican II, including those who modified it somewhat to produce The Revised Common Lectionary, have also been deplorably insensitive to the use of blatantly anti-Jewish verses such as Acts 3:13b-15 and 3:17-19 in Christian corporate worship.
There is plenty of edifying material in our Bibles to use in three year, four year, or even ten-year lectionaries that is not blatantly defamatory to Jews. I had no difficulty whatsoever in finding far more than adequate edifying material that is not condemnatory of Jews when I prepared the Four Year Lectionary that I published as an Appendix in my The New Testament: A New Translation and Redaction (Lima, Ohio: Fairway Press, 2001). It is unconscionable for us to continue to read verses such as Acts 3:13b-15 and 3:17-19 in our Christian corporate worship.
Acts 3:12-19 is not even appropriate as a pericope in terms of form and structure. It starts within the middle of an account that begins in Acts 3:1 about Peter, John, and a man who had been lame from the time of his birth and it breaks off in the middle of a sentence that continues into 3:20. A pericope should have a beginning, body, and conclusion. Acts 3:12-19 begins in the middle of a pericope and ends within that pericope. To use it as we have it is somewhat like coming into a movie thirty minutes late and leaving thirty minutes before its ending.
Since the Acts 3 account is lengthy and actually with its continuation in Acts 4:1-4 has thirty verses, if our First Reading for the Third Sunday of Easter in Series B must be from Acts, the text chosen and used should start with the beginning of the Acts 3:1–4:4 account and include only the edifying and appropriate Acts 3:1-13a, 16. This adjustment from Acts 3:12-17 to Acts 3:1-13a, 16 should be made by lectionary revisers within all of the denominations and groups that are using this lectionary. Our adjustment to Acts 3:1-13a, 16 this coming Sunday and in succeeding years will contribute to this process.
This psalm of entreaty and of trust can easily be interpreted from our Christian perspective, in the context of our belief that God raised Jesus from the dead. Our belief in the resurrection of Jesus puts joy into our hearts! It enables us to lie down and to sleep, to live securely. Within our lectionary this psalm also previews the texts for the Sunday that follows this one, the Great Shepherd of the Sheep Sunday, with its Psalm 23 and John 10:11-18 texts.
Among the John 10 texts selected in this pericope series for the Fourth Sunday of Easter (the Great Shepherd of the Sheep Sunday), we have this year in Series B the central text. It is the only one of the three (John 10:1-10 in Series A, John 10:11-18 in Series B, and John 10:22-30 in Series C) that focuses clearly on the Johannine Jesus as the Great Shepherd of the Sheep. It is therefore the premier text among these three.
Although it is certainly the Johannine Jesus rather than the Jesus of history who speaks here, in the deepest sense we are confronted by the Jesus of history in this text, since there is much evidence within our tradition that the Jesus of history functioned as a great shepherd of the sheep among his fellow oppressed Jews who because of his courageous advocacy for God and for people — particularly for people who were in need of much help and protection — was tortured and crucified by the Romans. Jesus could have avoided that torture and crucifixion if he had discontinued his work or possibly if he could have explained carefully to Roman authorities that he was in no way encouraging his fellow oppressed Jews to try to use force or violence to improve their condition.
Once Jesus had been delivered over to the Roman crucifixion squad by the group of bodyguards (goons) who were employed by Caiaphas, there was no opportunity for Jesus to explain anything to the Roman authorities. Jesus’ followers also could not rescue him at that point, at least not short of a planned, concerted suicidal massive frontal attack on the Roman garrison, and there is no reason for us to think that the Jesus of history would have desired such an attack and the heavy loss of life that would have occurred in such an attempt to rescue him. He would have continued his work after such a rescue, and a second arrest would have been inevitable.
Actually, what Jesus was doing by proclaiming that soon the Lord God would in some way come and that after that only the Lord God would be ruling over the oppressed Jews in Galilee and in Judea was giving hope for freedom that did pose a threat to the Roman security forces in Jerusalem. What Jesus was doing before he was seized, tortured, and crucified was “liberating” in every way. Whenever the oppressed have hope of being set free, their oppressors are unavoidable threatened. It cannot be otherwise. In that sense, the Jesus of history did put down his life for the sheep, did go to the cross, or, as we say in our time, did “go to the wall” for them, and for us. It seems that the best people in every age “go to the wall” for us!
Of course, in a different sense it is not the Jesus of history during his work prior to his crucifixion who speaks in this John 10:11-18 text. Instead, it is the Sovereign Lord of the Johannine community who voluntarily put down his life for his sheep (the members of the Johannine community) and has the power to take it up again who speaks in this text. Actually, it is leaders in the Johannine community, inspired by God, who speak in this text and throughout the Fourth Gospel. For the Johannine community and its leaders, Jesus as the Risen Christ was the Sovereign Lord with divine power. The Fourth Gospel is an expression of what the members of the Johannine community believed about Jesus raised from the dead as the Sovereign Lord, but, true to the “gospel” genre, this expression is in a “ministry of Jesus” framework. The events of the Gospel According to John chapters 1-19 are presented as pre-Easter events, but actually in terms of what the community and its leaders believed about Jesus as the Sovereign Lord the entire Fourth Gospel is post-Easter. The Fourth Gospel reveals more about what happened to the people who became the Johannine community after the crucifixion of the Jesus of history than it reveals about what happened to the Jesus of history before he was crucified by the Romans. For the members of the Johannine community, Jesus as the Risen Christ was the Great Shepherd of the Sheep, the Light of the World, the True Bread from Heaven, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, etc., even though it is not likely that the Jesus of history ever made such claims for himself. The Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels never talks that way. John 10:16 in this text and John 17:20-23 in the “High Priestly Prayer” are indications of the desire of the members of the Johannine community to draw the “other sheep” from the Synoptic communities into the Johannine fold where there would be one flock with one shepherd.”
1 John 3:16-24
The writer of 1 John made believing in God’s Son Jesus the Christ and loving one another within the Johannine community of faith a commandment of God. It is consistent with much of the thought of the Fourth Gospel to consider faith and love to be commandments. Perhaps as a result of the experiences of the leaders of the Johannine community with the people of the Johannine community, it appeared to them to be necessary to command faith and love rather than merely to exemplify faith and love in their own lives as appropriate responses to our gracious God. Shall we exemplify faith and love or shall we command faith and love where we are as leaders in the Church and in our congregations today?
In this text the Lukan writer brilliantly portrays the belief that God has raised Jesus from the dead. It is entirely proper for us along with the Lukan writer to emphasize that we are saved from sin and from eternal suffering in the name of Jesus as the Christ. We can emphasize this belief today without making the exclusivist “one way” claim that God acts only in Christ or only in us. There is, of course, only “one way” for us, and that is God’s way!
We should always proclaim that God provides salvation for us in Christ. That is “good news” for all of the people of the world. There is no necessity for us to proclaim that there is salvation only in Christ, for that is “bad news” for most of the people of the world. The exclusivist “one way” claim made here by the Lukan playwright and by the leaders of the Johannine community in John 14:6 comes across to many people, including many Christians, as irrational, arrogant, and imperialistic. It causes many people not to want to be associated with people who make that claim. Therefore, it hampers rather than enhances the effectiveness of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is a minority claim within the New Testament documents, made in only two verses, John 14:6 and Acts 4:12, which become the favorite Bible verses of some Christians, often of Christians who want to assert their control and their understanding of Christianity over all other Christians and over all other people who live in this world. Let us respond to them in Christian love with the suggestion that, yes, there is indeed only one way, God’s way, and let us seek that way together with them and with all of the other people of the world.
It is most interesting to compare the psalmist’s perception of “the Lord” as “my shepherd” with the Johannine community’s perception of Jesus raised from the dead as its “Great Shepherd of the Sheep.” The Risen Christ in the New Testament texts for this Fourth Sunday of Easter is essentially what “the Lord” is for the psalmist in Psalm 23.
Within the “Farewell Discourses” of the Fourth Gospel, John 15:1-8 is quite harsh and demanding. According to this text selected for our use next Sunday, every branch that is not bearing fruit is summarily taken away to be thrown into the fire and burned (and anyone who has ever burned a compacted mass of grapevines knows how flammable grapevines are and how quickly and intensely they burn and are consumed). The obvious implication is that anyone who does not remain within the Johannine community will be destroyed by an intense fire.
The words of this John 15:1-8 text, therefore, indicate that at the time when these words were written and incorporated into the Fourth Gospel tradition the Johannine community had many of the distinguishing characteristics of a religious cult. For various reasons, not all of which can be discerned today, the leaders of the Johannine community had isolated the community and themselves even from closely related other groups of followers of Jesus. They were claiming that they alone were composed of fully productive “pruned” branches of the “true vine,” i.e., of the Johannine Jesus. Other branches, such as those of the members of the extended Markan communities that had produced the Gospels According to Mark, Matthew, and Luke, were not, in the opinion of the leaders of the Johannine community, yet “pruned” and fully productive. The leaders of the community-fellowship of the Johannine Jesus considered themselves to be already “pruned” because of the words that the Johannine Jesus had spoken to them and because of their fidelity to Jesus as they perceived Jesus during the time when many who had been among them had departed and were therefore “pruned” from their community. Through the words of this John 15:1-8 text they were admonishing each other to remain within their community and its fellowship, the community and fellowship of the Johannine Jesus. They state that only if their members remain in the community and fellowship of the Johannine Jesus would the Johannine Jesus remain in community and fellowship with them. If they remain, they will be given whatever they ask. Their fruit and productivity is tied very closely to their being accepted as disciples of the Johannine Jesus. Unless they are producing fruit, they are not disciples. It is apparent that “church discipline” and more than “church discipline” is involved here. There is also an exclusiveness in which the leaders of the community claim in the name of Jesus the authority to “prune away” all who do not conform to the beliefs and practices of these leaders.
We may ask, “Why is this text so harsh and demanding in comparison to John 14:1-31 that immediately precedes it?” “Has a shadow come over the Jesus of history on his last fateful night of freedom and of life, causing him to set aside the comforting and pastoral words that he had just employed in John 14:1-31?” That is possible, of course. In view, however, of what appears to be a conclusion of the farewell discourse in John 14:31c with the words, “Get up. Let us go away from here,” and other considerations within the Fourth Gospel that are indications that the document went through several editions and incorporated the work of several writers during the course of its development, it is more likely that John 15:1-8 is material from a stage in the formation of the Johannine tradition that is different from that of John 14:1-31. The branches cut away from the true vine that is the Johannine Jesus and community almost certainly refer to the many disciples who in John 6:66 are said to have left the Johannine Jesus and no longer were walking in the group with him. The branches cut away from the true vine are described as follows by the writer of 1 John 2:19. “Those people who left our community went away from us. Actually, they were never truly members of our community. For had they truly been members of our community, they would have remained with us. They went away, in order that it might be revealed that they had never truly been members of our community.”
We know from sociology of religion studies that participants in a religious cult become in many respects harsh and defensive in their interactions with those who have left their group and increasingly demanding and controlling of their own members. It is important for us to realize this about the community that through inspiration by God produced this Fourth Gospel. It helps us to have a more adequate understanding of this John 15:1-8 text, of the entire Fourth Gospel, and of the congregations in which we serve.
In our proclamation of the gospel this coming Sunday we should emphasize the positive aspects of John 15:1-8 and the grapevine analogy as an illustration of our relationship with God through Jesus our Lord. We are dependent upon God. We are accountable to God. Apart from God we wither and die. We are expected to be productive, to produce good grapes.
There are many ways in which we can be productive. We know that our situation is not identical to the situation of the members of the Johannine community who wrote John 15:1-8. We should be open and receptive to whatever new things God may be saying to us today, together with what God is saying to us through this John 15:1-8 text.
1 John 4:7-21
This text continues the emphasis of John 15:1-8 on the necessity of being fruitful. It urges the members of the community to show their love for each other by what they do for each other, not merely to show their love by speaking words of love. 1 John 4:7-21 is an early commentary on John 15:1-8 and on similar texts in the Gospel According to John. We might consider it to be a brief sermon or homily on John 15:1-8. Therefore, it provides a helpful model for us as we prepare our sermon or homily for next Sunday.
In this vivid scene in the Acts of Apostles literary drama about Philip and the Ethiopian court official, the Lukan playwright utilized a portion of the Suffering Servant Song (Isaiah 53:7-8), applied it to Jesus, and dramatized the spread of the new Christian movement to African lands, as well as along the Mediterranean coast of Judea.
By using this final portion of Psalm 22 along with the Acts 8:26-40 account, we associate the psalmist’s suffering with the suffering of Jesus. In this way, we are able to make the psalmist’s song of praise our song of praise within our present context in a very meaningful way. We are challenged to apply these Acts 8:26-40 and Psalm 22:25-31 elements of our biblical tradition to our own new situation is such a way that, by our being inspired by God as the Lukan playwright and the psalmist were inspired by God, new tradition is formed within and for the people of God. We welcome and embrace that challenge!
Few texts within the Fourth Gospel reveal more about the way in which the Johannine community and its leaders perceived themselves than does this pericope. The text is principally about the relationships of the members of the Johannine community to each other and to their Johannine Jesus.
According to this text, the members of the Johannine community in this portion of their “Farewell Discourse” of Jesus reflected about the significance of the life and of the death of Jesus and expressed their belief that Jesus had put down his life for them (John 15:13). Elsewhere in the Fourth Gospel, such as in John 3:16-17, there are indications that some within the community, or perhaps the community at an earlier stage in its development, had perceived that God had sent Jesus because of God’s love for “the world” (a concept that is much broader than that of the community itself). Here, however, in John 15:9-17, Jesus’ death is said to have been for the members of the Johannine community, for Jesus’ much loved “friends.” The members of the Johannine community were obviously very proud of this designation of themselves as hoi philoi (“the friends”) of Jesus. The leaders and members of the Johannine community, inspired by God, were affirming that Jesus had put down his life for them! For the members of the Johannine community, this was their basic statement of faith.
At one time they had considered themselves to have been “servants” of Jesus, but now they considered themselves to be Jesus’ much loved “friends.” They were his much loved friends, “the Disciple whom Jesus loved,” because Jesus had revealed to them (so they claimed) everything that Jesus had heard from his Father (John 15:15). According to these accounts within the Fourth Gospel, Jesus may have revealed some things to people in other groups, but to the members of the Fourth Gospel community Jesus had revealed everything that Jesus had heard from the Father. In this sense, the leaders and members of the Johannine community were similar to the Gnostic and Gnosticizing Christians in their claims that they had been chosen to have within themselves knowledge of everything about God. Nevertheless, the claims of the Johannine community as we have them in the Fourth Gospel were not as absolute as were the claims of the Gnostic Christians. The claims of the members of the Fourth Gospel community and their relationship with Jesus were still somewhat conditional. They stated that they would be Jesus’ much loved friends if they would continue to do the things that Jesus was commanding them to do (John 15:14). What they believed that Jesus was commanding them to do most of all, according to John 15:9-10, 12-13, 17, was to continue to love each other. The admonition to love each other became so important (and apparently so necessary!) within the Johannine community that it even became a “new commandment” of the Johannine Jesus to the community in John 13:34-35, as well as here in this John 15:9-17 text. This “new commandment” to love each other was reiterated many times elsewhere in the Fourth Gospel and in 1 John and in 2 John.
From a superficial reading of the Fourth Gospel and of 1 John and 2 John, we get the impression that the people by whom and for whom these documents were written were members of a most loving and congenial community of faith. A closer look, however, indicates that they were, in effect, “protesting too much” about their love for each other. Love for one another was apparently greatly needed within this community, so needed that they were in the process of making love for each other a requirement and of perceiving love for one another legalistically. If they would love each other, then the Johannine Jesus would be happy with them and their joy would be completed, perfected, fulfilled (John 15:11). Then they would go and bear fruit that would remain. Then whatever they would ask the Father in the name of the Johannine Jesus would be given to them (John 15:16).
1 John 5:1-6
According to this text, Jesus is the Christ because he came not only with the water of baptism but also with the blood of the cross. The person who believes that Jesus is the Christ shall demonstrate that the person is a child of God by keeping God’s commandments. Because the person who has been and is “born of God” has overcome the temptations of the world, it is not a burden for that person to keep the commandments of God.
Although the view of the writer of this 1 John 5:1-6 text regarding our ability to keep the commandments of God differs greatly from the view of the Apostle Paul as expressed in chapters 1-5 of Paul’s letter to the Romans, the Church included both documents within its developing New Testament canon and has lived under the authority of both documents for many centuries. The inclusion of these differing views illustrates the ongoing, creative tension that exists in Christian theology and practice and in the theology and practice of other theistic religions between the importance of adequate faith and right living. Both adequate faith and right living are important within a theistic religion. We should not raise one of these factors above the other, nor should we exclude one in favor of the other. Both factors are firmly imbedded within the New Testament documents and, of course, within the Old Testament documents as well. We see them also throughout the Qur’an of Islam. Both should be emphasized in their ongoing, creative tension in our proclamation and in our parenesis.
This text was particularly important during the latter years of the first century of the common era and later as a validation of the inclusion of non-Jewish background followers of Jesus as full participants in the new religion along with those who were of Jewish background. Today this text is significant as a biblical basis, together with other texts in Acts of Apostles, for the claims of some Christians that they have received special gifts from the Holy Spirit of God. All of us have the right to claim special gifts from the Holy Spirit of God and the responsibility to note that these gifts are intended for the entire Church and not only for a few gifted individuals and groups.
The struggles and anxieties apparent within the three New Testament texts chosen for our use next Sunday seem to melt away in the words of this psalm, “Let us sing to the Lord a new song!” In this psalm, rather than in the three texts from the Newer Testament, the “gospel” is expressed most joyfully. In this psalm the texts for this day reach their highest point of love, joy, and acclamation of God. Therefore, we may wish to alter the sequence of the readings so that this psalm is read last among the texts used on this occasion.
The Ascension of the Lord texts in Luke-Acts (Luke 24:44-53 and Acts 1:1-11) accomplish four major objectives. First, they provide an explanation of where the Risen Christ is now. Second, they provide an explanation of why the Risen Christ was seen by many followers of Jesus during the first few weeks after his crucifixion and resurrection but is being seen in the same way no longer. Third, they provide assurance that the Risen Christ is still with us spiritually and that the Risen Christ will return. Finally, they establish more clearly the responsibilities of the followers of Jesus to be witnesses of the Risen Christ throughout the world.
These are very important objectives, and we miss our opportunity to follow through with a dramatic culmination of our forty-day Lenten season and of our forty-day Easter season if we do not have a meaningful and memorable worship service on Ascension Day each year.
Our use of this psalm on our Christian Ascension Day is an indication that we consider the Risen Christ to be our Lord and God in a way that is quite similar to the way that the ancient Israelites perceived the Lord God for them. They perceived the Lord God to be the one who had won the victory for them over their enemies and over all evil and as the one who was, as it is stated in the picturesque language of this psalm, “sitting on the holy throne of God” the “Most High King over all of the earth.” As Christians, we perceive Jesus the Risen Christ in much the same way as the Lord God was and is perceived and acclaimed by Israelites and by Jews in Psalm 47.
There are numerous similarities between Psalm 47 and Psalm 93. The Lord is acclaimed in Psalm 93 as the king clothed with power and majesty, whose throne is established eternally. The Lord’s rule is holy and just and will be for ever.
Since the principal literary antecedent of Acts 1:1-11 is the Septuagint text of 2 Kings 2:1-18, it is helpful to review the 2 Kings text in preparation for a Christian Ascension Day worship service. Genesis 5:21-24 and Deuteronomy 34:1-7 should also be read to provide the Enoch and Moses analogies.
We note that the inspired Lukan writer linked the Ascension account closely to the Lukan empty tomb account by having “two men clothed in white robes” interpreting the significance of the ascension of the Risen Christ in Acts 1:10-11 just as the Lukan writer had “two men in dazzling apparel” interpret the significance of the resurrection of Jesus in Luke 24:4-7. Perhaps we could benefit from the use of this Acts 1:1-11 drama best if we would begin the Ascension Day service outside the church building with the reading of this Acts 1:1-11 text. It would not be necessary for anyone to play the role of the Risen Christ, but it would help to dramatize the event to have two of the men of the congregation dressed in white robes appear from around a corner somewhere at the point of Acts 1:10 in the reading while the rest of those gathered for the worship service are standing together “gazing up into the heavens.” The two men should appear and say to the group, “Why are you all standing here, looking up into the heavens? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come again as you have seen him going into the heavens!” The worship service can then continue with the people entering into the sanctuary, singing an Ascension Day hymn, and using an Ascension Day liturgy.
At least once during our three-year cycle in the lectionary that we are using, it would be effective to utilize this Ephesians 1:15-23 reading as the primary text for the Ascension Day message. This text articulates what is desired for the People of God in the Church on Ascension Day. It refers specifically to the thought that the Risen Christ is sitting at the right hand of God in “the heavenly places.” It uses the analogy of the ancient throne scene to depict how some people in the early Church late in the 1st century perceived the Risen Christ. What is said here about the power of the Risen Christ over the Roman Emperor and all of the political authorities who are persecuting and threatening the early Christians should be emphasized as we consider this text.
The Lukan themes of understanding the Scriptures and of claiming that everything about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection written in the Israelite Scriptures has now been fulfilled are prominent in this text. What the Lukan writer did not say in this text about the expected return of Jesus as the Risen Christ is supplied in the Acts 1:1-11 reading. What Luke 24:44-53 does stress is the great joy of the followers of Jesus and their constant worship and blessing of God. Let us continue this joy and this worship and blessing of God for the Risen Christ now and always!
How shall we put together a well constructed worship service based upon Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 and Psalm 126 with their liberation theology for Zion, the Magnificat from Luke 1:47-55 with its emphasis on God bringing down those who are mighty and exalting those who are lowly, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 regarding appropriate behavior for the Thessalonians as they wait for the Day of the Lord, and John 1:6-8, 19-28 with its depiction of John the Baptizer as a man sent from God to be a witness to the Light, one who was much less worthy than was Jesus? How shall we do this when in many congregations the children are already presenting their Christmas program, people want to sing the Christmas carols in church because they have been hearing them in the department stores and discount stores since long before Thanksgiving, and many families are getting ready to leave soon so that will be able to travel to other places to be together with their extended families for Christmas? Our task as worship leaders on the Third Sunday in Advent is never easy.
There is obviously a point of contact with the Second Sunday in Advent through the person of John the Baptizer. One week earlier we heard about John from the perspective of the Markan narrative; now we have John from the vantage point of the Fourth Gospel. (Although we are in the Markan cycle in Series B, we shall not see Markan texts again until the First Sunday after the Epiphany, one month away. Our three year lectionary Series B is constructed in this way because in the Markan narrative there is no annunciation to the Virgin Mary, no virgin birth from the Virgin Mary, and Mary as the human mother of Jesus worries about the safety of her son as he becomes a significant political as well as religious leader. In Mark, Jesus was “adopted” by God as the Son of God when the voice of God announced this as Jesus was being baptized by John.) The Fourth Gospel perspective of John the Baptizer is also different from that of the Markan narrative in important aspects. Unlike Mark and its Synoptic parallels, the Fourth Gospel does not emphasize the Baptizer’s role as one who condemns those who come to him for a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of their sins and baptizes Jesus along with many others. Perhaps this is because the Fourth Gospel tradition with its high Christology could not and would not perceive Jesus as participating in a baptism for the forgiveness of sins, even in order “to fulfill all righteousness.” In the Fourth Gospel Jesus is the exalted “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” If we as worship leaders gently maintain the integrity of the Advent season and utilize Advent hymns and texts within an Advent worship service, we can focus the service primarily on the John 1:6-8, 19-28 text and use the other texts chosen for this day in doing this.
One of the ways in which we can utilize these Advent texts is to use the extended comparison “just as.” We see that just as John the Baptizer was “sent from God” (John 1:6), we too are “sent from God.” Just as John the Baptizer came not as the Light but to bear witness to the Light (John 1:7-8), we have not come as the Light but to bear witness to the Light. Just as John the Baptizer was not the Christ, not Elijah, nor “the Prophet” (John 1:19-21), we today are not the Christ, not Elijah, nor “the Prophet.” Just as John the Baptizer is presented as “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the ways of the Lord’ ” (John 1:23), we too are voices crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord.” Just as John the Baptizer baptized with water and said that he was not worthy to untie the sandals on Jesus’ feet (John 1:26-27), we today baptize with water and are not worthy to untie Jesus’ sandals.
This extended comparison can and should be continued in a similar manner with the other texts chosen for this day in order to construct a cohesive message that will have an impact and be remembered, while being true to the Advent theme. Just as Mary, according to the Magnificat canticle that the inspired Lukan writer skillfully constructed on the Song of Hannah model of 1 Samuel 2:1-10, sang that her soul (her entire being) magnifies the Lord and her Spirit rejoices in God her Savior (Luke 1:47-55), we also should sing that our soul magnifies the Lord and that our Spirit rejoices in God our Savior. Just as a leader within the Isaiah tradition at the end of the Israelite period of exile in Babylon proclaimed that the Spirit of the Lord God was upon that person because the Lord had anointed that person to bring good news to the afflicted (Isaiah 61:1ff.), we too can and should proclaim that the Spirit of the Lord God is upon us. Just as the writer of Psalm 126 rejoiced with shouts of joy, we also should rejoice with shouts of joy on this Third Sunday in Advent. Just as the apostle Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, saying, “Rejoice always, pray, and give thanks as you wait for the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-24), we can and should say the same.
When we do this, we proclaim the message of these texts, we identify ourselves with the message of these texts, and we demonstrate audibly and visibly that we today are what John the Baptizer, the Lukan writer, Mary, the Isaiah tradition prophet, the Israelite psalmist, and the apostle Paul were in their times, i.e., instruments of God’s grace, bearers of God’s Word, people being used by God, and, just as they were, joyful to be used by God.
It will be especially effective if we use simple drama, or at least dramatic readings of these texts by a variety of people within the congregation, in presenting this message and in showing that both clergy and lay people are bearers of these messages now as in the past. Biblical storytelling in which various persons memorize and tell the stories dramatically will be especially effective. A bit of sweeping dance as the stories are told will add beauty to the Advent presentation.
If we concentrate on the Luke 1:26-38 Gospel account exclusively or even primarily, we will probably emphasize the person of Mary along with her relationships with God, with the angel Gabriel, and with Elizabeth. On the other hand, if we utilize all of the texts appointed for this day, we will probably in some way apply to our own life situation the Jewish and the Christian “Messianic expectations” regarding the promise of the Lord of an everlasting throne of David, a house, a kingdom that will endure forever.
It would be appropriate to take the latter of these two paths, since we have most likely heard many sermons and homilies, including some of our own, in which Mary’s experiences as developed within the Lukan Gospel’s creative drama were further expounded from the preacher’s own supply of interpersonal relationships, experiences, and inspired imagination. There is, of course, much value in continuing the Lukan Gospel’s process of thorough research of the subject, the gathering of oral and written traditions, and the use of earlier biblical style in the formation of a new literary or homiletical product. The Lukan playwright used effectively the references to the angel figure Gabriel in Daniel 8:15-17 and Daniel 9:21-23 in formulating the scene that we know as Luke 1:26-38, our Gospel text for this occasion. The Lukan writer also used the same type of terminology that is included in the Zoroastrian account of how the “Holy Spirit of God” (Ahura Mazda’s Spirit) had come over the mother of Zoroaster and had caused her to conceive Zoroaster without any interaction with a man. (The concept of the Spirit of God as the agency of conception of the Savior figure was also used in the Matthean tradition. Therefore, both of the Newer Testament traditions that developed a virgin conception explanation of how Jesus could be truly divine and truly human share terminology with the Zoroastrian tradition.)
By using all of the texts appointed for this day, however, we have an opportunity to explore an area with much broader implications for our own faith and lives today than that of the virgin conception accounts and to this we now turn.
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
This text is a very important component of the suspense-filled “Succession Document” or “Court History of David” narrative that extends from 2 Samuel 6 through 1 Kings 2. It contains the delightful pun regarding the “house” that David had wanted to build for the Lord God but instead the Lord God would build for David. The “house” that the Lord God will build for David will be a structure made not with timbers and adornments but with the lives of people, for it will be a dynasty, a Davidic dynasty intended to last forever. This is the “Messianic expectation” within the Succession Document, and it became a dominant theme in much of the Older Testament, as well as later within Judaism where it provided a new phase of the promise of land, people, nationhood, and blessing to the patriarchs that had served its purpose and would be continued by being blended into this new Messianic expectation.
We can perceive a measure of how vitally important and relevant this Messianic expectation of continuity on the “throne of David” must have been for the remnant among the exiles from Jerusalem who remained faithful to the Lord God during many decades of relocation in Babylon where many among them accepted the religion and culture of the Babylonians and worshiped Marduk, the Lord of the Babylonians. We note the importance of this Messianic expectation with its Zionist hopes for Jews who were deprived of basic human rights in country after country throughout the centuries. We see also the related use of this Messianic expectation within the developing traditions of many of the followers of Jesus, as in this Luke 1:32-33 text, and continuing for us as Christians since that time. Jews have intensely wanted continuity as a People of God and have struggled valiantly to maintain their identity as a people and as a culture. The striving for continuity of life within the “kingdom of God” has dominated and shaped oral and written traditions within apocalyptic Judaism and within apocalyptic Christianity. As Christians, we ride upon this Jewish Messianic expectations vehicle within a somewhat modified Christian model. Certainly we shall want to acknowledge with great respect the Israelite-Jewish origins of this Christian vehicle in which we ride in accordance with the Word of God in these texts selected for this day. As the Christmas season approaches, what can be more appropriate than to acknowledge this in order to inform and to sensitize our own people and help them and ourselves to appreciate the heritage that we have received from the Jewish people. If we do this, the Fourth Sunday of Advent this year will be a good time to have Jewish guests within our worship services.
Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26
In this context we concentrate on these few verses of this fascinating psalm. Psalm 89 should be taken seriously in its own setting, with its expectation that the descendants of David will be established forever, the throne of David built for all generations to come. The best of our Christian theology in harmony with the views of the apostle Paul that he expressed in Romans 11:28b-29 has held that the gift and calling of God are irrevocable for Israel and for the church. For the sake of our Christian covenant, we must respect the irrevocable nature of the antecedent Israelite-Jewish covenant. We must realize that if we reject the antecedent Israelite-Jewish covenant, it is only right and just that someday our derivative Christian covenant may also be rejected. For more about this, please see, among others, Norbert Lohfink, The Covenant Never Revoked: Biblical Reflections on Christian-Jewish Dialogue (New York: Paulist, 1991); Mary C. Boys, Has God Only One Blessing? Judaism as a Source of Christian Self-Understanding (New York: Paulist, 2000); and Mary C. Boys, “The Enduring Covenant,” in Seeing Judaism Anew: Christianity’s Sacred Obligation, ed. by Mary C. Boys (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005, 17-25).
If this text is used on the Fourth Sunday of Advent this year, the emphasis should be focused on the final summation two verses 54 and 55 of the Magnificat in which the emphasis is on God’s enduring covenant with Israel, an emphasis easily overlooked within Christian Bible studies and worship services. With the texts selected for the Third and Fourth Sundays of Advent in Series B, the emphasis is on the enduring covenants of God, which, while they may and indeed often are broken by us as people, are according to these texts, never revoked by God. Our Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions, at their best, are always fully aware of this and find comfort in this. What better way than this can we as Christians prepare to celebrate during the coming Christmas season!
May this beautiful benediction with which the apostle Paul concluded his momentous letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome be ours also, together with the entire People of God! And with this benediction, shall we not let God define the extent of “God’s People”?
As followers of Jesus, we have every right to claim that the Lord God has given to Jesus the “throne” of David, so long as we realize that this is a theological throne and not a political or physical throne. Other necessary qualifications are that we understand the process by which some of the followers of Jesus made this theological claim, and that we openly recognize and continue to acknowledge the continuing validity of Jewish spirituality, Jewish life and faith, and of Jewish Messianic expectations. We know that we as Christians have taken the Jewish Messianic expectations into a new extended phase and in doing this we have given to them a somewhat different Christian Messianic expectation meaning through the Christian claim that Jesus in his life fulfilled the Messianic “prophecies” of the Older Testament. But what we have done is alongside the Jewish use of these expectations and in no way replaces or excludes the ongoing and dynamic Jewish use for which Jews have the primary claim. What we as Christians have done and are doing with these Messianic expectations must be seen as in a sense secondary to the Jewish use and in continuity with and congruent to the ongoing Jewish hope and expectations. It would be most appropriate for us as Christians to remember this and to acknowledge it at all times and especially here at the conclusion of our Advent season. Then perhaps we could invite Jews to be our guests in our Christian worship services and to hear our understanding of the Messianic expectations that we share, even as we are invited to be their guests and to hear their understanding of their Messianic expectations. When we have done all of this, we are truly “ready” for Christmas, prepared to celebrate the Nativity of the Lord.
2 Kings 2:1-12
This account is evidence that there was a tendency in the direction of the deification of Elijah within some Israelite traditions, just as there may have been with regard to Moses (Deuteronomy 34:1-12) and earlier within some Semitic traditions with respect to Enoch (Genesis 5:22-24). The accounts of the ascension of Jesus within the Luke-Acts corpus provide the most extensive biblical evidence of the more complete theological development of this nature among early Christians with regard to Jesus.
As we look at 2 Kings 2:1-12, we see that according to this account after a certain point in time Elijah was seen no more, but that he was perceived to be alive with God. This was the basis, of course, for the expectation that developed among some of the Israelites — an expectation that is still evident within the Passover liturgy for Jews — that Elijah would return to the earth in a visible form some day. This expectation was used by early followers of Jesus with respect to the person and function of John the Baptizer and it was certainly used in the development of the account of the Transfiguration of Jesus that is the dominating text among the four that are selected for our use on this day.
In 2 Kings 2:1-12 the whirlwind and the chariot of fire were the means of transportation in lifting Elijah from the earth and its gravitational force. In the Luke-Acts account Jesus was taken up within a cloud. A cloud was also the setting for the voice from the cloud in the Markan Transfiguration account.
Reference to God as speaking and summoning the earth, reference to a devouring fire, and most of all reference to the words, “Gather to me my faithful ones!” link this portion of Psalm 50 to the 2 Kings 2:1-12 text.
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
For Paul, the face of Christ was apparently seen more vividly in the good news of the crucified Jesus being raised by God from the dead as Lord and Savior than in the face of the Jesus of history whom Paul had not seen. That is to say that for Paul the Risen Christ was in a sense transfigured perpetually. Paul saw the glory of God in the face of the Christ. This was for Paul the light that shines unceasingly out of the darkness of death. The face of the Christ was seen, however, only by those who would believe. We who live more than nineteen centuries later are basically in the same position as Paul was. For us also Jesus is in a sense perpetually transfigured.
This Transfiguration story, along with its parallels in Matthew and in Luke, is considered by the great majority of Christians to be a record of an event that occurred just as it is recorded here. It is likely, however, that much more is involved in these texts than simply a record of an event. If these are simply records of an important, spectacular event that occurred during the public ministry of Jesus, we may wonder why there is no mention of such an astonishing occurrence within the Fourth Gospel. According to popular understanding, the Fourth Gospel was written by John, and John is said to have been present with Jesus on the mountain at the time of this event. How could the writer of the Fourth Gospel have forgotten this profound experience of seeing and hearing men who had lived and died hundreds of years earlier and who remained prominent in Jewish thought?
Although the Fourth Gospel has no mention of this event, Mark, Matthew, and Luke, who are nowhere said to have been present on the mountain, all include this story.
With our understanding of biblical symbolism, we can see that in these Synoptic Gospel Transfiguration stories Moses and Elijah function as symbols for the Torah and for the Prophetic Traditions respectively. The Torah and the Prophets together constituted the sacred Scriptures for most Jews and for the earliest Christians during the time in which the Synoptic Gospels were written. Symbolically, these Transfiguration stories may have been intended to proclaim that Jesus is in the “same league” with Moses and Elijah. By means of these stories Jesus and the words of Jesus are validated as on the same level of authority as the sacred Scriptures as the Scriptures were known at that time. (The so-called Writings had not yet been canonized.) From the standpoint of those who first heard or read the Transfiguration account in Mark, Jesus’ words and Jesus as a person were validated within these accounts by God God’s self by means of the very impressive voice from the cloud saying, “This is my Beloved Son! Listen to him!” In the story after the cloud moved away, the three awe-stricken disciples are said to have seen no one there except Jesus. Moses and Elijah were gone.
Symbolically, therefore, both the Torah and the Prophetic traditions were also no longer to be seen nor heard. At this point the message intended almost certainly was to indicate vividly that Jesus and the words of Jesus have replaced the Torah and the Prophets as sacred authorities for followers of Jesus. The Transfiguration account in Mark 9:2-9, therefore, served to validate the entire “Gospel of Jesus Christ (Mark) much as the “Burning Bush” account in Exodus served as a validation of the entire book of Exodus or even of the entire Torah. When the Matthean and Lukan redactors included the Markan Transfiguration account in their expanded Gospels, the Transfiguration accounts served the same purpose in those documents as validation stories for those documents.
The writers of the Fourth Gospel chose to validate their account also, but not by using the Markan Transfiguration account. Instead, they validated the Fourth Gospel by their use of the great “I Am” statements that they have the Johannine Jesus express in key places in their document.
Thus we have the Four Gospels validated as “words of Jesus” and actually as “Word of God” that God God’s self directly and indirectly is said to have commanded us to hear as we transition from the Epiphany season to Ash Wednesday and to the Lenten season.
The series of passion-resurrection predictions during these Series B Lenten texts continues here with a third text (John 3:14-21), and it is extended further with a fourth text (John 12:20-33) for the Fifth Sunday in Lent. All three of these Johannine Jesus passion-resurrection predictions (John 2:13-22 on Lent 3, John 3:14-21 on Lent 4, and John 12:20-33 on Lent 5) are expressed in similar Johannine style, obscure and symbolic, in contrast to the straightforward Mark 8:31-32a with which this series of passion-resurrection predictions began in the Gospel account for Lent 2.
In typical Fourth Gospel style this passage begins with a setting (in this instance a meeting involving Jesus and Nicodemus) for which is provided an extended dialogue and here eventually changing into a monologue. Nicodemus fades out of the picture somewhere around the place where our 3:14-21 text begins. Within 3:14-21 it is actually the Johannine writers and community who collectively are speaking about Jesus as “the Son of man” being lifted up, as “God’s only-begotten Son,” and as “the Light of the world.” It is virtually impossible to discern where the Johannine Jesus stops speaking here and the Johannine writers and community begin. Red-letter editions of the Newer Testament generally code all of John 3:14-21 as words of Jesus. Actually, throughout the entire Fourth Gospel it is the Johannine writers and community who are speaking. True to the gospel genre, these writers and this community of believers say what they believe about God, about Jesus, and about themselves and others in words of Jesus within a ministry of Jesus vehicle.
What these writers and community have provided for us can become for us to share a three-part message about Jesus as (1) the Son of man being lifted up, (2) God’s only-begotten Son, and (3) the Light of the world. The passion-resurrection prediction about the Son of man being lifted up to provide life for all who believe in him just as Moses was said to have lifted up the serpent in the wilderness to preserve life for all who look at it is largely a vaticinium ex eventu, an interpretation of the significance of the death of Jesus after that death had occurred and an expression of belief that God had raised Jesus from the dead. Is that not what we also do (especially during the Lenten and Easter seasons), i.e., we provide interpretations of the death of Jesus and of the significance of that death for all people, and we proclaim that God raised Jesus from the dead and will raise us also with Jesus into a glorious life? John 3:15-18a (especially John 3:16, which is so important to us) is “gospel” in positive, non-judgmental terminology. John 3:18b-21, however, brings in condemnation of all who do not follow this Johannine “one way.” Which of these shall we emphasize next Sunday? What are we called to proclaim, good news, or condemnation, or both?
It is somewhat surprising that this account was incorporated by the Israelites into the Torah, since the serpent was a Canaanite symbol. Perhaps the most satisfactory commentary on this text is provided in Wisdom of Solomon 16:6-12 in the Old Testament Apocrypha, in which the bronze serpent is described as a symbol of salvation, and in which it is said that those who looked at the serpent were saved from the effects of the poisonous snake bites not by the power of the bronze snake but because they were obedient to the word of the Lord given through Moses.
Theologically, the account in Numbers 21:4-9 says that the people had sinned by speaking against God and against Moses. God punished them. The people repented and asked Moses to intercede for them. Moses interceded in behalf of the people. God forgave them and provided a tangible way in which they could now be obedient to God and receive healing benefits from God.
The details of the account were undoubtedly based on experiences with poisonous snakes within the Sinai Peninsula and in the southern Negev region and upon the popular belief that the creature that caused pain and death should also be the creature through which deliverance from pain and death could be accomplished. This is a principle that is similar in some ways to what occurs in medical immunizations.
In this summary of Paul’s message elsewhere, the writer here presents those who will read and hear as already figuratively raised up with Christ by God and caused to sit with Christ Jesus in the heavenly places. What shall we say about this? Was this bordering on Gnostic Christian perceptions? What the writer apparently wanted to stress was the certainty of the salvation that God provides through Christ. In our own ways we too should express this conviction.
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
This psalm of thanksgiving to God for the salvation in this life of deliverance from the devastating effects of serious illnesses is an appropriate complement of the other texts selected for this occasion. Together with the Numbers 21:4-9 text, it places its emphasis on salvation within this life here and now, providing for us a balance against the other-worldly emphases in the John 3:14-21 and Ephesians 2:1-10 texts.
THEME OF THE DAY
God keeps us together. The texts for this Sunday are about how in all God does he aims to keep us in communion with each other and with him (Justification by Grace, Sanctification, Church).
This is a hymn to accompany a festival dance. It directs that the Lord is to be praised [tehillah] in a new song in the assembly (v. 1). It also directs Israel to be glad in its maker and the children of Zion [the oldest and highest part of Jerusalem, a term poetically used to connote the whole city] to rejoice in their king (v. 2). We are to praise his name with dancing (v. 3). Yahweh is said to take pleasure in his people, ordaining the humble/afflicted [anav] with victory [yeshua, literally safety or salvation] (v. 4). The faithful are exhorted to exult in glory and sing for joy on couches (perhaps a ritual action that was part of the festival) (v. 5). High praises of God should be in their throats with swords in hand to execute vengeance on the nations, bringing their kings and nobles, executing them on the judgment decreed (vv. 6-9a). The dance that accompanied the music and lyrics may have been war-like in character. All this is said to be glory for the faithful. Yahweh is to be praised (v. 9b).
Application: A sermon on this text will link with its original theme of celebrating how God takes those in need with their afflictions and who know their needs and brings them to safety (Justification by Grace and Atonement). But insofar as the celebration is communal and dancing which is tied to the Psalm is communal, God’s salvation that is celebrated is communal, for God is said to take pleasure in his people (Social Ethics, and if read prophetically, this could refer to the Church).
The Psalm is acrostic, with each stanza of eight lines beginning with the same Hebrew letter. The 22 stanzas use all the letters of the alphabet in turn (accounting for the significant length of the hymn). Almost every line contains the word “law” or a synonym. These verses are part of a meditation on the law, specifically a prayer to understand the law.
The psalmist pleads to be taught the way of Yahweh’s Law [torah] and pledges to observe it to the end (vv. 33-34). Petitions are offered to be led in the path of the commandments/statutes [mitzvah], for in them is delight [chaphets] (vv. 35-36). They give life (v. 37). We need to remind ourselves here that references to the law in the Hebraic faith of the Old Testament should be construed in terms of the Hebraic concept of torah, which is not intended as a judgmental, condemnatory decree, but regards the law as instruction or a guide for life (Leo Trepp, Judaism: Development and Life, p. 2).
Pleas are made that Yahweh’s promise [dabar, literally word] for these who fear him [in the sense of devotion] be confirmed (v. 38). His ordinances are said to be good [tob], and pleas are offered to turn away disgrace. The psalmist notes a longing for the law, so that in God’s righteousness [tsedaqah] he would receive life (vv. 39-40). We note again that in the Hebrew Bible righteousness does not connote judgmentalism on God’s part but is about right relationship or deliverance [Psalm 71:2] (Gerhard Von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, pp. 371ff). This is made clear in this song as the psalmist claims that God’s righteousness gives life (v. 40), a theme most reminiscent of Romans 3:21-25.
Application: Although the devotion of the psalmist to the law could be taken as an occasion to point out how a life lived under the law leads to despair (Sin), a sermon more in line with the original intention of the Psalm will talk about how good life is when we are guided by God, in right relationship with him, but that he is the one who delivers us into this right relationship (Justification by Grace and Sanctification).
This book is so named for the Greek term referring to the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. Its Hebrew name (meaning “These are the names”) refers to the first words of the text’s prologue. Like Genesis, the book is a compilation of three distinct oral traditions. This lesson is the version of the Passover from the Priestly oral tradition (the P strand of the Pentateuch, probably composed in the sixth century BC). It follows the account of the final plague the Lord worked against Pharaoh, which does not succeed in liberating the people (chapter 11).
The month of Nissan (March-April) is designated the beginning of the year (v. 2). On the tenth of the month, each family is to take a lamb or share a lamb with its closest neighbor and divide the lamb (vv. 3-4). The lamb is to be one year old and without blemish [tamim] (v. 5). Instructions are given to put the blood [dam] of the lamb on the doorposts and the lintel [mashqoph, or upper doorpost] of the houses of the people (these were the holy places of a house). The lamb is to be eaten the night it is killed, and instructions are given on how it is to be prepared and what is to be eaten (vv. 7-9). The lamb is to be entirely consumed, except for the remains to be burned the next morning (v. 10).
Instructions are given on the attire one is to have when eating the lamb, which should be consumed hurriedly (v. 11). The hurry with which to eat the meal is in commemoration of Israel’s hasty exodus. Passover is explained, how Yahweh would strike down the firstborn of all living things in Egypt, but the blood on the doorposts would be a sign for him to pass over [abar] the house so the plague would not destroy them. The gods of Egypt will also be judged (vv. 12-14). Henceforth the day is to be one of remembrance/memorial [zikkaron], a celebration of perpetual observance (v. 14).
Application: This lesson is a story of freedom, how God set the people of Israel free and so sets us free today (Justification by Grace and Social Ethics). It is crucial to note that the people as a whole, the community, are saved, not just individuals (an opportunity to highlight the importance of the Church). Or the Passover event might be interpreted Christologically, that as the lamb’s blood sets the people free, so Christ’s blood makes our exodus possible (Atonement).
The Complementary First Lesson appears in a book attributed to a sixth century BC prophet from a priestly family whose ministry was to his fellow exiles during the Babylonian Captivity. Some oracles pre-date the fall of Jerusalem. This lesson is part of a series of Oracles of Restoration. The verses pertain to God’s charge to the prophet regarding his responsibility. First Ezekiel is reminded that he is a sentinel [tsaphah, literally watchman] for Israel, that whenever he hears a word [dabar, can also mean thing] from the Lord he is to give Israel warning (v. 7). Not to proclaim God’s judgment of death on the people entails that they will die in their sin and their blood [dam] will be required at Ezekiel’s hand (v. 8). But if warned and they do not turn [shub] from their ways, they will die (v. 9). Thus he is to condemn them for their sins but assure the people that God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked and wants the wicked to turn from their ways and live [chayah] (vv. 10-11).
Application: Several options for preaching emerge from this text. The call to turn back from sin is an opportunity to develop the theme of repentance, made possible by the God of love who has no pleasure in the death of the wicked. A focus on prophecy, its character as a critic of society, properly emerges from this text and from this point a sermon condemning problematic local or national social trends might be developed. This theme of condemning sin might be related to the theme of the Power of the Keys which emerges in the Gospel Lesson.
Paul begins to terminate his letter of introduction to the Roman church with a discussion of love fulfilling the law and the imminence of Christ’s second coming. The apostle first urges the Romans to owe nothing to anyone except for love [agapao] to one another, for whoever loves fulfills the law [nomos] (v. 8). The commandments, it is said, are fulfilled by love (vv. 9-10). Now is the time to awake, for salvation [soteria, also meaning safety] is near [egguteron], Paul proclaims (vv. 11-12a). The faithful are urged to lay aside works of darkness, putting on the armor of light [phos], living honorably and not in sin (vv. 12b-13). He urges the faithful to put on [enduo, literally "clothe"] Christ, making no provisions for the flesh (v. 14). Clearly Paul here indicates belief that the Esachaton (or Christ’s second coming) is near at hand.
Application: This text also opens the way for a number of possible sermons. Concern about nurturing community through love is an option in line with the Theme of the Day (Church and Sanctification). But this is only possible when we are clothed in Christ (Justification by Grace construed as being united with Christ, as per Galatians 2:19-20). Other themes (which might be linked to those just noted) include Realized Eschatology (the urgency of acting because Christ’s coming into our lives is on the immediate horizon) or condemning sin (that the Law of God is not fulfilled unless we practice selfless love).
We continue to consider the most Jewish-oriented of all the gospels, addressing an original audience that was probably Jewish Christians no longer in full communion with Judaism (see 24:20). This is an account of Jesus’ discussion of discipline among followers. Except for verse 15 the account is unique to Matthew. This is not surprising, for of the gospel writers Matthew alone concerns himself with matters of the church and how Christians are to live together.
The lesson begins with Jesus claiming that if another member of the church sins against a believer the aggrieved is to go and point out the fault to the offender in solitude. If this succeeds, this one has been regained (v. 15). If there is no reconciliation, then one or two other Christians should accompany the one offended in order that there be confirmation of what transpires by witnesses (v. 16; cf. Deuteronomy 19:15). If this fails, the church [ekklesia] should be told, and if the offender still refuses to listen he or she is to be treated as a non-member (a Gentile or tax collector) (v. 17). Jesus awards the Power of Keys to all the disciples (whatever they bind or loose is bound or loosed in heaven) (v. 18; cf. 16:19). If two agree on earth about anything requested, Jesus promises it will be done by the Father in heaven (v. 19). Where two or three are gathered in Christ’s name he agrees to be present to them (v. 20). This point suggests the vicarious presence of the risen Christ (28:20).
Application: The most obvious sermon emerging from this text is to proclaim forgiveness, how Christ has granted us the Power of the Keys, and the virtues of his mode of discipline — the virtues of private confrontation with those in the wrong before public reprimand (Sanctification). The fact that when we are in communion with each other Christ is present provides an excellent occasion to reflect on the church. And the promise of Christ’s presence among us is also a comforting word to proclaim.
THEME OF THE DAY
Rejoice: God saves us by his grace! The texts for this Sunday, in accord with the historic emphasis on rejoicing [Laetare Sunday], testify to God’s love and grace (Justification by Grace).
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
This lesson is part of a group thanksgiving for pilgrims who have come to Jerusalem for a festival. The Psalm begins with a call for everyone to give thanks. God is praised for his goodness [tob] and love/
mercy [chesed], gathering together his people (vv. 1-3). These verses may have in mind the exiles who have been freed from Babylonian captivity and returned home. Some of the pilgrims were sick due to sin but were saved [yasha, or given safety] or healed by the Lord; God’s love is extolled (vv. 17-21, 1). The correct response is to offer a sacrifice [zebach, a sacrifice of animals] and to tell of God’s deeds with songs of joy (v. 22).
Application: Sermons on this lesson quite obviously lead us to focus on God’s goodness and love in the tough times of life (Justification by Grace). Understanding salvation in terms of safety, as the Hebrews did could entail developing a Social Ethical viewpoint on salvation, how safety from social evil is God’s will. The proper response to God’s love (Sanctification) is another homiletical alternative. If the reference to sacrifice is read prophetically we might speak of the response to God’s love as a life of joyful praise and self-denial.
The title of this book is related to the census of people reported in chapters 1-4, 26. We have previously noted that like all five books of the Pentateuch, this Book of Origins is probably the product of several distinct literary traditions. This one is just comprised of three strands: 1) J, a ninth/tenth-century BC source, so named for its use of the Jahweh or Yahweh (translated “Lord”); 2) E, an eighth-century BC source named for its use of the divine name Elohim; and 3) P or Priestly source, dated from the sixth century BC. This lesson is the story of Israel’s faithlessness immediately after defeating the Canaanites at the Battle of Hormah (vv. 1-3). Reference to the Red Sea which the Hebrews pass is “Reed Sea” in Hebrews. The people complain of their situation, speaking against God and Moses (vv. 4-5). God punishes them with a plague of poisonous serpents (v. 6). The people repent, and God has Moses build a bronze serpent which when the people look at it can save them (vv. 7-9). (The phrase “serpent of bronze/copper” [nachash nechosheth] is a pun in Hebrew, both words deriving from the same root.) Also from this root is Nehustan, the bronze serpent King Hezekiah destroys because it had become an object of worship (2 Kings 18:4], a reminder how widespread serpent worship was in the Ancient Near East.)The Hebrew word for “repentance” [nacham] also means “comforted” or “eased.” Thus repentance in this Old Testament context does not so much connote sorrow as joyfully finding oneself at ease in the comforting assurance that comes in a relationship with God.
Application: The text opens the way for sermons to help people appreciate God’s ingenuity in saving and caring for us (Justification by Grace and Providence), often in hidden, surprising ways. Sermons in repentance (understood as comfort or ease) could also be proclaimed (Sanctification).
The lesson is drawn from a circular letter either written by Paul from prison late in his career or by a follower of Paul who had had a hand in assembling the collection of his epistles. These conclusions follow from the fact that the letter includes vocabulary and stylistic characteristic different from the authentic Pauline corpus. It was likely addressed to a younger, later generation of Christians (1:15). The lesson is a discussion of Christ’s benefits. The author notes that we were dead through sins, following the course of the world and Satan (the ruler of the power of the air) (vv. 1-2). He relates the death of sin to passions/lusts [epithumia]of the flesh [sarx] (v. 3). God who is rich in mercy [eleos] is said to out of love have made us alive and by grace [charis] saved [sozo] us and raised up with him (vv. 4-5, 7-8). We are created [ktizo] in Jesus Christ for good works which God prepared beforehand (v. 10).
Application: Several alternatives for sermons emerge from this lesson. The text invites sermons on our bondage to sin, on Christ’s conquest of evil (Classic View of the Atonement), Justification by Grace, or the Spontaneity of Good Works (Sanctification).
Again we read from the last of the four gospels to be written, probably not composed until the last two decades of the first century. It is very different in style in comparison to the other three (so-called Synoptic) gospels. In fact it is probably based on these earlier gospels. The book has been identified with John the Son of Zebedee, the disciple whom Jesus loved, and this claim was made as long ago as late in the first century by the famed theologian of the early church Irenaeus (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, p. 414). It is likely that it was written by a disciple of John.
Recently some scholars have suggested an alternative account of the origins of John’s gospel. Appealing to the writings of a late first and early second-century Bishop Papias, who may have implied that John’s gospel was the result of eyewitness origins, such scholars have argued that the book is in fact an authentic historical testimony to Jesus (Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, especially pp. 423ff; cf. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, pp. 154-155). Regardless of the circumstances of its composition, there is agreement that the book’s main agenda was probably to encourage Jewish Christians in conflict with the synagogue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God (20:31). This lesson is Jesus’ discourse following his dialogue with the Jewish leader Nicodemus (vv. 1-10). This is uniquely Johannine material.
Jesus claims to be discoursing about heavenly things, as only he (the Son of Man — huios to anthropou) has ascended to the Father (vv. 11-13). The use of this title here by John suggests that the title is employed here and in the Synoptic Gospels as a way to describe Jesus’ present ministry on earth. Jesus proceeds to note that as Moses lifted up a serpent in the desert (reported in the First Lesson, Numbers 21:9) in order to provide a remedy to those made ill by the bites of poisonous snakes, which were sent to punish the Hebrews for their sin, so the Son of Man will be lifted up that whoever believe in him will have eternal life (vv. 14-15). The cross is here foretold.
God’s love [agape] for the world [kosmos] in giving his only Son that all who believe may have eternal life is proclaimed (v. 16). This theme echoes elsewhere in the gospel (5:24; 6:40, 47; 11:25-26). God did not send his Son to judge [krpinai] the world, but those not believing are already condemned because they have not believed (vv. 17-18). The judgment is that the light [phos, who is Christ] has come into the world and people loved darkness/evil [skotos] more than light. Those who do evil [poneros] hate the light, rejecting it so their deeds not be exposed (vv. 19-20). Those who do what is truth [aletheia] come to the light, so it is seen that their deeds have been done in God (v. 21).
Application: The text provides occasions to proclaim God’s love and grace for the world (Justification by Grace). But attention may also be given to the implications of this for living the Christian life (Sanctification).
THEME OF THE DAY
The Resurrection gets us all together.
Because since ancient times this was the first Sunday during which newly baptized members (who in the first centuries were baptized on Easter) would be admitted to Church fellowship as full members, the theme of unity among Christians (Church and Sanctification, rooted in God’s love [Justification By Grace]) is most appropriate. Addressing Social Ethics is also implied in some of the assigned texts.
This is a Song of Ascent extolling the joys of harmony in the family (probably with reference to the extended family culture of clan and family groups living in close proximity to each other, as we see in Deuteronomy 23:5). Such Psalms were likely songs of pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem and its Temple, which was located on Mount Zion and so involved an ascent to get to the sanctuaries. This is a Wisdom Psalm (maxims of everyday life) comparing good relations (living in together in unity [yachad]) to the oil for honored guests or used at ordination which was administered to the head, just as such oil might run down on Aaron’s beard [zaqan] eventually saturating his whole gown, so good relations are said to saturate the whole body (vv.1-2). Mount Hermon was the highest mountain in Syro-Palentine, which of course had dew [tal]. And like unity this dew is said to spread everywhere (v.3). Given the Psalm’s likely origin in the Exiles return from Babylon, the harmony extolled may have to do with restored Israel or the people of God.
Application: The text invites sermons on how human (family and communal) unity spreads easily and saturates all (Social Ethics). The Psalm could be related to this Sunday’s theme of Jesus’ Resurrection, that this unity only spreads so readily because of Christ (Sanctification).
Again we turn to the second half of the two-part early history of the Church attributed to Paul’s Gentile associate, Luke (Colossians 4:14; II Timothy 4:11; Philemon 24). It is particularly concerned to affirm the universal mission of the Church (1:8). The Lesson provides a description of the early Jerusalem church’s polity — the sharing of goods. Following a description of an early prayer service in which the Holy Spirit had worked to shake the faithful (v.31), the exposition continues with a description of the unity of the faithful (they were one [mia]), with no one claiming private ownership for all things held in common [koinos] (v.32). With great power [dunamis] the Apostles gave testimony to the Resurrection. Grace [charis] was upon them all (v.33). There were no poor among them and all that had been owned was given to the Apostles to distribute to those who had need (vv.34-35; cf. Deuteronomy 15:4). We only have record of this sort of communal living being practiced among the Christians in Jerusalem.
Application: This text invites sermons on the unity and harmony of the Church or Social Ethics (the alleviation of poverty with generous and safety-nets for the poor).
1 John 1:1 — 2:2
This Lesson emerges in a treatise or sermon by an unknown teacher of the Johannine tradition, probably aiming to clarify the proper interpretation of the Gospel of John. Since the end of the 2nd century the Epistle has been recognized as written by the author of the fourth Gospel or by another member of his circle (Eusebius of Caesarea, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2/1:170-172). Unlike the Gospel of John, this sermon is not concerned to address the relation of Christian faith and the Jewish traditions, but the proper testimony about Jesus in the Christian tradition. The Book addresses segments of the Johannine community who had broken away (2:19; 4:1; 2 John 7). The dispute was over Gnostic or Docetic doubts about whether Jesus was truly a human being and whether His death on the Cross was a sacrifice for sin (1:1-3,7; 2:2; 3:16; 3:2,10; 5:6).
The Lesson is the introduction to the Epistle (including a statement of its purpose and a confession of faith) followed by a discussion of the right attitude toward sin and the beginning of an exhortation to obedience. There are important similarities between vv.1-4 and the Prologue to John’s Gospel. The author claims to declare what was from the beginning, things he says he has seen and touched. He declares that the eternal life [zoe] that was with the Father has been revealed (1:1-2). This declaration can establish fellowship [koinonia] with the Johannine author, a fellowship, which is ultimately with the Father and the Son. The author notes that this is his purpose in writing (1:3-4). It is asserted that God is light [phos] in Whom there is no darkness [skotia]. Thus the faithful cannot have fellowship with Him while walking in darkness (presumably sin) (1:5-6). It is claimed that if we walk in the light, we have fellowship with each other, and the blood of Jesus cleanses [katharizo] us (1:7). If we say we have no sin we deceive [planao] ourselves (1:8); we also in turn made God a liar and reject His Word [logos] (1:10). But if we confess [homologeo] our sin, God will forgive [aphiemi, or “send away”] and cleanse [katharizo] us from unrighteousness (1:9). The author then claims to write these things in order that recipients of the Epistle not sin. But he reminds them that they have Christ as an Advocate [paracletos] (2:1). He is the atoning sacrifice [hilsamos, literally “propitiation”] for sin, not just of the faithful but of the whole world [kosmos](2:2).
Application: The text’s emphasis on the fellowship among the faithful and between Father and Son links with the Theme of the Day (Trinity and Church). This has been created by Christ’s Atoning Work (also Justification). The claim that this gift is for all also opens the way for sermons on Single Predestination.
Again we receive a Lesson from the last Gospel to be written (probably in the last decade of the first century), and so not written by John the son of Zebedee, but perhaps by a disciple of his in order to address a community of Jewish Christians who had been expelled from Jewish society. These verses, accounts of Jesus’ Resurrection and the story of Doubting Thomas, embody the Gospel’s primary concern with testifying that Jesus is Messiah, but also its characteristic emphasis on faith. (The word “believe” [pisteuo] appears far more in John than in any of the Gospels.)
The text begins by reporting on a gathering of Disciples on the first Easter, locked in a house for fear [phobeo] of the Jews. The Risen Jesus enters and gives them a peace greeting. The Disciples rejoice [chairo] (vv.19-20). He came to those with weak faith. Jesus is then said to commission the Disciples, give them the Holy Spirit [pneuma] as well as the power to forgive [aphiemi] and retain sins. A reference is made to Jesus “breathing on” [enephusao] His followers, the same phrase used to describe the communication of natural life (Genesis 2:7). The author thereby expresses that what the Risen Jesus does is to give new life (vv.20-23). Thomas (called the Twin [Didymus]) was not present and expresses doubts about accounts of Jesus’ Resurrection (vv.24-25).
In a gathering the following week, Jesus is reported again to appear and has Thomas feel His Body. Thomas then confesses his faith (vv.26-28). Jesus asks him if he only has believed because he saw Him. The Lord adds His Blessing for those who have not seen Him but yet believe (v.29). The author then reports that Jesus did many other signs [semeion] in the presence of the Disciples that have not been reported in the Gospel (v.30). The ones reported are provided, he writes, so that readers may believe Jesus is the Messiah [Christos], Son of God [huios tou theou], and through believing have life [zoe] in His Name (v.31). This last verse is understood as the Gospel of John’s statement of purpose.
Application: Several sermon alternatives emerge from the text. One alternative would be to focus on the purpose of John’s Gospel, how Christ and His Resurrection give life (Atonement and Justification By Grace). Other options are to focus on the transforming power of God’s love, overcoming doubts (Thomas) and forgiving sins (Sanctification). This is also an opportunity to focus on the Work of the Holy Spirit or the nature of faith.
THEME OF THE DAY
The texts testify to God’s goodness, how amazing it is given our dire circumstances (Sin and Justification By Grace). The amazing character of this grace to change lives (Sanctification) is also a theme embedded in the pericopies.
This is a lament attributed to David, a prayer for deliverance from personal enemies. It is good to remind ourselves that references to David in the Psalms like this one may have been a way of using him to represent the inner life of all his subjects and so of all the faithful (Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, p.521). In that sense this song is about how we all face hard times but can count on God’s help. The Psalm begins with a cry for help, an appeal to God’s mercy/graciousness [chanan] to give room (v.1). There is a rebuke of those accusing the Psalmist of wrongdoing. Yahweh is said to set the faithful apart for Himself (vv.2-4). References to Selah are liturgical directions, probably indicating that there should be an instrumental interlude that that point in the singing of the Psalm. In turn, the accused is assured of the Lord’s help; this assistance is related to the performance of sacrifice [zebach] in The Temple (v.5). God puts gladness [simchah] in the Psalmist’s heart and grants peaceful sleep, for Yahweh alone gives safety/trust [betach] (vv.7-8). It is possible that reference to sleep is an allusion to permission given to the Psalmist to spend the night in The Temple. In any case, this is a Psalm about gratitude to God.
Application: The Psalm’s stress on gratitude to God and gladness in the midst of our struggles (Sin) certainly fits the Easter Theme and Theme of the Day (Justification By Grace). Once could also explore the theme of salvation as safety.
Once again we turn to the second half of the two-part early history of the Church attributed to Paul’s Gentile associate, Luke (Colossians 4:14; II Timothy 4:11; Philemon 24). It is particularly concerned to affirm the universal mission of the Church (1:8). This Lesson is part of a sermon by Peter at Solomon’s portico on the east side of the Jerusalem Temple following the healing of a lame [cholos] man (vv.1-11). Peter begins by asking the crowd of Jews who had gathered after the healing why they seemed excited as if he and John had performed the miracle (v.12). Reference is made to the God of Abraham and the other Patriarchs Who have glorified [doxazo] Jesus His Servant [paida], the One rejected/denied [arneomai] by the people (v.13). Peter blames the Jewish crowd for the death of Jesus, identified as the holy and righteous One [dikaion], the author/founder [archegos] of life. His Resurrection is proclaimed (vv.14-15). The healing of the lame man is said to have happened by faith in Jesus’ Name [onoma] (v.16). Peter then notes that the Jewish crowd acted in ignorance (like their rulers) in Jesus’ death (v.17). For in this way God fulfilled the Prophecy that His Messiah/Christ would suffer (v.18). Reference is made here to Isaiah’s Suffering Servant (49:1-6; 50:4-11; 52:13 – 53:12). A call is issued for repentance [metanoeo] in order that sins might be wiped out (v.19).
Application: The narrative of Peter’s sermon opens the way to reflections on the implications for Christian life (helping, repentance, and witnessing) that flow from Jesus’ Atoning Work (Sanctification and Atonement). Another possibility might be to focus on Christology, on how Jesus fulfills the Prophecies of Isaiah’s Servant Songs.
1 John 3:1–7
Like the previous week, this Lesson emerges in a treatise or sermon by an unknown teacher of the Johannine tradition, probably aiming to clarify the proper interpretation of the Gospel of John. Since the end of the 2nd century the Epistle has been recognized as written by the author of the fourth Gospel or by another member of his circle. The Book addresses disputes over Gnostic or Docetic doubts about whether Jesus was truly a human being and whether His death on the Cross was a sacrifice for sin (1:1-3,7; 2:2; 3:16; 3:2,10; 5:6). This Lesson is a discussion of right conduct which must be associated with brotherly and sisterly relationships. It begins with an assertion of the profound love the Father has given the faithful that they should be called children [tekna] of God. The world does not know this because the world does not know [egno] Christ (v.1). Referring to readers as “beloved” [agapetos], the author notes that though God’s children, what we will be has not yet been revealed. But we do know that when God is revealed the faithful will be like [homois] Him, for they will see Him as He is (v.2). All with this hope in Him purify themselves, just as God is pure [hagnos] (v.3). All who commit sin are guilty of lawlessness, for sin in lawlessness (v.4). He [Christ] was revealed to take away sins; in Him there is no sin (v.5). No one who abides in sins, and everyone sinning does not know Him (v.6). Readers are urged to let no one deceive them. Everyone who does what is right [dikaiosune, literally “does righteousness”] is righteous [dikaios], just as God is righteous (v.7). It is helpful here to keep in mind what Paul and the Hebraic heritage (and so perhaps the Johannine tradition) mean by righteousness. Even in an Old Testament context, the concept of “righteousness” is not to imply that the believer lives in faultless conformity to some moral norm. It has to do with living in right relationship with God (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol.1, pp.370-371).
Application: The text invites sermons on Justification By Grace As a Union with Christ, God’s love changing the lives of the faithful (Sanctification), despite their Sin.
This is the first half of the two-part early history of the Church attributed to Paul’s Gentile associate, Luke. This account of Jesus’ post-Easter Resurrection appearances is unique to Luke’s Gospel. The narrative begins with a report of the Disciples in Jerusalem conversing about the story of Jesus’ appearance on the road to Emmaus (vv.13-36a). It is then reported that He appeared to them with a peace [eirene] greeting (v.36b). Such a greeting was conventional for Jews, but since it entails unity and concord it may have been a sign of the Kingdom of God (2:14,29). The Disciples are startled, and Jesus asks them why they have been troubled/terrified [tarasso] or doubted the news of His Resurrection (vv.37-38). Jesus invites them to see and touch His Body (vv.39-40). Though joyful, they are still disbelieving (v.41a). He responds by eating fish in front of them (vv.41b-43). Jesus reminds His followers of the works He spoke to them, that everything written in the Hebrew Scripture about Him has been fulfilled (v.44). He opens their minds to understand these Scriptures (v.45). It is written, Jesus claims, that the Messiah/Christ is to suffer and rise on the third day, that repentance [metanoia] and forgiveness [aphesn] are to be proclaimed to all (vv.46-47; cf. Hosea 6:2). The Disciples are said to be witnesses [martus] (v.48).
Application: The text opens the way for sermons proclaiming the Easter Word of hope and Resurrection to those troubled, in fear and despair (Justification By Grace). Another approach might be to help parishioners struggling with the truth of the Resurrection, as Jesus helped the Disciples, to see that much of the events surrounding Easter have precedents (are prophesied) in the Old Testament.
THEME OF THE DAY
Jesus is our All-In-All.
The theme of God and Christ as Shepherd underlies the texts, and so sermons stressing God’s grace and how in all we do and have we are dependent on Him (Justification By Grace and Sanctification).
The famous Psalm is a Psalm attributed to David. We are again reminded that references to David in the Psalms are not likely indicative of the famed King’s authorship of the piece. Rather such identifications like this one may have been a way of using him to represent the inner life of all his subjects and so of all the faithful (Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, p.521). In that sense this song is about how we can say that all the faithful like us may share the Psalmist’s confidence in God the Shepherd’s [raah, literally “feeder of the sheep”] protection. It extols the comfort of Providence. God is said to lead us in the paths [magal] of righteousness [tsedeq] (v.3). It is good to remind ourselves again that the concept of “righteousness” even in an Old Testament context is not to imply that the believer lives in faultless conformity to some moral norm. It has to do with living in right relationship with God (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol.1, pp.370-371). As a result, the Psalm continues, we need fear no evil [ra] (v.4). Surrounded by goodness [tob] and mercy [chesed], the Psalmist pledges regular worship in The Temple (v.6). This is a Psalm about gratitude to God.
Application: Sermons on this Psalm can stress how there is no food for the flock without God, that living in right relationship with Him only happens because of His mercy and action (Justification By Grace and Sanctification). These themes link with The Good Shepherd Parable of the Gospel. Gratitude to God will certainly reflect in any sermon on the text.
Again we turn to the second half of the two-part early history of the Church attributed to Paul’s Gentile associate, Luke (Colossians 4:14; II Timothy 4:11; Philemon 24). It is particularly concerned to affirm the universal mission of the Church (1:8). This story is an account of Peter and John appearing before the Sanhedrin (Jewish Council) after their arrest in Jerusalem. The author recounts Peter’s response to questions with a sermon.
First the gathering before the Sanhedrin is reported. The presence of the High Priest Annas is noted. Others mentioned include his subsequent high priest successors (vv.5-6). Actually by the time of the incident (after 33 AD) his son-in-law Caiaphas probably had succeeded him.
The question posed to the prisoners is by what power or name [onoma] they undertake their preaching (v.7). Peter is said to be filled [pletho] with the Holy Spirit [pneumatos hagios] in responding. He questions if the arrest was on account of the healing of the lame man before The Temple (v.8-9; cf. 3:1-10). The Apostle proceeds to claim that the healing was done in the Name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom the Jewish powers crucified and who was raised from the dead (v.10). Jesus is identified with the reference in Psalm 118:22 of the stone [lithos] rejected (counted worthless) [exouthenhetheis] which has become the head [kephale] of the corner [gonia] (v.11). And the claim is made that there is no salvation [soteria, also connoting safety] save in His Name (v.12).
Application: With this Lesson, sermons can be developed to affirm that Christ is the cornerstone of faith and life (Justification By Grace and Sanctification). The concept of salvation as safety could also be developed.
1 John 3:16-24
Once again, this Lesson emerges in a treatise or sermon by an unknown teacher of the Johannine tradition, probably aiming to clarify the proper interpretation of the Gospel of John. It may have been written to oppose a movement which had departed from the community’s beliefs about Jesus (2:24). Since the end of the 2nd century the Epistle has been recognized as written by the author of the fourth Gospel or by another member of his circle. The Lesson is a discourse on love. Its very definition is said to find that the Son of God laid down His life for us, and so we ought to lay down our lives for each other (v.16). The focus on Christ is in line with the Book’s efforts to address doubts about whether Jesus was truly a human being and whether His death on the Cross was a sacrifice for sin (1:1-3,7; 2:2; 3:16; 3:2,10; 5:6).
The author challenges the possibility that one could claim to have God’s love [agape] abide if unwilling to share with [lay down our souls for] bothers (v.17). Love is known through Christ’s love in laying down his life for us (v.16). The Johannine author proceeds to exhort such love in action, not just in works (v.18). By this we can be reassured that we are in the truth [aletheia] (v.19). When we feel condemned, the author notes the comforting Word that God is greater than our hearts, and knows [ginosko] everything (v.20). And if our hearts do not condemn/accuse [kataginoske], we may have boldness/ confidence [parrhesia] before God (v.21). Elaborating on such boldness, the author notes that we receive from God whatever we ask because we obey His Commandments [entole] and do what pleases Him (v.22). The Commandment is that we should believe in the Name of God’s Son Jesus Christ and love [agapao] one another as commanded (v.23). The Son is said to abide/remain [meno] in all who obey His Commandments and abide in Him. We know that the Son abides in us by the sign of the Spirit [pneuma] that He gave (v.24).
Application: Sermons on this Lesson highlight that God’s love gives us boldness and confidence even when we feel guilty and condemned (Sin and Justification By Grace). But Sanctification issues are also addressed. The spontaneity of good works is suggested by the fact that Christ dwells in the faithful, brought to us by the Spirit and that this leads to love each other. However, these works depend on Christ, Who is All-in-All.
Again we note that this Book is the last of the four Gospels to be written, probably not composed until the last two decades of the first century. It is very different in style in comparison to the other three (so-called Synoptic) Gospels. In fact it is probably based on these earlier Gospels. The Book has been identified with John the Son of Zebedee, the Disciple whom Jesus loved, and this claim was made as long ago as late in the first century by the famed theologian of the early Church Irenaeus (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol.1, p.414). It is likely that it was written by a disciple of John. 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 the external facts made plain in the Gospel and so John is a “spiritual Gospel” (presumably one not based on eye-witness accounts of the author) (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol.1, p.261). More recently, as we have observed, scholars have rediscovered the assessment of another early writer of the Church, Papias, who claimed that John was an eyewitness. This has led such scholars to suggest that this Gospel may have been eyewitness testimony after all
(Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, pp.423ff.; cf. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol.1, pp.154-155). Its main agenda was probably to encourage Jewish Christians in conflict with the synagogue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God (20:31).
The Lesson is the Parable of the Good Shepherd, appearing only in John. Identifying Himself as The Good Shepherd [poimen ho kalos], Jesus says He is not like the hired hand, for He is willing to lay down His life for the sheep (vv.11-12; for Old Testament precedents, see Isaiah 40:11; Jeremiah 23:1-6). He knows [ginosko] His own and they know Him, just as the Father knows Him, and He the Father. Jesus then stresses again how He lays down His life for the sheep (vv.13-15). He notes that there are other sheep not belonging to this fold (perhaps a reference to Gentiles). Jesus says that He must bring them too, so there will be just one flock/fold [poimne] and one Shepherd (v.16). The Father loves [agapao] Him, He adds, because He lays down [tithemi] His life for the sheep (v.17). No one takes His life from Jesus, He adds, for He lays it down of His own power/authority [exousia]. But He can take it up again (v.18).
Application: To preach on this Parable will entail proclamation of the unconditional love of God that never forsakes us (Justification By Grace). But the text also testifies to how Jesus creates community (Sanctification, Church, Social Ethics), that without Him and His sacrifices for us (Atonement) we are not fed (see Psalm of the Day).