The Fifth Sunday of Easter (Year A), 10 May 2020
May 10, 2020 | by David J. Lull
|Reading 1||Reading 2||Reading 3||Reading 4||Reading 1 Alt||Reading 2 Alt|
|Acts 7.55-60||Psalm 31.1-5, 15-16||1 Peter 2.2-10||John 14.1-14|
Unless otherwise noted, biblical quotations are my own translations.
As I write these commentaries in midst of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, I am focused on practicing proper social-distancing, keeping our loved ones safe, helping those who are most at risk, and extending a helping hand to those in need—as I am sure all of you and your faith communities are. Today’s readings offer guidance and comfort for times such as this. Now, more than ever, we need to get rid of habits of speech and behavior that destroy community. Instead, let us practice deep, sincere mutual love. Let us practice hope by doing everything that has the best chance of keeping us, our loved ones, and others safe from exposure to this new virus. Let us practice comforting one another with the gospel of God’s unbounded loving kindness.
Believe, trust, and have faith in Jesus as the decisive witness to God’s love. God’s big heart has a “dwelling place” for everyone, not only when we die, but here and now! For Christians, Jesus is the decisive witness to and embodiment of the reality of God and of the Christian form of authentic human life. Always, but especially in a time such as this, Jesus’ calls and empowers us to do his “works” by proclaiming God’s transforming word and by doing deeds of loving kindness.
Verses 55-56 portray Jesus as God’s “righthand man,” to use an old-fashioned phrase. God has no literal left and right hands or sides, so this is symbolic language about the relationship between God and Jesus. Jesus was a mortal human being, born of human, biological parents, but God has made him God’s agent of salvation, in Jewish tradition called “the Son of Man,” both judge and liberator. It is a statement of faith about Jesus’ relationship to God; it is, at the same time, a statement of faith about God: Forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name is, at the same time, God’s forgiveness. And it is a statement of faith about the human condition of being accountable to God for the conduct of one’s life, trusting God to be merciful, and yearning for liberation from all that diminishes one’s life.
After Stephen’s speech to the Sanhedrin (7.2-53), “they were infuriated and enraged at Stephen” (v. 54; they “ground their teeth”), because he had accused them of failing to keep the law of Moses and of persecuting and killing prophets, including Jesus “the Righteous One” (v. 52). But Stephen, as they were stoning him, knelt and shouted, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (v. 60). Stephen’s words echo those of Jesus: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23.34a).
This model of someone in extreme circumstances channeling Jesus’ forgiveness of his executioners is a gift and challenge: Most of us will never face such extreme circumstances, but our challenge is when and how, or whether, we will find it possible to forgive in our ordinary lives. The gift is the implied message that, if Jesus’ forgiveness is a witness to God’s forgiveness in such extreme circumstances, how much more will God forgive in our ordinary lives!
I rarely listen to speeches at the National Prayer Breakfast, but Peter Marty’s editorial in The Christian Century (3-11-2020) got my attention. Arthur C. Brooks, on the faculty of the Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School, and former president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, in his 2020 NPB address, said a lot worth hearing and pondering about our present crisis of contempt and polarization in politics. One take away concerns Jesus’ teaching about loving one’s enemies, which is more radical than forgiving them. To paraphrase Brooks:
Jesus did not say we need to be civil or tolerant toward our enemies … he said, “love your enemies.” Ask God to give you the strength to do this hard thing, … to follow Jesus’ teaching … to love your enemies … to take contempt from your heart … if you find that difficult, ask God for forgiveness.
[It is worth listening to all of Brooks’ speech.]
Stephen also echoes Jesus’ words when, as they continued stoning him, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my life” (7.59; “spirit”). In Luke 23.46, Jesus says, “Father, into your hands I entrust my life [“spirit”].” Both echoed Psalm 31.5: “I entrust my life [“spirit”] into your hand.” Like Jesus, Stephen was entrusting, not just the life-spirit God gave him at his birth, but his life itself. After their final words, they died: Jesus “took his last breath” (Luke 23.46; “expired”), and Stephen died (Acts 7.60; “fell asleep”).
The challenge of Jesus’ and Stephen’s trust is whether we are willing and able to hand over our lives to God, instead of trusting in things that cannot ensure our lives will be preserved forever: anything we might have acquired, like wealth or fame, or anything the state might promise, like national greatness or security. The only assurance that our lives will be preserved forever is the assurance Jesus’ and Stephen’s trust offers: Only God’s everlasting love is worthy of trust, because it is victorious over executioners or anyone or anything that causes the innocent to suffer or be oppressed, even death itself!
Psalm 31.1-5, 15-16
Verses 1-5 echo similar themes of finding “refuge” in God, confident that God’s justice (“righteousness”) will rescue us from being put to shame. With the psalmist, we can entrust our lives to God, because, like a good shepherd, God will “rescue” us from danger (or “lead and guide” us out of danger). This theme is repeated in vv. 15-16:
15 Your strength guides my future; liberate me from my enemies and those who chase after me. 16 Look with favor on your servant; rescue me by your loving kindness [or “faithfulness”].
Why didn’t the Lectionary want us to spend time with verses 6-14? Perhaps because here the psalmist goes on and on about extreme distress due to “terrifying news all around.” There’s no shortage of “terrifying news” these days! Perhaps we should not dwell on that! Instead, we might want to listen to the psalmist’s trust, not in “false idols,” but in God as the source of hope, “loving kindness,” and “mercy” (vv. 6-7, 9). Let’s spend time with v. 14 and affirm with the psalmist, “As for me, I trust in you Lord—you are my God!” This affirmation does not mean “you are my God and mine alone”! Rather, it means God is my God, not “false idols,” like all those behind the “terrifying news” all around us!
Some people believe God determines the future, including making the future filled with good things and happiness for some but full of suffering and sadness for others. Although it is possible to find aspects of the portrayal of God in the Bible consistent with that view, that is not how the God of Jesus Christ works! In the end, God in the Bible holds people responsible for the future they create for themselves and others. God is the source of inspiration, the awareness of possibilities, for the way people might respond to their circumstances. God “rescues” us from calamities by being the source of better, possible, alternatives to paths that enemies of life would prefer we take. God also “rescues” us from being “put to shame” by our enemies when God’s loving kindness preserves our lives in God’s everlasting memory with justice, mercy, and loving kindness.
1 Peter 2.2-10
The Lectionary inexplicably doesn’t want us to include v. 1, which is an important part of vv. 2-3! In addition, “therefore” in v. 1 takes us back to the preceding context as the premise for vv. 1-3 and the rest of the letter: Because you have made your lives holy (1.22), “you have been born anew” (1.23),
1 therefore, after you have rid yourselves of all ill will, all deceit and hypocrisy and envy, and all slander, 2 like newborn infants, yearn for genuine, unadulterated milk, so that through it you might grow up, with salvation as the goal—3 since you have experienced that the Lord is kind.
This might sound like a two-step process: first, get rid of divisive behavior (or, stated positively, as in 1.22, “love one another with genuine mutual love”), then grow up, through the nourishment of genuine, unadulterated “milk,” toward the goal of salvation. Actually, this is the single step of regeneration and its single source—the “living, enduring word of God … the word of the Lord proclaimed to you” (1.23 and 25)—which results in getting rid of community-destroying vices (2.1). The metaphorical “milk” that enables “growing” toward the goal of salvation (2.2) is the word of God: the proclamation of Jesus Christ. Through this “word,” they have experienced “that the Lord is kind” (v. 3, quoting a version of Psalm 34.8 = LXX 33.9).
Always, but especially in the present time, 1 Peter 2.1 is very good guidance. Now, more than ever, we need to get rid of any habits of speech and behavior that destroy community. Instead, let us practice deep, sincere mutual love (1.22). Let us practice hope by doing everything that has the best chance of keeping us, our loved ones, and others safe from exposure to this new virus. Let us practice comforting one another with the gospel of God’s unbounded loving kindness.
The metaphor of the “milk” points to God’s word as the indicative of the gospel that is the basis for the imperatives. The metaphor of the infant, who grows up through nourishment, makes it clear that progress toward salvation is possible through God’s word. In 1 Peter, “salvation,” to be revealed “in the last time” (1.5), has to do with “life” here and now, which is the “goal of your faith” (1.9), and with God’s favor (1.10) and kindness (2.3). The phrase “in the last time” (1.5) points toward God’s final judgment, when God will assess our lives, which the gospel assures us God will do with favor and kindness. This “last time” has already come: “You used to be a people on whom God showed no mercy, but now you are a people on whom God has mercy” (2.10). “Growing up toward the goal of salvation” might sound like a process of developmental progress, but it too is a metaphor.
The picture of building a house made of stones and stumbling over stones (2.4-8) are metaphors. The metaphor of the precious “stone” refers to the one who is God’s word of mercy and kindness as the gospel proclaims: namely, Jesus Christ. Those who believe and obey him “will not be shamed” (2.6, quoting Isaiah 28.16).
The next section is vv. 4-5:
4 After coming to the Lord [Jesus] — a living stone rejected by people but, in God’s eyes, chosen to be precious — 5 may you yourselves, like living stones, be built into a spiritual house, with the goal of becoming a holy priesthood, for the purpose of offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
The phrase “coming to the Lord” (Greek: “coming to whom,” in reference to “the Lord” in v. 3, who is described as “a living stone” in v. 4, alluding to Psalm 118.22) is an expression for conversion from a former way of life (2.1 and 1.18) to life oriented to and formed by Jesus (“the living stone”), who is “the Lord” of this new life (1.22-25). To be converted to a life dedicated to and formed by Jesus as Lord means accepting the primacy of Jesus’ life and teachings as guides to a way of life and as witnesses to the reality of God’s everlasting loving kindness. The world, however, offers many other “lords” that are all too seductive as alternative or additional life-orienting guides and witnesses! The common idolatry of Christians is worshipping both Jesus as Lord and other lords. The result is that other lords compromise attempts to follow Jesus. Seeking ultimate meaning, value, and security in such lords as wealth and national interests and greatness leave us vulnerable in times of economic distress and national crisis to life-crushing despair and a struggle to entrust one’s life and hope to God. Others turn to God in despair instead of in the practice of hope born from the promise of the gospel. Jesus, God’s living Word, is always more worthy of our trust than any other lords, but especially in times such as this!
God is the implied “builder” behind the passive voice, “may you yourselves be built….” Changing this passive into an active voice results in, “May God build you….” That is further proof that the metaphor of the infant “growing up” is not about a natural or self-made developmental progression.
A “spiritual house” is a house built, not with ordinary stones, but with “living stones,” namely, people. “House” is a metaphor for 1 Peter’s community. And the word “spiritual” means not just “non-physical,” but also “of the Spirit,” so that this “spiritual house” is a community where the Spirit dwells: a community built and led by the Spirit. Because members of this Spirit-built and Spirit-led community are to become “a holy priesthood,” this community will become “a house of God,” that is, a temple. As a temple, the community will be where members offer “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ,” that is, living “sacrifices”: namely, Spirit-led lives, in distinction from offerings of grains, libations, and slaughtered, dead animals. These “spiritual sacrifices” will be Spirit-led lives of deep, sincere mutual love (1.22). May it be so also with us!
Today’s Gospel reading comes immediately after a dialogue between Simon Peter and Jesus (13.36-38):
Simon Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus replied, “Where I am going, you can’t follow me right now, but you will follow later.” Peter asked him, “Lord, why can’t I follow you immediately? For your sake, I will give up my life!” Jesus replied, “Will you give up your life for my sake? I solemnly declare to you, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.”
This is the context for 14.1: Peter, of all people, will renege on his vow to give up his life for Jesus’ sake! Earlier, the disciples heard Jesus say that another one of Jesus’ disciples would be an accomplice in Jesus’ arrest and execution (13.21-30). And Jesus has repeatedly told them he would give up his life. In this context, Jesus says, “Don’t be distressed”—that is, distressed over betrayal within Jesus’ inner circle of followers and over Jesus’ impending death. Why shouldn’t that be unsettling?! Or perhaps the point is something like, “Don’t the rest of you be confused, like Judas and Peter, about whose follower you are!” As literary characters in this Gospel, Judas and Peter represent how the seductive power of greed and fear can lead Jesus’ followers to betray Jesus. May it not be so with us!
In this Gospel, another, deeper, reason for Jesus’ exhortation — “Don’t let your hearts be distressed!” — is the twofold ambiguity of the focal Greek verb in the Peter-Jesus dialogue. Jesus was “going” somewhere, but the verb also means he was “departing.” Jesus has made it clear to the disciples that he was “going” to the “hour” of his “glory” when he would give up his life for the sake of the world and, at the same time, when he would “return” to God, which would be his “departure” or “exodus.” Distress is a common response to separation from loved ones and their absence due to death. Jesus’ “departure” would be a hope-crushing loss. Why Jesus’ death would be his “hour” of “glory” and what his departure, exodus, or return to God meant dumbfounded the disciples! Jesus’ exhortation, “Don’t be distressed!” falls somewhere between the rebuke of “Don’t you get it?” and the gentler pastoral care of “Now, now, all will be okay.”
Jesus’ instruction to his distressed followers is, “If you trust in God, trust also in me!” Other possible translations include these:
- Believe (or trust or have faith) in God, believe (or trust or have faith) also in me.
- You believe (or trust or have faith) in God; believe (or trust or have faith) also in me.
- Do you believe (or trust or have faith) in God? Believe (or trust or have faith) also in me.
Judas and Peter have doubts about Jesus—or, to put it another way, they lack faith and trust in Jesus and, in that sense, do not believe in him. Their trust, faith, and belief in God can be assumed. What’s in doubt is whether they believe, trust, or have faith in Jesus. The inseparability of Jesus and God is driven home throughout this Gospel (see, e.g., 14.7-11). Problems arise when people who believe, trust, and have faith in God fail or refuse to believe, trust, and have faith in Jesus. So, Jesus says to his distressed followers, “If you trust in God—which we can assume to be true for the sake of argument—trust also in me!” That means Jesus’ followers are being asked to believe, trust, and have faith in the gospel’s claim that Jesus’ giving up his life for the sake of his “friends” bears witness to God’s own everlasting loving kindness and, because of that witness, Jesus lives in God forever. May we also believe, trust, and have faith in Jesus as the decisive witness to God’s love. In the words of Charles Wesley’s hymn, “Love Divine, All Love Excelling,”
Love divine, all love excelling,
Joy of heaven, to earth come down!
Fix in us thy humble dwelling,
All thy faithful mercies crown.
Jesus, thou art all compassion,
Pure, unbounded love thou art;
Visit us with thy salvation,
Enter every trembling heart.
Breathe, oh, breathe thy loving spirit
Into every troubled breast; …
Jesus’ witness to God’s “pure, unbounded love” is now expressed as a promise that Jesus was “going to prepare a place” for his followers in God’s “house,” which has many “dwelling places.” You could think literally of a “house” with many “rooms,” or of an estate with many houses. Or you could think symbolically of God’s “house” as “heaven,” where there is limitless room for everyone to enjoy “eternal life.”
You could think of this as “going to heaven” after dying, but there are two problems with that. First, dying might be part of what Jesus is alluding to, but it this not primarily about “(eternal) life after death.” For one thing, “eternal life” is a possibility in this life, here and now, through believing, trusting, and having faith in Jesus (3.15-16, 36; 5.24; and 6.47, which follows soon after the future tense in 6.40, so that the “last day” is the “day” when a person comes to believe, trust, have faith in Jesus).
Second, going to God’s “house” is about being in union with God and Jesus. The Greek word translated as “dwelling place” (μονή, monē) is related to the Greek verb μένω (menō), translated as “remain, dwell, or abide,” which appears 11 times in this Gospel, often when speaking of the relationship between God and Jesus and Jesus and his followers as a mutual “in-dwelling” or mutual “abiding.” Throughout this Gospel, Jesus says God was and is in Jesus, Jesus was and is in God, and Jesus was and will be in his followers and they were and will be in him. So, this is about assurance that Jesus’ followers will not be separated from Jesus. When Jesus departs/returns to God, Jesus will continue to draw his followers to him and God. This is a metaphor for God’s presence and the unlimited wideness of the embrace of God’s loving kindness and everlasting memory. Just as God is everywhere, so also everyone and everything has a place in God.
In this pandemic, when many will suffer and have already suffered and died, some alone, it is comforting to know that no one is an anonymous statistic. No one is separated from the loving presence of God, as Paul says in Romans 8.39. Everyone is precious in God’s heart. God’s big heart has a “dwelling place” for everyone, not only when we die, but here and now! Practice gratitude for all those who are God’s big heart for us. Practice being God’s big heart for others.
The translator of John 14.6, who is at the same time an interpreter, must decide how the three words “the way, and the truth, and the life” are related and how the word “and” (καί, kai) functions. For example, these words could be translated as three equal members of a series, as in all recent English versions. In James Moffat’s 1913 translation (revised in 1935), “the truth” and “the life” are adjectives attributing qualities to “the way”: Jesus is “the real and living way.” His translation implies other possible “ways,” but they would be qualitatively inferior. A different translation results when the first “and” is taken to be “explanatory,” so that the second and third words explain the meaning of “the way”: Jesus is “the way, that is, the truth and the life.” Another use of “and” in Greek is to make two (or in this case three) words express one thought: Jesus is “the way of truth and life.” In this translation, Jesus is the one who brings “the truth and the life.” The difference between the last two translations is that in the former “the way” is equated with “the truth and the life,” but in the latter “the truth and the life” are the goal of “the way.” All these translations are possible and defensible!
The next question for the interpreter is, “What do these words mean?” Jesus is “the way” could mean that he is the teacher of the way of real, true, or authentic, abundant life. Although that cannot be excluded, it is not enough. In this verse and throughout this Gospel Jesus is “the truth and the life.” The end of this verse makes it clear that “the way” points to God as the subject of “the truth” Jesus reveals and as the source of “the life” found in Jesus: “No one comes to the Father”—that is, becomes faithfully devoted to God (see the comment above that “coming to the Lord” means conversion to becoming Jesus’ follower)—“except through or by means of me.” That means that in, with, and through Jesus we encounter the reality of God and the possibility of authentic, abundant, new life. The flip side of this promise is the challenge of facing the reality of our present lives: namely, that through “the truth and the life” we find in Jesus we learn that we have not been faithfully devoted to God and that, therefore, our lives fall short of the authentic, abundant, new life possible in, with, and through Jesus.
An encounter with Jesus, through proclamation of the gospel, is at the same time an encounter with God, because the gospel proclaims God was present in Jesus and Jesus was present in and with God. That means Jesus is both the way and the goal: though him we see and hear the true witness to God. Jesus is not only the way to “the truth”: in his life and death, as well as in the proclamation of the gospel, he simply is God’s truth. Jesus’ words and deeds come from God, so they are Jesus’ and God’s “works.”
Jesus is not only “the way” to the authentic, new abundant life, he is the resurrection life. In John 11.25, the Greek word καί translated “and” could join two independent items in a series, “the resurrection and the life,” or it could introduce “the life” as an explanation of “the resurrection,” e.g., “I am the resurrection, that is, the life,” namely, the authentic, new, abundant, or eternal life.” Or the Greek phrase “the resurrection and the life” could use two words for a single thought: “the resurrection of life,” that is, “the life” that comes from “the resurrection.” Again, all these translations are possible and defensible.
The idea that no one “comes” to God “except by means of Jesus” might sound too exclusive for some you, as it does to me. However, John B. Cobb, Jr. persuades me to think of it as having both a particularistic meaning and a universal one. As Christians we can claim that Jesus is, for us, the decisive witness to and embodiment of the reality of God and of the Christian form of authentic human life. We can also invite non-Christians to consider this claim and what it could mean in their cultural and historical context. This invitation, as Jesus would have it, must be a sincere invitation, devoid of any hint of coercion and judgment. In other words, John 14.6 (and other similar claims throughout this Gospel) is a particularistic sectarian statement of those who identify with Jesus and regard Jesus as central to their way of life. Nevertheless, as Christians, we can say that Jesus is not only for Christians. We can say to others that our particularistic, sectarian Christian claim also says something about the reality of God and authentic human life that would be worth considering by everyone everywhere.
I want to conclude with vv. 12-14, which seem to contradict or be in tension with the claim of v. 6. If Jesus’ followers are also going to do the “works” that Jesus did, what does that mean for the apparent exclusivity of “only through me”? Even more so, what if they will do “greater works” than those Jesus did? Does that mean that Jesus’ “works” were somehow inadequate or inferior? As natural as these questions are, they are easily answered from the text itself! First, the premise is that the one doing these “works” is a “believer” in Jesus. Being a “believer” means sharing the same “indwelling” with Jesus that characterized Jesus’ union with God. That means that the “believer” who does these “works” does them through, by means of, Jesus’ power, namely, the power of God. In other words, Jesus is still doing his and God’s “works” through his followers.
Second, the idea that they will do “even greater works” than those Jesus did is explained in the next clause: “because I am going to the Father.” Because Jesus was departing, exiting this world, to return to being with God, Jesus’ “works” are hemmed in, so to speak, between two temporal points: his “coming into the world” and his “departure” from it: that is, though they are not “of the world,” they are “in the world.” From now on, Jesus’ followers will continue Jesus’ “works” powered by Jesus whom God has lifted up and raised up out of the grips of temporal time and space!
Third, if v. 12 was not clear on this point, vv. 13-14 are much clearer: Jesus is the one who will grant his followers’ requests—implied by their believing, trusting, having faith in him—as they do the “works” that Jesus did. Although Jesus was departing from them and from the world, he will not abandon them! Though absent, Jesus would be present in the form of the Paraclete, Advocate, and Comforter, namely, the Spirit of truth (16.7-33).
Finally, the “work” of Jesus was his witness to the reality of God and the truth. By presenting people with the reality of God—not only through his words and deeds, but in, with, and through his very being—Jesus presented people with authentic, abundant, new life formed by union with God. To the extent that they saw in this possibility a contrast to their lives formed by the world, encountering Jesus and his “works” became for them a challenge, a word of judgment. When they came to believe, trust, have faith in him, through Jesus and his “works,” the possibility of abundant new life became a reality for them. To do “greater works” is to bear witness to God—to glorify God—in the same way Jesus did in his life and death, but doing it now through proclaiming the gospel “in Jesus’ name,” so that others may encounter the reality of God and enjoy authentic life.
Always, but especially in a time such as this, Jesus’ calls and empowers us to do his “works” by proclaiming God’s transforming word and by doing deeds of loving kindness. Such works will take many forms. As you are able, with Jesus’ help, may you do and be the “works of Jesus” for others and for the world.
David J. Lull, an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and Emeritus Professor of New Testament, Wartburg Theological Seminary, is a resident of Pilgrim Place in Claremont, CA. He also taught New Testament at Yale University Divinity School, was the Executive Director of the Society of Biblical Literature, and the director of the Bible Translation and Utilization unit of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. His publications include commentaries on Romans (with John B. Cobb, Jr.) and 1 Corinthians (with William A. Beardslee).