Vines and the Cosmos: The Lectionary for the Sixth Sunday of Easter

Vines and the Cosmos: The Lectionary for the Sixth Sunday of Easter May 3, 2015


Acts 10:44-48

What It’s About: It’s about ethnicity (Jews and Gentiles are both in view), baptism, and inclusion.

What It’s Really About: This is one of the many places in Acts where we can see a bit of tension–some might call it embarrassment–about the inclusion of the Gentiles. Is this a sect of Judaism only, with all the same requirements that Judaism has? Or is it something different? Paul and the Jerusalem Christians seem to have clashed on this from time to time, and here we have a narrative in which the enthusiasm of the Gentiles seems to overwhelm any objections to their inclusion. “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” That’s an emphatic and decisive vote for inclusion across difference. The Holy Spirit, it seems, does not recognize all the same boundaries we do.

What It’s Not About: It’s not about Peter, exactly. Just as we saw last week with the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, it seems that much of the initiative here comes from either God (here in the form of the Spirit) or from the people themselves. Peter does the preaching, but it’s pretty evident that he is just the conduit through which things flow.

Maybe You Should Think About: I’d like to speak to the American context for a moment (while maintaining a hope that this blog might be useful to those elsewhere). We are at a moment in American history when our differences seem to be emphasized above our commonalities. And right at this moment, the lectionary seems to be peppering us with texts that emphasize the overcoming of differences. Just as the Spirit moved over those Gentiles in this story from Acts, perhaps God is speaking to us in the lectionary. What have you done–what have you preached–to bridge the many divides in our society? What have we said to address the chasms of race, economics, politics, and religion that seem to have opened up in our times? And can this passage help you move forward with this message?


Psalm 98

What It’s About: This is a joyful psalm. You can almost hear the music that would have accompanied it–jubilant and giddy.

What It’s Really About: This psalm links the human praise of God with the ways that the natural world reflects God’s glory. The two are almost blended together in a single chorus. I don’t know that we usually remember, when citing verse 4, that the “noise” is as much a product of the world as much as it is the product of humans.

What It’s Not About: It’s not about your church choir! Although verse 4 is the unofficial motto of choirs everywhere, and it never ceases to be funny in that context, this psalm is really about something more universal. Here, there is a vision of a God so powerful that the ends of the earth recognize it, and all the nations, and even the roaring sea.

Maybe You Should Think About: How does this psalm connect to the other texts for the day? And how does the idea of overflowing joy resonate with the other themes of today’s lectionary?


1 John 5:1-6

What It’s About: There are at least a couple of kinds of language going on in this short passage. We have the father/son language, and the claim that love for the one equals love for the other. And we have the language of obedience, too. We also love God by keeping God’s commandments. It’s hard to know what to make of this juxtaposition. Is Jesus (the son) supposed to be understood like a kind of commandment? Are these two ways of loving God equivalent, or necessarily bound up together? The author isn’t completely clear here, but maybe that’s the point.

What It’s Really About: What are we supposed to make of this “conquer” language in verses 4 and 5? Victory and conquest play a large role in those verses, and then verse 6 seems to continue the theme with the “water and blood” language. But that’s already a subtly different kind of language isn’t it? For me, it evokes the crucifixion. And by the time we reach the end of verse 6, we have moved on to testimony and the Spirit. I admit that I don’t quite know what to make of this section of 1 John. It’s simultaneously scattered and strangely focused.

What It’s Not About: It’s not about the burdens of the law. Christians have a tendency to read any reference to the law (the “commandments” in verses 2 and 3, for example) as arguing against the Torah. But that’s not what this passage is saying, and it pays to pay close attention to what exactly is in view here. If we love God, we obey God’s commandments. And it’s not even really that hard. Is it?

Maybe You Should Think About: Maybe you should think about enlightening me in the comments, because I am not at all sure that I understand this passage. I am unclear on what it means, why these verses were selected and not others, and what place it might have in the lectionary. Chime in below!

John 15:9-17

What It’s About: This is the continuation of last week’s John text–the vine and branches “I am” saying. This part of the saying goes a long way in helping us understand some of the difficulties of the text. And it shifts the discourse slightly, from a stark in/out dichotomy of those branches that are kept or pruned out, to a conversation about commandments.

What It’s Really About: The word “abide” is important in the gospel of John. The Greek here is μένω, and it’s a word that the gospel uses frequently. Go back and read this whole passage, starting at 15:1, with attention to how often the language of “abide” comes up. Verses 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, and 16 (the “fruit that will last” in 16 also uses μένω in Greek, although “abide” isn’t used in the NRSV translation). So all this talk about vines and branches isn’t idle–it’s in the service of finding a kind of permanent community between Christ and those who follow Christ, and it’s about a lasting (“abiding”) fruit from that community.

What It’s Not About: It’s not about law for the sake of law. Again, as we saw in the 1 John passage above, there is a connection between commandments and love. We Christians sometimes slander Judaism by implicitly or explicitly saying that Jews have a kind of fetish for the law–that it’s law for the sake of law. But Jesus here is speaking in a way that would have made sense (and still does make sense) for Jewish folks: that law-keeping and commandment-keeping are an outgrowth of love. Legalism isn’t ugly, in Jesus’ formulation of it. It’s simply the language of love; it’s what people do when they love each other. They do right by each other.

Maybe You Should Think About: I’m still stuck on the “abide” language. Maybe there’s something more there? And maybe there is a connection back to the Acts and the psalm texts. In Acts, there is a kind of grafting-in going on (to borrow Paul’s horticultural language from Romans, as a commenter last week pointed out). And in Psalm 98, there is a vision of the abiding presence and community of God in the way the joyful noise comes even from the natural world. Taken together, these texts begin to paint a picture of a holistic world of God, all turned to the same purpose, and all pointed toward the production of fruit that abides.

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