Saturday, July 25, 2015

Hunger Free

At the end of the gospel lesson for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost, John 6:24-35, Jesus says this:  "I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty."  This text follows the story of the feeding of the 5,000, and begs the question, "What does it mean to be hunger-free, or thirst-free?"  We might ponder this as we reflect on the questions this text raises.

(The following questions are a small sample of reflection questions taken from my guide on Law and Gospel preaching.  They are meant to be conversation starters, not an exhaustive list.  I hope that they spur your imagination, and I welcome your comments.)

1. How does the Word function in the text?  Jesus is giving us the whole package today.  First, he is reminding us of our propensity to seek only the food that does not 'endure'.   To the crowd that experienced the feeding of the 5,000 he says, "You are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves."  This is a word of Law, showing us how often we seek Jesus - or anyone else, for that matter - merely because they fill our needs temporarily.  There is a word of Gospel here too, however, as Jesus announces that he is the bread of life which gives life to the world, and he announces that is given to all.  Finally, a call to obedience is also present in this text implicitly, as we, who are fed by the bread of life, are invited to tell others where this bread can be found.  These are the three functions of the Word - Law, Gospel, and the call to obedience.

2.  With whom are you identifying in this text? Preachers might be tempted here to identify with Jesus, but we should once again resist this temptation.  We preachers, and our listeners as well, are undoubtedly the crowds - the ones who seek Jesus because we have eaten of the loaves, the ones who demand signs of Jesus, and the ones who resist Jesus' claim to be the One who will satisfy our hunger and thirst for good.

3.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Obviously hungry/filled or thirsty/satisfied are two couplets that come to mind immediately, but we might expand those two by thinking in terms of other sorts of hunger and thirst:  lost/found, lonely/loved, despairing/hopeful.  These couplets and others can broaden our thinking about what this One called Bread of Life gives to us.

4.  Exegetical insights:  In Greek grammar we encounter the construction called "strong future denial."  This is a common form which is often translated, "this will never, by no means happen" or something like that.  In verse 35 we have this construction twice, and it literally means:  "Whoever comes to me will by no means ever be hungry, and whoever believes in me will by no means ever be thirsty."  This is striking and brings to mind the question, "Well then, if I continue to experience hunger and thirst - which I certainly do, in many ways -  does it follow then that I have not ever come to or believed in Jesus?  And furthermore, if hunger and thirst are common to the human condition, is this hunger/thirst-free condition then just as far beyond me as being sin-free?"

An excellent source for insights into John's gospel is Craig Koester's Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel.  Koester points out that the crowd that lifts up the giving of manna in the wilderness as something they'd like to see again has forgotten one obvious fact:  manna only lasted for a day; then it spoiled.  Was this really the kind of miracle they wanted?  Koester's discussion (p. 99f) has a number of important insights into this text.

5. How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  As usual, I would direct your attention to to learn more about this model, and also read in my book a thorough discussion of how this model can lead you into a full Law and Gospel sermon.  This text is a good one for illustrating this model.  I might suggest:

Diagnosis:  1) We seek to satisfy our hunger and thirst in many unhelpful ways.
                   2)  We trust in that which only appears to satisfy us.
                   3)  We are dying of starvation spiritually.

Prognosis:  4)  God gives us the bread of life to save us from starvation.
                   5)  We trust in Christ who does satisfy our hunger and thirst.
                   6)  We point others to Christ who will satisfy their hunger and thirst.

6.  Insights from the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Fred Craddock would remind us that the listener must experience the text, not just understand it.  It is the task of the preacher here to help our listeners nod in recognition, as we preach about hunger and thirst.  And then it is our joyful task to give them the bread of life.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Five barley loaves

John 6:1-21 is the opening piece of the extended "bread" narrative that will be with us for the next 5 weeks.  In typically Johannine fashion, this story has multiple levels of meaning, which will be important to us as we go deeper and deeper into this story as the weeks progress.

(The following sample questions are examples from my guide to Law and Gospel preaching which can be purchased simply by clicking on the image on this page.  These questions are meant to stimulate thought into how the Word performs both the function of Law (You need Jesus) and Gospel (Here is Jesus) in each of the pericopes assigned.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?   Both Law and Gospel are evident in this text.  The Law is evident in the doubts and fears of the disciples, illustrated so clearly in their skepticism regarding the feeding of the crowd, and then again in their terror on the rough seas.  In each of these scenes, we can see clearly persons who need Jesus.  The Gospel is also evident as Jesus, in each case, comes to the aid of these needy persons - providing them with bread for the hungry, and calm to the storm.

2.  How is the Word not functioning?  The third function of the Word is what is sometimes termed "the call to obedience." This is the word which invites us to live in a certain way in response to the Gospel. There is no such word here.  We will need to look at other texts to fill this out in our sermon.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We have two choices:  The disciples or the hungry crowd.  Since the church is often identified as the disciples in John's writing, I choose to identify with the disciples.  That means I will assume their position of skepticism and fear.  If I were to choose to identify with the crowd, I would assume the position of hunger.

4. What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Our imagination is our only limiting factor here.  Couplets that come to mind are Doubtful/Faithful; Scared/Reassured; Hungry/Fed.

5. Exegetical insights:  I often find interesting Sakae Kubo's analysis in A Reader's Greek-English Lexicon of the NT.  Kubo has compiled the number of times each word is used in the Greek NT and assembled them by biblical verse in his book.  Through his work we can see that, even though this story of the feeding of the five thousand is present in every gospel, only in John do we have the detail "barley loaves."  This little detail gives us a hint of John's agenda.  Barley was the grain used in bread-making by the poorest of the poor.  What John seems to emphasize by using this term is that even tiny amounts (mustard seed amounts) of the poorest bread can be blessed by our Lord and used to provide abundant blessing to a hungry world.

6. How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  If you go to study you can see several fine examples of the crossings community's analysis of John 6:1-21.  Archived under 2009 Year B Gospel, 8th Sunday after Pentecost, Marcus Felde offers one example. Then under 2012 Year B Gospel, 9th Sunday after Pentecost, Paul Jaster offers another.  It is interesting to compare two very different takes on this text.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Getting away from it all

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 is a great text for northerners like me who have a longing to "get away from it all" every summer and head up north to the lakes and forests.  The disciples have returned from their first adventures as apostles (see 6:6b-13) and Jesus, sensing their fatigue, says, "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while."  This is a word that comes to us as well - a Gospel word.

(The following questions are from the method in my new book on Law and Gospel preaching which can be ordered by clicking the book image on this screen.  These questions are not meant to be exhaustive.  The method is fully outlined in the book.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  Jesus, the Word in this text, is the wise, compassionate, powerful healer and teacher.  He is teaching, guiding, and healing those around him, revealing himself as a merciful Lord.  This is a Gospel word.  The word of Law is implied as well as we see the crowds running about "like sheep without a shepherd," and the disciples, so set upon by those seeking healing that they have no leisure even to eat.   These scenes show our need for Christ.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no call to obedience in this text - no word which instructs us how to live in response to the Gospel word.  This call to obedience will need to come from other texts, as we ponder how those who have experienced Christ's peace are called to live.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We have several choices here - the disciples or the crowd.  Or, we could choose to identify with both - we are the weary ones, but we are also those who run around in a panic, needing healing.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by the text?  Several come to mind:  Exhausted/rested; Depleted/supplied; Anxious/at peace.

5. Exegetical work:  I find interesting the description of "eremos", translated "deserted place" (vs. 31) in Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.  Kittel calls this deserted place "a place without inhabitants" and he says that "for Jesus the place without inhabitants is one where nothing separates him from God and which he therefore seeks when he wants to escape the crowds." (p. 658) This suggests that, while we might shy away from such deserted places, Jesus seeks them out, and they might be the very place we too need to go for R&R, and Resurrection!

6.  Insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Eugene Lowry's notion that a listener must be brought into disequilibrium and then back into equilibrium is helpful here.  Our task might be take people into the wilderness -the deserted place - and back out again, announcing that Jesus is there with us.