Thursday, August 27, 2015

Gospel Irrespressible

Mark 7:24-37, the gospel text appointed for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, is a unique text.  In this text there are all sorts of hints that Jesus wants to hide his presence and his miracles, and furthermore, that he is healing only reluctantly.  Of course, we are well acquainted with the so-called Markan secret, whereby Jesus regularly orders his followers to "tell no one" of the extraordinary events which surround him, yet here Mark shows us how irrepressible this gospel word is.  In spite of himself, Jesus agrees to heal the Syrophonecian woman's daughter and the deaf man with the impediment of speech.  Could it be that God's healing grace is so out-of-control that not even Jesus can stop it?  Hm...  Now there's something to ponder.

(The following questions are taken from my book on Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted.  If you find these questions helpful, I recommend you purchase the book and become fully acquainted with the method.)

1. How does the Word function in the text?  Jesus, the Word, is functioning to heal, albeit reluctantly.  In the case of the Greek/Syrophonecian woman (Matthew has her as a Canaanite), Jesus initially refuses her, but later agrees to exorcise the demon from her daugher, although the way Mark tells it, Jesus simply reports to the woman that the healing is accomplished; he doesn't seem to have anything at all to do with it.  Likewise, in the healing of the deaf man Jesus shows signs of exasperation.  In verse 34 we are told that Jesus "sighed"; this might be better translated "groaned".  It is almost as if Jesus was saying, "Ok, let's get this over with."  It is noteworthy that both of these healed ones are from pagan lands.  It's almost as if Jesus is being forced to kneel before the healing will of God, so he heals in spite of himself. Curious, to say the least!

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no word of Law that points to our need for Jesus, except what could be gathered metaphorically, that we are all filled with "demons," and "dumb and deaf" in some regard.  We are all in need of exorcism and healing - release from our sins.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  In this text we have several options:  we could identify with those who bring others to Jesus, seeking healing for them, or we could identify with those needing healing.  In both scenes we have the infirmed who were brought to Jesus by others.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  Perhaps the call to obedience ("Follow me!") is the call to bring others to Jesus.   Perhaps we should take a clue from these compassionate advocates and spend time imploring Jesus that he provide healing and release for others.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  In my book (pg. 29) I outline Herman Stuempfle's classic law/gospel couplets.  Despair/hope and alienation/reconciliation are several of his favorite pairings.  They might provide fodder for thought, if we assume the place of the infirmed.

6.  Exegetical work:  Kurt Aland's seminal work, Synopsis of the Four Gospels, often opens up gates to understanding that would otherwise have remained closed to us.  If we look at these stories side-by-side with their Matthean parallel (Mt. 15:21-31) we see a number of interesting details:  1) Only Matthew and Mark report these stories; 2) Mark, alone includes the detail that "[Jesus] entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.  Yet he could not escape notice..." (vs. 24) and after the second miracle, "Jesus ordered them to tell no one: but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it." (vs. 36).  Mark seems eager to bear witness to the irrespressible joy that the Word brings. Finally, we note in the parallel stories that Mark provides an abundance of detail in the healing of a single deaf/dumb man, while Matthew only says that great crowds brought many who were in need of healing and Jesus healed them.  Mark clearly wants us to know that this particular man was healed in this particular way.  It would be a frutiful exercise to inquire why this is.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Playing Church

Jesus' words to the Pharisees and scribes in the gospel lesson appointed for Pentecost 14 from the seventh chapter of Mark are unsparing in their criticism:  "Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, 'This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.'" There can hardly be a more condemnatory word than this aimed at worshipping folk, and we do well to heed the warning, lest we too find ourselves merely "acting" in our discipleship.

(The following questions try to get at some of the fundamental concerns of a preacher planning to preach a Law & Gospel sermon.  For a complete method on this genre, my book, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, may be purchased from Amazon or Wipf & Stock Co.)

1.  How does the Word function in this text?  Jesus is in full accusatory mode in this text.  His words are words of Law.  They show clearly our need of forgiveness and time for amendment of life. He even lists the sins of which he speaks:  "fornication, theft, murder, adultery, envy, slander, pride, and folly.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no Gospel word in this text - no word that clearly says, "Here is Christ, dying for you."  The preacher will need to look elsewhere for this word of grace.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  It is supremely important that the preacher identify with the Pharisees and scribes, not Jesus, in this text.  It may be tempting for the preacher to assume that since Jesus is scolding the leaders before him that we preachers now have license to scold those before us.  Not so!  It is our job to hear this difficult word and then, alongside our listeners, share in the humbling experience of having our hypocrisy exposed before God.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience, the word that says, "Follow me," is not present here.  It could perhaps be argued that the call to obedience is implicitly present as Christ exhorts us to be people who not only honor him with our lips, but also have hearts that are near to him.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet  is suggested by this text?  It is easy to imagine quite a number of couplets that get at the heart of this text:  condemned/forgiven, vain worship/true worship, defiled/cleansed.

6.  Exegetical clues:  I often find that Kittel's exhaustive work, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, is a great source for insights around Greek terms.  So with today's reading.  The article discussing the term for hypocrites (hypocrinomai) (Vol. VIII) is excellent. Kittel writes, "[The scribes and Pharisees] claim to be declaring God's will, but in truth they are only trying to assert the 'traditions of humans'...[There is] a jarring contradiction between what they say and what they do, between the outward appearance and the inward lack of righteousness...  Failure to do God's will is concealed behind the pious appearance of outward conduct...  The proportions of what is commanded are also distorted - the least significant commandment of pious action being put to the forefront and the 'weightier matters of the law' being neglected."  In volume III, Kittel also writes a helpful article on the "heart" (kardia).  He says, "Thus 'kardia' comes to stand for the whole of the inner being of man in contrast to his external side, the 'prosopon' (appearance)...  Thus the heart is supremely the one centre in man to which God turns, in which religious life is rooted, which determines moral conduct."

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  At, archived by lectionary text, you can find any number of examples on this text.  Here is an approach one might use:  Diagnosis 1:  We hold fast to "things handed down" to us.  D2:  We somehow trust our "handed down" traditions more than God's commandment to love God and neighbor.  D3:  We are lost in sin because we hold on to falsehood and abandon God's commandment. Sin holds us.  Prognosis 4: Christ becomes sin for us, to release us from what holds us.  Christ holds us.  P5:  Released from the power of sin, we begin to trust God's way.  P6:  We now hold fast to Christ's commands, loving God and neighbor.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Offended at the Bread of Life

The end of the bread of life texts, John 6:56-69, is the appointed Gospel lesson for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost.  The penultimate line in the text states what John has hinted at all along - the bread of life and the "words of eternal life" are one and the same.  As God said to the Israelites, "[God] humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord." (Deuteronomy 8:3)

(The following questions are meant to bring to mind some of the issues at stake for Law and Gospel preachers.  A full description of this method can be found in my book, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available on

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The text begins in a very hopeful way.  Jesus gives us himself, promising that "whoever eats me will live because of me," (vs. 57) and "the one who eats this bread will live for ever." (vs. 58)  These are gospel words, meant to assure us that life comes through Jesus.  The second half of the text, however, is less hopeful, as John tells us of the disciples' complaint at these words.  Jesus responds with a word of law: "It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is useless." (vs. 63)  This phrase unmasks all our attempts at self-sufficiency, we who are decidedly fleshly.   We might want to insist that we can have life apart from Christ or his word, but Jesus will have none of it.

2.  How is the word not functioning in the text?  Once again, as we have seen for the entirety of John 6, there is no call to obedience, no word from Christ which says, "Follow me."  Indeed the only command we have in this entire chapter is repeated over and over:  Believe.  This is a call to faith, not a call to follow Jesus.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are certainly meant to identify with the disciples.  Their offense in verse 60 is our offense: "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?"  We, like the disciples, resist the notion that our life is dependent on Christ or the Word.  We want to claim that our life has come from and is sustained by ourselves.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by the text?  Given Jesus' statement regarding the spirit giving life, it might be interesting to the play with flesh/spirit, death/life, or non-faith/faith.  Any of those couplets might lead us to interesting strategies for preaching this text.

5.  Exegetical insights:  The Greek text enrichs our understanding in this passage by providing us hints to the multiple meanings that John might have had in mind as he wrote.  Several examples:  In verse 60 when the disciples say, "This teaching is difficult," we see that the word for teaching is our old friend, LOGOS.  Recalling John 1 we know that Jesus is called the logos, so clearly John is saying that it is more than the mere teaching that is difficult - Jesus himself, the Word made flesh, is difficult.  Another example: In verse 61, Jesus asks, "Does this offend you?"  The word "offend" is SKANDOLIZOMAI, a well-known word, that means to cause to stumble, particularly in matters of faith.  So Jesus is asking, "Does this teaching cause you to stumble in faith? Do I cause you to stumble in faith?"  Stumbling in faith is more than a mere offense to our sensibilities.  Finally, in verse 66 we read that "many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him."  The phrase translated "turned back," means literally that they returned to "the things they had left behind." This suggests that what we have here is a test of loyalty, not merely a reaction to a difficult saying. The twelve, however, stay the course, for they realize that Jesus has "the words of eternal life."

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  It would be well worth the time to look at Steven Kuhl's analysis of this text archived under 2012 Year B Gospel, 13th Sunday after Pentecost, at study.  Kuhl takes up the whole business of our offense at these statements of Jesus and shows how, allowed to fester, it leads to alienation from God.

7.  Insights from the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Craddock's insight that we must help the listeners experience the text is a particular challenge for the preacher here, because it entails offending our listeners.  If Jesus' words offended his listeners, then we too, as preachers, must do the same.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Murmurings new and old

The third week of the "bread" texts is John 6:35, 41-51.  This is appointed for the 11th week after Pentecost in the year of Mark.  Jesus is now expanding on his claim to be the bread of life.  Now we are promised that this bread not only satisfies all our hunger,  but it also grants eternal life.  Finally, Jesus announces that "the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh."  This text is an excellent chance to preach a Word and Sacrament sermon, since both are alluded to here.

(The following questions are from my basic method on Law and Gospel preaching.  The entire method is laid out in my book, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted.  These questions try to get at some of the foundational questions for Law and Gospel preachers.)

1. How does the Word function in the text?  The Word, Jesus, both promises and rebukes in this text.  In this way, the Word is functioning as both law and gospel.  By saying to his listeners, "Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died," Jesus is reminding his listeners that "the food that perishes" (vs.27) will never sustain them.  He is reminding them of their need for Himself, the bread come down from heaven.  By announcing that "I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  Whoever eats of this bread will live forever," Jesus is giving them Himself.  He is proclaiming gospel.  These two functions - to point to the inadequacies of perishable 'bread', and to point to the adequacy of Christ - will be our two main tasks in the sermon.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text? The third function of the Word in a text is the call to obedience - a word that says, "Follow me."  There is no such word here.  Jesus is calling us to faith, but beyond that we have no guidance.  There are many other texts we can use that will help us with this, notably the second lesson appointed for the day - Ephesians 4:25-32 - which speaks about building up one another.  One strategy we can employ might be to announce how Christ feeds us - builds us up - and in turn, we are called to build up others.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  It is very important to identify with the Jews in the text - those that are offended by Jesus' word.  This text gives us a good chance to ponder how offensive Jesus' words are to us at times, and to consider how we, as preachers, might risk offending our listeners in order to bring them the bread of life.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Some of the same ones we have used earlier in this 'bread' series will do:  hungry/fed, thirsty/satisfied.  We might also think about other couplets such as complaining/ believing, manna/bread of heaven, dying/eternal life.

5.  Exegetical insights:  I find Raymond Brown's classic commentary, The Gospel According to John I-XII, very helpful with this text.  Brown points out that the word translated "complain" in verse 41 is the same word as the Septuagint uses for the murmuring of the Israelites in Exodus 14.  This is a hint that John is drawing on ancient story and memory here in speaking of murmuring, manna, and bread from heaven.  These people, who resist Jesus, are God's people. They are like the Israelites of old, pushing back against God's demands and God's provision.  Any study we do of the stories of the Israelites' murmurings and wanderings in the wilderness will likely bear much fruit in unearthing the meaning of John's artful language in this text.

 6. How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Bill White has written an excellent example of the model for this text archived at study under 2012 Year B Gospel for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost.  I recommend taking a look at it.

Blessings on your proclamation!