Saturday, March 26, 2016

Blessed are you who have not seen

The Second Sunday of Easter features one of our favorite disciples, Thomas the No-Show.  He was assumedly there with all the other disciples on Easter morning, but by evening apparently had decided he had better things to do, so he was not present when Jesus made his first post-resurrection appearance in the Upper Room.  John 20:19-31 gives us the account.  Many commentators have noted that this story is evidence of the new reality for the first century church: most believers are "those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."  Are they blessed or not?  That is the question.

(The following questions explore some of the issues for Law/Gospel preachers.  For a more complete look at this genre of preaching, see my guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  Jesus is appearing and granting the Spirit and the peace of the Risen Christ to all present.  This is pure Gospel.  Jesus comes to us beyond our closed doors, our locked hearts, our despairing minds, and jars us into faith.  This is God's doing!  We come to faith, by grace.  There is also a word of Law here, a word that shows us how much we need this impolite Christ. This word of Law is encapsulated in the words of Thomas:  "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe." (Note that the original construction is "strong future denial", strictly translated, "I will by no means believe!").

2.  With whom are you identifying in the text?   It might be an interesting exercise to identify at first with the disciples who are present at Jesus' appearing, and then with Thomas who was not.  Try reading the text as though you were one of these parties, for example, verse 19:  "... and the doors of the house where [we] had met were locked for fear of the Jews, but Jesus came and stood among [us]."  When we identify with different parties we are given a different ear for the story.  As always, we preachers do well to avoid identifying with Jesus.

3.   What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  It is tempting to see a call to faith as a call to obedience, but they are never the same thing.  Faith is not something we are called to - it is something given to us by the Spirit of the Risen Christ. Jesus' words and signs, as John says, are written down so that we may come to believe.  Is there a call to obedience - a word to follow Jesus - in this text?  I do not think so. We do well to find that in our accompanying texts.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Couplets come readily to mind with this story:  doubt/faith; absent/present; fearful/peace-filled; lifeless/breathed on by Christ.

5.  Exegetical work:  Sometimes it's interesting just to look at how different translations handle a particular saying of Jesus.  This text is a case in point.  Look at how different translations handle verse 27c: Be not faithless, but believing (KJV); Don't be faithless any longer. Believe! (LB); Stop your doubting. (TEV); Doubt no longer but believe. (JB); Be unbelieving no longer. (NEB); Do not be faithless, but believing. (RSV); You must not doubt, but believe. (PH).  What some of these translations recognize better than others is that this is a present imperative prohibition, which is to say, this is a command to cease doing something that is presently in progress.  Doubt is ongoing; that's what this statement says.  We are commanded to stop doubting and start believing.  It is an ongoing state.  Another helpful exercise with this text may be to look at the way the word "blessed" is used in the scriptures. We are all familiar with the Beatitudes, but in looking further we will see that blessedness has many aspects.  Not being able to see the actual actions of Jesus, nor to hear his actual words spoken, are just two sorts of blessedness.

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  I like how Bruce Martin, writing under 2013 Year C Gospel for the Second Sunday of Easter, diagnoses the law within this text.  He calls it Fear Unto Death, showing how in the text the disciples were first afraid of the Jews, then of death, and finally of God.  His prognosis gives us the Gospel:  Jesus brings Resurrection Peace and forgiveness, which finally leads us into forgiving, rather than fearing others.  Well done. Go to study for the complete analysis.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, March 19, 2016

An idle tale

Unlike the other resurrection accounts, Luke 24:1-12, the gospel appointed for this Easter Sunday, is a clear continuation of what has preceded it.  The women are not introduced by name as they are in the other accounts.  The writer simply assumes that we know who they are, because they are "the women who had come with [Jesus] from Galilee" (23:55), who had seen the tomb and how his body was laid, had returned home to prepare burial spices and ointments, and after resting on the sabbath, were returning to the tomb with the spices they had prepared.  Only after the events have unfolded in the tomb are these women introduced, each by name.

(The following questions are meant to get at some of the issues for law/gospel preachers.  For a more complete look at this genre of preaching, see my guide to law/gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  Undoubtedly the Word function primarily to announce the resurrection.  This is, of course, gospel.  Here is Christ, alive not dead!  The Word also functions as law in that it raises up the reaction of the disciples to this announcement: "But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them."  Given how many times the disciples have been told that Jesus would be raised, this word gives us a very clear picture of our human inability to believe.  As Luther would clearly say in his explanation of the third article, "I believe that I cannot by my own understanding or effort believe in Jesus Christ or come to him."

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  Not surprisingly, there is no call to obedience in this text, no Word which says, "Follow Jesus."  Yes, the women are good examples of witnesses, and yes, Peter runs to the tomb to see for himself that the body is missing, but these are not calls to obedience. This text is most clearly the proclamation of the gospel:  here is Jesus, risen!

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  This is a crucial question for our sermon.  If we identify with the women, we are those who have heard the words of men in dazzling clothes, seen the empty tomb, and in terror, run to tell others.  If we identify with the disciples, we are those who regard this all as nonsense.  Perhaps we are both of these parties - those who have heard and seen the power of the Risen Lord, and yet those who cannot believe.  How we do this dance of belief and unbelief will be crucial to our proclamation.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  A few couplets come immediately to mind:  disbelief/faith; terror/joy; death/life; idle tales/life-giving gospel.

5.  Exegetical work:  The Synopsis of the Four Gospels is a particularly useful tool in the study of the resurrection accounts.  One can readily see, with the four accounts side-by-side, the differences and similarities between them.  Luke's account seems to flow quite nicely from the events at the cross, and the women's reaction to finding the stone rolled aside is also logical - they are perplexed.  Some of the other details that Luke alone provides are also interesting:  Two men, not one, meet the women at the tomb; his question is unique to Luke - "Why do you seek the living among the dead?"; the reminder that Jesus predicted all this "while he was still in Galilee"; the women remembering Jesus' words regarding these events; the description of the disciples' reaction to this "idle tale."  All of these details are unique to Luke, and they give us Luke's unique perspective on the resurrection, which he tells us at the outset of his gospel is "an orderly account" written so that "you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed." (1:3-4).

6.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  The key insights of all these pioneers should be on our minds as we consider preaching on Easter:  How will we bring the experience of the text to the listener? (Craddock)  How will we help our listeners recognize their shared story in this text? (Rice)  How will we move our listeners from disequilibrium to equilibrium? (Lowry) How many moves have we made in our sermon - too many or too few? (Buttrick)  Where is celebration evident in our design? (Mitchell)

Blessings on your proclamation this Easter Day!

Saturday, March 12, 2016

A New Mandate

It is a curious fact that the Gospel reading appointed for Maundy Thursday, John 13:1-17, 31b-35, omits completely John's account of Judas' betrayal.  While there is mention of the impending betrayal in the first verses of the reading, the actual encounter between Jesus and Judas, when Judas takes the bread, eats it, and then goes out into the night, is omitted.  What this does, at least to my way of thinking, is it makes less powerful the words of Jesus in verse 31 where he says, "Now the Son of Man has been glorified."  If we had heard of the betrayal of Judas, we might well say, "Now?  Now, that Judas has gone out into the darkness to release the hordes of wickedness?  Now?!"  Indeed, now!  The Cross of Christ is where God is glorified and the Christ as well.  Stunning paradox!

(The following questions attempt to get at some of the core issues for Law/Gospel preachers. For more on this way of preaching, check out my guide, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  This is one of those rare texts in which we see the Word performing all the tasks for which it is equipped.  We see the Word performing the work of the Law, convicting of sin, and calling to repentance:  "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me."  We also see the Word performing the work of the Gospel, announcing the Good News:  "Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in Him."  Finally we see the Word calling us to obedience:  "So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet."  Each of these functions of the Word is present, distinct from one another.

2. With whom are you identifying in the text?  The way we answer this question will undoubtedly shape the sermon a great deal.  We might choose to identify with the disciples as a group. That would be a good option.  We are the ones who need to be washed by Jesus, the ones for whom Jesus died, and the ones called to service.  Or another option could be to identify with one of the disciples mentioned by name - Peter or Judas.  Peter is the confused, albeit enthusiastic one, who is always speaking before thinking.  Judas is the betrayer.  If we choose Judas, it will be important for us to include verses 18-31a to fill out the story.

3.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by the text?  Words present in the text itself give us a few ideas:  unclean/clean; without a share/having a full share; servants/masters.

4.  Exegetical work:  Raymond Brown's exhaustive commentary, The Gospel According to John, provides multiple insights into this rich story.  Here are some of his comments:  "The very idea that love is a commandment is interesting.  In the OT the Ten Commandments have a setting in the covenant between God and Israel at Sinai; traditionally they were the stipulations that Israel had to observe if it was to be God's chosen people.  In speaking of love as the new commandment for those whom Jesus had chosen as his own... the evangelist shows implicitly that he is thinking of this Last Supper scene in covenant terms." (p. 612)  "In what sense is the commandment to love one another a 'new commandment'?...The newness of the commandment of love is related to the theme of covenant at the Last Supper - the 'new commandment' of John xiii 34 is the basic stipulation of the 'new covenant' of Luke xxii 20.  Both expressions reflect the early Christian understanding that in Jesus and his followers was fulfilled the dream of Jeremiah (xxxi 31-34)..." (pp. 613-614)  "The mark that distinguishes God's love expressed in the covenant from even the noblest forms of human love is that it is spontaneous and unmotivated, directed to men who are sinners and unworthy of love..." (p. 614)

5.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Peter Keyel, in his analysis, takes a simple, yet effective approach around the word 'cleanliness.'  He centers on the words and actions of the characters in the drama regarding being clean, and proceeds to show how we who are unclean (law) are made clean by Jesus, who takes upon himself our 'dirt.' (gospel).  Go to study and you will find this analysis archived under 2013 Year C Gospel, Maundy Thursday.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Devotion and Deceit

I don't suppose there is any clearer illustration of the contrast between devotion and deceit than in John 12:1-8, the gospel reading for the Fifth Sunday in Lent in the Year of Luke.  Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazurus, fills the house with the fragrance of the perfume she pours over Jesus' feet, while Judas Iscariot fills the room with fear and hatred as he disingenuously suggests that this perfume might better be sold and the money given to the poor.  Jesus' rebuke is swift:  "Leave her alone!"  And so Jesus' rebuke and commendation come to us in this passage.

(The following questions are a sample from the appendix in my guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from amazon.)

1. How does the Word function in the text?  Jesus is present in this text, both commending and rebuking.  He commends Mary for her extravagant act of love and devotion, and he rebukes Judas for his self-righteous suggestion of disingenuous generosity.  In the same way, Jesus both commends and rebukes us when we follow the lead of either Mary or Judas.  There is also something much deeper going here, as suggested by the opening words of this passage: "Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany."  Is this not a hint that the final preparations for the slaughter of the Lamb of God have begun?  So perhaps there is a word of Gospel here - the suble announcement that the Christ is about to be slain for the sins of all the world.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  As I said above, the Gospel is not explicit here, that Word which announces, "Here is Jesus, given for you."  The Word of Law, the Word which says, "You need Jesus," is also not explicit in this text, although the parenthetical comment in verse 6, that Judas was a thief, is a clear statement of Judas' need for a Savior.  This text is unique in that, in its artistry, clear lines of Law and Gospel are not immediately obvious.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We have two choices, Judas or Mary.  It is tempting for preachers to identify with Jesus, who rebukes and commends, but as usual, we need to steer clear of that.  If we assume the role of Jesus, then this text becomes simply an opportunity for us to lift up certain behaviors - commending devotion and condemning deceit.  If, on the other hand, we assume the role of Judas or Mary, we can hear these words of rebuke or commendation as to us.  That is much more helpful.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience is the function of the Word which says, "Follow Jesus."  In some ways this seems obviously how the Word is functioning here.  But rather than being called out of deceit to devotion, perhaps this story calls us followers of Jesus to recognize the beginning of the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, and to celebrate that.  Perhaps what is being lifted up here is our predisposition to see God's extravangant love as something wasteful.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Because of the artfulness of this storyteller, we must also think outside the norm to find couplets.  A few ideas:  blind/seeing; lying/truth telling; focused on self/focused on Jesus.

6.  Exegetical work:  It is always important to look at the context of a passage, but with today's reading it is especially important.  In the preceding chapter, John 11, we have the story of the raising of Lazurus of Bethany.  In this passage from chapter 12 we are again back in Bethany, at Lazurus' home.  Lazurus, the raised one, is at table with Jesus. (A foretaste of the feast to come?)  Again, as in chapter 11, there is mention of an aroma.  Here it is the aroma of pure nard; in chapter 11 it is the stench of death.  In chapter 11, the scoffers say, "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?"  Here the scoffer is Judas: "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?"  In this story, the death Jesus speaks of is his own; in the preceding story, it is Lazurus'.   In Peter Ellis' interesting analysis of this story, he suggests that there exists here a chaistic structure that goes from chapter 10:40 to chapter 12:11, with the inclusio being that "many believe in Jesus." (The Genius of John, pg. 177)  If that is true, then it is all the more important to look at this story in the light of all that surrounds it.

Blessings on your proclamation!