Saturday, April 30, 2016

Graceful Unity

The great High Priestly Prayer of Jesus ends with the words which form our gospel reading for the 7th Sunday of Easter in the Year of Luke, John 17:20-26.  In this passage we hear the rallying cry of the ecumenical movement:  "I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one."  We hear Jesus' repeated prayer to the Father that all believers might be one, even as the Son and the Father are one.  This fervent prayer serves to remind us that unity amongst Christians is not, like so many things in the Christian faith, a result of works, but of grace.  As St. Jerome reminded us:  "We are not one in the Father and the Son according to nature but according to grace.  For the essence of the human soul and the essence of God are not the same."

(The following questions attempt to unearth questions of concern to Law and Gospel preachers.  For a more extended discussion of this genre please see my new guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The words of Jesus in this text show the great heart our Lord has for the world and for his followers.  The final verse clinches it:  "I made your name known to them, and I will make it known [in the Cross], so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them."  All of these words are gospel words for they proclaim to us the love of the Son for us all.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  Any word of Law, i.e. any word which functions to lift up our need for Christ, is barely present here.  At one point Jesus reminds the Father that the world does not know the Father, but beyond that there is no hint of our need for Christ.  Of course, we might infer that if Jesus is praying so fervently for the unity of all believers, then perhaps we rightly assume that disunity is our natural state and in that way, we stand in desperate need of a God who can bring us together.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are those who are overhearing this prayer.  We are not addressed directly, but we overhear Jesus praying on our behalf.  We are therefore those who are privileged to witness the love of God for the world and all believers.  We are those who stand in awe of this love and can only sing praises to God for this marvelous love.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  We might be tempted to view this whole text as a call obedience, especially the call to seek unity.  It is clear that the Son desires unity for believers, but at no point in this text does Jesus exhort his followers to pursue this.  This text is not an exhortation to do something that only God can do.  Perhaps our call is to get out of the way, and to repent of any actions or attitudes that hinder unity.

5.  Exegetical work:  There are a plethora of commentaries on the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus but a couple of comments that are helpful to me are: 1)  Lamar Williamson:  "This unity [which Jesus prays for] is spiritual, constituted by their mutual indwelling with the Father, the Son, and each other."  And "this unity is a gift from God, not an achievement." (Preaching the Gospel of John, 229f);  2)  Raymond Brown:  This unity involves both the vertical (God and us) dimension and the horizontal (us and our neighbor).  Christ is praying for unity, not "simply human fellowship."  (The Gospel According to John, 774f);  3)  Gerard Sloyan:  "It was a remarkable time in the history of one infant church, the Johannine, when a vision of the world as it might be and the history of one actual community came together.  The congruence of the world believed in and the world lived in may have already passed by the time the Gospel was written.  Its author wants believers to live in hope until the parousia, but knows that the only way to make any sense out of that strange concept of the final coming is to live it now." (John, Interpretation series, 199).

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Helper

John 14:23-29, the gospel text appointed for the 6th Sunday of Easter in the Year of Luke is a sort of pre-Pentecost text, introducing the One who is to come, whom the Father will send in the name of Jesus, the One called the Advocate.  As a preview of coming attractions the Jesus in John's gospel announces that the One who is coming will come bearing many gifts.  This One will teach [us] everything, and remind [us] of all that [Jesus has] said to [us].  This One will bring a peace that the world (i.e. the powers that do not know God) does not know.  This One will come to help, not to hinder, to mend hearts, not to rend them, to intercede rather than to interrogate.  This One is generous beyond words.  We have a grand Pentecost to look forward to!

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

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The Word functions almost exclusively as gospel here since it details the many gifts that the Spirit will bring.  In the same way that the gospel function of the Word is what happens when the Word proclaims "Here is Jesus!" in this text the gospel function happens as the Word proclaims, "You have an Advocate!"  Gospel words also related to this are:  "This One will teach you and remind you and give you peace."

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  The word that raises up our need for Christ is absent here.  There is a reference to troubled hearts at the prospect of Jesus' departure, but by-and-large there is little hint of our human need for a Savior.  Of course, there are many other texts which show clearly our need for a Helper/Advocate.  We do well to search them out.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are those whom Jesus addresses here.  We are those who are in need of a Helper/Advocate.  We are those who fear being abandoned by our God. We are those who seek peace and wisdom.  We are those who stand in need of the Spirit always.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The first verses of this text have several curious lines about loving Christ and keeping his word.  This, of course, is the bare bones call to obedience:  love Jesus and obey him.  But in this little section Jesus seems to say that the Father will only love those who love him and keep his word, a far cry from Jesus' proclamation that the Father loves "the world." (John 3:16)  Then there is the business about "the word you hear" does not belong to Jesus , but "is from the Father who sent [Jesus]."  It is unclear how our behavior effects the source of the word from God.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet  is suggested by this text?  The gifts that the Spirit brings suggest a number of couplets:  abandoned/provided for; defenseless/having an advocate; helpless/having a helper; troubled/at peace.

6.  Exegetical Work:  A concordance is sometimes a great source of insight, especially in a text like this.  As an example, the texts which speak of "spiritual peace" are as follows:  Psa 4:8  "I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety."  Isa 26:3  "Those of steadfast mind you keep in peace - in peace because they trust in you."  Rom 5:1-2a  "Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand."  Eph 2:13-14 "But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us."  Phi 4:7  "And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus."  There are certainly other texts as well, but these are some of the key ones.  They all highlight the key role the Spirit of Christ plays in our peace.

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Henry Mitchell always urged the preacher to be the first one to experience the ecstasy of the gospel word.  He advocated an unabashed celebration of God's gifts on a regular basis.  This Sunday, with its announcement of the multiple gifts of the Spirit, might be an excellent opportunity to celebrate with gusto.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Glory and Love

The gospel reading for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, John 13:31-35, is the end of the gospel reading for Maundy Thursday, so if this text sounds familiar it's because we just heard it 4 weeks ago.  Be that as it may, this text is a good chance to see once again how John lifts up the Cross as the place of Jesus' glory, as well as the ultimate expression of God's love.  The Cross does not look like glory and it doesn't look like love, but as we ponder it we see it is both.

(The following questions are taken from the method I have laid out 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?  In order to understand the function of the Word here we need to understand the context.  "Now" refers to the act of betrayal by Judas, as events are set into motion which will culminate in the Cross.  So when Jesus says "Now the Son of man has been glorified," it is a word of Gospel. This is the Word functioning to tell us how much God loves us:  God loves us this much, that the Son will die for the world.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no word of Law in this passage, no word which shows us clearly our need for Christ.  The whole need for the Cross is, of course, caught up in the brokenness of the world, and particularly humanity, but this text does not make that clear.  If we wish to bring that forward, other texts such as the Second Reading from Revelation 21 will be needed.  There we hear that "death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away."

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are the people the Word addresses. In this case we are the "little children" to whom Jesus speaks. We can not go to the Cross with him, but we are commanded to love one another, just as Christ has loved us.  In no way should we understand this loving as a matter of degree, as though we can love to the degree that Christ loved.  No, there is but One person who will go to the Cross.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience, which is the Word functioning to say, "Follow Jesus," is very clear here:  Love one another.  This is what we do in response to the Cross.  This is what we do to follow Jesus. This is what faith working through love looks like.

5.  Exegetical Work:  I am always grateful to Raymond Brown for his classic commentary on the gospel of John.  Here are a few excerpts from his commentary on this text:  "Since the disciples cannot follow Jesus as he leaves this life, they receive a command that, if obeyed, will keep the spirit of Jesus alive among them as they continue their life in the world." (The Gospel According to John, p. 610).  "...because the generosity of God's love could not be fully known until He had given His own Son, in another way the Christian concept of love stemming from Jesus is new.  Verse 35 says that even outsiders will recognize the distinctiveness of Christian love."  (p. 614)  Another source to understand the newness of the love shown on the Cross is Kittel's discussion under the word for command.  He says this:  "The new factor is not the law of love as such, nor a new degree of love, but its new Christological foundation.  They are to actualise the basic love of Jesus.  Thus the loving self-giving of Jesus is the root and power of the new 'agape'." (Theo. Dict. of the NT, II, 553).

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  I am grateful for Cathy Lessmann's insightful working of this text, archived under 2013 Year C Gospel for the 5th Sunday of Easter.  She works with the human concept of glory and shows how our obsession with self-glorification estranges us from God and ultimately leads us into a 'black hole.' But Christ, because he is 'out of this world' has the power to rescue us from our lost state and works glory in us, until we also 'glow' with the light Christ gives.  Lessmann's work and the work of many others can be found at

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, April 9, 2016

A Matter of Belonging

The picture above, or something like it, was standard fare in the Lutheran churches of my upbringing.  Often in the very center of the chancel above the altar was a picture of the Good Shepherd, and if not there, then likely in stained glass in some other prominent location in the sanctuary or narthex.  The clear message was, "The Lord is your shepherd.  You belong to him."  This image is, of course, taken directly from John 10 where we hear Jesus say, "I am the good shepherd."  In the gospel lesson appointed for the 4th Sunday of Easter, John 10:22-30, we have a picture of the good shepherd surrounded by 'wolves', if you will.  The religious leaders of Jesus' day are desperate to receive a clear word from him:  "If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly."  Jesus then lowers a bomb shell:  "I have told you, and you do not believe...You do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep."  We might have thought that a person did not belong because they did not believe, but Jesus says otherwise; Jesus says that a person does not believe because they do not belong.  It turns out that the belonging is not up to us, but up to God.  As Jesus says a bit later in John 15, "You did not choose me, but I chose you." (15:16)  Is that good news or not?  That is the question.

(The following questions attempt to get at some of the key issues for law/gospel preachers.  These questions follow the format of my guide to law/gospel preaching which can be purchased from amazon.  The title is Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The Word in this text functions as Law because of whom it is spoken to.  It is spoken to the religious elite who believe that they 'belong' but who Jesus says do not.  And because they do not belong, they do not receive the gifts of belonging.  They do not receive eternal life nor the promise of being forever in the Father's hand.  Small wonder that immediately after this conversation these leaders take up stones to stone Jesus.

2. How is the Word not functioning in the text?  This is a tricky text, because these words, if said to ones who belong, would be pure gospel.  If Jesus said to those who belonged to him, "I know you and you follow me.  I give you eternal life and you will never perish.  No one will snatch you out of my hand," all these words would be pure gospel.  But because they are spoken to those who do not belong to Christ, they are not gospel but law.  "You do not know me nor follow me.  You have not life eternal.  You will perish. You will be snatched out of the Father's hand."

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We desperately want to identify with those who are not present in this text - those who belong.  If we would be faithful to the text, however, we must identify with those who are present - the enemies of Jesus. This is tough to do.  We can begin by identifying the ways that we make demands upon Jesus to 'prove' himself to us.  "Do such-and-such and we will believe," we say.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  This text does not function to invite us to live in a certain way in response to God's work.  That word is heard elsewhere this week, like in the story in Acts 9:36-43, where we hear of the kindness of Dorcas.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Several are present directly in the text:  not believing/believing; not belonging/belonging; not following/following; perishing/eternal life.

6.  Exegetical work:  This text gets right at the heart of an issue that has divided Christians for centuries: the relationship between God's sovereignty and human will regarding salvation.  Perhaps the greatest discussion ever produced on this was the one between Martin Luther and Erasmus.  Erasmus argued that in order for a person to be saved, that person had to "apply himself to spiritual concerns." This was not seen as something that obligated God to save the person, but "it merely removed the barrier which had hitherto stood in the way of God giving [God's grace]. (The Bondage of the Will, trans. by Packer and Johnston, p. 49)  In other words, there was a certain "fitness", a certain "openness", a certain "receptiveness"... to the grace of God... that was a prerequisite to receiving it.  Erasmus tried to say that this was not to be equated with earning salvation, but Luther argued that it was.  Luther said that if in any way the giving of God's mercy is dependent on our fitness, our openness, or our receptiveness, we are lost.  Just as good works do not make God a debtor to us, so any idea of fitness before God, does not make God a debtor to us.  Faith, said Luther, is itself "a God-given means whereby the God-given justification is received." (p.59)  In order for salvation to be secure, said Luther, it must finally be in the hands of God.

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Eugene Lowry always advocated moving listeners from equilibrium to disequilibrium back to equilibrium.  This text might be an excellent chance to practice that.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, April 2, 2016

A Real Fish Story

There are a number of fishing stories in the Bible, but none as detailed as the one in John 21:1-19, the gospel lesson appointed for the 3rd Sunday of Easter in the Year of Luke.  What makes this story particularly interesting are several hints that this story has some parallels to the events in Chapter 6. There as well, we encounter Jesus and the disciples on the shores of the Sea of Tiberius, and there also we have a tale of abundance.  Could it be that when the writer tells us that "Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish," he is bringing us back to the earlier time when, amidst a crowd of thousands he "took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted"?

(The following questions enter us into a discussion of some of the issues of interest to a law/gospel preacher.  For a more complete understanding of this genre of preaching, please see 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 appearing and bringing with him abundance - abundance of food, peace, and forgiveness.  This is a gospel function.  The Law is also present, as Jesus points out to the disciples, "Children, you have no fish, have you?"  Here is the truth-telling that we need, where we are forced to recognize our need for the abundance that Jesus brings.

2.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  Since Simon Peter plays such a central role in this story it is probable that we will be drawn to identify with him. The other disciples, even "the one whom Jesus loved" are in the background most of the time and difficult to identify with.  Jesus is not the person we should be identifying with, as a rule.

3.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  A very clear call to obedience is heard in the words to Simon Peter.  Three times Jesus tells him to take care of his sheep, and his last words to Simon are "follow me."  These are all clear calls to obedience - the commands we are given in response to God's work amongst us.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The opening scene is one which suggests the place we are apart from the abundance of God.  Some couplets which arise from this are:  discouraged/encouraged; lacking/filled; hungry/fed; catching nothing/nets full.  Then from Peter's encounter we see couplets like:  guilty/forgiven; denier/confessor.

5.  Exegetical work:  The hints we have here linking this account to the story of the feeding of the five thousand in chapter 6 give us reason to search out other stories in John's gospel of abundance surrounding Jesus.  Those stories are not hard to find:  Chapter 2 - the abundance of wine at the wedding in Cana; Chapter 4 - the living water given to the woman at the well; Chapter 6 - the living bread come down from heaven; Chapter 8 - Jesus, the light of the world, Chapter 10 - "I have come that you may have life and have it abundantly"; Chapter 11 - "I am the resurrection and the life";  Chapter 15 - "I am the vine, you are the branches, whoever abides in me and I in them, bears much fruit."  All these are stories of abundance linked to Jesus.  In this story we also have the abundance of forgiveness granted to Simon Peter, who only days before had denied Jesus three times.  It is no surprise that Jesus' questions and commands also come in threes.

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Archived under Year C Gospel for the 3rd Sunday of Easter you will find Steven Albertin's insightful analysis of this story.  He makes great use of one detail that John shares: the presence of a charcoal fire.  What could this connect with?  The charcoal fire in 18:18, of course, where Simon Peter is warming himself and before which he denies Jesus.  So the two fires become places of sin and grace.  For a complete look at this analysis, visit study.

Blessings on your proclamation!