Saturday, May 28, 2016

Who's dead? That's the question.

The Third Sunday in Pentecost gives us an opportunity to proclaim, along with the people of Nain, "A great prophet has arisen  among us!" and "God has looked favorably on his people!"  But first we must be raised from the dead.  That's the catch.  In I Kings 17:17-24 (the first lesson appointed for the day) and in Luke 7:11-17 (the gospel lesson) we have miracle stories.  In both, a dead person is raised. The crucial question in preaching these texts is, "With whom do you identify?"  I would argue that the crucial persons to identify with are not the living, but the dead.

(The following questions are taken from my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted.  Check it out on or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  Without a doubt, Jesus, the Word, functions to bring life to those who are dead.  This is obviously a gospel function.  Jesus triumphs over death - hallelujah!

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no literal word of Law here, save the position of the dead son.  He obviously stands in great need of a Savior, but there is no mention of the need of any one else for a Savior.  Since death comes to all, however, we are one with the dead man.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  It is always important to identify with those who are addressed by the Word, not with Jesus or God or the Word itself.  In this case, those whom Jesus addresses are the dead son, and indirectly, his mother.  We therefore must choose one of those characters to identify with.  That means we are the ones who either have been given back our children, or ones who have been given back our life.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  We might look at this text and, mistakenly identifying with Jesus, think that there is a call to obedience here that says specifically, "Have compassion like Jesus did."  That's a fine message, of course, but that message is not in this text.  What we are called to do is to praise God in the face of Christ's power over death.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Obviously one couplet is death/life.  Expanding on that we might add lost/found; in despair/rejoicing; without hope/without fear.

6.  Exegetical work:  Fred Craddock, (Interpretation Series) and other commentators have made much of the fact that this story is part of the listing of miracles that will be reported to John the Baptist in prison.  John sends word to Jesus saying, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?"  Jesus sends this reply:  "Go and tell John what you have seen and heard:  the blind receive their sight (6:18), the lame walk (5:17-26), the lepers are cleansed (5:12-16), the deaf hear (6:18), the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them (6:20-26).  And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."  What we have in this list is living proof for the people that Jesus is "the one who is to come."  Also, it is important to compare this story and the Elijah story in the first lesson.  When the people who witnessed the miracle at Nain cried out, "A great prophet has arisen among us!" they were likely comparing this miracle to Elijah's.  This miracle is then a very important event proclaiming the identity of our Lord.  In preaching, that is our task as well.

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Lori Cornell, analyzing this text in 2013, did a wonderful job showing how God's apparent "divine neglect" led to God's sure "divine intervention."  She shows how vulnerable we are to believing that we, like the widow of Nain, have been abandoned by God, but then Christ shows up to give us life. This is an excellent example of Law and Gospel at work.  You can see the entire analysis by going to

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Irony of Worthiness

"I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith," said Jesus.  He was speaking about the centurion we meet in Luke 7:1-10, the gospel text appointed for Pentecost 2 in the Year of Luke. This text is full of irony, because the Jewish elders proclaim the centurion's worthiness based upon his love for the people and his contributions to the building fund.  The man, himself, declares his own lack of worthiness because he recognizes Jesus incalcuable worth, and he correctly notes how far beneath that bar he falls.  But at the end of the story, Jesus does recognize him as exemplary - not because of love or good works, but because of faith.  A study in good works vs. faith?  Ironically, yes.

(The following questions are from my guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from or amazon.  These questions are an attempt to ferret out some of the issues for law/gospel preachers.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The Word, in this case Jesus, clearly functions to praise faith and bring healing.  Most of the story is not centered on Jesus, but on those around Jesus who have either incorrect or correct assumptions about Jesus.  All assume that worthiness is important to Jesus; all assume that love and good works are what makes a person worthy.  What Jesus reveals is that faith is what deserves praise.  Because Jesus brings healing in this story, this is a gospel word - a story that reveals Jesus' love and compassion for us.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  Jesus' only words come at the end of the story as he praises the faith of the centurion.  There is, therefore, no word of Law here - no word which functions to show us our need for Christ.  Having said that, the slave who was ill and close to death stood in dire need of Jesus.  His illness was upon him.  If the Law functions to show us how much we need Jesus, then this slave is the personification of our need.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We have three choices in this text:  We can identify with the centurion who announces his own unworthiness; we can identify with the Jewish elders who tell Jesus what worthiness looks like; or we can identify with the dying slave.  It might be a fruitful strategy for the preacher to consider identifying with all of these characters at some point in the sermon, pointing out how prone we, like both the centurion and the elders, are to defining worthiness by visible works of love and generosity, when worthiness in God's eyes has to do with the faith we have been given.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?   The call to obedience is the Word functioning to say, "Follow Jesus."  It is tempting to see this text as a vehicle for doing just that, specifically lifting up the centurion and saying, "Be like him.  Have faith."  But this text does not call us to faith, it praises faith.  Better to lift up Jesus, on whom our faith is centered.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?   The ill slave gives us the most obvious couplet:  sick/healed.  We might also broaden that to say dead/alive or lost/found.

6.  Exegetical work:  There is an interesting juxtaposition of words in this text, both translated as "worthy."  In verse 4 we hear the Jewish elders saying "He is worthy of having you do this for him."  In verse 6 we hear the centurion, himself, saying, "I am not worthy  to have you come under my roof."  The same Greek word is not used for both.  In verse 4 the word is one which has to do with deserving, with bringing everything into equilibrium.  The picture that goes with this term is one of a scales, like one used for weighing nails or sweeping compound at an old-fashioned hardware store.  With this term we understand that a person is worthy because it brings things into eqillibrium. The other term has to do with rank.  If a person is worthy in this second sense, he or she has attained a certain status, or is found adequate in the eyes of the world.  This idea of rank was something the centurion understood well as a soldier. The comparison of these two words can be found in Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, volumes I and III.

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  This is a prime example of how the model lifts up the various ways in which we are lost and then found.  In Crossings' terminology we are found 1) Trying to prove our worthiness; 2) Fearing God's rejection; and finally 3) Caught in despair.  But then 4) Jesus comes, overlooking our unworthiness, and rescues us from death; as a result 5) Faith arises within us and 6) We live freely without fear, bringing others who have been labeled 'unworthy' to receive the healing of Jesus.  More about this model can be found by going to

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Wisdom in Triplicate

In Proverbs 8:22 we hear Wisdom's witness that "the Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago."  In John 1 we encounter the witness of the Logos:  "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God."  And in the gospel reading appointed for The Festival of Holy Trinity in the Year of Luke, John 16:12-15, we hear the witness of the Christ, "When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come."  It seems clear that the Father has many Persons whose task it is to enlighten and inspire the people of God.  Is this not a gospel word?

(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?   This text is pure gospel because at every juncture there is evidence of God's care or God's provision for the people of God.  In vs. 12 Christ shows his care for us.  In vs.13 we receive the promise of God's Spirit.  In vs. 14 another promise comes to us as Jesus promises that the Spirit will take what is his and declare it to God's people.  And the final verse of this short reading reiterates this promise that the Spirit will take what belongs to the Father and the Son and declare it to us.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  Having filled the text with words of gospel there is no word of law here - no word functioning to lift up our need for Christ or the Spirit of God.  Having said that we could infer that since the Spirit is promised over and over, we all stand in dire need of it.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  From the surrounding verses we know that Jesus is speaking to his disciples here, which puts us in the role of the disciples.  We are the ones to whom these promises come. We are those who are being protected from things we cannot bear right now.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  Since there is so much guiding and speaking and declaring being promised in this text, it seems obvious that the call to obedience here is the call to listen.  Perhaps there are ways that we stop our ears or refuse to listen; that could be an avenue to pursue in seeking to speak a word which will function to instruct the people of God in how they might follow this One who gives the Spirit.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Following up on the idea of hearing the Spirit speaking, several couplets come to mind:  lost/guided into truth; confused/clear about the things to come.

6.  Exegetical work:  The Gospel According to John, the classic commentary by Raymond Brown, is often my go-to source for insights on the gospel of John.  This text is no exception. About this passage Brown writes:  "The Paraclete is to guide men along the way of all truth.  In viii 31-32 Jesus had promised:  'If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth.'  This is fulfilled in and through the Paraclete.  We have an interesting example of how it is accomplished in Acts viii 31 where the eunuch cannot understand that the Suffering Servant passage in Isa liii refers to Jesus until he is guided by Philip who in turn is under the influence of the Spirit (viii 29).  Guidance along the way of truth is guidance to the mystery of Jesus who is the truth (John xiv 6)."  (Brown, pg. 715)

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  David Buttrick always cautioned preachers to be aware of how many 'moves' they made in a sermon.  Too many and listeners get lost.  Too few and they become disinterested.  On a Sunday like Trinity Sunday when doctrinal sermons are often preached, it might be especially helpful to be aware of the clarity (or lack thereof!) of our preaching.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Spirit unloosed

As usual, it's a matter of perspective.  Some who are present for the unloosing of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost are "amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, 'What does this mean?'"  Others sneer and say, "[These babbling ones] are filled with new wine."  But Peter, standing with the other disciples, interprets the event in this way: "It is the Spirit of God being poured out on all flesh in the last days", and don't be afraid, because "everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved."  So the question comes to us:  What is our perspective on this unexpected visit by the Spirit?  That is the question before us in the lesson for the Day of Pentecost, Acts 2:1-21.

(The following questions are part  of my new guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available on this page from  These questions attempt to unearth some of the pertinent questions for preachers of this genre.)

1. How does the Word function in the text?  The Spirit of God is on the loose in this text.  The way the Word functions is to expose the different reactions to this unloosing.  Peter reveals that this unloosing of the Spirit could be good news or bad news, depending on the hearer.  To some this unloosing is good news because the prophecies of sons and daughters are heard, the visions of the young, and the dreams of the old are emerging; even those who have no voice - slaves - prophesy.  To others the Spirit's presence brings signs of the end of this age and this is assuredly not good news to those who have invested themselves completely in this age.  But there is good news for all, as well:  "Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved." (no matter their station in this life.)

2.  How does the Word not function in the text?  The Gospel word - what God has done for us in Christ - is not immediately obvious in this text.  But if we remember the words of the appointed gospel text - John 14:8-17, we remember that the Spirit is called the Advocate, and in that is good news.  The Advocate comes to be a second voice for us when the Accuser of the saints (Satan) reminds God of our guilty nature.  The Advocate speaks on our behalf, silencing the Accuser, by declaring that we have been justified in Christ.  So the presence of the Spirit is a Gospel word indeed.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  This is a crucial question for the preacher in this text.  If we identify with those who are amazed and perplexed, or with those who sneer at the ones who appear drunk, then this text is one which will scare and baffle us.  If, on the other hand, we identify with Peter and the apostles, we are rejoicing at this outpouring of the Spirit.  One strategy might be for the preacher to try identifying with all three groups, and see where that leads.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience, the Word functioning to say, "Follow Jesus", is not present here. This text is an announcement of the Spirit's appearance.  We are certainly called to follow in the wake of this event, but the basis for this following will need to come from other texts.

5. What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Using our imaginations a bit we can come up with several couplets based on the context:  waiting/the time has come; weak/filled with power; living in anticipation/given the fire of God's spirit to go forward.

6.  Exegetical work:  The text that Peter begins his sermon with in verse 14 is from the prophet Joel.  It is interesting that in the Hebrew Bible, these 5 verses are a chapter unto themselves - chapter 3.  It is apparently a chapter that Peter had memorized - quite likely, in fact, for a Hebrew boy raised in the synagogue.  This chapter from Joel comes to a people who have been plagued with locusts.  In the face of this plague the people have been called to repentance, and following that, God promises to call off the locusts and restore the land.  God promises that the vegetation will return, abundant rain and crops will come, and the people will never again endure such a calamity.  Following these promises are the promises which Peter quotes, that God will send the Spirit, and Peter quotes almost verbatim Joel 3.  The only part that Peter omits is the last half of the final verse where Joel writes, "For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls." (Joel 2:32b NRSV)  This context might be worth pondering, for Joel's audience had just endured a terrible plague and were mightily discouraged; so also, the followers of Jesus, who had endured the death of Christ and were also quite likely to be discouraged at this point, not withstanding the reports of the resurrection.

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Henry Mitchell would remind us that when a text like this celebrates like everyone is drunk, then we too must celebrate. We must celebrate that God's Spirit has been poured out on all flesh, regardless of gender or station in life.

Blessings on your proclamation!