Saturday, October 22, 2016

Insults Galore!

John 8:31-36, the gospel lesson appointed for Reformation Sunday in the Lutheran Church, is an unusual text in that it sits amidst a dispute narrative in John's Gospel.  In the section just prior to this reading Jesus says to his listeners, "You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world.  I told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he." (vss. 23-24)  And just following our lesson Jesus says to these same listeners, "You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father's desires." (vs. 44)  Clearly Jesus is pulling no punches with these folk.  Likewise, Jesus pulls no punches with us who encounter this text today.  Let the reader beware!

(The following questions come out of a methodology I have developed in my brief 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, that is Jesus, functions in a way that is clearly Law, but unique in that Jesus insults his listeners.  He tells them they are not free.  He tells them they are slaves to sin.  He also tells them that "there is no place in you for my word."  All these statements function as Law, declaring to them their lostness.  Another way this text is unusual, however, is that a word of Gospel is also present.  Jesus says, "If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed."  This is pure promise.  The conditional phrase is also telling for in effect it says, "Whenver the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed."  Good news indeed!

2.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  It is always important to identify with the ones who are being addressed by the Word, and this text is no exception.  We are the ones who chafe at the notion that we are not free.  We are the ones who declare that we are descendants of Abraham and have not been slaves to anyone.  We are the ones who need to hear the word of Gospel that Jesus sets us free.

3.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience is the word functioning to show us how to respond to God's work in our life.  Sometimes we call this "the call to discipleship."  In this text, that call is not present.  We will need to look outside this text for that call.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  There are several couplets which jump right out when we read this text:  in bondage/free; slaves to sin/freed by the Son; slaves/sons.

5.  Exegetical work:  There are many resources for this classic text. The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture offers the insights of early theologians, for example:  "Our freedom comes when we subject ourselves to the truth." (Augustine)  "The more freely people follow their perverse desires, the more closely they are in bondage to them."  (Gregory the Great)  "In whatever measure we serve God, we are free.  In whatever measure we serve the law of sin, we are still in bondage."  (Augustine) (ACCS, NT, IVa).  Martin Luther has much to say on this text in his Commentary on the Gospel of John:  "Anything that is not God's Son will not make you free."  "How, then, can I become free?  Men answer 'I will [do this]...'  But Christ says, '...No, let Him who is called the Son of God deliver you from sin; then you are free.  If you give yourself to Him and let Him set you free, all is well.'" (LW 23: 409, 413)  Kittel also offers some excellent insights into this passage in his extended article on eleutheros (freedom) in his Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.  One example:  "...In the NT it is evident that freedom is not absent because there is inadequate control of existence but because there is no control at all, and therefore no self-dominion.  It realizes that existence is threatened by itself, and not by something outside; it realizes that it is itself deficient, with all that it does.  Hence to take oneself in hand is simply to grasp a deficient existence."  (TDNT II: 496)

Blessings on your proclamation!

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