Saturday, July 15, 2017

Weeds Galore!

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43, the gospel lesson appointed for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, is the second of the parables in this chapter which offers, alongside it, an allegorical interpretation.  Like the first parable in chapter 13, the accompanying allegory to this parable centers on God's judgement not God's patience.  Scholars have long argued that the allegorist was not Jesus, but rather, Matthew, representing voices in the early church.  If that is so, it might be helpful to lift up how quickly the church turns to concerns about "who's in and who's out" while Jesus seems unconcerned with that.  Wisdom for today?

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but offered as a way to lift up some of the concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  For a further understanding of Law and Gospel preaching, see my brief guide to this genre, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  Like the first parable in this chapter, the way the Word functions in the parable and the way it functions in the accompanying allegory are quite different.  In the parable the emphasis is on the forbearance of the Master:  "Let them both grow together until the harvest." This is certainly a gospel function as we are given a full view of the scandalous grace of the Master, when we, like the servants in the parable, wish to pluck up the weeds.  The Word functions as law, however, in the allegory, as the emphasis there is on judgement: "The Son of Man will send his angels... and there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."  Even the assurance at the close, that "the righteous will shine like the sun" does not have a gospel ring to it; rather, it seems assuring only to those who can manage to live rightly.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  The answer to this question will, of course, be tied to how we answer the first question.  If we center on the forbearance of the Master, then the Law is downplayed, even though, at the close of the parable Jesus makes it clear that the weeds will be collected and bound in bundles to be burned.  If, on the other hand, we center on the judgement in the allegory, the Gospel is downplayed, indeed it is hard to find at all.  A balance is needed.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are the servants in the parable, who ask the Master how the weeds came to be in the field, and who, upon learning that an enemy has sowed them, ask, "Then do you want us to go and gather them?"  We are people who are concerned about the "weedy people" in our churches.  We are the self-righteous ones who so easily assume that we are the wheat and others are the weeds.  We are the ones who somehow insist that we are capable of separating the good from the bad, and seeing which people ought to be allowed to continue in Christ's church and which ones ought not be.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  If the call to obedience is the Word functioning to instruct us in the best ways to live in response to the Gospel, then it might be argued that this whole text is a call to obedience.  We are to bear fruit, according to the first parable in this chapter.  This fruit needs to be "wheaty" not "weedy".

5.  Exegetical work:  The word translated "weeds" in this passage has been more precisely translated as "darnel".  Darnel is an ancient grain that looks very much like wheat in its early stages, and reportedly was almost impossible to distinguish from wheat until the harvest was near. (Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, vol. IV, p. 826)  This would explain why the Master was reluctant to have the slaves attempt to pull up the weeds before the harvest.  David Buttrick, in his excellent guide to the parables of Jesus, speaks to the dilemma with which this text deals:  "[This parable addresses] a concern of the church: How can the church be morally pure and yet live in the worldly world?  If we try for purity, we lose our evangelical touch with the world.  If we give ourselves to attracting the worldly, we can become morally lax and lose our souls.  A perennial problem."  (Speaking Parables, p. 94)   Augustine has a solution to this problem, suggesting that perhaps people are not permanently either weeds or wheat:  "See what we choose to be in [the Lord's] field.  See which of the two we will be at harvest time... Let the one who is wheat persevere until the harvest; let those who are weeds be changed into wheat...  In the Lord's field, which is the church, at times what was grain turns into weeds and at times what were weeds turn into grain; and no one knows what they will be tomorrow."  (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, vol. 1a, p. 277)

6.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Eugene Lowry always emphasized the need to move the listener into disequilibrium and then back to equilibrium.  This text might lend itself very much to that, as a preacher lifts up the discomforting thought that, while we easily assume we are wheat, we can readily see that we are not.  Similarly discomforting is the fact that we are not able to distinguish the weedy folk from the wheaty ones in our midst.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Prodigal Sower

Jesus' description of a sower sowing the seed is nothing if not the picture of a prodigal.  How else to explain the extravagance that describes the sowing, as well as the abundance that finally results, albeit with considerable losses as well.  This parable, found and explained in Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23, the gospel lesson appointed for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, challenges our view of God.  Could God be that prodigal?

(The following questions are meant to ferret out concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  They are meant to supplement many other fine sets of questions that exegetes might use for their discovery.  For a more thorough discussion of Law and Gospel preaching, see my brief guide, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  There is considerable debate amongst scholars as to the answer to this question.  Some argue that this text is Law, in that it warns us, especially in the allegorical interpretation, not to be those who choke off or neglect the Word in our lives.  Others argue that this parable is pure Gospel, reminding us that God is sowing seed everywhere, - even in places where growth seems unlikely - and finally abundance results.  I prefer the latter interpretation.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  Obviously, the answer to this question will depend on our answer to the first question.  If we choose to see God the Prodigal Sower, then the focus is not on our fitness as soil, but on God's ability to overcome our unfitness.  If, on the other hand, we choose to focus on the voice of the allegorist, then the Word is functioning primarily as Law, and our unfitness to be "good soil."  In this latter case, the Gospel is not heard.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are certainly the hearers of this parable.  We are the many listening on the shores of the sea.  How will we hear this?  that is the question.  One important note:  The parable itself focuses on the sowing of seeds, the allegory focuses on the "one" who is good soil or not.  This is important to note as we consider our place in this story.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  This parable is about God's Word being sown in the world.  It is about God's abundance, and our response to that abundance.  In a word, it is about grace, or conversely, faith.  Obedience, in the sense of what is an appropriate response to living in God's grace, is not addressed here..

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Several couplets come to mind which may lead in fruitful directions:  scarcity/abundance; doubt/faith; failure to understand/ understanding.

6.  Exegetical work:  Luther, in his explanation about what draws us away from God, often referred to the triumvirate that we traditionally renounce at baptism:  "the devil and all the forces that defy God, the powers of this world that rebel against God, and the ways of sin that draw us from God." (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 229)  It is worth noting  that these are precisely the things that the allegorist mentions in this pericope:  "the evil one comes and snatches [the Word] away", "such a person has not root" (i.e. is drawn away by sin), and "the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word."  It might be fruitful to reflect on the fact that all of us are besieged by such enemies; there are none who are born "good soil", but in fact, it is God's grace that enables us rocky, thorny, hardened sinners, to hear the Word and believe it.  It is God's grace that makes us good soil.  One of the classic commentaries on parables I  appreciate is that of Joachim Jeremias.  His words regarding God's persistent sowing speak to Jesus' confidence in the power of the Word:  "To human eyes much of the labour seems futile and fruitless, resulting apparently in repeated failures, but Jesus is full of joyful confidence.... Consider the husbandman, says Jesus; he might well despair in view of the many adverse factors which destroy and threaten his seed.  Nevertheless he remains unshaken in his confidence."(The Parables  of Jesus, p. 150-151)

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Joseph Justus Van der Sabb, in his extensive analysis, archived under Year A Gospel, 2011, argues that the verses which have been omitted from the pericope (vss. 10-17) are key to understanding this passage.  They provide the real life context.  In his analysis Van der Sabb shows how we are "soiled" by our complicity with the powers of this world.  Finally this leads to our death:  "I gasp. I sputter.  I wither.  I die."  Christ comes to "fertilize" us to life.  Christ takes our gasping, sputtering, withering, and dying upon himself, and in his death we are given new life. See crossings.org/textstudy for the entire analysis.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Rewards of the Righteous

Matthew 10:40-42, the gospel lesson appointed for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, is an unusual text for several reasons.  First, it is only 3 verses, second it focuses almost completely upon rewards, and lastly it comes as an assurance to the apostles who are sent out "like sheep into the midst of wolves" (10:16).  As such it is hard to categorize in our traditional categories of law, gospel, or call to obedience.  The question is:  What is a promise of assurance?  Is it good news?  Is it the call to obedience?  Or is it actually a way of unmasking our fears?

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but simply to lift up some of the fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  These questions come from the appendix to my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  Since Jesus is clearly announcing rewards, this text functions mainly as gospel.  It is certainly good news to the disciples to know that the people who welcome them will be rewarded, since such people are apparently going to be rare given the "wolf-like" characteristics of those to whom these "sheep" are called.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is not a clear word of Law here - no word which exposes our need for Christ.  In the verses prior to these we hear all about the hardships likely to come upon those who are called to "take up their cross and follow" Christ, but here these hardships are not mentioned.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are those who are called to follow, and who are receiving assurances here that all who welcome us will receive their reward.  Even those who give us a cup of cold water are rewarded.  We too,when we do the same, are assured of a heavenly reward.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  This text assumes the call to follow has been answered.  The disciples addressed here, however, are not called to further obedience, but assured that as they follow, God will provide for them through those who welcome them.

5.  Exegetical work:  The NRSV translation is curious to me in that throughout the passage the word "whoever" is used:  "whoever welcomes you... whoever welcomes a prophet... whoever welcomes a righteous person... whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these."  This translation suggests the presence of a subjunctive (i.e. contingent) circumstance.  In the Greek text we see that this is not the case, except in the last phrase.  The RSV, though less inclusive, has it right:  "He who receives you receives me... He who receives a prophet... He who who receives a righteous man."  There is no contingency, only the thought that when this welcome happens, a reward comes.

Kittel has an interesting article on the word for reward (misthos):  "As agape is relationship to the neighbor, so its reward is connected with the final destiny in the kingdom of God of those to whom it refers.  Thus he who receives a prophet because he is a prophet, or a righteous man out of regard for the greatness of the obedience which he demonstrates (Mt. 10:41), or he who in the burning heat of the eastern sun simply gives a disciple a cup of cold water because he is a disciple (Mt.  10:42), will have a place with him in the kingdom of God (misthos lambanein)." (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. IV, p. 700)

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Lori Cornell's analysis, archived under Year A Gospel for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, 2011, is a good example of interpreting this text as a call to obedience.  Cornell takes this text as an exhortation for us to welcome others, showing how essential that is, and what may be at stake when we fail.  See the complete analysis by going to crossings.org/text study.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Not Peace but a Sword

Matthew 10:24-39, the gospel lesson appointed for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, contains words of Jesus that challenge us to our core.  We who want only a Jesus who came to bring life, "life to the full", are brought face-to-face with a Jesus who brings division and the call to lose our life in order to find it.  What we are forced to consider is that "life to the full" always includes the way of the Cross, and we who would have Life without the Cross will have neither.

(The following questions are meant to lift up some of the central concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  These questions are meant only to supplement many other fine sets of questions available to exegetes.  For a more thorough discussion of Law and Gospel preaching see my brief guide to this genre, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The first function of the Word here is to assure us that, even though we are certain to experience persecution and hardship as followers of Jesus - since disciples can expect no less than their master - we should not be afraid, for we are of more value "than many sparrows."  This assurance is a gospel function. This Word assures us that the Father loves us and will not abandon us in our time of persecution.

The second half of the passage is a stern call to obedience.  We are reminded that following Jesus is serious business and with it, inevitably comes division.  Earlier in the chapter, Jesus tells us that "you will be hated by all because of my name." (vs. 22)  Here we are faced with a choice: will we follow Jesus even when it means causing divisions in our families and circles of influence, or will we fail to acknowledge Him, and risk Him refusing to acknowledge us?  These are difficult choices.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  A word of Law is not explicit here. The Word that says, "You need Jesus!" is not in this text.  Having said that, our fears and our loyalties at odds with Christ are fully in view.  Indeed, the repeated command "do not be afraid" is evidence of our tendency to do precisely that, and have that fear control us.  It is important to understand that this is text is not one that condemns us for being fearful.  Many a sermon has undoubtedly been preached with this as the underlying theme, but this is not how this text functions.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are those to whom Jesus is speaking.  We are disciples of this Crucified One, who are afraid to take up our own cross and follow the master.  We are those who would do anything to avoid division in our family and circle of influence.  We are those who say we believe that the Father loves us more than many sparrows, but we live as though that is not true.  This text is very challenging to us.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The underlying theme suggests an obvious couplet:  afraid/fearless.  Other couplets are variations of the same:  cowardly/bold; unable or unwilling to take up the cross/willing to take up the cross.

5.  Exegetical work:  Translation of this text from the original language offers us some insights that may be important to our sermon.  The opening verses remind us that our master was maligned, so we who follow Jesus should expect no less.  Then in verse 26 we hear the word "so".  This is a translation of a word which more clearly means "therefore" or "consequently."  So the verse is saying "Therefore [since disciples are not above their master, and our master was maligned] have no fear of them [those who maligned Jesus and will surely malign you]."  The text then goes on to explain that "nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered."  The meaning of this is debated, but I take it to mean that people will eventually see that the way of Jesus is the way of truth and justice, and those who have maligned his followers are in error.  It is also important to note that the opening prohibition in verse 26 is not a present imperative, but an aorist subjunctive.  Present imperatives prohibit the continuing of an action already begun (i.e. "stop being afraid"); aorist subjunctives prohibit an action which has not yet begun. So Matthew is saying, "Because being maligned for following Jesus is simply part of the life of a disciple, don't let yourself even begin being fearful... for "even the hairs of your head are all counted."

6,  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Paul Jaster, in his clear analysis, shows how we who disown Jesus for the sake of favor in the public arena, find ourselves "on our own" before God.  Thankfully we who are "on our own" before God are befriended by the very One whom we have disowned, and forgiven.  We are freed to once again turn from fearfulness to fearlessness.  We are freed to turn from being those who will not confess Christ to being those who do.  See Jaster's whole analysis at crossings.org/text study and looking under Year A Gospel archived under 2008.

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Eugene Lowry said that a sermon must always move the listener out of equilibrium into disequilibrium, and then, in the presentation of the gospel, back into equilibrium.  This text might be a great opportunity to try exactly that.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Summons

"The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few," is a phrase we in the church are familiar with.  It comes in the gospel reading, Matthew 9:35-10:8, appointed for the Second Sunday after Pentecost.  This is the context into which Jesus summons his disciples, instructing them to go to the "lost sheep of the house of Israel," proclaiming the good news, curing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing the lepers, and casting out demons.  This summons continues to come to us, for we too have been given authority to continue in this joyful work.

(The following questions are a basic set of questions from my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, which can be purchased through wipfandstock.com or amazon.  These questions are not meant to be exhaustive for any exegete, but simply one lens through which to look at a text.  For more information on this genre, please see my brief guide.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The text begins with a word of gospel, as we encounter Jesus proclaiming the good news, curing every disease, and having compassion on all.  With Jesus' announcement, however, that the harvest needs workers, the function of the Word changes; we are now into a call to obedience.  The disciples are first named, and then given authority and instructed to go forth and continue the work of Christ.  Perhaps it is because Jesus has increasingly been under attack ("By the ruler of demons he casts out demons." 8:34), that he now sees it necessary to appoint others who will carry on his work.  In any case, this text functions mainly to announce Jesus' authority and then hear him hand it off to his followers.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  For the disciples - those being addressed by the Word in this text - there is no word of Law.  That is to say, they are not shown their need for Christ.  The needs of the crowd are clear, however, since they are spoken of as "harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd."  Even they, however, are not judged for their state.  Instead Jesus has compassion on them.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  It is always important to identify with those who are being addressed by the Word in the text.  In this case, that would be the disciples.  We are the ones who Jesus summons.  We are those to whom he gives authority.  We are the ones he calls by name.  We are the ones who are to go to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel," which, in our case, may mean those in the Christian fold who have wandered off.

4.  Exegetical work:  Mark Allan Powell, in his insightful commentary on the gospel of Matthew, says that there is a "communal focus" in Matthew.  He argues that Jesus does not assume the entire burden of the ministry, but makes disciples who will continue this work.  These disciples will necessarily be sinners, and Powell makes note of the fact that in the listing of the disciples in this text, Judas Iscariot is identified as "the one who betrayed him." This, says Powell, "serves as a paradigm for what Jesus claims to be an essential part of his mission: he has come to call sinners (9:9-13)." And these sinners Jesus "shapes into a community that he identifies as his family (12:49)." (God With Us, p. 14-15)  Powell's insight, that the call to sinners is not only the call to be saved, but the call to ministry, is an important one.  We might have little trouble assuming that sinners are called to be saved, but sinners called to serve?  Even though we should know better, we easily assume that those who are called to serve are somehow beyond sin, at least in some sense.  The listing of the disciples, with known foibles:  Peter the Denier, Thomas the Doubter, James and John the Ambitious Ones, etc, should put an end to any thought we might have that sinners are not called to ministry.  Perhaps the best news in this text is the clear naming of these sinners.  In that, we too find our calling.

5.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Timothy Hoyer, in his analysis, centers on the words "harassed and helpless".  He takes this description in new directions as he suggests that we are often harassed and helpless because of our belief that "everyone gets what they deserve" (i.e. if you are sick, it's because you have done something to cause this).  Hoyer shows how Jesus, the Good Shepherd, breaks into this desperate situation by seeking out the "lost sheep." To see the entire diagnosis/prognosis, go to crossings.org/text study archived under Gospel A, 2008.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, June 3, 2017

The Great Calling and Assurance

Long known as The Great Commission, the words of Jesus as recorded in Matthew 28:16-20, are the gospel text appointed for Trinity Sunday in the year of Matthew.  Undoubtedly, they are assigned to Trinity Sunday because they contain the call to baptize  all "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."  It might be a good Sunday to ponder what it would mean for the Church if we were to cast aside trinitarian doctrine, as some faith communities have done.  What's at stake in this understanding of God?  Of Jesus?  Of the Spirit?

(The following questions are meant to get at some of the fundamental concerns for Law and Gospel preachers.  They are meant to supplement many other fine sets of questions which help us exegete a text.  For a more complete look at this genre of preaching, please see my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The Word - in this text, Jesus - is functioning mainly to call us to go forth and disciple other folks by baptizing and teaching them.  This is not a gospel function nor is it a law function.  It is a classic call to obedience.  It is the call to respond to the grace given us, by living in the way of Christ.

The Word also functions as gospel in two distinct places:  First, when Jesus says, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me," and then later when he assures us that he is with us "always, to the close of the age."  These are both gospel functions.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  It is hard in this text to see any word of Law.  Perhaps we gain a hint of our need for Christ when Matthew tells us that "some doubted."  What that means is unclear.  Some commentators suggest that that comment is simply a commonplace in describing post-resurrection appearances.  That we are all prone to such doubt goes without saying.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  Undoubtedly we are the disciples, called to disciple others.  We are those who go about teaching and baptizing in the name of the Triune God.  We are the ones who are assured of the presence of Christ throughout all the ages.

4.  Exegetical work:  It is important to understand that there is only one active verb in the Great Commission, that is "to make disciples" or "to disciple".  The other two verbs present are participles, meaning they do not carry the freight that the active verb does.  One way of thinking about this is to make these participles which describe the means by which we disciple others.  In other words, we could understand the verse to be saying, "Make disciples of all nations, by baptizing and teaching."  Or we could simply understand this as a description of the act of disciple-making.  In any case, we will want to be sure we do not misinterpret these verses to say that we are to disciple, baptize, and teach, as though they are equivalent activities, independent of one another.  Douglas Hare, in his commentary, argues that the term "all nations" should actually be translated "all Gentiles."  Hare writes:  "What verse 19 explicitly does is remove the restriction of the earlier Galilean mission ("Go nowhere among the Gentiles," 10:5)." (Matthew, Interpretation series, p. 333)  John Chrysostom, the fourth century preacher, finds much to celebrate in these verses:  "[Jesus] promised to be not only with these disciples but also with all who would subsequently believe after them.  Jesus speaks to all believers as if to one body.  Do not speak to me, he says, of the difficulties you will face, for 'I am with you,' as the one who makes all things easy.  Remember that this is also said repeatedly to the prophets in the Old Testament."  (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, Vol 1b, 313).

5.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Charles Rice believed that helping listeners recognize their shared story in the text was crucial.  It might be helpful to understand other "commissions" our listeners have received.  How are our listeners' callings to their own vocation stories that resonate with this one?

Blessings on your proclamation!

Thursday, May 25, 2017

I Send You

John 20:19-23, one of the brief gospel lessons appointed for the Day of Pentecost, is a familiar story without the familiar figure of Thomas.  This brief lesson merely reports the giving of the Holy Spirit in John's simple way, and stops with the promise that our ability to forgive or retain sins is somehow contained in our reception of the Holy Spirit.  Is that good news or not?

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but meant to supplement other questions which an exegete may ask. These questions center on concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  For a more thorough explanation of this genre of preaching, see my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The Word functions in every way as gospel.  First, Jesus comes amongst the disciples despite their best attempts to lock him out.  Then he extends his peace to them and shows them his wounds, assuring them that he is the Crucified One.  Finally he breathes on them, inspiring within them the Holy Spirit.  All of this is gift, pure gospel.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is little Law here. One piece of evidence for the disciples' need of the gospel is the statement that "the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews."  This clearly shows their fear and their need for a visitation by Christ to quiet those fears.  Yet there is no condemnation of the disciples for this fear.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We always identify with those whom the Word addresses, be it gospel or law.  In this text we are the disciples.  We are those who cower behind locked doors, who need a word of peace, and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  We are also those whom the Lord has sent out to bear the good news of Christ.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience here is the statement by Jesus that we are sent out.  We are equipped by the Holy Spirit for service and witness, and with that we are sent out into the world to continue the work that Christ began.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  There can only be one couplet in this short text:  cowering behind locked doors/equipped and sent out boldly into the world.

6.  Exegetical work:  Peter Ellis, in his unique commentary on John's Gospel, highlights the parallels here between Genesis 2:7 where God breathed life into the first human, and here where in Christ "everything is being made new." (II Cor 5:17)  Ellis writes:  "Symbolically, John is speaking about the commission of the apostles as a new creation - a new beginning and a new world.  It is worthy of note that the Gospel began with a reference to the first creation in the prologue (1:1-3); here it ends with a reference to the new creation brought about by Jesus' passion, death, and resurrection."  (The Genius of John, p. 293).  Lamar Williamson offers an important commentary on the final verse in this pericope, regarding forgiveness of sins.  He reminds us that these words are to be understood in the context of the community of faith:  "This word of the risen Lord in the present text can therefore be read as descriptive:  if members of the community forgive one another their sins, those sins are forgiven and the community is living from and in the Spirit of Jesus; but if members of the community harbor grudges and resentment toward other members who have sinned against them, then those sins remain to spoil the bond of unity, and the Spirit of Jesus is no longer resident in the community.  (Preaching the Gospel of John, p. 283)

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Being Longed For

The first half of the High Priestly prayer of Jesus is the appointed text for the 7th Sunday of Easter in the Year of Matthew.  The text is John 17:1-11.  In this text we are overhearing Jesus speaking to his Heavenly Father, and his words encourage us.  We are like children who are supposed to be in bed, who are overhearing their parents talking about their great love for them, and how they belong to them and will never let them go.  We are privileged to hear such good news!

(The following questions follow a pattern of inquiry I have developed in my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted.  These questions help answer some of the concerns we have as Law and Gospel preachers.  For a more complete understanding of this genre, please see my guide, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  There is no question that this text functions as Gospel in that we overhear Jesus say again and again that we belong to him.  We hear also that Jesus has been given authority by the Father to grant eternal life to all those who belong to him.  Finally we hear Jesus asking the Father to protect those who belong to him.  All of this is a gospel word.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  As in other John texts appointed for this season, there is little of the Law.  That is to say, it is rare that we hear a word which lifts up our need for Christ.  A hint of this is in the final verse of this text when Jesus says, "Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one."  In this verse Jesus is acknowledging our need for protection, which, in verses following, is explained in greater detail.  It is clear that we need protecting.  But this word is not explicit in these verses.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are the ones overhearing this good news.  We are the ones who need protecting.  We are the ones who belong to Christ.  We are the ones who have received the words of the Father through the Son.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  There is none.  The call to obedience comes to us as the Word functions to call us to respond to the grace we have received in Christ.  In the first lesson appointed for the day, Acts 1:6-14, we hear the call to be witnesses by the power of the Holy Spirit.  This task is a call to obedience.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Law/Gospel couplets are hard to come by in texts which are primarily gospel.  Having said that, one couplet that comes directly out of this text is orphaned/belonging.  The orphaned term comes from last week (Jn 14:18), but this is certainly the reverse side of belonging.

6.  Exegetical work:  Raymond Brown, in his classic commentary, has an interesting take on the business of belonging to God:  "In Johannine thought it is not the creation of a man (sic) that makes him belong to God but his reaction to Jesus.  A man cannot accept Jesus unless he belongs to God, and a man cannot belong to God unless he accepts Jesus." (The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI, p. 758)  It seems like a catch-22.  Lamar Williamson notes that "the voice of Jesus and that of the evangelist are frequently blended in the Fourth Gospel, but never more obviously than here.  Nowhere else in any of the four Gospels does Jesus refer to himself as 'Jesus Christ,' though the evangelist does so at Mark 1:1 and John 1:17.  This definition of eternal life - 'to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent' (17:3) - expresses in capsule form the theology of the Fourth Gospel..."(Preaching the Gospel of John, p. 220-221)  In a commentary that is in conversation with others, Gerard Sloyan quotes Ernst Kasemann, who said, "The speaker [of this prayer] is not a needy petitioner but the divine revealer and therefore the prayer moves over into being an address, admonition, consolation, and prophecy." (John, Interpretation Series, p. 196)  Kasemann is correct in that this is no typical prayer, but something much more profound than that. All of these commentaries are well worth reading in their entirety.

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Archived under Year A Gospel for 2011, we have an analysis provided by Mark Marius, who takes several verses from the preceding chapter to complete the circle.  He notes that we belong to the world, and in that belonging, we do not know eternal life.  Jesus, who has conquered the world (Jn 16:33), claims us for himself, and so we know Him, and we know the Father, and so we have eternal life.  See crossings.org/text study for the entire analysis.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Comfort for This Time

John 14:15-21, the gospel text appointed for the 6th Sunday of Easter in the year of Matthew, is a continuation of the text from last week, where Jesus is assuring his disciples that he will provide for them.  In the first part of that chapter Jesus assured them that he had made provision for them in the age to come, and in this text he assures them that they are provided for in this present life as well.  All of this is good news!

(The following questions attempt to answer some of the basic concerns for Law and Gospel preachers.  They are not meant to be exhaustive.  They are part of a method of exegesis I have developed for Law and Gospel preachers.  To learn more about this way of preaching, please see my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  Like the first fourteen verses of this chapter, these verses function as gospel.  They comfort, they assure, they give hope.  The final verse, where we read of the assurance of the Father's love, the assurance of Christ's love, and the promise that Christ will reveal himself to us, is remarkable.  What a gracious God we have!

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  Again, like the preceding verses, there is little evidence of Law in these verses.  A hint in this text of our need for Christ are the references to "the world":  "The world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him."  "In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me."

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are, of course, those who are addressed by the Word.  We are the ones who are troubled (vs. 1), the ones who are afraid and doubtful (vs. 5), and the ones who want to control what Christ will reveal to us (vs. 8).  Because we are troubled in so many ways, we are the ones most in need of the Advocate, most in need of the Father's assurances, and most in need of Christ's love.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  There is an unmistakable call to love in this text.  This love is the fulfillment of the law, even as Christ said:  "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it:  'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." (Matt 22:37-40)

5.  Exegetical work:  John Chrysostom, 4th century bishop, offers the following insights:  "Earlier [Jesus] had said, 'Where I go you shall come' and 'In my Father's house there are many mansions.'  But since this was a long time off, he gives them the Spirit in the intervening time.  They did not know what that [Spirit] was, however, and so they derived little comfort from what he said... And so he promises them what they required most: his own presence.  (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, Vol. IVb, p. 142).  Luther, in his sermons on these texts, is careful to note the source of our love of neighbor:  "[Christ] says, 'I impose [these commandments] on you only if you love Me and gladly keep them for My sake.  For I do not want to be a Moses, who drives and plagues you with menace and terror; but I give you commands which you can and will surely observe without coercion if you love Me at all.  If love is wanting, it is useless for Me to give you many commandments; for they would not be observed anyhow.'"(Luther's Works, vol. 24, p. 102)

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Paul Jaster, in his analysis of this text, centers in the prognosis, on the workings of the Spirit amongst us, and in his diagnosis, on the divisive spirits amongst us .  His concern arises, undoubtedly, from the call to love, which we find so difficult to obey.  This analysis, archived under 2011 Year A Gospel, can be found by going to crossings.org/text study.

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  David Buttrick was masterful in his understanding of the moves and structures needed in a sermon.  He always advised us to limit the number of moves we make in a sermon.  Good advice, to be sure.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Antidote for Being Distressed

John 14:1-14, the gospel text appointed for the 5th Sunday of Easter in the year of Matthew, is a well-known text primarily because it is often read at funerals, and for good reason:  it is a text of comfort. In this text Jesus speaks directly to the fears of his disciples: fears of abandonment, lostness, and lack of provision.  We too are prone to such fears.  The clear message to us is "Believe in Christ.  Rely on Christ.  Trust in Christ."  When we do this we do not lose hope.

(The following questions attempt to answer some fundamental concerns for Law and Gospel preachers.  They are not meant to be exhaustive, but to supplement many other fine ways of inquiring into the meaning of a text.  For a more complete understanding of Law and Gospel preaching, you may purchase my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available through wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  At multiple points in the text Jesus brings a gospel word:  1) In my Father's house are many dwelling places; 2) I go to prepare a place for you; 3) I will come again and will take you to myself; 4) I am the way, and the truth and the life; 5) Whoever has seen me has seen the Father; 6)The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do; 7) If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.  We hear promise in all these statements.  These are all places where the Word is functioning as gospel. (i.e. Here is Jesus!)

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is not an explicit word of Law in this text, although both Thomas and Philip ask the questions that indicate how much we need Jesus.  Thomas says, "Lord we do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?"  Thomas is verbalizing our fear of being lost or left behind. Philip says, "Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied."  Philip is verbalizing our fear of losing control of what's coming.  Both of these disciples personify our need for Jesus. In both cases Jesus replies, "Believe in me."

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  From the context given in the previous chapter of John's gospel we know that all the members of Jesus' closest band are present when he begins these farewell discourses.  This means that we can choose to identify with any or all of the disciples.  Perhaps we will choose to identify with Peter, whom Jesus has pointed out will betray him.  Or perhaps we will identify with Thomas who is sharp in his criticism of Jesus.  Or perhaps we will identify with any of the unnamed women who were undoubtedly present or any other of the disciples.  In any case, we will be careful to identify with people who are prone to fear and uncertainty - those whom Jesus urges to "let not your hearts be troubled."

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The consistent imperative in this text is "believe," but that is not a call to obedience.  The call to obedience is the call that comes after we have be given the gift of faith.  At the end of this text Jesus reminds us that we may ask anything in his name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.  This asking is part of the call to obedience.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Depending on what fear we hear being addressed in this text, our couplet will go in different directions:  lost/found; abandoned/embraced; despairing/hopeful.

6.  Exegetical work:  The Greek is ambiguous in one particular place - verse 1.  Because the imperative construction and the indicative construction are identical, the second half of the verse may be translated either 1) "Believe in God, believe also in me" or 2) "You believe in God, believe also in me."  I like the second one.  This is also the one that Raymond Brown, classic Johannine scholar likes.  Also, it is good to note that the opening prohibition is a present tense imperative, meaning, "Stop letting your hearts be troubled."  Or better, "Do not continue letting yourselves be distressed."  Present imperatives address a situation that is ongoing.  This is reasonable since the disciples had just learned of the betrayal to come, as well as heard Jesus predict Peter's denial.  Logically they would have been distressed.  It is also telling that John uses the same word to describe Jesus' state earlier.  In 12:27 Jesus says, "Now my soul is troubled.  And what should I say?  - 'Father, save me from this hour?'  No it is for this reason that I have come to this hour."  Also in 13:21 we read:  "After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared 'Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.'"  Clearly it was not only the disciples who were troubled by the events of Jesus' last days.  The antidote for all of this distress is "to believe."  Kittel's extensive article on the Greek word for 'believe' is helpful:  "As the Old Testament understands it, faith is always man's reaction to God's primary action." (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. VI, p. 182).  "In Greek, pisteuo means to 'rely on,' 'to trust', 'to believe.'" (p. 203).  "Trust in God is very closely related to hope." (p. 207)

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Eugene Lowry urged preachers to move listeners from disequilibrium to equilibrium.  We might well ask in this sermon, how are the ways we and our listeners are distressed (in disequilibrium) and begin there.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Warnings Posted

The Fourth Sunday of Easter is designated also as Good Shepherd Sunday.  This means that the well-loved Psalm 23 is assigned for the day, as well as texts from John 10 where Jesus makes the claim that he is the Good Shepherd.  In the Year of Matthew, the gospel text assigned is John 10:1-10.  Here Jesus makes the claim that he is more than a good shepherd; he is also the "gate for the sheep".  Interestingly, Jesus spends most of his time in this text telling his readers what a shepherd who is not good looks like.  With Ezekiel 34 clearly in view, where the prophet rails against the "false shepherds" of Israel, Jesus reminds his listeners that there are voices which will lead them to destruction.  We, as preachers, are asked to preach this warning as well.

(The following questions attempt to unearth answers to some of the fundamental questions for Law and Gospel preachers.  These questions come from my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  In this text Jesus is warning his listeners about false shepherds, whom he calls "thieves and bandits."  In terms of law/gospel function this is Law.  This text functions to show us how much we need the Good Shepherd.  The context of this passage is crucial.  In John 8, Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees and others of his enemies.  His condemnation is strident:  "You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father's desires." (8:44)  In chapter 9, following his healing of the man born blind, Jesus again spars with the Pharisees:  "Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, 'Surely we are not blind, are we?'  Jesus said to them, 'If you were blind, you would not have sin.  But now that you say,"We see," your sin remains.'" (9:40-41)  Immediately following that exchange John places this parable.  For the Pharisees who were listening this parable would have been understood as a direct condemnation of their actions, akin to Ezekiel 34.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  A gospel word is hard to find here.  Glimpses include Jesus' words that "whoever enters by me will be saved," and "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly."  Even those statements, however, are used mainly as a contrast to those who come "to steal and kill and destroy."  The preacher will need to make the most of these glimpses of gospel if the sermon is not to be a blanket condemnation of false shepherds.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  Jesus is speaking to people who are at risk of being led astray.  He is also very likely speaking indirectly to the Pharisees, who he has condemned as false shepherds.  What would it be like to identify with the Pharisees?  Could there be ways we have led others astray?  As always it is most important to identify with those to whom the Word is addressed, either directly or indirectly.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience is always the Word functioning to say, "Follow Jesus."  Though there is little of this in the text, there is the reference to the sheep knowing the voice of the true shepherd.  Perhaps an encouragement to be very discerning in regards to the voices one follows would be a way of preaching this text.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The couplet one chooses will be closely related to the persons we identify with in the text.  If we choose to identify with sheep who could be led astray, our couplets might be ones such as these:  following false voices/following true voices; the path to death/the path to life.

6.  Exegetical work:  Gerard Sloyan, in his commentary (John, Interpretation Series), reminds us that this text, as well as others which refer to "shepherds", are best thought of as a critique of political, not necessarily spiritual leadership. Sloyan writes:  "Hence, when texts from Ezekiel and Jeremiah on sheep and shepherds are read out, preachers will be right to remind hearers of threats to civil and religious liberty posed by administrations, regimes, office-holders, and unjust laws.  In doing so, they should remember that the Christian flock was originally the Israelite people as a political/religious entity.  Spiritualizing the Bible in the sense of giving it an exclusively religious meaning is a sure way to misinterpret it." (p. 128)  Another commentary that is helpful is that of Lamar Williamson Jr., Preaching the Gospel of John.  Here Williamson helps us understand the mixed metaphor contained in these verses:  "Understanding the metaphor depends on a visual image (see picture above) of a Palestinian sheepfold or sheep pen, an enclosure made of stones or briars where several shepherds could bring their sheep at night to keep them safe from predators.  A section of the enclosure was left open to serve as an entryway in which the shepherd could lie to keep sheep from straying out and predators from getting in." (p. 118-119)

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Ron Starenko, in his analysis of this text, centers his diagnosis on our futile attempts to secure our own life by constructing our own "gated communities."  In his prognosis he celebrates Christ's break-in and announcement that Christ is the gate that makes us truly secure.  See the complete analysis at crossings.org/text study, archived under Year A Gospel for 2011.

8.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Eugene Lowry urged preachers to take listeners on a journey  from equilibrium to disequilibrium, and back to equilibrium.  There is much fodder for that journey in this text as we ponder good and false shepherds and the voices we follow.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Monday, April 24, 2017

Ah Ha Moments!

The Gospel lesson for the third Sunday of Easter in the Year of Matthew is a continuation of the day of Christ's resurrection as we overhear the conversation between Jesus and two of his followers on the road to Emmaus, as recorded in Luke 24:13-35.  It is instructive that the term for "opening one's eyes" is used several times in this passage, apparently connecting to Luke's explanation of the disciples' unbelief: "but their eyes were kept from recognizing him." (vs.16)  This text seems to suggest that our common state is one of spiritual blindness, and the role of Word and Sacrament is to cure this blindness. Perhaps is this an occasion to celebrate God's gift of "ah ha moments"?

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive.  They are some of the questions found in the appendix to my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.  These questions attempt to address some of the fundamental concerns for Law and Gospel preachers.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  Jesus is the Word present in this text.  What is Jesus, the Word, doing?  He is coming amongst the disciples in their bewilderment, blindness, and grief; he is seeking to understand them; he is opening the scriptures to them and breaking bread with them, and through all these things he is opening their eyes so that they might see and believe (and have life in his name).  All these things are gospel functions.  Jesus also brings a word of Law in this text as he tells the disciples (and by extension, us), "Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!  Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?"  This message reveals to us our need for this Crucified and Risen One.

2.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  Without a doubt we are the blind disciples.  We are those who are foolish and slow of heart to believe. We are those who are easily bewildered in the face of the powers of this present darkness.  We are also those whose eyes can be opened, and, by grace, can be counted amongst those who recognize the Risen Christ in our midst.

3.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  There is not a call to obedience, per se, but rather there is an example to follow in the last verses of this text.  After the disciples had experienced the opening of their eyes, they returned to Jerusalem, found the eleven and their companions and gave testimony to what they had seen and heard.  This is an exhortation to us to do the same.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The couplets coming from this text are clear:  blind/seeing; without understanding/insightful; unbelieving/filled with faith.

5.  Exegetical work:  The way Luke expresses the disciples' inability to recognize Jesus is noteworthy.  Luke says that "their eyes were kept from recognizing him."  The word translated "kept"is the passive form of the verb "krateo" which commonly means "to hold."  In this case it means to hold back, restrain, or hinder.  This indicates that an outside agent is keeping the disciples from recognizing Jesus.  Some commentators make much of this. (Ellis)  Fred Craddock, in his commentary says that "for Luke, neither God nor Christ can be made known except by revelation (10:22), a viewpoint shared by Matthew (Matt. 16:17) and Paul (I Cor. 2:6-16)." (Luke, Interpretation Series, p. 285).  As the passage unfolds, Jesus says that the affliction of the disciples is that they are foolish (literally, without comprehension) and slow of heart to believe (stubborn?), bringing to mind the accusation often leveled at the people of Israel in ancient times. (Deut. 32:6)  It might be interesting for the preacher to consider the various obstacles to faith.  As noted in our baptismal renunciations, we recognize three powers at work, blinding us to the work of Christ:  the flesh, the world, and the devil.  In any case, the disciples in this story testify that it is the Word and the Supper that open their eyes:  "Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?"  "Then they told... how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread."  Some readers might wonder if the supper in this scene is meant to suggest the Eucharist. The clear language in verse 30 should put that concern to rest.  The words used, "He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them," are clearly words the early readers would have recognized as language of the Holy Supper.

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Chris Repp, in his 2011 analysis of this text archived under Year A Gospel for the third Sunday of Easter, centers on Luke's report that Jesus "interpreted to [the disciples] the things about himself in all the scriptures."  Repp talks about how prone we are to write our own narrative of our story or God's story or the stories of other folk we encounter.  It is part of our brokenness that we often write Jesus out of our story and assign others less honorable parts.  It is the Risen Christ breaking into our story that finally frees us to find a new ending to our story.  See the entire analysis at crossings.org/text study.

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Charles Rice always urged preachers to help listeners recognize their shared story in the text.  One of our challenges here is to help our listeners identify with the foolish and slow of heart, and recognize Jesus when he is revealed to them.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Stop Being Afraid!

Matthew's account of the resurrection of Christ, found in 28:1-10, appointed for Easter Day in the Year of Matthew, is unique in many ways.  Most obvious is the presence of the earthquake which is apparently related to the presence of the angel who rolled away the stone from before the tomb.  But it is also noteworthy that Matthew's account mentions the fear that is present in this event no less than four times.  The persons in Mark's gospel are "amazed, trembling, and astonished."  In Luke's account they are perplexed and frightened, and in John there is no mention of their state of mind.  In Matthew, however, fear is the predominant state of mind.  It is also worth mentioning that the word of Jesus in Matthew's account addresses this fear, literally, "Stop being afraid."  This word also comes to us.

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but simply supplement many other fine sets of exegetical questions available to preachers.  These questions come from my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted.  For a complete review of my guide, it can be purchased from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  If there is a text in the Bible that is pure Gospel, this is it.  The Word functions as gospel when it announces, "Here is Jesus!"  Clearly that is the function of the Word here:  "Here is the Crucified One, resurrected, to give you 'a new birth into a living hope'". (I Peter 1:3)

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  The Law is only hinted at in this text.  The Word functions as Law when it says, "You need Jesus."  The hint of our need for Christ comes only in the lifting up of the fears of the actors in this scene.  The guards are the first ones who fear.  Then it is the women who have come to the tomb who fear.  So it is clear that whether we are followers of Jesus, or have nothing to do with him, when we encounter him resurrected, it will be cause to be afraid.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are invited to identify with the women who come to the tomb.  Like them we are ones who live in fear, whether it be fear in the presence of miracles, or fear when miracles fail to come.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  There is a brief call to obedience in this text  found in Jesus' last words to the women:  "Go and tell..."  That is our charge as well.  When we have been freed from our fears by the word of the Living Christ, we too are charged to go and tell the good news to others who live in fear.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  There are many possibilities here.  The classic couplet for this text is despair/hope, but given our emphasis on fear, perhaps we might want to think in terms of fearful/fearless, or trembling with fear/trembling with joy.

6.  Exegetical work:  It should not be forgotten that the earthquake at the empty tomb is the second earthquake in Matthew's account.  The first one comes a chapter earlier, when at the death of Jesus, "the earth shook, and the rocks split," the tombs were opened, and "many who had fallen asleep were raised."  Matthew is signaling to us that the ground has shifted beneath our feet both at the crucifixion and at the resurrection of Jesus.  They are equivalent events.  The death and resurrection of Christ are both events wherein we see the power of God at work.  Also noteworthy is that  apocalyptic literature is the place that we typically encounter earthquakes and scenes like this.  Earthquakes are mentioned seven times in the Revelation of John, and in each of the synoptic accounts of the last days (Matt 24:7, Mark 13:8, Luke 21:11).  Is Matthew's account of the resurrection a rendering of this story as the end of the world as we know it?  That might be a fruitful way of thinking about this story.

7.  How does the Crossing Community model work with this text?  Archived under Gospel A for Easter Day 2011, Paige Evers does an interesting analysis of this text by suggesting that when we only do "what's expected" by the culture around us, we end up dead.  Jesus saves us from this death spiral by doing the unexpected.  See the complete analysis at crossings.org/text study.

8.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Fred Craddock always insisted that preachers need to bring the experience of the text to the listeners, not just the content.  How will we bring the experience of the empty tomb to our Easter morning crowd? that is our joyful challenge.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, April 1, 2017

His Blood Be on Us!

The Passion/Palm Sunday reading in the year of Matthew encompasses the entire passion narrative as told in Matthew 26-27.  It is a dark drama, no words of triumph here, but only "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"  The disciples flee, the enemies of Jesus mock, the Roman leaders "wash their hands" of these events, and only the guards at the cross testify to what the earthquake proclaims:  "Truly this man was God's Son!"  Amidst all this darkness a word of gospel emerges from an unlikely source - the mob:  "His blood be on us and on our children!"  Indeed his blood is on us and our children, and we are thankful for that, for in that blood our sins are forgiven.

(The following questions attempt to unearth some of the fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  These questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but are taken from my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  Glimpses of gospel emerge early and late in this extended reading, but most of the story is filled with law:  Judas' betrayal, Peter's denial, Jesus' arrest, condemnation, trial, crucifixion, and death, the taunts of Jesus' enemies and those who attend to his crucifixion.  All these scenes are filled with violence, evil, and death.  It is an announcement of the depravity of mortal beings.

The glimpses of gospel emerge as Jesus speaks:  "This is my body; this is my blood of the new covenant".  "Not what I want but what you want, [Father]; your will be done."  In these words we hear the love of God in Christ,and the provision God has made for us through the Cross.

2.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  There are so many characters in this story it is hard to identify with a single one.  As usual, we will not identify with Jesus, but with those who are addressed by the Word.  Typically we might pick the disciples who flee.  Or we might choose to identify with Peter, or even Judas, although it will be difficult for most of us to want to go there.  Also, Pilate is a possibility, the one who wants nothing to do with this.  That might prove fruitful. An unpopular choice is to identify with those who mocked Jesus.  What if we identified with them?   Or we might want to identify with those who testified to the true identity of Christ - the centurion and his cohorts.  Regardless of whom we identify with it will be important for us to identify in such a way that our predilection to flee, deny, betray, mock, and doubt Christ come through.

3.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  At the very end of the story we are given a glimpse of some who faithfully follow.  They are the women at the Cross and Joseph of Arimathea.  We might look to them to see what our response should be to God's gift of the Crucified One.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by the text?  With such a large text many couplets are possible.  Our choice will depend on the persons in the story with which we identify.  Some suggestions: betraying/repentant; denying/confessing; weeping/rejoicing; doubting/testifying; mocking/standing in wonder.

5.  Exegetical work:  On a text this large it will be important to ask questions which get at the large sweep of the narrative.  I can think of no tool better to do this than Mark Allan Powell's book, What is Narrative Criticism?  In the appendix to his book, Powell offers a series of questions which can unlock many of the treasures in a larger narrative.  He asks questions about events, characters, settings, and overall interpretation.  Through this analytical tool we begin to see where the action slows down in the story, thereby heightening the tension.  We see also the rhetorical devices that Matthew uses to tell this crucial story.  I would highly recommend Powell's book for analyzing this and other narrative texts.  One of the important comparisons Powell makes in comparing the synoptic accounts is the way the enemies of Jesus are portrayed.  In Mark's telling, the enemies of Jesus are a mixed bag, sometimes to be sympathized with, sometimes not.  In Luke's telling these same folk are consistently portrayed as self-righteous and foolish.  In Matthew's gospel, however, they are thoroughly evil, unrepentant, and "incapable of receiving revelation from God." (Powell, p. 64-65)  In this week's text it is clear that this is the way the Pharisees, chief priests, and scribes are portrayed.

6.  How does the Crossings Community  model work with this text?  Jerome Bruce does a superb job of giving both diagnosis and prognosis of this text, archived under Year A Gospel for 2011.  In the diagnosis, Bruce speaks of our consistent attempts to kill Jesus.  We are among those who call out, "Away with him."  We claim that we have no need or desire for the Crucified One, and we are offended by the suggestion that somehow our life is at risk without him.  Finally, however, we are terrified when we realize that we have called for the crucifixion of God's Son, and we stand condemned.  In the prognosis the tables are turned as Christ's terror proclaims the plan of God in the words, "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?"  Our offense at Christ is turned to awe as we witness, with the whole creation, the earth-shattering news that God's Son has died for the sins of the world.  Finally, we who have called for Christ to die, are now the ones who tout him, saying, "This is the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world."  See the detail at crossings.org/text study.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, March 25, 2017

A Short Death

I wonder if Lazarus was surprised.  I wonder if Lazarus had any sense of time as he lay in the tomb.  I wonder if he knew that he had been dead only four days when Jesus revived him.  Many questions come to our minds when we read the story of the Raising of Lazarus in John 11:1-45, the gospel lesson appointed for the 5th Sunday of Lent.  It seems a strange choice, this story of resurrection amidst the season of Lent, but then again aren't death and life always colliding in our walk with Christ?

(The following questions are taken from my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.  These questions supplement other fine sets of questions, specifically getting at what is at stake for law and gospel preachers.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The Word, in this case, Jesus, is prominently and authoritatively defeating death.  This is obviously a gospel function.  Indeed it is the sign extraordinaire that Jesus is the divine Son of God.  It is the sign that both causes many to believe in him, and his enemies to decisively move towards his elimination.

The prominence of illness and death is the presence of the Law here.  All will die.  Death leads to decay.  Decay leaves behind only dust.  These facts of life are an announcement of how much we need Jesus, thus they are the presence of the Law.  Also the words of both the sisters, and the words of the Jews are also words of Law as they articulate our natural fears. The sisters say, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died."  The Jews say, "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying!"  The sisters speak of our fear of abandonment by God.  The Jews speak of our doubts about God's saving power.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no call to obedience here.  The call to obedience is the Word functioning to say "follow Jesus." We do not have that call here. The call to believe is not that word.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text? We have several choices in this text since the Word is speaking to a number of listeners.  We could identify with Lazarus, the one dead.  We too, as St. Paul says, are dead in our trespasses and sins, and Christ comes to make us alive.  We could also identity with the sisters who are grieving and wondering why Christ did not come and save their brother from death.  We too might wonder why God allows suffering and death to come to our loved ones and so we identify closely with these two women.  Another possibility is that we identify with the scoffers and skeptics who doubted that Jesus was who he said he was.  All these are good possibilities, but we will have to choose one.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The couplets we employ in thinking about this text will depend on whom we identify with.  If with Lazarus, then a couplet could be dead/alive.  If with the sisters, then we might think in terms of grieving/rejoicing.  If the bystanders who doubt, then our couplet might be doubting/believing.

5.  Exegetical work:  Raymond Brown,in his classic commentary on John's gospel speaks for a number of scholars when he notes that this story is really the fulcrum of the gospel.  He says, [This miracle] is so close to [the realm of the divine] that it may be said to conclude the ministry of signs and inaugurate the ministry of glory." (The Gospel According to John, p. 429)  Peter Ellis, quoting C.K. Barrett, notes that Lazarus' experience is really the experience of all Christians: "The pattern of the life of all Christians is determined by the movement from death to life experienced by Lazarus." (The Genius of John, p. 186)   Luther's contemporary, Desiderius Erasmus, also speaks of Lazarus' experience as one common to all Christians:  "[Jesus] could have brought [Lazarus' resurrection] about with just a nod that the buried man returned to life and came out, but the great shout is the mark of the great power whereby the sinning soul that is far from God's sight, entombed in the darkness of wrongdoing and decaying in the filth of its sins, returns to life and comes out into the light of truth." (Reformation Commentary on Scripture, NT, Vol. IV, p. 426)

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  There a number of fine analyses archived under 2005, 2008, and 2011 at crossings.org/text study.  Under 2011 for the 5th Sunday in Lent, Gospel A, Bill White centers on the disciple, Thomas, for his analysis, pointing out how we, like Thomas, can see only death when it comes to following Jesus.  Jesus, however, sees death and life for us as we follow him.  White thinks that this story is not about Lazarus' death and resurrection, but Christ's.  This might prove a very fruitful path to follow in preaching this text.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Led Into Temptation

Since we so often pray, "Lead us not into temptation", it is noteworthy that in Matthew's account of Jesus' wilderness experience in 4:1-11, the gospel lesson appointed for the First Sunday in Lent, we are told that "Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil."  There is no mistaking it; this is a purpose clause (i.e. the purpose of the Spirit's leading was to put Jesus in a place where he would be tempted).  This begs the question "Why?  Why would the Spirit want Jesus to be tempted?"  Could it be for our sake?

(The following questions are taken from my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted.  They are meant to focus the Law/Gospel preacher who wants to understand how the Word is functioning in the text as a guide to preaching a Law/Gospel sermon.  My guide is available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  This is a very unique text in that the perspective of the reader is one of "a mouse in the corner" - we simply get to watch the action from the sidelines.  The clue to our own place in this story is Jesus' identity as Son of God.   Immediately prior to this story in Matthew, Jesus' identity is made known as the voice from heaven at his baptism announces, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."  We too, at our baptism, are announced as children of God.  We too are tempted.  This text functions as Gospel, assuring us that because we "have been crucified with Christ" in our baptism and thus it is no longer we who live, but "Christ within us", the Christ within us is able to withstand the wiles of the devil.

2.  How does the Word not function in the text?  In the text itself there is not a word of Law, that is to say, there is not a word that explicitly exposes our need for Christ.  If however, we take seriously the fact that only as Christ lives within us can we have any hope of withstanding temptation, then this whole text is Law as it exposes our vulnerability to temptation. The three temptations of Jesus are common to us all:  temptations to indulge, to possess, and to impress.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  In almost all texts our role is to identify with the one whom the Word addresses. In this unique text, however, that would mean identifying with the tempter.  That does not seem like a helpful alternative.  In this situation we identify with Jesus.  We are the ones who find ourselves tempted.  We, like Jesus, call upon resources outside of ourselves to overcome these temptations.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by the text?  The most obvious couplet is, of course, temptation presented/temptation thwarted.  Another the story suggests is devil asserts power/Jesus claims power.

5.  Exegetical work:  The Greek text is very helpful here primarily because it shows us what kind of conditional phrase we are working with here.  Conditional phrases can either be condition-of-fact, condition-of-nonfact, or condition-of-uncertainty.  This is clearly a condition-of-fact. This is important in that when the tempter says to Jesus "If you are the Son of God..." he is not implying that Jesus might not be the Son of God, because that would be a condition-of-uncertainty.  No, rather the tempter is really saying, "If you are the Son of God - and you are ..." (Condition-of-fact).  I often translate such conditions using the word "since."  So here, "Since you are the Son of God, turn these stones to bread.  Since you are the Son of God, throw yourself off the temple pinnacle."  This shows us clearly that these temptations come to Jesus precisely because he is the Son of God.  Therefore this story reveals to us that there are temptations that will be uniquely ours as children of God!  Douglas Hare, in his fine commentary on Matthew (Interpretation Series) shows this connection by revealing the parallels between Jesus' temptation and the temptations of the Israelites in the wilderness. (p. 22f)   This is worth studying.  Gregory the Great, long ago, in his commentary on this text drew parallels to the temptation story in the Garden of Eden:  "Our ancient enemy rose up against the first human being, our ancestor, in three temptations.  He tempted him by gluttony, by vain ambition, and by avarice:  Taste it, you will be like gods, knowing good and evil."  (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, OT, Vol. 1a, p. 56f).  Commentators down through the ages have seen the commonness of temptation.  Even Oscar Wilde had some advice:  "The only way to get rid of a temptation, is to yield to it." Ha.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Look, Look! Here is Christ!

Transfiguration Sunday, the final Sunday in the season of Epiphany, comes to us this year in Matthew 17:1-9.  Consistent with Jesus, the new Moses, Matthew includes some details about Jesus' transfiguration that remind us of the appearance of Moses in Exodus 34:29-30 when he comes down the mountain the second time with the stone tablets.  His face shines and all who see it are terrified.  We hear also the voice speak which we heard first at Jesus' baptism: "Listen to him," and again we know that obedience is required of this One.

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but only as a way of getting at some of the fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers. For more on this genre see my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  If the functions of the Word can be summarized as Law (You need Christ!), Gospel (Here is Christ.), or the Call to Obedience (Follow Christ.), then clearly this story is pure Gospel.  Here is Christ, the Transfigured One, the Son, the Beloved, the One who gently touches his disciples and says, "Get up and do not be afraid."  This story is an announcement of the Divine identity of the Christ, and given to us as pure gift.

2.  How does the Word not function in the text?  Although there is confusion and terror on the part of the disciples, this text does not really function as Law.  This text does not convict of sin or show us our need for Christ.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are the disciples.  We are those who are confused by the Lord's glory.  We are the ones who fall to the ground, cowering at the voice of God.  We are those who need to be touched by Christ and to be told, "Do not be afraid."

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  "Listen to him!" is definitely a call to obedience.  What this means is a further question.  Since the text begins by setting up the temporal context, "six days later", we might ask, "What was going on six days prior to this event?"  What we learn is that Jesus  is foretelling his death and resurrection and assuring his followers that "if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me."  So, perhaps this is what we are called to listen to.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The whole event suggests several couplets:  cowering in fear/touched by Christ; confused about Christ/clear about Christ.

6.  Exegetical work:  Kurt Aland's Synopsis of the Four Gospels is often a great source of insight, as the stories of Jesus are put side-by-side in their original language, and differences between the four gospels shown clearly.  In this case we see that Matthew alone adds the detail that Jesus' "face shone like the sun."  This suggests a tie with Moses, seen in Exodus 34.  Matthew is also the only one to tell us that "when the disciples heard [the voice from heaven] they fell on their faces, and were filled with awe."  This also suggests a tie with Exodus 34.  Another interesting detail is Matthew's use of the Greek marker "idou" which is translated "behold" or "lo" or left untranslated.  This marker is in Matthew only, calling our attention, in verse 3, to the appearance of Moses and Elijah, and in verse 5 to the emergence of the bright cloud, and the sound of the voice.  It is as if Matthew is pointing us to these three verses and saying, "Look!  Look closely.  This is important!'  Another piece that can be seen from the original language is that the voice from the cloud uses the exact words used in 3:17 at the event of Jesus' baptism:  "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased," except here the phrase is added, "Listen to him."  This tie to Jesus' baptism, another theophanic event, is also crucial to take note of.

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Timothy Hoyer does an interesting analysis of this text using Peter's confusion regarding the Law and the Prophets as the starting point.  He shows how when we try to conflate the work of Christ with the work of the Law we are lost.  See the entire analysis archived under 2008 Gospel A at crossings.org/text study.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, February 11, 2017

That's Unfair!

Matthew 5:38-48, the gospel text assigned for the 7th Sunday after the Epiphany, is the final passage in this first section of the Sermon on the Mount, and it is the climactic piece in Jesus' instructions in living in the way of a "righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees."  The last line leaves no room for doubt as to the seriousness with which Jesus takes the call to righteousness: "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."  How do we who are far from perfect understand this call?  That is the question with which we shall wrestle.

(The following questions are taken from my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted.  These questions attempt to explore some of the central issues for Law and Gospel preachers.  For more on this genre of preaching, my book is available at wipfandstock.com or through amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  This Word functions as Law.  It shows me my utter inadequacy in the face of Christ's demands.  If we take these demands seriously we will cry out, "But I cannot do this, Lord!  I cannot turn the other cheek, love my enemies, bless those who persecute me, and give to everyone who would beg from me.  And furthermore, I don't even want to!" This is exactly right.  This is our bondage to sin.  If we are going to obey this command we are going to have to die to ourselves. And this dying is the call of Christ.

Even the statement that our Father in heaven "makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous" is not good news to us.  "That's unfair!" we cry.  Indeed it is.  And yet that is precisely who the Father is, and we are called to be children of this Father.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  We might argue that the Word is not functioning as Gospel here.  I would argue that it is hidden.   The Gospel word is that same scandalous word that announces that God sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.  At first we don't want to hear this word, but then we hear the grace within these words.  "[God] does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.  For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love towards those who fear him." (Psa 103)  This is a word of Gospel.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are, as always, those addressed by this text.  We are those who only want "what's fair".  We are those that insist that an eye for an eye is a good system, even though as Gandhi said, it leaves everyone blind.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience is always the Word functioning to say, "Follow Jesus." In a way, this whole text is a call to obedience.  It could be taken as such, if we recognize that before we follow Jesus, we will need to be crucified with him.  That is why this text first functions as Law.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Since this whole text is about giving up what is rightfully ours, the couplets should suggest this:  holding a grudge/freely forgiven; hanging onto my rights/released from all that binds me.

6.  Exegetical work:  Dietrich Bonhoeffer gets right at the heart of this text:  "By our enemies Jesus means those who are quite intractable and utterly unresponsive to our love, ... [but] ... Love asks nothing in return, but seeks those who need it.  And who needs our love more than those who are consumed with hatred and utterly devoid of love?" (Cost of Discipleship, p. 148)  "The love of our enemies takes us along the way of the cross and into fellowship with the Crucified." (p. 164)   Douglas Hare in his commentary (Interpretation series) notes that this passage is about renouncing rights.  He says that "the ultimate sanction appealed to is not the will of God ("Do it, no matter how difficult, because God commands it!") but the nature of God. (p. 60)  Another great source in understanding how forgiveness is always a call to renounce our rights is found in Walter Wangerin's book, As For Me And My House.  In the chapter entitled "How do we practice forgiveness?" he says this:  "The world says ... that it is your legitimate right, your dignity, and your duty to bring suit against the one who injured you, to press her until she has redressed the wrong, to accuse her, to punish her until her hurt at least is equal to yours.  This is just.  This re-establishes the order her sin destroyed. This place the burden of reconciliation totally and righteously upon the one who started the mess - and this is not forgiveness.  As scandalous as it seems to the world..., forgiveness places the burden of reconciliation upon the one who sufffered the mess." (p. 99)

Blessings on your proclamation!