Saturday, January 28, 2017

A Better Righteousness

It is no surprise that the emphasis on righteousness continues in Matthew's gospel, in which even the baptism of Jesus was done to "fulfill all righteousness".  This week's gospel text, Matthew 5:13-20, appointed for the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany, lays to rest any idea we might have that Jesus is antinomian.  Verse 17 says it explicitly, "Do not think [in case you are!] that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill."  Or, as some translators have said, "I have come to reveal  the true meaning of the Law."

(The following questions are an attempt to bring to light some of the fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  These questions are taken from the appendix to 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?  Jesus, the Word, is announcing a number of things in this text.  At the outset he announces the identity of the disciples:  they are salt and light.  This is to say, their identity in Christ is already established.  They are called to live up to their identity.  Next, Jesus announces that he has come to fulfill the Law thus his listeners are disabused of any notion they have that they may do as they please.  He tops it off by issuing a challenge:  "Your righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees."  These announcements function in different ways. The announcement of our identity in Christ is a gospel function:  We are given the good news that our righteousness is not what establishes our identity.  The Call to Obedience comes as we are called to live up to our identity as salt and light.  The announcement that our righteousness must be extraordinary functions as Law since it brings us face-to-face with our proclivity to do as we please, as well as our mistaken notion that a righteousness based on the rules of the scribes and Pharisees is sufficient.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no explicit Gospel word here which announces what God has done in Christ.  That we will need to bring in from different sources - probably Pauline.  Also an explicit word which instructs us in the particulars of being salt and light is not present.  Our imaginations will supply this.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?   As always in the Sermon on the Mount, we are the disciples, those who listen to these words.  We are those who are mistaken about the righteousness that Christ demands, and about how we are to live.  We are those who need to know that our identiy in Christ is secure, despite our unrighteousness.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The first two metaphors are our best guide here:  good for nothing/nothing but goodness; under the bushel/on the lampstand.

5.  Exegetical work:   Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his classic work, The Cost of Discipleship, does a profound analyis of the Sermon on the Mount.  Here are a view quotes pertaining to these verses:  "There is a 'better righteousness' which is expected of Christians.  Without it no one can enter the kingdom of  heaven, for it is the indispensable condition of discipleship." "The call of Christ, in fact Christ himself... is the sine qua non of this better righteousness." (p. 135)  "There is no fulfillment of the law apart from communion with God, and no communion with God apart from fulfillment of the law."  (p. 138)  Luther devotes an entire volume to his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount. (Luther's Works, vol. 21)   Here are a few pieces from that work:  "[Jesus came] for the very purpose of correcting and conforming the teaching of the Law in opposition to those who were weakening it by their teaching." (p. 67)  "[Christ intends] to show [the Law's] real kernel and meaning... in antithesis to the glosses which the Pharisees have introduced, the shells and husks which they have been preaching." (p. 70)  The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible defines the Pharisaic interpretation of the Law in this way:  "A perfectionism of purity and purification by the meticulous observance of the ritual requirements of the Levitical code."  (vol. III, p. 775)

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Cathy Lessman does a nice job of showing how when we "junk" God's law, God's law "junks" us.  The good news is that Christ throws himself on the trash heap at Golgotha thus producing in us the righteousness that only Christ can provide.  Look at the complete analysis archived under 2011 Gospel A for the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany at study.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Two Kinds of Blessedness

Matthew 5:1-12, the gospel lesson appointed for the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany, is undoubtedly one of the most beloved passages in Scripture.  It often is preached on the Festival of All Saints or at funerals as a way of bringing comfort to those who grieve.  While this is an important function of this passage, there is much more than mere comfort offered here.  There is an invitation as well.

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but only supplemental to many fine methods of exploration.  These questions come from my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, which can be purchased through or amazon.)

1. How does the Word function in the text?  Obviously the function of this passage is to bless people, to announce who are the recipients of God's favor, who are those who can expect to be shareholders in the kingdom of heaven.  This is clearly a gospel function, an announcement of God's mercy.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no real word of Law here.  This Word is not functioning to expose our need for Christ.  We see our vulerability if we decide, for example, to endure persecution for righteousness' sake, but this is not a word of Law.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are the listeners, the followers of Jesus who come to Jesus as he sits on the mountainside teaching.  Of course, we are probably not able to identify with everyone whom Jesus calls blessed, but it will be our task to identify closely with one or several whom Jesus calls blessed.

4. What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?   The call to obedience is the Word functioning to invite us to live in response to God's gracious work.  In this passage the call to obedience is issued without an imperative voice in the second half of the passage.  Because God's reign is characterized by mercy, purity, peacemaking, and righteousness, we are invited to live lives characterized thusly. We are invited to be merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and those who endure persecution for righteousness. We are assured that we will be blessed when we do.

5.  Exegetical work:  Mark Allan Powell has written a wonderful study called God With Us; A Pastoral Theology of Matthew's Gospel.  I am indebted to him for the following insights into the Beatitudes:  Powell says that "the poetic structure of the beatitudes predisposes Matthew's readers to expect a pattern reminiscent of Hebrew parallelism." (p. 120)  He then goes on to point out that both 5:3-6  and 5:7-10 contain exactly 36 words, while 5:11-12 contains 35 words.  He calls these 3 sections First Stanza, Second Stanza, and Concluding Comment.  (p. 121-122)  The first stanza is to be "interpreted as promising eschatological reversals to those who are unfortunate." (p. 122) "Theologically, then the point of these first four beatitudes is not to offer 'entrance requirements for the kingdom of heaven' but to describe the nature of God's rule, which characterizes the kingdom of heaven." (p. 129)  "With the fifth beatitude... a second set of parallels is introduced.  All of the beatitudes in Matthew 5:7-10 are best interpreted as promising eschatological rewards to people who exhibit virtuous behavior.  The second stanze does not, however, represent a logical departure from the thought that undergirds the first, for the virtues that earn blessings are ones exercised on behalf of the people mentioned in Stanza One." (p. 130)  The final section is directed at us listeners.  The blessed ones are no longer only "those", but "you". This means that when we accept the invitation in Stanza Two, we might well find ourselves reviled and persecuted, "ironically deprived of justice because of [our] devotion to it." (p. 138)  These insights and many others are contained in Powell's fine book.  I would highly recommend purchase of this book as a source for insights into the entirety of Matthew's gospel.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Jesus' Inauguration

Matthew 4:12-23, the gospel text appointed for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, is Matthew's record of the inauguration of Jesus.  We have his inaugural address - one line: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near," the formation of his Cabinet - the calling of the first disciples; and the beginning of his work:  he went throughout Galilee, "proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people."  This inauguration gives hope to all, as well as calling all to action.  Our discipleship is inaugurated as well.

(The following questions are meant to supplement many other fine exegetical methods available to the preacher.  These questions come from my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, whereby I attempt to unearth some of the central issues for Law/Gospel preachers.  My guide is available from or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  Jesus, the Word made flesh, is very active in this text:  He is calling for repentance, he is issuing the call to follow, and he is proclaiming good news, and healing the people.  This is a complete listing of all the ways the Word can function.  The call to repentance is the Word functioning as Law, showing us our need for Christ. The announcement of Jesus healing and preaching is the Word functioning as Gospel, announcing what God is doing on behalf of the world through Christ.  Finally, the call to follow Jesus is the Word functioning as the Call to Obedience, instructing us how to live in response to the Gospel.

2.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are all those addressed by Jesus;  we are those who hear the call to repent, those who hear the call to follow, and those who hear the good news and are healed.  It will be up to the preacher to decide which of these groups to center the sermon on, or perhaps how to touch on all these groups, though that is tricky.  As the saying goes, "The preacher who attempts to exhaust his or her subject, only ends up exhausting the listeners!"

3. What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  One can simply take the three functions of the Word in this text, and imagine a couplet for each one.  For example:   sitting in darkness/seeing a great light; lost in sin/repentant and found;  wandering without direction/following Jesus; in despair/hearing the good news; sick and dying/healed and alive.

4.  Exegetical work:  It is interesting to see commentators struggling with the report that the newly called disciples of Jesus followed Jesus immediately.  This word, which is much more common in the gospel of Mark than it is in Matthew, is nevertheless present 15 times in Matthew.  It suggests that the call by Jesus was something irresistible.  Because this seems difficult for us to understand, commentators have attempted to explain it.  For example in the Abingdon Bible Commentary on Matthew we read:  "[The disciples] must have come into contact with Jesus before this and must have heard him preaching and teaching in Galilee. Whether the resolve to follow Jesus involved a complete abandoning of their daily work there and then is doubtful." (p. 1000). Similarly the New Layman's Bible Commentary has this to say:  "The record assumes these fishermen to have had a previous knowledge of Jesus, which fact is confirmed in Jn. 1:35-42, where it is shown that they already believed Jesus to be Israel's Messiah." (p. 1225)  This notion, that the disciples must have had prior knowledge of Jesus, and faith in him is, of course, possible, but the fact remains that Matthew does not see fit to tell us that.  It is much more interesting to ponder why it is that Matthew paints this picture of Jesus.  Could it be that something about Jesus' power is being proclaimed?  Or perhaps is there a call for us to give up our excuses and follow immediately?  It seems much more interesting to ponder these things than to simply dismiss Matthew's account as incomplete.

5.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Archived under Gospel A for 2011, Steve Kuhl does a fine job of showing how "business as usual" gets upended when the "unusual business of Christ" begins.  He shows how the disciples who are going about their business are also those who live in the land of darkness, and how they need the light of Christ.  See the complete analysis by going to study.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, January 7, 2017

What Are You Looking For?

The gospel text appointed for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany in the Year of Matthew, John 1:29-42, is an Epiphany text par-excellence.  It epitomizes epiphanies.  In nearly every verse something is being revealed, or someone is having an epiphany.  The text is all about revealing who Jesus is, even to the point that an entire Christology (Jesus as pre-existent Christ, Cosmic Redeemer, Spirit-anointed Messiah) is announced.  We have already been told in John's prologue that "what has come into being in him is life" but already here we have this being worked out.  Jesus' first words to his disciples are also recorded:  "What are you looking for?"  The answer, which the disciples did not give, might well have been, "We are looking for life."  Jesus is that life.

(The following questions are a sample from my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from or amazon.  These questions attempt to unearth the fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.)

 1.  How does the Word function in the text?  This text is all about testimony.  This text reveals Jesus.  Jesus is the "Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world."  He is "a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me."  He is "the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit."  Jesus is the Messiah, the Anointed One.  All of this is a gospel function, announcing to us one who can finally take away the sin of the world - ours included.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no word of Law here.  It might be argued that by mentioning "the sin of the world" our need of the Lamb of God is being highlighted.  This is true, but an explicit mention of our need is not present.  It is certainly no difficult task to flesh out our need of this sacrificial lamb, but we will need other texts for this.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are in the place of the bystanders who hear John's words.  We hear him testify as to the identity of Jesus.  Near the end of this passage we meet Andrew and Simon, who have heard the testimony of John.  They are the first believers.  We would do well to identify with them.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  Andrew and Simon provide us with an example to follow.  Andrew, particularly fulfills this task as he hears the testimony of John, believes, and then immediately testifies to "what he has seen and heard."  This then, as believers, is our call.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  John the Baptist's words, "I myself did not know him," - repeated twice - are a clue to a possible couplet.  John's words suggest couplets like:  in the dark/enlightened; blind/eyes opened; without understanding/wise.

6.  Exegetical work:  Peter Ellis' book, The Genius of John, argues that this Gospel is, from beginning to end, structured in an artful way using the ancient form of chiasm.  In this brief passage we have a clear example of this:  Verses 29-34 and verses 35-42 both begin with the announcement that Jesus is the Lamb of God, both continue with the revelation that "we did not know him", and both conclude with an announcement of Jesus' revealed identity - Son of God and Messiah.  It might be fruitful to delve into the Old Testament background for each of these titles given to Jesus in this passage.  We might ask what the Jewish rites of sacrifice had to do with this title of Lamb of God.  We might want to look at Ezekiel's words regarding the Son of Man.  Other prophets' words regarding the Anointed One might also be revealing.  John is undoubtedly calling on many Old Testament passages in announcing Jesus in this way. Another way to proceed might be to look at the whole Christology that is presented here:  Lamb of God, One who was before me, One the Spirit remains on, One who baptizes with the Spirit, Son of God, Rabbi, Messiah, Anointed One.  Raymond Brown, in his classic commentary is always insightful.  He notes that in this passage "on each day there is a gradual deepening of insight and a profounder realization of who it is that the disciples are following." (The Gospel According to John I-XII, p. 76)  Perhaps this will be the task for our sermon as well.

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Fred Craddock reminded us that we need to bring the experience of the text to the listener, not just the content.  How will we do that here?  We dare not preach theology alone.  That rarely preaches.