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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 study.

Blessings on your proclamation!