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 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!

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