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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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!