Saturday, April 21, 2018


They may never be a more unlikely setting for evangelistic outreach than the one described in Acts 8:26-40, the First Lesson appointed for the Fifth Sunday of Easter in the year of Mark.  The setting is a wilderness road from Jerusalem to Gaza.  Philip is plucked up from the hotbed of activity in Samaria, sent out to this lonely place and miraculously encounters an Ethiopian official, who equally miraculously, becomes one of the first converts that Acts 1:8 called for, who are from "the ends of the earth."  Surprises abound in this story.  It reminds us that we have a very surprising God, who is always working in ways that would have never occurred to us.

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but have been formulated to get at some of the basic questions that Law and Gospel preachers have regarding the function of the Word.  For more on this unique genre of preaching, 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 Spirit is the active presence in this story.  The Spirit sends Philip into the wilderness, urges him to join the Ethiopian in conversation, gives him the words to say that lead the Ethiopian to faith, and finally snatches Philip away while the Ethiopian goes on rejoicing.  What this story achieves is a testimony to the wideness of God's mercy, undoubtedly a Gospel function.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no word of Law here, no word which exposes our need for Christ.  The Ethiopian asks the question, "What is to prevent me from being baptized?" and in that we might hear faint signs of our tendency to exclude some from the grace of God, but those signs are faint indeed.  This is a good news story.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  Since we are called to identify with the ones whom the Spirit speaks to, we could identify with either Philip or the Ethiopian.  If Philip, then we could reflect on how it is to have the Spirit leading us into surprising places to share the gospel with people we thought we'd never encounter.  If the Ethiopian, then we could reflect on those times that God has provided surprising people who inspire us and lead us into a deeper walk with Christ, or perhaps into the life of faith initially.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  A call to obedience always functions to invite us to live in a certain way in response to God's work.  There is no explicit call to obedience here, but at the end of the story we are told that the Ethiopian "went on his way rejoicing."  That is certainly our call as well.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Since the Law is absent in this story we will need to invent some couplets based on the gospel side of the story.  Some ideas: lost in the wilderness/found in the wilderness; confused/enlightened; outcast from God's people/joined with God's people.

6.  Exegetical work:  It's hard not to notice Luke's use of the word idou, (Look!, Lo and behold!) in this story.  Even though this word often goes untranslated, in the Greek it may signal surprise, and in this story, that is definitely the case.  The first instance is in verse 27 after we are told that Philip goes to this wilderness road.  The Greek text says, (literal translation) "And look! an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of queen Candace..."  This encounter is surprising to say the least.  How unlikely to encounter anyone, much less a foreigner, a eunuch, and a court official in the middle of the desert!  The second instance is in verse 36 where again we are surprised.  The Ethiopian says, "Look! water."  They are traveling in the desert.  Is it not surprising that there is water here, and even enough for the two of them to "go down into"?  God is definitely doing surprising things here.  Bede the Venerable, in his ancient commentary on this story, lifts up another surprise quoting St. Jerome: "'[The eunuch] found the church's font there in the desert, rather than in the golden temple of the synagogue.' For there [in the desert] something happened that Jeremiah declared was to be wondered at, 'an Ethiopian changed his skin,' that is, with the stains of his sins washed away by the waters [of baptism], he went up, shining white, to Jesus." (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, vol. V, p. 97)  The last surprise of this text has been argued about for centuries, especially by the reformers:  verse 37 is omitted in most manuscripts.  Only in a few manuscripts is it included, likely as a late addition.  It reads, "And Philip said, 'If you believe with all your heart, you may.' And he replied, 'I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.'"(NRSV).  It is not likely that Luke included this formulaic statement. For a God who is surprising us at every turn, is it not likely that the Spirit had already done its work within the heart of this official and that his desire to be baptized is evidence of this?

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  I like Cathy Lessmann's analysis of this text, lifting up the insider/outside theme with which we are so familiar these days.  The Ethiopian eunuch was considered an outsider, yet God clearly had other ideas.  We who consider ourselves insiders need to take heed, lest we too have false ideas about whom God favors.  See Lessmann's complete analysis at

Blessings on your proclamation!

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Blind Builders

Acts 4:5-12, the First Lesson appointed for the Fourth Sunday of Easter in the Year of Mark, is the second scene in the story of the healing of the man born lame which began in Chapter 3.  The scene has now shifted to a trial before the chief priests - the power brokers of first century Judaism - who want to know one thing: "By what power or by what name did you do this [healing]?"  They are apparently blind to the miracle.  Later in the scene (well after the appointed lesson), as they deliberate amongst themselves, they are embroiled in debate:  "What will we do with [these men]?  It is obvious to all... that a notable sign has been done through them; we cannot deny it." (4:16)  So to them it is a sign, but a sign of God or Beelzebub, they do not know.  Isn't it amazing how blind we can be to the simple workings of God, the Author of Life.

(The following questions have been developed to answer some of the fundamental questions of Law and Gospel preachers around how the Word functions.  They are not meant to be exhaustive.  To learn more about his unique genre of preaching, 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 here is accusatory.  It comes from the apostle Peter to the "rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem."  As such it functions as Law:  "This Jesus is 'the stone that was rejected by you; the builders...'"  This word serves to accuse and convict, hoping to lead the accused to repentance.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no explicit word of Gospel here, yet there are hints of it:  "this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth." And "[this stone, this Jesus] has become the cornerstone." Through these words we hear of the power and position of the Christ.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We must always identify with those whom the Word addresses, and in this text they are those who have "rejected the cornerstone."  Ouch. We don't want to identify with the religious authorities.  We see them as murderous, cruel, blind hypocrites.  Even though Christ forgave them from the Cross and St. Luke calls them merely ignorant, we want nothing to do with them.  That is all the more reason to identify with them.  We need to ask, "In what ways do we continue this pattern of rejecting the stone that God has made the cornerstone?"

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  As in previous Acts readings, the call here is not to obedience, but to repentance.  When Peter announces that "there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved," this is a call to repentance.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Taking some language from the text, we can imagine several couplets:  rejecting the cornerstone/embraced by the Living Stone; threatened by the name of Jesus/healed by the name of Jesus.

6.  Exegetical work: It is important to notice that the rulers are referred to by Peter as "the builders". (vs. 11).  These rulers are indeed building something which they have deemed worthy, and they have rejected Christ as a stone which will have no place in this edifice they are building. Justus Jonas, the German Lutheran reformer, thinks that what the rulers are building is a righteousness based on the law:  "Peter calls them builders, as if he were saying, 'You are the ones who are teaching the people the external observation of the law. But your building - that is, righteousness of the law which you teach against the judgement of God - will not stand.  And you are making nothing other than counterfeit saints and hypocrites.'" (Reformation Commentary on Scripture, NT, Vol. VI, p. 50).  William Willimon has a different take, thinking that the rulers have rejected Christ as "an unworthy foundation for national aspirations." (Interpretation series, Acts, p. 49)  No matter what we decide the rulers are building, we can see that Christ has no place in their thinking, and that is where the question comes to us:  What are we building?  Does Christ have a place in it?  St. Peter, in drawing on this metaphor exhorts us:  "Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals, yet chosen and precious in God's sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ." (I Peter 2:4-5)

Blessings on your proclamation!

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Author of Life

Acts 3:12-19, the First Lesson for the Third Sunday of Easter in the Year of Mark, is another post-resurrection story where we see the power of God at work in the post-Easter people of God.  The apostle Peter refers to Jesus in this text as the Author of Life.  This title comes as he declares that it is the power of the Risen Christ that has healed the man born lame, but that title comes down to us as well.  Could there be any more apt title for the Risen Christ than that?

(The following questions have been developed as a way of answering some of the fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  They are not meant to be exhaustive, but to be used alongside other fine sets of questions which might reveal the treasures of a particular text.  For more on this unique genre of preaching, 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 here, in the form of Peter's preaching, is explicitly both Law and Gospel.  The Law comes as Peter confronts the people with the fact that they killed the Author of Life, albeit, as he says, "in ignorance."  The Gospel comes as Peter invites all to repent and turn to God, "so that your sins may be wiped out."  This text also functions as testimony to the power of the name of Christ, which "itself has made this man strong."

2.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are the listeners, those who are confronted with our willful murder of the Christ.  This brings to mind the cries of the mob in Luke's gospel:  "Crucify!  Crucify!" (Luke 23:21)  We are those who are invited here to repent and turn to God.

3.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The only imperative here is to repent, therefore any call to live in a certain way in response to the Gospel is missing here.  The call to repentance is not the same as a call to obedience.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  There are plenty of phrases to draw on in this text in order to compose couplets.  Some suggestions:  ignorance/wisdom; calling for death/embracing life; killing the Author of Life/being saved by the Author of Life.

5.  Exegetical work: It is important to remember that Acts is the second part of Luke's account of the Jesus story, and so his view of the enemies of Christ continues into the Book of Acts.  Mark Allan Powell, in his excellent work, shows the differences in how Jesus' enemies are portrayed, reminding us that in Luke's account, "The religious leaders are not evil but self-righteous, not blind but foolish.""In short, [Luke] expresses sympathy for them, not hostility, and thus the implied reader will surely regard them with sympathy also." (What is Narrative Criticism?, p.65)  This view of Jesus' enemies can be seen in a striking way at the Crucifixion as Luke is the only one to report that Jesus cried out from the cross, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." (Luke 23:34)  This is exactly what Peter argues in the Acts text:  "I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your rulers." (Acts 3:17) Another noteworthy point is Luke's explanation for the death of Christ:  "You killed the Author of Life whom God raised from the dead." (Acts 3:15)  There is no Pauline understanding of the Cross here. As William Willimon points out:  "We find no substitutionary atonement in Luke, no notion that Jesus Christ had to die to satisfy some divine requirement of justice.  No, the explanation for Jesus' death in Acts is simply human perversity."  (Interpretation series, Acts, p. 46)  The only solution for us who are party to this murder?  Repentance.

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Steve Kuhl focuses in on the very thing that Peter lifts up in the text:  "Why do you stare at us as though by our own power or piety we had made [this man] walk?"  He argues that this is our bondage, that we too are seduced by power and piety, instead of relying on Christ.  Go to to see the entire analysis.

Blessings on your proclamation!