Saturday, April 13, 2019

The Holy Meal in Context

I Corinthians 11:23-26, the second reading appointed for Maundy Thursday, is very familiar to anyone who has spent much time in places of sacramental theology.  What is far less known is the context into which these words were spoken.  The first hearers of these words undoubtedly would not have heard a sacramental theology spoken here, but rather a reminder of the communion into which we are all called.  We impoverish our life together when we forget this.

(The following questions have been developed as a way of getting at a fundamental concern of Law and Gospel preachers, i.e. how the Word functions.  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?  There is little doubt that this is a Gospel text: we proclaim the Lord's death whenever we eat and drink.  What we proclaim is important: we proclaim that the Lord Jesus was "handed over" to death for our sins.  It is important to note that in verse 23 the original text uses the word paradidomi when speaking of what happened to Jesus. This is most often translated "betrayed" but the Gospel function is much clearer when we understand that Jesus was "handed over" to death for our sake rather than simply betrayed into the hands of his enemies.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There seems to be little hint of Law here except when we understand the context.  In the verses surrounding this passage it is clear that Paul is very upset with the Corinthian church for showing "contempt for the church of God." (vs. 22)  When the commands, in vss. 24-25, to "do this in remembrance of me" are read in this context they can sound like Law, where the hearers are reminded that the way they have been gathering and eating has not been done in a way that remembers the life of Christ.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are those addressed by this text, the ones to whom the apostle hands over what  he received from the Lord.  We are also the ones who Paul says proclaim the Lord's death whenever we eat and drink.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text? As mentioned above, the context suggests that throughout this text we are being called to live as a community and not as the world does, with distinctions regarding wealth and class. This is certainly a call to obedience.  Another possibility comes to us because of the ambiguity regarding verse 26.  In Greek, the indicative and the imperative forms of verbs are often identical, and this is the way it is in verse 26.  Given that, we might well translate the final verse as a command:  "As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, proclaim the Lord's death until he comes."

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Again, the context provides some possibilities for understanding this text:  schisms and distinctions/one community in Christ; in bondage to worldly status/freed to be one in Christ.

6.  Exegetical work:  I am indebted to Richard Hays for his insightful analysis of the contextual nature of this text.  (First Corinthians, Interpretation series, p. 192-200)  He points out how "the meal that should be the symbol and seal of their oneness has in fact become an occasion for some of them to shame others." (Ibid., p. 193)  It is ironic how easily we could say this about the divisions around the Last Supper in our modern day, as some churches continue to deny table entrance to those who do not understand the Supper as they do.  Hays explains how the typical Roman villa, where these suppers probably took place, had a dining room that could accommodate perhaps nine people.  That meant that the other 30 or so people in attendance were left in the atrium, where they not could  not share fully in the supper, but also likely were given poorer fare.  Paul's point is that if it is truly the Lord's  supper that you gather to eat, you must eat it in the manner that Christ offered it - all receive equally, all are honored at the table of the Lord.  To be partakers of a new covenant means, according to Hays, that "the character of this new covenant should be sown forth in the sharing of the meal." (Ibid., p. 199)

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Henry Mitchell was always quick to point out that the preacher must be the first one to celebrate the good news, and always in the sermon, draw others into that celebration.  What better time to celebrate than in this text where we proclaim again how Christ was handed over to death for us.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

God's New Thing

Isaiah 43:16-21, the First Reading appointed for the 5th Sunday in Lent in the Year of Luke, is clearly a proclamation of deliverance.  The people who have known only exile in Babylon are about to be set free by Cyrus the Great, and they will return to their homeland.  Through the wilderness they will travel, across the rivers and burning sands, and amidst it all God has promised to accompany them.  God is "about to do a new thing."  How will they receive this?  That is the question.  How do we receive this announcement?  That is our question.

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but to be used in conjunction with many other fine sets of exegetical questions which can give us insight into a text.  These questions have been developed to explore how the Word functions - a  fundamental concern of Law and Gospel preachers.  See my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching to learn more about this unique genre of preaching.   Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted is available from or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  First , God is reminding the people of God's great acts of deliverance at the Red Sea.  Next, curiously he tells them to refrain from remembering "the things of old."  What does he mean?  Are we not to remember God's mighty acts?  That seems unlikely.  Finally, God announces the "new thing" that God will do - waters in the desert and wastelands.  This is pure Gospel.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  At first glance it doesn't seem that there is any word of Law here, i.e. the Word functioning to lift up our need for Christ.  But if we consider the prohibition in verse 18 we realize that clinging to "former things" and "the things of old" can be death dealing for us. Phariseeism is nothing if not a clinging to "the things of old" especially when we have a Lord who says, "I make all things new!"  Perhaps the word of Law here is the word which reminds us that something has to die in order for the "new thing" to spring up.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are certainly those addressed this text.  We are those who are held in exile by many things.  We are those who hang on tenaciously to the things of old.  We are those who both long to hear of something new and fear it.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience, the Word functioning to invite us to live in a certain way in response to God's work in Christ, is not present here.  Rather this is a call to faith.  One might catch a glimpse of a call to obedience in the last phrase where people are called to praise, but that is a fleeting thought.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  From what we have said above we can imagine several appropriate couplets:  old/new; former things/new things; dead things/things springing to life.

6.  Exegetical Work:  I am indebted to Claus Westermann for his insightful exegesis of this text. In his classic commentary on Isaiah 40-66 he argues that God, in commanding the people to forget the former things, could not have been telling Israel to forget the mighty acts of God - especially the Exodus - because all throughout Isaiah God commands the people to remember the mighty acts of God.  Rather, says Westermann, "What he wants to say is [to] stop mournfully looking back and clinging to the past, and open your minds to the fact that a new, miraculous act of God lies ahead of you."  Israel, claims Westermann, "thought that God's saving acts were now a closed chapter." (Isaiah 40-66, The OT Library, p. 128).  "Israel requires to be shaken out of a faith that has nothing to learn about God's activity and therefore nothing to learn about what is possible with him, the great danger which threatens any faith that is hidebound in dogmatism, faith that has ceased to be able to expect anything new from [God]." (Ibid, p. 129)  In his Lectures on Isaiah Luther says much the same thing as Westermann:  "To do a new thing creates an offense for those whose mind is on the old.  Here He says, 'I am doing a new thing, by means of which the imperfect old will be fulfilled. This is the repeal of the old law.  You must be concerned about the new and forget the old'."  (LW, vol. 17, p. 97)

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Bill White in working with this text, suggested that "the things of old" that we cling to could be our doubts and unbelief.  He shows how this leads to hopelessness and eventually lostness.  It is in the wilderness of our despair that Christ comes and makes a way.  Go to for the entire analysis, archived there.

Blessings on your proclamation!