Tuesday, November 19, 2019

The Unseen Reign of Christ

The Lutheran Study Bible entitles the major portion of Colossians 1:11-20, "The Supremacy of Christ."  Undoubtedly, this passage, the 2nd reading appointed for The Reign of Christ Sunday in the Year of Luke, announces this.  At the same time, when this is paired, as it is, with Luke's account of the Crucifixion, one is struck by the juxtaposition of these two announcements.  The Supremacy of Christ seems anything but evident in the scene at Golgotha.  It shall be the task of the preacher to unveil this for the listeners.

(The following questions are derived from a method laid out in my book for Law and Gospel preachers, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted.  These questions attempt to get at some of the crucial ways the Word is functioning in the text.  My brief method may be purchased through wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  This pericope begins, oddly enough, in the middle of a prayer where the author is praying that the hearers might receive strength, endurance, and patience, as well as joy in their status as saints, who have been rescued from death and the devil and transferred to the realm of Christ.  But no sooner has the Beloved Son been mentioned when the author launches into an extended hymn of praise, giving glory to Christ. This announcement is pure Gospel, as the author announces all that Christ is, and all Christ has done on behalf of the whole cosmos.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no announcement of the Law in this text, i.e. a word which functions to announce our need for a Savior.  Having said that, it is clear that the redundancy in the hymn that lifts up Christ's dominion over all things, (five times!) all creation, and all rulers and powers, indicates the existence of many things, creatures, and powers who might try to claim that they too have some power.  The existence of such a claim is evidence of the need which the cosmos has for this Beloved Ruler.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We can certainly identify with those to whom these words were penned.  We are also those who need the prayers of this writer who asks God to give us strength, endurance, patience, and joy.  We too stand in need of this proclamation of the sovereignty of Christ, to give us faith in the face of those who would claim and abuse their own power.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  There is not a call to obedience, per se, but in the opening prayer, we can assume there exists the desire that we all live faithfully, enabled by the God-given strength, patience, endurance, and joy that Christ gives.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Without a word of Law here, we will need to use our imaginations to come up with several couplets.  Some possibilities:  the sovereignty of evil/the sovereignty of Christ; the power of darkness/the realm of the beloved Son.

6.  Exegetical work:  In Ralph Martin's commentary on this passage, he notes that the situation at Colossae revolved around the status of the stoicheia, the elemental forces of the universe.  These forces, seen in the sun, moon, stars, and other aspects of creation, when they retained their status as "created orders", presented no problem for followers of Christ.  But when these forces become part of a cosmology that treats them as rivals to Christ, there is a problem.  "No longer do such cosmic forces remain neutral as part of the creation; they are in rebellion and need to be 'recreated' by having their hostility drawn and neutralized."(Martin, Interpretation series, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, p. 107)  This is the underlying situation; followers of Christ need to understand that only Christ is sovereign - there is no other.  All things, all creatures, all powers, seen and unseen, are under the reign of Christ.  Finally the author announces that "all the fulness of God" is pleased to dwell in Christ.  No stone is left unturned in announcing Christ's dominion. When one does a word study on the "thrones, dominions, rulers, and powers" in verse 16, this becomes even more obvious.  According to Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, thrones are "one of the highest classes of angels", dominions are "members of a class of angels", rulers are ""those who have at their command supernatural and ungodly powers", and powers are "powers in Satan's sphere of domination." (Volumes I, p. 488-89, Vol. II, p. 566f, Vol. III, pp. 166 and 1096).  What this reveals is that Christ's reign is, in many cases, an unseen one.  Christ's dominion is in the spiritual realm, at least for now.  On the Cross, we are told, the victory has been won. We must live in faith, for it remains unseen for us.

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Bruce Martin does a nice job of picking up on the cosmic struggle that is evident in this text.  In his analysis, "War and Peace",  he shows how reluctant any of "the powers", either within or without us, are to give up our claim to sovereignty.  Christ, however, "makes peace through the blood of his cross" despite our best attempts to continue the war.  See Martin's complete analysis at crossings.org/text-study.

8.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  This text is a deeply theological one, thereby in danger of seducing the preacher into preaching a theological lecture.  Eugene Lowry always cautioned us to remember that the sermon must have a plot, with tension and release.  This is good advice, particularly when working with this text.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, November 2, 2019

The Age To Come

Luke 20:27-38, the gospel lesson appointed for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, puts us in the place of those who overhear a dispute between the Sadducees and Jesus regarding the resurrection.  It is a prime example of those who live by the Law and One who lives by the Gospel.  It shall be the preacher's task to bring this dispute to light and turn one's hearers to the Gospel.

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but are best used in conjunction with other fine sets of questions available to exegetes.  These questions attempt to wrestle with some of the fundamental issues for Law and Gospel preachers regarding the function of the Word.  For more on Law and  Gospel preaching see my brief guide, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock. com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  One needs to look past the initial dispute to see how the Word is functioning here.  In his reply to the Saduccees' question, Jesus speaks about an age yet to come where the children of God "cannot die anymore because  they are like angels... and are children of the resurrection."  This announcement is certainly the Word functioning as Gospel as Jesus announces to us a coming reality of the age to come.  His announcement that even Moses knew God to be a God of living is also a gospel word.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  At first glance there seems to be little evidence of the Word functioning as Law, i.e. exposing our need for a Savior.  Indeed it is true that Jesus condemns no one in this passage.  The statement by Jesus found in the other synoptic accounts, "You know neither the scriptures nor the power of God" is omitted from this Lukan version, and in fact, added to the Lukan account in verse 39 is a report that some of the scribes answered Jesus, "Teacher, you  have spoken well," indicating  a certain receptivity to this Word.  Having said all this, it is yet true that the Sadducees, as strict followers of the Pentateuch only, are prime examples of religious folk who live by the Law.  That, St. Paul reminds us, leads to a dead end.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  As always we need to identify with those to whom the Word is addressed, in this case the Sadducees.  We are like them in that the Law holds a certain appeal to us.  We like rules, boundaries, and certainty.  We naturally find the freedom of the Gospel problematic, and the mystery of the resurrection untenable.  We long for a faith that is packaged neatly and tidily in ways we can understand.  Jesus refuses to give us this, but instead simply points us to the age to come.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The Word functioning as a call to obedience always invites us to live a certain way in response to the Gospel.  The Word is not functioning in this way in the text.  The second reading for this Sunday, in II Thessalonians 2, is a good example of this, calling us to live courageously as we anticipate the age to come.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  We can imagine several couplets that might fit well using the words from this text:  law of Moses/gospel of Christ; dying/death is no more; death/resurrection.

6.  Exegetical work:  An extended article in the Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible regarding the Saduccees is helpful background for this text.  One brief passage will suffice to show it's helpfulness:  "The NT and Josephus agree that the Saduccees denied the doctrine of the resurrection of the body; Josephus adds that they denied all future punishments and rewards, holding that the soul perishes with the body.  According to Acts (23:8), they also denied the existence of angels and spirits.  Josephus tells us that they also denied fate.  The reason for these denials probably was that the foregoing doctrines were not found in the law." (Vol. 4, p. 162)  As other writers note, the Saduccees regarded the Pentateuch alone as authoritative.  Knowing that, Jesus makes the point that even Moses argues for the resurrection when he speaks of "the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob", who are regarded by Moses as alive.  Jesus knows to whom he is speaking.

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  I like the simplicity of Chris Repp's analysis of this text.  He sees the clear dichotomy present here between "this age" and "that age", i.e. the age to come, with all of the relevant characteristics of each.  See his entire analysis archived under the text at crossings.org/text-study.

Blessings on your proclamation!