Thursday, June 18, 2020

Not Under Law but Under Grace

Romans 6:12-23, the Second Reading appointed for the 4th Sunday of Pentecost in the Year of Mark is a passage filled with celebration.  Principally the announcement is that we are no longer slaves of sin, for we are not "under the law but under grace."  What a marvelous announcement this is.  It will be the preacher's task to announce this with all the robustness one can muster.

(The following questions have been developed in order to unearth the answers to simple questions regarding how the Word is functioning, a principal concern of Law and Gospel preachers. For more information on this method, and Law and Gospel preaching in general, see my brief guide, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available at wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  In this text, the Word is functioning in all the ways it can.  It opens with a clear call to obedience in verses 12-13:  "Do not let sin exercise dominion...  No longer present your members to sin... present your members to God."  Then vs. 14 goes directly to the announcement of the Gospel:  "..you are not under law but  under grace."  Verses 15-16 are rhetorical questions leading us to the second announcement of the Gospel in verses 17-18: "[you] have become obedient from the heart... having been set free from sin, [you] have become slaves of righteousness." Verse 19 returns to the imperative form where we have another call to obedience.  Verses 20-21 are perhaps the strongest statements of Law in this text:  "The end of those things is death."  The final verses return to a statement of the Gospel, ending with the oft-quoted line, "The wages of sin is death but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  Even though there is a hint of Law in verses 20-21, this text does not include a call to repentance or a point at which the text functions to point out our need for a Savior.  That need is implicit in all that is said about "the wages of sin," but there is no direct call to flee from sin.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are those to whom this is addressed.  We know all about sin having dominion over us and leading us into a death spiral.  We also know the joy of being freed from sin and given new life in Christ.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The text provides all the vocabulary we need for couplets in this case:  death/life; bondage/freedom; law/grace.

5. Exegetical work:  It is interesting how writers, from ancient to modern, note the incompatibility of living in sin with life under the realm of grace.  Note what 4th century theologian, St. Chysostom has to say, "It is absurd for those who are being led toward the kingdom of God to have sin ruling over them or for those who are called to reign with Christ to choose to be captive to sin, as if one should throw down the crown from his head and choose to be the slave of a hysterical woman who comes begging and covered in rags." (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scriptures, NT, vol. VI, p. 163).  The Spanish theologian of the Reformation era, Juan de Valdes wrote this:  "Christians indeed abstain from things prohibited by the law, not because the law prohibits them, but because they are unsuitable to the man or woman who is dead to sin and alive to God."  (Reformation Commentary on Scriptures, NT, vol. VII, p. 341).  Ernst Kasemann, in his classic commentary, put it succinctly:  "With baptism a change of lordship has been effected."  (Commentary on Romans, p. 179).  Finally, Paul Achtemier, writing in the Interpretation series, said, "If, by freeing us from the domination of sin bequethed to us as heirs of Adam... baptism alters our past, it also alters our future."  "We are members of a new race, whose goal for the first time can be something other than rebellion against God and ensuing death." (Romans, p. 105).

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  In 2014, Ron Starenko wrote an insightful analysis of this text called "Slaves, One Way or Another."  He talks about the realm under which we live, whether it is the realm of sin leading to death, or the realm of Christ leading to life.  The entire analysis may be seen archived under its reference at crossings.org/text-study.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Freedom not To Sin, but From Sin

Romans 6:1b-11 is the Second Reading for the Third Sunday in Pentecost in the Year of Mark.  This passage is the second in a long line of readings from Romans which will take us through much of the Pentecost season.  To understand these verses it is essential to look back at chapter 5, where in verse 20 we read, "but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more."  In other words, the act of obedience by Christ we see on the Cross is such that no matter how great the sin, grace covers it.  This is, of course, good news.  Romans 6 then asks the question, "Now what?"  It will be the preacher's task to take up this question.

(The following questions are part of a method developed for Law and Gospel preachers around one main issue:  how does the Word function in the text?  The contention is that the way the Word functions is the way the sermon built on this Word must function - at least in part.  For more on this method and on Law and Gospel preaching in general, 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?  This text is largely Gospel. We are told we have been baptized into the death of Christ, buried with him, and raised with him to walk in newness of life.  We are also told that we will be united with Christ in a  resurrection like his, that we are no longer enslaved to sin, that death no longer has dominion over Christ or us, and that we shall live with Christ.  Certainly all this is good news.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  In a text that is so full of mention of sin and death, it seems strange to say that the Law is not present, but that seems to be the case.  There is clearly acknowledgement that sin and death are powerful and working to undermine the work of Christ, but there is no word that calls us to repentance.  The Word here is celebrating the end of the Law, which Paul will delve into more deeply later.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are those who ask the rhetorical question that begins this text:  "Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?"  Or, as one young boy said to the preacher on the way out of church one Sunday, "Now I get it:  I like to sin, and God likes to forgive sin, so we're both happy!"  We are the ones Paul addresses here, showing us how we must regard ourselves.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience here is in the last verse:  "So you must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus."  This is a classic call to obedience where we are invited to live in a certain way in response to God's work in Christ.  This is a command, an imperative, exhorting us to look upon ourselves anew.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  All of the language for couplets is available right within this text:  dead/alive; enslaved/free; buried/raised.

6.  Exegetical work:  Scholars down through the ages have acknowledged the ongoing struggle we all have with sin, even as baptized people of faith.  St. Chrysostom, 4th century theologian, wrote, "Paul says: Consider yourselves... because complete freedom from sin is not a reality as yet... We are told to live for God in Jesus Christ our Lord and to lay hold of every virtue, having Jesus as our ally in the struggle." (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, vol. VI, p. 162).  Martin Luther quotes Augustine who said, "Until our body is raised to life, and death is swallowed up in victory, our evil desires will afflict us." (Luther's Works, vol. 25, p. 308f)  In a classic commentary, James G. Dunn, had this to say: "The very real dying of believers is a lifelong process: they do not sever all links and relationships with this world until the death of the body.  How can they?  But in the meantime they must let the death of Christ come to increasing effect in their own lives."  (Word series, Vol. 38A, Romans 1-8, p. 331).  Contemporary theologian, Michael Gorman, makes it clear that the dying and rising we experience in baptism have lifelong implications:  "...the language of dying and rising with Christ in baptism is Paul's way of saying two main things: first, that initiation into Christ is a 'death' to one way of existence and a 'resurrection' to a new way of life; and second, that this initiation is a participation in the story of Christ." (Preaching Romans; Four Perspectives, Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica, eds. p 71).  I like that; we now participate in the story of Jesus.

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Peter Keyel, writing an analysis in 2017, summed things up very nicely by showing how we go from thinking we are free to sin because of grace, to realizing we are free from sin because of grace.  It is a very simple, straightforward analysis, which can be found archived under the reference at crossings.org/text-study.

Blessings on your proclamation!




Saturday, May 30, 2020

Our Collaborating Creator

On Trinity Sunday in the Year of Matthew we read the creation story found in Genesis 1:1-2:4a.  It is a grand, sweeping account of God's hand in the creation of all things.  Martin Luther, in his extensive commentary on this account, said that it is no mere happenstance that the Hebrew word for God - Elohim - used in this story, is plural; it refers to the Trinity, said Luther.  Indeed, when the account of the making of human beings is noted in vs. 26, God says, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness..." further supporting Luther's claim.  In any case, we have the three Persons present as the Father creates through the Word while the Spirit hovers.  It will be the preacher's task on this Trinity Sunday to lift up this marvelous mystery.

(The following questions are not meant to be sufficient in themselves, but are best used in conjunction with other fine sets of questions which exegetes can use to mine the treasures of a text. These questions are an attempt to understand how the Word is functioning in this text, a particular concern of Law and Gospel preachers.  For more on Law and Gospel preaching and this method, 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?  The Word functions here as both Law and Gospel, but in starkly varying amounts.  The Law is present in only one place as the earth before creation is described:  "the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep."  This brief statement describes the earth in its most profound lostness.  There is nothing, but this immense emptiness.  It is beyond imagination, but it conjures up a feeling of abject despair.  The Gospel, however, is everywhere, as God is creating and blessing and declaring good all things.

2.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are those privileged to overhear God speaking at the outset of creation. God is not speaking to us, yet we are recipients of this gospel word because by this word, we understand God as One whose only wish is to bring forth a good creation.

3.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  Although we are only overhearing God's speech, we understand through this word that we are to "be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it."  This is a call to all humankind to be good stewards of the good creation which God has made, a form of a call to obedience.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  We could perhaps think of many couplets but we can start with the language of the text:  darkness/light; formless void/the heavens and earth; evil/very good.

5.  Exegetical work:  Ancient writers had much to say about the plural image of God in this text.  Both Gregory of Nyssa and St. Chrysostom picked up on verse 26 where the cohortative ("let us") is used and insist that this was the Trinity in conversation.  Gregory writes: "He did not say, as he did when creating other things, 'Let there be a human.' Instead, God deliberated about the best way to bring to life a creation worthy of honor."  And so Chrysostom: "'Let us make' suggests deliberation, collaboration, and conferences with another person."  (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, OT, vol. 1, p. 28)  As noted above, Luther also believed that this plural language was significant.  "But here, when He wants to create man, God summons Himself to a council and announces some sort of deliberation."  (Luther's Works, vol. 1, p. 56).  It is important to ponder this notion for when we understand ourselves made in God's image, we often think only that we are gifted with a special wisdom, insight, thoughtfulness, or God-awareness.  What these writers suggest is that being created in God's image means that we are wired for collaboration.  We are beings needing community, needing one another, unable to live fully while living apart from others made in God's image.

6.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Since this creation account is so full of the Gospel word that God is creating all good, it will be important to follow Henry Mitchell's advice to never short-change celebration in a sermon.  Be the first to ecstasy, said Dr. Mitchell.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Monday, May 18, 2020

A Word of Consolation

This final text from I Peter, assigned for the 7th Sunday of Easter in the Year of Matthew, is all about comforting the afflicted.  These selected verses, 4:12-14 and 5:6-11, are one last word of encouragement before the final greetings and benediction.  Throughout the book, the writer has attempted to lift up God's care for these exiles, emphasizing over and over that they are precious in God's sight even in their exile, therefore they should not lose heart.  It will be the preacher's job to announce this word of consolation.

(The following questions have been developed as a way of answering some fundamental questions for Law and Gospel preachers, i.e. how the Word is functioning in the text.  These questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but are best used in conjunction with other fine sets of questions which have other concerns. For more on this method or on Law and Gospel preaching in general, 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?  The opening verses lift up "the fiery ordeal" that these hearers are experiencing, and in so doing hint at their need for a Savior.  These verses are not a word of Law, but remind us what is at stake.  These opening verses also hint at what God is doing on behalf of these hearers, for example, reminding them that "the spirit of glory" rests on them.  This is a hint of Gospel.  The more explicit statement of Gospel is in the final verse, where we hear that God "will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you."

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  As I said above, there is no clear statement of Law here, no Word that explicitly lifts up the hearers need for a Savior.  There is no call to repentance or other clear Word that, as Luther might say, breaks the rock [of our heart] in pieces.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  As per usual, we need to identify with those addressed by the Word.  This may be difficult for some of us in this case, since many of us Christians in the West are hard pressed to call to mind a "fiery ordeal" through which we have lived.  We will need the clear witness of persecuted Christians around the globe to help us hear these words.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  This text, especially the second portion, is primarily a call to obedience.  This is immediately obvious by the frequent use of imperatives in the second portion:  "Humble yourself..., Cast all your anxiety on him..., Discipline yourselves..., Resist [the devil]."  The tone is one of encouragement and consolation, yet it is a clear call to obedience, where the hearers are called to live faithfully in response to the trustworthy God who has claimed them as God's own.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  In this text, couplets will make use of some of the language present in the text, but will rely on our imagination.  Some possibilities:  reviled/blessed; devoured/rescued; weakening/restored and strengthened.

6.  Exegetical work:  Earlier in this book, the writer exhorts the listeners to be ready "to make a defense" of the hope that is in them, but to do it "with gentleness and reverence." (3:15-16).  Pheme Perkins, in her commentary on this passage, highlights how the writer is modeling this gentle and reverent defense even here:  "First Peter does not exploit early Christian apocalyptic convictions to demonize those who are harassing believers.  First Peter has left open the possibility that in some cases persecutors may become believers.  Although those who persist in hostility and disbelief will be condemned in the judgement, I Peter does not use that apocalyptic scenario to encourage a sharp division between an inner-directed Christian community and outsiders." (Interpretation Series, First and Second Peter, James, and Jude, p. 73).  Perkins also notes that even though the writer uses the imagery of the devil prowling about "like a roaring lion", there is no suggestion that this image of Satan is associated with the empire or those in power:  "First Peter has no hostility toward Roman rule.  Its attitude toward the larger society is mixed. The sufferings that Christians endure were caused by random individual attacks against them.  There is no evidence of a single anti-Christian policy." (Ibid., p. 80). 

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  In his 2017 analysis, Peter Keyel centers on the image of "the fiery ordeal."  This, for Keyel, is the Law in a nutshell.  He explores this thoroughly in the diagnosis.  In the prognosis, Keyel shows how Christ joins us in the fiery ordeal, himself becoming a sufferer with us and for us.  Go to crossings.org/text-study for the entire analysis.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, May 9, 2020

A Hopeful Apology

I Peter 3:13-22 is the epistle reading for the 6th Sunday of Easter in the Year of Mark.  This continues the reading of this letter which, in many ways, is an exhortation to hope - a worthy task in the season of resurrection.  It shall be the preacher's task to continue to exhort people to a vibrant hope, and in this text, to be prepared to defend one's hope.

(The following questions center on the issue of how the Word is functioning.  This is a central concern of Law and Gospel preachers, since the way the Word functions is the way the sermon, at least in part, must function.  For more on this method and on Law and Gospel preaching in general, 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?  This text is split up quite cleanly into two sections, verses 13-17 and 18-22, wherein we see the text functioning in the former section as a call to obedience, and in the latter as Gospel.  In other words, the initial five verses invite the listeners to live in a certain way because of what God in Christ has done for them, and the last five verses proclaim all that God has done.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no clear word of Law here, no word that says explicitly, "You need Christ."  To be sure, the text speaks of enemies of believers, but it does not address the need for a Savior.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  As in all these readings in I Peter, we identify with those to whom these words were first written.  We are those for whom Christ has died, and those who are called to give a defense for the hope that is in us.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Although the text lacks examples of Law language, there is plenty of Gospel language, and so we shall simply design couplets using the Gospel terms. For example:  unrighteous/righteous; lost/brought to God; a guilty conscience/free of guilt.

5.  Exegetical work:  The word translated as 'defense' is a word which theologians know well. It is the word apologia, from which we get the words apology, apologist, and apologetics.  While the common use of this word is to express regret, in this case it is far from that. The word means to make a spirited defense.  According to Rienecker and Rogers, "The word was often used of the argument for the defense in a court of law and though the word may have the idea of a judicial interrogation in which one is called to answer for the manner in which he has exercised his responsibilities (Beare), the word can also mean an informal explanation or defense of one's own position...and the word would aptly describe giving an answer to the skeptical, abusive, or derisive inquiries of ill-disposed neighbors. (Kelly)." (Linguistic Key to the Greek NT, p. 758)  Fourth century exegete, Didymus the Blind, has this to say:  "We must be so well instructed in the knowledge of our faith that whenever anyone asks us about it we may be able to give them a proper answer and to do so with meekness and in the fear of God.  For whoever says anything about God must do so as if God himself were present to hear him."  (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, Vol. XI, p. 104) 

6.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  To have the listener experience the text, that is always the goal of the sermon, said Fred Craddock.  How will we give our listeners an experience of this text?  That is the question.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Baby Rocks Hewn from the Living Stone

I Peter 2:2-10, the epistle reading for the Fifth Sunday of Easter in the Year of Mark, continues our reading through the book of First Peter in this season.  This passage is loaded with Old Testament metaphors, curious because we understand that this letter was not written to Jews, but quite likely to Gentiles mainly.  Be that as it may, the language is rich both in Law and Gospel.  It shall be the preacher's task to lift up both.

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but are only an avenue for exploring the function of the Word, a central concern of Law and Gospel preachers.  As the Word functions in the text, so should the Word function in the sermon.  For more on this method and Law and Gospel preaching in general, 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?  There is plenty of evidence of both Law and Gospel in this short text.  The Word functions as Gospel whenever we hear what God is doing to save: "a living stone...chosen and precious in God's sight, "a cornerstone chosen and precious; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame, "but you are chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people."  The Word functions as Law whenever it exposes our need for a Savior:  "a living stone, rejected by mortals, "The stone the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner," and "A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall, "Once you were not a people... once you had not received mercy."

2.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are the "newborn infants" who are exhorted to "long for pure spiritual milk."  We are those who "have tasted that the Lord is good."  We are those who are being built into "a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God."  In short, we are the ones addressed by this text of Law and Gospel.

3.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  Like many other passages in I Peter, in addition to Law and Gospel, the Word also functions here to invite the listeners to live in response to God's grace.  The exhortation to "let yourselves be built into a spiritual house," is a classic call to obedience.  We are those who have tasted the goodness of the Lord, now we are exhorted to let God do the work of building us up in faith.  We were not saved for our own sake alone, but "in order that [we] might proclaim the mighty acts of him who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light."

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The presence of clear Law/Gospel language in this text offers a number of appropriate couplets:  rejected/chosen; unbelief/belief; no people/God's people; had not received mercy/have received mercy.

5.  Exegetical work:  Pheme Perkins, in her commentary, has lifted up some of the many OT references which I Peter calls on.  They come mainly from the prophet Isaiah and the book of Exodus.  Isa 28:6 (v.6)  "And a spirit of justice to the one who sits in judgment, and strength to those who turn back the battle at the gate." Psa 118:22 (v.7) "The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone." Isa 8:14 (v.8)  "He will become a sanctuary, a stone one strikes against; for both houses of Israel he will become a rock one stumbles over." Isa 43:20 "a chosen people," Exo 19:6 "a priestly kingdom and a holy nation," Isa 43:21 "the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise." (v.9)  Verses 9b-10 also echo two other prophetic passages:  Isa 9:2, "The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light," and Hos 2:23, "And I will say to Lo-ammi, [Not my people] 'You are my people': and he shall say, 'You are my God'".  (Interpretation series, First and Second Peter, James, and Jude, p. 43)  What is clear in this passage is that the writer is emphasizing again and again the new identity these early believers had in Christ.  They were not to be defined by their state as exiles of the Dispersion (1:1), but rather as children of God, called to be a holy nation, priests to witness to God's glory.

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Although Michael Hoy does not provide a Crossings analysis of this text, his commentary, archived under the reference, is insightful.  He speaks of our identity as "chips off the new block."  In our baptism into Christ, the Living Stone, we become part of this "new block."  Christ is the Rock upon which we can stand.  See the entire commentary at crossings.org/text-study.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Entrusting Oneself to God

I Peter 2:19-25, the Second Reading appointed for the 4th Sunday of Easter in the Year of Mark, is a curious reading.  The message, by itself, can seem merely a call to all believers to "take up the Cross and follow Christ." Christ suffered, so we, his followers must expect to suffer too.  Reading the context, however, only one verse earlier, makes all this considerably more complex.  Consider verse 18:  "Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh."  That verse puts the following verses, which call the hearers to "endure pain while suffering unjustly," into a whole new light.  It will be important for the preacher to lift up this context and yet to recognize the call we all have as followers of Christ.

(The following questions are meant to lift up a central concern of Law and Gospel preachers: how is the Word functioning?  This is central because Law and Gospel preaching recognizes that the way in which the Word functions in the text is the guide given to the preacher for how the sermon must function.  For more on this method and Law and Gospel preaching in general, see my brief guide, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com and amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text? The bulk of this text is a classic call to obedience. That is to say, the Word functions to invite us, even command us, to live in a certain way in response to God's work in Christ.  Here the invitation is to extraordinary living, especially when we consider the ones to whom this word is  addressed.  Slaves are being asked to endure harsh treatment and even abuse, thereby openly "entrusting [themselves] to the one who judges justly."  Clearly this text is open to abuse and is known to have been used to commit horrific acts against enslaved people.  Having said that, it stands as an extraordinary example of our calling to entrust ourselves to God. 

The Word functions in a second way in this text.  In the later verses, as the writer is focusing more and more on the example of Christ, the Word begins to proclaim gospel:  "He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross... by his wounds you have been healed."  This is pure gospel.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  We are not confronted with a word of Law in this text.  In the last verse, the writer notes that the listeners "were going astray" but even that is in past tense.  There is no indication that the writer wishes to confront the audience with their need for a Savior.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  This is a tricky question given the context.  While it is undoubtedly true that many of the earliest believers were household slaves, few, if any, of us today have personal knowledge of what slavery entails.  Given this, we must not claim an experience which is not ours to claim, but rather think of other experiences where we have suffered unjustly for our confession of Christ.  Like those first listeners, we are being called to entrust ourselves to the one who judges justly.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Because this text is primarily a call to obedience, we must take what little language we have regarding the Gospel and then use our imagination to create couplets which are appropriate to this text.  Some ideas:  enslaved to sin/free from sin; wounded/healed; going astray/found by the shepherd.

5.  Exegetical work:  It is instructive to note that the word translated "entrusted" in verse 23 is paradidomi, a word usually translated "handed over" or  "delivered to" or even "betrayed into".  The clear meaning of the word is that one is given into the power or control of another.  In this text, listeners are being asked to do that very thing:  give themselves over to "the one who judges justly."  We are asked to  deliver ourselves into God's power, to entrust ourselves to this Just Judge.  As noted above, the household slaves to which this was first written were being asked to do this in extreme circumstances which most of us can only imagine. Pheme Perkins, in her commentary, takes up this whole subject:  "The example of Christ's suffering permits those who are slaves to recognize a value to their own experiences of injustice.  At the same time, the sufferers know that they have a value to God, which has been expressed in Christ's death on their behalf.  The negative words and deeds directed at believers will not shake their confidence in the salvation that they have already experienced.  Suffering without belonging to this new community would be senseless." (Interpretation series, First and Second Peter, James, and Jude, p. 54) 

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Marcus Felde's 2017 analysis of this text takes the last verse, our "going astray", as the starting point for his diagnosis. He then goes on to show how far we go astray.  His clear prognosis also picks up on the terms in the text where Christ bears our sins "in his body on the cross."  He calls this "the sweet exchange", a favorite Crossings Community phrase.  To see the whole analysis go to crossings.org/text-study.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Monday, April 20, 2020

Born Anew of Imperishable Seed

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The Easter Season during the Year of Matthew finds us reading portions from the First Letter of Peter.  As in Week 2, now in Week 3 we find ourselves in the first chapter.  The writer continues to lift up the mighty acts of God, undoubtedly concerned that those reading or hearing this letter might be struggling spiritually during their time of exile.  This letter becomes for us a reminder of all God has done and is doing, lest we too, in our exilic COVID-19 time, might flag in faith. It will be the preacher's job to lift up this good news.

(The following questions have been developed to answer questions around the functioning of the Word, a central concern for Law and Gospel preachers.  Law and Gospel preachers understand that as the Word is functioning, so ought a sermon on that Word be functioning.  For more on this method, and on Law and Gospel preaching in general, 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?  The Word here functions almost completely as Gospel.  The writer reminds us that we were "ransomed from... futile ways," that Christ was revealed "for your sake," and through Christ "you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory."  These are all reminders of what God has done and is doing - pure Gospel.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  The word of Law, which exposes our need for Christ, is not present in a direct way in this text.  We are reminded in the opening verse that we ought to live in "reverent fear" because we know God as impartial judge, yet there is little here that announces our need for a Savior.  The mentioning of the "futile ways" of the ancestors is again an indirect reference to our need for a Savior, yet here we are told that we have been rescued from this, not that we are now living in these ways.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are part of the initial body of listeners.  We receive this word as spoken to us:  it is we who have been ransomed, we who have come to trust God, and we who know what it is to live in futile ways.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  There are a number of classic calls to obedience in this short passage. The clearest one is verse 22:  "Now that you have purified your souls... love one another deeply from the heart."  This is the classic call to obedience where we are invited to live in response to what God has done.  Because we have been ransomed from futile ways, and God has been at work again and again "for our sakes" we are invited to love deeply.  This is the call to obedience.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The language in this short passage provides fodder for a number of couplets:  futility/fulfillment; dead/born anew; sinful/purified.

6.  Exegetical work:  Pheme Perkins, in her commentary on this passage, notes that many of the original listeners to this letter were likely household slaves.  She argues that the use of redemption language would have been very familiar to them:  "Since many resident foreigners came to live in other cities because they had been taken there as slaves, references to 'ransoming' may have connected the readers' experience with the biblical imagery of Exodus (Exod. 6:6; 15:13).  Though they have been ransomed, the letter's readers remain in exile and subject to the constraints of obedience.  However, readers have been 'freed' from another form of slavery, that of their ancestral way of life." (Interpretation series, First and Second Peter, James, and Jude, p. 38).  The question of what the "futile ways of the ancestors" were is open to speculation.  The Book of Acts offers several stories which seem likely candidates.  In Act 16:16f we hear of "money-making by fortune telling."  This practice was one which the apostle Paul identified as enslaving.  Again in Acts 19:23f we hear of the lucrative business of selling idols, another practice which Paul called into question.  It seems likely that these practices and others like them were those practices the writer of I Peter called "futile."

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Archived under its reference is a concise analysis of this text by Mark Marius. He does an excellent job of taking the specific language of this text and moving from diagnosis to prognosis, all the time sticking to the language provided. Excellent.  See for yourself at crossings.org/text-study.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Born into a Living Hope

I Peter 1:3-9, the Second Reading appointed for the Second Sunday of Easter in the Year of Matthew, is a wonderful text to read in the Easter season.  It proclaims our new birth into "a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ."  It seems that our hope comes alive by means of Christ coming alive.  The vitality of our hope is then directly connected to the vitality of Christ in our lives.  It shall be our privilege to proclaim this great gift!

(The following questions are part of a method developed for Law and Gospel preachers who seek to understand how the Word is functioning.  These questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but are best used in conjunction with other fine sets of questions available to preachers and exegetes.  For more on this method and Law and Gospel preaching in general, 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?  This text is functioning almost entirely as Gospel.  Over and over, the writer announces to the hearers what God has done.  God has given a "new birth", an "inheritance" that is "imperishable, undefiled, and unfading."  God is also protecting these hearers and even using their suffering to refine their faith to an even more glorious form.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  The Law, the Word functioning to highlight the need for a Savior, is almost completely absent.  The one exception is the mention, in verse 6, of their suffering "various trials."  Indeed, we learn from the greeting in verse 1:1 that these hearers are "exiles of the Dispersion," no small burden.  Their suffering, we learn in the letter, is a direct result of their refusal to abandon their confession of Christ. They are bearing witness, and so are paying the price.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We best identify with those to whom the Word is addressed.  In the days of the COVID-19 pandemic, in which we are now living, we are certainly suffering, although not because of our confession, rather because of this global plague.  Nevertheless, we are among those who need to hear that we are not identified solely as victims of a plague, but as children of God, protected, beloved, and promised an unfading inheritance in Christ.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  In verse 8 there is not so much a call to obedience as a commendation for living in response to God's mercy:  "Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with and indescribable an glorious joy."

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The language in the text, though not complete, suggests several couplets:  death/new birth; impoverished/having a rich inheritance; abandoned/protected by God.

6.  Exegetical work:  It is important to understand the word peirasmos, which is translated as "trials" at the end of verse 6.  This term does not refer to trials which come to us merely because we are part of the human race (e.g. illness, injury, calamity, etc.), but rather trials which come to us because we confess Christ as Lord.  Kittel, in his extended article on this term, notes that "for the Christian suffering is participation in the sufferings of Christ, and hence in the last analysis it means joy." (Theological Dictionary of the NT, vol. VI, p. 30).  This kind of suffering may be avoided if one abandons the confession of Christ.  In other places in the NT this term is translated as "temptation." (e.g. in the Beatitudes)  Pheme Perkins, in her commentary on this text, makes clear this point:  "As we read through I Peter, we discover that the trials to which it refers are those that are in some sense related to a person's individual confession.  They are inflicted by persons who fit the category of "the wicked" in Wisd. Sol. 3:1-6.  Testimony to the truth of the gospel stirs up anger, taunting, skepticism, and the like, the aim of which is to demonstrate that the righteous are not in fact what they appear to be.  The distinctive behavior of believers under trial witnesses to the power and truth of the gospel." (Interpretation series, First and Second Peter, James, and Jude, p. 32)  Athanasius, 4th century bishop of Alexandria, also comments on this suffering:  "Because the saints saw that the divine fire would cleanse them and benefit them, they did not shrink back from or get discouraged by the trials which they faced.  Rather than being hurt by what they went through, they grew and were made better, shining like gold that has been refined in a fire."  (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, vol. XI, p. 71).

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Fred Craddock was always concerned that the preacher brings the experience of the text to the listener.  It will be the preacher's task to tap into like experiences of suffering for Christ and joy in Christ in order for the listeners to connect to this text.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, April 4, 2020

An Everlasting Love

Jeremiah 31:1-6, an alternate First Reading for Easter Day, is not a passage we know well, even though for Lutherans at least, the end of this chapter is one we do know.  Every Reformation Sunday we read Jeremiah 31:31-34:  "The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel."  This new covenant language is a prominent theme in this Book of Comfort - Chapters 30 and 31 - wherein we learn that God is announcing the end of exile.  What a change this is in the midst of Jeremiah's laments.  How we need this word.  It will be the joyful task of the preacher to announce God's everlasting love to the listeners.

(The following questions are part of a method developed to bring out the way the Word functions in the text, a particular concern of Law and Gospel preachers. These questions are meant to be used along with other fine sets of questions which attend to other important matters.  For more on this method and to learn about Law and Gospel preaching in general, 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?  This passage is pure Gospel, stated most gloriously in verse 3:  "I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you."  The end of that verse uses the common Hebrew word, hesed, which refers to a steadfast lovingkindness that will not be extinguished.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  Unlike the majority of Jeremiah's writings, this passage continues no word of Law.  There is nothing in this passage that accuses, nor anything that suggests Israel's need for a Savior.  Of course, we understand the context is one of exile, so the need for deliverance is obvious.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are the exiles hearing this word of hope. We are those who are crying tears of joy as we hear that once again there will be a day when we will be able to "go up to Zion" and assemble in the Lord's house.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The Word functioning to invite us to live in response to God's grace is not present in this text.  One of the choices for a second reading on Easter day, Colossians 3:1-4, begins with a wonderful example of a call to obedience:  "So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above..."  If the preacher wishes to preach a call to obedience, this is the place to start.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Since the Law is only present in the assumed context, we shall need to use our imagination to come up with language for couplets.  Here are a few ideas:  bondage/free; in ruins/rebuilt; in mourning/celebrating.

6.  Exegetical work: The Lutheran Study Bible has this to say about Jeremiah 30:1-31:40:  "Scholars have named this section The Book of Comfort.  The Lord's word through Jeremiah announces the building and planting we were expecting since the prophet's call at 1:4-10."  If we look at 1:10 we see that Jeremiah's call was to "pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow," which was surely the bulk of his work, but it was also "to build and to plant."  In this Book of Comfort we finally see this work.  John Calvin, writing in his Commentary on Jeremiah, had this to say:  "We now perceive the design of the prophet... that there was no reason to fear that God would fail in due time to deliver his people; for it was well known that then when he became formerly the liberator of his people, his power was manifested in many and resplendent ways." (Reformation Commentary on Scripture, OT, vol. XI, p.288)  Abraham Heschel would concur:  "God's love of Israel is one of Israel's sacred certainties which Jeremiah, like Hosea and Isaiah before him, tried to instill in the minds of the people."  (The Prophets, vol. 1, p. 107)  I love that phrase, "the sacred certainty of God's love."  That will preach!

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  On Easter day there is probably no shortage of celebration in our preaching, and that is as it should be.  We need to celebrate.  We need also, as Eugene Lowry always reminded us, to move our listeners from disequilibrium to equilibrium.  In short, let us spend some time in the tomb before heading out into the light.

Blessings on your proclamation!


Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Tremors of an Earthquake to Come?

Matthew 21:1-11, the Processional Gospel appointed for Palm Sunday, is a very familiar story.  It is the account of the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.  The story is unusual in that it is found in all the Synoptics as well as the gospel of John, albeit John locates it differently chronologically.  In this story, context is everything.  According to the Synoptic gospels, Jesus has foretold his suffering and death no less than three times prior to this event.  Clearly, Jesus knows what awaits him in Jerusalem.  The crowds also have their expectation; they are longing for a Messiah, and clearly see Jesus as the one who will fill that role.  We know how this ends, but for now our focus as preachers must be on this event itself.  How do these hosannas sound to us?

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive. They are best used in concert with other fine sets of exegetical questions which provide other lenses for the reader.  These questions are meant to get at the way the Word functions in the text.  For more on this method and on Law and Gospel preaching in particular, see my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The context helps us answer this question.  Jesus has foretold his suffering and death.  The people are crying out "Hosanna", which means, "Save us!  Deliver us!"  Given these two pieces of context, we can see that the Word, in this case the actions of Jesus herein described, is functioning as Gospel.  The narrative is proclaiming that Jesus is indeed the Savior, the One who comes to deliver us, and the One who comes even into the presence of his enemies, knowing that this ride is a ride that will end at Golgotha.  The cry of the people is also evidence of the Law: they are suffering under oppression; they are crying out for deliverance.  Jesus comes to save them from that oppression.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  The Law is not present in any overt way, only in the context as noted above.  The Law is the Word exposing our need for a Savior.  Though the people clearly long for a Savior, the Word is not functioning here to expose that need.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are the crowds, the ones shouting "Save us! Deliver us!"  We long to be delivered from all our enemies, from any pestilence, from suffering of any kind.  "Make all of our troubles go away," we cry.  It is the cry of all of humanity, as St. Paul says, "For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden." (II Cor. 5:4a)

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to follow Jesus will come later in the Passion. At this juncture the Word is not functioning in this way.  If we wish to pursue this, the 2nd reading appointed for this Sunday is a great place to start, as Paul exhorts us, "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus..." (Phil 4:5)

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  We could imagine many couplets coming out of this scene:  oppressed/freed; despairing/hopeful; dying/being raised up.

6.  Exegetical work:  There are a number of terms in this story that we gain a deepened understanding of when we see them in their original language.  The word praus, translated "humble", (vs. 5) comes to us directly from the Septuagint version of Zechariah 9:9.  What that term actually means is debated by scholars.  Mark Allan Powell looks back at the use of this term in the Beatitudes ("Blessed are the praus", 5:5) and argues that "praus does not refer to 'the humble' in such instances but to 'the humiliated.""  "The praus are ones who have not been given their share of the earth." (God With Us, p. 126)  Powell goes on:  "Drawing on the 'suffering servant' theme of Isaiah, Matthew presents Jesus as one who seeks to proclaim justice to those who have been deprived of it and who, accordingly, comes to be deprived of it himself." (Ibid., p. 137)  Douglas Hare goes another direction:  "Matthew, however, is here following the Septuagint, which chose to describe the king as gentle rather than humble. The quotation thus reinforces the claim of 11:29, 'I am gentle and humble in heart.'" (Interpretation series, Matthew, p. 238)  Another word worth looking at more closely is the word translated 'turmoil' in verse 10.  The Greek verb is seio, which in 27:51 and 28:4 is translated as quake and shake, as in an earthquake.  Matthew's account of the resurrection of Christ includes a seismos (earthquake) in 27:54 and 28:2, and so it is perhaps worth noting that the early tremors of that event have begun here.  Finally, the Greek word 'hosanna' which is left untranslated, comes from the Septuagint translation of Psalm 118:25.  Literally, that verse means, "Ah, now, we beseech you, O Lord, save us!  Ah, now, we beseech you, O Lord, grant us success."  This is what the people were crying as Jesus was led into  Jerusalem.  Psalm 118:26 is what follows: "Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord."  It is also worth noting that Psalm 118:22 says, "The stone which  the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone."  Could it be that the people had that in mind that day as well?

Blessings on your proclamation! 

Saturday, March 28, 2020

An Ancient Yet Timely Word

Ezekiel 37:1-14, the First Reading for the 5th Sunday in Lent in the Year of Matthew, is one of those passages that is so vivid, one cannot help but remembering it.  From the African-American spiritual, "Dem Dry Bones" to the paintings of the masters, this text has planted itself deeply in our memory.  In this exilic time of COVID-19, can there be any more hopeful text than this?  The preacher will want to thunder this message from the mountain tops, "I will put by spirit within you, and you shall live," says the Lord.

(The following questions are part of a method developed for Law and Gospel preachers to draw out a fundamental concern:  how does the Word function in the text?  These questions are not meant to be exhaustive or to stand on their own.  To understand the method more completely and to explore Law and Gospel preaching further, see my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com and amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  This is a complete text in the sense that the Word functions in all the ways it can.  It functions as Law as it points out the situation:  "He led me all around [the bones]; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry."  Also, later when the Lord says, "Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel.  They say, 'Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely," this too, is the Word functioning as Law, showing our need for a Savior.  The main body of the text, however, is Gospel in function as the Lord tells the prophet what God will do, and then does the deed!  "And the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude."  And later as well when the Lord God proclaims, "I am going to open your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel."  Good news indeed!

2.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are clearly God's people in exile. We are those who say, "Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely."  We identify solely with those who need desperately to hear the word of God's victory over death.

3.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience is the text functioning to invite us to live in a certain way in response to God's work.  A reader could hear the call to prophesy in this text and take that as a call to obedience.  That might be possible if we identify with the prophet.  If, however, we are identifying with the ones desperate to hear this good news, there is no call to obedience here; there is only the call to faith in the God who raises the dead.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The couplets in this text are obvious:  dead/alive; dry bones/breathing beings; cut off completely/brought back to the land.

5.  Exegetical work:  John Taylor, in his commentary, equates the dry bones with the people of Israel in exile:  "The bones represent the Israelites in exile.  They have been  there for more than ten years now, and what glimmerings of hope they had when first they arrived have now been altogether extinguished." (The Tyndale OT Commentaries, Ezekiel, p.234-235) The 17th century English clergyman, William Greenhill, also notes the state of these bones:  "This seems an absurd thing, that the prophet should prophesy to creatures insensible, unintelligible, void of life; it was as if God should bid a man preach to a heap of stones, or dry chips, which are incapable of hearing." (Reformation Commentary on Scripture, OT, vol. XII, p. 181)  Paulinus of Nola, 4th century Latin poet, saw Ezekiel as the one who had a glimpse of God's power over death:  "If you are skeptical that ashes can be reassembled into bodies and souls restored to their vessels, Ezekiel will be your witness, for long ago the whole process of resurrection was revealed to him by the Lord."  (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, OT, vol. XIII, p. 122)  Finally, I love the succinct statement of Ambrose, Augustine's teacher:  "It is the prerogative of God to raise the dead."  (Ibid, p.123).  Thanks be to God!

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Steven Kuhl does an outstanding job of lifting up the clear outlines of Law and  Gospel in this text.  He does this through a skillful use of three sets of couplets in the diagnosis and prognosis:  dismembered/remembered; dispirited/revived; dispossessesd/repossessed.  Excellent.  Go to crossings.org/text-study to see the analysis in detail.

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Henry Mitchell was a champion of celebration in the pulpit.  He said that the preacher must be the first one to sense the ecstasy in the text.  This text is one that should revive any preacher.  Few texts demand celebration the way this one does.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Born Blind, Yet Now I See

John 9:1-41, the gospel reading for the 4th Sunday of Lent in the Year of Matthew, is one of the most dramatic narratives in all of scripture.  It contains drama and comedy, irony and tragedy.  It is a timeless story revolving around one question, "How were your eyes opened?"  This one question opens up a host of other questions:  How does one gain insight into the ways of God?  Why do some see and some not?  What is our part in our seeing and what is God's part?  It will be a challenge for the preacher to settle on one question and not try to exhaust this subject. 

(The following questions are taken from my Law and Gospel preaching method. They are questions which attempt to come to terms with how the Word is functioning, a primary concern for Law and Gospel preaching.  To learn more about this method or Law/Gospel preaching in general, 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?  In answer to this question I am reminded of John's words earlier in this gospel where he says, "The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." (1:17)  We see both grace and truth in this narrative.  There is grace - Gospel - in the healing and faith given to the man born blind.  There is truth - Law, in this case - given to the Pharisees who cannot see anything except that "this man is a sinner." The word functions as Gospel every time it heals and gives faith. The word functions as Law every time it lifts up our lostness apart from Christ.

2.  How does the Word not function in the text?  There is no call to obedience here.  The call to obedience is the Word functioning to invite us to live in a certain way in response to the Gospel.  The response being call for in this text is faith; this is not a call to obedience.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  This is a tricky question.  We almost always are called to identify with those who are being addressed by the Word; in this story those addressed by the Word are primarily the man born blind and the Pharisees.  Can we identify with both?  Yes, we can and we probably should.  We are those who when asked, "How is it that you see?" will respond, "Jesus washed me and anointed me and now I see," alluding to our baptism.  But when asked in what ways we fail to see Christ before us, perhaps in "the least ones", we are called to admit our need for repentance.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Since this is a story of contrasts, the couplets that come to mind are innumerable.  A few suggestions:  lost/found; blind/seeing; unbelief/faith.

5.  Exegetical work: John's ability to include irony in these narratives is remarkable.  Over and over, characters in these stories say things that have one meaning in the story but profound theological truths beyond it.  For example, in verse 9 the man cries out, "I am the man!"  The Greek text reveals that this is actually what only Jesus is allowed to say, "Ego eimi"  I am.   Also in verse 24, the Pharisees say, "We know that this man is a sinner."   The irony and theological truth of these words in both the man born blind and the Pharisees is summed up in St. Paul's later words:  "For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." (II Cor. 5:21)  The truth is, the man born blind will be given the righteousness of God, and the identity of sinner which the Pharisees accuse him of, will indeed become Christ's identity.  Theologically, the baptism motif is something the Church has picked up on for ages.  Raymond Brown highlights this in his analysis, noting how being born blind has been thought to be the metaphor for "born in sin," indeed, exactly as the Pharisees said. (vs. 34)  Physical blindness has been seen to equal spiritual blindness,  the smearing with mud is the signing with oil, and washing in the pool at Christ's command is akin to baptism.  According to Brown the early Church read John 9 on the event of the baptism of catechumens, with the climax being the words of the man born blind, "Lord, I believe." (The Gospel According to John, I-XII, p. 380f)  Peter Ellis also picks up on this early baptismal practice, noting "it is well known that anointing with spittle became part of the baptismal rites early on." (The Genius of John, p. 165)

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Marcus Felde is at his creative best in analyzing this story.  He speaks in terms of tragedy and comedy.  I love how he titles the first part of the prognosis, "Mud in your I", alluding to God's creative act in making human beings from the start, and  how Christ is doing that very thing again.  See crossings.org/text-study for the entire analysis.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Thursday, March 19, 2020

A Psalm We Need to Hear

I was so surprised when I opened my lectionary planning guide and discovered that Psalm 23 was the psalm appointed for the 4th Week in Lent.  "Isn't that usually reserved for the Easter Season on Good Shepherd Sunday?" I thought.  But here it is, and talk about timely.  It is a psalm we need to hear this week, as so many of us have closed our doors to corporate worship for the first time lest we be carriers of the COVID-19 virus which is spreading globally.  Whether we share this psalm as a sermon, a devotional, or as a personal word, it will be welcome.  It is a psalm we need to hear.

(The following questions have been developed to answer some of the fundamental questions we ask as Law and Gospel preachers. We are particularly interested in how the Word is functioning since this informs how the sermon will function.  For more on this method, or the unique genre of 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?  This psalm is almost completely a gospel word.  Throughout the psalm we receive assurances of God's provision, protection, restoration, and guidance.  We are assured of God's presence no matter how dark it gets.  We are also told that a banquet table has been prepared for us, and we will dwell in God's abundant grace forever.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  A word of Law we define as the Word functioning to expose our need for Christ.  Is that present here?  Not directly.  What is present is mention of all those things that stalk us and might well cause us to fall away from Christ, e.g. want, dark valleys, and enemies.  We all know how quickly we follow the example of the Israelites in the wilderness and turn on God when we lack bread and water, when we experience suffering, and when our enemies come near.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We identify with the psalmist.  We are those who cling to the promise that God is with us through "the valley of the shadow of death."  We are those who bear witness to God's abundant grace, and proclaim that grace to others.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Using some of the imagery in this psalm we can imagine a number of couplets:  in want/filled; tired/restored; lost/on right paths; living in the shadow of death/living in the light of the resurrection.

5.  Exegetical work:  It is amazing how few words this psalm has in its original Hebrew.  For example, the first verse is only four words in Hebrew.  The entire psalm is only 48 words, simple or compound.  It is certainly no accident that the word which is exactly in the center of the psalm is atah, the Hebrew word for 'you' or 'thou'.  This word is exactly at the point when the psalmist changes from third person to second person address;  ..."I fear no evil, because ATAH - thou art with me."  The poetry of this psalm lifts up this truth:  "Even in the darkest times of life, YOU, are with me, Lord."  The psalmist is no longer addressing the listener, but is addressing God directly.  According to the New International Version Study Bible, verse 5 describes a banquet which is held in recognition of a new covenant between a king and a vassal-king.  "In the ancient Near East, covenants were often concluded with a meal expressive of the bond of friendship; in the case of vassal treaties or covenants, the vassal was present as the guest of the overlord."  So what the psalmist is lifting up is the covenant between the Lord and those in the Lord's favor.  The final verse speaks of "covenant benefits" bestowed on the vassal-king, ensuring a lasting peace.

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Peter Keyel, in his recent analysis, shows how we go from a general recognition of wickedness to personal lostness.  The gospel word is the presence of the Good Shepherd who does more than seek us out in the wilderness.  Christ actually goes into the shadow of death himself and defeats it.  Go to crossings.org/ text-study to see the entire analysis.

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Charles Rice insisted that the preacher help listeners recognize the part of God's story that intersects with their story.  Certainly in this anxious time it will not be hard for the preacher to find places where these precious promises intersect with the listeners' need to hear them.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Monday, March 9, 2020

Thirsty for What?

John 4:5-42, the gospel reading appointed for the Third Sunday in Lent in the Year of Matthew, is another of those extended narrative passages in John which we are reading this year.  It stands in stark contrast to the one which we read last week, where Nicodemus was a powerful man, a leader of the Sanhedrin, an insider in every regard.  The Samaritan woman is a member of a despised clan, a woman of low esteem in her community, an outsider by every measure.  It will be the preacher's task to proclaim the gospel in the unique way that Jesus does to this outsider, as opposed to the insider that Jesus preached to last week.

(The following questions have been developed in order to get at some of the fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preaching, i.e. how the Word is functioning.  These brief questions are meant to be used in conjunction with other sets of questions which are helpful in providing different lens for looking at texts.  For more information 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?  This extended dialogue gives us an example of the Word functioning in every way that it can:  1) A Gospel function is present whenever we hear Jesus proclaiming his desire to give to all the 'living water' (vss. 10, 13-14); 2) A Law function is present when the woman testifies to her thirst (vss. 7, 15), and admits to her need for repentance (vs. 17) ; 3)  A Call to Obedience is present when we hear Jesus calling his disciples to quit sitting around and instead get to the work of the harvest when the 'fields are ripe'.(vss. 35-38). 

2.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  As usual, it is important to identify with those who are addressed by the Word.  In this story that is clearly the Samaritan woman.  We might identify with her in many ways:  outcast, powerless, disenfranchised, shame-based, defensive, scornful, thirsting, seeking truth, needing healing and forgiveness, needing love, etc.  The ways we identify with her are only limited by our imagination.

3.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  As explained above, there is a clear call to the disciples to get to work, proclaiming the gospel.  Even though this is not the main focus of this narrative, we could certainly make that part of the sermon.  It is tempting to see Jesus' example here as a call to obedience as well, and view this story as one which illustrates evangelistic technique.  Many a sermon has had as its thesis, "Do as Jesus does!  Find the town 'watering hole'.  Begin with people 'where they are.'  'Confront them with their sin', and so on.  While evangelistic techniques have their place, this text is not primarily an exhortation to evangelism. 

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  There are many couplets that one could imagine with this text.  The most obvious is a common well/a spring gushing up to eternal life.  Others might be:  dead cisterns/living waters; outcast/embraced and respected; unknown/completely known.

5.  Exegetical work:  The multi-layered meaning of John's writing are on full display in any of the commentaries which discuss this passage.  Craig Koester has a helpful discussion about the symbolism of water in all of John's writing.  He reminds us that for Jews and Samaritans alike the law was often likened to water.  "Extant Samaritan sources speak of the law as 'a well of living water' from God.  (Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel, p. 189)  This gives us a clue that perhaps John is suggesting that Jesus will bring life and salvation in a way akin to the way the law brought life to God's people during Israel's history.  Gerard Sloyan reminds us that John often uses an individual as a representative for a larger group, saying, "we are right to doubt the literal truth of the woman's having had five husbands and not being married to her present partner (v.18).  Aside from the inherent improbability of such a career, there is the fact that the Samaritans were stigmatized as 'Cuthians'..., a tribe of the Assyrian Empire...These were one of the five idolatrous peoples of the East identified in Second Kings by their gods and consorts." (Interpretation series, John, p.55)  Lamar Williamson sees the language of the Spirit as central to this dialogue.  He is convinced that when Jesus talks about "a spring of water gushing up to eternal life" he is talking about the Spirit. "What Jesus promises is not something that will be used up after he gives it, but the gift of himself in the person of the Paraclete." (Preaching the Gospel of John, p.49) 

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Archived under this text are no less than four interesting analyses of this text.  One emphasizes the theme of thirst and Jesus' ability to satisfy our thirst.  Another talks about the woman's outcast status, and how Jesus "sticks with her", even though she is"stuck."  Still others call on the harvest language or the woman's awareness of her own sin.  Go to crossings.org/text-study to see this rich array.

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  This lengthy text is an invitation to a sermon that tries to do too much.  As the old saying goes, "The preacher that tries to exhaust a subject, usually ends up only exhausting the listeners!"  David Buttick's insight to limit the number of moves we make in a sermon to what is essential is good advice here.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Monday, March 2, 2020

Nicodemus and Us

John 3:1-17, the Gospel reading appointed for the 2nd Sunday in Lent in the year of Matthew, includes perhaps the most well-known verse in the Bible:  "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life." (3:16)  Prior to that verse is an account of the conversation between Jesus and a Pharisee named Nicodemus.  As is common in John's gospel, Nicodemus represents a group of people; i.e. his questions are not his alone but those of many people.  It will be the job of the preacher to help listeners understand themselves as resembling Nicodemus.

(The following questions have been developed as a way of getting at a fundamental concern for Law and Gospel preachers, i.e. How does the Word function in the text?  These questions provide one lens for looking at a text; other methods provide other lens which are to be commended.  To learn more about this method and Law and Gospel preaching in general, 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?  If the Word functioning as Law serves to expose our need for Christ, and the Word functioning as Gospel proclaims what God has done in Christ, then in this text, we have a tidy arrangement.  The first 12 verses function almost exclusively to show Nicodemus' need for Christ, and so are a word of Law.  Nicodemus testifies to his own lack of understanding, and his dependence on signs.  Jesus affirms Nicodemus' ignorance especially when he says, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?" (vs. 10)  The final 5 verses are all about what God is doing in Christ and thus function as Gospel:  The Son of Man is lifted up as the serpent in the wilderness (i.e. One who brings healing and life); everyone who believes in this Son of Man has eternal life; God loves the world and sent the Son not to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved.

2.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are clearly meant to identify with Nicodemus.  As always, it is important for the preacher not to identify with Jesus, but rather with the one addressed by Jesus.  When preachers identify with Jesus it becomes very easy to see ourselves as those whom are neither addressed by the Word, nor stand in need of it.

3.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience is the Word functioning to invite us to live in a certain way in response to the Gospel.  The Word does not function this way here.  We have the call to faith, but that is not the call to obedience.  If we look at the First Reading appointed for today from Genesis 12, we see that Abram believed God's promise and when God told him to go to a new land, he went.  That is an example of a call to obedience.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  There are lots of couplets present in this text, and many more can perhaps be imagined.  Here are some examples:  night/day; ignorant/enlightened; being dead/being begotten again; condemned/saved.

5.  Exegetical work:  Craig Koester's outstanding commentary on John's gospel gives us some important insights into the people Nicodemus represents.  Koester names three groups:  1) those who have "an inability to understand the ways of God"; 2) those who believe because of Jesus' signs; and 3) "humanity estranged from God."  (Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel, p. 45)  In looking at that list it becomes even more clear that the opening verses of this text function as Law, lifting up our need for Christ.  In Kittel's article on signs (semeion) he notes why those who believe in Jesus because of his signs are not commended for their faith:  "Jesus opposes...an attitude...in which readiness to believe is made dependent on signs and wonders." (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, VII, p. 243f) Kittel points us to John 4:48 where Jesus says, "Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe."  One small detail in translation that opens up this text is knowing that gennao, most often translated "being born", can also be translated "begotten."  In other words both the feminine contribution to new life (giving birth) and the masculine contribution (begetting) are contained in this word.  So if one translates these verses using "begotten"as the text it highlights the fact that this new birth involves having a new Father, not only being born anew.  Raymond Brown, in his classic commentary brings both of these options to light:  "A [person] takes on flesh only after being begotten of a man...Eternal life comes only from being begotten by a Heavenly Father."  "If natural life [comes from] God's giving breath to man, eternal life comes when God gives his Holy Spirit to a man." (The Gospel According to John, I-XII, p. 138, 140)

6.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Charles Rice was one who insisted that the task of the preacher was to help listeners recognize their shared story in a text.  This might be a great chance to do just that - invite people to reflect on when they have been in Nicodemus' place, or perhaps the preacher can share when that was their experience.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Secret Righteousness in Plain View

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21, the Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday, is a text about keeping secrets.  Three times Matthew says, "And your Father who sees in secret will reward you."  Of course, what we are being commanded to keep secret is not something we are ashamed of, but rather something which we would most love others to see.  This text comes not far removed from another command of Jesus': "Let your light so shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven."  Clearly the difference is in who gets the glory.  This shall be the preacher's task to make clear.

(The following questions have been developed in order to make clear how the Word is functioning in any given text, a primary concern of Law and Gospel preachers.  In order to understand the rationale for these questions and to learn more about 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?  We need only look at the form of the verbs in this text to know how the Word functions.  Nearly every verb is an imperative or a prohibition.  In short, these are commands, and as such they function as calls to obedience.  A call to obedience assumes that the call of faith has already been heard, and now the disciple is being instructed.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is almost no Law or Gospel in this text.  That is to say, there is nearly no word that either exposes our need for Christ, or one that proclaims what God has done in Christ.  The final verse is the sole exception to this, as Jesus says, "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." When we hear this we know that our hearts expose our idolatry.

3.  With whom are you  identifying in the text?  Jesus is talking to his disciples here, and we, being his disciples, also receive this word directly.  Jesus is not talking to the world, but to those who claim to be amongst the faithful.  Jesus is talking to us.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Because of the absence of Law and Gospel here, there is little fodder for couplets. Returning to the final verse we might try these:  hearts astray/hearts forgiven; false treasures/true treasures.

5.  Exegetical work:  It is fascinating the multiple ways that the first verse of this pericope has been translated:  "Do not your alms before men" (KJV), "Beware of practicing your piety before men" (RSV), "Be careful not to make a show of your religion before men" (NEB), etc.  Part of this variation is due to the fact that the Greek text is also unsettled.  Most manuscripts use the word dikaiosynae, which is usually translated "righteousness", but a notable number of other manuscripts use the word eleemosynen, which is often translated "acts of compassion or mercy".  Given that the former choice seems, by scholars, to be the preferred one, we are left with an interesting command:  "Beware of doing righteousness..."  Of course, as we have pointed out, the motivation for this doing of good deeds is the whole issue.  According to ancient sources, an anonymous writer had this to say, "It is better to do nothing than to act to be seen." And "The very act of kindness...trumpets itself." (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, vol. 1a, p. 124)  Augustine gets us to the heart of the matter:  "If someone does something with the intent of gaining earthly profit, that one's heart is upon the earth." (Ibid., p. 141)  Douglas Hare, in his contemporary commentary, says it this way:  "Giving, prayer, or fasting, if undertaken for the praise it will win from others, is basically irreligious..." (Interpretation series, Matthew, p. 65)  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his classic commentary on the Sermon on the Mount gives us a strategy going forward:  "Genuine love is always self-forgetful in the true sense of the word.  But if we are to have it, our old man must die with all his virtues and qualities, and this can only be done where the disciple forgets self and clings solely to Christ." (The Cost of Discipleship, p. 160)  There is our strategy:  cling solely to Christ!

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text? Chris Repp's 2018 analysis of this text is an inventive take on this call to obedience.  In the final step of the analysis, he shows how what Jesus is commanding is finally being worked out.  Meanwhile, the boondoggle of the Cross, has become the infrastructure of our salvation.  Check out the entire analysis at crossings.org/text-study.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Cloudy Days on the Mountain

Exodus 24:12-18, the First Reading for the Transfiguration of our Lord in the Year of Mark, is a short reading amidst other more well known readings.  Preceding it is the account of  Moses and the seventy elders ascending the mountain where we read that "God did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; also they beheld God, and they ate and drank." (24:11)  Following the reading, we have tabernacle instructions, but when the narrative picks up we have Aaron and Hur, the ones entrusted with leadership over Israel while Moses is on the mountain, agreeing to the making of a golden calf for Israel to worship, supposedly because the people have given up ever seeing Moses or his God again.  These stories are stories of God's presence and God's absence.  Our listeners will be familiar with both.  It will be the preacher's task to lift this up.

(The following questions are meant to be used in conjunction with other fine sets of questions which exegetes have at their disposal.  These particular questions have been developed to understand the function of the Word in a text, something important for Law and Gospel preachers.  If you would like to learn more about this method and 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?  The cloud functions as a symbol of both Law and Gospel here.  The cloud is a symbol of God's presence, so in that way it is a Gospel function.  We also hear God summoning Moses to receive the law and the commandments, an indication of God's care for the people, so that is also a Gospel function.  The cloud also has the effect of cloaking God in mystery and we are told that "the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire," so there is its Law function.  God is to be both trusted and feared; that is clear.

2.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  Since Moses is being addressed in this text, we do well to take the place of Moses.  We are called by God to enter into the cloud.  We are called to stand before God and listen.  We are called to put our life in God's hands.

3.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  In the word to the elders we have a call to obedience.  It is a simple command:  "Wait here for us, until we come to you again."  As we know, these elders did not obey this command, but descended the mountain and ended up convincing Aaron and Hur to fashion a golden calf for them.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  I have suggested several ways that the cloud functions as a symbol of Law/Gospel.  Using those phrases we might suggest the following couplets:  hiddenness/openness; devouring fire/cleansing fire.

5.  Exegetical work:  The idea that the cloud is a symbol of God's presence has been noted by scholars for a long time.  We see this first in the Exodus story where "the Lord went in front of [Israel] in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night." (Exodus 13:21)  The JPS Torah Commentary translates cabod Yahweh (the glory of the Lord) as "The Presence of the Lord" in both  verse 16 and 17. (p. 154)  It is interesting to think about the presence of God being like a consuming or devouring fire.  Does that suggest that God's presence is continually cleansing us?  Something to ponder.  As far as Moses' willingness to enter the cloud, we have this from Ambrose, the 4th century bishop of Milan:  "If anyone therefore desires to behold this image of God, he must love God so as to be loved by him, no longer as a servant but as a friend who observes his commandments, that he may enter the cloud where God is."  (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, OT, III, p. 121)

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Mark Marius does a nice job of sorting out Law and Gospel in his 2015 analysis, archived under the reference.  He calls the diagnosis, "God will see you... now", and the prognosis, "Now we see God."  He takes us to the mountain of Transfiguration where God truly reveals Godself, "This is my Son, listen to him," and shows how that cloud is the place of God's full revelation.  See the entire analysis at crossings.org/text-study.

Blessings on your proclamation!