Saturday, April 9, 2016

A Matter of Belonging

The picture above, or something like it, was standard fare in the Lutheran churches of my upbringing.  Often in the very center of the chancel above the altar was a picture of the Good Shepherd, and if not there, then likely in stained glass in some other prominent location in the sanctuary or narthex.  The clear message was, "The Lord is your shepherd.  You belong to him."  This image is, of course, taken directly from John 10 where we hear Jesus say, "I am the good shepherd."  In the gospel lesson appointed for the 4th Sunday of Easter, John 10:22-30, we have a picture of the good shepherd surrounded by 'wolves', if you will.  The religious leaders of Jesus' day are desperate to receive a clear word from him:  "If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly."  Jesus then lowers a bomb shell:  "I have told you, and you do not believe...You do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep."  We might have thought that a person did not belong because they did not believe, but Jesus says otherwise; Jesus says that a person does not believe because they do not belong.  It turns out that the belonging is not up to us, but up to God.  As Jesus says a bit later in John 15, "You did not choose me, but I chose you." (15:16)  Is that good news or not?  That is the question.

(The following questions attempt to get at some of the key issues for law/gospel preachers.  These questions follow the format of my guide to law/gospel preaching which can be purchased from amazon.  The title is Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The Word in this text functions as Law because of whom it is spoken to.  It is spoken to the religious elite who believe that they 'belong' but who Jesus says do not.  And because they do not belong, they do not receive the gifts of belonging.  They do not receive eternal life nor the promise of being forever in the Father's hand.  Small wonder that immediately after this conversation these leaders take up stones to stone Jesus.

2. How is the Word not functioning in the text?  This is a tricky text, because these words, if said to ones who belong, would be pure gospel.  If Jesus said to those who belonged to him, "I know you and you follow me.  I give you eternal life and you will never perish.  No one will snatch you out of my hand," all these words would be pure gospel.  But because they are spoken to those who do not belong to Christ, they are not gospel but law.  "You do not know me nor follow me.  You have not life eternal.  You will perish. You will be snatched out of the Father's hand."

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We desperately want to identify with those who are not present in this text - those who belong.  If we would be faithful to the text, however, we must identify with those who are present - the enemies of Jesus. This is tough to do.  We can begin by identifying the ways that we make demands upon Jesus to 'prove' himself to us.  "Do such-and-such and we will believe," we say.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  This text does not function to invite us to live in a certain way in response to God's work.  That word is heard elsewhere this week, like in the story in Acts 9:36-43, where we hear of the kindness of Dorcas.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Several are present directly in the text:  not believing/believing; not belonging/belonging; not following/following; perishing/eternal life.

6.  Exegetical work:  This text gets right at the heart of an issue that has divided Christians for centuries: the relationship between God's sovereignty and human will regarding salvation.  Perhaps the greatest discussion ever produced on this was the one between Martin Luther and Erasmus.  Erasmus argued that in order for a person to be saved, that person had to "apply himself to spiritual concerns." This was not seen as something that obligated God to save the person, but "it merely removed the barrier which had hitherto stood in the way of God giving [God's grace]. (The Bondage of the Will, trans. by Packer and Johnston, p. 49)  In other words, there was a certain "fitness", a certain "openness", a certain "receptiveness"... to the grace of God... that was a prerequisite to receiving it.  Erasmus tried to say that this was not to be equated with earning salvation, but Luther argued that it was.  Luther said that if in any way the giving of God's mercy is dependent on our fitness, our openness, or our receptiveness, we are lost.  Just as good works do not make God a debtor to us, so any idea of fitness before God, does not make God a debtor to us.  Faith, said Luther, is itself "a God-given means whereby the God-given justification is received." (p.59)  In order for salvation to be secure, said Luther, it must finally be in the hands of God.

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Eugene Lowry always advocated moving listeners from equilibrium to disequilibrium back to equilibrium.  This text might be an excellent chance to practice that.

Blessings on your proclamation!

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