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Lectionary Readings
(from the Revised Common Lectionary)

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Sunday, December 3, 2023

First Sunday of Advent—Advent, Year B


The church always begins her year looking forward to the Second Coming of Christ. Advent is not a dramatic reenactment where the church pretends to wait for Baby Jesus to come visit us. It is an opportunity to actively anticipate Christ’s second coming at the end of time. Sermons from the Gospel reading should center on Jesus’ advice to be ready for the Day of the Lord to come very quickly, and exhort the congregation to exercise a vigilant, hopeful anticipation for that day.

It is also worth stressing that, for Christians, the Day of the Lord is now! Jesus arrives in our lives through the empowerment and conviction of the Holy Spirit, so do not wait until the end of the world to respond to his presence and promptings. Parallels may be drawn to Isaiah’s prayer, especially his fearsome description of the Lord acting with finality from on high, and his affirmation that the Lord is on the side of those who wait faithfully for him. Verses 7-8, in the 1 Corinthians reading, also reinforce the theme of hopeful and vigilant preparation to receive the Lord when he comes, noting that the source of such faith is in the grace of God, not human power.

Sunday, December 10, 2023

Second Sunday of Advent—Advent, Year B


Advent is a time where John the Baptist’s voice is heard most clearly. We do not need to look farther than him for an example of what it means to serve the Lord in vigilant anticipation.

In the Gospel reading, John fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy of the messenger who goes ahead to prepare the Lord’s way. How does he do this? Both the Gospel’s quotation and the text of the first reading tell us: It means making rough places smooth, filling valleys, and razing hills to make a level place. Verse 9 in the Isaiah reading speaks of the glorious and hope-filled message of the Day of the Lord from “up on a high mountain.” And so the Messenger’s job is to level any other high and prideful place that would interfere with the signal of God’s broadcast, to lift up those in low places so that they can hear the message clearly, and to straighten the winding paths of fruitless and vain pursuits that distract from attending to the Lord's words and his presence.

Preachers may want to align John the Baptist’s vocation with that of the Christians to whom they speak. It is the job of all Christians to be messengers like John: To clear the floor so that they and those around them can hear clearly God's promises and act accordingly.

2 Peter reminds us not to expect God’s timing in making good on these promises to line up with ours. What appears to us to be slowness (verse 9) or frightful suddenness (verse 10) results from our limited perspective. The only proper response is diligence, cultivating lives of purity, peace, and blamelessness (verse 14).

Sunday, December 17, 2023

Third Sunday of Advent—Advent, Year B


John the Baptist’s testimony about himself contrasts with his testimony about the Christ who is coming. It is a good opportunity to bring forward the joyful humility the Christian life brings.

It is too common today to think of the Christian’s imitation of Christ as an amplification of the self. “Jesus wants you living your best, brightest life now!” seems to be the message. But John’s confession is the opposite: A joyful renunciation of his own authority. He is not the Christ, nor does he claim the mantle of Elijah, nor the Prophet spoken of from of old. He is, instead, merely a voice that speaks of Jesus. He baptizes with water only, prefiguring the baptism of the Holy Spirit. He is not even worthy to adjust the Master’s footwear! He is not the light confirmed by his later affirmation in John 3:30 that he must decrease as Christ ascends.

Preachers may attend to the 1 Thessalonians reading to describe the content of John’s (and our) disposition toward Christ. If we empty ourselves like John, it is to make room for his infilling which produces a life attuned and alert: rejoicing, vibrant in prayer, careful in discernment, quick to give thanks, and shielded from sin.

Sunday, December 24, 2023

Fourth Sunday of Advent—Advent, Year B


The Old Testament and the Gospel, on this final Sunday before the Nativity, bear a striking contrast: God chooses a surprising and unexpected dwelling place! God refuses David’s offer to bless him with a splendid temple and chooses instead a Virgin’s womb. This contrast is fruitful ground to explore several important themes and charges. That humble and small beginnings are chosen by God in order to display his power, that luxury and power are man-made and mean nothing next to God’s might, and that God loves to lift up the poor.

The preacher should not fail to miss the Lectionary’s focus on Mary as God’s choice of temple, the means by which he accomplishes his promises to David. The Romans reading affirms that the promise to establish David extends to all Christians through the gospel.

The implications are dizzying, but the preacher may be anchored by the option to replace the Psalm with the Magnificat. Mary herself shows the best response to God’s grand and mysterious plan—joyful and total submission to God and his will.

Sunday, December 24, 2023

Nativity of the Lord - Proper I Christmas Eve & Day—Christmas, Year B


At Christmas Eve, the preacher must be vigilant not to ease into a comforting exposition of the well-known Christmas story. As the last Christian feast our society bends around, the temptation will be to preside over the palpable sensations of hearth and home like the merry Spirit of Christmas Present. But the feast is too foundational, the Scriptures too portentous, to cover over with gauzy sentiment.

It is probably a good idea to let the Isaiah passage lead the themes and exhortations, because it gives meaning to Luke’s moment. The Lectionary gives us no room to shy away from the Christological target of the millennia-old prophecy. It is about the gladsome arrival of Jesus Christ, the promised child, surely more (and more wonderful) than anyone bargained for. The new birth is the realized hope of Israel and a light to the nations. The congregation would be well exhorted to imitate Mary as they go home to their dinners, presents, and families—to treasure these things quietly in the midst of the hubbub, that their faith may not burn off with the moment, but be confirmed by prayerful contemplation.

Sunday, December 24, 2023

Nativity of the Lord - Proper II Christmas Eve & Day—Christmas, Year B


In this first of the two Christmas day services (traditionally at dawn), the Gospel reading from Christmas Eve is (largely) repeated, however a new Isaiah reading takes center stage. God’s vow to restore Jerusalem ends with an encouragement that the “Daughter of Zion” recognize her salvation is arriving. The preacher should not be timid to draw the Marian parallel here since she is a type of the church. Salvation is indeed “with her,” literally to be found inside of her, and from her womb springs the firstborn of a redeemed, holy people. Titus spells out the terms of that salvation hinted at in the Isaiah passage: Entrance through the baptismal waters of new birth in the Spirit, justification by Christ, one great movement leading to the hope of eternal life.

Sunday, December 24, 2023

Nativity of the Lord - Proper III Christmas Eve & Day—Christmas, Year B


The principle text for the feast of Christmas is undoubtedly John 1. Each of the Gospels, in the sequence in which they were written, begin Jesus’ story earlier than the last. Mark begins at Jesus’s baptism, Luke at the Nativity, Matthew’s genealogy extends back to Adam himself. John, astoundingly, begins before all beginnings.

From this dizzying vantage point before and above all creation, the preacher may feel vertigo, since there is literally nothing in all the universe that is irrelevant to this text, and therefore an infinite number of possible themes to be explored, so it will helpful to follow the text of the Gospel itself to properly relate these cosmic mysteries to the church to whom they have been revealed.

John 1:14 grounds the mystery of the eternally begotten logos and the incarnation, not in an appeal to philosophical categories, but in concrete experience. “We saw his glory” (NASB) ought to be taken straightforwardly as an eyewitness report, not some sense of spiritual or intellectual “seeing.” Though Christ is above and before all things, the main message here is that he was directly experienced, and may still be today through his Holy Spirit and in prayer.

Ordinary human contact with the divine is what our faith is built upon, not clever philosophical ideas. Hebrews drives this point home, declaring that Jesus is the “perfect imprint” of the Father. The un-seeable God is made perceptible, which brings theology into simplicity, eternity into time.

Preachers ought to craft their messages with this “downward” movement in mind, not staying in the clouds of cosmic mystery, but proclaiming the gospel that the highest God has made himself fully knowable to limited beings, even little children. Our sermons ought to be just as knowable!

Monday, December 25, 2023

Nativity of the Lord - Proper I Christmas Eve & Day—Christmas, Year B

Monday, December 25, 2023

Nativity of the Lord - Proper II Christmas Eve & Day—Christmas, Year B

Monday, December 25, 2023

Nativity of the Lord - Proper III Christmas Eve & Day—Christmas, Year B

Sunday, December 31, 2023

First Sunday after Christmas Day—Christmas, Year B


Jesus' purpose was also the purpose of the creation of Israel from the very beginning. Isaiah's declaration that “the nations will see your righteousness, and all the kings your glory” was not new. God promised Abraham that all the nations of the earth would be blessed by his offspring.

The faithful Simeon is granted the special vocation to declare that this promise has been fulfilled in the child Jesus—“a light of revelation to the Gentiles.” These words are so precious to the church that she sings them often in the Nunc Dimittis (perhaps a good tip to your worship leaders for this Sunday!). Likewise, the holy woman Anna is given that same recognition and becomes an early evangelist to a larger group of faithful Messiah-watchers.

Paul, in Galatians, spells out the mechanics of this promise: the astounding truth that the Messiah has not just brought a shining example to the non-Jewish peoples, but comes to them as an adopting father!

The preacher would do well to bring the hidden theme of the Holy Spirit forward: that the Spirit who spoke through the prophet Isaiah and revealed Jesus’ Messiahship to the prophets at the Temple, is the very same Spirit that inspires our own hearts to cry out to God the Father! This is just one of many more avenues to take through these three interlocking texts.

Monday, January 1, 2024

Holy Name of Jesus (Mary, Mother of God)—Christmas, Year B

Saturday, January 6, 2024

Second Sunday after Christmas Day—Christmas, Year B


It is traditional to read John 1 more than once throughout the Christmas octave in order to ensure the congregation does not miss it! Such foundational truths at the beginning of the Christian year bear repeating. What differs is the supporting texts that garnish John’s declaration of the incarnation.

If the congregation has ears to hear a reading from the Apocrypha, the preacher will find special illumination in the Sirach passage. The Hebrew notion of wisdom had much in common with the logos—a connection the early church benefited from, and was fond of making. Human wisdom may be able to take the measure of a few limited things, but in God’s wisdom resides the whole architecture of all creation. The first few verses of Sirach 24 has wisdom dwelling in the highest heavens and covering the earth like a mist. But then this universal force on which everything depends somehow finds a resting place in Israel.

In John, we see God’s wisdom come to dwell, not only in a nation, but in human flesh. The mystery of how universal salvation comes through a particular place and person is a theme worth excavating, as it uncovers much about God’s character—his closeness and intimacy with his creation, and especially us. It also leaves no doubts as to the divinity of Christ, whose teachings are trustworthy for the reason that they come from the mouth of wisdom itself.

Saturday, January 6, 2024

Epiphany of the Lord—Epiphany, Year B

Sunday, January 7, 2024

Baptism of the Lord (First Sunday after Epiphany)—Epiphany, Year B


The Epiphany, extended by Anglicans into its own season, covers the main revelations of Jesus’ life and mission to the world. Though the Magi’s popularity in the early church pushed off Jesus’ baptism to the Sunday after the main feast, this is actually the central story of the season. Each year focuses on one of each of the synoptic account, and the preacher will need all three to mine the fullness of this episode’s importance.

Mark’s account is the least detailed, but all the more singularly focused on the revelation of the Trinity. The Son is anointed by the Father (more on that next year in Matthew) and the Holy Spirit descends, hovering over the waters: At first the waters over the formless earth, and now over the waters of baptism. The theophany mirrors the creation story of the Genesis reading, where all three are present at the creation. The Father and the Spirit are easy to pick out, but where is the Son? Remarkably, he is found in a verb: “God said.” The previous Sunday establishes Christ as God’s wisdom, so God’s speech, since it always involves his wisdom is necessarily to be done through the Son.

The preacher’s challenge will be to bring these cosmic mysteries to the congregational level. A good route to take would be to note that, even though this is a special baptism of cosmic importance, Jesus’ baptism nevertheless figures our own. God’s aim in creation is to bring forth sons and daughters in whom he can be well-pleased. If Jesus, receiving John’s baptism, was answered with the voice of the Father and the descent of the Spirit, how much more can we, receiving Jesus’ baptism expect to receive from the same! Jesus’ baptism changes the rite forever; from a mere sign of repentance to fellowship with God’s own Son, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, under the radiance of the Father’s love.

Sunday, January 14, 2024

Second Sunday after the Epiphany—Epiphany, Year B


Jesus, revealing himself, calls his servants to him. Nathanael’s response to that call is particularly poignant for people in our age of isolation who are seeking identity: “How do you know me?” The Fathers’ opinion of Nathanael as a learned man, versed in the Scriptures, cuts an even more striking parallel to modern people. Nathanael is famous for his skepticism of how the Messiah could come from Nazareth.

But far from making him out to be a doubter like Thomas, John Chrysostom (in his Homilies on the Gospel of St. John, Homily XX) praises Nathanael for not being taken in so easily. His inquiry of how anything good could come from Nazareth reveals his attentiveness to the Scriptures—since Bethlehem, not Nazareth, is named by the prophets as the homeland of the Messiah. But still he follows Phillip’s invitation to “come and see” for himself, revealing that he is not so blinkered as to think that nothing unexpected could be true. This is an invitation to intellectually inclined modern people, both to praise the use of their minds to search the Scriptures for the truth, but also an invitation to go and directly experience the risen Lord.

Jesus also reveals that he knew Nathanael even before he got up to follow him. St. Augustine saw the fig tree spread over Nathanael as a reference to the dominion of sin. Jesus’ selection of him shows how the Lord seeks us out, by prevenient grace, to turn us to him before we could even know how (Lectures or Tractates on the Gospel according to St. John, Tractate VII).

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Third Sunday after the Epiphany—Epiphany, Year B


The same Spirit is at work when Jonah preaches to the Ninevites and the Lord calls the disciples. And so the same results are seen. The Assyrian people, with no background knowledge or reason to believe the word of the Israelite God, somehow believe it and turn from their evil ways. In the same way, the disciples follow Jesus without questions, responding to call of the Word. When Jesus refers to “The Sign of Jonah” in Luke 11, he means this self-authenticating property of the words of God.

This is a good opportunity for preachers to promote confidence in the simple proclamation of the Word of God. All people are God’s children and they hear and respond to their father’s voice. This is important to remember for those who are inclined to saddle the transmission of the Word of God with requirements of proper cross-cultural contact and education. God speaks on his own authority and does not need to be validated by anything outside of itself. The preacher may encourage the flock to evangelize without worrying overmuch about the vagaries of translation and context, because God’s Word carries its own authority and a natural resonance that all human beings in all places can receive.

Sunday, January 28, 2024

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany—Epiphany, Year B


This Sunday’s readings continue the theme of the self-authenticating Word. In Mark, Jesus teaches in the synagogue “as one having authority.” Often, the people’s reactions recorded in the Gospels tell us a great deal about Jesus. People are not astonished by sage advice or erudite commentary, as the scribes could give.

Confirmation of this power comes in the encounter with the demon. Jesus’ commands are bound to be obeyed, even by enemies, because they are the very Word of God.

The first reading in Deuteronomy confirms that Jesus’ words are the Father’s, put into his mouth by the Father. The preacher may make use of this to bring to the congregation Paul’s admonition to guard the conscience of the weak. The sort of knowledge that puffs up the knowledgeable is nothing next to the authoritative Word of God. It is better to use our knowledge as a tool to edify the church rather than adding value to ourselves, for what could we, by our cleverness, possibly add to the Word of the Father who speaks things into existence?

Sunday, February 4, 2024

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany—Epiphany, Year B


What with all the healings and miraculous works, one might get the impression that Jesus came as a divine doctor, and indeed he did! And yet his concern was for the body and soul of his children. Hence, after healing Peter’s mother-in-law (her quickness to serve is included as evidence that it was a full and miraculous recovery) and many others, Jesus leaves the crowds in order to pray and then tells his disciples that he came to preach in many places.

Paul follows Christ’s vocation in his famous passage that he has become all things to all people so that he may save them by his preaching. But verse 16 and 17 especially stand out when paired with the Gospel reading. Paul’s duty is to preach the gospel whether he wants to or not, but since his will does align with his vocation, his preaching is especially effective, since he molds the mores of his life in order to authenticate the gospel. Even though it was his right, Paul avoided asking for funds from the Corinthians as a proof of his sincerity.

While encouraging the congregation to pursue their vocation of preaching the gospel in their ordinary lives, Paul’s example may be emphasized. Though we are all given the duty to preach the gospel, if we do so with a willing spirit, we become especially effective ministers, since by the holiness and love in our lives we prove the message we preach.

Sunday, February 11, 2024

Transfiguration Sunday (Last Sunday before Lent)—Epiphany, Year B


The Transfiguration is a dazzling display of Christ’s power and authority, but the preacher ought not leave it at that. This is one instance where the details, rather than the big picture, provide the most direct road to an application that makes the passage matter to the congregation.

First, it is significant that Moses and Elijah are the two Old Testament figures who appear there. Moses represents the Law, and Elijah the Prophets. On the mountain of the New Covenant, the fullness of the Jewish tradition acknowledges Christ as its fulfillment, while the Apostles who will lead Christ’s church look on. Perhaps when Peter recommended building three tabernacles to receive the glory there, he was not aware that it was the three of them who would be the tabernacles to take that glory into the world!

Second, this is an opportunity for the preacher to remind the congregation that the entire Bible is about Jesus, including the Old Testament. It is neither academically irresponsible nor culturally insensitive to hold this. It is simply taking the Gospels at their word. Doing so illuminates the Old Testament and breaks down any hostility between the Old Law and the New, and between Israel and the church for who could divide this heavenly court?

Other potential roads to follow up on are the revelation of the Trinity in the voice of the Father, the Spirit in the cloud, and the Son glorified. The voice of the Father calls back to Jesus’ baptism.

Sunday, February 18, 2024

First Sunday in Lent—Lent, Year B


Lent has become something of a fad recently, invoked for themes as disparate as self-improvement projects and “shared lament.” So the preacher must take care to set the congregation’s focus and expectations squarely on repentance and reconciliation with God through Christ, by the Spirit (namely, the gospel). Fortunately, the Holy Scriptures show the way.

Jesus gives us the theme of Lent in Mark 1:15: “repent and believe the gospel.” Every deprivation and discipline we go through is for this purpose. There is an explicit connection between the 40 days of lent and the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness, and we can participate in Jesus’ deprivations. The important thing about “wilderness experiences”—oft invoked, rarely understood—is to rid ourselves of distraction and pleasures so that we can subsist on God alone such that one overcomes temptation.

Reading about Jesus’ resistance to sin when under the worst temptation, rightly leads us to feel ashamed of our own performance under much less serious conditions. But this turns believers to repentance instead of despair, because the same Holy Spirit who drove Jesus into the wilderness and sustained him also drives us to repentance and sustains us through its stings. Christ himself accompanies us through our temptations, strengthening us by the Spirit so that we can turn in a good performance.

The first and second readings show the trajectory of judgment, hope, and salvation. God’s judgment on sin is as total as the flood, but he is slow to that kind of anger, offering every opportunity for escape. For Noah, that escape was the ark. For Christians, Peter tells us, it is our baptisms. As Noah and his family were brought through the waters of death, we too are brought through the waters of baptism and into eternal life.

It is important to start the season with these themes of hope and supernatural accompaniment, because it gives believers the reason to endure the convicting pangs of penitence.

Sunday, February 25, 2024

Second Sunday in Lent—Lent, Year B


The Revised Common Lectionary retains the option of the more traditional Transfiguration reading for the Second Sunday of Lent, but the more recent practice of observing Transfiguration Sunday at the end of Epiphany recommends the Mark 8 reading.

Here, Peter has the unpleasant experience of being rebuked by Jesus for trying to persuade him away from his purpose of death. This even comes after Peter’s famous affirmation of Jesus as the Christ. The preacher should use this opportunity to remind the congregation of the necessity of the Cross, both in Jesus’ atonement for sin and also the believer’s life.

It is very easy to use this passage to affirm the necessity of Jesus’ death to accomplish the atonement for sin, but note that the image Jesus calls attention to is actually the carrying of the cross, which is the suffering along the way. This, Jesus says, is the vocation of every Christian.

The Cross is not an obstacle to get around, a bump in the road to a better life. The Cross is the road. What this means is that the believer ought to expect to suffer, but also to expect to suffer alongside Jesus, since he was the One who went ahead of us. Our sufferings in this life become a mysterious participation in Jesus’ suffering.

So the rebuke was for Peter’s own sake, since by diverting Jesus away from his suffering, Peter would have deprived himself of that supernatural solidarity that Christ offers to the sufferer. We risk the same when we seek our own comfort above all and avoid the hardships that can result from living the Christian life in a fallen world. In these moments, we must put our comforts behind us and walk the way of the cross with Christ, and so we will release the world and its pleasures and gain instead our souls restored by the deep and intimate connection that comes with Jesus the Suffering Servant.

Sunday, March 3, 2024

Third Sunday in Lent—Lent, Year B


Traditionally, Lent was a time when catechumens prepared for baptism and penitent sinners prepared for restoration to the life of the church, and the passages aimed at them appear in Year A. The rest of the congregation was not aloof, but stayed in solidarity with these brothers and sisters, seeing in their situations opportunities for its own instruction and progress.

In the Year B readings, Jesus’ identity as the true Temple is revealed in the light of the Exodus. In driving out the money changers, the true temple purifies the old one. In the same way, Christ purifies us, since our bodies are set aside as temples of the Holy Spirit ( adding to it the Greek obsession with wisdom, but declares that the crucifixion and resurrection is a sign apt to be missed by the sign-searchers; its wisdom seems like silliness to the philosophers. Simple faith is what unlocks the power and wisdom of God, not an attuned intellect, or a penchant for wonderworking.

Sunday, March 10, 2024

Fourth Sunday in Lent—Lent, Year B


“Laetare Sunday,” marked by its pink (excuse me, rose) vestments is a respite from the austerity of penitence, but not from the act of repentance. The preacher should understand that this is not an opportunity to leave off the Lenten theme of repentance, but to more clearly define it from a fresh perspective.

The Gospel reading bids us look up from examining ourselves to the intentions and character of God. God loves the world so much that he gave his Son to save it. We are not abasing ourselves before a disinterested archon in order to avoid its capricious wrath. God loves his creation, opting to send the Son to save it instead of plunging it into a prompt and irrevocable judgment.

One only falls under the judgment of the God of Love by refusing to believe and accept his mission of love. God places no obstacle between himself and his creation. Instead, it is fallen creatures who obstruct their own salvation by loving the darkness instead of the light, and refusing to believe in the saving mission of the Son.

The elect are those who believe in the Son. But belief is not a passive state of mind. Jesus says that the believer is the one who practices the truth. In Ephesians, Paul reminds us that we were created for good works, and that it is our purpose to walk in them; but even these works were prepared for us by God, so the believer is not left alone to craft a moral life without divine help.

Hence, the whole Lenten movement of repentance—refusing evil and accepting the good—is seen afresh from the vista of God’s eternal love and his desire to rescue his creatures. The preacher should use this opportunity to let the people know that true repentance does not mean negating evil, but receiving good, and doing so will clear away evil deeds as surely as light repels darkness.

Sunday, March 17, 2024

Fifth Sunday in Lent—Lent, Year B


Nearing the end of the Lenten season, those faithfully fasting begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Jesus too, in the Gospel reading looks forward to his glorification, but also his passion. This dual identification between suffering and ultimate glory should be foremost on the preacher’s mind, since it also sets the pattern of life the believer is to emulate.

When Jesus refers to being “lifted up,” this is a rich, multilayered allusion. Jesus has already compared himself to the serpent lifted up in the wilderness in John 3:14—the image of death defeating death. There is also the suffering yet triumphant servant who is “lifted up” in Isaiah 52:13. So, Jesus is looking forward to fulfilling both dimensions of these scriptures by being lifted up on the cross at his death, but then also lifted up on high at the ascension.

The apparent defeat of the Cross and the victory of the resurrection are inseparable in his plan of redemption, and so suffering and victory are inseparable in the life of the believer. Since Jesus suffered, our suffering as believers becomes an opportunity to imitate the Lord. Jesus changes everything he touches, so suffering is no longer meaningless, but the path to victory.

Nowadays, people need a great deal of help to understand that suffering is made valuable by Christ’s passion. The secular world cannot see suffering as anything other than either a tragic misfortune or a preventable malady. But the way of the cross means victory through suffering. Certainly this applies to the deprivations that come from following the commandments to care for one’s parents and the poor. But also the ordinary, inevitable sufferings of this life—like medical and financial woes—become a chance to participate in the Cross.

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Liturgy of the Palms—Lent, Year B


The two sets of readings at Palm or Passion Sunday can give people emotional whiplash. It’s hard to reconcile the tone of the joyous triumphal entry with the sorrowful Passion reading while still looking forward to the resurrection. All of this should also matter to the practice of the believer’s faith as more than the memorial of a great deed at a moment in time.

A traditional solution is for the preacher to focus on the Philippians passage, where Paul describes the attitude of Jesus to be emulated in the believer’s life. This makes the memory of Christ’s passion a present reality, a mystery to be participated in.

Another solution is to choose which passage to focus on. Since the Passion is covered again on Good Friday, the triumphal entry is often emphasized on the one day it is commemorated. If this is the chosen route, there are a few canards for the preacher to avoid.

The first is to use the colt to overemphasize Christ’s poverty. Kings routinely rode on donkeys, a comfortable ride in the ancient world. The meaning is found in the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9 which sees the king coming to Jerusalem in peace instead of on a warhorse. Second, the waving of palms and cloaks spread on the road are not ad hoc substitutes for a more glorious entry which Jesus deliberately eschews. Rather, they recall the “festal procession” of Psalm 118:27 up to the Temple.

Jesus certainly is “lowly” and his kingdom brings justice to the poor, but the emphasis here is on his rightful authority to rule—a kingship which here is happily celebrated, but will later be rejected by the same crowd, after coming under the influence of the chief priests.

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Liturgy of the Passion—Lent, Year B


The two sets of readings at Palm or Passion Sunday can give people emotional whiplash. It’s hard to reconcile the tone of the joyous triumphal entry with the sorrowful Passion reading while still looking forward to the resurrection. All of this should also matter to the practice of the believer’s faith as more than the memorial of a great deed at a moment in time.

A traditional solution is for the preacher to focus on the Philippians passage, where Paul describes the attitude of Jesus to be emulated in the believer’s life. This makes the memory of Christ’s passion a present reality, a mystery to be participated in.

Another solution is to choose which passage to focus on. Since the Passion is covered again on Good Friday, the triumphal entry is often emphasized on the one day it is commemorated. If this is the chosen route, there are a few canards for the preacher to avoid.

The first is to use the colt to overemphasize Christ’s poverty. Kings routinely rode on donkeys, a comfortable ride in the ancient world. The meaning is found in the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9 which sees the king coming to Jerusalem in peace instead of on a warhorse. Second, the waving of palms and cloaks spread on the road are not ad hoc substitutes for a more glorious entry which Jesus deliberately eschews. Rather, they recall the “festal procession” of Psalm 118:27 up to the Temple.

Jesus certainly is “lowly” and his kingdom brings justice to the poor, but the emphasis here is on his rightful authority to rule—a kingship which here is happily celebrated, but will later be rejected by the same crowd, after coming under the influence of the chief priests.

Monday, March 25, 2024

Monday of Holy Week—Holy Week, Year B

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Wednesday of Holy Week—Holy Week, Year B

Thursday, March 28, 2024

Maundy Thursday (Holy Thursday)—Holy Week, Year B


As on Palm Sunday, the preacher has choices on Maundy Thursday. There is the servant leadership on display in the foot washing, the mandate to love one another following Christ’s example, and the all-important institution of the Lord’s Supper. But the preacher will also find a helpful application in an oft-neglected tradition of expounding the Exodus reading on the Passover, (the pasch) and how Jesus fulfills it even now in his church.

Like the Israelites, the church has gathered together for Holy Week. Our lamb is Christ the Lamb of God, a male without blemish (as Jesus was sinless). In the Eucharist, his perfect once-for-all sacrifice is mysteriously made present, and his flesh and blood nourish those gathered in the sacramental bread and wine. In this way we come “under the doorpost” of the lamb’s blood, and death passes us over. But we are also to eat this Eucharistic meal with our loins girded, our shoes on our feet, supplied for action, since we are not supposed to rest in this world but with the Lord at the end of all things.

The church is not a sedentary institution, but the embodiment of God’s Spirit which is always on the move to convict the proud, to bless the needy, and to act as guides—with staffs in hand!—to show the way to salvation.

Friday, March 29, 2024

Good Friday—Holy Week, Year B


At the Cross, victory and agony are met, death is swallowed up in victory, and the way is opened to everlasting life. But yet sorrow is the theme of today.

Preaching on the passion and the crucifixion, the preacher is rarely without content—Christ’s death for our sins is the foundation of our salvation. Rather, it is the tone of sorrowful victory that is difficult to strike, hence the Isaiah prophecy of the Suffering Servant may be used as a framing device for expounding the passion narrative, offering many themes for the preacher to anchor the homily—and all of them intersect at the cross.

The multilayered theme of the servant “lifted up” (on the cross, in the resurrection, and at the ascension) recurs at Good Friday; his marred appearance is also his exaltation and victory. The reference to “sprinkling” in verse 15 recalls both Israel’s purification rituals and the priest sprinkling the blood of the atoning sacrifice at the altar. The double reference can be linked to the issue of water and blood from Jesus’ side and the water of baptism with which he will purify the nations of their sin.

The preacher will have no trouble finding further correlations between Jesus in John’s Passion and Isaiah’s foretelling of the cross (silent, stricken, pierced for our sins, scourged for our healing, yet sinless and blameless). But the mysterious alignment of suffering and victory in Christ’s “lifting up” at the cross is not to be missed, because it has the power to change the believer’s orientation toward suffering in this life: not as meaningless pains to be anesthetized, but as an opportunity for imitation of and intimacy with our Suffering Lord.

Sunday, March 31, 2024

Resurrection of the Lord (Easter Day)—Easter, Year B


On Easter Day, the apex of the Christian year, it is difficult for the preacher to resist the temptation to take a victory lap or use the sermon as an orientation for the inevitable flock of visitors to the life of the local congregation. But the Resurrection itself ought to be the unbroken focus.

Easter Sunday’s most explicit proclamations of the gospel come from the 1 Corinthians reading ( it is worth emphasizing that Jesus’ death and resurrection happened “according to the scriptures” ( a special interest of modern persons. The disciples are incredulous, assuming other natural explanations. But the evidence militates against these. Jesus himself first appears to a woman, who would not have been considered a credible witness had the disciples wanted to convince the world of a hoax. The linen cloths are seen neatly laid in the tomb, something a graverobber would not have taken the time to do.

The Christian hope has always been placed on the truth of what Jesus accomplished in his resurrection, and it is enough for the preacher to point simply to this so that the people may come to its light.

Sunday, April 7, 2024

Second Sunday of Easter—Easter, Year B


Many paths are open to the Preacher in John 20 and it is futile to rank them in order of importance. Jesus’ declaration of peace when he joins the disciples in the room is an opportunity to share that peace always accompanies the presence of Jesus. The church acts, but not randomly; speaks, but not frantically, prophesies, but not chaotically. All is guided by the spirit of peace.

Second, there is Jesus breathing on his church, granting them the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit. His church now has his authority to forgive sins and from now on will act in his name. Theological emphases will vary across traditions, but the central fact in the scriptures is that the apostles are made co-laborers with Christ in sanctifying the world, a great responsibility and an exciting mission!

Thomas’ doubts are a supporting story to the above, but have lately become a popular episode to focus the entire sermon on. In attending to Thomas, the preacher should avoid the recent trend of flattering the modern skeptic by lauding Thomas’ high epistemic standard. The story is in John to highlight that the Holy Spirit must be received from Christ in faith. Thomas’ skeptical disposition divides him from his brother apostles—they have put together all of the facts that he refuses to connect: Jesus’s explicit foretelling of his resurrection, the fulfillment of the scriptures in their sight. All this he sets aside until he is given a personal sign, which the Lord graciously grants him. The proper disposition of the believer is to open the eyes of faith and waste no time falling at the feet of Jesus confessing “My Lord, and my God!”

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Third Sunday of Easter—Easter, Year B


The congregation may have noticed by now that readings from Acts have replaced the Old Testament during Easter. This is to give special emphasis on the continuity between the ministry of Jesus and that of his church—indeed the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts are one work in two volumes.

Peter’s sermon in the Acts reading is the recommended text for today. The preacher has a special opportunity here to learn gospel preaching from Peter while preparing to preach from that same text. Peter’s wastes no time to get to the central fact of the Christian gospel: the death and resurrection of Jesus. He does so using the Old Testament scriptures (v. 13; also 22-26). He attributes miraculous healing to the name of Jesus and the gift of faith in the receiver ( but what Jesus accomplished on the cross for sins, and the new life that becomes possible for those with faith in him was the reason he came into the world. It is the perennial temptation for the preacher to enjoy being a curator of well phrased insights and advice. But the Christian preacher is a newsbringer first and a speaker second. Clever speech does not get the message across, but simple and direct proclamation, the call to repentance, and the assurance of new life.

Sunday, April 21, 2024

Fourth Sunday of Easter—Easter, Year B


The unique emphasis to highlight in this Sunday’s readings comes in John and 1 John: that Jesus is the true Good Shepherd and that his sheep, the church, recognize his voice instinctively.

The ability to tell the difference between teachers and prophets that are commissioned by the Lord, and counterfeit shepherds that only use Jesus’ name, is a gift from the Holy Spirit which all believers are given in their baptism, and their ears are tuned to it by their life of hearing the scriptures.

But identifying the Good Shepherd is not just a matter of internal sense. Christ names his willing sacrifice of his life for the sheep as the defining feature of his ministry. Gillian Welch sang it truly:

The king of heaven can be told from the prince of fools
By the mark where the nails have been

Since the call of the Christian leader is to be the image of Christ, then the way of the cross is not optional for those called to spiritual office. Thus, the sermon today may rightly take the form of a pledge that the preacher’s leadership will conform to the way of the cross and not self-service.

Sunday, April 28, 2024

Fifth Sunday of Easter—Easter, Year B


In the final Sundays of the Easter season, the Gospel readings shift toward Jesus’ words to his disciples at the Last Supper for an important reason: this was the time that Jesus spoke most clearly about how he would remain in his church after his ascension.

The preacher’s job in these weeks is to prepare the congregation to understand the implications of the Holy Spirit’s falling at Pentecost. Two intertwined themes should occupy the preacher’s attention: the Holy Spirit and the Eucharist.

First, the fact that Jesus spoke these words at the institution of the Eucharist should set the context, and this is an excellent opportunity to inform the congregation that their own practice of the eucharistic ritual shares the same context: a special invitation for Christ to abide with us and us in him.

Second, in the Gospel reading, Jesus speaks about the essence and goal of the Christian life: continuing to abide in him so that we bear good fruit. Abiding is an ongoing process, not just a one-time decision. The 1 John reading tells us that we continue to abide in Christ by the Holy Spirit. John 15:4 should be linked with 1 John 4:13 to make clear that abiding with Christ is the work of the Holy Spirit, and not our own strength. Our main job is to remain connected to the vine—and this does not come without effort!—and so be assured that the living water of the Spirit will empower us for prayer and good works.

Sunday, May 5, 2024

Sixth Sunday of Easter—Easter, Year B


In looking forward to Pentecost, the Gospel passage this Sunday continues Jesus’ discourse on abiding at the Last Supper, but this time it is paired with the Holy Spirit falling on the house of Cornelius.

One gets the distinct impression that “abiding” is not a quiescent mysticism, but an encounter with the Spirit of God coming in power. This Gentile Pentecost, though coming chronologically later, helps prepare the congregation to consider the original event by making the link to baptism even more explicit. Though we receive the Holy Spirit in Baptism, the Spirit clearly moves first, being “poured out” on those gathered. This movement of the Spirit also preempts any assimilation to the Jewish way of life, prompting Peter to ask whether anything prevents the inclusion of these believers whom the Spirit has chosen to meet into the covenant community.

The preacher has a couple of good points of emphasis here: first, that the only qualification for baptism is repentance in faith. It is frequent for the congregation to imagine that its sole mission is to assimilate others into its own community--it is a Christian community after all! But the Spirit goes where he will, and like Peter we are called to be truthful witnesses to his work.

Second, the church is only the handmaiden to the Spirit’s work, she introduces people to Jesus and then gets out of the way to let his Spirit move!

Third, the church, above all, is called to love those outside of it with Christ’s supernatural love—itself a gift of the Spirit—as the Gospel passage says.

Thursday, May 9, 2024

Ascension of the Lord—Easter, Year B

Sunday, May 12, 2024

Seventh Sunday of Easter—Easter, Year B


On the Sunday after the Feast of the Ascension the table is set for Pentecost. Jesus’ high priestly prayer is appropriately placed here. The prayer is a hinge between Christ’s ascension and the Spirit’s falling at Pentecost. The prayer speaks to the fruitful tension in which believers live their lives.

“They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world” (v. 16). A state of constant transition between earth and heaven characterizes the church’s identity and mission. All that she has is from God, her unity is accomplished by the same love that binds the Father and Son together (this is supplied by the Spirit). The feet of the faithful are on the ground, but their eyes and hearts are turned to heaven.

The preacher should emphasize that the meaning of heaven and eternal life is not limited to life after death, but it is a present reality that believers inhabit by the Holy Spirit, a divine life. The doctrine of the divine life is perhaps the most critical thing for modern evangelicals to understand before they are prepared to understand the significance of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling at Pentecost. The Spirit brings life, and that life is lived now.

Sunday, May 19, 2024

Day of Pentecost—Easter, Year B


The falling of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is the seal of the Paschal mystery, and the trailhead for the church’s present mission. The preacher will be at pains to stress that we are living today in an age inaugurated by this event.

Some key points to keep in mind is that Pentecost (the fiftieth day after Easter) is mapped over the Jewish Feast of Weeks which celebrated both the harvest and the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. Likewise, Christians celebrate the ripe harvest of souls and the giving of the law of the New Covenant, the law of love written on people’s hearts.

This year, the emphasis lies on Jesus naming the Spirit of Truth. The Spirit convicts the world of sin, not human beings. The preacher would do well to remind the congregation that the Spirit convicts, changes hearts, and calls to repentance. Human cleverness convicts and convinces no one. Also, the Spirit is our connection to the life of the Trinity. John 16:13 says that whatever the Spirit says, he hears from Jesus, and also in verse 15 that Jesus has all things from the Father. In a way, we can think of the Spirit like a radio transmission. The Father’s love is received by the Son, and transmitted to us by the Spirit. In the Spirit we are included in the very life of God here on earth.

Sunday, May 26, 2024

Trinity Sunday—Season after Pentecost, Year B


Trinity Sunday is not a recitation of an abstract theological construct nor an opportunity for the preacher to invite the congregation to consider his or her doctoral thesis. Trinity Sunday is, fundamentally, about inviting the congregation into the life of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Trinity is like a dance that human beings are invited to share in.

The texts in Year B emphasize the Spirit’s role. By the Spirit, believers are born again into new life. In the famous John 3:16, Jesus reveals the heart of the Father and the gift of his Son to Nicodemus in the context of introducing him to second birth in the Spirit. Likewise, Paul tells us that it is by the Spirit that Christians experience God as Father and Christ as brother.

Through the lens of the Holy Spirit, believers find their place in the dynamic, tripartite life of God. Because of this, Trinity Sunday is an excellent time to bring up life after death, and to emphasize that whatever the afterlife looks like, our goal is to live God’s tripartite life alongside him, a dance of infinite love.

Sunday, June 9, 2024

Proper 5 (10)—Season after Pentecost, Year B


This Sunday represents a crossroads for the preacher. For the rest of this year, the Gospel lectionary returns to the Gospel of Mark, broken up by the Bread of Life discourse in John, but the attendant Old Testament and Psalm are split between two different tracks.

Option I walks through a mostly chronological series of Old Testament texts beginning in 1 Samuel which are not thematically linked to the Gospel passage in any way. Option II (which is sometimes listed as Option III) is the more traditional set of Old Testament (and some Apocryphal texts) which do thematically link up with the Gospel for the day. A third option is to follow the Epistle readings, which also run along their own track, disconnected thematically from both sets of Old Testament readings and the Gospel.

The preacher should be prepared to commit to one of these options exclusively for the rest of the Christian year, since each is designed with its own arc in mind. This guide will follow the more venerable Option II, as the theological and typological connections therein will introduce the congregation to the Christological principle of the scriptures, which will aid in their Old Testament study going forward.

After the joy of Easter and the elation of Pentecost, we return to more sobering territory. Throughout the Gospel of Mark, incomprehension and incredulity will become a common theme. The people, even his own disciples, fail to comprehend Jesus’s true identity and mission. Mark 3 speaks of the unforgivable sin, (which also appears in Luke 12:10). Since this is bound to disturb the pious—and it ought to!—the preacher must present the idea clearly, keeping in mind that the Lord stands ready to forgive any sin ( however, is not talking here about a one-time offense, but a state of persistent deception that prevents the possibility of repentance. Jesus’ relatives evaluate the good works of God done through Jesus—healings, miracles, and sound teaching—and conclude that they are inspired by Satan. If we likewise determine the Holy Spirit’s acts in our own world are actually the works of the devil, then how could we possibly submit ourselves to that Spirit in repentance?

A contemporary example of this may be Christopher Hitchens’s negative appraisal of Mother Theresa’s work among the very poor. This was the nature of the original deception of Eve in Genesis 3, that God was the deceiver who secretly harbored ill will for humanity, and it is how the devil still seeks to lead believers astray.

The preacher should not sugarcoat the very real danger of the deception, but also emphasize that believers have nothing to fear, because God in his love has given us everything that we need to resist the devil’s lies. First, Christ himself is with us always by the Holy Spirit and intercedes for us at the Father’s right hand, second by the saving knowledge contained in the Holy Scriptures, and third by the wisdom of the great cloud of witnesses in the church, past and present.

Sunday, June 16, 2024

Proper 6 (11)—Season after Pentecost, Year B


In Mark 4, two parables describe how the kingdom of God moves in the world. The first defines the division of labor between God and his people. We plant seeds by prayer, evangelism, and good works, but God is the one who brings success to our efforts, and it often happens very slowly. The preacher may want to use this parable to discourage the congregation from overreliance on expertise in ministry methods, and instead encourage simple acts of charity, trusting the increase to God. In the Kingdom, there is cause and result, but the connection between the two is God’s to effect. Hence, the Kingdom is not advanced in absence of effort on the part of believers, but it is not by the power or skill of those efforts that the church succeeds.

The second parable emphasizes that the kingdom is sown in humility and dishonor, but grows to grandeur and glory. This refers to the humble tree that God exalts in Ezekiel 17. The wood of the Cross, a tree of humiliation and defeat, is taken and planted on the mountain of Israel, and grows into the mighty cedar of the church. The preacher here may want to encourage the congregation not to despise small beginnings in their efforts for the kingdom. Since God brings the increase, we should sow seeds of love, especially with our unbelieving neighbors in small ways, and trust that God will bring them to superabundant fruition, just as he brought forth the mighty tree of the church from the stained wood of the Cross.

Sunday, June 23, 2024

Proper 7 (12)—Season after Pentecost, Year B


Jesus’ command over the natural forces is met with a characteristic Markan refrain “Who then is this?” The literary effect of the text of this Gospel is to stop short of saying explicitly who Jesus is, in order to invite the congregation to respond.

God’s words in Job echo the rhetorical question. The two passages, separated by some 600 years, converge upon Christ.

Keeping in mind John 1:3, Hebrews 1:2, the preacher can make the connection to the Son as the wisdom of God through whom the natural elements were formed. The wind and the waves in the Gospel are hushed at the command of their very designer. This gives meaning to Jesus’ nap in the back of the boat. The created things cannot overcome their creator, and if we are in the boat with Jesus, they cannot overwhelm us either. Even in death, we are raised again with Christ.

Sunday, June 30, 2024

Proper 8 (13)—Season after Pentecost, Year B


The healing of the woman with the hemorrhage on the way to the resurrection of Jairus’ daughter are two miracles linked together in order to tell an important truth: that sickness and natural death are both subject to the power of God and neither spell the end for those in Christ.

The lives of the two women healed by Jesus are two aspects of the basic situation we find ourselves in as humans. For the past twelve years, Jairus’ daughter flowered in youth before dying suddenly and for those same twelve years, the woman suffered constantly. Both are familiar tragedies in the human condition, and who can say which is worse, the ongoing experience of pain in life, or the swift onset of terminal illness snuffing out a life in the prime of its beauty?

Through faith, both are healed. Jesus’ pronouncement that the girl is only asleep is meant to show that, in the eyes of God, natural death is only a species of sickness (while the detail that those around laughed at him, confirms that the girl was truly dead, and Jesus was not speaking medically; see also John 11:4). Hemorrhage and bodily death occupy the same spectrum, and neither are final for God—unlike the second death of eternal separation from God.

If the risk of scandal is low, the preacher will be rewarded by choosing the reading from the Wisdom of Solomon to back up the Gospel. The truth that God created people for life and does not desire their death is unfortunately not a theological commonplace anymore, and for that reason alone it is worth stating explicitly.

Sunday, July 7, 2024

Proper 9 (14)—Season after Pentecost, Year B


Familiarity breeds contempt. The unbelievers in Mark 6 are astonished at his teaching, asking all the right questions as to the source of Jesus’ wisdom and power. But since they were the folks Jesus grew up around, they are offended that he has raised himself up above them, like Joseph and his brothers.

Jesus’ challenge is the same as Jeremiah and Ezekiel, both prophets sent to their own people and rejected by them. The Ezekiel passage speaks directly to the difficulty with preaching repentance to one’s own people. Those who ought to listen to God, who have all the cultural background and “plausibility structures” are the ones unwilling to listen.

The preacher has a good opportunity to address how difficult evangelism can be among one’s own people and family, but to take courage, since Jesus faced the very same challenges, along with the prophets. It is a fight worth waging since everything is possible with God.

Sunday, July 14, 2024

Proper 10 (15)—Season after Pentecost, Year B


Recounting John the Baptist’s fate alongside that of the prophet Amos reminds us of the high price of the prophetic vocation. John’s martyrdom foreshadows the death of Jesus. To prophesy means to speak the Word of God truly no matter the cost, a matter of simple obedience. The rulers and wrongdoers whom the Word of God challenges are quick to apply evil intentions to the prophet. But Amos speaks to his disinterestedness in great affairs; he was a simple herdsman before God commanded him to speak his words.

Similarly all Christians, no matter their background, are called to be prophets at various times in their lives. Christians are enervated by the Holy Spirit and possess the scriptures and the sure teaching of the tradition of the church—truly the two ends on which the plumbline of God’s righteous standard for human conduct is set. All of us will be tasked at various times to speak God’s word truly even in places where it will cause us trouble or harm.

The preacher would be remiss not to mention that the word that sealed John’s martyrdom was about sexual ethics. In the very same way, ordinary Christians today face their toughest sanctions whenever they have occasion to repeat God’s prohibitions against homosexuality, transgenderism, and other perversions presently being celebrated as natural and lawful.

The preacher should know also that Mark has a double purpose in the famous story about the fateful night at Herod’s court: to counter a popular rumor that Jesus and John the Baptist were actually the same person.

Sunday, July 21, 2024

Proper 11 (16)—Season after Pentecost, Year B


Jesus giving his life for his sheep is not contained to the single moment of going to the cross. Daily, Christ gave up his life for the lost sheep of Israel. Here in Mark 6, we see him sacrificing food and fighting fatigue in order to tend to his flock. He shows himself to be the good shepherd, the king who will act wisely, justly, and with righteousness.

Jesus shows himself to be the opposite of the bad shepherds named in Jeremiah who destroy and scatter the sheep. Instead of lording his authority over people Jesus is moved by his love for them and gives up his own goods in order to give them good things. Jeremiah is probably referring to kings here, so the application extends to earthly rulers who claim Christianity to follow Christ’s example and think of their subjects as greater than themselves.

Christ’s example is even nearer to pastors who shepherd the people of God in Christ’s name explicitly. The ones who shepherd on Christ’s spiritual authority must expect to give up goods and comfort in order to serve those in their charge.

Sunday, July 28, 2024

Proper 12 (17)—Season after Pentecost, Year B


The Feeding of the 5,000 is one of the few episodes that both the synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of John take the time to recount. The repetition of the fourfold action (took, blessed, broke, gave) is reported in every single Gospel narrative. This critical detail proves how the Gospel writers were alert to how the miracle prefigured Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist and its miraculous properties. Unique to John’s account is the identification of the bread as barley loaves, recalling Elisha’s miraculous feeding in 2 Kings 4, which places Jesus as the fulfillment of that prophetic line.

In the next episode, Jesus’ walking over the sea symbolizes how Christ’s very body subdues death. Jesus’ answer ego eimi is frequently mistranslated as “it is I” but it is actually one of Jesus’ famous “I Am” statements, identifying himself with God. When the disciples welcome him into the boat, they miraculously arrive at shore, signifying how Jesus himself is the destination for the believer. Wherever you are in life, when you’re with Jesus, you have arrived. There is no further shore.

Sunday, August 4, 2024

Proper 13 (18)—Season after Pentecost, Year B


Today begins a four part series spanning Jesus’ Bread of Life Discourse, and the texts lie so close to the center of Christian worship that these commentaries will run a few dozen words longer than usual. This Scripture does not offer the preacher the latitude to pick out or hone in on one of a menu of themes. John 6:24-69 is about two essential things which the preacher should inform the congregation about up front: faith in Jesus Christ and communion with him in the Eucharist.

Fortunately for the preacher, they divide neatly: Propers 13 and 14 are more about faith, and 15 and 16 are more about receiving Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist. As we shall see, however, the two themes are inseparable. The discourse is a movement from belief in Christ to faithfully receiving him at the Table.

Today’s text sets out how death is the fundamental problem for humanity. Even a miraculous multiplication of loaves of bread only postpones the problem, since ordinary food only sustains the body. This is “the food that perishes” since it does not have the power to save it from the body’s natural death—the manna in the wilderness in Exodus was God’s provision, but it also signified the temporary quality of earthly sustenance, since it rotted overnight, leaving the matter of life over death unsatisfied. So when the crowd shows up at Capernaum asking Jesus for a sign, they are really asking for another multiplication of ordinary bread. Jesus is telling them that they are shortsighted since their minds set only on prolonging earthly life, not eternal life.

The preacher should make Jesus’ reply in v. 32-35 the center of the sermon. First, even earthly sustenance, signified by the manna, does not come from men (Moses) but from God. Second, God wants to share another kind of bread with the world that will actually give life rather than just stave off death—Jesus himself.

The difference between earthly life and eternal reward is too often simplified as a matter of location: whether we have entrance into an “upstairs” heavenly realm or we are trapped in our mortality here below. But Jesus’ offer of himself as the bread of life means life over death, both now and forever; on earth as it is in heaven.

So working only to sustain earthly life is a bad investment, since death eventually wins out no matter how well we take care of ourselves and each other. But God, who both creates and sustains all life, has given human beings the way to access the source of life through faith in Jesus Christ.

The preacher should exhort the congregation to that saving faith: which is the simple belief that Jesus has the power to give life and overcome death (just how we take Jesus up on his offer will be covered over the next few weeks). It would be a tragedy to miss that offer of eternal life in order to sustain the mortal life that will perish.

Sunday, August 11, 2024

Proper 14 (19)—Season after Pentecost, Year B


God frequently uses bread in supernatural ways to sustain his people. After his literal mountaintop experience at Carmel, Elijah is at the end of his rope and ready to die. Instead, God sends him a miraculous meal in the desert, catered by an angel (eager preachers will be tempted to identify this as a Christophany but should probably refrain), which gives him strength to reach his destination at the Mount of God.

The feeding miracle recalls the manna in the desert, but Jesus also identifies himself as bread with the power to sustain his people eternally. In the Gospel reading from last Sunday, the people’s request “Lord, always give us this bread” echoes the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4: “Sir, give me this water ”¦” In that episode Jesus spoke of himself as the source of the water of life—which refers to baptism. Here, Jesus makes an even closer identification with the element of bread: that he is the bread of life and that his own flesh will be given for the life of the world (it is a good idea for the preacher to include verse 51 as a teaser for next week’s sermon which will answer the question of how Jesus can offer his flesh to us as bread). For now, the necessity of faith for receiving life from Jesus should be emphasized.

The crowd here grumbles not so much because Jesus has identified himself as the bread of life, but with his statement that he came down out of heaven. Jesus’ reply leaves no room for doubt. Anyone who takes seriously the words of the prophets and the wisdom of God in the scriptures will inevitably be drawn to Jesus, since he enjoys the very life of God the Father.

Verse 47 is the key: the one who believes that Jesus is who he says he is has eternal life. This is a good opportunity to emphasize the difference between true faith in Jesus and just “doing church.” The purpose of gathering for worship, hearing a sermon, reading the scriptures, praying, and singing in worship is to stir up faith in Christ and lay hold to it. Salvation comes through faith and draws us to the altar to receive the bread of life in Holy Communion. But without faith, even participating in the Eucharist becomes an empty ritual, void of life.

Sunday, August 18, 2024

Proper 15 (20)—Season after Pentecost, Year B


Like Nicodemus, the people in verses 52 and 53 are incredulous: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” In that story, the answer was baptism by the Holy Spirit, and in this one points to the other great sacrament of the church: Jesus’ flesh and blood given in the Eucharist.

In the Eucharist, the impossible becomes possible and life is given to the world. Jesus giving his flesh for the life of the world is certainly referring to his sacrifice on the cross. The Eucharist completes the picture, for just as the burnt offerings of certain atonement sacrifices were distributed to the priests for their food, so is Christ’s flesh, once for all sacrificed on the cross, given to his priestly people in the church.

A great difference in Jesus’ sacrifice is the addition of blood with the flesh. To have blood with flesh was forbidden for Jews since the blood was regarded as the “life” of the animal. Jesus then is explicitly inviting the people to be filled with the life of God. This is why the ancient Fathers spoke of the Eucharist as having the power to “deify.” The point is union and unity with God. This happens mysteriously in the Eucharist, but it starts in the heart of the believer who approaches the mysteries.

This is a good opportunity to preach about the purpose of our entire lives: to draw near to God and unify ourselves to him, and then invite the congregation into intimacy with God in this special way.

Sunday, August 25, 2024

Proper 16 (21)—Season after Pentecost, Year B


Jesus makes the staggering claim that the one who “eats me” will live forever. Any purely metaphorical interpretation of these words must be put to rest by the reactions they elicit. Jesus’ words are enough to empty the stadium of his admirers (v. 66). Likewise, his closest disciples call this a “hard saying,” not a figurative one—and the Lord does nothing to correct them.

Instead he compares the eating of his flesh to his coming ascension—an event which no believer would wave away as metaphorical. Everyone is on the same page here, the only thing that divides them is whether they will believe him or leave him.

So instead of over-explaining the history and development of the doctrine, this Sunday is an opportunity for the preacher to put the same question to the congregation as Jesus does for his disciples regarding the Eucharist: “does this cause you to stumble?” Modern persons have their own reasons for disbelieving that Christ could seriously give his flesh and blood for food. While the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist has always been a hard saying, it is also an opportunity to take Jesus at his word in faith. Jesus’ words are spirit and life, what is naturally possible by the flesh is unimportant in the presence of the author of all truth. Those who do receive the gift of real, substantial communion with him.

“What God’s son has told me take for truth I do
Truth Himself speaks truly, or there’s nothing true”
-“Adoro te Devote” by Thomas Aquinas (trans. Gerard Manley Hopkins)

Sunday, September 1, 2024

Proper 17 (22)—Season after Pentecost, Year B


Human tradition is not the law of God. It is important that the preacher understand what Jesus means by setting apart the commandment of God from the tradition of men. The error of the Pharisees was that they appended additional requirements to the Mosaic Law—a practice forbidden in the reading from Deuteronomy. The ritual washing foregone by the disciples was originally only supposed to apply to priests, but the Pharisees, out of an abundance of religiosity, thought that it should apply to ordinary people as well. The Pharisees negative appraisal of the disciples’ dedication to God came by their adherence to the accretions that had grown up around the law, not the law itself.

Jesus gives the opposite appraisal: that judging others’ faith by human ritual standards only betrays the judge’s own distance from God. Christians today are just as prone to do this. Human ritualisms pop up in every tradition: as in the high traditions wherein using more casual language in the liturgy instead of historic phrasing is seen as telltale signs of cultural desiccation and irreverence, so too in evangelical ones where believers who cannot pray spontaneously or in tongues are regarded as “less spiritual.” It is not the contours of traditions themselves which offend God—these are as natural to humankind and as necessary to worship of God as speech and song. Rather, it is distraction from God’s true Word and law by human opinions and the laws of men. The antidote to all species of ritualism is the Greatest Commandment to love God with heart, soul, and mind, and one’s neighbor as oneself. As long as we are doing that, we can’t go wrong!

Sunday, September 8, 2024

Proper 18 (23)—Season after Pentecost, Year B


The story of the Syrophoenician woman is one of the most misinterpreted and abused passages of Scripture today, and so the preacher must be on guard against parroting false interpretations. Jesus was not an ethnocentrist that needed his perspective widened. What is plainer in the other Gospels’ rendering of the scene is that the whole point of the episode is to display and honor the woman’s faith. Jesus’ comment about the priority of Israel is intentionally phrased in order to be offensive, but the humility she returns speaks to her single minded faith. Unlike the Jews who lorded their chosen status over the Gentiles, this Gentile woman thinks nothing of her own dignity next to the chance to receive from the Lord. Her faith far outstrips her pride.

This is the sort of faith that Israel itself needs to have in order to live up to its calling as the chosen people and get in on Jesus’ new covenant. The syrophoenician woman’s subordination of her ethnic identity to the prospect of receiving healing from Jesus is a profound challenge today, especially as various forms of “identity” have lately emerged as a sacrosanct component of the human soul. But there is nothing this woman finds more important than her faith. Her first identity is in the kingdom of God, and everything else can wait.

Sunday, September 15, 2024

Proper 19 (24)—Season after Pentecost, Year B


Peter goes from the honor of confessing Jesus as Christ to being rebuked as Satan in the span of just a few verses. Peter confesses rightly that Jesus is the Christ, however, he rejects the idea that the Messiah would suffer. There is likely some self-interest here, since the treatment of the master will surely fall on his servants. Indeed, Jesus makes the transference explicit in verse 34. Following Jesus means taking up a cross.

Peter, at this stage in his faith, is like the plant that springs up in shallow soil, exultant to claim the victory but scandalized by the way of the cross. Many are pleased to confess Jesus as Lord, but few are willing to suffer for his sake.

The preacher will find this a hard message if the fact of Christ’s presence in suffering is left out. Jesus does not call us to suffer alone, but with him, since he has gone before us on the way and his resurrection has transformed the way of defeat into the path to victory. It is not a matter of going out looking to suffer needlessly. But if people really follow Jesus’ way, then they will find themselves opposed on every side. The believer is to bear these trials prayerfully and with patience. This is the glory of the Christian life that the believer must not reject: that patience and endurance in suffering produces intimacy with Jesus.

Sunday, September 22, 2024

Proper 20 (25)—Season after Pentecost, Year B


Jesus’ prediction of his death and resurrection once again puzzles the disciples. Here, their desire for status derails their spiritual journey. Though plainly spoken, it is natural to not understand Jesus’ statement that he will die and rise again, but the disciples are “afraid to ask him” what he meant (v. 32). Instead they busy themselves nattering about which one of them is the greatest, showing how they have set their minds on human ends, not on heavenly ones.

Here, Jesus takes the opportunity to instruct them on the values of his kingdom: that humility, not pride is to be exalted. By bringing forward a child, Jesus shows someone who is weak and helpless. Describing this powerful symbol, Theophylact wrote “a child has no desire for honor, it is not jealous, and it does not remember injuries.” Childlikeness is the opposite of the strutting the disciples had done along the way and a prerequisite for entrance into Christ’s kingdom.

The preacher will not lack for application here. The desire for recognition, even in small and trivial ways, marks the human condition from the least to the greatest. Sanctification in Christ is the expunging of these characteristics. If we follow his example on the cross, then we will not shun ignominy, suffering, and humility, since we will see that it is the road to God. Achievement and victory are gifts and blessings when they come, but they must not be grasped at or sought after as life’s chief aim. Somehow or other, the crown of victory in this life must be set aside for the crown of thorns which leads to eternal life.

Sunday, September 29, 2024

Proper 21 (26)—Season after Pentecost, Year B


Jesus’ response to John’s report of the wayward healer shows how he draws people to himself by encouraging the good in them instead of only rebuking the evil. This is a helpful example of how the church ought to approach the splintered traditions, spiritualisms, and false theologies of the modern world.

Those earnestly convinced of Jesus’ power, but who walk apart from his church, are to be commended for their fruits first which will open a way to inform them of their faults. This is the same spirit in which Prisca and Aquila mentored Apollos, who submitted to their instruction.

However, one should not read a casual attitude toward spiritual allegiance into Jesus’ advice. Augustine points out that verse 40, “he who is not against us is for us” ought to be read alongside Luke 11:23, “he who is not with me is against me.” The “us” vs. the “me” is significant, since it is not right to make use of the power of the name of Christ without submitting oneself to his person.

Ultimately, everyone must pledge allegiance to Christ, but this is no reason to make enemies needlessly among those who are inclined to revere him.

Sunday, October 6, 2024

Proper 22 (27)—Season after Pentecost, Year B


Jesus’ prohibition of divorce has been sadly relaxed in Protestant circles (typically by an expansive definition of the exception of “immorality” in Matthew 19) but here in its earliest form, Jesus’ astonishing teaching on the indissolubility of marriage is stark and unqualified.

Marriage is something that God does, not people: “what God has joined together ”¦.” Likewise the sinful consequences of divorce are plain and egalitarian: if either the man or the woman chooses another partner besides the one of their God-made union, the divorce means they live as adulterers despite their second marriage. This uncompromising fidelity mirrors the relationship between Christ and his church.

In much the same way as Jesus, the preacher will face an uphill battle reintroducing this back into most congregations. Focusing on the positive side of the teaching is recommended. Lifelong fidelity in marriage images God’s fidelity to his people even though he suffered rejection, suffering, and disappointment. The congregation can be invited to see their marriages, especially unhappy ones, as opportunities to be like God, persevering in love that is not subject to circumstances.

Sunday, October 13, 2024

Proper 23 (28)—Season after Pentecost, Year B


Another astonishing teaching: The rich, for whom everything in life is easy, face a steep challenge when it comes to entering the kingdom of God. That the total divestment of worldly possessions is not a general duty should not distract us from the fact that Jesus’ call on each of our lives does come with duties of faith and charity, which may be unique to each of us in their particulars, but by no means are they optional.

As often as we return to Christ for forgiveness and solace we will find the call to these duties renewed until we submit to them. It is not as though the kingdom of God has no use for worldly wealth, the disciples who give up lands, receive back a hundredfold in the new economy of the church (though with persecutions).

The point is that we are to put all of our worldly goods at the feet of Jesus for him to disburse the way he wants to—and this always involves blessing the poor. Investing worldly goods in heaven is the Christian way. Investing them here on earth profits us nothing.

Sunday, October 20, 2024

Proper 24 (29)—Season after Pentecost, Year B


Jesus uses James’ and John’s ambitions as an opportunity to reveal another aspect of the mystery of the cross. Relinquishing honor and recognition for the sake of others is what wins the highest reward from God. Power and success do not achieve this.

Jesus himself is the exemplar. It is hard to see the bleak shame of a death on a cross for modern Christians, we are so used to seeing burnished crucifixes and decorative crosses hanging from necklaces. Roman justice, moreover, was a reliable enough institution that a crucified man would not immediately elicit pity from onlookers. “He must have deserved it” would be the default reaction.

The shame of undeserved accusation is, in many ways, the hardest part of the whole Passion: it is the polar opposite of a place of honor. But this is the cup and baptism that Jesus endured, and he offers it to us, as he did his disciples, as the path to triumph. James and John for their part would receive theirs in martyrdom and exile—see Acts 12:2 and Revelation 1:9—winning the higher honor of saints in heaven instead of rulers on earth.

In various ways throughout our lives we too are asked to endure shame and false accusations for the sake of Jesus’ name and for the good of the world. The meaning of crossing ourselves or hanging a cross around our necks is that we accept, embrace, and mark ourselves with ignobility and hardship for the sake of delivering God’s love to the world.

Sunday, October 27, 2024

Proper 25 (30)—Season after Pentecost, Year B


Bartimaeus’ faith is proved by the title he gives to Jesus: Son of David. This is an explicit confession of Jesus as messiah. Despite the fact that he could not see Jesus with his eyes, in faith he saw Jesus’ true identity more clearly even than many of Jesus’ own disciples. Like the feeding miracles which satisfied the natural hunger of the people in order to point to the supernatural sustenance of the Eucharist, Bartimaus was given natural sight as a sign of the spiritual sight he showed in his confession of faith.

There is much to be said about the eyes of faith and the all-important confession of Jesus as Christ and Lord in right belief, but the preacher might also hang an exhortation on verse 52. After Bartimaeus received his sight, he followed Jesus on his way. This also shows the genuineness of his faith, that he follows Jesus even after his eyes are opened.

For us today, the Christian life comes with great natural benefits. Habits of virtue and self-control, on balance, make life go better for us. But Jesus calls us further down the road than just living a better natural life. He calls us on to eternal life by way of the Cross. This life choice is probably why Bartimaeus is named in the Gospel. As a disciple and eyewitness to Christ he may have been known among the community of Jesus’ apostles, and could even have been a source for the very Gospel he appears in. In the same way, we will be named in the Book of Life if we not only receive benefits from Jesus, or confess him publicly once, but by following him in faith all the days of our lives.

Sunday, November 3, 2024

Proper 26 (31)—Season after Pentecost, Year B


The Greatest Commandment(s) is not a discrete prescription in the law but the very principle of the whole law. What Jesus gives to the scribe is the summary statement, the anchor point around which turns the whole rest of the six-hundred odd laws and the system of temple sacrifice. The scribe, for his part, answers well and Jesus compliments him for it. It seems that the scribe’s comment that the commandments supersede the assiduous observance of sacrifices gives him a clue that he is very close to the heart of the kingdom. It is not ritual observance but the disposition of the heart that God wants.

The Christian’s heart is disposed to love both God and neighbor, indeed to do one is to do the other. If we love others, we will want God’s will for them, and if we love God then we will love his creatures who bear his image: people. The purpose of religious apparatus is to get us to this place.

This episode also reveals a bit of Jesus’ method. Like the game where children stumble around blindfolded trying to find a destination and parents say “You’re getting warmer!” Jesus guides his hearers along the path by steps. Indeed, “the way” is a common motif in Mark. Lots of things happen along “the way” or “the road.” More than establishing the setting, it gives a clue as to the nature of the gospel, more than a message, it is a walk in faith, always ongoing.

The preacher ought to take a moment to be encouraged by this. Now as then, preaching the Word of God clearly and truly is to step into the same hornet’s nest of confusion from the ambient culture. But God leads people along by steps, from the person whose faith is so weak that they cry out for help, to this lone scribe who is ready and capable of recognizing the truth that is so near to the heart of the kingdom.

Sunday, November 10, 2024

Proper 27 (32)—Season after Pentecost, Year B


The wealth of faith in the poor of means is displayed in this famous story of the widow’s mite. The preacher can focus on the social dimension of unequal dignity between poor and rich if desired, but the better option would be to take the lesson of the widow about investment in heaven.

She committed her entire life to God in that act, displaying a powerful faith in his providence over and against material means. She preached her own sermon, and it does her highest honor to take its lesson: that God alone gives life, and giving toward advancing his interests, even at the expense of our own, is the surest investment we can make.

The widow is often depicted as a sweet and sad old thing at the end of her rope and nowhere to go but God. In fact, she is smart, a sharper tack than the rich around her, for she puts all of her eggs into God’s basket. By withholding nothing, she ensures that nothing of her is withheld from trusting in God’s providence. Like Zacchaeus, she pushes all of her chips in on God’s provision.

The preacher should be quick to remind the congregation that this sort of total faith is the gift of God, and he builds it into us as we go along the way of our life with him.

Sunday, November 17, 2024

Proper 28 (33)—Season after Pentecost, Year B


Nearing the end of the Christian year, we return to the last things, looking forward again to Advent and its portent of the return of Christ. The preacher should prepare the congregation again for that watchful posture that is proper to the coming season.

Jesus gives two warnings, one against fear of disaster and the other against false messiahs. In the near term, the destruction of the Temple came to pass in AD 70, but Jesus’ words here have always been understood to refer also to the end of the world. The upshot is that we are to remain steady in faith, awaiting the end but neither cowed nor enticed by anything. Our own fear can cause us to retreat from the work God has for us. Also, false teachings can seduce us away from the narrow way of the true gospel.

Jesus’ purpose in letting the disciples in on his divine knowledge of the end of time is to increase their fortitude and trust in God, not to turn them into a community of doomsayers. Patience in hope characterizes the Christian attitude toward life in the world, because the end has been vouchsafed by our Lord.

Sunday, November 24, 2024

Christ the King (Reign of Christ)—Season after Pentecost, Year B


The last Sunday of the Christian year, a relatively recent addition, recognizes Christ as the king of all: the Jews, the Gentiles, the world, all of creation, and of history.

These glimpses of the end in Daniel and Revelation are meant to identify that our faith in Jesus is as a supreme God, not a lesser deity or philosopher. Jesus does not circumscribe his authority to the realm of power politics, he is not a king in that sense. The preacher can connect Jesus’ identity to our identities as citizens of a kingdom that is not of this world (though fully in this world). Even while we are involved in the affairs of the world, and care for the world, our ultimate goal and end is beyond this world.

How this works out is best expressed in the Letter to Diognetus, a second- (or perhaps third-) century tract written on just this subject:

[Christians] live in their own countries, but only as nonresidents; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners ”¦ They obey the established laws; indeed in their private lives they transcend the laws. They love everyone, and by everyone they are persecuted ”¦ In a word, what the soul is to the body, Christians are to the world ”¦ The soul dwells in the body but is not of the body; likewise Christians dwell in the world but are not of the world ”¦ The soul, which is immortal, lives in a mortal dwelling; similarly Christians live as strangers amid perishable things, while waiting for the imperishable in heaven.
-The Letter to Diognetos, in Holmes, Michael W. The Apostolic Fathers 3rd ed., 2007.

And lastly, a final exhortation and benediction which the preacher may leave with the flock at the end of the year:

Let your heart be knowledge, and your life the true teaching, fully comprehended. If this is the tree you cultivate, and whose fruit you pick, then you will always be harvesting the things that God desires, things that the serpent cannot touch and deceit cannot infect. Nor is Eve corrupted; instead, a virgin is trusted. Furthermore, salvation is made known, and apostles are instructed, and the Passover of the Lord goes forward, and the congregations are gathered together, and all things are arranged in order, and the Word rejoices as he teaches the saints, the Word through whom the Father is glorified. To him be the glory forever. Amen.
-The Letter to Diognetos, in Holmes, Michael W. The Apostolic Fathers 3rd ed., 2007.