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Sunday, April 4, 2021
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 (15:3-4) or Peter’s sermon in Acts (10:39-40). In both of these readings, it is worth emphasizing that Jesus’ death and resurrection happened “according to the scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:4; Acts 10:43) and that the whole Old Testament points forward to Easter day.
The John passage is most interesting for how it highlights the factual reliability of the Resurrection, 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 11, 2021
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 18, 2021
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 (16). He calls his hearers to repent (v. 19) and promises ultimate healing and refreshment.
Note that in this earliest gospel preaching the core message is what Jesus did. Jesus was the greatest teacher, 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 25, 2021
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, May 2, 2021
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 9, 2021
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.
Sunday, May 16, 2021
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 23, 2021
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.