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Sunday, May 30, 2021
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 6, 2021
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 (1 John 1:9) and that nothing outside of us can separate us from God (Romans 8:38-39).
Jesus, 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 13, 2021
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 20, 2021
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 27, 2021
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 4, 2021
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 11, 2021
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 18, 2021
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 25, 2021
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 1, 2021
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 8, 2021
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 15, 2021
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 22, 2021
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, August 29, 2021
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 5, 2021
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 12, 2021
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 19, 2021
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 26, 2021
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 3, 2021
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 10, 2021
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 17, 2021
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 24, 2021
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, October 31, 2021
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 7, 2021
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 14, 2021
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 21, 2021
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.
Thursday, November 25, 2021