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Sunday, November 28, 2021
First Sunday of Advent—Advent, Year C
At the beginning of the final cycle of the church calendar, the theme of beginning at the end should be familiar. Advent’s theme isn’t a theatrical “waiting for baby Jesus,” it’s waiting for Jesus to come again at the end of time. So the posture of anticipation is not put on, but a true expectation of what is to come. Jesus’ speech about the cosmos being shaken to its core at the end of the world tells us that the visible world is transient and insecure (modern science confirms this) and only God himself is sure. The picture is of entropy, sometimes gradual, sometimes quick and disastrous. However, in the midst of this chaos, Jesus himself will intervene and redeem the faithful. Jesus offers a positive direction to change. To stand before the Son of Man is to be transformed into new life, a reverse entropy. So our lives are constantly in flux one way or another, and the surest way to lose is to remain sedentary, concerned only with settling the present cares of our lives. Jesus, on the other hand, challenges us to be on the alert for his coming, being sure that we aren’t led astray from the security of God in the transience of a dying world.
Sunday, December 5, 2021
Second Sunday of Advent—Advent, Year C
The second Sunday in Advent always focuses on John the Baptist because he is the bridge between the Old Testament and the New. Besides offering factual, historical data, Luke introduces John in exactly the same way as the Old Testament prophets “in this time and this place, under this ruler, the word of the Lord came to ...” (compare this with the first few verses of any of the prophetic books: Jeremiah 1:1-3, Ezekiel 1:2-3, Micah 1:1, etc.). The word from God to John is the last verbal word before the Word comes incarnate. Luke’s quotation of Isaiah’s prophecy of John emphasizes that John’s and Christ’s is a ministry of repentance: crooked paths straightening and mountains and ravines being leveled out. John’s baptismal ministry is one of repentance, turning away from wicked and slothful habits in order to stand at the ready to receive the sudden coming of the Lord (cf. Malachi 3:1-4). Hardly a one-time thing, repentance is something believers must constantly practice as sin and sloth creep into daily rhythms, so the congregation may be encouraged to consciously practice repentance for sins and habits they may have felt convicted of over the past year but have not moved to act upon. Because the Lord comes suddenly, there is no time like the present!
Sunday, December 12, 2021
Third Sunday of Advent—Advent, Year C
The crowds wondering whether John could be the Christ is understandable. The events of John’s life mimic the Lord’s: he comes from a miraculous birth, leads a popular movement encouraging repentance, preaches to the crowds, excoriates the religious leaders, and dies at the hands of the rulers. There is a very specific reason for the similitude. The Old Testament prophets were often commanded by God to do symbolic actions to amplify their verbal message (cf. Ezek. 4, 24). John’s very life is a “speech-act” that heralds Jesus’ life and ministry, proving the continuity between the old covenants and the new. Christians too should expect their lives to become such “speech acts” mimicking Christ’s. This is not a matter of life or career planning. John certainly didn’t plan his own trajectory, but his life nevertheless took on Christ’s shape because he was fully open to God’s molding his habits, life, and path. We too should open ourselves, day by day and moment by moment, to the Spirit’s influence. If we practice this simple way, we will find at the end of our lives that we have imitated Christ and heralded him to the people around us.
Sunday, December 19, 2021
Fourth Sunday of Advent—Advent, Year C
On the last Sunday of Advent, the story goes back to Mary. Luke’s special focus on women includes Elizabeth in the story which gives us the immortal story of John leaping in her womb (a detail that could only have been related by the experience of an expectant mother). Luke also points out that Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit. Like John witnesses Jesus, Elizabeth witnesses Mary: “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.” When Gabriel tells Zechariah that God would accomplish the unlikely and that they would conceive a son even in advanced age, he doubts. But Mary, confronted with the news that God would achieve the impossible in her, believes. This great faith is the basis of all the church’s teaching on Mary and also makes her the best application for the preacher. By imitating her, we too can invite the Lord to do even the impossible through us. Replacing the Psalm with the Magnificat is an opportunity for the congregation to respond to God in faith using her words
Friday, December 24, 2021
Nativity of the Lord - Proper I Christmas Eve & Day—Christmas, Year C
The modern Christmas Eve service was once the midnight mass that began the three services (at midnight, dawn, and daytime) of the feast of Christmas. The preacher should pay special attention to the arc of these passages and may make use of the time of day to evoke the themes of the readings. The first reading: here at night as the world sleeps, the church witnesses light: the birth of a ruler who will bring an everlasting dominion of peace to the world which will end war and injustice forever. The second reading brings the moral dimension to the King’s salvation: setting aside sin for purity and replacing perennial human temptations with the desire for good works. The Gospel reading ends with the angel messenger bringing the “glory of the Lord” to shine around the shepherds. The theme of light casting out darkness should take center stage and provides the preacher with many real-world circumstances familiar to people: sin, oppression, fear, anxiousness. The Lord’s light breaks into all of these, casting them out as surely as light overwhelms darkness.
Friday, December 24, 2021
Nativity of the Lord - Proper II Christmas Eve & Day—Christmas, Year C
This Gospel of this second service in the Christmas trilogy, extended to verse 20, may focus on the shepherds’ response to the message: “Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.” This can be used as a teaser for the final Christmas Day service: where the John 1 reading will give full meaning to those who have followed the angels’ news to witness for themselves the glorious birth of the savior. At this early hour, however, the first reading may be an encouragement to those who have managed to pull themselves out of bed and show up at this sparsely attended service: the watchmen on the walls of Jerusalem who do not rest. These are often the poor, the lonely, and those without families to celebrate with. They may be honored here as the church’s stalwart sentinels, using the eyes of faith to look ahead with the shepherds to the true light of which the comforts and consolations of the holidays are but signs and shadows.
Friday, December 24, 2021
Nativity of the Lord - Proper III Christmas Eve & Day—Christmas, Year C
The Principle Service of Christmas day—which sadly has been completely replaced in modern American culture with private family gift-opening—brings definition to the blinding light of Jesus’ coming. So central is the John 1 text to the nativity that it will be repeated on the second Sunday after Christmas just to make sure nobody has missed hearing it. Here is the mystery of the nativity which Christians celebrate: not the birth of a great man but the very author of all creation, the original light that gave light to all things, entering secretly into his own creation to save it. Those who believe and turn toward him may be called the children of that light. But that Light entered his creation in a very specific way that is not to be missed: by taking flesh, indicating his mortality and the mission of death. Finally, the preacher must emphasize that in Christ the Father’s glory has been witnessed, seen by the ordinary eyes of men and women. Jesus is not a synecdoche for empty philosophical speculation on the meaning of life or inspiring and insightful motivational speeches about how to live a fulfilling, “meaningful” life. He is God from God, light from light eternal: the perfect image of the Father. This all-important fact will set the congregation up for the following feast of the Epiphany that will make manifest the character and will of God as revealed to us by the incarnate Lord.
Saturday, December 25, 2021
Nativity of the Lord - Proper I Christmas Eve & Day—Christmas, Year C
Saturday, December 25, 2021
Nativity of the Lord - Proper II Christmas Eve & Day—Christmas, Year C
Saturday, December 25, 2021
Nativity of the Lord - Proper III Christmas Eve & Day—Christmas, Year C
Sunday, December 26, 2021
First Sunday after Christmas Day—Christmas, Year C
The very recently added feast of the Holy Family is intended to display Jesus’ family as a model for Christian families. But what we find in the scriptures are not warm paeans to the institution of the nuclear family, but rather stories of children separated from their parents. These episodes show how the human family has meaning and purpose only when it is offered up to serve God’s greater mission. Hannah’s gift of her firstborn Samuel to the Lord causes him “to grow in stature and favor both with the Lord and with men” and brings her more children. In the same way, modern parents—though beset by the pressures to mold their children into high performing “machines”—must not understand themselves as the sole custodians of their children’s upbringing. Instead, they ought to follow Hannah’s example through prayer, devoting their children to the Lord and trusting him with their children’s futures rather than their own capacities as capable parents. We see the same dynamic heightened in the gospel passage. Jesus’ answer to his parents’ understandable concern at his absence: “did you not know that I had to be in my Father’s house?” indicates that God’s mission supersedes even the natural bonds of his earthly family. This is a good opportunity for the preacher to remind that all those who walk in faith reside in the house of the Father and compose God’s true family (cf. Mark 3:33-35; John 1:13) which brings celibates into the center of the Holy Family.
Another option: The Gospel story of Jesus in the Temple is an important Christological passage for the tradition of the church and a good opportunity for the preacher to address an often-burning question for believers: what did Jesus know as he grew up and what was he capable of as divine and human? First, Jesus’ parents find him in the temple three days after his disappearance foreshadows the resurrection, setting the episode in the context of Jesus’ mission. The passage discloses how though Jesus is conscious of his identity and mission he still had to progress in that mission by normal human means. Hence, we see him “listening and asking questions” of the rabbis. Though his identity as the Son of God seems to have made him a quick study, as we see in the teachers’ astonishment at his “answers and understanding,” he still learns as an ordinary human youth. The church’s consensus understanding of Jesus’ supernatural abilities was that they always served his mission and purpose on earth, and never allowed him to “shortcut” ordinary human travails--hence the Infancy Gospel of Thomas which shows Jesus making flippant use of his divine powers was rejected as a gnostic fabrication. This understanding is supported by Jesus’ refusal of the Devil’s temptation to relieve himself of his human constraints in the temptation in the wilderness and on the occasions where Jesus refuses or “could not” do any miraculous signs due to the lack of faith (Mk. 6:5; Matt. 13:58) and also in the Book of Hebrews’ affirmation that he was “tempted in every way as we are” (4:15). The issue was not the strength of Jesus’ power but that his power on earth had an orientation toward the accomplishment of his mission at the Resurrection--indeed the theologians thought of his earthly ministry “flowed backwards” as it were, from the Resurrection. Therefore, Jesus does no marvelous work that does not serve that mission.
Saturday, January 1, 2022
Holy Name of Jesus (Mary, Mother of God)—Christmas, Year C
Saturday, January 1, 2022
Sunday, January 2, 2022
Second Sunday after Christmas Day—Christmas, Year C
Though John 1 was read on Christmas Day, the reality of sparse church attendance in modern America means that this Sunday will likely be the first time it is heard by most of the congregation, so the themes of the Christmas Day commentary may be safely repeated. The option to extend the passage to verse 18 brings a new valence for the preacher to expound: Jesus is God made visible. Though no one has seen the God the Father, Jesus, the “only begotten God” has “expressed” the Father (v. 18) perfectly. This is how Jesus can assure Philip in 14:9, that he who has seen him has seen the Father and is not in need of fuller revelation.
Thursday, January 6, 2022
The Epiphany season focuses on three traditional manifestations: the magi (celebrated on January 6), Jesus’ baptism, and the Miracle at Cana. Luke gives a brief account, with no mention of John’s protestations, so the preacher may focus on the meaning of the scene itself. At his baptism, Jesus stands in the place of sinners. This is the most important part of the picture. Jesus’ ministry would be one of repentance and also accompaniment: he would stand with sinners and accompany them to everlasting life. Jesus’ nearness to sinners is a theme the Gospels return to again and again. Jesus shows up for them in the market and at their dinner tables, consorting with them in public and in private. His baptism shows that intent to go everywhere with them, even to be baptized, when he is the only one who needs no purification. Traditionally, the church also understood Jesus as himself “baptizing” the very waters that would go on to baptize the church, giving them their purifying power. The Holy Spirit’s descent seems to confirm this, and it is also a foreshadowing of what will happen at the baptisms of all Christians. As John says: Jesus’ baptism is not water only, but it also brings the Holy Spirit with it.
Sunday, January 9, 2022
Baptism of the Lord (First Sunday after Epiphany)—Epiphany, Year C
Sunday, January 16, 2022
Second Sunday after the Epiphany—Epiphany, Year C
Cana is the final manifestation of Christ celebrated in Epiphany. Here, he reveals himself to his disciples. There is much more to the story than meets the modern eye. First, John speaks of the events transpiring on “the third day” after the fifth day of a week of Jesus’ opening ministry in chapters 1 and 2, which by ancient numbering makes it the seventh day of the week. That this miracle simultaneously happens on the “third day” and the seventh day signifies that what Jesus does here links together Jesus’ resurrection and the work of a new work of a new creation. Clearly this is more than just helping out at a party. Each detail is worth calling to the congregation’s attention. Mary’s statement “they have no wine” recalls Isaiah 24 and 25 where it is foretold that God will reverse Israel’s downfall, signified by a lack of wine, with a great feast of “well aged wine.” Jesus’ answer “what does this have to do with us?” makes clear that his miraculous power isn’t available for solving the pedestrian problem of running out of drinks. He is up to something more. By providing the wine, Jesus identifies himself as the true bridegroom of the heavenly feast, bringing out the wine to fill his people. However, the “hour” yet to come which Jesus speaks of (a recurring theme throughout John) shows that the wine foretold in Isaiah is in fact the blood of the Messiah, poured out on the Cross at the hour of his crucifixion, glorified in his resurrection, and distributed at the Eucharist at the church’s hour of prayer. In the Eucharist, the blood of the Messiah is actually consumed and the people of God partake in the eternal feast which will end with death swallowed up by God for all time. The six stone water pots for the rite of purification signify the old law’s insufficiency, since six is one less than seven, the number of completion and fullness. Here Jesus makes clear that he is not just a Josiah-like figure reforming Israel to her old ways but the generation of something new, indeed the very thing the law had always pointed to: the great feast at the end. Just as one washes one’s hands before the feast, so too did the law prepare the people for the coming of Jesus the Bridegroom.
What to take from this swirl of prophecy and portent? First, that Christ’s objective is not simply to wash the sins off of people, as at the water jars, but to fill them with God’s own life. Also that Jesus is not a guest in our lives, helping us get out of jams from time to time, rather we are guests in his life and invited to the final marriage between God and humanity.
Sunday, January 23, 2022
Third Sunday after the Epiphany—Epiphany, Year C
Jesus announces his ministry publicly by invoking the messianic prophecy in Isaiah 61:1-2 and 58. Luke reminds frequently that same Spirit that inspired Isaiah is in Jesus (cf. Lk 4:1, 4:14), emphasizing the continuity of God’s words in the Old Testament scriptures with Jesus’ teaching ministry. This claiming of the messianic mantle was misinterpreted--both in Jesus’ day and in ours, as political liberation--as a statement of political liberation. But the jubilee promised by Jesus is not immediate liberation from temporal powers but from the power of death itself. However, the gospel does have immediate temporal consequences. “The poor” are not an abstraction here, and the preacher must not spiritualize the idea. The poor are those with unfulfilled physical needs. Jesus habitually reserves special blessings for the poor, and it is to them that the gospel is primarily addressed. This does not restrict the good news from the comfortable and well off--since all are ultimately subject to the same corruption and death--but it does establish God’s focal point for his work on earth. If the message preached and ministry enacted by our churches is not good for the needy then it is good for nobody.
Sunday, January 30, 2022
Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany—Epiphany, Year C
The people of Nazareth marvel at Jesus’ teachings yet they minimize his person as the “son of Joseph.” The parallel passage in Mark 6:1-3 gives more context: the people are indignant at worst, patronizing at best toward an uppity hometown boy taking up the voice of the divine. There are two lessons to be taken from Jesus’ reply: first that one’s home and family can often be the hardest mission field. Familiarity is a longtime enemy of faith: reducing the transcendent to the immanent and manipulable (Ps. 50:21). If the truth of the Word of God breaking into our immediate lives cannot be resisted then it can be minimized ad hominem by focusing on the foibles of the speaker of the word. One may hear and appreciate the word, but fail to follow the speaker since, after all, isn’t he just Joseph’s son?
The second point follows from Jesus’ rebuke of his countrymen: his mission to the Gentiles. Jesus puts himself in the line of the Old Testament prophets and highlights the several places where God blessed foreigners instead of the Jews to whom they were sent and who had rejected them. The violent reaction to this mirrors the same persecution given to the prophets, proving Jesus’ point.
From this the preacher may point out that the gospel is never comfortable with the familiarity that staid church life often brings. Home, family, and stable community are blessings and offer comfort, but the true Christian yearns to bring the gospel to strangers and those outside the glow of hearth and home. Indeed, that is where one often finds those who are eager to receive it.
Sunday, February 6, 2022
Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany—Epiphany, Year C
The great catch of fish is a common image for the capacity of evangelism to bring about revival. What is not often remarked on is the way the disciples bring in the fish. The haul is too large for Peter’s single boat. It takes James and John’s vessels to help bring in the catch. Here we have an image of the unity of the church in the work of evangelism. The need for unity of thought, doctrine, and fellow feeling is a well-worn topic in today’s scattered denominational landscape. But the church is most effectively unified around its work for the sake of the lost and the poor. The formal causes of church unity should not be understated—especially doctrine, sacrament, and the historic hierarchy—however the work of the church on behalf of the lost and needy is the material cause of unity, and it is the place where divided believers may find the possibility for unity in other respects. The church is the only institution that exists for the sake of those outside of it and it cannot subsist without the pursuit of that primary purpose.
Sunday, February 13, 2022
Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany—Epiphany, Year C
There is a division nowadays between those preachers who consider Jesus’ beatitudes in Luke to be validating people in the real social condition of poverty and misery, and others who read the same as a spiritual condition. The correct answer is both. The moral exhortations in the following verses (27-38) reveal that Jesus has personal virtuous conduct in mind—and Matthew’s more popular “poor in spirit” harmonizes. However, Luke’s account is left unglossed for a reason: that the pursuit of godliness is helped, not hindered, by material poverty and suffering. This would have been news to any ancient person for whom the path to divinization was marked by those things which were like God and the gods: blessings, wealth, and long life. We are, today, similarly tempted to regard the rich and successful with the same quasi-religious admiration: as paragons of humanity since, after all, the proof of their lifestyle is plain. But Jesus reverses the typical signs of divine favor—It is poverty, hunger, mourning, and friendlessness that are the markers on the pathway to God. It is surprising and counterintuitive, but it makes sense because the lack of worldly goods makes space for God. Indeed, present worldly pleasures easily become obstacles to faith and connection with God (cf. the rich young ruler in Luke 18). For this reason, the gospel is good news to the poor and concerning news—at best—for the rich who had looked to their wealth also for eternal security, since they supposed it to be a marker of God’s favor. In reality, however, the materially poor are better off in the pursuit of godliness, and are therefore to be imitated and blessed instead of avoided and ignored.
Sunday, February 20, 2022
Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany—Epiphany, Year C
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” A requirement for following Jesus is to show the same forgiveness that Joseph showed his brothers, not only to one’s clan, but to “whomever” wrongs you. Jesus’ teaching gives the old theme of mercy and magnanimity startling new contours: bless the curser, give gifts to the robber, be gentle with the one who violates you. It has become fashionable to speak of these as components of a radically disinterested morality which regards “the other” as the moral object before whom the self-abrogates itself. But Jesus is not recommending existential abasement. Throughout, he talks about the benefits of this way of life: the credit and great reward given to those who empty themselves in this way. One way of looking at this passage is as an investment strategy: the imitation of God results in receiving God himself. God is both the creditor and reward. By imitating him, we will become like him and so receive him as our reward.
The famous Golden Rule in verse 6:31 is a diagnostic test which discloses whether we are acting in accord with this goal of imitating God. It is not presented—as it is so often misread—as a mathematical formula that describes the substance of our moral lives. Instead, it gives us a practical measure that we can apply to any situation and act toward God.
Sunday, February 27, 2022
Transfiguration Sunday (Last Sunday before Lent)—Epiphany, Year C
Luke’s account of the Transfiguration is the only one in the Gospels which tells us that Moses and Elijah talked to Jesus about. In the first-year cycle’s Matthew account, we learned about how the cloud, the voice, and the three companions and their fear recapitulate Moses’ encounter with God at Sinai. Here, the discussion between the holy ones, coming on the heels of the passion prediction in verse 22 foregrounds Jesus’ passion and death, alluded to as his “exodus” which would take place at Jerusalem. The scene in Luke mirrors Gethsemane, pointing out that Jesus and the three disciples went to the mountain “to pray” (28). The disciples, unlike later at the Garden, successfully keep awake and witness Christ’s glory. The similitude between the two scenes gives meaning to the preceding commandment to “take up one’s cross.” To share in Christ’s passion is to share in his glory. To drink the cup of his passion is to be transformed. The apostles on the mountain surely reported what they saw to encourage the saints to see in Jesus their own destiny: to walk in the way of the Cross to share in the glorious and great power of Christ’s resurrected body.
Sunday, March 6, 2022
First Sunday in Lent—Lent, Year C
Jesus’ temptation is always the first scripture in Lent. In Luke’s account, the devil tests Jesus’ devotion to his saving mission. It is not accidental that, after resisting earthly power and earthly food, Jesus is taken up to Jerusalem, the site of his eventual suffering and death and instead asked to prove his divine invulnerability. We too are tempted to mistake the faith for a scheme for self-satisfaction and empowerment, when in fact the glory of the Christian life is made perfect through weakness and faithfulness through suffering. We can see also a pattern of increasing craftiness in Satan’s tempting, whereby Jesus is first offered power in exchange for worshipping Satan, the next try is to get Jesus to exalt himself and test God’s own care of him. Satan tempts us in much the same way. The familiar and explicit “deal with the devil” is rarely the tactic. Rather, we are usually tempted to worship ourselves and let God play the attendant to our desires. In Lent, we ought to remember that, though we hope in his grace, the fear of the Lord means killing in ourselves the attitude of presumption that would cheapen that grace by causing us to intentionally test its limits. God is the one who tests us, not the other way around.
Sunday, March 13, 2022
Second Sunday in Lent—Lent, Year C
The Revised Common Lectionary presents a choice of Gospel readings this Sunday. The preacher will be rewarded for choosing the Transfiguration account. Though to modern ears, something rings false about Jesus’ glorification coming in the penitential season of Lent, in fact, it reveals an enormously important truth since it comes right on the heels of Jesus’ command that his disciples deny themselves and take up their cross. The message is that for both Christ and the Christian, suffering and victory go inevitably together. The glory and strength of the Christian life is sourced by its consent to weakness and willingness to sacrifice for the sake of others. The Transfiguration shows where the way of the Cross leads, to glorification on the Mountain of the Lord.
Sunday, March 20, 2022
Third Sunday in Lent—Lent, Year C
Jesus helps us rethink the sense of divine judgment. Jesus does not accept the theory that God sends calamity as retribution for sin. The question is not what sorts of behavior will trigger God’s lethal anger, but why he allows anyone to go on living at all. The image of the fig tree—which may be applied both to Israel and the individual believer--shows that its only purpose in taking up the soil is to bear fruit. If the tree, the human being, or the nation, does not use its resources to do good works, then sooner or later, God will cut it down and put it to other ignoble uses for which it was not created, but may nevertheless serve (cf. Matt. 7:19). The question that should be asked when faced with another’s calamity is not “what did this person do to anger God?” but rather, “what am I doing to fulfill my purpose of bearing good fruit in the world for God’s sake?” Nevertheless, God’s heart is merciful and he sends his Son the vinedresser to cultivate good works and holiness of life in us fallow trees by the nourishment of the Holy Spirit. Jesus prescribes repentance as the appropriate response to God’s saving work. It is a posture that God never despises, even in the driest trees (see Luke 23:32-43).
Sunday, March 27, 2022
Fourth Sunday in Lent—Lent, Year C
Though the focal point in preaching the parable of the Prodigal Son has been as an allegory for repentance. However, this is hardly a very inspiring portrait. The younger brother remains entirely self-interested, cashing out his inheritance and then after squandering it all, realizing that he would be better off as his father’s hired hand. This emphasizes the love of the Father all the more--how willing he is to restore to full honor even the slightest hint of repentance. However, the overlooked and very significant focal point of the story is the father’s words to the indignant older brother: “All that is mine is yours.” The older brother’s claim that the Father does not lavish love on him for all his dedicated service shows that, in a greatly ironic twist, it is the “good” son who has failed to consider himself as a fellow heir of the Father’s estate, and instead has regarded himself as the hired hand, waiting impatiently for a wage. The father reminds him that he is an incorporated part of the family business, not an outsider hoping to earn his way into the storehouse. In this way, Jesus admonishes the Pharisees for their hardness of heart, despite their proximity to Synagogue and Temple worship. They are unwilling to join God on his saving mission to the world, and so count themselves out of heavenly blessings. The preacher may apply this parable to ourselves by reminding the congregation that each of us shares in God’s “family business” of evangelism, reconciliation, and works of mercy as beloved sons and daughters, not wag-earning slaves. This is the sort of religious posture that draws on the Father’s great storehouse of love for us, distributes it to others, and may finally rest in that eternal love.
Sunday, April 3, 2022
Fifth Sunday in Lent—Lent, Year C
John’s account of Mary anointing Jesus for burial contains several details that can help the congregation find their posture at the close of the Lenten season and anticipating the Lord’s Passion and Resurrection.
Like his narration of Jesus’ first week of ministry, John’s Gospel sequences the final days of Jesus’ last week, announcing each day’s passing of this final week. Jesus announces the countdown at 12:23. His hour that he alludes to at his first miracle is now at hand. By the end of the week he will be glorified in his crucifixion. The eighth day, the first day of the new week, will begin the new creation heralded by his Resurrection.
Mary’s anointing of Jesus anticipates the church’s liturgy. She strikes a sacramental image, kneeling before the Lord as we do at the altar in Eucharist. The passage focuses on the sacrifice we may make of our own lives when we come to Jesus in faith to worship him. The word used for the ointment is pistikos (“pure”) deriving from the same root as “faith” (pistis) indicating that her anointing is an act that derives from her great faith. Judas’ legalistic (and also hypocritical, as John points out) criticism shows that the source of good works lie in the worship of Christ, and that extravagant worship in no way contradicts the command to give alms to the poor. Indeed, the work of worshipping God enables service to the poor. John also records the detail in Matthew and Mark about the smell filling the place, recalling the “pleasing aroma” of the sacrifices in Leviticus. Mary truly fulfills Psalm 51:17, that the sacrifices the Lord loves are “a broken spirit and a contrite heart.”
So too as the congregation prepares for Easter, they may be reminded that the effort and treasure expended in worship of Jesus at Holy Week—made more burdensome by its observance in a world in which Holy Week is just another 9-5 work week—is indeed a pleasing sacrifice to God, even a participation in his suffering, even if in a small way.
Our present situation gives us more opportunity to worship like Mary, who alone among the disciples seemed to perceive that the glorification of Christ was on the cross, not in worldly success. Similarly, the world today overlooks Easter, taking no pause to “stay with me.” The bemusement and offense taken at Mary is like what we may experience as we bow out of social gatherings, fast while others feast, or even take time away from work. This is the sacrifice God desires, even as the world may wonder why we aren’t doing something useful with our time and money. The church alone knows that Jesus’ glorification on the Cross is that great good thing from which all other goods come, for Christ alone gives life to the world.
Sunday, April 10, 2022
Liturgy of the Palms—Lent, Year C
The great contrast between joyful hosannas to the passion reading is a feature, not a bug, of the Palm Sunday liturgy. The preacher’s unique job is to help the congregation enter into the mystery of Jesus’ sacrifice, his crowning act of love for humanity.
Luke’s passion narrative places special focus on Jesus’ innocence. What may not be obvious to a modern audience is how Roman justice, though brutal, was generally well-regarded. To be crucified would not have made Jesus a pitiable sight but a contemptuous one. Jesus, next to the thieves, would have been thought to have deserved his fate. Luke’s painstaking reconstruction of events, quotations, and testimonies of the players involved, like one of our modern documentaries aimed at overturning a guilty verdict, is meant to show that the fix was in from the start.
What is remarkable is Jesus’ silence in verse nine. If anyone could take it upon himself to vindicate himself before men it would be the sinless Son of God. But the passage from Isaiah 50 discloses the heart of Jesus: a total reliance on the Father’s purposes that needs no vindication in the eyes of men. It is enough for Jesus that the Father knows his innocence “therefore I am not disgraced, therefore I have set my face like flint. And I know that I will not be ashamed” (v. 7).
When we are unfairly treated by others, we also can choose the way of peace instead of rancor and so enter into Christ’s humiliation, suffering with him on the way to glory.
Sunday, April 10, 2022
Liturgy of the Passion—Lent, Year C
Wednesday, April 13, 2022
Thursday, April 14, 2022
Maundy Thursday (Holy Thursday)—Holy Week, Year C
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, April 15, 2022
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, April 17, 2022
Resurrection of the Lord (Easter Day)—Easter, Year C
It is traditional to read John’s account of the empty tomb every year (see Easter Day commentary on Year B), but the preacher does also have the option to substitute a Synoptic account.
Opting for the Luke account will give the preacher a view of Luke’s special focus on the “last being first” as the women become the “apostles to the apostles.” Two points are worth making: first this detail speaks to the veracity of the Resurrection, since an invented story would not include untrustworthy news bearers (as women were supposed to be at the time) as eyewitnesses. The second detail is to point out how the lowly are often the first to receive the gospel because of their propensity for faith. The women believe the good news immediately while the other apostles take some time. Peter rushing to the tomb is also an example of this, since he was the disciple who had denied the Lord.
Another springboard for the preacher is the image of the burial linens lying in the tomb. Not only is it another proof of the resurrection (graverobbers would not have stopped to undress the body) but it is a symbol of Jesus’ final victory over death. The image is a callback to Lazarus emerging from the tomb in Luke 16 wrapped in linen cloths, symbolizing how even though he has risen from the dead, the ultimate power of death still lies on him, since he would die again. But Jesus’ resurrection means that death, symbolized by the linens, has been put away forever. Therefore “Christ being raised from the dead will never die again. Death no longer has dominion over him” (Rom. 6:9).
Sunday, April 24, 2022
Second Sunday of Easter—Easter, Year C
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, May 1, 2022
Third Sunday of Easter—Easter, Year C
John 21:1-19 is a packed passage full of potential focal points that tie up threads begun earlier in John’s Gospel. So, the preacher will be well stocked for future cycles.
The great catch of fish symbolizes the apostolic mission to the world. Numbers are always important in John’s Gospel, and the one hundred and fifty-three fish is, according to Jerome, the total number of species that ancient Greek scientists had, up to that point, identified. The point is that people from every nation would be included in the church, with none left out. Also, the disciples’ need to gather their boats to assist each other in bringing in the great catch presages the episcopacy of the church, where each apostolic see would act as one though independently sent out to the corners of the world.
Verses 9-14 is the second time Jesus serves bread and fish to the disciples by the Sea of Galilee, the first being of course the Feeding of the 5,000—the verbiage in v. 13 is an abbreviation of the fourfold action “took, (blessed, broke), gave” which appears also in the Synoptics’ account of the institution of the Eucharist, and the Road to Emmaus in Luke 24. The action here confirms the link between Eucharist and the apostolic mission. The disciples are now to bring Christ’s resurrected flesh to feed the world (cf. John 6:50-58; Mark 6:37).
Jesus’ three questions to Peter recall his three denials during Jesus’ trial, restoring him. The Gospel is clear that Peter will make good on his professions of love at his martyrdom (v. 19). This passage has helped the church understand that apostasy is not an irreparable sin, provided the sinner returns and repents.
Sunday, May 8, 2022
Fourth Sunday of Easter—Easter, Year C
Looking back on the Lord’s life and teachings in light of his Resurrection reveals more than could be discerned before he rose from the dead. That “the sheep hear the shepherd’s voice” is speaking of the church, who faithfully interpret the words of the Lord, because the Spirit of the Lord is in them. The Jews in the passage, by contrast, are seeking to catch Jesus in a compromising position and use his words against him. The point is that faith is the lens through which we properly hear Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels. Even mighty works and miracles cannot convince the one whose heart is set against God (v. 26). How we approach Jesus has everything to do with how we interpret his words and teachings. Faith in his resurrection unlocks the truth. Skeptics will always remain on the outside for however long they keep up the critical attitude, only ever having the experience of challenging and weighing his words and tuning out the call of the Father to his children.
Jesus, wise as a serpent, though innocent as a dove, does not always speak plainly about his status as the Messiah and Son of God to those who work against him. Yet here he does in verse 30. The lesson for Christians in the world is that we, like Jesus, are not bound to always confront the world’s impieties when the timing is unpropitious. However, when directly asked what we believe, we are bound to give a plain confession in order to bear witness to the truth before others, even if it leads to our harm or ostracism. God will provide for our bodily safety (v. 39), or else our eternal rest (v. 28).
Sunday, May 15, 2022
Fifth Sunday of Easter—Easter, Year C
Returning to the mandatum in light of the Resurrection reveals how Jesus perfects merely human religion. Whereas Jesus gives the sage advice of the golden rule in Matthew 7:12, giving the human rule for the treatment of others, in John’s gospel the measure of Christian love from the Lord among his disciples is God’s divine love. No human code of conduct can create such a love in its followers. Only divine aid by the Holy Spirit can put this kind of love in human beings’ hearts. This is the love that brings Jesus to the Cross, referred to here as his “glorification.” Note that loving as God loves is issued as a commandment, not an optional side-quest for the Christian. This sort of love is to be the defining, glorifying feature of the Christian community.
The listener, rightly, will identify that this love is not naturally occurring in themselves. The preacher’s opportunity here is to exhort the believer to call on the aid of the Holy Spirit. The preacher will need to resist the temptation to take a detour into how Christ’s sacrifice justifies us even in our unworthiness. Though true, this passage shows how the Cross is the very model of love, the greatest work of mercy, and if anyone would come after the Lord they must take up that same cross in the spirit of that same love. The expectation of holiness should not be quenched. Rather the Spirit should be invoked to fill the void the congregants will naturally feel, careful to remind that the Lord himself walks with them along the way.
Sunday, May 22, 2022
Sixth Sunday of Easter—Easter, Year C
The preacher has the option of two passages in John. If the John 14 passage is selected, there is the opportunity to prepare the congregation for the Feast of the Ascension and its observance on the following Sunday. “I go away, and I will come to you.” In this passage Jesus promises his presence in two ways. First, by keeping Jesus’ commandments Christians prove their love for Jesus and so open themselves to become a dwelling place for God. Second, by the Holy Spirit who is sent from the Father to teach and “bring to remembrance” these words of Christ—this theme will begin preparing the congregation for Pentecost in two weeks. This last point is an especially comforting truth, since it shows how walking the Christian life in faith is not just a matter of following Christ’s good example or internalizing his teachings. It is a spiritual affair in which God himself reaches down to aid us by the Spirit.
The preacher may want to remark that this mode of Christ’s presence is superior to his presence in the body. The distance even between two familiar friends is closed by the Word in our minds and the Spirit dwelling in our hearts. It is as though in going away, Christ has commingled himself even more closely with us than he did in taking on flesh at the Incarnation. The Ascension is not Jesus’ departure but the beginning of an even more intimate presence which is available to every believer through prayer, meditation on the scriptures, and participating in the sacraments.
Sunday, May 29, 2022
Seventh Sunday of Easter—Easter, Year C
The preacher has two options on the Sunday after the Ascension. The annual reading of John 17 is the conclusion of the high priestly prayer (see commentary in Year B). Electing instead to return to the regularly scheduled Gospel of Year C gives the opportunity to bring before the congregation an important theme in Luke’s gospel: That the Holy Spirit establishes the continuity between the Old and New Testaments.
In an age marked by a method of biblical criticism which regards as “historically responsible” bracketing out the possibility of spiritual readings of the Old Testament, it is important to hear how Jesus refers to the entire Old Testament as writings about him (v. 44) and that understanding them in this way is the illumination of God himself (v. 45). For the church, cataloguing the diversity of sources and drawing attention to the joints and seams whereby they were assembled is not an exercise that reveals the true meaning of the scriptures. The key to receiving God’s word in the Old Testament is to understand it in the light of Jesus’ Resurrection, recognizing the Holy Spirit speaking through it.
Detailing the church’s history of interpretation of the Old Testament is probably better left for a special series of teachings (e.g. 1 Peter 3, 1 Corinthians 10, among others). Sufficient for the day will be to emphasize another way that Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension leaves us better off, even than those who walked with Jesus in his earthly life: with the key to unlock all of the riches of Holy Scripture to edify and aid us as we follow Christ to the Father.
Next week, will observe when this same Spirit that spoke of Christ through the Law and the Prophets will descend on his church in power.
Sunday, June 5, 2022
On the Day of Pentecost, attention naturally turns to the event of Pentecost recounted in Acts, but John is the reliable interpreter of the meaning of that event, so the latter should be used to illuminate the former.
The Spirit’s rushing upon the Apostles is not so much a discrete event as a manifestation of a reality already present. This reality which the Spirit effects is the unity between Son and Father, and us and the Son, and therefore us and the Father. Phillip’s request at the table shows that he does not yet understand this unity. Here, Jesus’ syllogism of unity between people and God comes full circle: “I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (14:10) and “abide in me and I in you” (15:4). The miracle of Pentecost is the Holy Spirit effecting this unity of love, and from this union, the unity of all people is realized—even across culture and language barriers—and miracles flow.
How does the preacher exhort the congregation to enter into this mystery of unity? First, it should not be missed that the John passage comes from Jesus’ discourse at the Last Supper, emphasizing how the Eucharist is one of the means by which we today continue to participate in that unity. Secondly, the preacher may point out how the Spirit is no less present today as then, and that whether in dramatic or ordinary ways, the goal is unity with Jesus who shows us the Father. Neither a one-time event in the past or a far-off goal in the future, abiding with Christ by the Spirit is a present reality that the Christian is always caught up in and enjoined to participate in. Pentecost is now.
Sunday, June 12, 2022
As always, Trinity Sunday should not be a dry recitation of the technical language of the Creeds. The preacher must bring out how the three Persons relate to us in their operation in order to make the doctrine vital to the congregation’s life and worship.
In Year C, the Holy Spirit takes center stage in John 16. The Spirit, often supposed in certain traditions to be the “wild child” of the Trinity, subverting church order in favor of new and strange revelations. John’s gospel tells us the opposite. The Spirit does not speak of his own accord, but reveals to the saints “all the truth” about Christ. The Father gives all to the Son, the Son gives all to the church and the Spirit illuminates the church so they can understand what is given. The Spirit glorifies the Son, only delivering and clarifying what Christ revealed in his life, death, and resurrection. So, the Trinity is not a far-off mystery but a present reality, God’s own self embracing his created people.
Sunday, June 19, 2022
This Sunday represents a crossroads for the preacher. For the rest of this year, the Gospel lectionary returns to the Gospel of Luke 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 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.
The story of the demoniac liberated from the “legion” of demons is a story of Jesus’ power to defeat the darkest evils and restore those very far from God to adopted sonship. As in the other Synoptics, many of the story’s details hold up the demoniac as the prime example of the oppression of the spiritual powers of the world. The story has a Gentile context, far from the sanctity of the Jewish people. He has no clothes—a frequent biblical symbol of enslavement—and no house, no possibility of living in sanity among people; the demons often drove him out into the wilderness. Moreover, he is among the tombs, and therefore ritually unclean. The portrait is almost inhuman. After Jesus is done with him though, he is clothed and in his right mind.
The point of documenting the deliverance is straightforwardly to show Jesus’ power over evil and his ability to restore anyone in creation. The significance of the pigs could be either their ritual uncleanness—sending unclean spirits into unclean animals was appropriate—or that they were a symbol of Roman military power (the region the story takes place in happens to be nearby where a Roman legion was stationed). It is likely that the story works on both levels, showing the reader how Jesus has power over all temporal powers that oppress: spiritual, political, and otherwise. The point is that Jesus has the power to deliver all humankind from the powers that oppress them, and that no case is so far gone as to be beyond his ability to restore.
Sunday, June 26, 2022
Luke’s story about the rejection at Samaria is seen through the lens of God’s saving work through Jesus. The text begins by mentioning Jesus’ ascension and that the time is drawing near. This is not the headspace the disciples are in. They are stuck in 2 Kings 1:9-16 with Elijah calling down God’s fire on his adversaries. But Jesus is not Elijah (John 1:21). His work is salvation, not death. In the same way, the church is to bear with those who reject her, not seeking their demise but their salvation and healing. The disciples eventually do understand and follow Jesus in the way of suffering and rejection by the very ones they were sent to save. The work of the modern church is no different and ought to bear with those who persecute them and reject them from society instead of rebuking them or desiring their ill.
Sunday, July 3, 2022
Jesus sending out the seventy-two presages the church going into all the world. The preacher here has many levers to pull on in encouraging the congregation in their earthly mission.
Jesus’ declaration that he is sending them out as lambs in the midst of wolves does not mean that he expects them to be torn to pieces, but a reminder that he, the Good Shepherd, goes with them. He sends them together, two by two, reminding us that we never go into the world by ourselves, but alongside our brothers and sisters in the church. The two-by-two sending also hearkens the animals entering the ark, helping us see that the kingdom promises salvation and safety to all those who hear. For those who do not, only the flood awaits, and shaking off the dust should not be read as a positive curse but as a testimony against them, showing the inevitable result of their rejection of God unless they repent. The messengers do not have time to be waylaid by such as these, but must press on to willing hearts and listening ears. Jesus sends them to work miracles and healings, predicting the sacraments of the church.
Sunday, July 10, 2022
“And who is my neighbor?” is a fair question for a lawyer to ask. Jews, believing that the Law came directly from the mouth of God, paid scrupulous attention to each word, careful not to miss a nuance. The Law does not say “love everyone.” Rather, it says “love your neighbor.” There were three ways that “neighbor” could be construed according to the rabbis: someone who lives next to you, a blood relation or close friend, or else a member of your clan.
The hero of the parable: a Samaritan man on a journey, explodes all of those definitions and instead gives an expansive definition of neighbor—whoever is right around you at any given time. The added detail of the Priest and Levite avoiding the man on the road also has significance under the Levitical law. Touching a dead person would make a temple functionary ritually unclean. However, the man was not dead, only gravely wounded. The religious men, then, to avoid the burden of helping him (another serious command found in the Law!) crossed to a safe distance so that they could plausibly say that they assumed he was dead, using the Law as a cover for neglecting the one in need instead of following the spirit of the Law and rushing to help. By contrast, the Samaritan, despite being outside the covenant community, fulfills the commandment lavishly, displaying the heart of the Father for sufferers.
Sunday, July 17, 2022
Many are puzzled by the story of Mary and Martha, and try to turn it into either promotion of rest and “self-care” or else casting Jesus as a gender radical, denigrating the traditional link between femininity and hospitality and promoting the life of theological study instead. In fact, the key verse comes in 39, where Mary listens to “his word” which he identifies as the only thing that is necessary in v. 42. It is not that the practicalities of hosting and feeding people are to be despised in favor of the life of the mind. Rather, Jesus sets the goals of life in their proper order. The Word of God comes first, since “man does not live on bread alone” (Luke 4:4), and all else will be provided for.
Martha’s complaint is understandable to anyone who has been left alone in the kitchen, but nevertheless we must learn with her that hearing and meditating on the Word of God is the path to eternal life, whereas the busyness of providing food and shelter only prolongs earthly life. Both are necessary, but it benefits no one to shut the way to eternal life in order to provide for the present one.
Sunday, July 24, 2022
The Fathers of the Church saw in the Lord’s prayer a microcosm of the Christian life, reading far more deeply than we, on the far side of 2,000 years of Christian tradition, are accustomed today.
In the ancient world the ability for just anyone to petition God as “Father” was an astounding promotion of humans. Those who prayed to a Father proclaim their status as sons.
“Hallowed be thy name” is a confession of holiness and the rightful fear of the God who dwells in unapproachable light.
“Thy Kingdom Come, thy will be done ...” is the confident petition of those who know the final judgment will be in their favor, having lived holy lives in the grace of Christ—those who are not would not make this petition.
“On earth as in heaven” is the request of the church to be used by Christ to do his holy work, and to imitate heaven during her time on earth.
“Daily bread” is confessing reliance on God for our daily necessities and also the request for the supernatural Bread of Life, Jesus himself, whom believers require daily to nourish their spiritual lives.
“Forgive us our sins...” Our forgiveness of others follows God’s forgiveness of us. If we do not forgive others’ sins against us, we are in no place to accept God’s forgiveness of our sins against him.
“Lead us not into temptation.” It should hardly come as a scandal that God sometimes leads into temptation, considering the Spirit drove Jesus himself into the wilderness “to be tempted” (Matt. 4:1). God is not the cause of evil, but rather allows us to be tested, giving us every grace and ability to overcome. Nevertheless, we are not to be brash and presume on God’s grace to go looking for opportunities to test our own faith. Rather, we ask that God keep us from these trials and preserve us. The petition is of reliance on God, rather than confidence in our strength of faith.
Sunday, July 31, 2022
Luke’s particular concern on the spiritual dimension of poverty and wealth leads him to highlight this delicious parable from Jesus. Jesus’ teaching is not mystical but practical. Significantly, it is not the desire for security that is the problem for the rich man in the story, it is that he has a poor investment strategy from God’s perspective in heaven, for “life does not consist in possessions” (v. 15). Therefore, the man has failed to provide for his own life.
Jesus’ teaching on possessions is that wealth is effervescent. Storing up the fruit of labor is indeed the “vanity of vanities” for one day, we will die, and another will benefit from the temporal goods we have labored for. Nothing may be taken with us. Therefore, the right investment for the one who has much is to give to the poor and thus be “rich toward God,” storing up heavenly treasure that may be enjoyed eternally.
Sunday, August 7, 2022
The preceding week’s admonition against hoarding wealth is given an additional spiritual dimension: that one’s “heart” is to be found with one’s treasure. Therefore, giving alms is not an optional task but a spiritual necessity by carrying the heart to God and away from one’s wealth.
Luke 12:35-40 are sometimes cast in certain traditions as addressed to nonbelievers, since it is thought that Christians cannot sabotage their own salvation through negligence. However, from the word doulos (“slave”) in verse 37 and oikonomos in verse 42, it is clear that this passage is addressed to both ordinary believers and believers in spiritual authority: specifically the 12 Apostles and the others around them (v. 41). So, confessing Christians may not wiggle out of the warnings mentioned here and the preacher should encourage believers in the congregation to be diligent in prayer and good works, not because these things merit salvation, but that they keep them alert to the reality of the kingdom.
The preacher should take care to note that the master coming upon the slave is not only a reference to the end of time or one’s own death, but also the many small “comings” in our own lives: a difficult choice, a person in need. Those who have not prepared through prayer and fasting will find themselves shrinking back from the tasks God gives us. We ought to live into a habit of expecting Jesus to show up in our lives daily in these ways and so be good slaves and stewards, ready to do his will.
Sunday, August 14, 2022
Jesus’ words in Luke 12 are terrifying knowing that they come from the Son of God. What does it mean that the Prince of Peace comes with fire and division? The Jeremiah passage helps us to clarify the picture. In it, God’s word is described as fire. Fire is often held up as a purifying force, consuming worthless things and purifying what is worthwhile, like gold. Jesus then brings the fire of God’s word to bear upon people and they either accept or reject it, creating division, even in the midst of households (cf. Micah 7:6). Later, in Luke 24, the disciples on the Road to Emmaus exclaim “Were our hearts not burning within us ... while he was explaining the Scriptures to us?”
The preacher may remind the congregation that the faith has never promised peace without pain, and many whose families are divided over the faith may find great comfort in that their situation was not unanticipated by the Lord.
The remaining verses are against complacency: we know that we will have to settle our account before the Lord, but this will need to be done “on the way” (i.e. in this present life). Jesus’ admonishment in verse 56 asks us to apply worldly canniness to spiritual matters. If we spent half as much time preparing for our eternal destiny as we do scheming about how to improve the conditions of our worldly life, the Way would not seem so difficult to walk.
Sunday, August 21, 2022
That Jesus’ teaching is practical and logical is not always discussed. Here, Jesus contradicts the synagogue leader’s scrupulosity by making an argument a fortiori. If certain material goods can be provided for on the Sabbath, then certainly human beings, who are of greater worth, may be as well. This is essentially the same format as the parables in Luke 15 leading up to the prodigal son. The message is “if you would go to great lengths to go after one expensive sheep, or one month’s wage, then what about a human being? Aren’t they worth more than these?” The woman in the miracle also becomes a microcosm of the human race, bent over by sin. Jesus comes to heal from sin, and none may accuse whom he has vindicated.
Sunday, August 28, 2022
In Luke 14, the eschatalogical banquet of the kingdom of God is compared with the ordinary meals that people share with each other. The latter ought to reflect the former, and the repayment for generosity in this life is to be found in the life to come.
Here is an opportunity for the preacher to explain the New Testament’s vision of charity to the poor. The act displays total reliance on God for repayment. Nothing we have in this life: either money, material goods, or time, is completely frivolous. All of it represents sustenance, enjoyment, or social capital, in short, the stuff of life itself and the things that make it worth living. People recoil from giving because they rightly perceive that they are giving away parts of their life—the only one they’ve got. Jesus, again, does not repudiate the activity of providing for oneself, but rather recommends wise investment. Eternal repayment awaits those who give to the least fortunate precisely because there is no worldly repayment. Charity is an act of faith in God, and the life to come. Only those who have shown that they believe enough to give toward that life are counted worthy to enter it.
Sunday, September 4, 2022
A misunderstanding of the word “hate” here has caused much confusion. A Hebraicism, it means the opposite of “prefer.” Jesus is not prohibiting love of family or holding possessions (v. 33) but demanding that he be put first in people’s lives. The disciple must be ready to renounce family, wealth, and anything if it comes between him and Jesus.
The idea may seem afar off to many modern Christians, but the reality is coming on quickly. It seems likely that there will be a very near future in the West which the Christian’s adherence to the moral vision of the New Testament will disqualify them for employment and social status and put them at variance with those closest to them, and whom they depend on (indeed, in many places this regime has already arrived). In these cases, Christians must soberly take account of the cost of the Way to which they have been called, not so that they may decide whether it is worth it, but so that they may steel themselves for the journey.
This is why Jesus warns against the sin of apostasy: a Christian who sets out and then stalls halfway presents a unique conundrum: if one has let go of the lifeline, then what else is there to grab hold of? We see many jaded, lapsed, former Christians today whose very history in the church inoculates them to taking hold again of grace. Jesus’ command is stark here, but believers who pass these tests may rejoice in the confirmation that they have proven themselves true disciples.
Sunday, September 11, 2022
These parables have been unfortunately segmented off from the parable of the Prodigal Son, which they play the prelude to. Here, Jesus responds to the offense given by his attention to the dishonorable by two parables, each with the same message but aimed at a male and female audience.
The lost sheep has been often made into a sweet picture of God’s willingness to leave the great flock to go after “just one” but this gets the intent totally wrong. Sheep for a shepherd of the ancient world were about as valuable as a used car. That a shepherd would leave his flock to go after the one would have been blatantly obvious to anyone in the biz.
Next, Jesus turns to the ladies and asks which of them would not sweep their house to find a lost silver coin (worth about a month’s wages). The answer would have been the same as the first parable.
This sets the stage for the prodigal Son by moving from the lesser material things, to the more valuable human being, lost to sin, but found by God. Given the difficulty posed by the protracted pericope, the preacher may choose to simply emphasize that people are valuable to God, and so their welfare and eternal destiny ought to be as valuable to us.
Sunday, September 18, 2022
Those inexperienced in accounting fraud may have a hard time understanding the self-preservation strategy of the unrighteous steward. More puzzling still may be why Jesus makes a sinner the hero of the story. The message is deeply valuable and engaging, so it is worth explaining in detail.
The steward runs a classic fleecing scam, however instead of taking money for himself he accepts favors instead. He can be compared to the manager of a clothing franchise. When a customer comes to the register with a $100 dress, the manager may say “I control the cash register, so let’s just say it costs $50 and we split the difference: so you give me $25 and I make your bill come out to only $75.” However, this steward understands that his predicament is graver than that. So instead, he doesn’t ask for the difference. Instead, he will take a favor: when he is cast out into the streets, the ones whom he benefited may return the favor by taking him in.
Jesus uses this picaresque fable to demonstrate how his disciples ought to use their worldly goods: not to defraud their managers, but to give to the poor. This is not the only place where Jesus suggests that the recommendation of the poor is needed for the entry ticket into heaven. However, verse 13 is the key, lest one think Jesus is saying that charitable works by themselves merit eternal joys. The same spiritual principle is at play here as in 12:34, that how one uses their money discloses one’s true allegiance far more reliably than words.
Sunday, September 25, 2022
Jesus tells another dark parable against the rich who do not care for the poor. First of all, the rich man’s sin is one of omission. He fails to help Lazarus (who is named in the parable to indicate that he is written in the book of life; the rich man, on the other hand, is given no identity) and lets him die in squalor while enjoying his own life. There is no indication that the rich man actively oppressed Lazarus in any way or has behaved especially cruelly. The image is one of separateness: the rich man in his “high castle” while the poor suffers from his poverty (Prov. 10:15) and this distance is recapitulated after death as the very gulf separating the rich man from Abraham. The very fact that the poor man was beneath his notice is what condemned the rich man. The point of the parable is that ignorance is no defense, since Scripture is abundantly clear on the matter of care for the poor (cf. Deut. 15 and countless other mentions in the Prophets).
This is a frequent Lucan theme in both his Gospel and Acts, whereby the same Holy Spirit that Jesus breathes out in his life and ministry has already spoken throughout the Old Testament. This continuity is expressed in a dark way in verses 30-31, which hints at how Jesus’ miracles, even his Resurrection, does not by itself cause repentance. That must come from a changed heart, and those who are callous toward the Law and the Prophets will not be softened by even so great a sign as this. Wealthy Christians today have even less reason to plead ignorance for failing to help the poor, since we also have the pointed witness of the New Testament added to the Old. The message should not be sugarcoated: care and involvement with the poor is an essential feature of the saved person and those with means must take special care that they share them with the less fortunate as a constant discipline.
Sunday, October 2, 2022
There are two themes in the Gospel passage that the preacher may discuss. In v. 5-6, even a very little faith is capable of surprising things. Our own weak faith is all that God needs to multiply it and work wonders with it.
In v. 7-10, Jesus warns his disciples against the sort of religious presumption which leads to pride. To follow the commandments is only what is expected of a dutiful servant. The master sitting the slave down to eat with him is a reference to the eschatalogical banquet at the end of the age. Worldly honor for discipleship is as though one expects the “well done good and faithful servant” before the work has been completed. As Christians, we are not to draw attention to ourselves, as though we are anything special. Perhaps this saying is included after the first because pride is spiritual kryptonite. We are only to be regarded as slaves to God, giving him glory for things he has done through us.
Sunday, October 9, 2022
The key detail often left out of the story of the one grateful leper was that he was a Samaritan. The foreigner returns with gratitude while the Jews feel entitled to their cleansing. God blessing foreigners outside of the Jewish fold is nothing new. The first reading about Naaman the Syrian shows how God has always intended to extend his gifts to the nations. Ironically, it is the Gentile who recognizes the Giver rather than simply going away satisfied by the gift. The nine may have been healed, but only the one was saved, because he recognized the healing of his skin as a sign of a greater restoration of his whole person.
Sunday, October 16, 2022
In another of the dark parables, Jesus uses the example of rascally, wholly irreligious characters to illustrate how they ought to practice their religion. Again, Jesus argues from the lesser to the greater: if a godless, immoral judge will finally grant a woman’s request simply to stop her from annoying him, how much more speedily will God, the source of goodness, justice, and mercy, listen and fulfill the requests of the saints? Once again “the sons of this world” are smarter in their own way “than the sons of light” (Luke 16:18). Unlike the judge, God’s will is with the poor and oppressed. But those who fail to pray do not have faith that God is their ally. The point is to encourage frequent prayer, never despairing, since we know we have an advocate in God.
Sunday, October 23, 2022
Even if one follows all of the pious practices Jesus has urged in Luke, prayer, fasting, and giving to the poor, it avails us nothing if it becomes a source of pride. On the other hand, humility paves the path to true repentance.
The Pharisee in the story imagines himself to be self-sufficient in his righteousness, having no need for God. The tax collector recognizes his need for God and reaches out to him. In another stroke of irony, Jesus declares that the one who lifts himself up will be humbled by God, and the reverse. The deeper point is that our fortunes and ultimate destiny depend on God, not us. Because it is God who justifies, and not we ourselves, the one who relies on him will be saved.
The Pharisee though, by his works, has attempted to “bribe” God, as Sirach says, maintaining a prideful distance and not come to grips with his own sorry state in comparison to the Almighty. The proper posture of humility would lead him to act in the same way as the tax collector, and embrace him as a brother, instead of deriding him as an inferior. This humility before God, then, is the basis of Christian fraternity in the church: fellow sinners saved by grace, worshipping their Savior shoulder to shoulder.
Tuesday, November 1, 2022
Sunday, October 30, 2022
It will aid the preacher to point out that the story of Zaccheus comes on the heels of the rich young ruler. That dignified, rich man went away sad because he could not part with his possessions, leading Jesus to comment on how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven but that “what is impossible with man is possible with God” (18:27).
Zaccheus’ conversion fulfills Jesus’s words. Given the Lucan themes of justice to the poor, Zaccheus ought to be singled out as a chief villain since he has made his money by defrauding the poor. Instead, he becomes the hero, repenting and restoring money to his victims. He even goes beyond both Jewish and Roman law by taking the initiative to repay fourfold anyone he has shaken down.
Jesus’ pronouncement of salvation is tied to this act. Repentance is an active thing, turning away from wrongdoing means restoring those we have wronged and pledging to sin no more. Not mere intellectual assent to Jesus’ lordship (there is no mention of that here), receiving the gift of salvation means taking action.
Sunday, November 6, 2022
On All Saints’ Sunday, the texts focus on the fundamental problem of humanity, and God’s answer to it: death and eternal life.
The first reading comes from perhaps the oldest biblical text, long before any tradition of resurrection and final judgment had formed in Jewish consciousness. The arresting words of Job the sufferer that somehow, in some way, God would “awaken” him, even from beyond the grave, and that he would behold his defender with his own eyes.
The Sadducees in Jesus’ time were textual rigorists, counting as canon only the Pentateuch, which makes no mention of life beyond the grave. This is why Jesus’ reply comes from Moses: that God cannot be called both the God of the patriarchs and also “the God of the living” unless those who die “live in him.” So, the communion of saints consists not only of the presently alive, but those who have died and are alive in God. Hence, it has been traditional to pray for the dead along with the living.
Unlike most social justice movements today, this passage shows how Luke’s moral vision is grounded in supernatural reality. The life beyond the grave and the investment in that life is the basis for charity, and Jesus’ moral exhortations cannot be excised from that context.
Sunday, November 13, 2022
Jesus’ prophecy is “bifocal.” In the near term, he is predicting the destruction of the Temple at the siege of Jerusalem in AD 70 (verse 21’s prophetic import has been confirmed by historical records that Christians indeed fled the city to the neighboring mountains when the Romans besieged it). On the long view, this is also a foreshadowing of the end of the world. The one prophecy is nested inside the other. In the midst of such world-shaking events, Jesus instructs his disciples, and us, of our conduct. Christians are hated and unjustly blamed for disasters. In those days, Christians must be upright and rely totally on God’s intervention.
This is not exactly the banner advertisement for becoming a Christian nowadays, especially in the West. The idea that one may be required to suffer or die without resisting is a hard pill to swallow for modern people. But, nearing the end of Luke, the people should understand that faith is not a mild thing and God’s power is not far from the weak and downtrodden.
Sunday, November 20, 2022
On the final Sunday of the church year, Christ’s reign from the Cross is brought to the fore. The Cross shows the final Lucan irony: Jesus, executed as a common criminal is nevertheless labeled, properly, as a king.
Christ’s kingship comes from his passion. Though apparently his humiliation, the Cross is in fact Jesus’ coronation. Conquering death through laying down his life, Jesus stretches out his arms in love and restores humanity through this saving embrace. No one is beyond this salvation, not even the thief next to him who recognized his lordship as head of the kingdom.
In the Cross, God is revealed to be truly a king who can identify with the poor in their weakness, and yet his final humiliation in death opens the way to everlasting glory and life. Christ the King calls all of his subjects to shoulder their cross in the form of good works on behalf of the poor, humility before others, and meekness in suffering, and so reign with him, both now and in the age to come.
Thursday, November 24, 2022