Love and Obedience – Sermon Notes for Easter 6, Year B (RCL)

If you’re new to my Sermon Notes, you can read about why I prepare them here. The notes aren’t just for preachers; they’re for everyone!

Thesis 

The lessons for the Sixth Sunday of Easter really boil down to those two words: love and obedience. Focusing primarily, though not exclusively, on the Collect and the two Johannine texts, the lectionary passages tie together the doing of God’s will/obeying God’s commands with our love for him (and his love for us). To love God is to obey him and to obey God is to love him. 

Analysis 

Collect

O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. 

Love and desire. Upon reading the Collect I am left with two questions, “What is it that you love more than anything else?” and “What is it that you desire more than anything else?” It may seem as if the answer to each question should be different, but I believe the two should be the same. I have often heard—and perhaps you have too—the claim that if you love God he will give you all the desires of your heart. It’s used to suggest that once we love God we can ask for anything we want in more of a prosperity-gospel type setting, but I think there is something powerful going on here.

If we truly love God with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength then he will be the only true object of our love and desire. To love God is to desire him above all else. So when the Collect says that God’s promises will exceed all of our desires it is really suggesting that God’s promises will exceed all that we desire about him.

Follow me into the knee-deep waters of philosophy once more. James K.A. Smith (and therefore Augustine) will be our guide. Here is what I wrote during Lent:

Our desire is not in a vacuum. All desire has an object. Human desire began in creation and the only object of our desire was God; this is as it should be. However, with sin our desire became misdirected, unaligned, disordered and instead of God we found other objects and things toward which we point our desire.

Desire here is much more than affection it. It is kardias, our gut (or core) love. Through the work and person of Jesus Christ our desires can again be ordered toward God and that is the main sentiment of this collect: taming and ordering our unruly desires. To love God’s commands and to desire his promises is indeed to be a covenant-member of his family, a kingdom citizen of his already inaugurated but not yet consummated kingdom. And it is this coming Kingdom—the new heavens and the new earth—when God shall be all in all—where our true desires should be fixed.

First Lesson – Acts 10:44-48

This passage requires a backstory. One of the lesson options for Easter was Acts 10:36-43 and you may have preached from/with that text, or perhaps not. Either way it has been at least 6 weeks since Acts 10 was part of the lectionary and likely even longer than that if you opted for another text on Easter. Act 10:44-48 is the climax of Peter’s encounter with Cornelius and his household.

Remember, Peter first had the vision of a great white sheet with all types of animals and he was told to eat and kill. God commanded him to consume things that were “unclean” as a way of opening his heart and eyes to the reality that the new Israel was for both Jew and Gentile. Peter then goes to the home of a Roman centurion, Cornelius and preaches the Good News of Jesus. Our passage for Sunday comes at the tail end of that preaching, of Peter’s first intentional ministry among the Gentiles, and the result is conversion.

I have found that Acts 10:44 is an important verse for a theology of preaching: the Holy Spirit falls upon those who hear Peter’s words. It is not Peter who is responsible for conversion or transformation but the Holy Spirit working through human words. You better believe as a preacher that the Spirit needs to descend and be active for your sermon to carry weight or significance; maybe you could try praying at the beginning of your sermon (either privately or publicly) that the Spirit would anoint you and open the ears and hearts of those hearing your words…just a thought!

The Spirit is present and the newly converted are amazed that the Spirit would be given to Gentiles. Friends, there is neither Jew nor Greek in the body of Christ! There is no longer a dividing barrier between “us” and “them” in Christ Jesus! The Spirit goes where he pleases and pours himself out upon whom he desires—we cannot contain him.

Notice the connection here between the Holy Spirit and baptism: the two are intertwined and one cannot be separated from another. A good and healthy view of baptism would suggest that baptism (be it infant or adult) is both a baptism by water and the Spirit.

Peter is obedient to God’s command to preach to the Gentiles and through his obedience a Roman household comes to faith, receives the spirit and is baptized. I think of Jesus’ words in John, “Peter, do you love me? Feed my sheep.” Peter’s obedience to Christ is birthed from his love for his master.

Psalm 98

“Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things!” Immediately your mind should be racing to the great victory songs of Scripture: Moses and Miriam after the Exodus, Hannah’s prayer of thanksgiving after leaving Samuel at the temple, Zechariah’s prophesy once he regained his voice, and Mary’s Magnificat upon learning that she would be the mother of our Lord. 

Israel rejoiced after release from Egypt, “I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously” (Exodus 15:1) and Miriam added, “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously” (Exodus 15:21).

Hannah prays, ““My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory,” (1 Samuel 2:1).

Mary sings, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant,” (Luke 1:47-48).

Zechariah prophesies, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them,” (Luke 1:68).

The Psalmist is instructing the people: sing to the Lord because he has acted! Sing a new song because he has done great things! Notice that with each highlighted story above and the charge from the Psalmist that the call is to praise God BECAUSE he has done something. God is worthy to be praise at all times and in all places but this specific call to worship is based on His saving acts and deeds.

The joy of Psalm 98 is found in the hope that YHWH is not yet finished in his salvific works. Verse 4 says, “He remembers his mercy and faithfulness to the house of Israel,” though Israel would sing this Psalm while in exile and under foreign rule there was still hope because YHWH had revealed himself as faithful and had promised freedom to his people.

We proclaim the same hope in our Eucharistic prayers: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” Or even, “We remember his death, we proclaim his resurrection, we await his coming in glory.” Our Christian hope is based on that which has already taken place—we cannot have hope without remembrance as the foundation and we cannot remember without seeing hope born in our hearts as a result.

Epistle – 1 John 5:1-6

For five chapters John has talked about sin, light, darkness and love and now we arrive at the most concrete statement describing such love. “For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments.” This may be the capstone of John’s argument in his first epistle: to love God is to obey him. We love because he first loved us—our loving response is nothing short of obedience, submission, and reverence.

Notice what John does in the last line of this passage: the combination of water and blood. John records this in his gospel, “Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out,” (John 19:34). The water and blood comment in 1 John must certainly be a reference to his own gospel account. Jesus’ baptism wasn’t simply by water when John baptized him in the Jordan, he was also “baptized” by his death which is why baptismal imagery suggests that when one goes under the water he/she dies with Christ and when one emerges from the water he/she is rising with Christ. One cannot truly understand the sacrament and call of baptism without seeing the road of discipleship leads to the cross.

Christ the conqueror of all things, he is Christus Victor, and by his death he has trampled down death. Our faith in him, in his resurrection, is therefore able to conquer all. We do not conquer, but in Christ we are more than conquerors. It’s a small shift but it’s an important one. Faith is born in us by the Spirit and is made perfect in Christ; Christ is the conqueror of all and invites us to be conquerors with him, through his work.

The hinge upon which John’s epistle—indeed, his view of discipleship—hinges is loving obedience.

Gospel – John 15:9-17

We again encounter John’s combination of love and obedience. Jesus shows his disciples how to love and to obey based on his relationship with the Father. Because the Father has loved him so he loves us and we are therefore called to respond with love; because he has obeyed the Father we are invited to obey him through loving action. My comments from last week can be found here and are still applicable to this week’s lessons. To abide is to love and obey.

Jesus predicts his death in saying, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” He has already suggested in John 10 (read two weeks ago) that he has the power to lay down his life and pick it up again. He has already mentioned earlier in John’s gospel that he will destroy the temple and raise it up in 3 days. Finally, he has already shared a meal and foot-washing with his disciples and claimed that he would be betrayed. There should be no surprise by John 15—for the disciples or the reader—that this story is moving toward the point of no return.

Why shouldn’t it be a surprise for the disciples?

Because Jesus is inviting them to participate in the drama of salvation as friends rather than servants.

Because Jesus has shared his life and ministry with this group of followers.

Because Jesus is calling his disciples to become apostles and carry on his ministry.

The reference to “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” and “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another,” point directly back to John 13 and the washing of the disciples’ feet. You cannot separate John 13 from John 15—they are not only part and parcel of the same concept, they take place on the same evening in the same discourse!

One bit of humbling reality: Jesus’ chooses us; we do not choose him. Now, in Christ the way to salvation has been opened up to all people, but it is still Jesus who moves first. The call to discipleship, as I’ve said before, is simple: Jesus calls and we follow. We do not need to go out and find a master, rabbi, mentor or pastor; we do not need to go and find the Shepherd. We are the sheep of his pasture and he has called out to us already, the question is now this: do we hear his voice and will we answer him? That’s the true call to discipleship.

Liturgical Considerations

The Psalm is quite clear that we are to SING and make a joyful noise to the Lord. Here is something I’d like you to consider: consider working with your music and/or liturgy minister to pen a song or prayer recounting the mighty acts of God in the life of your own church. This is a type of lyrical/musical/liturgical Ebenezer, a remembrance stone based on the many ways God has acted in, through, and amongst your flock. Perhaps you had a building campaign, or a tragedy in your congregation, or an important leadership transition or anything else significant and now is the time to praise him about it.

You could incorporate this piece into your opening worship or the prayers of the people or even as a responsive reading as part of your sermon. The important point here is that your church has the opportunity to corporately and concretely give thanks and praise for God’s saving deeds. Use the songs of Moses, Hannah, Mary and Zechariah as a launching pad into your own celebration. 

Synthesis

The second half of Eastertide has shifted from encounters with the Risen Lord to Jesus’ words and teachings prior to his death. This shift can and should be seen as an exploration of Jesus’ call to his followers about what it means to be a disciple and ultimately what it means to be the church, the pilgrim people of God. Shifting from a week in John 10 to two weeks in John 15, Eastertide culminates in Jesus’ highly priestly prayer recorded in John 17. Jesus prays that we all may be one and the following week we celebrate Pentecost and the birth of the church.

This progression is not a coincidence! To encounter the Risen Lord is to be called further into discipleship; as we spend a second week in John 15 may we remember that we love and obey him because he has revealed himself as faithful and loving through the crucifixion and resurrection.

To love God is to obey his commands. His new commandment (John 13) is to love one another. The great commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. In Jesus our desires and love are re-directed, re-aimed at God and we can find our heart’s truest desires and more when we love him because he is the object and subject of our love! Love is not passive, it is active and it is obedient.

Have you heard the call?

Have you responded?

Will you love and obey?

This is what it means to be a disciple…this is what it means to be the church.

The Good Shepherd – Sermon Notes for Easter 4

Thesis

Jesus is the Good Shepherd. In fact, he is the Shepherd for whom Israel had been waiting (Ezekiel 34). The resurrection of the Son of God means that he is living and actively guarding his sheep and shepherding their hearts toward him. To dig into the nuts and bolts of this passage from a pastoral angle it is important to understand the role of both shepherd and sheep. 

My friend, Margaret Feinberg, wrote a book called Scouting the Divine in which she explored the agricultural and agrarian themes of the Bible that might be lost on most of the western world. Margaret spends time with a shepherdess from Oregon and provides excellent insight into this important biblical theme—go read it!

Analysis

Collect

O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The collect highlights three distinctive features of the shepherd-sheep relationship. First, Jesus is the shepherd and therefore we are the sheep. Simplistic but important. We should never forget that Jesus is the one who leads his people.

Second, we are called to hear and recognize his voice. To hear his voice is the first step but it is not enough. I may hear the sirens blaring behind me (I haven’t been pulled over in years!) but if I do not recognize that the sirens are a police car urging (commanding) me to pull over then my auditory skill means nothing.

Third, we are called to follow. To hear and recognize the voice of the shepherd should always result in following. Once I’ve discerned the police siren and understood that it was directed at me, I am left with a choice: pull over or run for it. It’s an imperfect analogy but it still works on some level. Bonheoffer suggested that discipleship is rather simple: Jesus calls and we follow. But why do we follow? We follow because we know the one who is calling us. That’s the point here! We’re not following a stranger; we are following the good shepherd! The lessons for this Sunday provide a beautiful picture of the Good Shepherd.

First Reading – Acts 4:5-12

Peter and John have been arrested. Why? Because they preached Jesus and the resurrection! The resurrection is both folly and scandalous to those who do not yet know Jesus. This is the second time in as many chapters that Peter has been at the center of a controversy due to a healing miracle.

Peter’s response to his accusers is quite simple—and it echoes what he said in chapter 3 after that healing episode. He says: “the power to heal comes from Jesus of Nazareth; you crucified him; he’s been raised from the dead; he is the one way to salvation.”

Look at the lessons for Easter 3 and read my summary of Acts 3 here to see more on the same point. Peter has a basic message and formula for sharing the Good News with those around him: Jesus, crucified and risen. There is nothing fancy or flashy about his words or technique—its just Jesus.

Peter roots Jesus firmly in the history and tradition of Israel. This is something that Paul and the other New Testament writers did on a routine basis—read N. T. Wright and Richard Hays for more on this—because Jesus was an actual person who walked this earth and who inhabited and embodied an ongoing story. The Old Testament (as we know it) was the interpretive matrix for the Gospels. Here is a long excerpt from something I wrote several months ago on the topic:

A helpful methodology, according to Hays, is that we learn to read backwards. He believes the Old Testament to be the “interpretive matrix” for the fourfold Gospel.

Hays’ view, which he expounds on in much of his writing, celebrates that Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew, that he lived within a very Jewish context, and that the stories of Israel were his own. Further, to fully understand the many claims of Jesus as recorded in the gospels one needs to understand the story from which they were launched. For example: Israel was waiting for Messiah and many believed that the Anointed One would be a political and/or military type leader, and yet this was not who Jesus was. Instead Jesus was the Suffering Son of Man and the only way to grasp such a concept is to be aware of the “Son of Man” motif in Daniel and the Suffering Servant in Isaiah.

Rather than reading the New Testament into the Old, or “searching for Jesus” within Israel’s Scriptures, we are challenged to embrace these writings as our own corporate memory just as we’ve been adopted into Jesse’s branch. This has all sorts of ramifications for preaching and discipleship. One is a call to radical discipleship and an authentic engagement with culture. To read Scripture well is to begin living Scripture daily and publicly, it is to engage with a world desperately in need of the triune God, and it is to occupy space in the here and now according to Jesus’ vision for life. The faithful presence that Hays sees for every Christian begins with understanding the story of Jesus through the lens of Israel and then embodying Jesus’ kingdom presently.

By referencing the stone rejected by the builders, Peter is placing Jesus squarely in the salvation history of Israel and verbally recognizing him as the Faithful Israelite.

Psalm 23

The 23rd Psalm was penned by the shepherd-king and is about the Shepherd-King. David’s own context is important when understanding the imagery contained inside: it’s not just poetic; it’s utterly accurate.

The entire Psalm hinges upon the opening five words: the LORD is my shepherd. Everything else in this Psalm is totally dependent upon this one phrase. You could literally insert this clause at the beginning of every verse like this…

Because the Lord is my shepherd…I shall be in want.

Because the Lord is my shepherd…he makes me lie down in green pastures.

Because the Lord is my shepherd…I shall not fear evil when I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

Why? Because the LORD is a good shepherd. He cares for his sheep. Shepherds were known to defend their sheep against predators, to lead their flock to new grazing every day, and to care for them when they were in need—to literally go after the 1 when the 99 were safe. You can use Psalm 23 in a variety of ways but for the sermon this Sunday you should use it as a living picture of the shepherd’s goodness.

Epistle – 1 John 3:16-24

1 John 3 is a direct reference to John 10: we know this great love because Jesus laid down his life for us. He goes on to say that he has the power to lay his life down and pick it back up again. This is a radical love and radical love is always a call to action. If Jesus loves us so, how can we see a neighbor in need and refuse to help? If Jesus loves us so, how can we continue to consciously or unconsciously contribute to racism, sexism, ageism, or unfair economic structures in this world? If Jesus loves us so…then what?

John moves further into that call when he writes, “not in love or speech, but in truth and action.” Our heartfelt words are not enough; the language of grace is insufficient. Grace is sufficient, it is more than enough, but simply talking about grace will not do. We are called to love beyond boundaries, beyond borders, beyond our means and beyond ourselves. Why? Because he first loved us, even while we were still sinners. Love is therefore a response to God’s grace.

John further weaves together the tapestry of his gospel and epistle by making reference to abiding in Jesus. In John 15, Jesus talks about the vine and the branches and how the disciples are to abide in the Father’s love—this is the pericope for Easter 5 and 6—and here he draws the connection: to love God and one another is to abide.

The commandments are simple: believe in Jesus and love one another. I have written on this extensively and may post a paper or excerpt soon, but covenant faithfulness will always result in loving action. There are a myriad of situations not covered by Scripture explicitly but if we keep these two commandments in mind (love God and one another) then we will not have to wonder how we should act. As Dave Ramsey said, “When you live a life based on principle 99% of your decisions are already made.” The life of the disciple is the life of loving action.

Gospel – John 10:11-18

The Gospel lesson for Easter 4 is the crowning climax of the lectionary readings; it is pastoral, sacrificial and eschatological in nature. Before digging into John 10 it is important to set the stage, Jesus’ words, “I am the Good Shepherd” are not simply poetic, they are prophetic. Read through Ezekiel 34 and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Israel had been given spiritual shepherds who had abandoned their flock, feasted upon their charges, and who had abdicated any real spiritual authority. Such action sparked YHWH’s fury and he speaks through Ezekiel to say, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep.” He lists five main actions of the shepherd: seek the lost, bring back the strays, strengthen the weak, heal the sick and bind up the injured. This was a promise, not a threat and so when Jesus speaks these words it is the fulfillment of that which YHWH has promised his people: he will be their shepherd.

Our passage comes on the heels of Jesus’ opening remarks about being the sheep’s gate—all who enter the pen must pass through him. “I am the Good Shepherd,” he begins. Our 8 verses cover in depth what it means for him to be the True Shepherd of Israel. Here are the highlights:

  • Lays down his life for his sheep, unlike the hired hand
  • Shepherd knows his own and his own know him just as he knows the Father and the Father knows him
  • Makes one flock out of many
  • Has the power to lay down his life and take it up again
  • This command has come from the Father

There is a lot that can be covered given these points, but let us briefly unpack them. Jesus is going to lay down his life for his sheep. We hear later in the Gospel that “no greater love has a man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” It was common for shepherds to have their sheep sleep in caves and to lay down across the small opening. This way nothing could come in without first going through the shepherd; this is why he is both gate and shepherd. The hired hand would not do this because he isn’t invested in the sheep like the shepherd is.

The shepherd knows his sheep. Margaret does a brilliant job of capturing the shepherdess in Oregon who can spot her sheep uniquely based on birth marks, the coarseness of their coat, or even the sound of their bleating. These are things that a shepherd notices and remembers, just as a parent does for a child. Jesus know us this way and is also known by the Father.

Jesus has sheep of another flock that will join this flock so there is one flock and one shepherd. Sounds like Paul in Ephesians 4, right? The point is the same! Israel and the church are to become the new Israel and there will be one people. Jesus’ followers are to be grafted into the branch of Jesse and embedded in YHWH’s history with Israel.

Jesus’ power to lay down his life and take it up again comes from his Father and it is something that he will demonstrate on the cross and through the empty tomb. Jesus traveled to the cross willingly, allowing himself to be betrayed, and his Father vindicated him victoriously as he trampled down death by death.

This is the image of the Good Shepherd. This is the image of the Risen Christ who is Lord over his flock. This is whom we worship as part of the triune God.

Liturgical Considerations

Consider juxtaposing this week (Easter 4) with Christ the King Sunday (last Sunday before Advent). John 10 is often used in both circumstances. The RCL does not include Peter’s reinstatement by Jesus (John 21) during Eastertide this year and so that’s another consideration to make. When John 10 comes up on Christ the King Sunday the question to “What type of King is Jesus?” becomes, “He’s the Shepherd-King.” When John 10 comes up in Eastertide the question can easily become, “What kind of Lord is Jesus?” The answer is obvious, “He’s the Shepherd-Lord.” Christ’s Lordship and his Kingship are interwoven an intertwined. You might think of grabbing the Collect for Christ the King Sunday (Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.) and using it at some point in your sermon.

I have penned an alternative proper preface for the Eucharist on Easter 4:

But chiefly are we bound to praise you for our Shepherd-King; for your Son Jesus Christ is both the true Paschal Lamb and the true Shepherd of Israel who has bound up the injured, healed the sick, strengthened the weak, sought out the lost, and brought back the strays. May we hear and recognize his voice for by his death and rising to life again we are able to have abundant life now. 

Synthesis

I have often heard leaders (read: bishops) refer to themselves as “under-shepherds.” By this they mean that they are shepherding the flock on behalf of the Good Shepherd. I’ve also heard leaders suggest that we should look like sheep from the front and shepherds from the back. The point is the same in both instances: we are following the voice of the one and true shepherd of Israel, period. We are also called to lead others to the shepherd and therefore we take on the role of “under-shepherd” in a sense. Listen to the shepherd’s voice and help others to recognize it as well.

Major Request: Please do not use the tired idea that sheep are somehow stupid. Sheep are actually quite intelligent. However, sheep are in desperate need of a shepherd because they are vulnerable animals. There is a massive difference between being dumb and vulnerable. When Jesus described himself as the Good Shepherd—and when God promised to be Israel’s Shepherd—it was not a backhanded way of suggesting that the sheep were stupid. Can you imagine a more insulting promise? Then why do preachers constantly begin this sermon by suggesting, “Well, sheep are actually quite dumb because they fall and can’t get up; they don’t know how to graze for new food, etc. etc.”?

To follow Jesus as the Good Shepherd is to believe that he is both the crucified and risen one. To follow him is to love him and learn from him. We follow Jesus because he is our Shepherd and we desire others to follow him as well. This may mean that the sheep are actually following you while you are following Him, but always point people to Jesus.

Why I Prepare Sermon Notes

You may have noticed that this blog contains many posts tagged as “Sermon Notes.” It would be easy to assume that these notes are meant solely for preachers, so I’ve decided to write a post sharing my motivation behind putting these notes together.

Spoiler alert: sermon notes are for everyone.

Background

The first time I ever prepared sermon notes was when I was on staff at an Anglican church plant in California from 2010-2012. I was one of several seminarians attending the church, and our Rector and Associate Rector invited us to prepare sermon notes weekly. Many times our notes were helpful and used, and sometimes they weren’t, but through this weekly discipline, I learned a lot.

Old Idea, New Format

Preachers have always gotten help preparing their sermons through a variety of sources: biblical commentaries, books solely devoted to sermon illustrations, anything written by N. T. Wright (I’m only half joking!), journal articles, etc. There are now entire websites devoted to helping preachers with sermon prep. Most of these websites compile blog posts, media clips, quotes, or book excerpts in one place to make research easier.

Sermon preparation takes a lot of time. Some seminary professors suggest spending one hour of preparation for every minute preached. While most preachers probably don’t have that much time to spend on sermon prep, every preacher with whom I’ve spoken say they search a wide-variety of sources for material and inspiration. Some preachers may view 15 blog posts or commentaries and not use a single idea while another may find one really good source and base their entire sermon on it. With the busyness of our lives, especially the lives of pastors, sermon prep is made easier through these online resources.

Staying Sharp While Out of Season

Many athletes maintain their physical strength and skillset by participating in off-season workouts and personal training so they can be prepared to hit the ground running when they report to training camp with the rest of their team. I currently find myself “out of season” as I am not preaching regularly. I have found that an added personal benefit of preparing sermon notes is that it keeps me “in the game” of preparation by reading and studying Scripture and commentaries regularly. Preparing sermon notes has become a form of personal discipleship and growth for me, which brings me to my final points.

Sermons Are Not a Spectator Sport: Sermon Notes for Clergy and Laity Alike

Liturgy is not something to be observed; it is participatory and active. I believe that preaching also serves a liturgical function, and therefore is a “work of the people” (this is the meaning of the Greek word leitourgia) which requires active participation. Sermons should not be a spectator event, even though that is the assumed norm.

It would be easy to suggest that the only person who has to “work” on a sermon during the week is the preacher. I’d like to paint a different picture though. What would it look like if lay people were familiarizing themselves with and studying the lessons for Sunday? What would it look like if clergy and laity were equally prepared for a sermon? I have a feeling it might increase the depth and reach of the sermon’s message.

Baptized believers are set apart for ministry in God’s Kingdom. We’re all called to be theologians. All of God’s people should prepare their hearts and minds for the sermon each Sunday by reading through the lessons ahead of time. Think of this as a form of liturgical homework. Better yet, think of this as catechesis.

If you put time and effort into learning from God’s Word, when it is explicated on Sunday you will grasp the material in a new way and be led toward fruitful application. Just like a violinist doesn’t show up for her concert without practicing and someone taking the Bar Exam has spent time studying, so too should clergy and laypeople immerse themselves in sermon preparation.

May we heed Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer’s words from his famously beautiful Collect:

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

I therefore urge all of you to read through the lectionary passages before you go to church every Sunday. Take time during the Daily Office or your private devotions to read through the passages that will be preached.

Further, I invite you to read through my notes on a weekly basis as your prepare your hearts and minds to hear from the Lord on Sunday. Your pastor/priest/preacher may go in a totally different direction than where I go in my notes and that’s good!

The goal isn’t to know what your preacher is going to say on Sunday, but rather to be aware of the texts and to be familiar with them so your preacher can take you deeper into the mystery of faith. Allow yourself to be formed by the Word through the power of the Holy Spirit and by the Body and Blood of our Lord.

Breaking Open A Different Kind of Bread – Notes for Easter 3

Sermon Notes – Easter 3 – Year B – Breaking Open A Different Kind Of Bread

Thesis

The Collect appointed for the day would fit nicely with the story of Jesus breaking bread with disciples on the Road to Emmaus, but unfortunately that is not the scene with which we’ve been presented. Instead we have Jesus eating in front of his disciples and then breaking open the Scriptures for them. Remember Jesus’ words while in the wilderness: “man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Perhaps we can begin seeing the Scriptures as a form of heavenly manna that sustain us; perhaps we can allow Jesus to break open the Scriptures for us that we might understand him and the Story even more; and perhaps when the Scriptures are opened and we are feasting on the word we will be more able to feast on the Word of God weekly through Eucharist. 

Analysis 

Collect

O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread: Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

This Collect feels a bit out of place in Year B given the Gospel reading. It pairs up much better with the story of Jesus joining the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus when he is truly revealed in the breaking of bread. This reference has to be at the forefront of your mind as you write and preach, but you might want to avoid the desire to move from here to there. A reference here or there will be sufficient because to jump from one to the other would be to confuse the narrative. What really jumps out, then, from this Collect is that we need our eyes to be opened and we need to behold the Lord’s redeeming work. Preach on that. Let the Road to Emmaus come up next year, or the year after, and preach a beautiful sermon on the four-fold action of the Eucharist then.

First Lesson – Acts 3:12-19

I’ll be honest: this is a bizarre selection from the RCL. We are still moving in a non-linear fashion as we encounter Acts during Eastertide. Last week we were in chapter 4 and today we move back to chapter 3; both of these chapters take place after Pentecost and we are still 35 days away from that feast! What’s more, this lesson leaves out verses 1-11 and 20-26. It is not that this is a stand-alone pericope and the verses I’ve just mentioned are dispensable. Rather, the former provide the context and the latter provide further meaning and explanation from the lips of Peter. If you use this passage in your sermon you’ll have to help piece Humpty-Dumpty back together.

Verses 12-19 come on the heels of a healing miracle. Peter has healed a well-known lame man. This man was carried to the gate of the temple (the Beautiful Gate) so he could collect alms. Peter has no money to offer him. Instead he offers him healing in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. People see the healed beggar “walking and praising God” and they want to know more. This is the context of Peter’s homily about the person of Jesus. Without verses 1-11 our pericope doesn’t make sense.

Peter explains who this Jesus of Nazareth is. The crowd is beginning to attribute healing power to Peter and John but Peter wants to correct this immediately. The power doesn’t belong to him, it belongs to Jesus. Peter connects the dots between the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (recalling the mighty works of YHWH’s covenant faithfulness) and the Jesus whom they murdered (the Faithful Israelite). YHWH has glorified Jesus even though you killed him.

Peter holds nothing back in his message: “you killed the Author of Life and God raised him from the dead.” The Cross and Resurrection—again, see them as one—are the central event in Christianity; indeed they are the hinge upon which the history of the world turns. They killed Jesus but God had the last word: resurrection, new life, new creation…victory.

It is Jesus the Risen One who has made this man well. Not me. Not you. Jesus. I’m reminded of N. T. Wright’s strong urging in After You Believe when he states that we are to build for the kingdom. We cannot build the Kingdom just as a stonemason does not build the cathedral. The stonemason builds for the cathedral in whatever tiny way he or she is able; likewise, we don’t build the Kingdom—God does—we simply join God in his already active, always present work.

Peter’s last line (in this lesson) is scathing: “you acted in ignorance and so did your rulers.” But ignorance doesn’t get them off the hook. They still need to repent. They need to turn to God. And so do we. Faith in the Son of God means that we can no longer feign ignorance; it means that we are called to proclaim the works of God just as Peter did; it means that we are called to witness to what God has done in Christ.

Again and again in the book of Acts we see Peter (or others) encountering the powers, principalities or peoples of this world who are opposed to the Risen One and he does so with a proclamation that bears witness to who Jesus is and what he has done. Are we telling the story? Are we proclaiming truth? Are we witnessing to the works of the Almighty?

Psalm 4

This Psalm of praise and supplication is bookended with remarks about God’s sovereignty. It is particularly meaningful in the context of Easter 3 because it further demonstrates the call to place one’s trust in God. God is worthy of our trust. He has demonstrated time and time again that he is faithful, that he is active, and that he loves his creation.

Verse 2 strikes a discordant note with the rest of the Psalm. Here talk of idols and false worship sticks out like a sore thumb in the context of the living and active God of Israel. But isn’t that the point? How can one worship an idol when he has seen the lame healed, or the blind given sight, or the dead raised to life? How can idols compare to Almighty God? They cannot, but are we offering the world a picture of the triune God that is authentic and awful (in the truest, awe-inspiring sense) or are we giving the world a “Jesus-in-your-pocket” version of Christianity?

The Psalmist declares God to be “defender of my cause”; one who “does wonders”; one who “will hear me”; one who puts “gladness in my heart”; and one “who makes we dwell in safety.” That is a powerful picture compared to lifeless idols of wood, metal, money, or anything else that is not God.

Epistle – 1 John 3:1-7

We are children of God and are therefore somehow like God. Not perfectly and not completely this side of Glory, but we are still his children. Some day we will be more completely like him. Justification has happened—we have been made his children through adoption—but sanctification is ongoing and will only be completed through glorification. But let’s talk about sanctification.

As I mentioned last week, 1 John has been used to conjure up some interesting views of postbaptismal (or post-conversion) sin. Here we see John suggesting that no one who abides in him (Jesus) sins. This isn’t to suggest that we are sinless, for that is not possible, but to suggest that we are no longer slaves to sin and therefore we aren’t in sin they way we used to be.

We have to believe that in Christ we are new creations and the old has gone (1 Cor. 5:17). We have to believe that God has started a good work in us and will complete that work, but work is not yet completed. This is a prime example of the “already but not yet.” I have already been cleansed of my sins through the blood of Christ and the waters of baptism but I have not yet been sanctified and glorified to the point of being sinless and like Christ. Through the power of the Spirit I am to strive daily to be more like Christ but that is always an imperfect attempt. Rome wasn’t built in a day; it was built daily.

Please, please, please do not use this passage to suggest sinlessness. Take John at this word and understand that we are God’s children (and therefore co-inheritors) and that there is something started in us that will be completed later. We are to strive toward righteousness because Christ is righteous.

Gospel – Luke 24:36b-48

Here is where things get fun. The RCL cuts out the first half of verse 36 and therefore severs the tie between this passage and our Collect with the story along the road to Emmaus (don’t get me started on the RCL, it’s like Churchill’s famous description of democracy). Just to recap: Jesus is walking along to the road to Emmaus and meets up with two disciples. They do not recognize him and he asks them why they seem so gloomy. They go on to relate the events that have just (three days earlier) transpired in Jerusalem and about the death of Jesus. Jesus opens up the Scriptures to them and tells them all about what was prophesied and then was fulfilled. Finally he breaks bread with them by “taking, blessing, breaking and giving” and they recognize him as the Risen Lord.

Therefore, in Luke 24:36a the disciples who traveled with Jesus (unknowingly) along that road and then saw him revealed in the breaking of bread have now reached Jerusalem and are sharing the news with the disciples gathered. Without this piece of the puzzle we completely miss what is taking place. The disciples are heralds of the Risen Lord and are sharing this news with the rest. And then Jesus appears.

We know from the second half of verse 36 that others (companions) are gathered with the 11. Jesus appears and speaks, “Peace be with you.” This is not some quaint greeting, but rather it is the shalom of God speaking shalom over his people. Jesus is God’s peace and he gives it freely to his followers.

This recounting is contrasted with John’s account of Jesus’ appearing to the disciples because in John’s Gospel there is no need to see the hands and side until Thomas comes into the scene because he doubts. But here the disciples need to be calmed from fear and need to be shown that Jesus isn’t a ghost but is the Risen One. And yet it still isn’t enough. They have joy but they still have doubts and so Jesus asks for food to fully demonstrate that his risen body is real, is tangible, and yet is transformed.

After eating the bread he begins to open up the Scriptures to his followers. This is exactly like what he has just done for the two on the road to Emmaus. Jesus relates how he is the fulfillment of Moses (law), the prophets and the Psalms. Indeed he is the Faithful Israelite who has keep God’s covenant and is the Suffering Son of Man. The disciples can finally understand this reality in the fullest sense because they have experience and encountered the Resurrected One. Fr. John Behr of St. Vladimir’s has written an important book on this topic, Thy Mystery of Christ: Life in Death. Fr. Behr reminds the reader that we can only fully know Jesus as he is revealed after the resurrection.

Liturgical Considerations

There is nothing particularly special about Easter 3 in a liturgical sense, but I do think that this grouping of lessons provides a teachable moment for your parishes and congregations. Actually, isn’t that the point of Eastertide? We have a 50 day feast to celebrate with great joy that Jesus is risen. Then we will celebrate the Ascension and the Feast of Pentecost: i.e. the ministry of the Holy Spirit. During Eastertide we learn at the feet of Jesus while he appeared to over 500 people.

Most liturgies, regardless of form, can be divided (some more nicely than others) into a “Liturgy of the Word” and a “Liturgy of the Table.” Now, some churches make the mistake (yes, I’m preaching now) of trying to highlight one over the other. This is a mistake because a) they are intimately connected in Christ and b) because to highlight one is to make the other seemingly deficient.

I believe that a proper liturgy is one that is doubly climactic. The sermon and the Eucharist are both considered high points in the liturgy and one cannot be understood without the other. For the sermon is the explication of the lessons and is fleshed out and applied most fully with the Eucharist; to have a sermon without the Eucharist is to have a feast of the mind without feasting on the Body and Blood of the Lord (that which gives true spiritual nourishment. Likewise, the Eucharist needs to be “set-up” and “prepared” by the lessons and sermon because the Word of God is known through the revelation of God’s word. To have the Eucharist without lessons and a sermon is to rob the Eucharist of it’s interpretive meaning and matrix. So, highlight both parts of the liturgy as being equally meaningful and necessary. Jesus broke open the Scriptures for his followers after he gave himself up to be broken. Jesus broke bread with his disciples in the Upper Room and gave us a meal to celebrate often in his remembrance. Teach on this if you can and I think you’ll provide a nice teaching point for your parishes.

If you are not part of a church that celebrates Communion on a regular basis then perhaps you can consider moving in that direction and use this week’s lessons as the catalyst for that. 

Synthesis

Pray that the Spirit would work through you and open up the minds of your listeners to understand the Scriptures.

Pray that many would heed the call to repent of their sins and amend their lives.

And pray that Jesus would be known throughout all generations to the ends of the earth.

The Collect reminds us that Jesus has been revealed in the breaking of bread. Jesus also reveals himself by breaking open the Scriptures (and our minds) that we might understand. The intersection of the Collect and lessons this week can be found here: we can encounter the Risen Lord in the bread and wine because he has been revealed in the Scriptures. We cannot, nor should we, separate word from table.

I want your “so what” to become a “now what?” The disciples encountered the resurrected Jesus, they received his peace, they touched his hands and side, they watched him eat, and then they learned from him. Now what? Well, Peter and John go forth and begin healing in Jesus’ name and proclaiming Jesus to all whom they meet. That’s a good application point!

Finally, may we cling to the Risen Lord and learn at his feet for the 50 days of Eastertide before we move into Ordinary Time and the ministry of the Holy Spirit. How can we fast when the bridegroom is with us? May we feast on his words and the divine Word!

“My Lord and my God!”

Sermon Notes – Easter 2 – Year B

“My Lord and my God!”

Thesis

We are concluding Bright Week with the words of St. Thomas when he proclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” These words are significant to believers, but why? What does it mean for Jesus to be Lord and God? My hunch for this week’s sermon is that the lessons flesh out what it means when Jesus is understood as Lord and God. Give people Jesus this week!

 

Analysis

Collect

“Show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith.” The Collect launches us into radical discipleship very quickly. Our walk needs to match our talk (don’t you just hate that phrase?!). Or, to put it in the vernacular, we need to be “smoking what we’re selling.” I don’t mean to be crass, but that is a good image. Are we really living out in the here and now what we claim to believe on a Sunday morning? Do our lives match that which we proclaim in the Creed, the prayers of the people or the Eucharist?

Our faith is based on the Paschal Mystery. That is, our faith is based on the combination of Cross and Empty Tomb. I heard N. T. Wright put it this way in a lecture last year, “The resurrection of the Crucified One gives meaning to the crucifixion of the Resurrected One.” Our faith is based on the intersection of this two events; no, it is actually the interweaving of these two events into a holistic whole.

Because Jesus is both crucified and risen can we profess and show forth as agents of reconciliation.

First Lesson – Acts 4:32-35

We’ve gotten a bit ahead of ourselves in this lesson. It’s important to bear in mind that between Easter Sunday and Acts 4 is Pentecost and the giving of the Holy Spirit to the church. Acts 4:32-35 makes little sense without the empowering ministry of the Spirit.

The young, little church is growing daily. What sets the church apart from competing narratives and groups is her common lifestyle. (The Resurrection of the Son of God also sets the church apart…!) Acts 4:32-35 is a dynamic picture of the church fulfilling that which her Lord called her to on Maundy Thursday: love one another, and they will know you by your love. The church was in the business of caring for one another and for those around them.

At the center of this life of overflowing love was the apostle’s testimony to the resurrection of Jesus. Without the resurrection these actions would simply be like welfare, or a non-profit organization, or any other modern group that does “good” for others. No, these actions only gain meaning because they stem forth from the Risen One. A church that has faith without actions is dead, but a church that has works without faith isn’t a church at all.

Psalm 133

The concept of fellowship is continued in the selection from the Psalter. Psalm 133 is one of the Psalms of Ascent; indeed it is the second to last Psalm of Ascent and was part of the crescendo of liturgical proclamation for Israel as she sojourned to Jerusalem three times a year for festivals. This is both a present aspiration and eschatological image. Fellowship such as this, true koinonia, is possible in the here and now through the power of the Holy Spirit. However, this fellowship will only fully and eternally be known when God is all and all and we are praising and reigning with the triune God. May we strive toward such unity in our churches and in the Church, and may we know that this side of eternity we will only see as through a glass dimly lit.

Epistle – 1 John 1:1-2:2

1 John continues the trend of fellowship and the call to discipleship. Before we can unpack the message of 1 John 1:1-2:2 we need to understand who is writing. John is writing and he is doing so in harmony with others who have experienced the Paschal Mystery with the five senses. Paul may have been a Jew of Jews, but John and the disciples could boast something greater: they heard the voice of Jesus for three years, they tasted the bread and wine offered by the Lord, they smelled the fragrant oil that Mary used to anoint Jesus’ feet, they saw his tears as he wept over his friend Lazarus, they saw him hanging on the cross; they touched the scars on this hands and wound on his side. In short, the true Apostles of the church are able to claim authority of teaching because they received it firsthand from the Lord himself. You’ll notice that Paul claims the same authority in 1 Corinthians and elsewhere; they all claim that they are passing along what they have received (paralambano) because they can trace it to the source. That’s John’s point: trust me, I know what I’m talking about because I know from whom I received this.

For God is light and in him there is no darkness. Fellowship is first and foremost with the Father and the Son (and the Holy Spirit). It is out of the overflow of koinonia amongst the Trinity that human koinonia has substance. Again, a church that has unity within itself but is not unified with the Godhead is not a church at all.

We lie against the light if we claim to be the light and/or if we have darkness. Sin has no place in the Christian life. That does not mean that we are sinless. Far from it! We are still sinful but we are no longer slavers to sin because Jesus is our Advocate. We have been changed from sinners to saints but we still sin regularly. But what would it look like if our sins were truly upsetting to us? In the early church there was a belief that postbaptismal sin was unacceptable and that you could be absolved only once for sin after baptism. I’m not suggest this to be true in the least, but think about the severity with which they viewed sin. Does our sin grieve us? Do we strive toward holiness or would we rather toe the line of sinfulness without actually touching it? I want light! I want holiness!

Therefore, our fellowship with each other is made real because we have been cleansed by the blood of our Advocate. We can have right relationship with each other only because of the right relationship we’ve been given through and by and with Jesus. Fellowship is a call to discipleship. Again, our actions and our words need to match up.

Gospel – John 20:19-31

The Gospel lesson picks up right where we left off last week: we’re still on Easter Sunday. Mary has just run from the Garden to the disciples and announced, “I have seen the Lord.”

The disciples are still gathered together (expect Thomas and Judas) and Jesus appears. What does he speak to them? He speaks peace. He is peace. He breathes his Holy Spirit over them. Just as YHWH breathed life into humanity (ruach) in Genesis 2, so too does Jesus give new life to his followers. And this new life is empowering. The Holy Spirit gives them the ability to forgive sins, to lose and to bind. To receive the Holy Spirit and the true shalom of God is to be commissioned for ministry.

Thomas isn’t present. We don’t know where Thomas was but we do know that he had doubts. Friends, doubts are ok! Thomas isn’t rebuked for his doubts by his brothers or our Lord. Thomas isn’t told to suck it up and believe because questions or the need for proof is wrong. No! Thomas is given the opportunity by our Lord to touch his wounds and to worship. Thomas worships on the spot with his proclamation: My Lord and my God. In touching the Lord’s hands and side, Thomas knew that he was encountering the crucified and risen Lord. He know that Jesus wasn’t appearing as some sort of ghost or aberration but in the flesh, in the present, in reality. That is the God we worship. That is the Lord of all creation. But are you worshipping him? Jesus is a big boy, he can handle your feelings of doubt, but when you encounter the risen Lord what is your response?

Liturgical Considerations

The Second Sunday of Easter (the Sunday of Thomas) is the conclusion of Easter Week (Anglican and Catholic) or Bright Week (Orthodox). In the patristic church, and still in the Orthodox Church, Bright Week was a weeklong celebration for the newly baptized. Indeed those who had been baptized on Easter were to wear their white garments for the entirety of Bright Week. During Bright Week the newly baptized went through mystagogy; that is, they were instructed in the Holy Mysteries of the Church and were therefore illuminated (i.e. made bright).

Such a historical reality could factor into your sermon this week because at the end of Bright Week shouldn’t we all be able to properly proclaim, “My Lord and my God” like St. Thomas? What would it look like for you to offer some real catechesis and instruction during Bright Week, or at least to have your people reaffirm their baptismal covenant if you didn’t do this via Easter Vigil? To be discipled is to grow in wisdom, stature, understanding and most importantly: more and more into the likeness of Christ. Inviting people into the mysteries of the church—both through participation and instruction—is a form of spiritual formation and liturgical catechesis.

 

Synthesis

If you haven’t noticed it already, one of my favorite approaches for sermons is to use phrases from the lessons as points in my “So what” section at the end. These lessons are no exception. I’m not going to put the meat on these points because I’d rather you receive inspiration from the Spirit and use some sanctified imagination as you know your context better than I do. Here they are:

  1. “We have seen the Lord.”
  2. “Show forth in their lives what they profess by faith.”
  3. “Peace be with you.”
  4. “My Lord and my God!”

Remember, this is the conclusion of Bright Week and the Sunday of Thomas has been part of the liturgical calendar of the church for many hundreds of years: do something about it. His words are offered to Jesus as reverent worship; may we worship at the Lord’s feet like Thomas. May we see the Lord and profess him with lips and lives. May we offer the world the shalom of God.

He Is Risen Indeed, Alleluia

Sermon Notes – Easter Sunday – Year B

He Is Risen

Thesis

 Choices abound on this blessed morning. Preachers can choose between 3 Collects 7 lessons. It’s a good Sunday when the only lesson without a choice is the Psalm! The most important thing to remember in the midst of all the decision-making is the reality that has changed history: He is risen!!

I am putting these lessons together as if I were to be preaching on Easter Sunday. I may offer a passing comment randomly about the other lessons but basically I am going to cut 3 and 7 down to 1 and 4.

Analysis

Collect

My desire would be to use the second option because it is the Collect that goes with Easter Vigil. It reminds us that an Easter faith is one maintained and strengthened through the Baptismal covenant. However, as not all churches have a Vigil but all will celebrate Easter, I would select the first option because I like its cadence better. Honestly, the first and third options have the same message: Christ has died, Christ is risen, he is victorious, and we are called to die in him and find life in him. Simple message but that’s the point. Easter is simple: he who was dead is no longer dead; he is among the living! The ramifications of the Resurrection are also simple: victory, new creation, salvation, and the call to discipleship.

First Reading

I would include Isaiah 25:6-9 as my first reading. It reads like the eschatological vision of the heavenly city in Revelation. Death has been swallowed up. There are no more tears. The LORD has saved his people and is all in all. Isaiah gives an eschatological vision that is echoed by Jesus, the New Testament writers, and John. It is a vision of the eschatological banquet table that has been set up by YHWH. The table is heavy-laden with rich food and drinks. Who is present? All peoples! Who presides? The LORD!

This has been accomplished through death. The idea of a mountain should immediately bring a plethora of biblical images to mind: Mt. Moriah with Abraham and Isaac, Mt. Carmel with Elijah, Mt. Sinai with Moses, Mt. Tabor with the Transfiguration, and Jerusalem as the City on a Hill. God has been relating to this people through mountain-top experiences and this mountain-top experience will literally change the course and meaning of human history.

God will finally be all in all for his people. He has always been all in all but they (read: we) didn’t know it. He will be their God and they will be his people. His shalom will be known throughout all the earth. Only the victory of Almighty God will be known and it will be celebrated. This passage preaches itself.

Psalm

As I mentioned above, there are no options for the Psalm. This is a song of exultation (v. 15) because the Lord has acted (v. 24)! He has acted through the cornerstone once rejected (v. 22) and won for his people salvation (v. 14 and 21). The Lord is the one who has accomplished this (v. 23).

Written in a format similar to the great songs of the Bible: Moses, Miriam, Hannah, Zechariah, Mary, etc. this Psalm is to be read with great joy and passion on Easter morning. God has acted definitively and decisively on behalf of his people. His actions have opened the gates of righteousness (see Collect #3). This is a song of victory, of thanks, and of joy.

There is a response from the one who enters through the gates: thanksgiving. Entrance is not merely enough. Think of Jesus’ parable about the wedding banquet and garment. It was not enough for the man to attend the party. No, he needed to have on the right garment and participate. It is also not enough for us to “walk through the gate” only to remain the same. We are called to respond and that response is thanksgiving—it is eucharisteo.

Second Reading

Now I would select Acts 10:34-43 because it has more of a creedal dimension to it than the passage from 1 Corinthians 15. Actually, the passage from 1 Corinthians 15 that I would have included would have been later in the same chapter when Paul remarks on the necessity of the resurrection because without it we are to be pitied more than all men. Moving right along…

Peter is in the house of Cornelius and has received his vision of the sheet, the animals, and God’s voice telling him to kill and eat. That is, Peter is realizing that in the Kingdom of God all are invited and the world has been changed. He is now relating to Cornelius’ household that which has taken place in Jesus. Peter is speaking to gentiles. This is massive! The gospel of Jesus Christ is now beginning as a grassroots effort and it will one day make its way to Rome and then the ends of the earth. Peter is putting into practice that which he has learned from his heavenly vision just verses before. This is the work with which the Lord commissioned his disciples: Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth!

Even in the English translation there is a good cadence to this passage; Peter’s words are expertly chosen and none are out of place. It is very creedal. Remember that the books of the Bible were written many years after these events took place; my point is that Peter’s homily on the action and work of Jesus is part of an oral tradition that has been passed along from the time that Acts 10 took place in real life to the time it was put on paper by Luke. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul talks about passing along that which he has received (paralambano) and this is such an example.

The story is simple: God sent Jesus, John announced Jesus, Jesus healed and taught, he was put to death, God raised him from the dead, and he appeared to the disciples and others. It is not as poetic as the Apostles’ Creed but it matches the Creed’s simplicity. This is the story to be told over and over and over again; it is the story of victory, of action, and it is a story that literally transforms lives.

Think about what happens to Cornelius’ household after this: they believe and are baptized. The response of belief was followed up by baptism into the covenant and therefore discipleship.

Notice also how Peter makes reference to being a witness. A witness is not merely someone who sees an event—it is much more than an “eye-witness” like we are used to. No, Peter is a witness by testifying and proclaiming the truth. That is how you demonstrate your witness: through action, not vision.

Gospel

This is the toughest choice you’ll face: John’s poetic and powerful version of the resurrection or Mark’s abrupt end. I actually enjoy Mark’s ending as much as I do John, but because John 18-19 was used for Good Friday and is fresher in the minds of the people I would select John 20 for Easter Sunday.

John begins with the phrase “on the first day of the week.” This is a very important concept for Johannine theology and the early church. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI Emeritus) highlights this in The Spirit of the Liturgy. The first Easter has three different yet intertwined meanings: it is the first day, the third day and the eighth day. As the first day it is the day after Sabbath, it is the day of creation. As the third day it is the third day from the Crucifixion. As the eighth day it is the first day of a new week and is therefore the day of new creation. John has been piecing his gospel together in such a way that this day in chapter 20 is both first and eighth day. Baptismal fonts tend to be eight-sided as a reminder that you are being baptized into new creation. Baptism and Easter go hand in hand. File this bit of “Eighth Day theology” away because you’ll want to come back to it throughout your ministry.

Mary is the first to the tomb on this day and she sees the stone is rolled away. She fetches Peter and John who race to the tomb; John is faster! They both go in and see the tomb empty, the linens rolled up and the story says that John (the author) believed. They didn’t understand but he believed.

Meanwhile, Mary is still in the garden. She is weeping. Her Lord has been taken away. Two angels visit her and inquire about her crying and she tells them why. She turns and sees Jesus only she doesn’t see Jesus. Anecdotally, I proposed to Rebecca in Paris and did so by arriving unannounced. Rebecca was completely unaware that I was coming to Paris from Atlanta, GA. I stood against a light pole in Place Vendome and read a newspaper while Rebecca and her family made their way toward me. Rebecca looked up and saw me, only she did’t see me. She looked back down and then did a double take when it registered that I was right in front of her. I was out of place, out of context in Paris and she had no category for that. Mary sees Jesus but this is also out of place, out of context because he is supposed to be dead. Instead he is living, he is standing, he is breathing and he is calling to her. She needs a moment before she can realize what is happening.

I love what John does her: Mary thinks Jesus is the gardener. But isn’t he? I mean, the original vision in the Garden of Eden was for Adam and Eve to be the stewards of all creation and to care for the garden. Jesus is the Second Adam, the New Adam so isn’t it fitting that he is mistaken for being a gardener? He IS the gardener!

Jesus calls Mary by name and that is how he is revealed. She knows that voice, she knows that name, she knows the one who is speaking to her and so she turns to embrace him. Oh that we would embrace our Lord like that! Jesus commissions Mary to be the first bearer of Good News and to announce to his followers that he is alive.

Let’s think once more about being a witness. In 1st century Jerusalem it was unthinkable for a woman to be a witness. (If you believe any of the early beliefs that Mary was a harlot—and I am not endorsing those here—then you would have a doubly unfit witness). Jesus reveals himself as Risen Lord first to a woman and has her go and spread the news. The Good News of Jesus is ushered forth from Gethsemane by the wrong person because God’s kingdom is full of all the wrong people. What does she announce? “I have seen the Lord.” It is always simple with John. “Come and see.” “We would see Jesus.” “I have seen the Lord.” And yet, and yet, isn’t that just perfect: our rationalizations and mental constructions of evangelism and controlling the Spirit are nothing compared to the simplicity of Jesus’ call.

Liturgical Considerations

The principal service of Easter is at it’s absolute best when it is celebrated in conjunction with the great Easter Vigil on Saturday night. Look at the second collect; it references “this holy night” which only makes sense when you are saying/hearing that prayer during Vigil. It is one of the few Collects that takes anamnesis seriously and suggests that this holy night is actually the holy night. I a sense it transports believers to the Upper Room with the disciples who are in mourning and waiting only to be greeted by the Risen One.

The beauty of following the Light of Christ (Paschal Candle) into the sanctuary, of hearing the Exultet, of reading 10 lessons covering the salvation history of the Old Testament and in welcoming others into the baptismal covenant—meanwhile reaffirming your own faith—places a particular meaning on Easter that is lost without keeping Vigil. I’m sure it is far too late to consider keeping a Vigil this year but I would encourage you to do two things immediately: 1) set up a meeting with your worship arts team (or whomever is responsible for liturgical services in your church) during Eastertide and begin planning for Vigil 2016. 2) Find a local church that is offering a Vigil this year and join them. The historicity and beauty of this service is wonderful. Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Ill has a Vigil that is top-notch.

Don’t forget about those “Alleluias”! You have hopefully hidden the “alleluias” (unless your Orthodox) for all of Lent and are finally able to use them in their proper context: greeting our Risen and Living Lord.

Synthesis

What does all of this mean? It means that Jesus is risen from the dead! He has trampled down death by death and has returned to his followers; he does not return as a ghost but as the Risen Lord with a glorified body.

Resurrection was a widely held belief by Jews of the day but no one anticipated a resurrection before the Resurrection on the Last Day. Peter, John, Mary, etc. had no category for the beginning of new creation as seen in Jesus. But John believed and Mary announced.

The first day is the third day is the eighth day and it is the day on which Jesus begins putting the world to rights. New creation is being ushered in one bit at a time, awaiting the return of the King that all may be made new. This is the work to which you have been called: to witness, to announce, and to embody.

Peter witnessed the events of Jesus first hand and shared them with Cornelius’ household and countless others. Mary was the first to embrace the Risen Lord and she was sent away with a mission: to announce his resurrection. Are you about the work of building for God’s kingdom? Are you looking forward to the eschatological banquet by making Jesus known in the present? Remember, Easter and baptism go hand in hand. Baptism is not a silver spoon, it is an invitation into the very life of the triune God and it is an invitation to radical discipleship. Will you answer? Will you follow? Will you announce?

From “Hosanna” to “Crucify Him”: The Journey of Palm Sunday

Sermon Notes – Palm Sunday (Passion Sunday) – Year B

I would say that these notes will be shorter than normal because there are other services to prepare for this week, but I’m a bit verbose and hate cutting down on a word count. I apologize in advance if this takes a while to read!

Peace,

Porter

Liturgy of the Palms

Hosanna, hosanna. Hosanna in the highest. The Sanctus should be ringing in your ears as you listen to these lessons. The Lord has come to Jerusalem. His face has been turned toward the city like flint since coming down Mt. Tabor after the Transfiguration. The story has been moving toward this moment, yea this week, for months. The journey to Jerusalem is not the journey to the “hosannas” but to the cross. However, we cannot yet come to “crucify him!” without the triumph of, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of LORD.”

Either lesson can be used here: Jesus is yet again deconstructing our understanding of power; he is turning Roman imperialism on its head. Caesar, or any conquering general, would ride back into Rome on a chariot and/or warhorse as evidence of their successful military ventures—as proof that they had won. Often prisoners or war or foreign captives would be paraded as well. The people would cheer and the sing the praises of almighty Rome. Now, however, we have the one who is to be King (he already IS King!) entering not on a warhorse or chariot but on a donkey. What?

The crowds are absolutely correct with their sung praises of Jesus, even their ascription of a title, but their image of a King is way off. Jesus is indeed the One who is coming in the name of the Lord. He is blessed! He is the King of Israel! Their words come from Psalm 118 and are full of the promise that God will radically reverse the reality of his people; that God will uphold his covenant-promise through his steadfast, covenant love (hesed). N. T. Wright is so good on this point: though back in her land Israel is still living in exile. Rome is the ruler of Jerusalem, the Temple is empty of the Presence, and God’s people are waiting. They are waiting for their King and they think he has entered, but…

But he is not a militaristic king nor he is about to overthrow the political regime of Rome. His Kingdom is different. His Reign is humble—all powerful, yes!—but humble and founded on love. Power is not to be lorded over the gentiles (), it is instead demonstrated through the willing and voluntary death of Christ, through his humble entry into the city that he will weep over, in the helpless babe and crucified One.

In fact, if you want a good resource for Passion Week and Eastertide then go out and purchase N. T. Wright’s How God Became King. This is one of my favorite books by Bishop Wright and it gives a wonderful overview of kingship throughout the Old Testament and culminating in the incarnation, ministry, crucifixion, resurrection and exaltation of the Faithful Israelite. Any good Kingdom Theology will have this book as a resource.

The last verse in John’s account is important. The mystery of Christ is maintained until after the resurrection. The disciples did not, no they could not, understand what was in front of them (Jesus) until after his death and resurrection.

Liturgy of the Passion

Having entered the city we now turn our attention to the events of the following days. The task of the preacher on this Sunday is great. Sure, the imagery and texts may be rich and the possibilities endless, but how do you possibly cover such a vast story in 20-25 minutes? This is the beauty of Palm Sunday…while the entire Passion narrative may be read; one does not have to cover such ground in the same message. The whole Passion narrative was included in the lectionary in order to combat low church attendance on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday (not to mention the other days of Holy Week). It would be extremely confusing for someone to arrive at church on Palm Sunday and hear about the Triumphal Entry only to return the following Sunday to hear about the Resurrection: what happens in between is extremely important and to see the story as a complete story rather than individual pericopes is important.

The Triumphal Entry is behind us and we are now able to turn our attention to more important matters. No, that would be to miss the point entirely! We need to drag the humble procession of Christ into this long narrative. To really dig into the meaning of these scenes we must juxtapose the image of the crowds crying “Hosanna” with that of Jesus standing before Pilate and the crowds chanting “crucify him!” I’m about to go from preaching to meddling very quickly. It is not enough to feel anger toward Judas or toward the disciples over even toward the fickle crowd. Actually, that’s letting everyone off the hook easy. No, the really work is to recognize that I (and therefore YOU) am the one shouting “Hosanna” one minute and “Crucify him!” the next. 

Much of the “meat” of these lessons will be unpacked throughout the week. On Maundy Thursday you can really dig into the Passover meal that Jesus shared and transformed with his disciples, how he instituted the Eucharist with his words and actions. You can dig into the idea of taking him at his literal word when he says, “This is my body” and “this is my blood” or you can focus on the acts of taking, thanking, breaking and giving as acts that we should live out in our lives eucharistically (I will post on this soon).

On Good Friday you can really cover the nature and meaning of the Cross. You can get into Atonement theory to your heart’s content. You can draw parallels between Psalm 22 and the words of Jesus on the cross. You can look at the forgiveness Jesus bestows even while being murdered. You can show the picture of humiliation only to then show the picture of victory on Sunday.

All of this is good, it is very good in fact. But none of this is really the point of Palm Sunday. No, the point of Palm Sunday is to demonstrate-in my opinion—how quickly Palms can turn to Passion.

So who was it that was on the cross? Well, it was the Servant of Isaiah 50 who was a good teacher and yet became the victim of hatred. It was the one in Philippians 2 who emptied himself (kenosis) and took on the nature of a man, who was obedient unto death. It was the one who had a woman anoint his feet with expensive oil, who cleared the temple, who shared a meal with his disciples, and who willingly went to the cross. In short, is the was Suffering Son of Man; it was the King of Israel who had been cheered only to be jeered; it was Jesus of Nazareth who would prophetically become King of the Jews as a label of scorn. It was the turning upside down of power. It was the victory of love. It was God drinking the cup to the dregs. It was Jesus’ self-offering, his oblation as an act of worship.

The Orthodox have a beautiful line in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom during the Eucharistic prayer. It reads: “On the night He was betrayed, or rather gave Himself up for the life of the world.” The oblation of our Lord was no accident, nor was it done against his will. Jesus’ self-emptying was purely voluntary—in fact it is the very picture of power, of being in control. Preach on that!

To me these lessons really hone in on what it means to have the mind of Christ, what it looks like to embrace true humility, and yet they also demonstrate that our hearts are fickle. We are the victors of Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday and we are also the crucifying crowd on Good Friday—I’d even suggest that we are the betrayer on Maundy Thursday but that would get me into trouble!

Try preaching from the Liturgy of the Palms and juxtapose the scenes of the crowd crying, “We have no King but Caesar…Crucify him!” It’ll be a tough pillow to swallow on such a High Sunday but I think it’s a good practice.

Leave people with hope. We hope in the cross because we worship the Triumphant and Risen Lord. We are looking at this story from the side of Christ’s glory and can allow ourselves entrance into his narrative but always with the end in mind.

Reverent Submission – Sermon Notes for Lent 5b

I will be posting these “notes” every Monday for the upcoming Sunday. I have developed this style from my experiences at Epiphany Anglican Church in Mission Viejo, CA when I was preparing these for our two priests/preachers as part of my job. The format will be hypothesis, analysis, and synthesis. Put in other terms: I will first give you my thoughts on the theme, I will then go through the Collect and readings one at a time and then I will conclude by drawing it all together and fleshing out the theme.

Hypothesis

The lectionary is interesting as it takes us to a pericope after the Triumphal Entry on the Sunday before Palm Sunday (or the Sunday of Passion Week). Later in Lent I will be adding a post on “Lazarus Saturday” in honor of my Orthodox friends—sadly the Protestant and Roman Catholic Churches do not celebrate the Raising of Lazarus in a narratival setting the way the Orthodox do. Back to the text, we have to jump forward in our Gospel readings in order to read Jesus’ words regarding his exaltation before we can jump back to the Triumphal Entry next week.

It would appear that the common theme carried throughout these readings and the Collect is one of the New Covenant and Jesus’ mediating role as our High Priest. In short: Jesus’ death is the initiation of the new covenant through which our sins are forgiven and the law is written on our hearts. There is a beautiful phrase coming from the Hebrews passage which sums up the angle I’d like to take: reverent submission.

Analysis

Collect

This is one of my favorite collects and for me it reminds me of the work done by Jamie Smith in Desiring the Kingdom. Smith bases his work off of St. Augustine’s understanding of our desires. Simply put[1]: our desire is not in a vacuum. All desire has an object. Human desire began in creation and the only object of our desire was God; this is as it should be. However, with sin our desire became misdirected, unaligned, disordered and instead of God we found other objects and things toward which we point our desire.

Desire here is much more than affection it. It is kardias, our gut (or core) love. Through the work and person of Jesus Christ our desires can again be ordered toward God and that is the main sentiment of this collect: taming and ordering our unruly desires. To love God’s commands and to desire his promises is indeed to be a covenant-member of his family, a kingdom citizen of his already inaugurated but not yet consummated kingdom. And it is this coming Kingdom—the new heavens and the new earth—when God shall be all in all—where our true desires should be fixed.

Old Testament – Jeremiah 31:31-34

The Old Testament passage comes from Jeremiah 31:31-34 and it is a passage familiar to many. God is speaking of the New Covenant that he will establish with his people, Israel. Now, a quick word on covenantal theology: like Calvin and others I do not find the language of “old” and “new” covenant particularly useful because it can convey a picture of “Plan A” and “Plan B.” I far prefer the concept of “one covenant and two administrations.” This isn’t semantics but a deep theological conviction that guards against any sort of superiority complex or supersessionism from Christians. We must always remember that we have been grafted into Jesse’s branch—we are not Jesse’s branch out right. Soapbox message completed.

In this passage God describes what the new covenant will look like. Why a new covenant? Because Israel had repeatedly broken the covenant he established with her at Sinai. This resulted first in 40 years of wandering and finally into capture, captivity and exile. God has husband has remained faithful to his unfaithful bride. God reminds Israel of this with reference to leading her out of Egypt. In fact, that very image is the way he introduces the covenant in Exodus 20: I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt. The covenant was made and the law given to a people already redeemed. A new covenant is also a promise of redemption.

This covenant gives the eschatological picture in full: I will be their God and they will be my people. This is the OT equivalent of God being ‘all in all’ found in the New Testament. This is the telos of creation; it is the redemption toward which God has been working even before he uttered the logos to create. The law shall be written on their hearts and their sins and iniquities forgiven. The new covenant—yea, the everlasting covenant—will free people not only from exile but also from the bondage of sin.

One cannot read through this section of Jeremiah without looking back to the Exodus and being mindful of her current situation: she again finds herself in exile, under foreign occupation, and she is in desperate need of her Redeemer.

The Psalm – Psalm 51:1-12 or Psalm 119:9-16

There are two choices from the Psalter for this Sunday: one speaks more concretely of sin and one of law. Both fit in with the Collect and the other lectionary readings quite nicely. Psalm 51 recounts David’s lament over his adultery with Bathsheba. He is torn up over his iniquity and asks God for forgiveness. The imagery used for such a cleansing is extremely vibrant and provides the backdrop for our understanding of being cleansed by blood. It is the last few verse that I want to draw particular attention to: David asks the LORD to “create in him a clean heart” and to “renew a right spirit” within him, finally he asks to be sustained by the Holy Spirit. This is the meaning of forgiveness from sins. It is not simply that our sins are wiped and washed away, it certainly is that, but it is also that amendment of life should and must follow. We are forgiven (or blessed) in order to forgive, to bless and to be set aside for good works. In other words, our desires are rightly ordered and flowing from such ordering is a life of worship, of obedience, of reverent submission (I’m borrowing from Hebrews early).

The other option is from Psalm 119 and this is the longest Psalm in the Psalter. The entirety of Psalm 119 depicts one’s love of the law and one asks the LORD again and again to give him desire for his commands. The Psalm for this Sunday requires little exegesis; it is not difficult to understand, simply difficult to live out! You can use Psalm 119 as an “application point” or part of your “so what?”.

Epistle – Hebrews 5:5-10

Hebrews 5:5-10 is the lynchpin for this week’s message, I believe. Here we get a picture of Jesus as High Priest (in the order of Melchizedek). We also come to our beautiful phrase “reverent submission.” The writer of Hebrews has already gone to great length to establish Jesus as not only a high priest but as the high priest in the order of Melchizedek. Your minds should go back to Abraham’s encounter with Melchizedek in Genesis 14. We do not know much of anything about this individual aside from the fact that he was a king and Jesus is a priest in his line forever. We also know that Abraham (then Abram) gave the King a tenth of what he had. He is referenced 11 times in Scripture: Genesis 14, Psalm 110 (quote in Hebrews) and 9 times in Hebrews.

We are reminded that Jesus did not glorify himself. Rather, the Father glorified him! This is the consistent message of John’s Gospel: Jesus is glorified and exalted by the Father and not by his own accord. The Father glorified Jesus due to his “reverent submission.” It was the Father who “saved him from death.” It was the Father who heard his cries and supplications, who answered his call, and who has seated him at his right hand. It is to this Father that Jesus has submitted reverently. If the second person of the Trinity, the God-man, Jesus of Nazareth has submitted himself to the Father, how much more so should we?

He was (and is) a Son and he suffered and through it learned obedience. The result? He is the source of eternal salvation! I.e. he is the Faithful Israelite through whom the Law has been kept and fulfilled and the covenant established forever. Further, he is our Great High Priest and he mediates on our behalf with the Father. In emptying himself (kenosis from Philippians 2:5-11) and through “reverent submission” we have been saved from our sins, set aside for good works, grafted into the covenant family of God and we look to the eschatological banquet. It is utterly important that we understand Jesus as Prophet, Priest and King.

Gospel – John 12:20-33

We now jump ahead of our Lenten and Passiontide narrative in order to read Jesus’ words in John 12. When we celebrate the Triumphal Entry next Sunday we will step back a day. The setting is Jerusalem at Passover. More clearly, it is Israel awaiting Passover. Jesus has entered the city—this has been his goal since coming down from the Mountain of Transfiguration.

Some Greeks approach Philip and tell him that they’d like to see Jesus. John gives us a nice set of bookends through Philip and “seeing Jesus.” For it was in John 1 that Philip went to Nathanael proclaiming they had found of whom Moses and the Prophets wrote. Nathanael responds with skepticism about anything coming from Nazareth and Philip simply says, “Come and see.” Those words ought to be echoing in your ears when you read the Greeks request of Philip, “Sir, we would see Jesus.” This is no mistake. John’s Gospel is split into 4 sections—at least that’s how modern (and pre-modern) readers have dissected it: Prologue, the Book of Signs, the Book of Glory, and Epilogue. The Book of Signs begins with John 1:19 (opening to Philip’s “come and see”) and closes with 12:50 (the close of the “Sir, we would see Jesus”).

Philip goes to Andrew and together they go to Jesus. Jesus begins with these words, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” Jesus moves into a short discourse about how life comes from death and the oxymoronic idea that in order to gain your life you must lose it.

We have reached our climax in the story. John devotes 12 chapters to (1-12) to a period of several years and an additional 8 chapters to the events of a week in the Book of Glory. It is HUGELY important to John that Jesus be glorified, and therefore the Father is glorified. How is He glorified? According to N. T. Wright, “God is glorified in Christ crucified.”

The result is that Jesus will be lifted high and will draw all people to himself; thus fulfilling the Old Testament prophesies that people would come from the corners of the earth to be saved.

Synthesis

Think of the Gospel lesson from Lent 4: the Son of Man must be lifted high just as the bronze serpent on the pole in Numbers. This way all who look upon him may be saved. The hour has now come for said glorification. The format of this glorification is unlike anything the Jews would have expected: humiliation upon a cross, the self-emptying of the Son, his reverent submission to the Father rather than letting the cup pass. Jesus drank that cup to the dregs. He trampled down death by death and was glorified by the Father.

Jesus’ actions were those of a reverent submission to the Father and through them he kept the covenant and grafted us into his family people.

So what? Here are three points that I’d encourage you to use:

  1. Lose your life.
  2. Reverent submission.
  3. Show people Jesus.

I’m not going to flesh these out for you because I think you know your own context better than I do (and honestly I think they are pretty self-explanatory!).

A life of reverent submission is one that is lost to the triune God and is one that constantly points others to Jesus, our Redeemer and Great High Priest. May he so order our desires that we would seek after him and his kingdom rather than anything else!

[1] And I do mean “simply put” because I am trying to boil 80 pages of philosophical anthropology and academic work into a few lines.