A Lectionary Reflection on John 17:20-26, for 7th Sunday of Easter Yr C

This pericope is often referred to as Jesus’ high priestly prayer. It is, for the most part, an intercessory prayer for others, and also the conclusion of Jesus’ farewell discourse with his disciples, preparing them for his imminent suffering, death and resurrection (John 13:1-17:26).

Image credit: Jesus prayed for me at LivingLutheran.org

In verse 20, Jesus is praying for all of his would-be followers beyond the first generation of disciples, right up to the present day and into the future: “I ask not only on behalf of these (i.e. his first disciples), but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.” Here Jesus suggests the power not only of his intercessory prayer for all of his followers throughout history; as well as the process by which people will come to believe—“through their word,” (i.e. the preaching and teaching of God’s word, which, combined with the activity of the Holy Spirit works faith within the hearts and minds of people).

Another significant theme in this prayer is an emphasis on the unity of Christians with one another; which Jesus prays for in verse 21 and develops this particular intercession further by saying that such a unity is rooted in God’s own Self: “As you, Father are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.” Again such an emphasis highlights that unity is a gift of God’s grace, it always originates from God through Jesus to us. However, this unity is not unity for its own sake. No! Jesus states the ultimate purpose of Christian unity: “that the world (not merely a few privileged folks) may know that you (i.e. God the Parent-Creator) have sent me.” Jesus repeats this emphasis on unity in slightly different words, and then repeats the purpose of unity as well with an important addition: “that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” This addition, of course, is consistent with the larger schema of the Fourth Gospel, which emphasises God’s all-inclusive love for the world made incarnate through Jesus. After Jesus is raised from the dead and ascends into heaven, the incarnation—albeit imperfect because we are all sinners—is present in the world through loving servanthood of Jesus’ followers who have been given the in-dwelling Holy Spirit.

Jesus also prays that his followers would be with him “where I am,” which may refer to either his imminent suffering and death on the cross or his resurrected and ascended state in heaven or perhaps both. He asks for his followers to be with him where he is “to see my glory,” and again “my glory” may refer to at least two or more meanings—his suffering and death on the cross and/or his resurrected and ascended state in heaven.

The concluding intercession focusses on knowing God the Parent-Creator and Jesus as well as knowing God’s name, which is closely connected to the gift of God’s love dwelling in all of Jesus’ followers.

There are many homiletic possibilities based on this pericope. One may be to explore what it means to pray today in the life and faith journey of Jesus-followers. How does Jesus’ high priestly prayer inspire and influence our prayers today? Are there visible signs of Jesus’ prayer for Christian unity among Christians of various denominations today? If so, where are they, and how do we rejoice in Jesus’ prayer becoming a reality for us today?

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A Lectionary Reflection on Psalm 67, 6th Sunday of Easter Yr C

The Psalter has been Israel’s hymnbook for centuries. For Christians, too, it has been and still is an inspirational resource for congregations at worship.

Psalm 67 is given this title in my Bible: “The Nations Called to Praise God.” A sub-title also confirms that this psalm has been an integral part of worship for ancient Israel: “To the leader: with stringed instruments. A Psalm. A Song.” It is unfortunate that the legacy of the Psalms has not included the musical scores—one wonders what this psalm sounded like when stringed instruments played the score, or perhaps there were several scores or settings of it for different seasons.

At any rate, it begins on a rather positive note with a benediction in verse 1: “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us.” Of course, those who attend worship on a regular basis will likely recognize these words, slightly different, yet very similar to the Aaronic-priestly benediction, in Numbers 6:24-26, which is proclaimed by the presiding clergyperson at the close of the worship service.

In light of this, and verses 6 and 7, which also affirm God’s blessing; one homiletic possibility may be to explore how our life is a benediction a blessing; in what ways has God blessed you? The psalm mentions a few: God’s way and saving power is known among all nations, God judges the peoples with equity and guides the nations, God causes the earth to yield its increase.

Another homiletic possibility might be to emphasize the connection between benediction/blessing and praising God with music and singing for joy. God’s benediction/blessing awakens within us a grateful heart, which moves us to praise God joyfully with the gift of music and singing. Perhaps Psalm 67 in whole or in part could be incorporated into a dialogue sermon between the preacher and the congregation employing either a psalm-tone (e.g., there are 16 psalm-tones in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, pp. 335-338, one or more which could be chosen), or a hymn score-setting of it (e.g. Saviour of the Nations Come, Praise, my soul, the God of Heaven, Joyful, joyful, we adoree Thee, etc).

Book Review: Preaching without Contempt: Overcoming Unintended Anti-Judaism

Preaching without Contempt: Overcoming Unintended Anti-Judaism

Author: Marilyn Salmon

Publisher: Fortress Press

183 pages, including: Preface, Notes, Suggestions for Further Reading, Index of Names and Subjects, and Index of Ancient Sources, paperback

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Rev. Dr. Marilyn Salmon is professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities in St. Paul, MN. She is an Associate Priest at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church in St. Paul where she preaches regularly. Salmon is involved in Jewish Christian relations and has served on the Advisory Board of the Jay Philips Center for Jewish Christian Learning for many years.

This volume, is one in a series of Fortress Press Resources for Preaching.

While I found this work quite engaging, I also felt challenged, and at times, disagreed with Dr. Salmon.

In her Preface, Dr. Salmon states the purpose of this volume: “The purpose of this book is to raise awareness of the negative images of Judaism that commonly occur in preaching, to learn to recognize them, and to adopt strategies to avoid repeating them.” (p. X)

Professor Salmon goes on to share a foundational premise for her hermeneutical and homiletical approach to the New Testament: “The Gospels themselves sound anti-Jewish. However, I maintain they are not. The Gospels belong within the context of first-century Judaism. They were written before Christianity existed apart from Judaism.” (p. X) They are Jewish literature, not Christian literature. However, I’m not sure that a majority of Jewish and Christian biblical scholars and preachers would agree with this premise.

This volume is well designed, with five chapters: Introduction, The Gospels as Jewish Literature, Supersessionism, The Pharisees and the Law, The Gospel of John, The Passion Narrative and a Conclusion. There are also several sub-sections of each chapter to enhance the flow of the work. Some of the chapters also contain examples of sermons that Dr. Salmon preached, which intentionally endeavour to avoid anti-Judaism. I confess that I found a couple—but not all—of these sermons rather dry and overly pedagogical, while others were helpful and instructive.

There are several instances where I do not agree with Dr. Salmon, or if not agreeing, I question or am more ambiguous about her conclusions. Here are a couple of examples.

Dr. Salmon suggests that it is more helpful to read the New Testament from a theocentric viewpoint rather than a Christological one in order to avoid supersessionism. However, I think the “primary subject” of the New Testament is Jesus, and to read it from a Christological perspective need not mean one is promoting supersessionism.

In Professor Salmon’s chapter on The Pharisees and the Law, she writes: “The sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the sabbath” is not original with Jesus; it reflects general wisdom concerning the sabbath.” (p. 96) My response is, if this is not original with Jesus, then why not cite the original source?

I appreciate the research that Dr. Salmon engaged in for this volume and her concern to overcome unintended anti-Judaism in the Christian pulpit. This work does make a significant contribution towards understanding the Pharisees in a more positive light. For example, she cites E.P. Sanders, who made the claim regarding the ritual purity laws that: “All Jews, including Pharisees, were impure more or less all the time.” (p.100) Dr. Salmon repeatedly emphasises the wide diversity of Judaism at the time of Jesus and after the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E. She points out that the caricatures of Judaism by Christians and the use of Judaism as a foil to promote the adversus Iudaeos argument and emphasise the superiority of Christianity over Judaism as a devastating practice has damaged Jewish-Christian relations for centuries; and she advocates the use of more carefully nuanced readings of the Passion Narrative in Holy Week liturgies, providing two online links in her Notes for them; she also includes a resource from Brian Wren’s Piece Together Praise for Holy Week, a Kyrie in three stanzas, with the first line of each stanza containing this prayer: “God, thank you for the Jews.” (pp. 153-154)

I recommend this volume to preachers, and those interested and involved in Jewish-Christian relations.

A Lectionary Reflection on John 13:31-35, 5th Sunday of Easter

Agape Love

This pericope is part of a larger section of the Fourth Gospel, described by scholars as the farewell discourse of Jesus, consisting of 13:1-17:26. In the discourse, Jesus is preparing his disciples for his suffering, death, and resurrection.

Prior to this pericope, Jesus predicted that Judas would betray him. Then Jesus speaks of his glory. Often in conversations, people will employ the word glory, glorious, etc., in association with power, respect, honour, success, and victory. For example: “What a glorious victory,” in reference to a hockey team winning the Stanley Cup. Or: “She basks in glory now that she has sold over a million copies of her book.” In the Gospel of John however, the word glory, glorified, etc., is associated with the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus, which are the exact opposite of the ‘worldly’ meanings—albeit Jesus did win the victory over the powers of sin, death and evil, yet that victory came in the most unusual of ways, through his weakness, suffering and dying on the cross. Power in the world is often associated with military force or someone of great wealth. Respect and honour are often associated with outstanding achievements such as earning a PhD., excelling at a sport, becoming a Prime Minister, President, King or Queen. Success means becoming a famous movie star.

Reference to Jesus being glorified is also associated with what comes next in this pericope—his words concerning his departure from the disciples.

In place of his presence, he gives all of his would-be followers the love commandment in verses 34-35. He describes the commandment as “a new commandment.” Some might debate both those words “new” and “commandment.” For instance, the Torah teaches the faithful to love God and to love one’s neighbour, and Jesus himself sums up all of the commandments in the Torah by teaching the faithful to love God and one’s neighbour. Moreover, some would question whether love can be commanded—to command one to love may place conditions on loving, and true love is unconditional.

The word for love in this pericope is agape. Agape love is of the highest kind—it involves unselfish giving, loyalty, faithfulness, sacrifice, service. Agape love goes the extra mile, considers the needs and interests of others even before one’s own, is willing to face suffering, embarrassment, misunderstanding and even rejection at times for and with others. At its very best, agape love is prepared to die for another.

Such love is always there for us, thanks to the life, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. He calls us as his people to share it with the world, so that: “everyone will know that you are my disciples.”

In a world with more and more hatred, divisions, conflicts and wars, agape love is needed more now than ever. May the LORD help us all so to love!

Sermon 4 Easter Yr C

Read my sermon for May 12, 2019 here: 4 Easter Yr C

A Lectionary Reflection on Revelation 5:11-14, 3rd Sunday of Easter Yr C

Image credit: Jan van Eyck, Adoration of the Lamb

Revelation, the last book of the New Testament, is written in the genre of apocalyptic literature. The Greek word apokalypsis, means revelation, to unveil what was previously hidden. Apocalyptic literature has been associated with historical contexts of the persecution and sufferings of faith communities. One of the main purposes of writing in this genre is to communicate hope for the future and encourage communities to keep the faith and persevere. The language employed in Revelation is highly symbolic, a kind of underground language, written with the hope of preventing authorities hostile to the faith community from seeing it as in opposition to them and censoring it. Accordingly, the author, one John, was believed to be in exile on the island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea. He addresses his letter “to the seven churches that are in Asia,” i.e. modern day Turkey. Revelation contains several visions of John.

In our pericope, the author describes, in symbolic language, a vision that emphasises the worship, the adoration of God on the heavenly throne along with Jesus the Lamb.

John sees myriads of angels, the living creatures and the elders surrounding God’s throne and singing loudly a hymn, a song of praise, first of all addressed to the Lamb. The word Lamb, referring to Jesus, emphasises the sacrifice of Jesus for humankind on the cross. Lamb is also reminiscent of the Passover, wherein the Israelites, while in Egyptian slavery, were commanded by God to place the blood of slaughtered lambs on their doors, so that the angel of death would pass over their homes and save them from death. So, in both faiths—Judaism and Christianity the symbol of a Lamb or lamb’s blood is associated with life, deliverance and freedom. The hymn of praise to Jesus the Lamb here in verse 12 is incorporated into Christian liturgy as a hymn of praise, sung by millions of Christians today.

As the vision continues in verses 13 and 14, the worship now expands to include every living creature in the universe, singing their hymn of praise addressed this time to God who sits on the throne and the Lamb. The attributes to describe God and the Lamb in both hymns or one ongoing hymn are similar: power, wealth, wisdom, might, honour, glory, and blessing.

One homiletic possibility may be to focus on the question of what does it mean to worship God and Jesus the Lamb today? In relation to that, a focus on the significance of music and liturgy in worship to offer our praise and sense of awe and wonder together in the presence of the faith community and of God, may be one way to develop a sermon. Each Sunday is a reminder and celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, and the consequences of that event for the church as well as all of creation.

A Lectionary Reflection on John 20:19-31, 2nd Sunday of Easter

My Lord & My God by H.C. Varghese

On the first Easter evening, the risen Jesus appears to the disciples, without the presence of the disciple Thomas. It needs to be emphasized that the locked doors “for fear of the Jews” is something of an anachronism. The first generation of disciples were all Jews, and most likely rather than reading into this pericope a division between Jews and Christians, we need to view the followers of Jesus here as Jews within Judaism. The final division between Jews who did not follow Jesus and those who did had not occurred at this point in time. There were likely several different groups of Jews within Judaism at this time who discussed and debated with one another concerning a variety of matters, including the risen Jesus. However, that doesn’t mean that they were extremely hostile towards one another. No. Rather, it probably means the opposite. We are usually most comfortable discussing and debating matter with whom we are closest to—our friends, family members and colleagues. The phrase “the Jews” then certainly, emphatically, does not mean all Jews, since the disciples themselves were Jews. Were they fearful of themselves on this occasion? Perhaps, or perhaps not, we cannot be certain about that. However, given the events of that last week of Jesus’ life, fear of the disciples even of themselves maybe should not be ruled out as a factor—since they were, among other things, likely experiencing a host of thoughts and emotions, including fear and grief. “The Jews,” if it does not include the disciples, most likely refers to only some Jews—perhaps a small group who made some kind of agreement with the Roman authorities, from which they benefited.

When the risen Jesus appears to the disciples, his first words are: “Peace be with you.” The Shalom-Peace greeting was, and still is a common one among Jews and Christians then as well as today. Here it occurs twice, and the second time, as Jesus gives the disciples a commission, a sending out to forgive and retain sins, he breathed on them the Holy Spirit. Indeed, in Paul’s list of fruit of the Holy Spirit in his Letter to the Galatians, Shalom-Peace is mentioned as the third fruit. How we all need that fruit of the Holy Spirit in our churches, synagogues and other places of worship, as well as in our world today! This is especially so after the Islamic terrorists bombing and killing of more than 300 Christians while they were worshipping on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka.

Three homiletic possibilities: i) The risen Jesus’ commissioning-sending the disciples and Christians of every generation out into the world to share the Holy Spirit’s fruit of Shalom-Peace—especially in the most violent and troubled places of our globe. ii) The importance of forgiveness in our relationships with everyone—especially our enemies during times of mad hatred all around us. iii) A sermon focussing on the disciple Thomas as an exemplar for us—in processing his grief, the movement from doubt and skepticism to faith, the joyful response of confessing the risen Jesus as: “My Lord and my God!” How do we process our grief and move from doubt and skepticism to faith and joy by being among the multitude of generations of not seeing Jesus, yet believing that he is our risen Messiah and Saviour?