Weekly Preaching: August 5, 2018

August 1st, 2018

Our Gospel reading, John 6:24-35, is also covered in my blog on John 6 as a whole, and with attention to the details of this week’s segment. Our Old Testament readings, 2 Samuel 12 and Psalm 51, continue what began last week, and are covered in my blog from March 18

To that I'll add that, this week, we finish our "Faces of our Faith" series — and my character focus is on Nathan. I'm viewing him as a "friend," not in the modern sense of a fun person or even companion, but as what Aristotle defined as "the opposite of a flatterer." We need truth-tellers (but not people who enjoy telling you off), people who can and care to see the depths of who we are, broken, full of dreams, limited… These people not only love us but help us to be wise and holy. To say Nathan speaks "truth" is important, as our culture scoffs at the very notion. But there still is truth — not a weapon against others, but simple facts and the profound truths of the soul. I need a friend to go there with me. I need to be a friend. The church needs to conceive of itself as a friend. The name Nathan, after all, means "gift."

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Ephesians 4:1-16 is a rich text with, if anything, way too many possible preaching paths. I preached on this text three years ago, focusing then on “One” (called it “One is the Holiest Number,” with some Three Dog Night humor). In the thick of all the complexity in the world and divisions in the church, and with other pretenders and usurpers strutting around claiming to be “the one,” it is a liberating joy to explore the way God is one, and therefore we are one.

Paul’s admonition that we “lead a life worthy” makes me shiver, but it lends great dignity to life. We are so unworthy. This worthiness must be extrinsic to us, a gift. Maybe it’s a gift in the way ordinands learn to say Sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit in us, not the grunting, grinding effort to be good enough. We clergy should ponder this worthiness in our own souls. John Owen’s words haunt me: “The minister may fill his pews and the mouths of the public; but what that minister is on his knees in secret before God Almighty — that he is and no more.”

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The worth is linked to the calling. “Not many of you were wise…” (1 Cor. 1), as Paul reminds us. I will preach better and far more faithfully if I recall my calling and how I frame it in my gut. Back then, I didn’t sense a call to run meetings, meet budgets, go to clergy meetings or even preach sermons. For me, I was naively and deeply in love with Jesus, and I simply wanted to do anything he might need from me, any errands he might need to have run. I wanted to be someone who would say as clearly as possible, “Jesus is the One.”

Sometimes evangelical jargon puzzles me, including the way the Christian life is called a “walk.” How’s your walk with Christ? Paul speaks of this life as walking. The Greek word, kin to our word “peripatetic,” means to walk around. I like a “walk around” kind of pastoral administration more than fixed evaluation meetings. Jesus seemed to be someone who walked around — to towns, the countryside, etc.

This calling is itself Hope. “You were called to one hope.” I like that. It isn’t that my calling is to talk about hope or to cajole people into being hopeful. The very fact that God calls is hope. And it’s not a passive hoping or wishing. St. Augustine said that “Hope has two beautiful daughters. One is anger at the way things are. The other is courage to see to it that things don’t remain the way they are.”

I was young when I was called. I wonder if I have matured? Paul speaks of maturity, of growing up. I used to hate it when one of my parents would say “Grow up!” Growing up in Christ is peculiar: it’s not increasing independence, and certainly not any kind of codependency, but an increasing dependence upon God, or maybe an increasing interdependence upon God and others in the Body.

The Greek term rendered “mature” is teleion, as in meeting the goal, arriving at the end, the telos, the purpose of things. Maturity is marked by certain traits, some of which Paul lists here: lowliness, meekness, patience, forbearing one another, clearly echoing Colossians 3:12-17 and mirroring Matthew 5:1-11.

When I was researching my book on The Beatitudes, my most delightful learning was to realize these aren’t commandments, but the blessings of life with God. In fact, the Beatitudes are primarily autobiographical: they tell us about Jesus and thus what those close to Jesus are like. After all, Paul speaks of maturity as rising “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,” not any other standard! A bit oddly, Paul speaks of us being “no longer children” — in the face of Jesus’ constant counsel that we become like children. Fun preaching possibilities there: how do you balance these two thoughts that don’t really conflict at all?

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The business in Ephesians 4 about ascending and descending is fascinating. When we explore the ascension of Christ, I like to say that the puzzle isn’t that Jesus soared upward and left earth. The real shocker, the way bigger miracle, is that Jesus came down to earth. Our text today seems to imply the doctrine of the descent into hell, although exegetes aren’t so sure. We looked closely at this belief back on February 18 (with help from Gandalf, Buechner, and Pannenberg).

The doctrine is a valid, theologically shrewd one, the heart of which holds even if you have trouble buying that Jesus left his tomb and travelled somehow to the subterranean underworld to rescue captives. I might also point you to my Easter sermon, which was dependent on John Dominic Crossan’s lovely thoughts in Christian Century on the way in medieval art, Jesus rose from the dead, not alone at all, but dragging along others with him.

Speaking of hell, in our text Paul frets over the wiles of the devil. It’s the trickery, the fake news of the way evil comes at us, the whisper of whatever we want to hear. C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters still make for fabulous, funny and insightful reading. His demonic tempters know that their “best weapon” is “a contented worldliness.” And then, “It is funny how mortals always picture us putting things into their minds; in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.”


"What can we say come August 5? 11th after Pentecost" originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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