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The Sunday after Easter is an unenviable time for preachers in many churches. The mood and events of Holy Week have both a depth and an excitement that can make the Sunday after Easter something of a letdown. The palm branches are gone. The lilies are gone, and it will seem that a great many people are gone, too. Surely the attendance in so many of our American churches is a letdown on the Sunday after Easter.
We preachers feel considerable pressure to be relevant. The world in which we live does not widely cherish preaching. Indeed, in everyday idiomatic English, "preach" is a rather negative word. For example, "Don't preach at me!" and "I didn't mean to sound preachy." When you and I stand up to preach, we feel the need to say something that will be perceived and received as relevant to the folks in our congregation. "What does this have to do with me and my life?" is the relevancy litmus test.
In light of the contemporary demand for personal relevancy and immediate application, we may rightly be startled by Peter's sermon on Pentecost. In our excerpted passage, for example, the only real point of personal connection Peter makes with his audience is to refer to them as the ones to whom Jesus was handed over and by whom he was crucified.
I'm trying to imagine Peter distributing to the crowd at the beginning a little photocopied sermon guide with blanks to be filled in. "You see the line," Peter says, "that reads, 'God sent Jesus. God used Jesus. And we _________ Jesus'? Go ahead and write 'killed' there in that blank."
That's more personal relevancy than we bargained for.
Peter does not suffer from any confusion, however, about the subject of his preaching. He preaches Christ. He preaches what Christ did, what the scriptures say about Christ, the people's culpability in not recognizing but rejecting Christ, God's act of raising Christ from the dead, and the witness of those who had known and seen Christ. He preaches Christ.
Sometimes the demand for relevancy tempts us to preach about current events, but that may reflect a fallacious paradigm: one that we ought to help our people out of, rather than climbing into it ourselves. The paradigm assumes that "current" and "relevant" naturally go together. Our proclamation of the gospel, however, asserts two other things. First, that some very ancient events are relevant -- indeed, more personally life-impacting than many or all current events. And, second, that these ancient events are, in fact, current, for the resurrection makes them so. Our gospel is not dead and buried in the past. Rather, we proclaim one who is risen and alive. He is, therefore, always current, and his saving death and resurrection are always relevant.
In the end, Peter called upon the Pentecost congregation to repent, to be baptized in Jesus' name, and to receive the Holy Spirit. The gospel calls for personal response. It seems, therefore, that the preacher of the gospel does not need to seek some relevant message for the people. Rather, the preacher of the gospel implores the people to make the message personally relevant in their own lives.
1 Peter 1:3-9
Call it, "Theology on a Time Line." That's the style of this intricate opening paragraph from Peter's first epistle. Tightly woven together in just these few verses, Peter has expressed his understanding of the Christian's past, present, and future.
The past is the part least elaborated here, although he returns to that theme repeatedly in later portions of this epistle (see, for example, 1:14, 18; 2:9b-10; 4:3). Within the present passage, the past is summarized by the reference to the new birth that God has given us (v. 3).
The present, meanwhile, is a manifestly mixed bag. On the one hand, it is a time of testing and suffering. This is one of the recurring themes of Peter's letter -- the problem of suffering was clearly a major issue for the Christians to whom Peter wrote. At the same time, however, the present is also a time of hope and rejoicing. It is a time lived under God's protection, and it is the time of "receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls."
Finally, the future. The future is not at all a mixed bag. The future is all good. Paul piles up unalloyed adjectives to describe the inheritance that awaits us in God's good future. It is also anticipated as a time of "praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed," and the implication is that the suffering will be past and we will finally and fully see the one in whom we have believed and whom we have loved.
Two broad points can be derived from these observations. First, there is the central role of God in past, present, and future. In our past, God gave us something -- and that gift, of course, was predicated upon a great many things he did in the past! In the present, he protects, saves, and proves us. In the future, he marvelously fulfills all that he has in store for us and for the world.
We do not see any period of our lives clearly if we do not see God in the midst of it. We all ought to devise a kind of "time line theology" -- and help our congregations do the same -- by which we affirm the presence and providence of God in our past, our present, and our future.
Second, there is the relative influence of the past and the future on the present. We are more naturally conscious, of course, of how the past influences the present. We see the past more clearly, which makes its influence easier to trace. Also, our deeply ingrained sense of cause-and-effect gives perhaps disproportionate credit to the past for the present.
What comes after is the heir of what comes before, right? It cannot work the other way, can it? Can it be that what will come after gives birth to something in the present?
Precisely that phenomenon is very much a part of our common experience, and it is a part of Peter's testimony and teaching here. While organic cause-and-effect flows always from past to present, and from present to future, the tide of influence can flow the other direction in other areas of life.
It is the future prospect of college, not the past experience of middle school, that makes the high school student work hard in the present. It is the upcoming summer's swimsuits, not the past winter's sweaters and coats, that prompt us to diet in the present. "Effect" may be the past's heir. "Preparation," however, is the progeny of the future.
And so, as Peter lays out his theology on a time line, we are struck by this unavoidable conclusion: The Christian's life in the present is meant to be more a response to the future than to the past. Our joy, our hope, our confidence, our faithfulness, our peace -- these are not traced back to what has gone before, and they are often very much in spite of what goes on now. We live toward a final destination rather than a point of origin. God's future is the greatest influence on our present.
Some biblical characters rightly deserve the negative reputations that they have: Jezebel, Nebuchadnezzar, Judas, and Pontius Pilate. Thomas, however, does not. He has an undeserved reputation.
We know a fair amount about a few of the disciples, for they play significant roles in the gospels and Acts, and perhaps wrote some of the New Testament epistles. Meanwhile, we know practically nothing about others among the twelve. They are just names on the list, but we don't have a record of anything that they individually said or wrote or did.
Then there is Thomas. We don't know much about him, for he does not figure prominently in the gospel stories or in Acts. Rather, what we know about him comes mostly from this passage from the Gospel of John, and this episode has so fashioned our impression of him that his reputation has become an expression, his name has become a nickname -- "doubting Thomas."
I suggest that Thomas has been wrongfully singled out from among the disciples, for they were no paragons of belief on Easter, or even afterward.
When Mary and the other women first returned from the empty tomb with the good news, what was the response of the disciples? Did they begin singing alleluias? No, but rather the women's "words seemed to them like idle tales, and they did not believe them" (Luke 24:11). That's a remarkable statement, isn't it? Here we have no less than the apostles hearing nothing less than the gospel word that Jesus is risen, and they reject it as nonsense. We, as preachers, need never be discouraged by the slow, halfhearted, or incredulous response of a congregation. Our congregations are in good company, for the apostles themselves did not make much of an audience for the gospel on Easter Sunday.
Mark reports, meanwhile, that Jesus appeared to two disciples, but when they returned to tell the rest of the group, the others would not believe (Mark 16:13). Accordingly, after that event, when Jesus did appear to the disciples all together, Mark writes that "he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen" (16:14).
Even at the penultimate moment in Matthew's Gospel, just before Jesus ascends into heaven, the author reports of those gathered around Jesus: "When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted" (Matthew 28:17). Well after Easter, after many experiences and exposures, still "some doubted."
Upon further review, therefore, we discover that Thomas does not deserve to be singled out. He is singled out in history only because he happened to be the one not there when all the others were. Let's not call him "doubting Thomas," therefore, just "absent Thomas," or "bad-timing Thomas," or some such. But his doubt is no more remarkable than any of the other disciples.
Honestly, we don't even need to travel beyond the confines of this pericope from John's Gospel to vindicate Thomas. On the first occasion when the risen Christ appeared to his disciples -- the time when Thomas was not present -- see the order of events. Jesus appeared and greeted them. Did they respond with recognition and rejoicing right away? Not according to the story. Rather, "after he said this, [Jesus] showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord."
There's no evidence that Thomas was not more incredulous than the others, just perhaps more outspoken in his incredulity. And, of course, his outspokenness cuts the other way, too, for while the other disciples may rejoice in the risen Christ, none matches Thomas' testimony and Christology in the end: "My Lord and my God!"
I was sitting in a meeting recently in one of our denominational offices. Within view, I could see an assortment of resources on the bookshelves: resources for pastors, churches, Sunday school classes, and so on. There were packages of curriculum, church-growth resources, assorted programs for different ages and stages of life, church advertising tools and kits -- a whole range of products, some designed for folks within the church and others targeting people outside the church.
As I sat there, examining the materials from a distance, I was struck by a theme in the packaging. People's faces. On so many of the products, that was the look of the very slick packages: collages of faces, with a healthy diversity of age, gender, and ethnicity represented.
I know that packaging is about marketing, and I don't pretend to be an expert in that very sophisticated field, but the packaging I saw made me wonder just what it is that we are selling -- or, more appropriately, what it is that we are offering.
I have a recollection from my childhood that there used to be within the church a real preponderance of pictures of Jesus. He was pictured on the covers of our children's Sunday school booklets. His picture was on mission bulletin boards, on classroom walls, on bulletin covers, and on adult curriculum materials.
Admittedly, our old pictures of Jesus had their problems. He was Caucasian, and he seemed to come from either North America or Western Europe. Nonetheless, he was pictured everywhere and on everything we did, and while that is not an achievement by itself, it perhaps offered a certain clarity of purpose and message.
The marketing was not nearly so slick back then, to be sure, with all of our mimeographed bulletins and newsletters, but the message of our packaging was clear. What we had to offer was Christ.
That's what you and I have to offer this week. As we continue to celebrate and affirm his resurrection, we preach Christ. Just as Peter preached Christ to the curious crowds in Jerusalem on Pentecost, Christ is our message to the congregations we serve. All three of this week's lections give us ample material to explore and declare, not just his resurrection, but his person and work.
The pictures on so much of our present packaging neglect the product. Let that not be said of our preaching. We ought not begin with the ones to whom we are preaching, but rather with the one about whom we are preaching. He is current and relevant all by himself. He suffers only -- now, as with the doubting disciples, as with the crowds whom Peter addressed -- from being unrecognized. Our preaching sets out to change that.
An Alternative Application
John 20:19-31. This passage is so full that its possibilities for preaching are nearly endless. We devoted most of our attention above to Thomas, and, in preaching the main suggested theme for the week, we might devote ourselves especially to Thomas' exclamation, "My Lord and my God!"
Verse 23 stands out even within this brimming passage, however, for it is a verse that gives pause to many Protestant Christians. If you have an appetite for preaching the hard sayings of Jesus, this Sunday's Gospel Lection offers you an opportunity.
If I were going to preach Jesus' word to his disciples in John 20:23, I would not begin there. I would begin, instead, with a story. Two stories, really, from the Old Testament, and I would set them side by side.
The first story would be the tragic story of King Saul. Few characters in scripture are as sad as Saul. He has no particular ambition at the outset, yet greatness is thrust upon him. Then he mismanages it in such a disastrous way that, in the end, we see him disguising himself to visit a witch, falling on his own sword in battle, and having his weary corpse paraded and abused by the Philistines.
The second story would be the grand story of King David. Not only is his reign strong and majestic, the groundwork for Israel's golden age under Solomon, but his legacy is like no one else's in scripture. His life becomes the standard by which subsequent kings in Jerusalem are measured. His reign becomes the symbol for the messianic reign and God's ultimate kingdom. From Jesus' birth in Bethlehem to his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, David is recognized as the key ancestor in Jesus' lineage, and David's star still flies on the flag over the modern state of Israel.
A side-by-side comparison of Saul and David, however, reveals two kings with significant failures. Indeed, upon further review, David's terrible episode with Bathsheba and Uriah seems much more marked by calculated wickedness than any of Saul's misdeeds, which smack more of weakness than willfulness. Yet Saul is tragic, while David is triumphant. Why?
I suggest that the difference between these two men is not so much in their performance as something else. I wonder if the difference between these two men -- an immense difference, in the end -- is partly attributable to the prophets who worked with them.
From the very suggestion that Israel was to have a human king, the prophet Samuel is offended by and opposed to the idea. His introduction of Saul seems to hamstring him from the start. And his in-person response to Saul's failures is harsh and unforgiving.
Nathan, by contrast, becomes an agent of grace in David's awful hour. He tells the famous story that touches the former shepherd's heart, he enables David's repentance, and he assures David of God's forgiveness.
I would juxtapose the stories of Saul and David, with special attention to the comparison of Samuel and Nathan. Then I would introduce Jesus' words: "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." It is not authority for the apostles; it is responsibility for Christ's followers. We may be instruments of condemnation or we may be agents of grace.
Preaching The Psalm
This song of trust, explicitly attributed to David, speaks of the reliability and steadfastness of the Lord. The psalmist speaks in terms that display an easy familiarity with the Lord who provides bountiful blessings for the faithful in this life.
Possible preaching points include:
1) "Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows" (v. 4b).
The topic of the relationship between Christianity and other world religions is one of the thorniest theological issues of our time. As the world shrinks, and as our once-monolithic European-American culture becomes a crazy-quilt of ethnicities and spiritual allegiances, the encounter between our faith and that of other people's becomes both a crisis and an opportunity. Rather than addressing other faiths from a position of absolute truth versus falsehood, this verse comes at the problem experientially. It speaks not of a priori truths, but rather of consequences. Underneath these words, there would seem to be a real experience of turning to some object of idolatrous worship and finding only sorrow. "I'll tell you," declares the psalmist, "I've tried that, and there's nothing but sorrow in it." This sort of experiential witness is a more fruitful ground for dialogue than an "I'm right, you're wrong" triumphalistic certainty that arises only from within the experience of a single religious tradition.
2) "The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage" (v. 6).
This verse is a favorite for those celebrating church anniversaries. The "goodly heritage" of faith is something we do not always adequately appreciate in this fast-moving, present- and future-oriented culture. As James Luther Mays comments, "When the psalmist calls the Lord his 'portion and cup' and speaks of lot and lines and heritage in describing the goodness of his destiny, he is using the vocabulary and concepts that are employed in the book of Joshua to describe Israel's occupation of the promised land as the outcome of God's salvation of Israel. Tribes, clans, and individuals were given a portion as their heritage that was laid off by lines determined by casting the sacred lot." (J. L. Mays, Psalms, in the Interpretation commentary series [Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994], p. 87)
3) "I keep the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved" (v. 8).
If David is indeed the author of this psalm, then it's easy to discern the historical setting of this verse. Foot soldiers advancing into battle -- and in David's time, nearly all soldiers fought on foot -- naturally pay close attention to their nearest comrades. In the melee of hand-to-hand combat, as one army is surging forward, desperate to break the line of the other, the conduct of the soldiers to one's right and one's left is of crucial importance. If those comrades stand fast, then I, too, "shall not be moved." A similar sentiment is expressed in Psalm 121: "The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand." A "shade" is a ghostly, divine figure; if God is a warrior's shade -- his "guardian angel" as it were -- then truly "the sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night" (121:6). A bestseller of some years back was God Is My Co-Pilot, by wartime aviator Robert Lee Scott. That book expresses a similar sentiment.
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