Caesar and Ascension
2008-04-28 by Tom Steagald

Perhaps I am the only one annoyed by the National Day of Prayer. Don't get me wrong: I am all in favor of prayer. It is just that I don't need Caesar telling me when to do it... and maybe Caesar isn't telling me to do it but it feels that way and so we get this unholy mixing of God and Country, syncretism and civil religion, and my folk (one of them) is really, really bent with me that I am not having a special service, etc.

Meanwhile, Thursday May 1 is also Ascension Day and I would bet (if our tradition allowed betting) that if my people take note of either "celebration" it will be the NDP and not AD. What is wrong with this picture?

I am thinking of setting up the distinction between the secular "holidays" and the liturgical "Holy Days" on Sunday. It is Eucharist for us, a time when we taste and see that the Lord is good, and as an appetizer the truth that the secular calendar is a celebration of "us" one way or the other while the liturgical calendar celebrates God. This may seem patently obvious, but I cannot iterate how many times I have been fussed at over the years for not giving due justice to the scouts, the veterans, even--and I am not making this up--the submarine crews who fought in WW II--but I do not know that I have ever been scolded for giving short shrift to Ascension Day or the Feast of St. Stephen.

This year the intersecting of "rival" calendars may be too much for me to ignore! I do not want to pick a fight or appear Quixotic...but it seems something fundamental is before us.


Acts 17 Paul's Areopagus Sermon
2008-04-26 by Steven Paulson

Acts 17: Paul’s Areopagus Sermon


Of Paul’s sermon at the Areopagus many books could be written—indeed they have been.

For this Sunday one comment might suffice.  Paul begins the sermon with the common, religious root of sinful humanity in the form of idolatry that finally cannot know its God. In other words, Paul starts here with the religious search of humans for God.  For that reason it begins expansively with references to “from every nation”  and that all people are made “that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel after the God and find it. 

This is not quite the “point of contact” or common denominator that we might think links us positively with all religions and all nations, since idolatry unites us all in its desire, but divides us all in what that hope is finally put into.  In other words Paul is not starting on “common ground” as if to build a Christian tower. The problem with the universal search for God among all nations is that there is an assumption of sinners that God is far away.  But God is not far way, God is near, and that does not come as good news to a seeker.


Now Paul moves in to the intolerable narrowing of Christ as “the way, the truth and the life,” since “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all people by raising him from the dead.”  (Acts 17: 31). 


Idolatry reaches its end in God’s judgment which is now given to one person set for one day.  And the worst part of this, is that that judgment is not only historical, but is already made and so is in the past, since Paul preaches Christ and him crucified. There is an assurance, however, which is Christ’s resurrection.  Of course, as good Greeks, they seemed to take this as an idea, not as a person, and so few came out with Paul, but some did.  Resurrection is an interesting “concept” you could say, but Paul of course was not preaching a concept or idea, but a person. 

What comes down to the narrow door of Christ opens into a great, open spacious mansion with otherwise unbelievable promises about how near this God has actually come in Christ.

Psalm 66: Narrow door and spacious place
2008-04-26 by Steven Paulson

Psalm 66


It may be helpful to preach John 14 in relation to Psalm 66, as the lectionary committee clearly surmised.


There are two key words here.  The one connects to Jesus’ promise to his disciples that he is going to prepare a place for them in the big house of his Father:  “thou hast brought us forth to a spacious place.” (66:12).  The kingdom of God is indeed a spacious place.  You can walk around without intruding on anyone’s territory there since there is no law in heaven. There is no property. There is no boundary marker.  There is room to roam.


But the second word precedes this great promise (and is softened by cutting out the first part of the Psalm)  “For thou, O God, hast tested us; thou hast tried us as silver is tried. Thou didst bring us into the net; thou didst lay affliction on our loins; thou didst let others ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water….” (66:10-12b).

God gives us a spacious place, but the entrance is narrow indeed.  And we do not enter by accident.  Instead, God brings us into the net.  God lets others run over us—but it is God alone who puts us to the test, sends us through the fire and into the water. 

Strange that God works this way.  He prepares a bit, roomy place, and gets us there by fire, drowning, a net.  Strange that God has a work that destroys and afflicts.  Strange that we can ever say, “How terrible are thy deeds!”  (66:3) and come to fear this God only when we are making a joyful noise to God who answers my prayer while he is testing me, and so tells me while I undergo death itself that his steadfast love is not removed from me.  That God works first a death to get to the real work of divinity is strange indeed, but can be praised when we are raised from the dead and walk about in the roomy, spacious place.


So a preacher will give us both words, one in which we do not rejoice in God and is temporary, the other in which we do rejoice in God and is eternal—so listen to the psalmist who has suffered God’s net and now has the place in the big house of the Father.

How to love Christ and fulfill all commandments in one easy step
2008-04-26 by Steven Paulson

John 14: 15-21


“If you love me you will keep my commandments” (v.15)


Here is the key to all the commandments.  It comes down to love of Him—Christ.  You could certainly explain all of Scripture standing on one leg this way, and in fact you could dispense with all other questions about the law like, Who is my neighbor?  Or What did Moses mean? Or is it lawful to pull an ox out of the well on the Sabbath?  The answer to all questions of what God wants from me comes to this one moment, this one command, this one person—Love me, Christ says. 


This makes the law manageable, does it not?  All the mysteries of the Trinity are right here—Love me—and you have the Father and all the Father gives, including the Counselor, Spirit of truth (v.16). 


Simple.  Loving the poor is hard. Loving the whole world is hard. Loving an enemy is really hard.  But if it all comes down to this one person, this one moment, then loving Christ can’t be too hard, can it? Loving one person is workable. Loving him, who is quite lovable, is possible. But one by one the disciples are peeling off.  Why did Judas find this command so hard, to just love Jesus, whom he had followed all this time (13:30 “he immediately went out”)?  Was it because he serves like a servant, and just washed the feet of the disciples, to the chagrin also of Peter? Why will even Peter betray him three times before the cock crows (13:38).


How does betrayal of Jesus happen, especially when the whole of the commandments come down to just loving this One in all the world?  It is because of what the Father gives him, and where he is going with it. The Father, Jesus tells us, “had given all things into his hand.  Everything? Everything. Including Judas and is betrayal? Especially that.  And where is Jesus going with this, who “  had come from God and was going to God,” (13:3).   Where is Jesus going? Well, he says clearly to his leftover disciples: “I go and prepare a place for you, and I will come again and take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” (14:3).  Naturally, Thomas the inquisitive wants to know—where exactly is that?  Where is my place?  Where will you be?  Where is this mansion of your Fathers’?

Jesus says, “I am.” What are you?  Everything.  The way the truth, the life. (14:6) Where I am, there is the Father.  Now it would be one thing to believe that the Father and Christ are one, the Father in Him and He in the Father.  It is quite a bit to swallow that anyone, but especially a good Jew, would have no other God in this world by this one man, Jesus Christ.  What started to sound plausible that all the Bible and all of life and every commandment comes down to loving this one man, Jesus, who is standing right in front of you, is starting to seem like intolerable narrowing. How do you love one who claims such exclusive rights before God?  --“No one comes to the Father but by me.”  Loving Christ is now getting possessive, almost like this man is a jealous God who won’t let you have any other lover in the entire world—including the good creation, a wife, or perhaps a Father who needs to be buried. 


But there is worse yet.  In order to get some of the greatest promises of Scripture here in John: “He who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do”!  You will do greater works than Christ—wow!.    Better yet, “Whatever you ask in my  name I will do it,” (said twice!).  (v. 13-4)—I said in order to get these you must follow Him to where you cannot follow Him.  You have no idea what he is doing, until after he has done it. Death on the cross.  He leaves in order to come to us.  Christ will actually give you the Spirit of truth—whom they cannot receive since they are the world. (16-17). 


The problem with loving Christ is where he is going—and that is straight, willy nilly unthwartably to the cross—where you will have your God crucified and dead—put there by betrayers who include the whole lot of disciples and his Mother to boot.

That is where he was going--and got to.  And this is where you are going, to death.  

You cannot love him or fill even this one command because he takes everything in the world for himself, and then takes it straight to the cross where our God is put on the strangest throne ever. And this cross you and I cannot love—unless the Spirit gives the love.  How does the Spirit give the love?  By giving you the words of Christ “he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you”  (14:26).


Love for Christ is not produced by sinners, but provided to them.  The provision is from the outside, in the giving of the Words of Christ—and who does this when Christ is dead and gone? The Holy Spirit, who makes a new world, a new time, and a new person of you.  How? By raising Christ from the dead and letting him run free—out of the old world and into the new so that when he comes looking for his betraying disciples cowering in the upper room he does not come to condemn, but forgive.  And so love for Christ, which fulfills all commandments, is thus given in these words: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you. And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (20:21-23). 

What should a preacher then do for the flock of betrayers of Christ who can’t figure out where he has gone and why they can’t fulfill the simplest command to love Jesus? He or she should forgive them as Jesus instructed, and then give the flat out promise that the old world balks at as just too good to be true:

1)      You will now do greater works than Christ

2)      Anything you ask in Christ’s name will be given you since he wants to glorify the Father—so ask away.

3)      You will now keep his commandments since you now have the only one who can do it—the Holy Spirit who will dwell in you and you in Him.

4)      You are not desolate or alone, since now you love Christ which before was not possible, just by listening to Him—keeping His word.

These are the great promises the preacher now gives to sinners while they are sinners as Christ is going where he wants to.



Questions for Frederick Buechner
2008-04-25 by David Howell

We hope Steven Paulson will join us soon. Maybe he will make a cannonball type splash in the tub at the homiletical last moment.

In the meantime, go over to Share It! (go to Homepage) and submit your questions for Frederick Buecher. We will be interviewing him this summer, and we will use your questions in the interview.

We will show the video at the Festival of Homiletics 2009. This year we have some terrific interviews with Garrison Keillor and Fred Craddock on preaching. 

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