Sunday, September 17, 2017

Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity - Lk 17:11-19

                                                                                    Trinity 14
                                                                                    Lk 17:11-19

            Sometimes we forget how much things change over time.  For example, if you were at this same spot two hundred years ago in 1817, there would be no city of Marion. It wasn’t incorporated until 1841.  In fact there wouldn’t even be a state of Illinois.  It wasn’t founded until the following year in 1818. And if you headed out toward the western part of the United States … good luck, because it was likely that you would run into American Indians who would not be happy to see you.
            The same can be said about the biblical world. Today in our text we find Jesus on the way to Jerusalem as he travels on the boarder of Samaria and Galilee.  Two hundred years earlier the area was ruled by the Seleucids.  The Maccabean revolt that would kick out the Seleucids and bring Jewish rule was just beginning. 
            Galilee wasn’t Jewish at that time. There was a reason that in Isaiah chapter nine the prophet called it “Galilee of the Gentiles.”  In Samaria, the Samaritans’ temple stood on Mt. Gerizim.  The Samaritans were the descendents of the people that the Assyrians had brought into northern Israel in the eighth century B.C. when they conquered the northern kingdom of Israel and took the people into exile.  The Assyrians “swapped populations” among the conquered lands of their empire in order to keep the people off balance and make them easier to control.
            Over time Samaritans took on what can only be described as variation of Judaism.  They had their own version of the Torah and they had their own temple which was located on Mt Gerizim in Samaria.  After the Jews finally kicked out the Seleucids, the ruling family of the Hasmoneans began to build a little kingdom of their own.  In 128 B.C. Hyrcanus I and the Jews attacked and destroyed the temple at Mt Gerizim.  They conquered Samaria and treated the people cruelly.  In 104 B.C., his son Aristoblus I conquered Galilee and forced the men there to be circumcised.
            Over time, Galilee became a very Jewish area – so much so that in 66 AD it was a hot bed of Jewish zealot activity against the Romans.  The Samaritans, on the other hand, remained Samaritan.  Needless to say they didn’t forget how the Jews had destroyed their temple and treated them. There was a hatred between the Jews and Samaritans, and once the Romans took over they were both always trying to use their new rulers to hurt the other side.  In my favorite Jew-Samaritan incident, Samaritans snuck onto the temple grounds in Jerusalem and strewed it with human bones in order to defile it.
            In last week’s sermon I mentioned that Jesus had just begun his final journey to Jerusalem.  Near the end of chapter 9 we learn, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Jesus sent messengers ahead to a Samaritan village to make preparations for him, and when the people there realized that he was a Jew headed to Jerusalem, they refused to receive him.  James and John asked, "Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But Jesus turned and rebuked them and they went on to another village. As my favorite professor at Concordia College, Ann Arbor, Dr. Shuta once said: “Jesus must have been thinking, ‘Guys you just don’t get it. I want to save them, and you want to zap them!’”
            Now the first verse of our text again reminds us about Jesus’ journey as it says, “On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee.”  As Jesus was entering a village he was met by ten lepers who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”
            I wish I could explain to you for sure what this leprosy was – but I can’t.  Leprosy in the Bible is some kind of skin condition that according to the Torah rendered a person unclean.  As you are no doubt aware, lepers therefore couldn’t live in a village and had to cry out and warn others that they were unclean.  They couldn’t work in a job, because that meant being around people.  And so they were dependent on family and friends to provide for them as they lived outside the village.
            These lepers met Jesus and cried out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  “Have mercy on us” has the same basic meaning as “Lord have mercy!”  It was a cry for help – a cry for help directed toward the One they addressed as “master.” This is significant, because in Luke’s Gospel the only other people who call Jesus “Master” are his disciples.
            We find here our first hint that the lepers have approached Jesus in faith.  And then we learn something that leaves no doubt about it.  Our Lord says to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And they left to go to where the priest was.
            Quite often, we find ourselves called to trust and believe in God in spite of what we see.  You hear declarations of God’s love for you – of his care – in spite of the fact that the circumstances of life sure don’t look like it.  This is the challenge of living a fallen people in a fallen world.  And we know that there are times when we doubt God. There are times when we even get angry with God. While in worldly terms that seems understandable, the First Commandment says this is not how we are to relate God.  Instead, we are to fear, love and trust in him. And that includes the times when his ways make no sense to us.
            Jesus said to the lepers, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”  The Son of God spoke those words … and then nothing happened. They still had leprosy. They were still unclean. Who could have blamed them if they had exclaimed, “Are you kidding me?!?” 
            But these were lepers who had come to Jesus.  They had called out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” They believed in him.  And so at Jesus word and in spite of the leprosy that was still present they headed off to Jerusalem to see the priest – the one person who could certify an individual as being clean.
            They went on their way.  And then we learn that “as they went they were cleansed.”  They believed in Jesus and they received their healing as they went in faith.
            In a healing miracle like this we see that Jesus Christ is in the incarnate Son of God.  He is true God, begotten from the Father. No one else could perform this miracle.  This is certainly true … or I guess I should say, “This is most certainly true.”
            However, as it occurs in the Luke’s Gospel it tells us something else as well.  We need to remember the first verse of our text which said, “On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was passing along between Samaria and Galilee.”  Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem.  In chapter nine, just before he began his journey Jesus said to the disciples, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”  He is going to say it again in the next chapter, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished.  For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise.”
            Jesus heals the lepers and in doing so he shows that in his person the kingdom of God – the reign of God is present to free people from sin and all that it has caused in this world.  Immediately after our text Jesus is asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come.  He answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” The kingdom of God – the reign of God – was standing right there in front of them.  It was in the midst of them in the person of Jesus Christ.
            Jesus Christ accomplished the goal of his journey to Jerusalem.  Though holy and innocent, he was numbered with the transgressors for you. By his death he has redeemed you.  He has freed you from slavery to sin. And by his resurrection from the dead he has provided to you the living hope that your freedom from death has already started.  It started in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  You know that you will share in his resurrection on the Last Day because Sprit who raised Jesus is now in you. How do you know this for certain?  You’ve been baptized!
            As the lepers went they were healed.  Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus' feet, giving him thanks. Then we are told, “Now he was a Samaritan.”
            It’s a double surprise. First, none of them except for one individual returns to give thanks.  And then, this one person turns out to be a Samaritan!  Jesus answered, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" And he said to him, "Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”
            The topic of thanksgiving and praise can be a tricky one for fallen people.  In this text we see a failure by nine of the healed lepers to respond with thanksgiving to God. Only one returns giving thanks. We know that at times we do this too.  And here I am thinking more in terms of the many blessings that we take for granted.  The phrase “daily bread” comes to mind.  Today you have a roof over your head, food in your stomach and clothes on your body.  Today, in complete freedom you are able to come to church and receive the Means of Grace.  Today, you live in setting of peace and order.  These are incredible blessings – just ask any of the millions and even billions of people who don’t have them.
            At the same time, there is also the opposite error which doesn’t appear in this particular text.  Praise and thanksgiving are things that I do.  Fallen man likes to think to terms of what he can do in relation to God. And so there is always the risk that we will construct our worship of God in ways that are fundamentally structured to go from us to God. We show up at church so that the real thing in worship can take place – praising and thanking God.
            In our text, it is Jesus’ word that works healing, and then praise and thanksgiving follow in response.  The priority of God’s gracious action towards us needs always to run through the way we think about things in the Church.  We see this in what will happen next in the Divine Service. Thanksgiving and praise are certainly present in the Service of the Sacrament.  But they are always viewed as secondary and derived.  The main thing – the most important thing – is Jesus Christ giving us his true body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins.  We kneel in faith as we receive his forgiving body and blood.  Then he sends us away, and the words our text are true for us as well: “Rise and go your way; your faith has saved you.”  And how can we not respond with praise and thanksgiving for that?  

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Holy Cross Day

Today is Holy Cross Day.  Holy Cross Day commemorates the cross of Christ and the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem that was built over the site of the crucifixion and tomb.  Emperor Constantine’s mother, Helena, was believed to have found the original cross on September 14, 320.  In conjunction with the dedication of Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Constantine made the festival day official in 335.  The day is called “The Exaltation of the Holy Cross” in the Eastern churches and the Roman Catholic church.  In the Byzantine church is it one of the twelve great feast days.

Scripture reading:
For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.  For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
1 Corinthians 1:18-25

Collect of the Day:
Merciful God, Your Son, Jesus Christ, was lifted high upon the cross that He might bear the sins of the world and draw all people to Himself.  Grant that we who glory in His death and resurrection may faithfully heed His call to bear the cross and follow Him, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Mark's thoughts: Are Paul's letters sermons?

In reading Paul’s letters it immediately becomes obvious that they are filled with exhortation to new obedience and good works: Romans 6:1-23; 8:1-17; 12:1-20; 13:1-14; 14:1-23; 1 Corinthians 5:1-12; 6:1-20; 8:1-13; 10:1-11; 2 Corinthians 5:14-15; 8:1-15; 9:6-15; Galatians 5:13-26; 6:1-10; Ephesians 2:8-10; 4:17-32; 5:1-33; 6:1-9; Philippians 2:1-18; 4:4-9; Colossians 3:1-25; 4:1-6; 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12; 5:12-22; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-12; Timothy 5:1-16; 6:1-19; 2 Timothy 2:22; 3:1-5.  It is apparent that in letters like Romans (1-11 and 12-16), Galatians (1-4 and 5-6), Ephesians (1-3 and 4-6) and Colossians (1-2 and 3-4), a focus on the Gospel is followed by exhortation to live in ways that are produced by the Gospel.

Based on my work in Pauline studies, I had assumed that this preponderance of exhortation to new obedience and good works in Paul’s letters addressed to Christian congregations made it obvious that such language should also be a regular part of Lutheran preaching.  However, I was soon surprised to learn that some Lutherans do not share this view.  While they acknowledge the presence of this kind of material in Paul’s letters, they do not believe this fact should guide and direct our preaching. One reason for this is the assertion that Paul’s letters are not sermons.  Often this material in Paul is described as “teaching” and so while a pastor will speak about this in catechesis and Bible class, it does not belong in a sermon. The argument that Paul’s letters are not sermons becomes a way to avoid talking like Paul in our sermons.

However, such a position about Paul’s letters demonstrates a lack of awareness about the extensive research that has been done on ancient letter writing and epistolary practice.  This research informs Greidanus’ statement when he writes: “Paul’s letters may also be characterized as long-distance preaching” (Sydney Greidanus, “Preaching from Paul Today” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, 738). 

Paul’s letters are oral communication addressed to the Christian congregation. The letters were composed orally as Paul spoke them to a secretary (amanuenses), just as we see in Tertius’ statement  (Rom 16:22) and concluding statements where Paul identifies his own writing (2 Thess 3:17; Gal 6:11; 1 Cor 16:21; Col 4:18).  We know for certain that a system of Latin shorthand existed in the first century A.D., and a strong case can be made that a Greek one also existed (see E. Randoph Richards, The Secretary in the Letters of Paul, 26-43).  A person could dictate the letter to a secretary who recorded it verbatim.  He could dictate the sense and content of the message, and the secretary then gave it the final form.  One could also tell the secretary to write a letter in a person’s name using the stereotyped form of Greco-Roman letters (William G. Doty, Letters in Primitive Christianity, 41). The first two options fit best with what we know of Paul’s letters.  While we would assume that Paul used the first option, it is at least possible that the second option is a factor in stylistic differences that have been identified in Paul’s letters (though other explanations are also possible).

Koskenniemi has identified parousia or “presence” as a key aspect of Greek letter writing.  For example, Proclus (#2) stated that a “a letter writer should write ‘to someone not present as if he were present’” (Doty, Letters in Primitive Christianity, 12). More specifically official letter writing in the Greek world provides some of the background for understanding Paul’s letters.  Stirewalt notes that, “The idea of parousia, the projection of the official’s person, the sense of his felt presence, and the transmission of his authority is fundamental in official letter-writing” (M. Luther Stirewalt, Studies in Ancient Greek Epistolography, 5).  Robert Funk has called attention to the manner in which Paul’s letters operate in the same way as they convey the presence of apostolic authority and power (Robert W. Funk, “The Apostolic Parousia: Form and Significance,” 249-268 in Christian History and Interpretation: Studies Presented to John Knox).  Doty comments about Paul and his letters:

He wrote letters to function as substitute communications necessitated by his spatial distance from his churches.  Paul’s natural way of being with the congregations is in person – hence the element Funk identifies as the apostolic parousia suggests the compromise Paul finally reached. Unable to be present in person, his letters were a direct substitute, and were to be accorded weight equal to Paul’s physical presence. (Letters in Primitive Christianity, 36)

Paul’s letters were composed orally, and then they were delivered orally to the Christian congregation in the setting of worship.  Paul's intention and expectation about his letters is clear in Col 4:16, “And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea.”  John White, a noted authority on ancient letters states:

Paul always wrote in his capacity as an apostle; and, with the possible exception of Philemon, his letters were communal in nature, intended to be read aloud to the Christian communities which he addressed.  That Paul envisioned the worship setting as he composed his letters is evident in the manner in which he altered customary conventions and/or by the way in which he used Christian formularies as a substitute for set epistolary phrases. That is to say, even if the liturgical setting was not constitutive of the sequence in which Paul employed such elements, it is nonetheless illustrated by the opening prayers of thanksgiving and blessing, the summarizing doxologies, the embedded hymns and confessions, the appeals to Scripture, the catechetical types of instruction (paraenesis) and the closing grace benediction (John L. White, “Saint Paul and the Apostolic Letter Tradition,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 45 [1983]: 436-437).

David Aune makes the same point:

Paul and other early Christian epistolographers intended their letters to be read aloud to the congregations to whom they were addressed (1 Thess. 5:27; Col 4:16; Rev. 1:3; 22:18; for an analogous practice in Judaism, cf. 2 Baruch 86.1). This intended setting accounts for the inclusion of liturgical formulas in Christian letters.  Since these formulas were derived from Christian worship, they enabled letters to fit comfortable into liturgical settings (David E. Aune, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment, 192; Aune cites examples 192-194).

Paul’s letters are therefore meant to be the equivalent of Paul speaking to the congregation gathered in worship. Paul composed them as he spoke and they were read aloud. Doty comments:

Since the letters were composed of what Paul wanted to say orally, there was no restricting formula for writing letters any more than there was any one standard preaching formula, and the Pauline letters display a natural and unstudied diversity.  Paul was not writing literature in the book sense; he was writing what he wished he could say in person, and traits of his oral presentation come through from time to time (Doty, Letters in Primitive Christianity, 44-45).

Since the appearance of Hans Dieter Betz’s commentary on Galatians in 1979, scholars have attempted to interpret Paul’s letters according to the criteria of ancient rhetoric – that is, according to the conventions that ancient rhetorical handbooks such as Quintilian’s Institutio oratoria provided for speeches. There are significant problems with this approach (see Mark P. Surburg, “Ancient Rhetorical Criticism, Galatians and Paul at Twenty-five Years,” Concordia Journal 30 [2004]: 13-39).  Paul speaks in his letters, but he shows no evidence of sophisticated rhetorical training (35).

Research into ancient epistolary practice and work with Paul’s letters reveals to us that in a letter Paul is speaking to a congregation in the setting of worship, as if he himself were present. Their epistolary form never goes away, and so it is understandable that in our twenty-first century setting we sense they are different from what we think of today as a sermon.    But in the setting of the first century A.D. this epistolary form conveyed the opposite impression.  Hearers received it as the apostle present and speaking to them in worship, just as we experience a sermon today. 

A common distinction made by those who want to avoid the implications of the exhortation in Paul's letters is that the letters are not preaching like a sermon, but instead they are teaching.  The implication of this is that while Lutherans will certainly include the content of Paul's exhortation in teaching settings today like Bible class and Catechesis, it does not belong in the preaching of the sermon.

However, this is an anachronistic and erroneous view that says more about our own twenty-first century setting than about preaching in the early Church.  The distinction between "preaching" and "teaching" did not exist in the early Church.  Doctrinal content and teaching about the Christian life were shared and taught in preaching.  Not surprisingly, "In Christian Latin from the 4th c., sermo refers to any kind of preaching, whether catechesis in the strict sense, exegetical interpretation, paraenetic admonishment, circumstantial religious address, or explanation of a rite" (Reginald Gregoire, "Homily" in Encyclopedia of the Early Church, 1:394).  The catechetical and mystagogical preaching Cyril of Jerusalem, Ambrose and Theodore of Mopsuestia are excellent illustrations of the way preaching was the medium through which teaching was shared. 

What we know as a sermon is preaching that expounds a particular text from Scripture and applies it to the congregation that is listening.  We do not possess any example of this from the first century A.D.  It is possible that Paul described something that looked like this when he wrote to Timothy, "Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching" (1 Tim 4:13).  Naturally the New Testament was being written during the first century A.D. and the canon of Scripture was in the process of formation.

We find evidence of what we would recognize as a sermon in Justin Martyr's First Apology (ca. 150 AD) where he describes how on Sunday morning, "The memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read for as long as time allows.  When the lector has finished, the president addresses us and exhorts us to imitate the splendid things we have heard" (67).  Unfortunately we have almost no second century A.D. sermons except Melito of Sardis' "On the Passover" (second half of the second century A.D.) which reflects on Exodus 12 and Clement of Alexandria's "Who is the rich man that will be saved?" (second half of the second century A.D.) which is based on Mk 10:17-31.  Only in Origen (beginning of the third century A.D.) do we have a large number of homilies on texts from many books of the Bible.  Lienhard comments that "it would not be wrong to call Origen the 'father of the Christian homily.'  He preached homilies on most of the Bible, and his homilies influenced preachers for centuries after his death" (Origen: Homilies on Luke, xviii) (in the patristic period the difference between a sermon and a homily [sermo and homilia] was not well defined). This influence included Ambrose, whose preaching made such an impression on Augustine.

When defined in this way, Paul's letter are not sermons.  Though they do interpret and apply Scripture to the hearer, they are not based on a particular text from Scripture as they seek to expound and apply this Word of God in proclamation  Instead, of course, Paul's letters are Scripture that is being produced in their writing through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  They are the Word of God that is being proclaimed orally through his letters to the congregations that hear them. But by doing this they differ little from what we know as sermons.  They are in fact "foundational sermons" from which our sermons are derived. This is true when pastors preach sermons based on particular texts from Paul's letters.  It is also true when Paul's manner of addressing Christians (such as the exhortation to new obedience and good works) provides the model of address for our sermons.

In their epistolary form and the fact that Paul's letters aren't based on a particular text of Scripture, we see differences from what we know as a sermon.  However in the first century A.D. Greco-Roman setting in which they were written, the epistolary form was received as the equivalent of Paul speaking to them in worship.  Paul's letters aren't based on a text of Scripture.  They are instead Scripture being produced under inspiration of the Holy Spirit as they are written.  But as he proclaims God's Word through his letter, Paul is doing the very thing that we do in our sermons today.  In the words of the inspired apostle, we find the way we should speak to Christians in our sermons.