Tuesday, April 27, 2021

John 15:1-8

This passage occurs in the RCL Easter Season, Year B, most recently May of 2021.

Summary:  This passage has some great beauty, but presents a great preaching challenge.  First, we have some nastiness to the image: branches plucked and pruned.  The Greek can soften the blow here:  the words for pluck and prune also mean "lift up" and "clean."  Yet, I think a real law and Gospel challenge remains:  You can find all sorts of traditional discipleship tasks that connect us to God:  prayer, the Word, even the community.  Yet we can no more force ourselves upon Jesus than a branch can force itself upon the vine.  To say to people, "You cannot abide in Jesus, so don't even try" makes a liar out of Jesus.  To tell people "You just need to pray and read your Bibles" isn't totally faithful to the image here!  Somehow we must invite people into abiding in Jesus while retaining the force of the image:  Jesus is the root of connection, not us. A look at Jesus invitation to pray reveals some of this tension...

2021 sermon idea:  As a pastor I've often wanted to say that the best things in life are gifts.  But what if the best things aren't gifts that can be exchanged, but relationships that take time to form...in this way, Jesus offers us something more than a transaction, but a transforming and transformed community.

Key words:
αμπελος ("vine"; 15.1)  Like many metaphors in John's Gospel, a person new to the Bible can grasp its meaning, but a knowledge of the OT amplifies its significance.  The OT (Hosea 14; Jeremiah 2; perhaps also Ezekiel 19, but who understands Ezekiel...) makes the claim that Israel is the vine of the Lord.  Jesus here is saying "I am Israel."  All the promises, all the hopes (if not the judgment) of Israel in the Bible have been transferred to Jesus.

αιρεω ("take away" or "take up"; 15:2).  I thought I had a unique insight here and then I realized the NET Bible already explained in a footnote.  In their words: 

The Greek verb ai;rw (airoÒ) can mean "lift up" as well as "take away," and it is sometimes argued that here it is a reference to the gardener "lifting up" (i.e., propping up) a weak branch so that it bears fruit again. In Johannine usage the word occurs in the sense of "lift up" in 8:59 and 5:8-12, but in the sense of "remove" it is found in 11:39, 11:48, 16:22, and 17:15. In context (theological presuppositions aside for the moment) the meaning "remove" does seem more natural and less forced.

They actually give a HUGE footnote on this point.  You can find this online through their website (bible.org) or Bible Works.

Another person familiar with vines pointed out that a non-blossoming branch must be lifted up to ensure the cut must be as close as possible.  In this light, we can see that the cutting is not done far away, but hand-to-hand.  When God prunes us this is done an an intimate way!
Long and short:  I think for a sermon, one could introduce the idea of Jesus lifting someone up instead of simply tossing away, especially in light of this verb:

καθαιρω ("clean"; 15:2).  Alas, I got this word wrong in my blog entry three years ago.  I thought it was καθαριζω as in to cleanse.  The two words mean essentially the same thing.  However, John uses a word that allows him to have internal rhyme in a verse.  More importantly, we have a very modest image, not a very harsh one, of cleansing.  It is translated as "prune" only in light of the later verses.

ινα ("in order that"; 15:2)  A reminder that God's cleansing and forgiveness always have a purpose!  (Confessional Lutheran note:  How does this cleansing happen?  Through the Word of God!!)

εν uμιν ("in you"; 15:6)  This can mean "in you" but it is also in the plural:  "In all of you" or even "Among all of you."  "Abide in me as abide among you." might be good for individualist Americans to here!

γινομαι ("occur"/"happen"/"be"/"become"; 15:7, 8) If you study this word, you will see that Jesus is not saying, "Ask for anything and it will be given unto you." He is saying, 

"What you wish for, ask! And it will become unto you."

First, the command is in the plural.  This is an invitation for the whole community to pray.

Second, the verb "give" is never used.  Jesus says what you pray for will happen among you.  I think this begs the question -- what sorts of things happen but are not given.  I would suggest that bearing fruit and becoming disciples (what Jesus indicates he wants in 15.8) are not things that can be given.  Of course, they are gifts of the Spirit, but they are not exchanged.  Rather, they are developed -- grown -- in us. 

μαθηται (from μαθητης, meaning "disciple"; 15:8)  Just a brief reminder that this word does NOT mean one who follows all the rules correctly.  It means student in the deepest sense of a student who learns from a master.

Grammar review:  τις...some times the smaller the word, the more difficult to translate
The little word τις is a pain!  First, depending on the direction of the accent, it can either be a question word meaning (who, what, whom, whose) or an indefinite article (a, an, any, some, one).  At least this division is revealed by the accents (or lack their of; if it has no accent, it means an indefinite article because that τις has a weak accent that has been moved to the previous word)
But how to figure out then what is means is tough.  In the case of verse 6, τις is universally translated as anyone.  But it could just as easily be "anything." If anything is not in me, it is tossed out and burned up.  This is perhaps a nicer translation.  In this case, "anyone" is probably the most correct translation because Jesus has already indicated we are the branches.

Acts 8:26-40

This passage appears in the Revised Common Lectionary, Easter Season Year B, most recently May 2, 2021.

Summary:  This passage likely makes no sense to most folks because it is so unusual.  It definitely stretches the bounds of our imagination about how the Spirit directs our path along the way.  And yet...if we have done mission work, the work of evangelism, this is often what it feels like: lots of surprising twists and turns following Jesus along the way.  Life just beyond our control!  I also find it interesting that they meet in the wilderness.  The wilderness is an area of vulnerability, an area in which we are not in control.  This is where we so often meet God!

Key words (and few grammar quirks):
αναστηθι και πορευου ("Get up and go"; 8:26) Philip is told to "Get up and go" (a very familiar line from the OT; Abraham -- Get up and go!). The question is whether this is verbal coordination Hebrew style (Go in a quick way) or whether Luke is implying two separate verbs. The English translations tend to put the verbs together, but the tense is actually different in the Greek.   If one separates the verbs, I would emphasize that the first verb is the same verb for resurrection.

γαζα (gaza, two meanings, town's name or treasury; 8:26/8:27) The word for "treasury" is actually γαζα so this Ethiopians is in charge of the "gaza"; Philip is on the road heading south of Jerusalem toward γαζα, aka treasure. What is the real treasure in the story?  

ερημος (wilderness, 8:26)  Not coincidentally, the Baptism takes place in a wilderness, often a place where God and humans meet! The wilderness it seems, is a place beyond our control.  A place where demons dwell, where testing happens, but God's faithfulness is always revealed.

ευνουχος (eunuch, 8:27)  Historically speaking, the eunuch typifies a bunch of people who convert in Acts

  • People not ethnically Jewish, yet are hungry for God
  • People who have access to power in some ways, but not others:  Social misfits
  • People who may not have been accepted with Judaism (an Eunuch could not have gone into the temple because of his castration)

Christianity became an incredibly diverse group of people; it became a global community of care and common confession, quite the opposite of the way in which the Romans (and all other imperial powers) held diversity together.

κολληθητι (from κολλαω, meaning "cling"; 8:29) The word for join/stay here is κολλαω as in collate or really cling. Philip is told to cling to the chariot. (Paul tells us in Romans to cling to what is good, 12:9)

απα (ara; 8:30)  The word that begins the sentence (ara) is an untranslatable interjection that expects a negative answer, so really, Philip's question is "You don't understand..."

ογηγησαι ("lead", 8:31) The word for "guide/explain" here is ογηγεω ...which comes from οδος (road/way) and αγω (lead). So Philip has been sent on the way by the Spirit to be the way-leader for someone else.

οδος (hodos, meaning "way"; 8:32) Again, we have the word "way" here...which will also show up in 8:39, he went on his way rejoicing!  Early Christians will be described as followers of the way (Acts 9:2)

τον Ιησουν (obviously Jesus, 8:37)  What is significantly here is that 'Jesus' is in the accusative case without a preposition.  Philip proclaimed Jesus to the Eunuch.  He was not merely talking about Jesus, he was handing over Jesus to the Eunuch.  Obviously, to hand over Jesus to someone means talking about Jesus, but there is something very direct implied in what Philip was doing here.  I think Luke is making the point also that in proclaiming the Word's about Jesus, Jesus is present (see Luke 24!)

προσκυνσων (from προσκυνεω, 8:27)  I have nothing to offer here other than this is one of only 13 future participles in the New Testament :-)

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

John 10:11-18

This passage occurs in the RCL Easter Season, Year B, for "Good Shepherd Sunday" most recently Spring of 2021; but the basic idea of this passage connects with the parallel texts for this Sunday in years A and C of the RCL.

This beloved text is not worth ruining with any fancy exegesis.  However, it is perhaps worth exploring the idea of "good."  It is an utterly unfitting word:  Jesus is not good, he is beautiful, wonderful and ideal -- what καλος means anyway.  On the other hand, he is entirely irresponsible, going and getting himself killed.

For those looking for something theological to chew on:  "Jesus receives his life back" is just as valid of a translation as "Jesus takes his life back."  How one translates that is probably a good Lutheran orthodoxy test ;-)
Key Words:
καλος ("good"; 10:11)  Good is an entirely understated way to put this.  The word in Greek means beautiful, ideal, model.  Try any of these out:  Model shepherd, beautiful shepherd, ideal shepherd.  They get closer to what is going on, although model shepherd can lead us astray pretty fast.  Good is also an entirely wrong way to put this.  What kind of shepherd goes and gets himself killed?  A very, very bad one.  Or to put it another way, one who makes calculations very differently than normal humans do!

τιθημι ("lay down"; 10:11)  This verb comes up at some very powerful times in John's Gospel:  John 13, when Jesus lays down his cloak to wash his disciples feet; John 13, where Jesus declares that no greater love exists to lay down one's life; John 15, where Jesus says he "placed" us down to bear fruit; and finally on the cross, when a sign is placed (down) on the cross reading "King of the Jews." All of these strongly suggest that Jesus here refers to his own death.  Moreover, Jesus clearly foretells his resurrection.  To put it another way, this is John's version of the messianic prophecies of the synoptics (...it is necessary for the son of man to...)

γινωσκω ("know"; 10:14 and 15).  Jesus says that we will know him and he will know us.  What does this mean?  

1.  There is plenty of evidence in the Gospel of John that Jesus knowing us means he knows our sin. 

  • "I know that you do not have the love of God in you."  (5:42)  (Lots of others exist!).

2.  There is also evidence that Jesus knows us also means knowing our love for him.

  • Peter:  You know all things, Lord, you know that I love you (21:17)
  • My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. (John 10:27)

3.  While plenty of verses demonstrate that the disciples don't get it right, there is also evidence that the disciples can know who Jesus is:

  • Simon Peter says:  "We know that you are the holy one of God." (6:69)
  • Jesus says:  "You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you." (14.17)
  • Jesus:  "Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me.  (John 17:25) 

4.  The above verses also reveal that is knowledge is both head knowledge (knowing who Christ is) but also heart knowledge (God dwelling in us) and even body knowledge (following Jesus).  Knowing and loving are not that far apart.  To put it back on a very human and preach-able level:  Can you love someone you don't know?

To be known by Jesus means Jesus knows our sins but also who God has created us to be, namely, lovers and followers of Jesus.  To know Jesus means that we recognize his holiness and then live out of that love.

λαμβανω ("take"; 10:18)  This word means take or receive.  Which way you go really changes the meaning.  Does Jesus take back his life or does he receive it?   I think on how you look at this impacts how you look at the entire Christian life, especially as to how we are to embrace faith.  Do we take it or do we receive it? 

Concept:  εγω ειμι (ego eimi)
In John's Gospel, Jesus has a number of "I am" statements.  Here they are.
6:35  I am the bread of life
8:12  I am the light of the world
8:58  I am
10:7  I am the door for the sheep (10:9 I am the door)
10:11  I am the good shepherd; lays down life; know voice
11:25  I am the resurrection and life
14:6  I am the way, truth and life
15:1  I am the true vine (15:5 vine)
In Greek, I am carries more significance than in English.  First, in Greek, because verbs are conjugated, you do not need the subject.  It is only for emphasis.  Sometimes people will make this:  I, I am, the true vine to show the emphasis in Greek conveyed here.

This "I am" is also the name of God.  Hence, see 18:5, where Jesus says, "I am" and they all fall to the ground.  John's Gospel is wheeling and dealing when it comes to the OT and names for God here!

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Luke 24:13-35

This passage occurs in the RCL during Easter (Year A, B and if you like, C).

A very moving piece of Scripture.  You might argue it is the "ultimate" piece of Luke's Gospel, bringing together so many themes:  importance of hospitality, completion of OT salvation and vitality of worship to name a few.  This passage can often be seen as a "trump" card for the importance of Holy Communion because the disciples recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread.  However, a few curiosities.  First, Jesus does not use the word eucharist here, which he does at the last supper.  Furthermore, the resurrected Christ shows up to the disciples not in the breaking of the bread, but in the proclamation of the Word as they tell each other Jesus is risen!  Finally, when Jesus first gives them the bread, it is not after the breaking but after the distribution that their eyes are opened.  They had to know that Jesus was for you in order to know Christ.  Ultimately though, this theological masterpiece cannot be used against communion, but I want to point out that for Luke, everything good and wonderful (including praise, the power of the Word and the importance of intimacy, even relationship with Christ and the community) is included!  To put it more eloquently:  This passage is about way more than breaking bread.  Likewise, Holy Communion is about more than breaking bread, it is about praising God in Glory, proclaming the death and resurrection of Jesus and finally, by the Holy Spirit, recognizing Christ did this for me and my brethren.

Key Themes:  

1)  Intimacy and fellowship

The story shows the main two ways in which humans are involved in intimate conversation:  taking a walk together and enjoying a meal together.  Here are some other hints about this 'togetherness'

συν (preposition meaning "with"; but it can also be combined with verbs to slightly change their meaning; three such verbs appear in 24:14,15)  By using these words Luke plays on the sounds the words make; he also subtly suggests those on the road were together.  In fact, even the word for converse (ομιλεω) has 'homo' as a root word, which means 'of one.'

παροικιες (from "παροικεω" meaning "temporarily dwell", 24:18)  I love that Jesus is described as only temporarily living in Jerusalem.  There is such truth to this -- He was an outsider in the extreme! 

μενω ("abide," used twice in 24:29)  Although a more essential word in the Gospel of John, this word still carries import here.  The disciples invite Jesus to abide with them.  Not in their heart, but at their table!  Also the one who was an outsider becomes the ultimate insider!

ηθροισμενους (perfect passive form of "αθροιζω", meaning gather, 24:33)  This word for gather comes from noise.  Like when you gather people, you get noise.  Imagine a house full of people joyfully saying that Jesus was alive!

κατακλιθνηαι (from "κατακλινω", meaning "lie down", 24:30)  Jesus is lying down on their floor!

2)  Faith and Sight

ηλπιζομεν (imperfect form!, meaning hope, 24:21)  This word is not in the aorist tense.  It is in the imperfect tense.  They are still hoping.  They have not lost hope.  They just cannot see!

εγνωσθη ("know" aorist form of γινωσκω 24:35)  I point this verb out because Luke changes it from the earlier "recognize" (επιγινωσκω).  I cannot figure out why Luke draws this distinction, other than to say: If you know Jesus, you will recognize him; if you recognize him, you know.  To put it in familiar Lutheran terms:  To know Christ is to know his benefits.  When it comes to these words, I am not sure if I know the difference, even though I recognize it (haha).  

It is worth putting this word in play with two other words that Luke uses: 

ειδον (see, 24)  The early disciples did not see Jesus; more importantly, they did not recognize what this meant. You cannot see what you do not believe, even when it is right in front of your eyes.  Until we have internalized a new story, we will reject new data.  See COVID reaction in America for this.  I would argue that someone has to translate the Biblical story into our lives in a way that we can see something new.

ανασταντες (raise up, 33).  Once they did recognize the risen Lord, they themselves "rose" up -- they experienced resurrection.  Even though at that point he was invisible!

κλασει ("breaking" dative of κλασις 24:35; in a verb form κλασας 24:30; also sounds like the name Κλεοπας)  It is in the breaking of the bread that the disciples recognize Jesus; worth pointing out, however, is that it is also in the proclamation of Jesus resurrection (vs 35-36) that Jesus shows up.  Luke does not neglect a theology of the Word!  It is also worth pointing out that the first time they recognize Jesus, they do so, not in the breaking of the break, but while the bread is being distributed.  Based on the verb tenses you get:  Taking the bread he blessed it.  After he broke it he was distributing it.  And their eyes began to be opened (or became opened).  The point here is that breaking the bread may not be the only "magic" moment when Jesus shows up.  In other words (I know I am pushing it here), it was only when they heard the for you that the recognized Jesus.  If you don't know Jesus is for you, you can't see him in the world!

3.  Salvation - roots in the OT
λυτρουσθαι ("redeem," present infinitive form of λυτρομαι, 24:21)  This verb means redeem in a the "ransom" sense of the word.  The Bible uses this word to talk about people redeeming property with payment.  People can also make a redemption payment to God to avoid punishment for their sins (see Number 35:31).  In Exodus, in fact, the people must pay a ransom to God to avoid a plague (30:12).

A few other points:
- Redemption can avoid punishment but not ultimate death:  Psalm 49:8-9 For the ransom of life is costly, and can never suffice that one should live on forever and never see the grave.  (NRSV)  The idea of redemption into eternal life seems a human impossibility and a new testament novel development.

- God was not the only one from whom redemption could be sought.  For example, God redeems (same verb) the people from slavery in Egypt (2 Sam 7:23, Deut 13:5).  In this sense, God redeems from an agent hostile to God's will for the people.

- It is worth point out that Luke employs the idea in a different manner here than in Mark 10.  In Mark, Jesus is the redemption (the thing paid to do the redeeming, 10:45).  Based on the structure of this sentence in Luke, Jesus is the one doing the redeeming.  This small distinction raises great question for Christians:  Who was Jesus redeeming Israel from (Rome?); why was Jesus redeeming them?  What was the payment (his suffering?)?  Who did God possibly have to deal with?  But if you don't want to go there, keep it simple:  Jesus gave his life that you might be redeemed, namely, set free from sin and death.

Ultimately, I think any transactional sense of Jesus' work on the cross has clear biblical roots, but also real limits.  I wrote about this word extensively in a post on Mark 10.

δοξαν ("glory" accusative of δοξη, 24:26)  This word has many layers; originally meaning "opinion" it can also mean "splendor."  In the Old Testament, the glory of God was revealed in God's presence and thus, the two became inter-connected.  So in the New Testament, borrowing from the OT, "glory" also means the amazing presence of God!  Luke uses this word at some key passages to point toward the glory related to the presence of God and his kingly splendor:  Glory of Christmas Angels (2:9/2:14); Devil's promise (4:6); Transfiguration (9:32); Palm Sunday (19:38); Second coming (9:26/21:27)

καιομενη (present passive participle of καιω 24:32)  While God often makes things burn out of his anger, I think the best recollection for this verb is the burning bush -- it was not consumed, but the Word of God kindled it brightly!

προσεποιησατο ("pretend" aorist of προσποιεω, 24:28)  So, can Jesus pretend?  Yes!!

Grammar review:  Negative questions
Greek shows questions with a ";" mark.  Some sentences can be very tricky because we miss this!
Also, in Greek, a question can include a negative.  Depending on the wording, the question expects either a no or yes answer.  In English we have something similar, in that a question can expect a yes or no answer, but it is the word order, if not inflection, that reveals this information in English:
"You don't think that is a good idea, do you?" (Expects a no answer)
"Don't you want you some ice cream?"  (Expect a yes answer)
In Greek, the distinction is easier!  When they use "μη" they expect a no answer. When they use "ου" they expect yes.
So, for example, when Jesus asks the question, "Grapes are not gathered from throns, are they?" the Greek uses a μη (7:16, technically μητι). 
Again, if it has a "ου" it expects a "yes."  The only challenging part is that ου can show up as ουκ when it appears before a verb; also ουχι is a more intense form, like "REALLY PEOPLE, the answer must be yes..."

In this 24:26, Jesus asks the question about the necessity of his suffering:
ουχι ταυτα εδει παθειν τον χριστον και εισελειν εις την δοξαν αυτου;
Because the sentence (really a question!) begins with ουχι it expects a "yes" answer:
"REALLY PEOPLE, wasn't it necessary for the Christ to suffer this and then enter into his glory?"