There is a story that the old-timers around Princeton, New Jersey, absolutely love to tell. It’s a story about the day in the 1940s when a fashionable New York society matron drove down from Manhattan to Princeton in her touring car. She pulled up to the entrance of the Princeton Inn, which in those days was the most luxurious hotel in town. She got out of her car, fished around in her purse until she found a quarter.
She pressed it into the hand of the little man at the door of the hotel and said, “Take my luggage in immediately,” and breezed regally into the lobby of the hotel, leaving the little man at the door of the hotel, who just happened to be Albert Einstein, on his way to the lab, looking quizzically at the quarter in his hand. According to the story, he finally shrugged, picked up her luggage and took it into the hotel.
It was just a case of mistaken identity, misjudged appearances. She took one look at the shriveled-up little old guy and assumed that he was the bellhop, rather than the most distinguished scientist of our time. What concerns me tonight, though, is another case of mistaken identity. Another case of misjudged appearances and, this time, it’s the case of mistaken identity and misjudged appearances of the biblical text in the pulpits across this land.
All of us, whether we are Roman Catholic or Protestant, have a high doctrine of Scripture – we know what we’re supposed to do in preaching. In fact, in the Bishops’ paper Fulfilled in Your Hearing, it identifies the three essential ingredients of the sermon: the preacher, the assembly and the Scripture. And the Scripture is where the preacher and the assembly meet.
We know what we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to get down into the marrow of a biblical text until it blesses us. And then stand up there and tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help us God, about what the text has said.
But we’re busy. And it gets to be late in the game, and so what we do is we take one look at the biblical text. We treat it as if it were a senile dinner companion, who always says the same old things over and over again, and we tip it a quarter and say, “Take my homily into the church.”
I want to say that I know that we are not actually called to preach the Bible. We are called to preach the Gospel. But our access to the Gospel is through a hermeneutical encounter with the biblical text. And in doing so, we recapitulate the epistemology of the Church. We come to know, as the Church comes to know, and then bear witness to that in our preaching.
Now, in some of the old-fashioned homiletical textbooks, it used to be said that you ought to spend an hour in the study with the text for every minute that you spend with a homily in the pulpit. I don’t know who came up with that formula, but I’m sure he was loved by both of his members. Most of us don’t have that kind of time, but some sort of time has to be woven into the fabric of the weave, and there is simply no way to avoid it.
Responsible preaching is hard work done under pressure. And one of the reasons that it’s hard work is that genuinely getting to know a biblical text is a lot like genuinely getting to know another human being. It takes time. One has to be patient. One has to press a kind of inquiry. One has to listen with prayer and love to a biblical text.
What I would like to advocate tonight is what might be called an encounter model of biblical interpretation for preaching. If you’re interested in biblical hermeneutics, where this would fall would be somewhere in the range of reader response criticism of biblical materials. That is to say, preachers ought to put themselves in the position of actually engaging the biblical text, to the extent that something actually happens in the encounter with the biblical text. The text has a force, an impact, and the sermon becomes an attempt to regenerate that impact on the part of the hearers.
Now, if we pursue an encounter model of biblical interpretation, I think it helps to overcome several deceptive practices in biblical preaching. Let me name some of them. The first of them is avoiding the biblical text altogether. Avoiding the biblical text altogether.
I had a student the other day who began his homily in my preaching class, “Before I preach,” he said, “I’d like to say something about the text.” No, I’d like for you to say something about the text as you preach, that’s what I would like. Now sometimes we avoid the biblical text by reading it or having it read, and then that’s the last time that the assembly ever hears anything about it. It’s simply ignored in the homily itself.
More often, the avoiding of the biblical text is much more subtle than that. The text appears in the homily, but it doesn’t exert any force over the homily. One test is: Could you have preached this homily without having engaged that particular biblical text? Now I don’t know whether this has had an impact in the Roman Catholic world, but certainly in the Protestant world.
One very potent example of avoiding the biblical text can be seen in Rick Warren’s popular book, The Purpose Driven Life. The book quotes Scripture over 1,300 times, but as far as I can tell, none of those texts has anything to do with what is said in the book. In fact, Warren’s technique is to use 15 different translations and to pick the translation that most suits what he already wishes to say in the book.
Well, mea culpa, I have done that in sermons myself. I just don’t have as many Bibles as Rick Warren has. But I, too, have manipulated the text in such a way to avoid it.
The second deceptive practice that this encounter model hopefully overcomes is the tendency simply to say the obvious from the text. Simply to say the obvious from the text. There are certain biblical texts that we have encountered so often in the liturgy, we think we already know what they have to say and, therefore, we do not have to encounter them, since we already have in our hands the meanings that they wish to convey.
For example, you preach on the parable of the Prodigal Son, and you always talk about the repentance of the younger brother. Or the self-righteousness of the older brother. It just may be that that text has a surprising and different word for us, but if we don’t actually look at it again, we simply say the obvious out of the text.
I used to have a colleague. The only thing that he knew about me is that I am a fan of the Atlanta Braves. That’s the only thing he knew about me. And when I would encounter him in the hallway, you could almost see the gears whirring in his head, “Here comes Tom. What do I know? Fan of Atlanta Braves.” And then he would say, “Hello, Tom. How ’bout those Braves?” Every time. In other words, he never really knew me.
We do the same with biblical texts. Another example of that is the passage in the 17th chapter of Luke, about the 10 lepers. You ever preached on the 10 lepers? Nine of whom keep on going after Jesus heals them, but one of whom, a Samaritan, returns to fall in the posture of worship, then says, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” And the sermon that you usually hear on that text is a sermon that basically is a sermon about religious etiquette. Whenever something good happens to you, you should say, “Thank you.” Especially to God.
But if you actually look at that text, there may be a surprise hidden at the core of it. Right before that text, there is a saying of Jesus, addressed to the disciples, about the nature of master-servant relationships, in which Jesus says, in effect, “If you have a servant who plows your field and fixes your meals and does everything that a servant should do, do you say thank you to the servant?” And the implied answer is, “No.”
In first-century master-servant relationships, you don’t say thank you to a servant who has simply done what a servant ought to have done. Well, that’s a very interesting thing to put right before a story about nine lepers who are healed and who don’t come back.
It’s not that they violate some rule of religious etiquette. It’s that, astoundingly enough, nothing has happened to them for which the appropriate attitude is gratitude, because God, in their theology, is their servant, who has only done what a servant ought to have done. “It’s God’s job to heal me.”
And gratitude does not evoke when a servant has only done what a servant ought. Only somebody outside the system, like a Samaritan, would understand that they are the recipient of a merit of grace. Be surprised by the text.
We had an unfortunate thing happen recently in Atlanta. One of our more prominent preachers preaches fantastic sermons and then produces photocopies of them the next week, available for the congregation. A member of his congregation liked one of the sermons particularly well; in fact, it seemed extraordinarily good, and so she Googled it. And there it was, written by somebody else several years ago, on the Internet. So she took a number of his sermons and Googled them, only to discover they all had been stolen off the Internet.
He was confronted by the officers of the Church. He apologized. He asked for forgiveness. The congregation and the officers forgave him, and that was the end of it. Well, not quite. A member of the congregation wrote a letter to a man named Randy Cohen; he writes as The Ethicist in the New York Times magazine; and she said, “We have just discovered that our minister has been stealing his sermons off the Internet. What do you think about that?”
Randy Cohen made all the requisite remarks about how you shouldn’t present somebody else’s work as your own and plagiarism is wrong, and he certainly shouldn’t have published them in Xerox® form in the narthex of the church. But then he went on to say, you know, being a priest or a minister is a very difficult job these days. And not everybody has the ability to write a sermon. And wouldn’t it be better if priests would simply take other people’s sermons and read them, if they admitted that they belonged to somebody else?
I don’t know why that frosted me so much, but I finally began to think about it, and I realized that the one thing that you have to offer your congregation in the pulpit is an act of hermeneutics, because you are the only person in the world who has one foot in your congregation’s context and one foot in the biblical text. And only you can say what happens when you bring text and context together.
Walter Brueggemann can’t say it for you. Barbara Brown Taylor can’t say it for you. You are the only person who can commit hermeneutics for your congregation, and you owe your congregation, your assembly, a fresh act of interpretation.
The last deceptive practice that I think an encounter model of preaching overcomes is what might be called “playing parlor games” with the text; playing parlor games with the text.
Playing parlor games with the text consists of sermons that sound chock-full of biblical information, but lack any biblical encounter. Here’s how they sound: “Our text for today involves the triumphal entry of our Lord into Jerusalem. You notice that when he rode on the beast of burden, this is taken from the ninth chapter of Zechariah, and fulfills Nathan’s prophecy, as does the psalm that is being sung by the crowds; it’s the Hallel song found in Psalm 118.” Blah, blah, blah.
What we’re trying to do, in an encounter model of preaching, is to generate the next generation of acoustical impact of the text. Here’s a way to think about it: A biblical text, as we find it in the Scripture, consists of a stone, thrown into a pond, and it makes a splash. In its original context, it created an acoustical event. Now, you don’t stand historically or sociologically in the same place as where the text hit the pond. You stand in another place in the pond. But the ripples of that original acoustical impact make their way in your direction. And your sermon is a new acoustical impact, created by the ripples of the original acoustical impact.
Now, what are the implications of taking this sort of acoustical encounter model of a text? Well, the first implication of it is that this intentionally blurs the distinction between orality and literacy in biblical materials. We get the Scripture in written form, but it is intended to be received in oral form. All Scripture was intended to be read out loud. And its impact is an impact in the ear.
In the fourth chapter of Philippians, when Paul says, “I urge Euodia and Syntyche, agree in the Lord.” That was not read between leather covers. It was not posted on the bulletin board of the church at Philippi. That was read out loud in worship. “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche, get it together.” As one biblical scholar has noted, when that was read out loud at Philippi, two women sank a little lower.
Now we don’t know what the argument was between Euodia and Syntyche. Maybe Euodia liked praise music and Syntyche liked traditional music. But something had gotten between them. And notice what the acoustical impact goes on to do: My fellow workers, help these women, for your names are written in the Book of Life. Now what is that? That’s acoustically an echo from the baptismal liturgy. Your names are written in the Book of Life, which is a reminder that this is not the first time that the names Euodia and Syntyche have been said out loud in worship. “I baptize you, Euodia. I baptize you, Syntyche.”
Acoustically, they’re not being called out. They’re being called up to their baptismal identity. And it evokes the acoustical memory of baptismal worship. So it intentionally blurs the distinction between orality and literacy. It also overcomes the old-fashioned notion that what you’re supposed to do as a preacher is to figure out what a text used to say and then take that and tell what you think it might mean if you update it.
I was taught a form of exegesis that most of you were not taught. I was taught that what a preacher ought to do is to put on a pair of surgically sterile exegetical gloves to go to the biblical text and riffle around in the biblical text with your sterile gloves on, until you have found the theological nugget or idea that lies at the heart of the text, to bring that forward and to drop it on the congregation.
What we have discovered, of course, is, these gloves were never really sterile and the biblical text is not an inert container with an idea in it. It’s more like a dance partner. It wants to move us around the dance floor of congregational life. And what we bring to a text makes a difference in the kind of encounter that it can create.
This approach also implies that we utilize every wave of biblical interpretation that we have inherited. We do not put down any critical tools in order to do an encounter model of exegesis. Almost 500 years ago, we inherited the first wave that passed over us, and that was historical. We understood that the Bible was not dropped down, dictated by the Spirit; it came up, out of historical circumstances. Inspiration works from the ground up. The fingerprints of those historical circumstances are all over the text and they make a difference in interpretation.
For example, we think that the Gospel of Mark was written to a lower socio-economic group. Lower economic group. We think the Gospel of Luke was written to a mixed socio-economic group. And the Gospel of Matthew is to our first suburban, affluent congregation. You can tell that in the text.
In all three synoptic gospels, Jesus sends the disciples out two by two, and he says to them, in each case, “Take no money.” But the Greek is not the same. In Mark, it’s “take no copper.” In Luke, it’s “take no silver.” And in Matthew, it’s “take no copper, silver or gold.”
In Mark, the disciples are caught walking along the road, arguing about who is the greatest. And Jesus says to them, “If you want to be great, you must become as one who serves.” Now notice the language, “If you want to be great.” What does that imply about them? They are great.
In Luke, Jesus also catches the disciples arguing about who is the greatest. In fact, this is at the Last Supper, rather than on the road. They’re arguing about it at the Last Supper. And in Luke, he doesn’t say the same thing as he says in Mark. What he says to them in Luke is, “Those among you who are great must become as those who wait on tables.”
Note the difference in language. In Luke’s community, some of them are at the big house, sitting down at table while servants wait on them. But in the Lord’s house, you’re supposed to reverse the economy. You can feel the historical circumstance of the text, and it makes a difference.
About a century and a half ago, we got a second wave that passed over us. Not only were texts historical, they were also theological. The biblical writers had different theologies. The theology of Mark was not the same as the theology of Matthew. The theology of Paul is not the same as the theology of James. And if we’re going to get the total witness of Scripture, we’re going to hear it not as a monochromatic kind of witness, but as a kind of chorus. A choir of witnesses.
For example, Matthew and John don’t agree theologically about time. And the preacher needs to pay attention to that. Matthew’s understanding of time: The kingdom of heaven is in the future, and we live in a Good Friday world. We are marching to Zion, but we aren’t there yet. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. They will be filled. Future tense.
John is different. It’s as if John reaches out and takes Matthew’s future kingdom and pulls it like a canopy over ordinary time. Matthew, where’s the kingdom? “Ahead of us.” John, where’s the kingdom? “Above us.” And in John, like a sewing machine, eternal time keeps penetrating down into the present and creating moments or signs where you can experience, right here and now, the fullness of the thing. That makes a difference in how we read texts in Matthew and texts in John.
For example, in the Gospel of John, you may remember the death of Lazarus. Lazarus is dead, and Jesus is late to the funeral. In fact, he’s in a holding pattern outside of Bethany, and he won’t go in. So one of Lazarus’ sisters, Martha, comes out to him, and she says, “If you had been here, our brother would not have died.” To which Jesus says, “Your brother will rise again.” To which Martha says, “I know. I know he will rise again at the last day.” To which Jesus says, “No, no, Martha. That’s the Gospel of Matthew. I am the resurrection and the life.”
Now, I’m glad that the preacher encounters, in Matthew and John, these two different views of time. Matthew helps us read the newspaper, and John helps us understand ecstasy. Okay.
The third wave has passed over us in the last generation or so. In addition to understanding biblical writers historically and understanding biblical writers theologically, we now have the critical tools of poetry and literary analysis of texts. In other words, the biblical writers were poets and artists who chose just the right language and just the right literary structures to create impact. The preacher needs to attend to that as well.
For example, the writer of the Gospel of John uses a certain literary pattern about six or seven times in his Gospel. I call it question/answer/dumb response. Question/answer/ dumb response. Here’s the way it works: Read through the Gospel of John and you will find, on a number of occasions, someone will ask Jesus a question. And it will be a good question. It will be a question at the mundane, routine, ordinary level of life, though.
Jesus will answer the question, but he won’t answer it at the level that it’s asked. He will answer it at this level: at the level of Johannine, eternal-life Christology. That means that the answer goes right over the head of the person who’s asking the question, and you can tell this because they say something dumb. Something banal. Something insipid.
Fourth chapter of John, the woman at the well. Question: “Why is it that you, a Jew, ask of me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” That’s a darn good question. Why would any Jewish male in that period and place risk breaking down religious, racial and gender barriers to say anything to a Samaritan female? Wasn’t done.
“Why do you, a Jew, ask of me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” Answer: “If you knew who was asking, you would have been free to ask him, and he would have given you the living water.” “Where are you gonna get this water? You haven’t even got a pocket.” That laughter is what John is after. That irony of the Gospel, because that provokes you, acoustically, to say, “He doesn’t mean that. He means that.” And the miracle of the Gospel of John has begun to work.
Let me read to you, as kind of pulling together of this, a text that’s not on your handout. But it’s in the 17th chapter of Luke. You probably never have preached on this, because just flatfootedly, it is a kind of foreboding text. Here is how it sounds. This is Luke 17:
Just as it was in the days of Noah, so too it will be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage until Noah entered the ark and the flood came, and destroyed all of them. Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot: They were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day that Lot left Sodom it rained fire and sulfur from Heaven, and it destroyed all of them. It will be like that on the day that the son of man is revealed.
Now a flatfooted interpretation of that text is: The day of the Son of Man is going to be a very bad day. And I can give you two Old Testament examples to back it up.
But Robert Tannehill, the New Testament scholar, has suggested that to read it that way misses the acoustical encounter impact of the text. Let me try to reread it in such a way that we can hear some of what it’s trying to do, acoustically.
“Just as it was in the days of Noah, so too it will be in the days of the Son of Man. [In a drone] Eating, drinking, marrying, being … .” Why am I saying it that way? In Greek, here are the words: epinon, esthion, epoloun. They rhyme. They rhyme. What was happening in the days of Noah? Eating, drinking, yada, yada, yada.
The ordinary, boring rhythms of life and [Bang!] crisis happened in the middle of the grooves. Likewise, as it was in the days of Lot. Feeding, drinking, buying, we’ve heard this list before. We know what happens at the end of it. Buying, selling, planting, building – oh my God, the list is getting longer. We know the crisis comes. But we don’t know when.
Notice the posture the text generates. Leaning forward, into the midst of the boring grooves of a soccer mom, three-martini lunch world. Anticipating any minute the shaking of the foundations. That’s the acoustical generation of the text.
Now, you’ve got a handout, and I’d thought we’d wind up tonight by taking a look at a few example texts here together. If you don’t have one, if you raise your hand we can get you one.
Okay, the first suggestion to the preacher is slow down. Slow down when you read the text. Put the needle of your phonograph down into the grooves, to use an anachronistic example; turn it down in the grooves of the text, and let it track, so that you actually can see some of the impact of the phrases and the words, rather than speeding through the thing.
Take a look at Exodus 22, for example. We have here a text that, if we race through it, is not very profitable for preaching. This is a piece of casuistic law. Case law. Case law being, if such and so is the case, then the regulation of the law is this: if you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down. For it may be your neighbor’s only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate.
Now, that doesn’t leave us. We race right through that. A flatfooted reading of that text is: Don’t take interest or usury. Not helpful in our culture. We’re in a different economic world. But slow it down and see what happens to the acoustical impact of this text: “If you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn.” Now notice where that puts you. That puts you … in charge. You’re in the power position. You’re the one taking, in this particular text; you take. So it puts us in the position of taking, and it sits us right down in the middle of ordinary economic discourse of the day.
“If you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn.” Now, if you take your neighbor’s Visa at Wal-Mart – this is down in the middle of ordinary economic exchange, and you are in the power position in the economic world. “If you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down.” To which you ought to say, “Hell, no.” That’s not the way collateral works. You don’t take it and restore it until the loan is paid off.
“For it may be your neighbor’s only clothing to use as cover.” And to which you ought to say, “And that’s the point.” That’s how collateral works. If it’s not valuable, it doesn’t work. “In what else shall that person sleep?” To which you should say, “Not my problem.” To which the text responds, “Well, I the Lord your God am going to make it my problem. Because if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen. For I am compassionate.” Wow.
See what the text is doing acoustically? It’s taking us from Wal Mart to a theophany. It’s taking us from the ordinary realm of economic discourse into an encounter with the compassionate and holy One. That would preach. I think it will preach.
Take a look at the text right after it: Deuteronomy 6. This is a script for a family ritual. When your children ask you in time to come, what is the meaning of the decrees and the statutes and the ordinances the Lord our God has commanded you, you shall say to your children, “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. The Lord displayed before our eyes great and awesome signs and wonders against Egypt, against Pharaoh and all its household. He brought us out from there in order to bring us in; to give us the land that He promised on oath to our ancestors. Then the Lord commanded us to observe all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our lasting good, so as to keep us alive as is now the case. If we diligently observe this entire commandment before the Lord our God, as He has commanded us, we will be in the right.”
Okay, a script for family ritual. The oldest son has a three-by-five card, and he says his part, “Papa, what is the meaning of the commandments, statutes and ordinances of the Lord our God as commanded you?” Father has his three-by-five card, so he says his part of the script, “Son, we were slaves in Egypt and the Lord brought us out with a mighty hand,” and that’s the way Israel keeps its traditions alive.
However, if you read it slowly, says Rabbi Michael Fishbane, who teaches Old Testament at Brown, you will notice that this is no innocent family ritual. Built into the syntax of this, into the acoustical effect of this, is the breakdown that always occurs between generations in the household of faith; between the older and the younger. And if you’re going to hear it right, you have to hear it with a kind of adolescent attitude.
Here’s how it sounds: In time to come, when your children say to you, “What is the meaning of the statutes, commandments, and ordinances that God has commanded you?” You shall say to your children, “You impudent ….” No, no, no. You shall say to your children, “We were slaves in Egypt.” Did you notice the shift in pronouns? “What is all this guff that God has commanded you?” You shall say to your children, “We were slaves in Egypt.”
Built into the acoustical effect of this text, into the encounter with this text, is the command to older generations to tell the stories of the faith to younger generations in such a way that they not only understand them and get the information from them but know that they were involved in them and participate in them. It’s built into the impact of the text.
Slow down. Do a close reading of the text. Second piece of advice: look out for odd pieces of information. Things that don’t belong in the text. Sometimes, when you encounter something that disrupts the hearing process, that’s pay dirt. I was talking to one of you tonight, who said, “Whenever I look at a text and I find something in there that really bothers me, that I don’t understand, I stay with it.” Well, that’s good. Because sometimes that’s planted in the text.
Just take a look at Mark 6 on the southeast corner of your sheet there. This has what might be called an “acoustical speed bump” in it. It’s designed to disrupt your smooth driving through the text and make you pay attention to something.
See if you can spot it: “The Apostles gathered around Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. Jesus said to them, ‘Come away, to a desert, all by yourselves, and rest awhile.’ For many were coming and going. They hadn’t even had the leisure to get something to eat. So, they went away in the boat, to a desert, by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot, from all towns, and arrived ahead of them. So as Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd. And he had compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things. When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a desert. The hour is now very late. Send these people away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat. But Jesus answered them, ‘You give them something to eat.’ They said to him, ‘Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?’ And he said to them, ‘How many loaves have you? Go and see.’ When they found out, they said, ‘Five and two fish.’ Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass.”
Where are we? Three times, we’ve been told in this text that we are in a desert. Now, Palestinian deserts can turn green on you, but when they do, in Mark, it becomes very interesting theologically, because Mark is not this kind of writer. He never says things like, “Jesus was wearing a brown robe with matching tan sandals as He stood under the azure sky.” That’s not the way he writes: immediately, immediately, and suddenly black and white is turned to Technicolor.
Now if you are as competent in the Old Testament as Mark’s hearers were, and suddenly the desert turns green, what’s the acoustical impact? Your mind goes to Isaiah. The desert shall blossom. When will the desert blossom? When Messiah comes. Not only that. He ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. He made them sit down. He maketh them to lie down. That’s so familiar; I just can’t remember where it’s from. It’s a psalm, isn’t it? How does it start? “The Lord is my shepherd.” Verse 34.
He had compassion upon them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd, and he maketh them to lie down in green pastures. Wow. Acoustically, Mark has galvanized two Old Testament images: Messiah and shepherd, in this feeding pasture. That’s the acoustical impact created by odd elements in the text. Look at the upsetting of genre expectations. That is to say, certain literary texts are supposed to go certain ways, and when they don’t go certain ways, then the very fact that they upset your expectations is acoustically impactful.
For example, take a look at I Corinthians 1. In a first-century Hellenistic letter, after the address, after the signature and the address and the greeting, the next thing that is supposed to come generically in the letter is philophronesis or, as we would put it, “fluff,” and the way we still have fluff in our letters. “Dear Jane, I remember with great joy the summer our children spent with each other at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. How wonderful it was to see them frolic in the waves and to enjoy the sunshine and all the family time together. However, you owe me $275.”
The fluff is establishing a kind of warmth. Well, in Hellenistic letters, there was fluff, but Paul upsets the generic expectations by turning fluff into Eucharistic prayer. He turns fluff into Eucharistic prayer. Except in Galatians, he puts a Eucharistic prayer at the beginning of his letters, right at that point where you would expect philophronesis.
Look at this one in Corinth, in Corinthians, I Corinthians. By the way, you remember what’s happened? They’ve written him to say, “We’ve got a few problems. We’re at each other’s throats. We’re fighting over the Lord’s Supper. We’re fighting over baptism. We’re fighting over Gnosticism. We’re fighting over speaking in tongues. We have sexual immorality in the congregation. And most of the people in the congregation do not believe in the resurrection.” Other than that, they were doing just fine. So he writes back to say, “I’m going to deal with all those problems, but first, let us pray.”
Take a look at verse 4.
“I give thanks to my God, always, for you.” You’ve got to be kidding me?
“Because of the grace of God that’s been given you, in Christ Jesus, for in every way, you’ve been enriched in him …” In speech, speaking in tongues is tearing them apart; in gnosis of every kind, Gnosticism, ripping them to shreds.
“… just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you, …” They don’t believe in the resurrection. “… so that you’re not lacking in any spiritual gift, …” I’ll say. Spiritual gifts? They’re burning the place down.
“… as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, he will strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by Him, you were called in the fellowship of His son, Jesus Christ Our Lord.”
In other words, the problem list is the prayer list. And the faithfulness and grace of God is going to be seen in the broken places. In the broken places. It’s in the generic shake-up in the text.
One other, and then I’m going to see if you’ve got any questions. This is not on your handout, but listen to this. This is the description of the list of people who were at Pentecost. It sounds like a bus station announcer. “How is it that we hear each of us in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, visitors from Rome.” All aboard, please.
There were Medes at Pentecost? This is the first century. There hadn’t been any Medes in the world for hundreds of years. They were as extinct as mastodons. There were Elamites at Pentecost? They did not wander over from the next county. They wandered over from the Old Testament. To say that there were Medes and Elamites at Pentecost is like saying, “You should have been at St. Ann’s last week. We had visitors from Ohio, Michigan, Florida, a whole vanload of Assyrians, and a cute little Hittite couple.”
The acoustical impact of this is everybody who ever lived was at Pentecost. Everybody who ever lived was at Pentecost.
Encounter the biblical text to generate the energy of the sermon.