Showing items filed under “The Rev. Andrew Van Kirk”

Faithful Name Calling

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There’s quite a lot of name calling in this week’s gospel reading from Matthew. Name calling is not generally the sort of thing we associate with Jesus, and this particular example feels harsh: he called a woman a dog (at least by implication). While he didn’t mean this with the same sense borne by the English idiom, it still wasn’t a sweet thing to say, and don’t we all like our Jesus to be sweet? 

There are other names used in this passage too. The woman used “Lord” and “Son of David.” These are personal titles, names that apply to Jesus individually. They reference Jesus’ power and authority, as well as his messianic role and his fulfillment of Israel’s story. With the names she used, the woman was acknowledging something specific about Jesus and asking for him to step powerfully into her life.

Jesus used several names too. There’s “lost sheep” and “children,” in addition to “dogs.” These are not personal titles. They are collective names, metaphors used to describe the contours of salvation offered by the God of Israel. With the names he used, Jesus was not saying anything specific about the woman herself. Rather, he was explaining how God’s favor and grace came first to his chosen people of Israel.

Jesus was speaking to a key theological issue, namely the relative positions of Israel and the Gentiles in the plan of salvation. In contrast, the woman — who was a Gentile herself — was simply speaking to Jesus. Speaking directly to him, she overcomes the collective categories. What happened in this story is that promised blessings made to God’s chosen people, “the house of Israel,” were made available to a Gentile though the one person Jesus.

Jesus’ ministry beyond Israel did not negate God’s promises to the people of Israel, it was rather an extension of those promises. That’s why Jesus was so explicit about the sheep and children (the people of Israel) and the dogs (the Gentiles). He went to some length to explain that the blessings and power in His name were a fulfillment of God’s work among his chosen people. God had not changed his mind and chosen new people. God had not gone back on his promises. What was different in this story is that now, through faith in Him (v. 28), even those outside the covenant with Israel could receive God’s blessing.

This week’s reading from Romans explores similar themes. Paul was writing some thirty or more years after Jesus’ conversation with the Canaanite woman. In that time, many Gentiles had embraced the good news about Jesus Christ, and many Jews had rejected it. Paul was struggling to account for that — how could this be so, if the Israelites were God’s chosen people? Had God rejected Israel? By no means, Paul writes. The gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.

Our churches today are nearly entirely Gentile, so much so that the “Jew and Greek” distinction means very little to us. We hardly see the world through Jewish categories of identity, and so we don’t often spend our time anxiously wondering about the relative positions of Israel and the Gentiles in God’s plan of salvation. But it does matter very much that the Father kept his promises and sent his Son, born of the house of David, to the people of Israel. It matters because God’s promise of salvation to us Gentiles in the name of that Son is only worth anything if God keeps his promises.

That Jesus would emphasize the priority of Israel to the very face of a woman in deep suffering is a reminder of how serious God is about the promises he makes. No, it’s not really a sweet a story; but Jesus is more than sweet. Jesus is faithful.


The Rev. Andrew Van Kirk

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Getting Ready for Sunday by the Rev. Andrew Van Kirk

Sunday’s gospel passage (John 10:22-30), as it always is on the Fourth Sunday from Easter, is from John, chapter 10. Over the course of the three-year lectionary cycle, the bulk of Jesus’ discussion of himself as the “Good Shepherd” in chapter 10 is read – roughly 1/3 of it per year. For this reason, the Fourth Sunday of Easter is often called Good Shepherd Sunday. It’s also the reason you’ll hear Psalm 23 at worship.

This year we get final third of the cycle, and what you need to know for Sunday is that Jesus’ conversation partners in all this, the Jewish leaders gathered at the Temple, were sick and tired of all this Shepherd talk. Less metaphor, more answers. They just wanted know: Was Jesus the Messiah, or was he not the Messiah? Quit dancing around the subject, they demanded, and just say “yes” or “no.”

To this Jesus begins his reply, “I already told you.”

Can’t you imagine the smoke rising out of their ears with this answer? They asked a very clear, direct question, and they got a rather opaque, indirect answer. It’s not unlike the time Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” (John 18:33)—there too Jesus simply refused to answer the question with “yes” or “no.”

It reminds me of a category of phone call I get with some regularity. The person who calls, after a curt greeting, inquires, “Do you do weddings?” This is a “yes” or “no” question, to which I always answer, “Well…”

Of course I “do weddings,” but not the sort of weddings that people going through the phone book looking for someone to do a wedding are talking about. There is a confusion between “weddings” and “weddings,” and I can’t just answer the question if someone doesn’t understand what they are asking. In this I think our Lord would sympathize. Is Jesus the Christ? Sure. But not what the Jewish leaders meant by “Christ.” Is Jesus a king? Of course. But not what Pilate meant by “king.” The gospel records the confusion between “Christ” and “Christ”, between “king” and “king.”

At the end of his lengthy, indirect answer, Jesus concludes, “I and the Father are one.” That’s what Jesus meant by Christ – and it’s something far different (and greater) than that the people who asked the question had in mind.

And so the people decide to stone him.

Here’s the thing: allowing Jesus to define the terms of our salvation is hard. If we’re honest with ourselves, and honest with the gospel, we cannot do it by ourselves. It’s only God that can bring us to see Jesus for who he is. The Father “has given” the sheep of Jesus’ flock over to his care. They are “my sheep,” Jesus says, by virtue of God’s call.

But even for us whom God has called, it can be difficult to really listen to Jesus. We want to Jesus to listen to what we think we need, but we need to listen to what Jesus wants to offer us: “I will give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28).

So as you get ready for Sunday this week, is there some place in your life where you are demanding of God a “yes” or “no” answer? Is there any place where you might need to let him redefine the terms of what his work might look like in your life?

The Rev. Andrew Van Kirk is the Associate Rector at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, McKinney.

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This is a blog of essays meant to prepare parishioners for an upcoming Sunday reading.