Sermon, Homily, Message, Teaching:

What is that 25 Minutes when the Pastor gets up and Talks?

C.H. Spurgeon, one of the Baptist movement’s most famous preachers, wrote about pulpits: “What could have been their design and intent it would be hard to conjecture.  A deep wooden pulpit of the old sort might well remind a minister of his mortality, for it is nothing but a coffin set on end. …  In ages to come men will find an argument for the divinity of our holy faith in the fact that it survived pulpits.”  (Lectures to My Students) 

If nothing else, this quote makes me wonder what “the old sort” of pulpit looked like in 1877 when these words were written.  Change in the church is apparently not a new phenomenon.  Like so much else, how the pastor gets up and talks each Sunday has changed considerably since the days when preachers used an hour glass to measure when it was time to stop.

To state the ridiculously obvious, the Sunday message is a medium of communication.  More specifically, it is the communication of biblical truth and insight to the gathered church so that God’s people are taught to live in Christ.  There is an old quip: “My pastor is a lot like God: he seems to be invisible all week and incomprehensible on Sunday.”  When and where that is true, even if the content has been guided by biblical truth and insight, the ultimate goal of communication has not been met.

Communication requires three elements: a communicator, a medium (the form by which the idea is conveyed) and an audience.  Every experienced speaker knows to start by considering the audience.  Given the humanity of both speaker and congregation preaching is an incarnational (“in flesh”) event in which God’s truth is conveyed through human means.  

Preaching, therefore, always occurs in a context of culture.  As an extreme example, it is poor communication to deliver a message in Portuguese to a congregation speaking only Chinese.  As Toronto has shifted from a “Christian” city into a post-Christendom city assumptions that could be once made about biblical and theological literacy are no longer accurate.  As our culture has shifted from the intellectualism of the modern era into the more wholistic world view of postmodernity truth is communicated less as a set of logical statements and more as a way of life.

The two Greek words translated as “doctrine” in the newer translations of the New Testament (didasko and didache) bear little resemblance to how we use the word today.  The “doctrine” of Jesus was the kingdom or rule of God.  He spoke little of such issues as omnipotence or predestination.  The “doctrine” of Jesus was more about the danger of calling a brother a fool or worrying about tomorrow.  His doctrine was how to live under God’s rule.  And the teaching ministry he gave to His apostles as they made disciples was to teach them “to observe everything that I have commanded you” (Mt. 28:20).  Paul, who provides much of the systematic theology of the New Testament, clarifies that the primary purpose of Scripture is to equip God’s people “for every good work” (2 Tim 3:17). 

A Tyndale Seminary student I mentored was asked by the previous year’s intern, “Has he given you the talk about preaching like Jesus or preaching like a Pharisee, yet?”  I realized I eventually had that conversation with every student or young pastor I have mentored in the last twenty years!  Preaching or Teaching Pastors today generally follow one of three models: the Pharisee, the university professor, or Jesus.  The Pharisee and the university professor present themselves in quite a similar fashion.  In both these models the object of preaching is conveying intellectual understanding.  Ideas and words are the tools at hand.  The work of other rabbis and scholars are the confirming authority.

Jesus had quite a different approach.  He made great use of story and picture.  “A man had two sons…”  “Look, a sower went out to sow…”   His aim was a transformed way of life beginning with a changed heart.  He used all the senses to speak to both mind and emotion.  Common people loved him because he “spoke as one with authority, not like the Pharisees.”  His confirming authority was the resonance of the Holy Spirit. 

The simple point I make to the young speakers I mentor is that if we want to produce Pharisees we should teach like Pharisees.  If we want to produce followers of Jesus we should use Jesus as our teaching model.  Our content should be the Good News of the Kingdom: coming under God’s rule, particularly in obedience to the two great commands to love God and neighbour.  (This does not, of course, negate the need to address such questions as “How much power does God have in the world?” or “How is Jesus related to the Father and Holy Spirit?”)

Another interesting word to consider is the word “orthodoxy” (in the sense of what is generally accepted as true rather than in the sense of Christian traditions from the eastern stream of Christian history.)  “Orthodoxy” literally means “rightly giving glory.”  Orthodox theology is theology that accurately reflects the true glory of God.  There are two very different ways a speaker can approach theology: kataphatic theology and apophatic theology.  Katahatic theology defines God by what we can say He is.  Apophatic theology defines God by what we cannot accurately or adequately say about Him.  Kataphatic theology embraces certainty.  Apophatic theology embraces mystery.  Without some kataphatic theology we have no common language to even talk about God.  But if our theology is only about our certainties we have failed the test of orthodoxy: rightly giving glory to a God who is far beyond our understanding.

In this sense, good teaching will often leave us with as many questions as we have answers.  A healthy dose of apophatic theology will leave us feeling a bit unsettled because we know this God of whom we speak is beyond our understanding.  How could one not have questions and even some doubts about such a Being?

Some other values and assumptions I bring to Sunday morning teaching are:

  The New Testament was not so divided until the mid to late 16th century, although Jewish scholars had divided the Old Testament a few centuries before.  While convenient, I’m not sure this innovation helps us understand the Bible better.  In an earlier Musing I observed that the Bible is not a collection of small, interchangeable truths that we can pick up by randomly reading verses like a chicken pecking bits of seed off the ground.  The most important interpretive tool we bring to Scripture is an awareness of the big story of Scripture and the big ideas that flow through Scripture.  What is ultimately most important about each verse is how it pulls along a bigger idea and how it is also pulled along by a bigger idea.  The big idea of the text should drive the content of the sermon.

  In 1877 Phillips Brooks (composer of “O Little Town of Bethlehem”) offered this definition of preaching:  “Preaching is the communication of God’s truth through a human personality.”  It is impossible that any two people would read the Bible the same way.  We all bring experience and assumptions to the text.  The most dangerous insertions of culture and personality into our understanding of Scripture are those that come unrecognized, unreflected and perhaps even denied.  It seems better to me to recognize the human voice through which God’s truth comes so the listener can discern how that personality is likely to reveal or at times obscure the truth. 

I often think about what kind of church I would want to attend were I not a pastor.  Preaching would be important to me.  I want to be challenged in my thinking and living.  I do not want to hear the opening paragraph of a sermon and know in advance how it is all going to come out.  I want to be led to see Scripture from a different angle than I have seen it before.  I want to feel that I am in relationship with my pastor and that she or he is comfortable enough in their own skin to let me see who they are so I can measure what is their voice and what is God’s voice.  I would not trust someone who has all the answers, but I would trust someone who left me with questions to answer on my own. 

Perhaps most of all I would want a pastor who had the chutzpah to bring me face to face with things in Scripture and in myself I would rather not face.  I would listen to someone more interested in my growth than in my approval and for the sake of my good be willing to risk losing my good opinion.   

This is what I would look for if I were in a pew every Sunday.  What would you look for if you were in the pulpit?