The church where my pastor preaches does what many churches do, especially in the summer; they have a “sermon series”. This entails a series of sermons centered around a theme. The readings are then selected that illuminate this theme. There is nothing inherently bad about a sermon series, they can often be quite useful.
Normally a pastor gets a reading taken from the lectionary, and which passage you get is out of your control. These are typically done in a three-year cycle; Matthew one year, Mark the next, and then Luke, with bits of John sprinkled in each year. This means that on any given Sunday a Pastor may be confronted with a hard passage that requires quite a bit of explaining. Great example is Luke 9: 59-62 where Jesus tells a man who wants to bury his dead father before following Jesus, to “let the dead bury their own dead”. As in leave your dead father to molder out in the field. That leaves the pastor with the unenviable task of explaining this text. I would argue, however, that these hard texts produce some of the best sermons precisely because they require more thought to prepare.
That said a good preacher will produce a good message regardless of the text. The topic of this summer series is “changing the story”. From this generalized topic flows texts and messages related to a series of topics. For example, the last one I heard was over our care of the environment. The message was well delivered, as always and while it is a topic fraught with controversy (more on that in just a bit), pastor handled it tactfully and with nuance. All of this got me to thinking…
Only One Story Needs to Be Changed
I take the senior pastor’s (who set up the sermon series) point about changing the story. He is seeking to illuminate what the Gospel says about a host of issues. The main purpose is to get folks to think about how the Gospel relates to a variety of issues, that is, to get us to think about the Gospel in all that we do, and “thus change the story”. But the question he poses itself presents the answer rather clearly. We are to filter everything we do through the lens of the Gospel. I mean everything because Jesus meant everything. All that we are and all that we do we are to direct toward God’s will not our own. The only question that this brings up is “how do we respond to the Gospel?”.
The answer to that question is what I would call “Applied Gospel”. This is broken into two stages. The first stage is the nuts and bolts of daily living for the faithful. How do we put into practice what Jesus taught us about living a fully human life. Much of this is intuitive. Treating people with courtesy and respect, being kind and gracious and hospitable. We, for the most part, know in our hearts what we are to do in any given moment. That is what is so scary. As Soren Kierkegaard pointed out:
The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. ‘My God,’ you will say, ‘If I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world?'”Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.”
The difficulty in understanding the Applied Gospel is not over these everyday interpersonal interactions (it is difficult to do but not to understand). No, the difficulty is in the second stage of Applied Gospel, the broader social questions regarding politics and policy, and make no mistake, Jesus’ ministry was a social and political one. For instance, we can agree that we are to be stewards of God’s creation, but it is how we best do this that bedevils us.
This brings up the distinction that I made some time ago between the essential (the Risen Christ) and the important (how to apply His gift to policy). In discussing the “merely” important we must keep in mind that we will disagree because we have different backgrounds, experiences, and personalities. This disagreement is healthy and can be productive in the learning process. Productive that is, if we show enough respect to talk to one another rather than at one another. These conversations are extremely important to the life of the faith community. But we must recognize that they will bring disagreement. This does not mean that it will bring disunity. If we can remember what is essential and treat each other the way we know in our heart we are supposed to, then we can have a vibrant and useful conversation about these important issues.
Sermons and the Applied Gospel
It seems to me that if we are going to keep disagreement from turning into disunity then pastors must refrain from having second stage applied gospel discussions from the pulpit. I say from the pulpit because as citizens and participants in social life it would be unreasonable to ask pastors not to participate in these second stage applied gospel conversation altogether, as well as a great loss of perspective regarding these issues.
The purpose therefore of a sermon is to first proclaim what the Good News is. Primarily this is the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The way to do this is to discuss and help the faithful understand how Scripture reveals this. This then would lead also to a discussion of first stage applied Gospel (which belongs in the essential category) and a drawing of the broad outlines of how we are to act in the world in the name of our Lord and Savior. In other words, the broad outline of what God is asking of us using Jesus as the template for a fully human life, radical love, inclusion, peace, and forgiveness. This is quite enough of a task for any preacher. A task I am blessed enough to see done so very well by my own pastor. This distinction between first stage Applied Gospel (essential) and second stage applied Gospel (important) is something we would also do well to remember.
Praise Be to God