Tyler Kerley is an M.Div. candidate at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, AL. He serves as an intern at Christ the King Anglican Church in Birmingham, AL.
“Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound” (Rom. 6:1)? Paul’s question to the Christian community at Rome can be rightly posed of many catholic and evangelical churches today. For both traditions, objectivity in worship can serve as an excuse for producing sermons that fail to combine head and heart, text and context, exposition and application. Where the two traditions differ is simply where they think this objectivity can be found.
Catholics: The Mass
For Catholics, the sacrifice of the Mass is an objective source of God’s grace. Whether I acknowledge it or not, the elements of the Eucharist are literally transformed into the body and blood of Christ after the priest prays the words of consecration with the intent of sanctifying the bread and the wine. Whatever else may be said or done in the service, I can rely on the Eucharist being a source of comfort that, here in these elements, God is meeting me. I have heard priests in Catholic, “high-church” parishes remark, “My sermon might not be very good, but that is not what you are here for anyway. You still have Holy Communion!”
The Eucharist can, therefore, very often becomes an excuse for inadequate preparation for and a lack of emphasis on the place of sermons in worship. The sermon can often become a necessary evil, just another thing we do, and its emphasis is on behavioral modification instead of gospel transformation. I recently attended worship at a Roman Catholic parish, where the priest connected the theme of sight in John 9 with the theme of light in Eph. 5. “Sometimes,” the priest began as he drew his application, “we cannot see God because of the sin in our lives; if we want to see God more clearly, we need to remove the sin from our lives.” Well, sure, but that’s a half-truth. And John 9—where a man born blind from birth does nothing to have his sight restored by Jesus—might not be the best text from which to argue this point. The objectivity of grace in the Eucharist should not be an excuse for half-baked preaching.
Evangelicals: The Bible
For evangelicals, the Bible is an objective source of God’s grace. Provided it is the Bible that is read, it is the Word of God. Provided it is the Bible that is preached, it is the Word of God. It does not matter how the preacher communicates it, if she is preaching the Bible, then it is the Word of God. The Bible, like the prophet Isaiah said, “does not return void” (Isa. 55:11; Isaiah was not talking about the Bible in his original context, but never mind that.). So we preachers can take comfort that our sermons may not be “with lofty speech and wisdom” (1 Cor. 2:2), but we are at least still preaching the Word despite ourselves. In words reminiscent of the catholic priest, you might hear a preacher say, “My sermon might not be very good, but that is not what you are here for anyway. You have heard the Word!”
The Bible for evangelicals can, much like the Mass for Catholics, very often becomes an excuse for inadequate preparation for and emphasis on the place of sermons. Instead of laboring over how best to connect the passage in meaningful, appropriate ways to our audiences, preachers rather settle for verse-by-verse, line-by-line explanation of the passage with little view to application. If there is application, then there is either so much application it lacks in force or the application is just tacked onto the end as if it were a necessary evil. Practically, we suggest that people will be more faithful Christians if they just knew their Bible better. Well, we know how that one worked out for the Pharisees. The objectivity of grace in the Bible should not be an excuse for uncreative preaching. The inspired Bible is no excuse for your uninspired sermons.
A Better Way: Word and Sacrament
So, to return to the question we began with, “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” “God forbid!” Paul replies. My point is not to downplay the importance either of the Eucharist or of the Bible. My point is not to diminish one’s confidence that God encounters one in the elements and in the scriptures. My point is, rather, that we should not ignore the emotional, rhetorical and personal of preaching because we preachers use the objective means of God’s grace as tools to ignore our devotion, our sin, and our true source of grace—Jesus Christ. We are not to abuse the freedom we have been given in the Eucharist and in the Bible to not give ourselves entirely to the task of preaching. “God forbid!”
Catholics and evangelicals should, rather, consider that liturgical way that Jesus trod with two of his followers on the Road to Emmaus. For Jesus, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27), and then, “when [Jesus] was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them; and their eyes were opened, and they recognized him” (Luke 24:30-31). This celebration in both Word and Sacrament then led to the disciples’ devotion. “Did not,” they ask, “our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures” (Luke 24:32)? The liturgical road to Emmaus combined both head and heart, objectivity and subjectivity, exposition and application. And our worship, especially our preaching, ought to do the same.
“Lord Jesus, stay with us, for evening is at hand and the day is past; be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts, and awaken hope, that we may know thee as thou art revealed in Scripture and the breaking of bread. Grant this for the sake of thy love. Amen.”