Sunday, August 1, 2010

Sermon As Sacrament(al)

When I was a preacher-in-training, the strong urging of one of my homiletics professors was for me and my colleagues to “get out of the way so Christ can be seen.” Another suggested that we should think of ourselves when preaching as “stepping aside to introduce Christ to the people.” So it came to pass that we all went out and ordered black pulpit robes so as to efface ourselves, put ourselves in the background, and I suppose, cover up any loud ties we might be brazen enough to wear. I don’t know that those urgings or suggestions were overwhelming influences, but through the years I’ve seen the truth in them.

Early in my ministry when it was the custom to observe the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper infrequently, I saw preaching as primarily “interpretation of the Word of God in Scripture.” In time, the celebration of Communion gradually moved from quarterly to twenty-six or more times a year, as it was when I retired, and my perspective about preaching changed.

What happened was that I increasingly appreciated the balance between Word and Sacrament. They were not different things, but different ways of presenting the same person, the risen Christ. As Christ is believed to be “really present” in the Lord’s Supper (and, for that matter, in Baptism too), so Christ preached becomes present in the sermon as well.

I’m convinced that preaching is at least “sacramental,” if not a sacrament in its own right. It all has to do with the Incarnation, that God chose to come to us in a real person, a human being. Now, after the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ, we have these ways of continuing our relationship with him: the Sacraments, and the proclamation of the Word, the living Christ.

Both the Sacraments and the Word are very physical (read “incarnational”) experiences. Baptism is a bath, washing, cleansing, done with water, an act and element essential for living. The Lord’s Supper is a meal, food and drink, nourishment, again acts and things necessary for life. The sacraments reveal to us the presence of the living Christ, incarnate again in physical things in order to be incarnate in his people, the Body of Christ.

The Word we preach, of course, is the Word of the first chapter of John’s Gospel. We’re not to proclaim mere words, not even the words of the Bible, since we all know that words can be cloudy and smoggy and obscure rather than reveal. The Word, however, is proclaimed in a most physical way, through the body and voice of a person. If the Word which is Christ is to be recognized, in this instance it must happen through a human being.

Physical elements or actions in the sacraments do not in themselves “make” Christ present. The celebration of the sacraments includes the epiclesis, the invocation of the Holy Spirit; in baptism (BCW, p. 411):
"Send your Spirit to move over this water
that it may be a fountain of deliverance and rebirth."
and Eucharist (BCW p. 72):
"Gracious God,
pour out your Holy Spirit upon us
and upon these your gifts of bread and wine…
By your Spirit make us one with Christ…."

Neither does the physical person preaching cause Christ to be present. There is something liturgically akin to the epiclesis here too, calling on the Spirit to reveal him. When the Word is proclaimed in the liturgy, it is preceded by the “Prayer for Illumination,” and the admonition: “Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.” (BCW p. 61) This ritual, introductory to the scripture-sermon proclamation, indicates the role of the Spirit in preaching, strongly reminiscent of the Spirit’s role in the sacraments. It is not the preacher who “introduces Christ’ to the congregation, any more than Christ is found present in the water of baptism or the bread and wine on the table. It is, in all three, the Spirit.

At the risk of sounding mystical, I witness to this role of the Spirit in my experience of preaching. I find that I really do hear the Word proclaimed to me in the preparation of sermons—it’s as though I must be the recipient of the Word before I can be the Word’s conveyer. What’s more, in delivering sermons, I find a dynamic working in and through me that is not of my contriving. I recognize that to be God’s Spirit, revealing the risen Christ in our midst.

It is clear to me that proclamation of the Gospel is inseparably linked to the administration of the sacraments. All are instituted by Christ; preaching in Mark 16:15: “And he said to them, ‘Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.’” All are designed to show Christ present to his followers, and all include calls to renewed discipleship and service. While preaching may not be a sacrament as theologically defined, it certainly has sacramental qualities.

“Ministers of Word and Sacrament,” in fulfilling both sets of responsibilities, become the vehicles for the Word to come again, to be incarnate once more in the lives of preacher, presider, and the people in the pews.

If you are a preacher, does it make any difference whether preaching is “sacramental” or “interpretation of Scripture”? What kind of difference does it make for you if you’re a pew-sitter?

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thanks for joining in the conversation!