Last week I reflected upon some of the challenges of preaching in light of the resurrection. This week, I would like to point to some of the implications of preaching in the light of Eastertide:
- As Bonhoeffer said, there is only one preacher – the resurrected Christ. As Barth said, only God can speak to us of God. And as Will Willimon has said, many of my homiletic failures are due to Jesus and cannot be blamed on me. I don’t know why the Risen Christ chose not to appear through some of my very best homiletical products. Grace isn’t grace if it’s predictable, programmable. I’m not troubled that Jesus performed many miracles; I’m troubled that he performed so few. Even one so talented as Richard Lischer has not been able to come up with a knock down, one hundred per cent successful homiletical method. Preaching works not for reasons rhetorical but rather for reasons theological. As Lischer famously said, “Preaching works before it is understood.” After forty years of working with Jesus I still don’t understand: why he insists on talking to losers with whom I would never strike up a conversation and why sometimes, though he chooses to speak through me, he refuses to speak to me. All preaching is externally authorized. If anything is ever heard anywhere, by anyone, in one of my sermons, it’s a miracle.
- While it is aggravating for those of us who talk about Jesus to have Jesus come and go as he pleases, preaching keeps generating faith in me because of the wonder that Jesus shows up at all. In my experience, the last people to believe that preaching actually works are preachers – perhaps this is a defense mechanism against the reality of Easter. It is so tough to relinquish your life to a discipline over which you have so little control. How many Sundays (not as many Sundays as I wanted, but enough to keep me nervous) would some besotted, smart young thing emerge from Duke Chapel, after service, and report that she had actually heard something. I would respond, “So? The women were right? He is risen and returned to the same losers who disappointed him the first time.” When one considers all of the artful, governmentally subsidized defenses against the word of God – the Duke curriculum, alcohol, promiscuity, the Department of Religion – it restores my belief in miracles. You don’t need a me to tell you why preaching often doesn’t work; but only the Risen Christ explains why preaching sometimes works.
- The purpose of the church and its ministry, the most important thing that pastors do, is preach. All your theological training – all for the purpose of giving you the guts to make an apocalyptic announcement: God has won a great victory. The bloody, crucified Lamb rules. Join up, or else stay stupidly out of step. There are powerful forces working against the utterance of this liberating announcement. All I ask is for a a Sunday congregation of fifteen or fifteen hundred, with their chests stuck out, saying, “Hit me!” I fully understand why pastors allow so many things to crowd out their preparation for and investment in preaching – look, I’m as big a coward as the rest of them. Only Easter explains why so many persevere in this vocation. But faith, as Paul says, is an auditory, acoustical phenomenon. In an unguarded moment Jesus said, “He who hears you hears me.” I didn’t say it was the most effective way to get a New Heaven and a New Earth. In all this, I have just meant to say… it is true.
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