Preachers Dare is a book that grew out of the Beecher Lectures I was scheduled to give this fall at Yale Divinity School. Drawing on my decades of preaching thousands of sermons, it’s a theology of preaching that begins at Barth’s maxim Deus Dixit, God speaks. For the next couple weeks, I’ll be running a series of excerpts selected by my minion Carsten Bryant, a recent Duke Divinity grad and Methodist preacher. Here’s the first on the difference between most of the sermons I hear and the “Gospel of God”:
Mainline, liberal preachers in my part of the world preach mostly from the Gospels, rather than the earlier letters of Paul. Is that because the Gospels, replete with Jesus’s words and deeds, couching Christology within narrative, appear to encourage human agency? Christ, the great exemplar of goodness, hanging out with the good country folk of Galilee, giving them a gentle nudge to love their neighbor as themselves; Christ, the beloved teacher who told stories that brought out the best in us; Christ, of use in our projects of the moment.
Maybe Christ as exemplar of good behavior is a First World problem. Paul, at work in 1 Corinthians 15, is strikingly disinterested in details of Jesus’s birth, life, and death, as if the sheer, luminous identity of Christ overshadows his deeds and words, as if in his resurrection, Christ—bodily presence of God’s eternal benevolence—needs no bolstering. God raised crucified Jesus. God raised crucified Jesus. God raised crucified Jesus. This, the sermon Paul was dying to preach, is news that propelled Paul all over Asia Minor, planting churches where nobody knew they needed a church. Is Paul’s “Gospel of God” (Rom 1:2-4) too hot for accommodated, well-adjusted-to- decline-and-death, self-help, bourgeois, progressive Christianity to handle?
Years ago, the errant Jesus Seminar caused a stir by attempting to isolate and identify the few “authentic” words of Jesus, only to be surprised that Christians don’t worship the words of Jesus; we worship the Word. While it’s fair for preaching sometimes to offer helpful hints for persons in pain, therapeutic advice for the wounded, a reason to get out of bed in the morning, a spiritual boost for the sad, or a call to arms for social activists, human helpfulness can never be preaching’s main intent because such concerns are of little concern to Jesus. Besides, why get up, get dressed, and come to church at an inconvenient hour of the week to hear what is otherwise readily available anywhere else. At least Rotary serves lunch.
Interested? I recorded this promotional video to introduce what I’m up to in Preachers Dare: