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A Tale of Two Sermons

By Calvin Lane

For Martin Luther, preaching the “word” meant a living message. “It is a wonderful thing,” Luther wrote, “that the mouth of every pastor is the mouth of Christ.”[1]  In the Large Catechism (1529), he reflected on the link between preaching, the Holy Spirit, and the church: “For where Christ is not preached, there is no Holy Spirit to create, call, and gather the Christian church apart from which no one can come to the Lord Christ.”[2] In his own preaching, Luther strove for accessibility; he said he aimed for “Hans and Greta.” In other words, the preacher’s task, as least as Martin Luther was concerned, almost has a place in the whole order of salvation.

But what should an effective, faithful, biblical sermon actually look  and sound like? Specialists in the history of preaching often distinguish between “homilies,” which are strictly exegetical, and “sermons,” which are more didactic, catechetical, or even moral. I doubt these strict categories are all that helpful in practice; most of us think “homily” just means short. When teaching courses on worship, I have attempted to define a sermon as unambiguously expository, performative, accessible, and set within the Christological project that is the Christian calendar. Each of those marks can be unpacked further. Those with a more classically Lutheran bent often necessitate a differentiation between law and gospel; while I respect this position, I can’t accept that such a differentiation has to be in every sermon to be a faithful sermon.

I won’t attempt to flesh out the question entirely in this space (and perhaps it serves an invitation for readers to offer their own answers). Instead, I’d like to reflect, briefly, on experiencing two different sermons, one from a Baptist pastor and one from a Roman Catholic priest. In the final analysis, both were good; neither were questionable in content; both were well delivered. But running them alongside each other might help bring to the surface some lessons in this sacred task. Part of the reason I think these are helpful for comparison is because neither of these were part of that Christological project, the church year, a tool which imprints the mighty works of God in Christ on those Christian communities that follow the liturgical calendar. The church year, with a lectionary of some sort, structures the preaching ministry along a particular agenda, Jesus Christ. These two sermons weren’t guided/guarded by the year, so we won’t be distracted by lens.

The Baptist’s pastor’s sermon was given as part of a Sunday morning service, the second of two for that church, so one might reasonably assume it was the second iteration. It was 45 minutes in length and was not preceded by a reading of Scripture. The Roman Catholic priest delivered a three-minute sermon as part of an outdoor Corpus Christi procession. There were lessons read at the outset of the procession, but the sermon itself was not necessarily stemming from those passages.

Both were experienced preachers. The Roman Catholic priest was completely noteless while the Baptist pastor held his Bible with its copious marginalia but not really a sermon manuscript. The Baptist pastor invited everyone to open their own personal Bible; he said they were continuing their study of Luke’s Gospel, evincing a lectio continua practice. His congregation sat relaxed in cushioned individual chairs, many balancing their Bibles and their travel coffee mugs. The Catholic priest spoke to people standing (some kneeling) in a gritty parking lot in a rust-belt down town on a sunny afternoon. His context, as I mentioned above, was Corpus Christi.

The Baptist pastor’s sermon was almost entirely — one might even estimate 90% — a text study. By that I do not simply mean it was expository, but rather a verse-by-verse analysis. He introduced a great deal of much appreciated historical context and, in approaching his chapter in Luke, he drew in large portions (which he read) from other books. He made quite a number of different points.

The Roman Catholic priest had one distinct point he wanted to make — and even weeks later I can repeat his words: Jesus Christ is the only hope for this world and our mission as the church is to present Jesus to the world. No political ideology will save us, only Jesus. I know evangelicals who, for reasons I respect, would be aghast at the idea of marching around with a monstrance (see Article 25 of the 39 Articles) but who would likely stand up and cheer for the clear, unadulterated Christocentrism of this sermon.

While I appreciated how thoroughly biblical the Baptist’s pastor’s sermon was, it was, in sum, more like a Bible Study than a sermon. A Bible study involves everyone having the text, flipping around, using highlighters, and (although this was missing) having the chance to ask questions and discuss. Instead, we were all remarkably passive for 45 minutes. While the Catholic priest’s sermon was quite short, it was, properly speaking, a sermon. To paraphrase Luther, it was a living message about Christ. My purpose in saying this isn’t to point up some superiority of Catholic preaching (unfortunately most of the sermons I’ve heard from Catholic priests are just off-hand comments bundled with moral coaching). Rather, between two good examples of preaching, we can identify and raise up what is most helpful in both and be mindful of the office entrusted to preachers.

[1] WA 37:381.

[2] Martin Luther, “Large Catechism,” in Robert Kolb and Timothy Wengert, eds, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2000), 436.


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