I was recently asked if preaching is just another way of saying “teaching.” Implicit in this question is a deeper matter pointing to the content, character, and purpose of proclamation in the life and mission of the church. In conversations around this topic, I am often told by others that their church doesn’t have “sermons” when it gathers to worship, but has instead what they describe as “teaching.”
What are we to make of this?
The paradigmatic performance of Christian proclamation inspired and energized by the Holy Spirit is Peter’s proclamation during the observance of Pentecost, an ancient festival of Israel that remembered and celebrated God’s faithfulness. Pentecost was a time of worship, a liturgical event, the “work of the people”—a work that, paradoxically, was also a day of rest and renewal in God. At the heart of Pentecost was the joyful acknowledgement of God’s generous provision through ordinary cycles of planting and harvesting. Peter’s act of announcing the Lordship of crucified and risen Jesus is situated within a global assembly of faithful pilgrims whose purpose for being in Jerusalem was the praise of God.
Pentecost also marks the origins of Christian preaching. Peter’s sermon is itself an act of worship that proclaims both God’s mighty action in the past and God’s astonishing activity in the present—the delightfully disruptive power of the Spirit poured out in abundance on all flesh. Peter does not lecture, nor does he explain so much as announce, declare, and testify that God has taken the initiative in bringing about a remarkable new state of affairs in the world through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. There is an urgency about this proclamation; the news of what God has done in Jesus is so monumental and world-changing that it must be embraced by faith and entered into “today.”
A reading of Acts 2 has sense of such homiletical immediacy: God is here, with us and among us, personally addressing and calling us, graciously and mercifully, to change our minds about the way things are now that Jesus, Israel’s Messiah, has been raised from the dead. This is God’s conclusive revelation of himself and his desire for the redemption of the whole Creation.
Peter describes the appropriate response to the announcement of this new state of affairs as “repentance,” which involves our whole being and transfigures how we see ourselves in relation to God, others, and the world. Repentance, evoked by the Spirit through the proclamation of the good news, is an intellectual, affective, and volitional turning prompted and enabled by the work of the Spirit who now dwells in our midst.
Repentance, moreover, is concrete, visible, and embodied. What this looks like in life is narrated throughout the remainder of Acts in changing conditions and circumstances. The proclamation of the gospel, the joyful announcement that God rules all things in heaven and on earth through the risen crucified Jesus, takes form again and again as Word is proclaimed and received by those who hear with the gift of faith.
I find, then, that “teaching” rather than preaching in worship too often lacks the concrete, urgent address of Peter’s Pentecostal proclamation. In our time, “teaching” tends to be abstract, seeking to explain and illustrate topics, ideas, concepts and principles before moving to “practical application.”
I recently heard a presentation like this. After a line-by-line explanation of a biblical passage, the person speaking asked, “Now, what lessons have we learned today?” The primary emphasis here is on what we need to know and do, with God receding into the background, giving way to the “teaching pastor” who transmits the right information and the right application. Worship has already happened during the singing; now the church is transformed into a classroom for the ministry of the Word. The underlying assumption is that being Christian requires knowing many things “about” the Bible and related “topics” that give us more to work with in the so-called “real world.”
What if, on the other hand, we were to think of the “ethos” of preaching—its nature and purpose—in terms of a cathedral rather than a classroom? What if we were to understand our identity primarily as that of pilgrims rather than students, confessing that we walk by faith and not by sight, gladly acknowledging that all we are, have, and do is the abundantly generous work of the One whose people we are?
Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 was not merely teaching that was to be applied in the “real world.” His robust proclamation was the “real world” descending upon all those gathered in God’s presence by the abundantly revelatory transforming work of the Spirit’s witness to Jesus Christ. Amazingly, the “end” of all things has burst upon them.