“Almighty God, on this day you opened the way of eternal life to every race and nation by the promised gift of your Holy Spirit: Shed abroad this gift throughout the world by the preaching of the Gospel, that it may reach to the ends of the earth, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, forever and ever. Amen” (Collect for the Day of Pentecost, The Book of Common Prayer).
I believe in preaching. The church was born preaching the gospel and exists to preach the gospel to the world. Indeed, the church lives by preaching. The vocation of preaching is the Spirit’s gift to the church for which the life and speech of its preachers are made “fitting” to bear evangelical witness to the incarnate, crucified, and risen Lord of all that is. In addition, the call to preach draws us into the joy of proclaiming the creative and redemptive love of God in Christ poured out by the Spirit in a foolish abundance that exceeds and transfigures all need and practicality.
Proclaiming the “gospel of God’s glory” requires doxological discourse—the language of praise that springs from and contributes to the church’s worship of the Triune God, a language informed and shaped by the truth of Christ, inspired and ordered by the Spirit’s love. Liturgical theologian Jean Corbon writes of God as the source or wellspring of Christian preaching: “The Church of Jesus Christ is the concrete place in history where the Trinitarian mystery is explicitly proclaimed and accepted. Where the Father’s offer of self-communication of his only Son and his Holy Spirit finds a free response of praise and thanksgiving. This mystery is represented and shared in a festive way in the liturgy of the Church; it is continually offered and accepted in all the dimensions of the daily life of faith? (The Wellspring of Worship, trans. Matthew J. O’Connell [Ignatius Press, 1988], 7).
The Church’s Homiletical Memory
As women and men called by the Spirit and the church, we are not free to determine how we think and speak without reference to the church’s homiletical memory, which recalls God speaking as the source of preaching. For example, many who question the validity of preaching in our time may have little acquaintance with, or interest in, a tradition generated by the initiative of God that begins with the speaking of creation into being, is amplified through the calling of Israel and the faith generated by its Scriptures, finds its central focus in the history of the Incarnate Word and the creation of the church, has been sustained by the Spirit through the centuries up to the present, and will continue until the consummation of all things in the reign of God. We speak, therefore, because we have first been spoken.
Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, has written of the “charismatic memory” of the church. By this he means the historical memory activated by the Holy Spirit in the Body of Christ as a form of grace. Williams sees this memory at work in worshiping communities where the Bible, as the primary record of God’s self-communication, is read not just as a relic of the past, but as bearing the present communication of God.
Williams notes the habit of charismatic memory and inherited speech tell us how and why the two false certainties that characterize much modern thinking, either the certainty of the present or the certainty of the past, are false for a people called to worship God and serve God’s mission through history and time that have been sanctified by God’s incarnate presence (Why Study the Past? The Quest for the Historical Church [Eerdmans, 2005], 93). His comments on the gift of Christian speech are worth quoting in full.
We speak because we are called, invited and authorized to speak, we speak what we have been given, out of our new ‘belonging’, and this is a ‘dependent’ kind of utterance, a responsive speech. But it is not a dictated or determined utterance: revelation is addresses not so much to a will called upon to submit as to an imagination called upon to ‘open itself’…. The integrity of theological utterance [including preaching] … does not fall into line with an authoritative communication, but in the reality of its rootedness, its belonging in the new world constituted in the revelatory event or process…. God ‘speaks’ in the response as the primary utterance: there is a dimension of ‘givenness’, generative power, and the discovered new world in the work of the imagination opening itself. (On Christian Theology [Blackwell, 2000], 146–47)
Preaching and Pentecost
The amazing newness and life-giving power of the gospel story is rendered beautifully by the authentic, paradigmatic performances of Spirit-inspired apostolic preaching in the Book of Acts: Peter’s breath-taking proclamation at the observance of Pentecost, an annual festival during which Israel remembered God’s faithfulness.
Pentecost was a time of worship in the life of God’s people. It was a liturgical event, the “work of the people” that, paradoxically, was a day of rest and renewal for offering themselves in thankful praise to God for his abundant goodness. At the heart of Pentecost is the joyful acknowledgement of God’s generous provision in the ordinary cycles of planting, tending, waiting, and harvesting. Moreover, Pentecost also marks the remembrance of the events at Sinai, of God’s giving of the law to Israel accompanied by signs of fire and thunder. Peter’s announcement of Christ as the risen Lord is situated within the story of a pilgrim people gathered to remember the future in light of God’s past faithfulness through the mighty outpouring of God’s Spirit as the end-time arriving “today.”
Pentecost marks the origin of Christian preaching generated by God’s faithfulness to Israel through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Presented by Luke as the first Christian sermon, Peter’s first move is one of prayerful receptivity, so that his proclamation of God’s mighty action in the past directs his listeners’ attention to God speaking in the present. Prompted by the Spirit, Peter turns to the Scriptures of Israel, particularly the poetic speech of the prophet Joel, to declare the irruption of God’s cleansing, life-giving power poured out by the risen Lord in abundance on all flesh. As open, public proclamation, unafraid and spoken with joyful confidence, Christian preaching is just as much the result of the pouring out of God’s Spirit as is the raising up of a new community of diverse persons and groups of people.
Exercising prophetic wisdom in the lineage of the prophets, Peter’s attentiveness to the Spirit and Israel’s Scripture reframes the experience of his listeners within the narrative of the gospel: the God of Israel has raised crucified Jesus from the dead. Peter does not merely offer a talk or lecture about Christ as Lord. Peter boldly testifies to God’s mighty action brought about a remarkable new state of affairs for both Israel and the nations through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth—thus vindicating all he said, did, and suffered. Moreover, there is a timeliness and “fittingness” about this proclamation. The grand narrative of Israel’s Lord and his faithfulness through the life and ministry of Jesus is of such scope and grandeur that it is capable of generating a multitude of languages for announcing the mighty works of God in diverse times, places, and circumstances.
A reading of Acts 2 conveys the sense of such homiletical beauty. God is here—for, with, in, and among us, addressing and calling us to a change of mind and heart concerning the way things are now that Jesus, Israel’s crucified Messiah, has been raised from the dead, exalted to the God’s right hand, and poured out the Spirit on “all flesh.” This is both God’s conclusive revelation of himself and the expression of his design for the world, which is the creation of a new heavens and a new earth. Peter describes the appropriate response to the announcement of this new state of affairs as a letting go, a giving away of one’s self in faith that lives in the world as ruled by Christ the Lord over all created rulers, authorities, and powers.
The proclamation of such news calls forth repentance as an intellectual, affective, and volitional turning, a conversion of our whole selves in relation to God and others that is embodied in the life-giving power of the Spirit. This return to God is not the cause of salvation, but is rather a consequence of God’s saving action enjoyed in communion with neighbors from all nations, peoples, and cultures. What this looks like for the life of the church in the world is demonstrated throughout the whole narrative of Acts. Peter’s Spirit-inspired announcement that the God of Israel rules heaven and earth through the risen, crucified Jesus continues to take form as the ministry of the word advances in joyful obedience manifested as a form of life that anticipates and already has begun to participate in the renewal of creation.
This paradigmatic demonstration of the apostolic preaching encourages us to see the practice of preaching—its truthfulness, wisdom, character, and manner of speaking—in terms of the church’s primary vocation of praising God in the whole of life as our truest end and joy. What if we were to understand our identity as preachers according to the originating story of Israel, Christ, and the creation of the church at Pentecost? What if we were to see ourselves as a pilgrim people, rather than students, consumers, or partisan advocates for particular causes, groups, and agendas; as those persuaded and empowered by the Spirit to boldly confess our limitations and incompleteness in returning to worship God, to love one another, and to serve the world? What if preaching begins with confessing that Christian people walk by faith and not by sight, acknowledging that all we are, have, do, and say is the superabundantly generous gift of the word spoken in the incarnate, crucified, and risen Lord through the Spirit’s self-giving whose witnesses we are? Here Leslie Newbigin’s theological assessment of the church’s being and action is apt.
They are the radiance of a supernatural reality. That reality is, first of all, the reality of God, the superabundant richness of the being of the Triune God, in whom love is forever given and forever enjoyed in an ever new exchange…. It is said of this superabundant glory that it has been given to believers in order that they may be recognizable as a community where the love of God is actually tested and known…. This is what makes the church a place of joy, of praise, of surprises, and of laughter, a place where there is a foretaste of the endless surprises of heaven. (Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture [Eerdmans, 1986], 124)
It is worth noting that Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 is not a teaching, a topic, a big idea, a principle, or a rule that his listeners were to take and apply in order to make their lives better, to make a difference, or to have a greater impact in the “real world.” Nor does Peter speak of Jesus as a heroic and inspiring teacher who was all about “values” such as love, mercy, compassion, and justice. Instead, Peter’s bold, daring preaching narrates the astonishingly uncontrollable irruption of the “real world,” the radiant light of a new creation shining forth from the Spirit’s witness to the presence of the risen Lord extending the story and promise of Israel’s God to the nations.
Christian preaching heralds the glorious “end” of all things in the name of Jesus, a message of good news that flows from the depths of a common life of praise generated by the Spirit of the risen Lord. Spoken as itself an act of worship, such preaching may still serve to “entice and enchant us not only to desire but also to fall in love with God the Trinity, and thereby love our neighbors” (Bryan D. Spinks, The Worship Mall: Contemporary Responses to Contemporary Culture [Church Publishing, 2010], 216).
Mark McIntosh notes that, because the church is a life of grace, of divine rather than human initiative, it may itself be a “divine speaking” or “word of God” within the world, a sign of the possibility of a new creation appearing in the midst of the old creation, a provisional yet visible sharing in the life to come that is already a participation in the eternal joy and delight of the Trinity (Divine Teaching: An Introduction to Christian Theology [Blackwell, 2008], 187). Luke thus testifies to the beauty of the church raised up by the Spirit in and for the preaching of its good news to the world.
All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the Temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of the people. (Acts 2:44–47a)
I believe in preaching.