By Father Wade Miller
The need for a sermon seems obvious to most people. The readings from Scripture need further explanation and interpretation so that the faithful understand what God is saying to them. The sermon, however, is more than the giving of information. If disseminating information is all that a sermon is, one could just read a commentary, or in our day, Google a sermon. St. Paul says, “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17). Sermons should strive for conversion (i.e. meaning to change), not merely providing an in-depth commentary on a Bible passage.
The liturgy of the Church has a two-fold structure. The first is the liturgy of the catechumen, which means “learner.” This is sometimes called the liturgy of the Word. The second part is the liturgy of the Eucharist where we offer our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to God. This two-fold structure is found in the writings of St. Justin the Martyr (AD 100-165). In his First Apology, written between AD 153 and 155, Justin speaks of early Christian worship consisting of the reading of Scripture, prayers, followed by an exposition of “the memoirs of the Apostles.” After that time, the Eucharist is celebrated with bread, wine, and a little bit of water mixed in the chalice.
As previously stated, sermons are not merely information; they are to instruct and prepare the baptized Christian for the principal act in the liturgy, which is the Holy Eucharist. In the ancient church, those who had not been baptized would be dismissed after the sermon and before the participation of the faithful in the Holy Eucharist. This was for the purpose of preserving the sanctity (sacredness) of the Eucharist as a holy sacrifice. The sacrifice in the Mass is the re-presentation of the once and for all sacrifice of Christ for the sake of the world. We receive the resurrected and ascended body and blood of Christ that brings immortality and eternal life.
Sermons were never meant to be a mere academic lecture, nor were they to be a time for theatrics or showmanship. The primary content of the sermon is the Gospel of our Lord found in the person of Jesus. Preaching, however, is not merely a re-telling of what Jesus did; it is a call for the people to be converted to Christ. Every sermon concludes with an “altar call.” This altar call is not the popular idea of "making a decision" for God through a strong emotive experience with the divine. It is, instead, a call to receive Christ in the Holy Eucharist and to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice to Him by seeking to take his mercy out into the world.
Sermons should not seek to be merely provocative or innovative. They are to tie the readings for the given Sunday with Jesus Christ being the heart and center of the message. Furthermore, sermons and commentaries of the church fathers help the preacher stay within the boundaries of an orthodox and catholic understanding of a given text. The hearer should understand what the passage of Scripture is saying, and then see how the biblical text relates to Christ. As baptized Christians who now share in the life of Christ, we are called to live out His life in this world. This is the mission of the Church.
In liturgical churches, texts are not chosen randomly by the preacher. The church follows a lectionary. The lectionary highlights the life of Jesus throughout the year. This is called the church year or church calendar. Most Christians are familiar with Christmas and Easter. These are two of the most familiar days in the Church’s calendar. But there are more days that the church observes and celebrates.
Advent is a time that anticipates the second coming of Jesus and is therefore penitential (i.e. preparing for the return of Christ through fasting and prayer). Just as Jesus came in humility being born in Bethlehem, so he will come again in might and power as both judge and king. The Christian is called to prepare for this second coming. Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus where heaven has now descended to earth. The long-awaited king has come who will sit on the throne of David and his kingdom will never end. Epiphany is that time of our Lord’s manifestation of Himself to the Gentiles as the Savior of the world. Lent is another penitential season that reflects our Lord’s fulfillment of Israel by being tempted and tested. Lent focuses on Jesus doing what Adam and Israel failed to do, and how we all fall short as well. Jesus was faithful and perfect in every test that he faced. He demonstrated perfect faith and trust, even in the direst of circumstances. This testing culminates as he is beaten and scourged, and ultimately killed. In his death, Jesus fulfills the role as the “Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world.”
Martyrdom and the Cross, however, are not the final word to this drama of redemption. The principal feast of the Church is Easter where the paschal mystery focuses on the triumphant victory of God over sin, death, and the devil. Ascension is about Jesus consisting of being both God and perfect man, taking our human flesh into the realm of eternity called “heaven.” This is the finality of the exodus event as One greater than Moses ascends into heaven to be crowned king and Lord. Pentecost is about the fact that Jesus does not leave his people as orphans. The Father sends the Holy Spirit through the Son in order to make Christ present among his faithful people. These faithful people are called the Church, which is the Kingdom of God here on earth.
Preaching is one significant way in which the Holy Spirit makes Christ known among his people. Preaching converts people to Christ as the Holy Spirit opens our hearts and minds to trust in what Christ has accomplished through his perfect life, obedient death, and his glorious resurrection. The Holy Spirit comes upon the people of God revealing Christ as the Word made Flesh. The written and preached Word of God are to always point to the Incarnate Word, Jesus the Christ. Those who are converted to Christ are to share in the death and resurrection of Jesus by partaking of his own body and blood. In the Eucharist, we become what we eat – the body of Christ that goes back out into the world.
Preaching, therefore, is a means to an end. The end is communion with God. Preaching is the preparation for this communion as the sermon calls us to hear, believe, rejoice, and then live out our calling as baptized Christians. We are to be the body of Christ, offering ourselves as a living sacrifice for the conversion of the world. This conversion must begin by responding faithfully to the Word of God. In the words of Jesus, “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life“ (John 5:24).