The Liturgical Function of the Sermon
“I preached as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.”
The purpose of the sermon is frequently ill-defined. Without a clear objective, sermons can easily become chaotic and even counter-productive. While I am writing from a specifically Anglican perspective, much of this critique of modern sermons and proposal for rectifying the problem can be applied more broadly. The problem of sermonic mercuriality must be properly diagnosed and the solution grounded in the liturgical structure passed down by generations of Christians.
There are at least three major types of preaching in the modern Church: the to-do list, the call to social action, and the lecture. The to-do list, common especially in Evangelical circles, presents listeners with something to do. These actions can be specific— perhaps an alliterative three-point list—or more abstract in a psychological sense. Either way, prescriptive sermons suffer from the problem of being burdensome. If, every week, the pastor presents their congregation with a new set of tasks to complete, parishioners will buckle under the weight of impossible expectations. This slips into a subtle form of legalism. At best, congregants are bestowed with a false sense of piety and at worst, they are led into despondency at their inability to follow all the instructions. Either way, the congregants are frequently deprived of the cross as the central thesis of Christianity. This is not to say that a pastor should not offer parishioners prescriptive counsel based on Scripture, but this is not the primary function of the sermon.
The second popular style of sermon is the call to social action. In these kinds of sermons, the universality of the Gospel takes a backseat to a particular social issue. This is not unique to a particular demographic of church; such a tendency can exist in both liberal Mainline and conservative Evangelical churches. As I’ve discussed previously, such preaching is tacit Pelagianism. Now, this is not to say the Gospel has no bearing on social issues—it does. But the sermon is not the venue to hash out these issues. No political message can ever be as revolutionary as the proclamation of Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sins.
The third and final category of sermon to be avoided is the academic lecture. This is a particularly tempting trap for clergy. Seminary and higher education can make Scripture and its surrounding issues feel complicated: out of a sincere desire for our congregants to be educated, we can too often launch into challenging lectures on Greek syntax and abstract theological ideas. Elsewhere, I have written about the need for pastors to be adept theologians. A pastor can and should promote a healthy life of the mind for the parish: he should be educating his people in the robust Christian faith and the particular denominational tradition he represents. This is not the primary function of the Sunday service, however.
As preachers, we should avoid the legalism of moralistic checklists, calls to political activism, and academic lectures. So then what are we supposed to do? The answer to this question can be found in the liturgical setting of the sermon.
At the beginning of the service, the priest, other clergy, and acolytes process to the altar. Once there, the priest greets the people by calling them to worship. On behalf of the congregation, he prays the Collect for Purity, which is followed by a hymn (either the Gloria or the Kyrie). This is followed by the Collect of the Day, which often introduces a theme for the Sunday based on the Church calendar. The theme is continued in the readings for the day, drawn from the whole range of Scripture (Old Testament, Psalms, New Testament Epistle, and Gospel) which is expounded upon by the priest in his sermon. At the close of the sermon, the people recite the Nicene Creed as a means of checking the orthodoxy of the sermon and then the service proceeds to the Prayers of the People. At this point, the congregation confesses their sins, receives absolution, and passes the peace. This is the close of the liturgy of the Word, at which point the service transitions into the liturgy of the Sacrament, where the Eucharist becomes the explicit focal point.
The sermon, then, has a clear function dictated by the liturgy in which it finds itself. The sermon is the preaching of Gospel to the congregation in a way that convicts them of sin while also preparing them for the Eucharist. A Lutheran may call this “Law/Gospel” preaching. There is a sense in which the sermon should destroy self-confidence in the hearer while also pointing them to the crucified Lord. The prayer of confession occurs only after the Word has been proclaimed, an opportunity for the Spirit to move in the lives of the faithful so they might be convicted of sin. The sermon, as it prepares parishioners for the Eucharist, is more than mere Law and Gospel; it is a call to participation in the new humanity instituted by Christ through his Church and its Sacraments. The sermon, then, must serve as the heart of the liturgy of the Word by convicting people of sin and proclaiming Christ crucified. It must also be a bridge from the liturgy of the Word to the liturgy of the Sacrament, inviting and reminding parishioners to live the life to which they are called.
Preaching this way is not always an easy task; I am by no means an expert. In a world where the sermon has become a bully pulpit for various iterations of sermon types discussed above. Yet preaching is an urgent task with precise objectives. If its function is unhitched from its liturgical setting, chaos ensues, as preaching becomes prone to be reduced to vulgar spectacle. By defining our purpose—Law/Gospel proclamation plus an invitation to participation in the divine life—within the context of the liturgy, we may elevate our preaching to be a singularly christocentric means of grace.