What’s in a sermon?

Back home in Aberdeen, sermons were always about “consecutive expository preaching” – we’d work through one book of the Bible, beginning to end, over a number of weeks or months.

Here in Edinburgh, we have two series running concurrently, generally one working through a bible book/section, and one on a broader theme. Actually, we’re now on our third year of the sermon on the mount – each section becomes its own mini-series and, due to the nature of the sermon on the mount, more thematically based as well.

However, last month, we had three weeks with no bible basis for the sermon. In fact, I’m sure many people would have issue with it even being called a sermon. We were looking at the ABC’s of CCE – where we’ve come from (right back to the reformation and the anabaptists), where we’re going and how we can practically be involved now.

It’s not the first time there’s been little scriptural involvement in a service. I remember one meeting last year when we had the finance report instead of a sermon. One of our series last year was The Story, looking at the entirety of the biblical story throughout the course of the year; bible based but not passage focused or expository in any sense of the word. It’s a very different attitude than home, where one of my minister’s main reasons for continuing with evening services is the importance to him of providing two opportunities for the “ministry of the word” on a Sunday.

It’s given me cause to think about what the purpose of our Sunday gatherings is and how necessary consecutive exegetical preaching is. I am not diminishing the importance of Scripture (I think you’ll find a post over there <- where I just quoted Calvin – can’t get more reformed than that!) but simply exploring the purpose of church meetings and the Bible’s role within them. In fact, I’ll be very honest and say that there are times when I miss the bibleness of home!

When the believers come together in the New Testament (I’m pretty certain) the sole purpose is never just to hear a sermon:

Acts 2:42-47 – And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (ESV)

1 Corinthians 14:26 – What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. (ESV)

Of course, we must be mindful of Paul’s instruction to Timothy:

2 Timothy 4:1-4 – I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. (ESV)

If the purpose of a Sunday meeting is to come together as a body of believers; to share together – our stories, our pains and joys, bread and wine; to worship; to learn; to do community: surely it is okay if preaching is not at the centre of this all the time. We’re not a community focused around a book, after all, but a community focussed around Christ. And sometimes you have to deal with the business of the community (such as the finances) or there’s a message you want to communicate to them (such as the plan for the year ahead).

My course in Practical Theology this semester has given me reason to think that the focus of the conservative, reformed church upon this type of preaching and service was originally a reaction against a Roman Catholic focus on Mass and what the reformers considered inaccurate biblical teaching. And then, more recently, a reaction against the charismatic/pentecostal movements who were focused upon revelation from the Spirit, leading reformed Christians to fear a moving away from the Word. It seems to me that we haven’t quite gotten over these fears and prejudices, despite the fact both the Catholic and Pentecostal denominations have changed their emphasis a lot in certain quarters.

I think there is a place for consecutive expository preaching. I think it is good and useful. But like all things it can be taken to extremes where there is no room for manoeuvre and the prompting of the Spirit is ignored for the sake of the preaching plan. I think the Bible is incredibly important, should be used in our worship and be the plumbline by which we measure everything we do. But I do not think that Church – the Body of Christ and Community of Believers – is solely about its explanation. This can be explored by other means and at other times. Doing Church, being Church is so much more.

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