Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Three Simple Mistakes That Preachers Make

"I give you a new commandment that you should love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another." 
John 13:34

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” 
Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”
John 6:35, 41-42

On Sunday we went to church. I like to go to church when I am on vacation because it gives me a chance to just sit and listen. I am not responsible for anything. It is Sabbath time in a way that the Sundays when I am preaching cannot be Sabbath time.

The guest preacher was very earnest and he spoke well. He had an engaging manner and a ready smile. Mostly he just repeated Bible stories in colloquial language, but he did it effectively.

The sermon seemed to have three main points:

1. All God asks of us is that we believe.
2. You don’t have to DO anything.
3. It is not about this world.

All three points are very fairly common in traditional Christian preaching, and all three are wrong. 

Part of it was not his fault. At this point in the Lectionary cycle we are deeply mired in John’s Gospel and the stories seem to be on a repeating loop about the bread of life. After a while, even the best preachers will either run out of things to say or get lost in the weeds. This is one of the reasons that at the United Methodist Church in East Greenwich we have departed from the Lectionary and are doing a series on “Faith in Film.”

There was a time in my life when John’s Gospel was my favorite. But that was long ago and far away.

Parts of John are amazing. Few passages in the Bible can compare to John’s prologue in terms of theological and philosophical depth. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” That verse alone has launched a thousand sermons. And poems. And philosophical reflections. To borrow a phrase from a rabbi, that verse has infinity within it.

John has incredible stories and character studies: “The Woman at the Well,” “The Man Born Blind,” “The Woman Taken in Adultery.” And then there is the dialogue between Jesus and Pilate. It doesn’t get much deeper than Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” And you get a feeling for both Pilate and Jesus that is unique in the Gospels.

But John has some major failings that are challenging to work around. One of the prominent story lines in the New Testament is the transformation of Christianity from a sect within Judaism into a new religion. The Gospels continually define the teachings of Jesus over against the teachings of traditional Judaism and there is an emphasis on the differences which is inherently anti-Semitic. But John gives us anti-Semitism on steroids. It is understandable, once you consider the historical context. When the synoptic gospels were written (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the church was still part of the synagogue. Those writers wanted to draw a contrast, within Judaism, between Jesus and the Pharisees. Really, they were contrasting Jesus with other Pharisees, since Jesus was a Pharisee. As the church breaks away, John casts “the Jews” in the role the other gospels assign to the Pharisees, although the fact is that Jesus and his disciples, and most of the other early Christians, were all Jews.

And then there are the three points of the sermon. John isn’t really trying to make these points. They are a simplistic interpretation of his theology. It is at least partly their simplicity that makes them so popular. 

Could anything be simpler than the idea that all we need to do is believe? 

What Alfred North Whitehead said of science and natural philosophy is also true of theology, the aim “is to seek the simplest explanation of complex facts.” But then Whitehead adds the caution that, “We are apt to fall into the error of thinking that the facts are simple because simplicity is the goal of our quest.” And he concludes, “The guiding motto in the life of every natural philosopher should be, ‘Seek simplicity and distrust it.’”

In theology and biblical study we should always seek simplicity, but we should also recognize that a simple explanation cannot fully explain a complex reality.

The idea that all we need to do is believe, ignores the fact that in Matthew, Mark, and Luke there is almost nothing at all about belief. The invitation is simply to follow Jesus. And it also ignores the very strong emphasis in John on servanthood as the evidence that we are Jesus’ disciples. John is the one who reports Jesus saying, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-45).

Believing, as the early Christians understood it, is not the same as what modern preachers mean by it. To believe in Jesus, in the biblical sense, is to give one’s heart to Jesus. It is an existential commitment rather than an intellectual exercise. And there is nothing simple about it.

 “You don’t have to DO anything,” said the preacher. He said it more than once to emphasize the simplicity of Christian faith. This second point is a heresy as old as Christianity. In Paul’s Second Letter to the Church in Thessalonica, one of the oldest texts in the New Testament, he confronts a group who literally will not do anything. They will not work and instead are living off of the work of others. If they cannot earn God’s favor by good works, then what is the point of working? Paul has a simple solution. If they will not work, then they will not eat.

God loves us and accepts us just the way we are. It is a gift of grace. We don’t have to do anything to be loved by God. But that is not the only word. The synoptic gospels are organized around a single question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” What must I do to have fellowship with God now and forever? And the answer is always the same: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.” We don’t have to do those things to earn God’s love, but we do have to do those things in order to experience life the way it is meant to be lived. We don’t experience the gift of God’s grace until we choose to receive it.

Point three in the sermon was that it’s not about this world. The preacher said that the Jews in John’s Gospel were looking for a paradise on earth, but Jesus was talking about a “heavenly” kingdom. It is a popular and traditional misconception. In the Lectionary text for last Sunday and at other points, John seems to say that Jesus is focused primarily on something beyond this world. When Pilate asks Jesus if he is a king, Jesus answers, “My kingdom is not from this world,” if it were, “my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over.” But the key point in that passage is that Jesus’ kingdom, the Kingdom of God, is not like the kingdoms of this world. It is not built on violence and domination. It is built on peace and non-violence. To use Paul’s language, it is in the world but not of the world. Most specifically, it is not like the Roman Empire.

Similarly, the preacher pointed out that Jesus was talking about the bread of heaven while “the Jews” were looking for a meal. According to John’s account, Jesus did talk about the bread of heaven, but throughout the Gospels he talks a great deal more about real bread that feeds hungry people here and now.

John’s emphasis on eternal life certainly means more than just the time that we are alive on earth, but it starts now. It is not something that happens to us only after we die. Eternal life means living fully in the presence of God, now and forever. Almost two thousand years later, when Dietrich Bonhoeffer talked about “this worldly Christianity” as he led the Confessing Church against the empire of Hitler, he was much closer to Jesus’ meaning than the popular tradition of an “other-worldly” Jesus. 

After the sermon we said the Lord’s Prayer, which gave a wonderful counterpoint:

Thy kingdom come, 
Thy will be done 
on earth 
as it is in heaven. 
Give us this day our daily bread . . .   


  1. "The sermon seemed to have three main points:

    1. All God asks of us is that we believe.
    2. You don’t have to DO anything.
    3. It is not about this world."

    In the future, when they ask (if they even do) what happened to Methodism in America, the answer will be that at a tragic and ill-conceived moment we all decided it would be better if we were Southern Baptists...

    ... and then embraced these three points as if we had invented them.

  2. Thank you for the post. For more on John Wesley, I would like to invite you to the website for the book series, The Asbury Triptych Series. The trilogy based on the life of Francis Asbury, the young protégé of John Wesley and George Whitefield, opens with the book, Black Country. The opening novel in this three-book series details the amazing movement of Wesley and Whitefield in England and Ireland as well as its life-changing effect on a Great Britain sadly in need of transformation. Black Country also details the Wesleyan movement's effect on the future leader of Christianity in the American colonies, Francis Asbury. The website for the book series is www.francisasburytriptych.com. Please enjoy the numerous articles on the website. Again, thank you, for the post.