So, if part of the saving work of the gospel is to startle us into a new perception of the world (see my two previous posts), then what should the aim of preaching be?
Preaching, every week preaching, should be gospel preaching. Duh? Not so fast. I have in mind here that preaching should do the work of the gospel, not just have “content” that qualifies as the gospel. Let me explain the difference.
I remember many years ago telling a young adults class I was teaching that I thought it was important that every sermon preach the gospel and asked them what they thought about that. Most thought I meant that preaching should be evangelistic, or include an invitation or altar call at the end. They thought, however, that preaching should be about more than that. They thought preaching should also focus on topics like marriage or money or ethics, not just about the fact that Jesus died for my sins. For them, the gospel was a discrete set of facts, a “message” or “content” that was reducible to a theory of the atonement. This is not what I meant.
Before I tell you what I meant, let me again emphasize the way the Bible uses the term “gospel.” In the bible, the gospel is not a theory or explanation of how the death of Jesus saves us. The gospel, rather, is the announcement of an event that has ongoing “newsworthiness.” So, for instance, Paul will define the gospel in relation to the event of the death and resurrection of Jesus, and not just as something for non-believers to accept. This news is what “they received” (past tense), “in which they stand” (present tense) and through which they are “being saved” (ongoing future). It’s not simply that something happened, it’s that its still happening, producing a new set of realities.
In fact, Jesus’ announcement of the gospel as the coming of the Kingdom of God shares this “always coming,” or ongoing sense. For both Paul and Jesus, the gospel is the announcement that with the coming of Jesus there has been a decisive “turn of the ages” and nothing will ever be the same for those who receive it. It’s not a set of facts that we believe as much as it is a new reality in which we participate, always producing new insight and meanings. It begins, continues, and ends as news. (Something’s happened, now this, stay tuned for further details).
Part of participating in the gospel, therefore, is being liberated from the way we see the world now–a world given to us by the principalities and powers of this age, so that we can see all things new. And this is the work of the gospel: an unmasking of the distorting world given to us by the powers of this age; and making clear what it means to participate in the liberating way of the Kingdom of God. Each week, we should be given the opportunity to be startled into new recognition.
Each week, really? My claim makes sense only if the world to which we are long habituated clings stubbornly to us. Just this Sunday, I became aware of how I have interpreted the story of the woman at the well through a lens of my own privilege and was shocked that it might actually be pulling me in another way altogether (subject for a later post). This happens enough to me, a person who is on alert for such a phenomenon, to think that the world pulled down over my eyes is tough to shake for all of us.
Not only do I believe that this is the case, but I fear that too often our churches go along instead of resist. For instance, one of the lies of a consumerist age is to say that our worth is related to what we produce or consume. Our lives are commodified, and churches, instead of resisting this, market to us like self-interested consumers. Or, we plan worship not around the question of “what would it take to form a Christian?,” but “what can we accomplish in an hour?”
Preaching can do the same thing. It can commodify the sermon, aiming for useful or inspirational, and unwittingly leave intact the very world the gospel would resist. My preacher, Adam Hill, has a great way of saying this. He’s not interested in preaching as problem solving, but in preaching as an act of the gospel.
This kind of perspective shifting work is done at the level of imagination. Gospel preachers are not content to fill out the details of a world we can manage better or succeed in more readily, what Brueggemann calls “prose.” Rather, again to quote Brueggemann, gospel preachers traffic in poetry, not as in
“rhyme, rhythm, or meter, but language that moves like Bob Gibson’s fastball, that jumps at the right moment, that breaks open old worlds with surprise, abrasion, and pace… Such preaching is not moral instruction or problem solving or doctrinal clarification… It is rather, the ready, steady surprising proposal that the real world in which God invites us to live is not the one made available by the rulers of this age. The preacher has an awesome opportunity to offer an evangelical world: an existence shaped by the news of the gospel.” (Finally Comes the Poet, p 3, youngsters can google Bob Gibson).