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God Against Preaching

A foundational context of preaching is the context of worship: preaching takes place within a worship service, within a liturgical context.  The lectionary texts are read and preached in the midst of a Christian congregation at worship: the Consultation on Common Texts defines a lectionary as “a collection of readings or selections from the Scriptures, arranged and intended for proclamation during the worship of the People of God.”[1] How do Scripture and preaching fit into this liturgical context, and what difference does that make for lectionary preaching?  Chapter 1 discussed Eugene Lowry’s observation that the lectionary was formed by liturgical scholars, around liturgical rather than homiletical concerns, a fact that can cause trouble for preachers; and yet, preaching does occur in a liturgical context.  Therefore, it is necessary to reflect on preaching’s context of worship.

In his book God Against Religion: Rethinking Christian Theology Through Worship, Matthew Myer Boulton explores deeply the thought of Karl Barth, Martin Luther, and Genesis 2-4 to develop a theological framework that takes seriously the Lutheran insight of simul iustus et peccator (simultaneously justified and sinner) in the heart of religion itself, and especially in Christian worship and theology.  Certainly, Boulton titled his book, and made his argument, provocatively.  But the book’s radical critique of all religion – especially of Christianity from within – is in line with the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, Jesus, Paul, Luther, and Barth.  Building on Barth, Boulton defines religion as “that fundamental, widespread human procedure whereby we carry out moral and legal ordering, take and issue instructions, compose and live out philosophies of life, are subject to and subject others to decrees, prohibitions, advice, and applause.”[2] After the fall, we cannot escape religion; in fact, it is “the outer limit of human achievement.”[3] As a human work originating with the fall, however, religion shares in humanity’s fallen nature.  Boulton argues that in the garden, Adam and Eve were given a vocation to care for creation;[4] they walked with God in the garden as God’s friends, not as worshipers.  It is only with the fall, the separation between God and humanity, that worship, and indeed religion, are born, as humanity’s curved-in-on oneself, doomed-to-failure attempt to bridge the now evident gap between humanity and God; indeed, religion is the locus of the first murder (Genesis 4).  In fact, liturgy (leitourgia), as the “work of people,” insofar as it is fallen humanity’s attempt to reconcile with God on our own terms, only highlights and deepens the separation.  It is for that reason that God is ‘against religion,’ as Boulton puts it.

Preaching does not escape this diagnosis of religion, for preaching is also a human work, a leitourgia, an act of communication that attempts to rejoin that which has been separated in the fall.  Boulton calls Eve “the first rabbi and preacher, appending merely human words to the divine Word, and thus anxiously exaggerating God’s command,” while Adam is “the first religious congregant, no less anxious and responsible in his silent, all-too-agreeable piety and discipleship.”[5] It is essential to acknowledge the simul iustus et peccator nature of preaching itself.  The preacher is not above the fallen human condition, but enmeshed within it, along with all congregants.

Do we then despair?  No, because “in Jesus Christ, God transforms worship from an event of fatal separation between humanity and God into an event of saving reconciliation between them.”[6] Indeed, argues Boulton, “Precisely as humanity’s fall, leitourgia is, after all, the expected locus of God’s graceful rescue, the scenario in which the divine work of reconciliation must and does take place.”[7] Through Jesus Christ, God transforms “leitourgia (work of people)” into “the work of people-with-God.”[8] Worship as reconciliation “is the life of salvation itself, the very event of reconciliation between God and human beings, made possible and carried out graciously and decisively by God, but in such a way as to establish human beings as genuine partners and friends, collaborators in the event by conspiracy and solidarity.”[9] Boulton applies this not to worship alone, but to the whole of human life.  Boulton sketches a vision of human life as a life of gratitude for God’s gifts.  We live out that gratitude in a life of invocation, in thanksgiving, praise, and petition.[10] Boulton argues that “the renovation of prayer accomplished in the Incarnation amounts to a wholesale renovation of human life, of all ‘thought and speech and action’ so that human being may take place centered not in itself but in God, no longer en-centric but genuinely ec-centric.”[11]

Through it all, we remain, this side of the eschaton, simul iustus et peccator, and so does our worship and theology.  This calls for humility; indeed, Boulton traces Luther’s concept of the Christian as semper penitens, always penitent.[12] The Christian life is a life of penitence, repentance, metanoia.  If we boast, it is only in the Lord, never in our own righteousness.  This calls for humility as an essential characteristic of the preacher, an honest acknowledgement of the limits of preaching and the inability of the preacher to bridge the gap between humanity and God by her or his own strength.  The preacher is also semper penitens.  And yet, preaching, as an element of leitourgia, is also a locus of divine reconciliation.  Through Jesus Christ, God transforms the work of the preacher into the work of the preacher with God.  Through the power of the Holy Spirit, and despite the preacher, God speaks to the congregation through the sermon.  Biblical preaching needs to embody and communicate the simul iustus et peccator and semper penitens nature of the Christian life and lead to grateful invocation.

The Revised Common Lectionary, of course, also shares in the simul iustus et peccator nature of religion.  It is neither infallible nor inerrant.  It is not the end of lectionary history.  The RCL shares in religion and leitourgia’s fallen, finite character.  As with all leitourgia, the lectionary falls short, as all lectionaries must.  There is nothing especially sacred about the three year cycle of Bible readings for worship; it is not free of the subjectivity and fallenness of its creators and its users.  It is, indeed, a storehouse of wisdom for worship planning, a summation of centuries of lectionary history, and an ecumenical achievement.  But it has not escaped the event horizon of religion: it is not above critique, modification, and improvement.  Given the deep biblical and theological roots of Boulton’s exposition of religion, one must ask if the textual choices of the lectionary reflect simul iustus et peccator or mask it.  As Lowry argued, the lectionary texts were chosen for the “liturgical orality” they provide for the event of worship, and for the “biblical grounding for the continuing rhythmic celebration of the acts of God in Jesus Christ” they provide the yearly cycle.[13] Do the lections also enter into the full witness of Scripture in enough depth and breadth to draw the congregation into the full story of God’s judgment and reconciliation of fallen humanity, or do they tend to emphasize iustus to the neglect of peccator?

To take just one example: as noted above, Boulton walks through Genesis 2-4 in depth to trace the unified story of God’s creation of humanity, the giving of humankind’s vocation in the garden, their fall (along with the invention of worship), the expulsion from the garden, the first murder, and the beginnings of civilization.  Here is how Genesis 2-4 is treated in the RCL:

Liturgical Date Reading Story Unit
Lent 1 A Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 The Fall
Proper 22 B Genesis 2:18-24 The Creation of Woman
Proper 5 B Genesis 3:8-15 The Fall Continued

 

It is clear that this unified and central biblical narrative is not communicated in full or in narrative sequence in the lectionary.  What is missing are the second narrative of the creation of human beings in 2:4-14 (which sets the stage for the rest of chapters 2-4), the expulsion from the garden in 3:16-24, and all of chapter 4, with Cain’s murder of Abel, banishment and founding of the first city.  Given the foundational nature of these passages for the biblical metanarrative, it is astonishing that they are excluded from the lectionary, and it is unfortunate that what little remains is scattered in the cycle.  Unsurprisingly, the passages that are missing include the passages of judgment and murder.  In fact, the lectionary text from Proper 5 of Year B ends with 3:15, the judgment against the serpent, and skips the judgments against the woman and man in verses 16-19.  Perhaps the judgment against the serpent was included to complement the Gospel passage for that Sunday, Mark 3:20-35, in which Jesus responds to false allegations that he casts out demons by the power of Satan.  But even so, it would still be difficult to preach the stunted pericope from Genesis as it stands.

And yet, there is no question that God has, and will continue, to reconcile with sinful humanity through the hearing and preaching of the Word on a lectionary based schedule.  I have yet to find a single set of lections through which God cannot speak, through which the Holy Spirit cannot create faith in hearers.  God transforms even lectionary based preaching from a work of people into a work of people-with-God.  Boulton’s critique of religion applies equally to any attempt to modify or discard the lectionary: no preaching plan created by humans will be the ultimate, final plan, perfectly adapted to preaching at every time and place.  Any modification or new edition of the RCL needs to be offered in a humble and penitent spirit, with fear and trembling, to the wider community of preachers and churches.  Any lectionary plan, no matter how well formed and adaptable to local circumstances, will still be enacted and heard by fallen preachers and congregants, and will need to be open to modification and adaptation to local and future contexts.  We preachers and congregations will always rely on God to speak to our hearts and reconcile us by grace through the speaking and hearing of the Word, despite our simul iustus et peccator homiletical and liturgical efforts.

 


[1] The Revised Common Lectionary, 9.

[2] Matthew Myer Boulton, God Against Religion: Rethinking Christian Theology Through Worship, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 28.

[3] Ibid., 26.

[4] Ibid., 66.

[5] Ibid., 74.

[6] Ibid., 5.

[7] Ibid., 165.

[8] Ibid., 166.

[9] Ibid., 133.

[10] Ibid., 119.

[11] Ibid., 169.

[12] Ibid., 143.

[13] Living with the Lectionary, 15.

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