As I mentioned in my last post, one of the great things about liturgical churches is that they typically rely on the predetermined Scripture readings for their preaching texts. This gives them the option of a sermon based on the Old Testament text, the Epistles, or the Gospels. Growing up, I heard a lot of great sermons from the Gospels. In the 40 or so years following my evangelical wanderings, I can recall very few such sermons, aside from Christmas and Lent/Easter. I’m sure there were some others (there had to be, right?), but none that I remember as well as those I heard in my youth. (Think of that; I actually listened and remembered a lot of what I heard…)
From my experience over the last 40 or so years hanging out with non-liturgicals (let’s just call them evangelicals), it seems that evangelicals don’t really like to preach from the Gospels, unless it’s to preach about hell or the end times (usually out of context). To me, it makes sense. For one thing, it seems easier to fit the Epistles into a Western, modern mindset. Paul, the most prolific of the NT writers, wrote very logically, and addressed a lot of issues which could be made pertinent to the local church. Although, Paul is not a modern writer and is more Jewish than many people realize, so there’s also context issues in many interpretations of his teaching.
The Gospels, on the other hand, are not as thematically organized and are more Jewish in their storytelling. They deal a lot with Jewish culture and politics, and are so rooted in time and place that it’s perhaps harder to translate into Modern America.
But wait–on one hand you have a bunch of letters by someone who only met Jesus after he had died and resurrected. On the other hand, you have 4 books full of the actual teachings of Jesus. What do you think you’d rather hear about? What is more important to understand?
I always pick Jesus. The author of Hebrews even starts out by telling us that Jesus is the only pure image of God that we have. And John starts out his Gospel by saying the same thing. Everything else, OT and Epistles, should be read having a good knowledge of Jesus. But, unfortunately it’s often the other way around in evangelical churches (yes, I’m generalizing… I can’t address each church individually…). My perception, based again on my years of experience, is that often people interpret Jesus through their understanding of Paul (or occasionally the OT, which causes LOTS of problems). The result is a lot of very bad theology.
Another thing about preaching on Jesus’ life and teachings is that it’s very hard to get around what Jesus says, like “Give what you have to the poor” or “always take the lowest seat” or even “do your good deeds in secret.” This is all so unAmerican that it just doesn’t sell well. We could go on: “I don’t condemn you.” “Be healed.” “Love your neighbor as yourself.” As many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” (John 6:60).
The Christianity I learned as a child was based on the stories about Jesus, and his parables and teachings. This is how I learned who God was, by understanding the nature of Jesus. Going forward, it is my intention to go through some of the major teachings in the Gospel that still influence me.