September 30, 2020

Sacramental Preaching

St. Peter Preaching in the Presence of St. Mark (detail), Fra Angelico

St. Peter Preaching in the Presence of St. Mark (detail), Fra Angelico

In sacramental traditions, the concept of preaching, and even the corporate reading of Scripture, is different than in revivalist traditions. It is about God literally acting through the spoken word.

I know pastors who don’t think, for example, that the lectionary readings should even be printed in the bulletin. The words presented in worship are not given to be read by individual worshipers, but to be heard together by the congregation. The word spoken is the living word of God, and there is something special and sacred about the act of listening to God speak. There is also something special about being gathered with God’s family to be addressed by God and to be together as a people under his word.

Of course, holding this theology doesn’t mean it always translates into practice. But understanding the preaching moment as being of the same piece as the rest of the liturgy, in my opinion, has advantages over other views which see preaching in its essence as rhetoric, apologetics, persuasion, or teaching. Such conceptions highlight the skills of the person in the pulpit and the techniques employed, whereas a more sacramental view highlights God’s action through human speech (no matter how weak or flawed the human speaker).

John Frye, in his weekly “Shepherd’s Nook” post at Jesus Creed, has summarized this sacramental theology of preaching nicely:


JohnFryeJohn Frye on Sacramental Preaching

Preaching, in some traditions, is a sacrament or comparable to a sacrament. Low church evangelicalism will have to ponder this. What it means is: preaching is more about what God does, than what the preacher and congregation do. Preaching is a holy event when the preacher and the preached to encounter the living God together. The aim of preaching is community-encounter with the living, eyes-blazing Christ Who walks in the community’s ordinary, particular midst. Revelation chapters 2-3 are not just about the living Christ showing up a long time ago to seven churches in Asia Minor. The glorified Jesus, as Lord of his church, still walks around in the midst of local gatherings.

In preaching as sacrament, the aim is the application. Encounter God. Preaching as biblical information-giving with premeditated applications is too weak for such a cogent and holy aim. To be informed by the Bible about God is not the same as to be encountered by the God of the Bible. We preach to encounter God together, not to create a set of preferred human behaviors. Encounter with God in Christ carries its own energies to shape and direct human lives. We preach for corporate encounter with God, believing that encounter will provoke numerous discussions about how we together can live missionally in light of the encounter. Paul suggested even unbelievers and unconvinced will confess an encounter with God (1 Corinthians 14:25) when the church gathers. I do not think I have to unpack Peter’s paradigmatic sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2) to support what I am writing here. Peter, so perceptive of his particular context, announced an act of God in Christ and the announcement was so profound the congregation asked him, “What must we do?!”  Authentic kingdom of God gospel announcement (preaching) evokes startling and diverse questions about how we go about adjusting our lives to Jesus as Lord.


  1. Amen.

    God’s law and His gospel are…DONE to us.

    What happens then?

    Anything can happen then. We might even come to faith in the Living God. Again. Or for the first time.

  2. Robert F says

    At the ELCA church where my wife works as musician, unfortunately, the pastors are usually much more focused on what we should do as Christians and human beings to usher in the Kingdom of God than they are on what God has done and is doing in our midst; it takes an extraordinary and highly counter-intuitive and counter-evidential act on my part to hear anything in what is preached that points to God working in our midst. In the end, I usually just have to accept that I’m in a dry valley without water and somehow God will work in those circumstances despite human efforts to the contrary. But I wish the pastors of the church would take the approach to preaching given in the post above to heart.

  3. Timely post, CM.

    I’ll be attending this morning an early service at St. Paul’s Episcopal in Fayetteville. We’ll see.


    • Robert F says

      So how did that early A.M. service go, Tom? As an Episcopalian I can say that I hope the sermon didn’t end in some politically correct corner where the law is not set aside for the gospel but instead substituted with an exhortation to live a life guided by the social and ethical values of the slightly-to-left-of-center faction of the Democratic Party? But then, maybe things are different in the Episcopal church in some places in the South.

      • @ Robert F

        In a word, I found it restful. Felt like I was fed appropriately, so to speak.

        I’m relatively new to the liturgical format, so at this point riding that bicycle is still a little distracting, but this older more Anglican style isn’t as distracting as the RC Mass.

        The readings were OT and NT passages (of course), The OT was the story of Babel. The NT was from Acts 2–this being Pentecost Sunday. Very good connection. The homily by a very articulate lady associate Rector was well connected and thoughtful as to how language either divides or brings together. Her emphasis on the Spirit’s activity on Pentecost was encouraging.

        We’ll return. Thanks for axing.


        • Scooter's Mom says

          Robert F & Tom,

          I attended St. Jude’s Episcopal yesterday. I loved it. I could listen to Rev. Phyllis for hours. There is something different in that church than the IFB churches I grew up in. I know this will sound corny but I truly feel God’s love there. The sermon and the Holy Eucharist are what makes me get up each sunday and go to church. I always come away feeling more connected to God than when I go in. I a true blessing.

        • Robert F says

          Glad your first visit was a good one. The Episcopal church and the Anglican Communion have true spiritual riches to offer, most importantly the presence of the Living Christ. There is also an openness that I do indeed value; it’s just that sometimes there seems to be a little too much openness. But I’m glad you intend to return. May God bless your search for a new church home.

  4. Highwayman says

    It seems a bit extreme to suggest that the lectionary readings shouldn’t be printed in the bulletin; it can be helpful to read those scriptures before gathering (and/or after the service) to focus one’s thoughts on what God wants to say. If He’s acknowledged to be behind the whole process, surely He’s capable of directing the listeners’ minds in the same direction as the preacher’s, giving the message added weight.

    On the other hand, I know God has sometimes hit me between the eyes using a preacher’s off-the-cuff remark or throwaway comment which I could never have foreseen from the text, so I don’t disagree with what you say. It’s right that we listen expecting God to speak to us, not just to be entertained.

    • The words of the Torah and Gospels were first done verbally since most did not write.

      Sometimes just listening to the words paints a whole new story. Of course the lectors have to do their parts for this to succeed.

      • The Catholic Church in my area is big on “listening”. I’m a bit ADHD and have a hearing problem. Having a missalette with the readings helps me to be far more attentive to what is going on—especially when the lector is reading poorly. During the collects (the unique prayers said at every Mass by the priest) I have no idea what’s being said. I have no idea what we’ve prayed for. I wish the Church would take seriously that different people learn in different ways. I get next to nothing by merely listening. Without an aid I’m off in lala land.

        Some of us need written aids to understand. I wish that people who understand by listening could back off and leave people who understand by different means alone. Churches seem to be imitating how education happens: lecture and teaching styles that are geared toward a female’s style of learning.

        Sorry for the rant. My pastor frequently makes an issue out of people who use aids. He stopped having missalets, so I make my own and bring them to church so that I can pay attention too.

        • Robert F says

          All good points, Rick. At the church where my wife works as choir director and organist, she has arranged to have the lyrics to all anthems printed in the bulletin for clarity sake because, as she says, the words are important for the congregation to understand, since she chooses anthems not only based on the beauty of the music but more importantly for the edifying truths of the lyrics. The congregational response to this has been very positive.

        • Again, Rick, I wasn’t trying to make an issue of it. I was merely trying to illustrate how seriously some people take it.

          Martin Luther, who had a robust theology of the spoken word, certainly also believed in the power of the written word and used the new technology of the printing press in his day to great advantage in flooding Germany with pamphlets, sermons, commentaries, and other written materials.

          Today, many argue for use of visual technology for the same reasons. I am hesitant about this, not so much because I deny the reality that there are visual learners, but more because I don’t think it can communicate content as effectively.

  5. MelissatheRagamuffin says

    Dude, I can get a book that will show me all the scripture readings and responses for the whole year in the Catholic Church – which I like since I can’t always understand what the people who do the readings are saying. We’ve got one mumbler, and our priest could almost be an auctioneer.

    You can also see all the daily readings online.

    • Yes, I’m not saying I agree with their view, I just mentioned it to show the extent to which some people believe in the power of the spoken word. And most of those who feel that way have the words printed in the bulletin anyway. We all have others in our lives who tend to smooth our radical edges.

      • Good post CM. What you have said reminds me of the work of Emil Brunner.

        A book recommendation for you : Emil Brunner – the Divine-Human encounter

    • To me, this is the key:

      “To be informed by the Bible about God is not the same as to be encountered by the God of the Bible. We preach to encounter God together, not to create a set of preferred human behaviors. Encounter with God in Christ carries its own energies to shape and direct human lives. We preach for corporate encounter with God, believing that encounter will provoke numerous discussions about how we together can live missionally in light of the encounter.”

  6. Preaching, as practiced in most Protestant churches, is profoundly unbiblical, in that it sets one man over others as a kind of priest. On paper, he serves the congregation, but it is his influence which molds it, and his opinions which are heard week after week. The fiction is that this is justified by the fact that he has been to seminary, and thus knows more about the Bible. And so he may (though this cannot be counted upon), but sermons are not usually academic lectures, but are more on the order of pious performances. Really, ordination has become a union card, and preaching the visible symbol of this departure from the priesthood of all believers.

    • Thanks, Joan, but if it’s ok we’ll agree to disagree on this one. As with most things, wisdom lies not in the extremes. Clerics are not the problem, clericalism is. And I also happen to think anti-cleric sentiment leads to enormous problems too.

      • Well spoken, CM

        That’s the trouble with reformers of any stripe. It’s hard to discern when they stop being Josiah and start being Korah.

        PS – A capable preacher in the Orthodox Church is like apples of gold in fittings of silver. Alas, we often criticize a good Bible expositor as “too protestant”.


        • I have experienced all different types of churches. My background is Catholic and I now go to an LCMS church. I spent time in Baptist, Pentecostal, non-denominational CHURCHES. Also all the years I was Catholic. When the word of God is read or a sermon is taught with many rich Bible versus The hungry believer will be fed. God’s Holy Spirit will prevail to touch the lives of the believer and the un-believer whom the Holy spirit is drawing.

          When I was born again I would get more out of the bible than when I was an UN-repentant sinner.
          The Holy Spirit draws witness to the Bible as the word of God. That is why I believe there are saved people in all denominations because The word of God touches lives. Some churches to a better job of
          releasing the WORD of God than others. One of the Greatest things the protestants can claim is that the early reformers new the lay people needed to hear that word and read that word in their own language.
          Yes it did open a can of worms as far as divisions but truly Spirit Filled Christians see God at work in there fellow Christians from other churches. I do the see the Word read or taught as a Sacrament.
          I am also saddened in the direction preaching has gone to tickle the flesh.
          God Have mercy on us all and despite our short comings may we continue to grow on the WORD.