Jesus’ commandment to love God, others, and self seems like an easy message to convey. People want, need, and long for love, right? Yet, ask any preacher. She or he will tell you that the preaching task is not an easy one.
Two recent publications affirm the difficulty. In an article, “Preaching in a Secular Age,” Albert Mohler writes:
“In this age, telling the truth is tough business and not for the fainthearted … preachers must now ask questions and engage issues we have not had to consider in the past.”1
Regarding his book, The Invisible Bestseller: Searching for the Bible in America, Kenneth A. Briggs writes:
“Whereas pre-Reformation Christians were mostly unable to read the Bible, contemporary churchgoers are increasingly choosing not to.”2
The need to address a wide range of questions and issues coupled with the lack of Bible-reading in a culture that is increasingly secular and technological make preaching a difficult task indeed. In this bimonthly column, Durable Faith, I will (1) consider the difficulty, (2) reflect on how one can preach through Scripture to make listeners think, face painful truths, and engage in difficult conversation and (3) get beneath the surface of concepts like “love, grace, and forgiveness.” In other words, I will explore how one might teach, preach, and share scripture on a deeper level in order to provide a basis for a durable faith for contemporary times.
Jesus’s commandment to love God, others, and self is a good place to start. This commandment summarizes the core of the gospel. Love is the essential ingredient of all good relationships, whether they be human, divine, or divine/human. At first glance, love seems to be no more than well wishes for God and everyone. Yet, love can be hard, yes, very hard work.
For Jesus, it meant enduring the crucifixion — something his threefold prayer to take away the bitter cup affirms, except for the will of God, he did not want to do. Yet for the sake of love, he endured the worst humanity had to offer. In our relationships with one another, love may mean having difficult conversations to work things out. Sometimes love means being silent when we would rather speak. Sometimes it means speaking when we would rather be silent.
I often wonder why it is that people find it so hard to understand, absorb, and embrace the concept of God’s love for us. Could it be, in part, that preachers have not taken the time to fully embrace the biblical text or examine what this and other basic concepts of faith really mean?
Again and again, I hear parishioners comment that they don’t see what the Old Testament has to do with the love of God as presented by Jesus. Again and again, I hear parishioners say the God in the Old Testament can’t possibly be the same God in the New Testament. I submit that the prevalence of this viewpoint is a reflection of teachers and preachers’ unwillingness to engage the entire biblical text. Briggs’ comment in an interview with the Charlotte Observer about his abovementioned book is applicable:
“One thing we miss … is the potential to enlarge our minds and hearts and spirits. I think the Bible is the springboard to opening all kinds of ideas, thoughts, beliefs about what our life is about. And I think without it, it narrows our perspective and gives us a much more truncated view of what the possibilities are. I don’t think we’re getting as much of the larger picture by avoiding the source that has been that pathway to all kinds of discovery. (It’s been the pathway to) entertaining most profound thoughts about what possibly we might belong to beyond ourselves or our immediate communities.”3
Willingness to engage the entire biblical text does indeed broaden one’s perspective. Failure to teach, preach, and share the entire biblical text robs both preacher and congregants of an opportunity to delve into and struggle with the biblical corpus. Seeing God’s love in both testaments can help people see God’s love not only for individuals, but for communities as well, knowing that community begins with one’s family and extends to all humanity.
If preachers dig deeper they can help parishioners understand that it’s the same God in both testaments operating in different circumstances. In the Old Testament creation and making room for a monotheistic faith in the midst of a polytheistic world are expressions of God’s love. In the New Testament, monotheistic faith has been established. Jesus embodies and people write about the implications of his life as the perfect expression of God’s love. This love is so big it encompasses every aspect of life, individual and communal.
As followers of Christ, believers must strive to enlarge, not truncate, their understanding of what it means to be a person of faith. For starters, if preachers are to preach a durable faith they must engage the whole, the rest of the biblical story and help parishioners do the same.
Alphonetta Wines begins her bimonthly Working Preacher column, “Durable Faith,” which aims at getting beneath the surface of words like “grace” and “love” and preaching through Scripture to make listeners think, engage in difficult conversation and face painful truths.
1 Albert Mohler, “Preaching in a Secular Age,” Preaching: The Professional Journal for Ministry Leaders, September 6, 2016, http://www.preaching.com/resources/articles/preaching-in-a-secular-age/ (accessed September 9, 2016).
2 Kenneth A. Briggs, “Kenneth Briggs: Where Did All the Bibles Go?” Eerdword: The Eerdman’s Blog, August 31, 2016, http://eerdword.com/2016/08/31/kenneth-briggs-where-did-all-the-bibles-go/ (accessed September 9, 2016).
3 Briggs, interview by Emily McFarlan Miller, “Where did the Bible Go?” Charlotte Observer, September 8, 2016, http://www.charlotteobserver.com/living/religion/article100587007.html (accessed September 9, 2016).