The Word and the Spirit? Do we really get the balance right in our Church life? Take the sermon, for example, our principal tool for spreading the Word from one to many in a Church setup. Surely the most famous sermon of all was Jesus speaking from “The Mount”, when he sat down to instruct his disciples with such incredible, practical and life-changing teaching that, by the time he got up, the hearers had increased from a handful of disciples to crowds of people and they just stood in amazement at what they’d just heard. Oh that our vicars, pastors and ministers could have such an effect!
One imagines that the Sermon on the Mount would have been delivered over a lengthy period of time, could possibly have been punctuated by questions (as is the Jewish way) and would have left the hearers with much to ponder on as they wandered back to their homes. What a model! Breathing space, time for the Spirit to cement the Word into the hearts of the hearers.
Another significant sermon was the first one ever preached by a member of the Church, Simon Peter at Pentecost (Shavuot). It was in the temple area to a massive crowd of Jews and its effect was electric.
When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37)
They weren’t sitting politely “in the pews”, they challenged Peter and the rest of the disciples. There was pleading and arguing, perhaps much mayhem. But there were results, with three thousand converts!
Now let’s contrast these with our current model, the message delivered from wooden pulpits on Sunday mornings throughout the land. In many cases the talk will be prepared, rehearsed and read from notes. It will be delivered over a set time from a raised position at the front of the Church or hall and received with silence by polite people sitting in tidy ordered rows. This of course is a bit of a cynical simplification, perhaps a cliché and not the only current model. But it’s not the original model, it comes from the restrictive practices of the Roman State Church, rather than anywhere in the Bible. It is passive one-way traffic and it’s been the norm for so long that many Christians accept it as the only way, as if it has been set in stone by God.
Let me suggest an alternative way. We must always bear in mind that the vicar / minister / pastor is meant to be acting as a conduit between the heart of God and the heart of the listeners (which can also include the vicar / minister / pastor). The message needs to convey exactly what God desires His people to hear at that time and for this to be effective, there needs to be engagement and breathing space. There needs to be scope for the listeners to challenge the speaker, perhaps to enhance or clarify the message. There also needs to be a time for reflection and reaction. God may require immediate responses from people and that may include prayer, discussion, worship, or even repentance.
Let’s be clear on this. For the Word to engage with our minds and spirits, there has to be room for the Holy Spirit to move. And sometimes we have to throw our programmes and schedules out of the window and allow God to act.
What’s wrong with the sermon?