Preaching Doctrine

This fall I assigned sermons to read for several weeks of my Foundations in Systematic Theology course, a tactic I learned from the great Geoffrey Wainwright. Karl Barth argued that doctrine and proclamation belong together, always, but preaching doctrine is not as sexy as a sermon series on the gospel in Harry Potter. A friend recently confessed that he was wrestling with a class on the Trinity in part because he had never heard a pastor speak about it. When he said this, I realized the only sermons on the Trinity I can remember having heard in a church (as opposed to a seminary chapel) are my own. Assigning students sermons is one of my attempts to prevent future experiences like my friend’s and mine.

One of my favorite of these sermons is “Our God Is Able,” by Martin Luther King Jr. King demonstrates, perhaps as only he could, one way to preach doctrine. From its title on, the sermon depends on a sound doctrine of God and, in particular, an affirmation of God’s omnipotence. Right off the bat, King identifies and endorses this doctrine. It is always possible — indeed, it is always necessary — that good preaching be done doctrinally. That is, good preaching must always be coherent with sound doctrine. King’s sermon, however, is a prime example of doing more than that, of preaching on doctrine as well as preaching doctrinally. In “Our God Is Able,” the doctrine of God serves as the ground of hope for difficult times.

Sometimes, though, doctrine can be explored and expounded in sermons for its own sake. Fleming Rutledge’s “Does God Need a Name?” is a fine meditation on the relationship between the disclosure of the tetragrammaton in Exod 3 and the Christian use of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Rutledge weaves together the narrative of Scripture, divine identity, and soteriology to show how essential the Trinity is to Christian faith. In From Theology to Theological Thinking (University of Virginia Press, 2014), theologian Jean-Yves Lacoste encourages preachers to see sermons as opportunities to think through, theologically, the Christian faith and not just relay it. Rutledge demonstrates one way to achieve that goal.

Identifying opportune moments for preaching doctrine can be as important as learning different homiletical methods. Fortunately, the calendar is an excellent aid in this respect. For those who follow the Revised Common Lectionary or something similar, the liturgical calendar has built-in opportunities for preaching doctrine, but the biggest and best opportunities are not lectionary-dependent. Instead of preaching about Christmas this year, why not preach on the Incarnation? The prologue to John has the poetry and energy to drive preaching that may be fresher and more faithful than the annual mashup of Matthew, Luke, and the Protoevangelion of James. Preaching on John 1 may also breathe new life into sermons on the overly familiar nativity story from Luke 2.

Or, if your congregation celebrates Epiphany, perhaps offer a sermon on divine revelation, rather than one on the magi and their gifts. What does God manifest in Jesus Christ? The manifestation, or revelation, of God is also a great driver of sermons for Christ’s baptism, which is the Sunday following Epiphany in many calendars. Looking further into the year, Easter and Pentecost invite preaching on the missions, or sending, of the Son and the Holy Spirit into the world, in addition to the obvious themes of resurrection, new life, and salvation.

For Methodists and Wesleyans, it might seem that we have few models to guide our preaching of doctrine. We may believe that John Wesley preaches doctrinally but he does not often preach doctrine, or that sermons like “On the Trinity” are more the exception than the rule. In this Wesley deserves another look. Consider the following selected titles: “The Image of God”; “Justification by Faith”; “The Great Assize”; “Christian Perfection”; “Original Sin”; “The New Creation”; “Of the Church”; “On Faith”; or “On the Omnipresence of God.” Scholars like Randy Maddox and Kenneth Collins have done much to help us appreciate Wesley the theologian, but we also need Wesley the theological preacher (see Michael Pasquarello III, John Wesley: A Preaching Life [Abingdon, 2010]).

What great preachers of doctrine, whether King or Rutledge or Wesley, have in common is this: at their best, their sermons are exercises in building up. Preaching doctrine is not about sowing division within the church or exalting the doctrinal superiority of one faction over another. Preaching doctrine is about building up hope, like King, or understanding, like Rutledge. It is, like Wesley, uniting “knowledge and vital piety,” as his brother Charles once pleaded of God. And this building up, we must understand, is essential, so that “all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Eph 4:13 NRSV). Doctrine and proclamation belong together. Harry Potter can wait.

Being “Laid Aside” by God?

In his Covenant Prayer, John Wesley writes, “Let me be employed by thee or laid aside by thee.” What does it mean to be “laid aside” by God? I have an elderly friend who has become too frail to attend her church, and she laments her inability to “do what I used to do,” when she hosted Bible studies and other events. For her, this is a fate worse than death: to know God and his love for her but to feel useless. Has she been “laid aside” by God?

Scripture has few cases of people being “laid aside.” There are Cain and his offering in Gen 4 and Saul and his rejection in 1 Samuel, but these are really instances of God’s judgment, not of God’s laying anyone aside. In the NT, there is the demon-possessed man who wants to go with Jesus but is told to stay (Mark 5). More intriguing is when the Holy Spirit prevents Paul, Silas, and Timothy from entering Asia or Bithynia. The problem here, however, is that no explanations are given for these refusals. (Although perhaps that is part of the point of the Covenant Prayer, which does not presume to ask God to tell us why we are to be employed or laid aside.)

Church history offers similarly few examples of God laying aside individuals. Presumably there have been a great number of such people; history has passed over them because it is easier to tell the story of what people did than the story of what they did not do. Yet if we are right to pray the Covenant Prayer, or prayers like it, the faithfulness of those who were laid aside is hardly less than that of those whom God employed.

And we are right to pray this way. These lines of the Covenant Prayer echo the Lord’s Prayer and Jesus’s prayer in Gethsemane: “your will be done”; “not what I want, but what you want.” Praying “Let me be employed by thee or laid aside by thee” means submitting ourselves to the will of God. What God wills for us is good for us, even (or perhaps especially) if it is not always what we might will for ourselves. God’s will is perfect, and his will is love for us.

This is where Wesleyan and Methodist Christians become anxious. We are afraid that talking about God’s will leads us into determinism and predestination. We also like to keep ourselves busy, always doing, doing, doing, because of an innate distrust of anything that smacks of quietism. The Covenant Prayer, however, affirms both that we are offered the grace to submit our imperfect will to God’s perfect will and that we may refuse grace by continuing to assert our own will. Grace does not destroy human agency but perfects it.

Contrary to the experience of my elderly friend, being laid aside by God is a gift of life, not a fate worse than death. There are, after all, goods to be obtained in being laid aside by God: the good of Sabbath rest, the good of avoiding a potentially onerous or painful task of ministry, and the good of being reminded that God’s actions, not our own, are salvific. Celebrating these goods (and the faithfulness required to receive them well) requires deemphasizing busyness and productivity as standards of Christian discipleship and ministry.

None of this, of course, means that my friend, or any particular individual, has been laid aside by God. There remain many forces other than the Holy Spirit that prevent us from being active for the sake of Jesus Christ. Discernment is necessary, but it must not begin with the bias that inactivity alone indicates something is wrong. And frustration or feeling useless may be as much a sign of chafing against God’s will as a desire to pursue it.

So far I have been addressing being laid aside by God in the context of an individual’s life, because the Covenant Prayer is deeply personal. What is true for individuals, however, is also true for their communities. Here church history is rather helpful. The past is rife with groups and movements that appear, burn with activity, and then die down. Communities have the potential to demonstrate persevering faithfulness in periods of employment and unemployment that extend beyond the lives of individuals.

Communities and individual disciples should learn to ask, “Are we being laid aside by God? Do we have the faith needed for a term of inactivity? Are we able to take a back seat to others God has called for fuller employment?” Borne out of the Covenant Prayer, these questions are neither lazy nor passive. They are submissive, signs of a healthy resignation to the “pleasure and disposal” of our “glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

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