The preaching of the gospel as a sacramental event is at the heart of Reformation theology. Preaching is also at the heart of Reformation faith—preaching as an indispensable means of grace and a sure sign of the true church. Where is the church? According to Article VII of the Augsburg Confession (1530), the church is that place where the Word is purely preached and the sacraments are duly administered. The Second Helvetic Confession (1566) went even further when it declared that “the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.”
Of course, preaching—unlike the printing press—was not a new invention of the Reformation era. Far from it. Think of Augustine and Chrysostom in the early church, Bernard of Clairvaux, John Hus, and the many mendicant friars who fanned out across Europe in the Middle Ages.
St. Francis preached the gospel to a Muslim sultan, and Savonarola declared God’s judgment on the sinful leaders of Florence. Bernardino of Siena, the great Franciscan herald, preached to throngs in the 15th century, calling on his listeners to repent, confess their sins, and go to Mass. The Protestant reformers knew this tradition and built on it, but they also transformed it in two important respects.
Central Act of WorshipFirst, they made the sermon the centerpiece of the church’s regular worship. Prior to the Reformation, the sermon was mostly an ad hoc event reserved for special occasions or seasons of the liturgical cycle, especially Christmas and Eastertide. Most sermons were preached in town squares or open fields. The reformers brought the sermon back inside the church and gave it an honored place in the public worship of the gathered community. The central role of preaching in Protestant worship can be seen in the way pulpits were raised to a higher elevation as families gathered with their children to hear the Word proclaimed.
Second, the reformers introduced a new theology of preaching. They were concerned that the Bible take deep root in the lives of the people. The Word of God was meant not only to be read, studied, translated, memorized, and meditated on; it was also to be embodied in the life and worship of the church. What might be called the practicing of the Bible—its embodiment—was most clearly expressed in the ministry of preaching. Martin Luther believed that a call to the preaching office was a sacred trust and shouldn’t be used for selfish purposes. “Christ did not establish the ministry of proclamation to provide us with money, property, popularity, honor, or friendship,” he said.Much of what George offers us is good and challenging but I wonder if he does not find more commonality between the radical reformers and Luther -- at least more than I am comfortable with? The great leaders of the Reformation were preachers and the Reformation preached its way into the hearts and lives of the hearers (as well as sang its way there, at least for Lutherans). They did not introduce something new to worship but exploited the great treasure of God's Word as something not inapproachable for the common man but indispensable to him. For the radical reformers (Zwingli, Calvin, and Bullinger -- as named by George), preaching was worship. Without the mass, without any real sacramental presence or sacramental theology that located Christ where His Word says He is, preaching became the one and only means of grace and the sacraments ordinances with varying degrees of satisfying grace from participation in them.
Yet George does not note clearly the difference between Luther and these other reformers. For Luther the sermon was not THE centerpiece of the church's regular worship. The sermon did not compete with or displace the real presence of Christ -- His body in bread and His blood in wine. The mass was not disposed of as so much garbage but reformed and renewed -- so carefully that early pew sitters could not easily identify the difference between a Roman mass and a Lutheran one. The identification of the Sacrament of the Altar as pure Gospel with the chanting of the Words of Institution on the same tone as the Gospel was chanted is but one evidence that Luther did not make the liturgy the setting for the sermon as did the other reformers.
Secondly, as much as Luther was concerned that the Bible take root in the lives of the people, preaching was not a Bible study and the goal of preaching was not simply knowledge. It was for Luther catechesis -- it was both source and consistent identity with the instruction in the home through the Small Catechism and the Table of Duties and of the home through the Large Catechism. Luther did not dispense with the Catechism as the essential teaching form in the home and preached the six chief parts often -- with the texts of the liturgical year in the lectionary -- to root and shape the faith of the hearers in the church and not apart from it. The marks of the church were marks that were seen in the context of Sunday morning and not as theoretical characteristics. While the other reformers may have also had this interest, none approached Luther in marrying the preaching with the Divine Service to the catechetical instruction of the household and within the household and the Word of God that permeated both.
George ends by saying "The sermon is similar in one respect to the role of the eucharist in medieval Catholic theology." Well, yes and no. The sermon did not replace the Eucharist nor did it compete with the Eucharist but lived along side of and together fed and nourished the people of God and sustain them to eternal life and the marriage supper of the Lamb in His kingdom that has no end.
My point? Just as I am not comfortable papering over the differences between Rome and Wittenberg for the sake of a party, neither am I comfortable failing to distinguish the very real differences between Wittenberg and Geneva for the sake of an anniversary celebration.