Thursday, May 21, 2015

When the fear of giving offense distorts the Gospel. . .

When I was in seminary (too long ago) it was common for the tone of the preacher not to be accusatory.  The "you" of the sermon was customarily replaced with the royal "we" that made sure everyone knew the preacher included himself in the indictment of the Law.  Sort of like that scene from the old movie Mass Appeal when the seminarian was counseled by the priest [Jack Lemmon as Father Farley] to do just that:  When giving a sermon, never say "you," always say "we." Less confrontational that way.  The seminarian replied that he did not have blue hair (his was an accusation aimed at grandmotherly types -- today their granddaughters have the blue hair). I must admit the idea of being non-accusatory has sat so deeply in me that I have to almost force myself to use the word "you" when preaching that which indicts, convicts, and condemns. 

Now as we wind our way through the Easter season and the bits and pieces of Peter's sermons in Acts (the first lesson for the season of Easter comes from Acts), I am mindful of the fact that the apostles had no such directive from their seminary homiletics profs.  Rather, they pointedly and unashamedly use the word "you".
Acts 2:23, 2:36, 4:10. . . and Romans 10. . . "whom YOU crucified. . . " 

Now it would seem that a more winsome witness would be to include the royal we there since indeed Jesus was crucified for the sins of all no matter who actually gave the directive to the executioner.  But Scripture does not do this.  Scripture is blunt about sins and blunt about the indictment of the Law.  We [speaking with the broad swipe of Christian preachers today) are not so clear in our preaching today.  We speak of sins more in terms of failings than sins and we do not speak of the eternal consequences as much as we tend to emphasize the momentary consequences.

When the preacher preaches the accusatory voice of the Law, it is the blunt voice that demands the clear and unabashed pointy finger.  The preacher is not excluding himself from that verdict even if he uses "you" instead of the royal "we".  I wonder, however, if our preaching has not lost some of its edge and bite in particular because we do not address sin directly nor do we speak with the forceful and pointed voice of the Law in directing the force of that Law. 

Surely the Gospel has little impact where sin is not felt, where the sinner finds little need of repentance, and where excuses, denials, and justifications have blunted the force of the Law to accuse and convict us with respect to sin.  Yet where the sinner is laid bare by the all-seeing eye of God in His justice, there is both the desire and the plea for the only covering that counts -- the cover of forgiveness which cleanses us from all sin and the righteousness of Christ that is our clothing in the new life Christ has bestowed upon us by baptism.

The more we blunt the voice of the Law, the more distant the urgency of and the blessing of the Gospel of Christ crucified.  We have learned to speak in rather broad terms but the consistent preaching of the early Church is blunt, specific, and pointed.  It is this blunt character of the preaching and confession of the church that is missing and perhaps is one reason why it seems so easy for the world around us to dismiss our proclamation.  Good preaching -- both to the faithful and to those not yet of the faith -- is provocative, pointed, and professes without embarrassment the fullness of the message of Christ crucified.  Any talk of sin is offensive to a world which chooses to turn wrong into right, hide sin, and excuse it.  But unless we risk giving such offense, we risk preaching a homogenized and pasteurized Gospel that has little to offer sinners in the clutches of death.  Faithful preaching is confrontational -- at least as the world interprets it -- but just as it bluntly confronts sin so it deliberately confronts the repentant sinner with the healing balm of Christ's wounds.

I note that this hesitation to speak so bluntly the force of the Law is less apparent from more recent graduates of our seminaries (at least in my limited experience) and this is a good thing but I fear the burden of speaking pointedly of sin and its consequences is still hard for preachers.  God asks us for nothing less than the full witness of Law and Gospel from the pulpit and has promised where this is faithfully proclaimed, He will work through the Spirit to engender faith, to comfort the sinner, to restore the wanderer from his error, and to equip His people to do the good works of Him who has called them from darkness into His marvelous light.


Carl Vehse said...

"When giving a sermon, never say "you," always say "we." Less confrontational that way."

In addition to this "non-confrontative we," as well as the "royal we (pluralis majestatis, which may have some papist/episcopist overtones if used in a Lutheran setting), Wikipedia's article on Nosism (from the Latin nos) includes other legitimate uses such as the "editorial we" and the "author's we" (pluralis modestiae).

The context determines the use of "we" when it does not mean "you and I."

For example, there is the "patronizing we," which we (meaning all of us) have experienced from hospital or medical staff members ("How are we feeling today?").

ErnestO said...

I found wisdom in your statement "The more we blunt the voice of the Law, the more distant the urgency of and the blessing of the Gospel of Christ crucified." I also justify being blunt on many things of faith because I know we all come to a deep need during our dying hour that no riches can meet.