Though we do not have complete sermons of Jesus, we have an example of preaching that is essential to Jesus and to the Church He founded. Specifically, we have the call and command to preach in His name. Even without complete sermons of the apostles, we do have seven parts of the sermons delivered by St. Peter (Acts1.16–23; 2.14–37; 3.12.–26; 5.29–32; 10.34–44; 11.4–18; 15.7–11), and six parts of sermons by St. Paul (Acts 13.16–41;14.15–18; 17.22–32; 20.17–36; 22.1–22; 26.2–23).
Irenaeus speaks of the sermons Polycarp delivered to the people in Smyrna (Eusebius, Ecclesiatical History 5.20.6). We have a witness of what Irenaeus spoke to the people and of the collection of his sermons that was still in use in Eusebius's day (ibid. 5.26). In the second century, Justin Martyr, placed the sermon within the context of worship with these words: “And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.” (Apologia 1.67) Tertullian refernces to preaching in the Apologeticum (Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum —CSEL—69: 91–92). The faithful met for prayer and the reading of the Scriptures and then heard sermons on how to practice these teachings. In his De anima (Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum 20:310) he speaks of the allocutions or sermons during the divine services. Perhaps the most famous preacher of the early Church was St. John Chrysostom and he left a larger legacy of his sermons than any other preacher of the golden age of Greek preaching.
Strangely enough, sermons remain somewhat of an enigma. Why preach when it seems like such an outdated mode of delivering a message? What do you preach in a world in which people see and hear more words and messages than ever before? What is the job of the sermon? Whose words are they -- the preacher's, the denomination's, or God's? The advent of the internet affects both content and delivery. Do preachers steal from other preachers? Should they? Does preaching to a camera differ from preaching to people sitting before you in pews? Is live preaching different from recorded? Is watching a sermon online or hearing one from a podcast the same as sitting before the preacher and hearing the words from his mouth? There is no shortage of preaching manuals and many of them are pretty good but we still seem somewhat in a quandary over sermons and preaching.
I wonder if the Lutherans don't have a bit more to say about this. After all, for us it is not only the sermon or mainly not the sermon but Word and Sacrament -- both the means of grace. There is the Lutheran focus on the distinction between Law and Gospel. There is the Lutheran focus on that Word as efficacious speech -- words that have the power to deliver what they say. There is the Lutheran insistence upon the sermon being Biblical -- faithful to the text and not simply an opinion of the preacher on topics relevant to his or his hearer's lives. There is the Lutheran commitment to preach within the framework of the lectionary, an ordered system of readings and less upon free texts (though this may not be true for some Lutherans). In all of our focus on sermons and preaching, I think the problem has been to isolate the sermon from its context -- the Divine Service -- and to analyze and judge it apart from that context.
Preachers do not simply preach. They preach to the faithful, to people whom they know. They do not preach as art form but as a means of addressing the faithful with the whole counsel of God's Word to edify and encourage them in their faith and life in Christ. They preach to connect the Word of God to those people, to the places where they live and to the daily walk of their Christian lives -- these are not sermons for the mind only but for the heart. The preachers preach not as the instructed instructing those who do not know but those also instructed by the Word, convicted of sin and delivered through forgiveness. The practice of preaching from a pulpit is a visual reminder that it is not the preacher's art or skill but the Word of God that gives to the sermon power and by which the preacher is judged.
I recall long ago a time in which our parish had an anniversary and we invited a popular preacher of our church body to be guest preacher for one of the anniversary services. Afterwards I asked one of our members what he thought of the sermon. He thought it was good but he surprised me by saying that it was not as good as my sermons. His point was this, the sermon of someone who comes from the outside into a gathering of strangers is different and is heard differently from the sermons preached by their pastor who lives in their community and deals with them in good times and bad. That reminded me of one of the most profound things about preaching that is often lost -- preaching is where the Word of God connects to God's people in their baptismal vocation and it is there where the preacher engages his people most of all. Preaching arises from and is delivered from the vantage point of this relationship. Perhaps that is one reason why it is hard to find an algorithm or panel of experts to decide what makes a sermon good or even great.