In this post I examine the chapter of The Red Book which speaks about sermons. At first sight it might seem odd that something as classically Protestant as The Sermon draws so much ire from Valentinus and Marcion, but as we have already seen, pretty much everything classically Christian draws their ire. Even so, I was a bit unprepared for how much blame is heaped on The Sermon. It is described in the chapter title as “Protestantism’s Most Sacred Cow” and then declared to be “a polluted stream”, arriving “around the third century [when] a vacuum was created when mutual ministry faded from the body of Christ”. It is likened to the craft of pagan rhetoricians and sophists—“borrowed from the pagan pool of Greek culture!” [exclamation mark original]. Sermonizing “harms the church” in five ways: it “makes the preacher the virtuoso performer of regular church gathering”; it “often stalemates spiritual growth”; it “preserves the unbiblical clergy mentality”; it “de-skills” the people of God, rather than equipping them; and it “is often impractical”. What is needed is “a restoration of the biblical practice of mutual exhortation and mutual ministry”.
Once again we see the imagined praxis of the first century church of the Pauline epistles upheld and promoted as the only acceptable way of doing things, with every other later development denounced, usually with a maximum of historical ignorance regarding what actually happened. (Dating the arrival of the sermon to the third century is a breath-taking example of such ignorance: recall from my previous post how St. Justin Martyr in about 150 A.D. described the Sunday morning Eucharist as containing a sermon— in Justin’s description: “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”—i.e. he gives The Sermon.) Seemingly, the only Bible verse which really matters to the authors of The Red Book is 1 Cor. 14:26, “When you come together, each one has as psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation”. From this description of the Eucharistic agape meal in Corinth (written before the separation of the Eucharist from the agape later that century by the apostles), Valentinus and Marcion conclude that the only acceptable form of worship today is one where everyone gathers for a meal and puts in their liturgical two bits whenever they like, including a bit of informal teaching. This is styled “mutual exhortation and mutual ministry”—presumably because the people at the meal are talking to one another. By using this verse as the interpretive key and the prism through which everything else is viewed, Valentinus and Marcion feel justified in rejecting all future liturgical development.
Yet even here their reconstruction of first century praxis is more imagined than real. I point out two components of that praxis.
First, the existence of authoritative clergy—denounced by Valentinus and Marcion as “the unbiblical clergy mentality”—is attested throughout the New Testament. The Jerusalem church had elders (Greek presbuteros), and these were clearly men in authority (see Acts 15:2,22). The very term “elder”, answering to the Hebrew zeqanim, would convey this authority, for the “elders” in Israel were men who ruled (see Ex. 3:18, 12:21, Deut. 19:12, Ruth 4:2). Also, in his missionary journeys, although Paul did not always have time to find men among his new converts who possessed the seniority and maturity needed for the task of leadership and to set them into office, finding them and setting them into office was a priority. Sometimes therefore Paul appointed such presbyters during his missionary journeys (Acts 14:23); sometimes he left that task to others such as Titus, who was told to appoint such presbyters with all haste (see Titus 1:5). In all cases, a functioning presbyterate was an essential part of the local church. Their presence is assumed, I would argue, in all the epistles, and explicitly mentioned in the epistle to the Philippians (Phil. 1:1). That they existed in all the churches can be seen by Paul’s instructions about selecting them in 1 Tim. 3. A large part of their function was teaching (see 1 Tim. 5:17-18), and this is why the office of “teacher” and presbyter (or “shepherd”) is connected so closely in Eph. 4:11, where Paul speaks of “shepherds and teachers” as pretty much the same office. And even before Paul began his missionary journeys, his church in Antioch had functioning teachers (Acts 13:1). The first century church was not the leader-less liturgical free-for-all imagined by The Red Book.
Secondly, (and not surprisingly in a church which had such teachers), teaching from these teachers was an essential part of the weekly synaxis. Even in 1 Cor. 14:26 “a teaching” (Greek didache) is mentioned, and given Paul’s earlier reference to “teachers” in 1 Cor. 12:28, it unlikely that this “teaching” was an informal opinion offered by Bob over the dessert course of the meal. Thus even in Pauline Corinth the teachers did their teaching. We can see the importance of this teaching by examining the New Testament: James refers to it as “the implanted Word which is able to save your souls” (Jas. 1:21); Peter refers to it as “the pure milk of the Word” (or “pure spiritual milk”—Greek to logikon adolon gala, notoriously difficult to capture in English), and urges his readers to “long” for it, “so that they may grow up into salvation” (1 Pt. 2:2). The writer of The Epistle to the Hebrews commands his readers to “remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the Word of God” (Heb. 13:7). Paul, who wrote often of teachers, seems to divide his Galatian church readers into two groups: “the one who is taught the Word” and “him who teaches” (Gal. 6:6), and the former is told to “share all good things” with the latter—i.e. to pay them. Clearly, the churches of the New Testament knew a presbyteral, pastoral ministry of teaching and preaching (1 Tim. 5:17), and this teaching was valued as means of “growing up into salvation”. This Word of teaching was “able to save your souls”. It is therefore not surprising to find that in the mid-second century, according to St. Justin, after the readings from the Scriptures from the Old and New Testaments, the presbyter presiding at the Eucharist “verbally instructs and exhorts to the imitation of those good things”. The Sermon was now a normal part of the Eucharist.
In classical and authentic Orthodoxy, the Sermon retains this important place in the Eucharist. In fact, in the service for the ordination of a bishop, the bishop is ordained after the Trisagion and before the Sermon so that the newly-ordained bishop can preach the sermon, since preaching and “righting defining the Word of Truth” is his central function. (It is the same with the ordination of priests and deacons: the priest, for example, is ordained before the Anaphora so that he can take his share in offering the Anaphora along with the presiding bishop.) Sadly, sometimes the Sermon or Homily is omitted from its classical place after the Scripture readings, and tacked on to the end of the Liturgy like an after-thought. Whatever the pastoral reasons supporting this transfer of the Sermon to the end, it has the unfortunate effect of separating it from the Liturgy itself, and giving the false impression that it is an optional frill, when in fact it is an essential component. A Liturgy without an Epistle or Gospel would feel lacking, as would a Liturgy without the Creed. A Liturgy without a Sermon is similarly deficient—as St. John Chrysostom, the golden-mouthed preacher of Antioch and Constantinople, would be the first one to admit.
Here we must freely confess that too often we Orthodox presbyters and teachers of today have let down our end rather badly, so that when one thinks of Orthodoxy one does not instantly think of inspired and fervent preaching. We do many things well, but homiletics is not known to be one of them. This should be remedied, especially since we live in the midst of a pluralistic and often hostile secular society. The days when one could assume most people knew the Truth are long gone. Most people in the secular West know as much about real Christianity as I do about Zoroastrianism (which isn’t much), and this is best remedied by teaching and preaching. The Sermon is not “a polluted stream”, as the authors of The Red Book assert. It is a river of living water, flowing out from the Church to give life to a thirsty world.