3 Reasons to Preach the Epistles

March 20th, 2012

Preachers sometime shy away from preaching on the letters of the New Testament. There are a number of reasons why this is so. The lectionary tilts toward the Gospels, or it may seem easier and more inviting to preach on biblical narratives, or perhaps the sometimes dense argumentation of the Epistles appears daunting, even boring. Chrysostom said that hearing the Epistles was “like a spiritual trumpet”, but sometimes the trumpet is muted. For example, the rousing voice of the Letter to the Romans, once the call to arms of the Reformation, has in recent times often quieted to a whisper in the pulpit.

Reasons for Epistolary Preaching

Although the popularity of preaching on the New Testament Epistles rises and falls on rhetorical, cultural, and theological tides, there are several good reasons to revive the practice of epistolary preaching:

  1. Preaching on the Epistles helps to correct the overreliance on narrative preaching. A steady diet of narrative preaching can produce an episodic understanding of the Christian faith. There is this story and there is that story, but what about the relationships among the central scriptural narratives? The Epistles are more focused on the ligaments and connections of the gospel, and they represent a move from narrative immediacy to the posture of theological and ecclesial reflection. Humanity does not live by narrative alone, but by every word that comes from God. 
  2. Preaching on the Epistles allows the sermon to depict the Christian faith not simply as a series of experiences or a collection of doctrinal affirmations, but as a way of life grounded in specific and coherent practices. The emphasis in the Epistles on such everyday matters as money, gossip, jealousy, hospitality, religious pluralism, and marriage underscores that the Christian life has a lived-out shape.

    In his book Religious Experience in Earliest Christianity, New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson contrasts the front and the back of a typical Catholic church. At the front, he says, everything is “orderly and correct.” Up at the front are the furniture and art of the church’s neatly arranged power, but in the back of the church things are a good bit messier. In the back is a bulletin board with brochures, news clippings, announcements—a pilgrimage here, a sighting of Mary there, a charismatic prayer meeting elsewhere. In the front is correct doctrine, but in the back is Christianity as it is actually lived out on the ground. The Epistles provide superb access to the back of the church, to the messy attempts to find a coherent way of belonging to the faith, to the often fragmented attempts to discover a shape of living that gives form to the promises of the gospel, hammered out amid the conflicts and ambiguities that mark any human endeavor.

  3. Preaching on the Epistles allows sermons to help hearers in their quest to find meaning in the relationships and commitments of their lives. The New Testament Epistles are quite theological, but they are not doctrinal in the systematic sense. The authors of the New Testament letters wrestle with the theological claims of the gospel in the cauldron of real-life conflicts and experiences. It is one thing to talk abstractly about Christian freedom or justification by faith; it is quite another to see these claims struggled through by Paul in the Letter to the Galatians, with people who are suffering a loss of zest and meaning in life because they have lost their nerve, have been willing to trade identity in Christ for conventional religious marks of status, and have drawn back from the strong winds of freedom and love in the gospel.
When preaching takes up the Epistles as a source, the chances are good that sermons will be rescued from being either abstract theological essays or oped pieces on the cultural issues du jour. They will address the great questions that have always troubled the human heart, and they will do so in ways that build up real churches facing concrete problems and trying to heal actual conflicts.

This article is adapted from The New Interpreter's Handbook of Preaching, Copyright © 2008 Abingdon Press. The complete digital edition of the NIHOP is included in a subscription to Ministry Matters.
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