Preaching that Avoids the Scandal…and the Centre
I’ve been impressed recently in reading the early chapters of the Book of Acts by the confrontational clarity and boldness of the apostles’ public preaching. How can one not be so impressed? Peter, John, & Co. not only dare to champion the renegade Jesus in the very city in which he was recently killed quite horribly for saying nothing more challenging than what his disciples are now saying, but they dare to assert the apparently preposterous notion that God raised this Jesus from the dead.
Indeed, after a couple of accounts of such sermons, the narrator writes, “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all” (Acts 4:33).
As it happens, I’ve been interviewed recently by a variety of media regarding church planting, church growth, and church “success” (by various definitions) here in Vancouver, in Cascadia, and in North America more broadly. These queries have prompted me to fresh alertness as to what our contemporaries are doing by comparison to what I have been reading in Acts. And I see one or two differences perhaps worth submitting for Christian consideration.
I wonder if our preaching, evangelism, apologetics, and other modes of “messaging” our contemporaries focus on spiritual richness, wisdom for living, loving relationships, positive self-regard, assurance of our place in the cosmos, moral clarity, relief from anxiety and other very good things…that are the generic traits of any “positive” religion or spirituality or life-philosophy. These are the “easy sells,” the “of course everyone wants them” dimensions of Christian life that ruffle no feathers and instead both soothe and even attract our non-Christian neighbours.
I have no problem at all with setting out the blessings of the life well lived, the fruit of the Spirit, the graces that mark new life in Christ. Any wise communicator discerns points of connection with his or her audience and builds bridges to those points over which he or she then can convey the other elements of the gospel–such as why we do not automatically, everywhere, and already enjoy these delights, and what can be done to garner them.
Still, Acts 4 (and Acts 2 and 3 as well!) stand in stark contrast to this approach of leading with the obviously “good stuff.” Peter says instead, “My fellow citizens, you self-satisfied, even self-righteous, bunch! You did the stupidest and wickedest thing you could possibly do: You killed our Messiah! In fact, you collaborated with our oppressors to kill our Saviour!”
Peter is clearly a terrible public speaker, apparently failing completely to observe the fundamental principle of establishing warm, respectful rapport with his audience on matters of mutual interest and regard.
Then he says, “But God showed you, and the world, definitively and forever that you were dead wrong by raising this Jesus–whom you crucified (I just want you to really, really, really get that point)–from the dead and then making him Lord of all. He is, in fact, the Saviour, and the only rescue available from the stupidity and wickedness you just so abundantly demonstrated in killing him, and, indeed, the fierce judgment awaiting you in the wrath of God, is in trusting him to save you.”
Interestingly, the apostles are not lynched forthwith. Their message instead cuts their audiences to the heart and thousands turn to God in repentance and faith…out of what could only have been a small number of “thousands” in the audience in the first place.
Imagine if Christian pulpits in Vancouver…or Seattle…or Toronto…or Washington, D.C….or London…or Hong Kong…or Berlin…or New Delhi…or Cape Town…or Kinshasa…or Lima…or Auckland rang out consistently with the claim that the One True God had actually, historically, truly raised Jesus from the dead. That it really happened and that we can know it happened.
Imagine if we declared that the resurrection story entails that we human beings, Jews and Gentiles (= everyone), conspired and cooperated, despite our deep antagonisms, to kill the One at the centre of human history, the only Saviour we needed and would ever have offered to us.
Imagine preaching that the resurrection story further says that God had raised this One from the dead and, instead of then launching a global attack on those who had shown themselves utterly against God’s saving purposes (= everyone), God nonetheless offers us salvation anyway through that very One we rejected.
Imagine if we made quite clear, regularly and boldly, that all the “good stuff” of spiritual richness, wisdom for living, loving relationships, positive self-regard, assurance of our place in the cosmos, moral clarity, relief from anxiety and so on is, yes, wonderfully and truly, available, but only through faith in the One we killed and God actually raised from the dead.
I wonder if “great grace would be upon us all” … versus the state of many (most?) of our churches today.
Merely preaching brave, truthful sermons about the resurrection won’t do everything that needs doing, of course. Acts 2-4 show the early Christians practicing a high degree of common life, sharing financial resources, spending time in each other’s homes, attending to the apostles’ teaching, participating regularly in worship, and more.
Still, over and over in these early chapters the pattern of the apostolic proclamation in a situation that could not have been more delicate and dangerous is striking: Right in their faces, Peter tells his neighbours the stark truth about the resurrection of Jesus, The Truth about the human condition and God’s one amazing Provision for it. A crucified and risen Jesus was, as Paul put it, a scandal, a stumbling block, an offensive rock standing in the way of Jewish belief just as the idea was raving foolishness to the Gentile mind. It is surely no less upsetting and ludicrous to our contemporaries.
No wonder we generally don’t preach it as Peter did.
Or enjoy the results he did?