Preaching the Epistles

Stephen Farris

In Preaching like Paul (Westminster John Knox, 2000), J. Thompson ventures the opinion that preaching from Paul is “unfashionable” these days. He is almost certainly correct. And if preaching from Paul is out of fashion, what shall we say about preaching from a little known epistle like 2 John? Narrative is “in”; epistles with their emphasis on doctrine and ethical instruction, are definitely “out.” The problem is complicated in some circles by a manifest misuse of the Common Lectionary. Some devotees of the Lectionary assume that the right and proper text for preaching is the Gospel text for the day. The other lessons, including the epistle, are little more than the scriptural equivalent of the backup singers in an old Motown group, shimmying anonymously in the background.

Fashions come and go in preaching as in clothing, but this tendency might be a graver matter than mere fashion. A refusal to preach from a part of the Bible is an implicit denial of its authority. The denial of the authority of the OT was long ago identified as a heresy, and is still labeled “Marcionite.” What shall we call a refusal to preach from the epistles? “Short-sighted” might be the kindest epithet. The epistles can provide the textual basis for preaching that is necessary for the health of the church. Moreover, this preaching can be anything but dull.

Narrative in the Epistles

Preachers who are convinced of the power of narrative can be comforted: there is indeed narrative in the epistles. The story of Paul and his complicated relationships with the early churches is part of the constitutive narrative of the Christian church. This story (and to a lesser degree the story of Peter) is told in the Acts of the Apostles, but the epistles amplify and, perhaps, correct that version of the story. Moreover, there is a story implicit in many of the epistles. The “circumstances of composition” we memorize for seminary examinations are actually stories, and can be conveyed that way in the pulpit. Tell the story of Paul’s difficulty with the Judaizers and even Peter (Galatians). Tell about an old man on his way to an uncertain fate but hoping to raise money for one last missionary trip (Romans). Visit Paul in a Roman jail (Philippians and Philemon).

Finally, the epistles themselves use narrative in a compelling manner. They allude to stories that must have been well known to many early Christians. The most important stories are those we know so well that a few words suffice to bring the whole to mind. Perhaps all that needs be said is “we preach Christ crucified…”or “at the right time Christ died for the ungodly…,” and the central story of the Christian faith is present. Other stories are present in the same way. Paul reminds the Corinthians of the desert wanderings of Israel (1 Cor 10). The old tale of Abraham and his faith lies behind Romans 4 and Galatians 3. The second chapter of James takes up the same story to make a different point and adds a reminder of Rahab the harlot. Sadly, many of our listeners have such a limited biblical knowledge that mere allusion will no longer work. The preacher’s task in our time is to retell these stories that lie in, with, and under the epistles. Note, however, that they are stories brought to bear upon a particular situation.

Didache as Response to the Particular

The epistles are valuable not just because they form part of a narrative, or because they contain allusions to other biblical narratives. They are of immense value precisely because they are didache—that is, a mixture of doctrine and ethical instruction. Many preachers fear that doctrine is abstract and academic and that moral instruction is inevitably moralistic. This is not the case in the epistles. Didache is neither abstract nor academic, and it need not be moralistic. There were in the early days and still are in our time certain things one must understand and do in order to lead an authentically Christian existence. These beliefs and practices, together with the constitutive narrative mentioned earlier, make up the core of Christian identity. They emerge in very specific sets of circumstances and in light of particular challenges. The epistles present a picture, the only picture we now have, of the early church struggling to be faithful in an alien and hostile culture. Christian identity and practice are also in question today. For a church often uncertain of its identity, and engaging a culture that is increasingly alien and sometimes hostile, the relevance of the epistles for preaching should be obvious.

The Use of Analogy

The key to preaching the epistles is, I believe, analogy. The preacher can name the life situation that the doctrine or the ethical instruction addresses, then move to the contemporary world and church by way of analogy. Both the life situation of the epistles and its analog in the contemporary world must be described as concretely and vividly as possible in order to save the sermon from excessive abstractness.

Most often, with respect to the epistles, the preaching analogy will be to the situation behind the text. A very bright student once remarked to me that this procedure is a bit like playing Jeopardy. It is trying to guess the question to which the text is the answer. Sometimes the text actually tells us that there have been questions: “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote” (1 Cor 7:1). From what follows we can infer that the Corinthians have explicitly asked whether it is right to marry, given the supposed shortness of time before the second coming of Christ. Quite probably they have asked a number of other questions as well. More often, however, our game of “Jeopardy” is metaphorical. We are looking for the problem or difficulty to which the text is a response.

Sometimes it is very easy to perceive an analogy between text and contemporary world. The preacher who cannot see contemporary analogs to the dispute over speaking in tongues that Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians 12-14 is several sopranos short of a full choir. The same could be said, sadly, with respect to disputes over favorite ministers (1 Cor 1:10-17), and sexual misbehavior in the church (1 Cor 5). Nor is it difficult to find these analogies elsewhere in the epistles. The context of 2 Peter 3, for example, with its response to the delay of the second coming of Christ bears an obvious relevance to the repeated failure of predictions of the End in certain evangelical circles.

Sometimes, however, discovering the analogy around which the sermon will grow requires more imagination. First Corinthians as a whole is probably the easiest of all the epistles to preach, precisely because it addresses specific problems in the church which sadly have obvious parallels in the contemporary church. Even in 1 Corinthians, however, there is material that seems very distant. What parallel may be discerned with respect to the dispute over meat offered to idols? Paul devotes almost as many words to this issue as to the question of spiritual gifts and deals with it before he discusses spiritual gifts. In our day, however, it would be impossible to find meat offered to idols in our local supermarket. But are there still idols? If an idol is a representation of something other than God that we trust for our security, one may answer the question in the affirmative. Perhaps I carry in my pocket a graven image, in gold or even platinum, that represents what many in our society trust above all else. Perhaps worshiping that idol might still be, as Paul warns, fatal.

The epistles also show us how to avoid moralistic preaching. Observe carefully the theological order of the epistles: grace first, obligation second. That is often true with respect to the literary structure of the epistles. For example, take note of the structure of Romans. It is not until chapter 12 that we reach obligation, and that obligation is based on all that has been said before about the God who justifies the ungodly: “I appeal to you…therefore….” It is invariably true theologically. All Christian obligation is an outworking of the command to love. And “we love because God first loved us.” This sentence comes from 1 John, of course, but in principal it could be any of the epistles, though the wording would doubtless differ. With respect to our sermons, we should never preach the obligation of the epistles without first clearly and plainly declaring the unmerited grace out of which the obligation grows. If we do that, we simply cannot preach moralistically.

The church still needs didache. And as long as it needs didache , it will need preaching from the epistles.

Posted Mar 01, 2003