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The Ancient Biblical Sermons Break All the Modern Rules – Maybe the Rules Should Be Re-Examined

April 16, 2018 21 Comments

The first reading from last Sunday’s Mass features an excerpt from St. Peter’s first sermon. The contents of the sermon are very similar to others recorded in the Acts of the Apostles by Saints Paul and Stephen. What is interesting is that these ancient sermons break almost every rule (written and unwritten) of modern preaching! Consider the clip from yesterday and not the areas highlighted in red:

Peter said to the people:
“The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,
the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus,

whom you handed over and denied in Pilate’s presence
when he had decided to release him.
You denied the Holy and Righteous One
and you asked that a murderer be released to you.
The author of life you put to death,
but God raised him from the dead; of this we are witnesses.
Now I know, brothers,
that
you acted out of ignorance, just as your leaders did;
but God has thus brought to fulfillment
what he had announced beforehand
through the mouth of all the prophets,
that his Christ would suffer.
Repent, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be wiped away.” (Acts 3:13-19)

Apparently, St. Peter never got the memo that no invective is ever to be used, that it is a bad idea to use “you” instead of “we” and “us,” that suggesting people are ignorant or even acting in ignorance is insensitive and demeaning, that instead of telling people to repent of their sins and be converted they should be affirmed and welcomed. Peter accuses them of unjustly handing over one who was holy and righteous and preferring a murderer to Him. They were too dull or ignorant to accept rather than deny the Lord’s testimony; they put to death the very author of life.

St. Stephen does something similar:

You stiff-necked people with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit, just as your fathers did. Which of the prophets did your fathers fail to persecute? They even killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One. And now you are His betrayers and murderers— you who have received the Law ordained by angels yet have not kept it (Acts 7:51-53).

Jesus spared His listeners little when describing their sinful drives:

The Jewish people gathered in the Temple area said to Jesus, “We are not illegitimate children,” they declared. “Our only Father is God Himself.” Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on My own, but He sent Me. … You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out his desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, refusing to uphold the truth …. The One who glorifies Me is My Father, of whom you say, ‘He is our God.’ You do not know Him, but I know Him. If I said I did not know Him, I would be a liar like you. But I do know Him, and I keep His word” (John 8:40ff).

Yikes! Such fire-breathing preachers would never pass modern preaching class let alone be ordained in a modern seminary setting. Yet Peter’s sermon drew 3,000 converts and Stephen, though stoned for what he said, snared (or at least prepared) a pretty important convert: Saul of Tarsus. Jesus of course has had billions of converts!

There is an old preacher’s joke that says, “Peter preached one sermon and got 3,000 converts. I have preached 3,000 sermons and have not gotten one convert.” These ancient sermons and evangelizing tactics might not be in line modern notions, but they produced abundant fruit.

To be sure, cultural norms should not be wholly ignored. We live in times where “sensitivity” is insisted upon. Although I would argue that we have become far too thin-skinned, simply defying the current cultural norms may not be a great strategy in the short term.

In the long run, good preaching should mold culture and cultural expectations. We who would preach should have a role in reintroducing the biblical concepts that are often lost today. We need to reacquaint people with truths and realities. We must bring back words that have been lost: death, judgment, Hell, sin (venial and mortal), repentance, conversion, accountability, and consequences. We must move from mere abstractions and generalities and speak clearly to the moral issues of our day: abortion, physician-assisted suicide, fornication, adultery, homosexual acts, pornography, greed, unforgiveness, envy, deceit, and malice.

In my own experience, people are at first surprised—even shocked—to hear of these things again after a long absence, but they adjust quickly. Many are even glad to hear clarity from the pulpit again. Speaking to sin is the bad news that points to the good news and renders it even better. If we don’t know the bad news, the good news is no news.

The kerygma (preaching content and style) of the early Church is often overanalyzed. Its basic message is quite simple:

“You’ve got it bad and that ain’t good, but there’s a doctor in the house and His name is Jesus. He is the longed-for Messiah and Lord. If you will admit your need and invite Him into your life through faith and the sacraments, He will go to work and save you from the mess you are and the mess you have made!”

The earliest sermons honestly, even colorfully, laid out our miserable state. Even we who like to think we’re “good people” do some foolish and sinful things. We can be obtuse; we can have the wrong priorities. We can be just plain mean at the drop of a hat. We do have it bad, and deep down we know this and that it “ain’t good.” In that state, the mercy of the Lord can seem glorious and the medicine of word and sacrament can be precious.

Yes, the ancient sermons break all the modern rules. Perhaps you notice, though, that they were at the helm of a growing Church, and in contrast, we are suffering steady erosion. Despite our claims to be relevant, sensitive, and welcoming, we fail to connect with people and keep them. Many do not find our message compelling, relevant, or helpful. Maybe the ancients knew something that we have forgotten: “If you don’t know the bad news, the good news is no news.”

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  1. John says:

    I entirely agree with you, Monsignor. That said, in the post conciliator age in which we are living, the “bad old ways” of preaching the saving Gospel to the heretic have been replaced with the “can’t we all just get along?” precept. St. Peter and Paul would be asked to tone it down.

    I quote from Vatican II’s “Nostra Aetate”:

    “The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.

    “3. The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth,(5) who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.

    Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.”

    http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decl_19651028_nostra-aetate_en.html

    • yan says:

      There’s more than one way to skin a cat.

      22 Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars’ hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious.

      23 For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, To The Unknown God. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.

      24 God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands;

      25 Neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things;

      26 And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation;

      27 That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us:

      28 For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring. (Acts 17:22-28)

      • Matthew says:

        Yan:
        I have always found this response interesting but no one ever goes on to look at the follow up. How many converts did Paul win in Athens with this preaching? 2-3? There is no known letter to the Church at Athens. Given the conclusion to the story, in terms of converting people, perhaps this is included in Scripture as a cautionary tale of how NOT to preach.
        Matthew

        • yan says:

          I very much doubt that. But who knows. We only have the one sermon recorded in Acts. No doubt it is merely the first of many sermons St. Paul preached there.

          32 And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked: and others said, We will hear thee again of this matter.

          33 So Paul departed from among them.

          34 Howbeit certain men clave unto him, and believed: among the which was Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, and others with them. [Acts 17: 32-34]

          Also see the following. St Paul apparently converted the first bishop of Athens, who became a martyr:

          Apostolic era (33–100)

          c. 45–46 Apostle Paul ‘s mission to Cyprus, where he converts proconsul Quintus Sergius Paullus.[19]

          c. 49 Paul’s mission to Philippi, Thessaloniki and Veria;[20][21] Lydia of Thyatira becomes the first convert to Christianity in Europe after hearing Paul’s words in Philippi proclaiming the Gospel of Christ during his second missionary journey.[22][23]

          c. 50–51 Paul’s mission to Athens,[24] during his second missionary journey; Metropolis of Corinth founded during Paul’s first mission to Corinth; Paul writes his two Epistles to the Thessalonians, from Corinth.[20]

          c. 52–53 Hierotheos the Thesmothete, a member of the Athenian Areopagos was converted to Christ by the Apostle Paul and became the first Bishop of Athens, later dying a martyr’s death.[25][26]

          c. 54 Paul writes his First Epistle to the Corinthians,[27] during his third missionary journey.

          c. 55 Paul writes his Second Epistle to the Corinthians from Illyria Graeca.[27][28]

          c. 56 Paul revisits Macedonia.[29]

          c. 60 Crucifixion of Apostle Andrew the First-called, in Patras.[27][30][31][32]

          c. 61 Barnabas, founder of Church of Cyprus, traditionally thought to have been martyred in Salamis;[27] Paul’s ship lands at Kaloi Limenes (Fair Havens) on the southern coast of Crete, as he was traveling as a prisoner to Rome.[33]

          c. 64 Paul ordained the Apostle Titus bishop of Gortyn in Crete, becoming the first Bishop of Crete.[34][35]

      • J says:

        Yes, Peter was preaching to those who would have claimed to be “on board” with the message, and Paul was preaching to those who would not have claimed to be “on board” with the message.

        The author’s original point makes sense because he is himself preaching to people who have placed themselves in front of a preacher.

        In your example from Paul’s experience, the preacher is out hunting for an audience. The context makes a big difference

  2. Matt says:

    Is there a difference between preaching to the faithful and preaching to those who are not yet believers? Peter called out those who were not living up to the community standards (and they dropped dead), but was it in a sermon?

  3. GARY says:

    Culturally sensitive yet countercultural!
    Romans 12:2 comes to mind. Bring it!

  4. Alex says:

    I agree Monsignor, people would indeed appreciate some clarity from the pulpit. Pretending that every sin I have ever committed can be waved away with some flimsy excuse doesnt change the fact that sometimes I just made wrong decisions. Frankly helping people avoid help isn’t high on modern priests “to-do” list.

    I also note that John posted from nostrae aetate. What a disgrace that document is.

  5. crazylikeknoxes says:

    Don’t mind me overly much, I’m a natural contrarian and these are just some thoughts shot from the hip.

    Personally, I adhere to the C.S. Lewis formula that if we strike, we strike hard, but if we speak, we speak gracious.

    People today are too eager to hurl invective but too sensitive to receive it. St. Peter could chide the people for handing Jesus over to death, but he also suffered the rebuke “get behind me, Satan.” (Although Jesus did go “easy” on Peter after the whole denial thing – do you love me? do you love? do you love me? Actually, I think those three questions could have been one of the hardest things Peter endured. The point is Jesus did not employ invective on this occasion.)

    I also think that it is the substance of our preaching rather than the style that is deficient. Cato famously described the orator as a good man speaking (not unlike Horace who described satire as speaking the truth smiling). I can enjoy invective as well as satire as well as fire & brimstone as well as the gentle touch – provided only that some truth is thereby served.

  6. I don’t remember the source, but there’s the story of an old Orthodox priest who was reading one of the Church Fathers for the homily, and in the middle, he paused, looked up, and said, “You people need to repent!” and then continued his lesson.

  7. edraCRUZ says:

    Ahhh political correctness. To me Monsignor, the heck with it. Go give us fire and brimstone sermons (not homilies), maybe it will wake the shiver-me-timbers uncircumcised ears and hearts and remove the scales from our eyes that we may realize our stupidity, stubbornness and dysfunctions so that we can, at last, out of gratitude return to the AUTHOR of Life for our own good sakes. YHWH EL GIBOR

  8. Joseph says:

    Early sermons often went longer than 10 minutes and were replete with ScripturAL references. Today, you’re lucky to get the readings and Gospel for a given Sunday to be coherently integrated into a homily that instructs and inspires. That said, I would loathe listening to most priests have 5 extra minutes of preaching when the 10-15 minutes they already utilize are often poorly constructed. But indeed, hearing some of the words and concepts mentioned in Msgr. Pope’s homily might awake in all of us in the pews something not normally made known.

  9. Kevin Thompson says:

    If I heard a sermon like that of Peter’s I’d think I had walked into the wrong church. Most of what I hear today is “God is love,” or “we just need to be better to each other,” and that’s it. This Sunday’s homily was such a waste as the priest talked only of his new church assignment.

    I would once like to hear that Jesus Christ came to save sinners, took our sin upon Himself and died in our place so we could be reconciled through Him with God the Father; that Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father and intercedes for us. That we are sinners in need of a Savior.

    I can’t help but think many priests are afraid to preach this in fear that , in some way, people will be offended. Instead they serve up vanilla sermons designed to not really say anything as not to offend anyone. It the equivalent of getting a pat on the head and being told “be a good boy/girl; now run along.”

  10. Giovanni Serafino says:

    I agree wth what Father wrote concerning the sermon. But, as he certainly knows, if any priest put into practice his suggestions, he would be called into the bishop’s office and told either to change his style or face serious repercussions. I know priests who have spoken the truth and have lost their parishes and been sent on a year “sabbatical” which often includes psychological evaluations for anger management issues.

  11. Jarrad Faulk says:

    Yes! I grew up in an Old School Southern Baptist tradition. I’ve been a son of Holy Mother Church for 10 years now! But the old style of preaching was and is alive and well in the South! Moreso is the Baptist, Pentecostal tradition. It increasingly so in the Catholic as well! Our current pastor is a former Baptist and preaches like it too! There’s a colloquialism for hard nosed preaching in the South. It’s called “toe stompin”! It means the one giving the sermon is stepping on you to wake you up and shake your soul to bring about conversion to the Law of God!

  12. Todd says:

    Are we at war, or not? Saint Paul in Ephesians chapter 6 spoke about the spiritual war that we are actually in. He spoke well about putting on the Armor of God. As part of this preparation for battle Saint Paul said two things at the end that jump out at me:

    [18] Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints,[19] and also for me, that utterance may be given me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel,
    [20] for which I am an ambassador in chains; that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.

    That “utterance,” may be given me in opening my mouth “boldly.” That I may declare it “boldly,” as I ought to speak.

    Of course we do so with love which includes patience (not lashing out in anger when they attack us verbally), kindness (concern for their eternal souls), and not insisting on our own way – people are free to go their own way.

  13. for you says:

    There is an urgency to speaking so boldly without regard that the hearer may be offended. Just as when someone is in grave danger, for example if they are ready to step through a thicket and do not see the steep cliff ahead. One does not say when knowing the cliff is straight ahead: “I hope you will be so careful…” and then they let that person go on over the cliff. No, they say: “YOU ARE GOING THE WRONG WAY – WATCH OUT! don’t go that way or you will perish!” It is the Love of Jesus Christ for people, that is also in us through the Holy Spirit, that cries out a warning, a clear shout-out that something terrible, a terrible, terrible danger is ahead for them if they do not heed the call of God!

  14. Peter Wolczuk says:

    “Apparently, St. Peter never got the memo that no invective is ever to be used, that it is a bad idea to use “you” instead of “we” and “us,”
    Pointing out actual flaws, of the listeners() may be good point in some contexts but, using “I” to tell the story of one’s struggle to find a better way of life, and how the struggle was worth the discomfort, also has benefit.
    It seems to me (and in my personal experience on both sides of a dialogue, the then and the now) a person who is sharing a message of hope, to people who are struggling to achieve freedom, from the same discomfort that the speaker has risen from, can better see a common bond of hope and compassion.

  15. And now we know why Jesus spoke in parables. Here is a modern parable. A progressive protestant minister and an old Catholic preist go into a bar one afternoon. The bartender walks up to the progressive protestant minister and says, “What can I get you reverend?” The reverend says, “I’ll have a glass of red wine and some of your happy hour bread sticks.” The bartender looked at the old preist and asked, “What will you have Father?”, The preist says, “I’ll have the body and blood of Christ.” Now they all laughed. The bartender laughed because he knew he would be bringing them the same thing but they would leave with totally different experiences. The progressive protestant minister laughed because the moment was nothing more than another happy hour and he expected no more than a happy meal short the french fries and a toy you quickly get bored with and toss aside. The old preist laughed because every moment to him is a passion play and where ever two or more are gathered in Christ’s name there He would also be and the preist was having communion to be fulfilled.

  16. BHG says:

    It’s not OSFA. Sometimes fire and brimstone is needed. Sometimes not. That will vary by the audience, the culture, the time, the situation— The trick is to know when for each style, not to believe than one is inherently better than the other. Peter got 3000 converts; for the same language, Stephen was stoned. It’s at least arguable that Stephen’s language closed rather than opened hearts that particular day, especially as he set up an “us-them” situation knowing full well that the apostles themselves had betrayed, deserted, and abandoned Jesus.

    And while we are at it, it’s not the number of converts that matters. It’s the number who persevere. 🙂

  17. Maria says:

    http://laudatedominum.net

    The above link is all the old prayers & doctrines from my Great Grandmothers times!!! The True Roman Catholic prayers for Priests. I love the old ways and am often feel like the new church is abodoning me and my mom. We even get glared at by modern priests when we kneel for communion. We’ve had to take off our chapel veils and decorate our heads with hairclips to not annoy the priests and get ourselves oscrihized or worst fear of being excommunicated… We come for GOD but those in the various parishes we goto seem to like to edit GOD and make nice with the atheist who come to mass as a good luck charm. We even had to educate some thinking they we converts only for them to snear at us. And the pastors to push us aside because “they” line the baskets more than we can afford. It reminds me of my girlfriend who said she was afarid to goto church cause she didn’t have money at the time to enter. Her parish put a donation opperated turnstyle to enter the parish. This was in the 90’s in spainish harlem NYC. But now our priests are abandoning old devote catholics for new ways. One pastor keeps calling the Mass a show. Constantly thanks people who gave money for various things making those out of work or poor feel like bums. And instead of letting us all sing hymns together to prayer to God , has hired an operatic browdway singer and pianist. To drown us out. We all (my mom and I, are not the only one) are trying to sing a hymn when the rarity comes up but the showboat soloist always manages to cranking up where no one can hit has us fearing the stain glass may crack and we can’t hear ourselves pray even during the communion. Sorry this is what we deal with here in NYC area. We church hop a lot looking to pray and be devote without the a priest giving us the stink eye.:( Sorry for the rant. It’s a blessing to find a Priest (Monsingor in your case)who love the old ways I don’t understand Latin but My mom was taught the old ways before Vatican 2. And that’s how we pray. Other catholics church hop too looking for a real confession, where you kneel in front of a screen. Most modern priests have gotten lazy and make people sit in the pews and give a general absolution. One pastor told us that he didn’t want to hear our confessions and didn’t have the time. We tried to tell our Bishops and Our local diocese but there too modern and have turned their backs on us. God Bless you for following GOD’s true words and not editing Him or His teaching’s I pray your congeration knows how blessed they are. I feel blessed to read a bit of your blog and have booked marked it for my mother’s reading.
    God bless,
    And please share the above link with all priests and seminarians who believe in the old ways. Not everyone is rich and those books are expensive so the books are available in downloadable forms in the link. I wish I could get my own church pastors to look at them, but we try now not to get too close to them except when we’re ducking from eucharistic ministers to get to a priest to kneel for communion. It makes God happy and we offer the suffering of our newest stink eye glare up! 😉

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