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.”