What do the”Kerygmatic”Sermons of Acts have to teach us about the New Evangelization?

Yesterday on this blog we discussed what was meant by the term Kerygma (by the way, pronounced “kay-ROOG-ma” where the first “a” is long and the last “a” is short. Some also pronounce it Kah-REEG-mah). If you missed that discussion you might do well to look at it here: What do we mean by the Kerygma?.

Briefly reviewed however, the term κήρυγμα, (Kerugma) is a Greek word meaning “proclamation”. The Greek word κηρύσσω, (kerusso) means “to be a herald (kerux),” or to be one who proclaims. And thus the Kerygma is what is proclaimed. As the Apostles began the work of preaching and proclaiming Christ, they proclaimed a message that was rather basic and simple.

The basic content of the kerygma emphasizes that Jesus is the chosen Messiah of God, the one who was promised. And though he was crucified, He rose gloriously from the dead, appearing to his disciples, and having been exulted at the right hand of the Father through his ascension, now summons all to him, through the ministry of the Church. This proclamation (kerygma) requires a response from us, that we should repent of our sins, accept baptism, and live in the new life which Christ is offering. This alone will prepare us for the coming judgment that is to come upon all humanity. There is an urgent need to conform ourselves to Christ and be prepared by him for the coming judgment.

There are eight kerygmatic sermons listed by St. Luke’s in the Acts of the Apostles. Five are by St. Peter, and three by St. Paul. The texts are too lengthy to reproduce here but I have put them in a PDF file that you can view here: Eight Sermons of the Kerygma in Acts

The Sermons all contained three fundamental elements. And, while the sermons may not follow this exact order, sometimes interweaving the three themes together, these three basic elements are most consistent:

I. Effect–there is some event, usually a healing which in effect generates the audience. This is a critical element that we will return to later.

II. Explanation–there is an explanation for the events presented that is rooted in Jesus Christ and setting forth how he fulfills prophecy, is the longed-for Messiah. The Paschal mystery, that Christ was killed through our sinfulness, but rose gloriously triumphant, is at the heart of this explanation. And this Paschal mystery is the power through which all healing takes place. This same Jesus, now exulted at the Father’s right hand is Judge and Lord of the world.

III. Exhortation – there is an appeal to repentance and the call to receive Jesus Christ in faith.

Not all eight of the sermons develop each of these points as fully as others. But these are the essential elements. As we shall see, the final sermon on the list, the one St. Paul preached at the meeting of the Areopagus (Acts 17:22–31), barely qualifies as a kerygmatic sermon, though it is commonly listed as one of the eight. More on this in a moment.

As an example of the kerygmatic sermons, let’s look at Peter’s second sermon in Acts 3:12-26:

Acts 3:12-26 – When Peter saw this, he said to them: “Men of Israel, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk? The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus. You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go. You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this. 16By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him that has given this complete healing to him, as you can all see. “Now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders. But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Christ would suffer. Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you—even Jesus. He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets. For Moses said, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you must listen to everything he tells you. Anyone who does not listen to him will be completely cut off from among his people.’ “Indeed, all the prophets from Samuel on, as many as have spoken, have foretold these days. And you are heirs of the prophets and of the covenant God made with your fathers. He said to Abraham, ‘Through your offspring all peoples on earth will be blessed.’ When God raised up his servant, he sent him first to you to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways.

So Lets look at the Three basic elements of this sermon:

I. Effect– The first verse says When Peter saw this [i.e. their astonishment], he said to them: “Men of Israel, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk?

Note then, we are looking at a fact, that is to say, an event that has taken place, something that is observable. In this case, a man who had been crippled from birth, was healed, and he not only walked, but he danced!

This visible effect of God’s grace had the additional effect of drawing a crowd who were now ready to listen to St. Peter. Indeed, six of the eight  kerygmatic sermons but one has some triggering event that gathered at the crowd, eager to listen. In the first kerygmatic sermon it had been the rushing wind of Pentecost, the noise that gathered the crowd and then also the gift of tongues, wherein each are heard the apostles speaking in their own native language. In other cases it was an indeterminate list of “signs and wonders” (Acts 5:12) that sets the stage. In another case, it was the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon Cornelius and his family with visible effects,  that occasioned the sermon (Acts 10:34 ff). On yet another occasion, it was the cure of another cripple, in this case by St. Paul and Barnabas,  in the town of Lystra (Acts 14:8–13).

Thus, some event, some observable effect, sets up of the sermon in six of the eight Kerygmatic sermons.

Now we may ask, “Does this mean that we have to show forth works and miracles in order to preach the Gospel?” And the answer is, “Yes!”  It may not necessarily be miraculous physical cures. But surely this effect is required, the miracle of a transformed life on the part of the one who announces Jesus Christ. At some very obvious level we have got to be able to demonstrate to those to whom we preach, and announce Jesus Christ, that we are not merely announcing some facts about an historical figure, or the doctrines of the Church, but also, that we are announcing a Man we have personally met, the Lord who has transformed our life.

We, our very selves, are to be the effect, to be the event which draws the crowd, or even one listener, who will hear of Jesus Christ. Kerygmatic preaching is not merely about doctrines, it is not merely about information, it is about announcing, and witnessing to, transformation, personal transformation in Christ Jesus.

Those who preach the kerygma, must preach it as first-hand witnesses, as witnesses who have met Jesus Christ, and who know what he is doing in their life. Kerygmatic  preaching is not a technique that can simply be learned by articulate spokesmen, it is a relationship that must be received, experienced, and thereby announced.

The early Christians, indeed, the Apostles, did not simply announce formulas, creeds, and doctrines; important those these things are. Rather, they announced a person, Jesus Christ, whom they had met. As St. John says in his first letter: “What we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked upon, and touch with our own hands… What we have seen and heard we proclaim now to you!” (1 John 1:ff)

And here explains one reason why the Kerygma, is so rarely make use of today. For it presupposes a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. There will be little effective evangelization apart from a personal proclamation of Jesus Christ. Don’t miss step one of the Kerygma!

II. – Explanation–in explaining how a crippled man has been healed, Peter takes no credit of his own. He attributes it all to the risen Lord Jesus Christ. In this setting forth of Christ he intertwines a typically kerygmatic  approach of announcing that this same Jesus Christ is now glorified in heaven, as can be plainly seen through the effect of the miracle worked in his name.

Peter goes on to declare the Paschal mystery, saying, that though this world killed him, God the Father raised him from the dead. Peter says that he is of witness of this very fact.

Then, St. Peter diverts briefly to a call to conversion in verse 17 and 18 and reverts to the fact that everything that happened to Jesus Christ, was prophesied in the Scriptures, by the prophets.

Of course, in an exhortation directed to a secular world, which does not accept the veracity or authority of Scripture, one cannot rely entirely on demonstrating prophetic fulfillment. One should however be able to demonstrate the reasonableness of Jesus Christ, by showing that he does not emerge out of nowhere. Rather, he emerges after centuries of being prefigured, longed for, and announced.

Remember too, the starting point of kerygmatic preaching is not fine points of Scripture, but the wonderful reality of miracles worked and/or transformed lives. The evidence, for a secularist, while it cannot begin with Scripture, can nevertheless find additional reassurance in the ancient prophecies of Scripture, but this assurance is rooted in an effect which is evidently before them, namely the proof of a transformed life, or of a miracle. In this context of credibility, Scripture, as an historical reference can also be advanced to show that the Christ event builds on ancient wisdom and prophecy. When we announce Jesus Christ to a secular world, we should not wholly set aside Scripture, even though we must also use other things, such as natural law, and human reason.

But note this key point, kerygmatic preaching, does not start with the Scripture, but with the effect, the effect of transformed human being. We simply have to accept, that to the secular world, someone like Mother Teresa is going to have greater credibility than some holier than thou dude trying to win an argument by out-quoting their opponent.

Kerygmatic preaching opens the book of Scripture, but only after demonstrating the power and the wisdom of Jesus Christ through healing and transformation. One of the great dangers of today is that too many Christians who would witness to Christ, seem little better little more reformed than an average pagan. Too many Christians who say they know Christ do not live lives that really show that. Many come across as self-righteous, arrogant, persnickety with details, yet missing the larger points of love, generosity, charity, holiness and joy. There can be little kerygmatic preaching in the absence of an effect. And while two of the kerygmatic sermons in the Scriptures do not contain a previous event, that very fact is probably why one of those sermons failed to bear fruit, as we shall see.

III. Exhortation–St. Peter concludes his sermon with a warning, quoting Moses, The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you must listen to everything he tells you. Anyone who does not listen to him will be completely cut off from among his people. In the last line of the sermon, Peter exhorts the people to experience the same blessings of the glorified Lord Jesus Christ, that they had just witnessed in the healing of this crippled man, by turning from their wicked ways. Thus he exhorts repentance, but, once again, in the light of true evidence of the power, majesty and lordship of Jesus Christ.

And thus we see that kerygmatic preaching is rooted not merely in reason or in discourse, but is rooted in experience, the experience of the miracle of healing and/or the experience of a transformed human person, preferably the preacher himself.

Ultimately, the call for a return to the kerygma then must be seen as a call for preachers, prophets, disciples, and members of the Church to return to a preaching of the fundamentals of Jesus Christ as a starting point. But this preaching must be rooted in a first-hand witness, in the credibility of someone who can show forth signs and wonders. And the chief sign, the most convincing miracle, is not usually the sort of miracle that many suspect are staged anyway, as  TV evangelists of the past have sometimes done.

Rather the chief miracle to behold is the witness of a transformed human being who shows forth the glory of love, serenity, of the obvious fact of sins having been put to death, and replaced by graceful and godly living. The greatest miracle to seek is a transformed human being, absent of pride and gluttony, lust and anger, but possessed rather of love, charity, generosity, kindness, self-discipline and authority over their passions.

St. Peter counseled the early Christians, and us that we should always be ready to render an account for the hope that is within us (1 Peter 3:15). And in this, he establishes the basis for kerygmatic preaching. Namely, that someone notices a hope that is within us, and then, when they ask about it, we are ready to render an account, to announce Jesus Christ. Here is the doorway to kerygmatic preaching, the miracle, the event, of a transformed human person.

A final reflection on the kerygmatic sermons of the Scriptures in Acts is that one of them may have run afoul of the basic principles of what is needed for a kerygmatic sermon. It is the sermon which is traditionally referred to as the 8th kerygmatic sermon. It is the address of St. Paul to the Areopagus in Athens (Acts 17:22–31).

It is too lengthy a sermon to reproduce in the main text here but you can look it up, or see it on the PDF file attached above. Most of the elements of the kerygmatic sermon are remarkably absent in the Athens speech. There is no miraculous event which precedes the sermon. Paul never mentions Jesus Christ by name but simply refers to him as “the man God has appointed.” In speaking of the Paschal Mystery, St Paul mentions only the resurrection, but not the cross. And though he does mention repentance, he never quotes Scripture other than to allude to it.

In Paul’s defense, he was speaking to a strictly pagan crowd with high intellectual prowess. But he does in fact set aside most of the kerygmatic principles of preaching Christ. The effects of his sermon are meager at best, gathering only a few converts and not resulting in the establishment of any church at Athens.

It would seem, that Paul himself considered his efforts at Athens poorly. At his next destination, namely Corinth, he made a reflection that, while not mentioning Athens, likely has a lot to do with his experience there. He seems to have resolved to commit to a back to basics approach on his journey from Athens to Corinth: and thus he writes to the Corinthians:

When I came to you, brothers, proclaiming the mystery of God, I did not come with sublimity of words or of wisdom. I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, in much trembling, and my message and my proclamation were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of Spirit and power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2:1–5)

Biblical scholars, and you dear reader, may well differ from the rather sober assessment of Paul’s speech at Athens that is offered here. But if it is a kerygmatic sermon, it is surely not like any of the others. It bore little fruit and would seem to have provoked some soul-searching on the part of Paul.

All this said, the point of this blog post is not to win the debates over the quality of Paul’s speech before the Areopagus. Rather, it is to set forth the essentials of charismatic preaching. A type of preaching, and witness that some in the Church today argue should be a principal tool in the New Evangelization.

I like many of you in yesterday’s comments have some mixed feelings about this. It is 2012, not A.D. 10. Much has transpired in both the Church and the world in these 2000 years that cannot simply be set aside. And yet for some, the kerygmatic approach may be the only way to reach them. Indeed this may be so for increasing numbers.

Perhaps the best we can say is that the approach we use will have to vary based on the individuals or groups we are addressing. For some, the higher theology, the didache is probably necessary and essential. But for others, the more straightforward  and personal approach of the original kerygma may be called for.

But whatever the case, we can never afford to neglect that the only true preacher of Jesus Christ is not someone who is merely read of Him in a book, but someone who has met Him, and knows His power in their life. Nothing can replace personal testimony. Of this the kerygma is insistent, and indeed all preaching and teaching can never miss the essential element of personal testimony, the testimony of a transformed human person.

14 Replies to “What do the”Kerygmatic”Sermons of Acts have to teach us about the New Evangelization?”

  1. I like to think that I am somewhere in between Blessed Teresa of Calcutta and the holier than thou dude. I am not sure that I can even make that claim. I don’t know why am not more transformed in Jesus than I am. I composed a prayer yesterday: Sanctify the processions of my mind. Thanks for the post, Monsignor!

  2. Monsignor,

    Thank you for the post. I do not usually leave responses to anything online, but i needed to make a slight technical correction. The Greek word kerusso is not a noun, but a verb and means either to proclaim or to be a herald. The noun form meaning “a herald” is kerux. Keep up the good work of spreading the Gospel!

  3. Yes. And we could learn something from the Mormon mommy bloggers–women who write sunny, happy blogs about being a wife and mother. How many Catholic mommy blogs are humorless and joyless, but pious? I’m not suggesting that we imitate them directly, but consider that the Mormon mission tradition means every Mormon is brought up to consider themselves a missionary, (even if they don’t make the 2 yr. commitment), and that joy in their state of life is a big attraction. Do Catholic families attract others by our joy? How do we get there? How could my parish help me get there?

    You have a very thought-provoking blog. Thank you for taking the time to do it!

  4. Rather the chief miracle to behold is the witness of a transformed human being who shows forth the glory of love, serenity, of the obvious fact of sins having been put to death, and replaced by graceful and godly living. The greatest miracle to seek is a transformed human being, absent of pride and gluttony, lust and anger, but possessed rather of love, charity, generosity, kindness, self-discipline and authority over their passions.

    God, please grant this miracle in my life, so I may reflect your love to those I encounter and not be a clanging cymbal.

  5. Kerygma is pretty much the way of a saint- to seek a transformed human being, absent of pride and gluttony, lust and anger but possessed rather of love, charity, generosity, kindness, self discipline and authority over passions. The basis for kerygmatic preaching is not something that comes along without the first disciplines or else no one would notice the hope of Christ’s life in the person ready to render an account of the Hope that is within them. It’s not something you just take some classes in and go out and crank out. It’s an evangelical experience. The miracle, the event of a transformed person. Definitely something requiring pastoral guidance.

  6. “When Peter saw this, he said to them: “Men of Israel, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk?”
    So, why did Peter feel obliged to ask why they looked at the apostles as if they had done the deed by their own power or if they (the apostles) were godly? At least most of these people would have been well aquainted with Christ’s three year mission; some may have personnaly encountered it; but, Our Lord had been killed, and even though He’d come back after conquering death by death, he’d gone to heaven.
    Were the observers thinking that, because the original worker of miracles, of their time, had gone to heaven that the apostles were His heirs and had inherited what had been His?
    My bible reading this morning included Isaiah 64:7 where God’s hidden face is mentioned and His assumed prescence in heaven and not on earth (since they don’t see Him) makes it sort of appear that their motives in continually turning to idolatry is not because (or not just because) things are going well but; also because of an assumption that He has gone to heaven in the way that a wealthy human might go to human. An assumption that they can do what they want with what is His because they assume that it was His and now is the total property of the heirs. Sort of a twisted viewpoint where they judge God’s absence like a mere human’s abscence may be judged.
    Like the absence of Moses and of God’s nearness when Moses went to visit on the mountain and they rationalization that left them feeling that building an idol in the form of a calf was OK? Exodus 32
    Could it be that this attitude was what Jesus was addressing in Matthew 21:33-41 where the tenants thought that they could inherit by eliminating the heir?
    How many have come to disaster through judging God’s ways, and what applies to God, by our standards. When He is in heaven it is not like a human goes to heaven and departs from worldly possessions.
    Or, perhaps, it is like the Mysteries being too out of reach of human understanding so that many people develop an illusion of understanding that is more comfortable and discernable than the Mysteries. An illusion that can be accepted by worldly standards as long as one looks at the desired comfort and ignores the challenge of truth. People like egotistical power seekers (power addicts) those who use a brain altering chemical such as alcohol or an opiate to make the illusion easier to believe. An illusion that only seems to make sense but, which destroys it’s creator unless he/she returns to God by accepting that they don’t understand what they don’t understand.
    Kinda sorta like a seed of evil which is planted, nurtured and ignored in its absurdity.

  7. Hi Monsignor, I really enjoy your blog. I came across this page, and I wanted to click on the link to the PDF “Eight Sermons of the Kerygma in Acts” (fourth paragraph). However, it appears the link is broken. Could you fix it? Many thanks.

      1. As of November 23rd, 2015 it is not found. (The eight sermons of the kerygma in Acts). I would like to read it.

  8. The Holy Spirit which glorifies Christ has shown me many things that I can hardly express in words.
    Christian Sermons has come out many times that has
    affirmed the Holy Spirit has touched many other.

    Christian Sermons are truly a means to express at least to an
    extent the power of Jesus Christ.
    Christian Sermons can convict
    you and practically force you to come to terms with the ability of Jesus Christ.
    Several Years ago I prayed and prayed for God to show me the way, the light, and the path for my goal.

    I didn’t need to waste time learning the hard way of not following the way of Christ. Enoch is an exceptional example of man that walked with God and was taken or interpreted. Christian Sermons hopes I have had and validated the reply to a lot of prayers. Even though you love God you may very well (if not definitely) still sin but you can do the best that you can to prevent temptations that lead to sin.
    I come from a family that preaches the Gospel and Christian Sermons are a terrific way to spread the word of God. It is crystal clear for the Bible. Genuine Christian Sermons will always support or validate this.

  9. I was doing some research on my Masters when coming across your paper. It was such a wonderful thought-
    through writing touching on the gospel and how we can bring true kerygmatic preaching to a secular world. Thank you so much. I hope you don’t mind me quoting one or two sentences in my script. Blessings on your ministry.

  10. Msgr. Pope, I think your illustration of St. Paul’s efforts in Athens is remarkable. I think there is a power in Kerygmatic preaching that we are missing out on. Even if it seems simplistic and too personal, how are our missionary efforts working for us? Maybe this has always been a part of the Church’s best missionary efforts throughout the world. How many of the 16th century missionaries carried the Cross of Christ as their only symbol and preached from it with their life and from the Pascal Mystery in their sermons and teachings? And as Pope Francis says in Evangelii Gaudium, the Kerygma is the principle teaching. And we can’t lose it.

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