The Secret to the Good Sermon

By John Frye: Preaching and Love

Seared into my memory is a bad sermon I heard once. I cannot get past the glaring contradiction of the communicator’s words and his facial expression and hand gesture. I see a man shaking his fist at the congregation, speaking through gritted teeth and with red-faced anger, bellowing, “God loves you! Loves you so much!” The content of what I heard and what I saw plus how I heard it dramatically cancelled each other out. Love and what looked and sounded like hate created an ugly preaching moment.

Without getting bogged down with the meaning(s) of “tongues of men or of angels” in 1 Corinthians 13:1, let’s focus on “speak” and “do not have love.” Gordon Fee comments, “To ‘have love,’ therefore, means to be toward others the way God in Christ has been toward us” (God’s Empowering Presence, 201). How a communicator, a pastor/preacher/teacher, can presume to speak for Christ without being saturated with and desiring to express the love of Christ is a mystery to me. The love of Christ, love for Christ and love for the ones Christ has himself sacrificially loved must permeate all of our communication of the Word.

This doesn’t mean preachers must avoid saying hard things, even words of rebuke and correction. It does mean, however, that all truth-telling is done in love. I believe that one of the most gracious abilities of the Spirit is to help our sometimes hard words feel like genuine love to those who hear us. Will everyone sense they are loved in times of rebuke and correction? Probably not. Yet that does not excuse the preacher. When my grown children remember me shouting across my front yard when they small, “Stop! Don’t run in the street! A car is coming!,” hopefully they realize the love in those dramatic shouts.

Some preachers like to whip the congregation with the Bible. Sadly, some congregations liked to be spanked. The words sting a little, the people get what they feel they deserve, but then they get to go into the week free to sin until the next cleansing. Preachers who tout that they are “sin- haters” actually sound like people-haters. The deadliest emotion, wrote Henri J. M. Nouwen, in so many preachers/teachers is frozen anger. “If there is anything that makes ministry look grim and dull, it is this dark insidious anger in the servants of Christ” (Nouwen, The Way of the Heart, 24). Believe me, friends, anger cannot be disguised as love.

Another substitute for love is the argument that goes like this: “I am the pastor-teacher. I have to study 40 hours a week. I have to hone and use my exegetical and homiletical skills. I love the people by doing all these things the best I can. I need the antiseptic arena of my study to keep me from the actual mess that people are. I really do love them…from a distance.” Hogwash. When the pastor is simply the educator, then everyone suffers. Do not misunderstand me. I am all for good study, exegesis, and homiletics. But how Jesus’s “feed my lambs, take care of my sheep, feed my sheep” got translated into “rightly dividing the word of truth,” I have no clue. John 21:15-17 is probably one of the most eisegeted texts in all the New Testament.

The best way to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in making the hard sermons to be felt like verbalized love is to spend time with people in the rough and tumble of their daily lives. There should be a book written titled Practicing the Presence of the Pastor. Permanently welded to all of Jesus’s remembered teachings (as recorded in the Gospels) is the accounts of his engaged presence with people. Imagine the smell of horrible skin infections, the vomit of those liberated from demons, the perfume of prostitutes and the fishy odor of Galileans, the loud wails of the bereaved, the dried blood of violent hands—all of this and more is in Jesus’s resume of love. I wonder with the crowd that Jesus addressed if most middle-class American evangelicals would have sat through the original Sermon on the Mount.

Be shepherds of the church of God which he bought with his own blood. A truly hapax phrase: the blood of God! (Acts 20:27). Practicing love might look a little like…

  1. getting very close to messed-up people.
  2. using the relational channels of the family: a nursing mother, a father (1 Thess 2: 7, 11).
  3. building sermons around people’s lives. See, e.g., the parables.
  4. shedding blood for others metaphorically and sometimes actually.
  5. building others up, not filling people up with doctrine.
  6. preaching well from a life lived with others.
About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.