Preaching the heart of our identity: preaching from February to April 2019
In habiting the event
That great ecumenist and missionary bishop, Lesslie Newbigin, used to tell the story of an incident during the atheistic Russian Revolution. Nickolai Bukharin, then at the height of his powers in the Revolutionary Politburo, was despatched to address a huge anti-God rally in Kiev. In an address lasting more than an hour, he brought all the powers of his formidable intellect to bear. He heaped ridicule on the absurdities of the Christian faith until no one could doubt what a sham it was.
At the end of his speech there was a stunned silence. Questions were invited, and a man, who was an Orthodox priest, asked if he might speak. Standing on the platform next to the revolutionary he faced the crowd and said simply, ‘Christos Voskresje – Christ is Risen.’ And instantly the whole crowd replied in thunderous unison, ‘Vojestene Voskreje – He is Risen Indeed.’
The revolutionary had no reply. As Gerald O’Collins makes clear in his article, the resurrection of Jesus is ‘nothing less than the very heart of Christian faith and identity.’ When met with the ancient liturgical greeting of Easter, the crowd could do no other than reply with the certainty that yes, He is Risen Indeed. Inner conviction and sense of self before God and neighbour outweighed all the rhetoric of communism. This is about seeing but with more than the eyes.
Just what is the quality of that ‘seeing’ is explored in the sermon by Darren Blaney and Stephen Brockett. As they point out, on that first Easter morning Mary’s ‘journey started in darkness, expecting to anoint a dead body,’ but her ‘journey ends in the bright light of resurrection, as she meets a risen Lord.’ The question to every believer is how that encountering ‘seeing’ can be fostered in each person’s own circumstances.
Our Easter day preachers, like Liz Shercliff and Josie Tuplin, strive for preaching that is received as an experience rather than just an account about something. I suspect many of us want to echo in our practice Shercliff and Tuplin’s conviction, ‘For both of us our main aim was to preach biblically and to enable our listeners to experience an encounter that changed them. We wanted them to live Easter, rather than learn about it.’
A similar insistence on a heartfelt experience rather than purely rational ‘knowing about’ is expressed by Duncan Macpherson, ‘And now we can see. Everything that is puzzling and amazing in our world and in own lives looks different now we are enabled to live a new life. It is life without the risen Jesus that is ‘pure nonsense’ it makes no sense all. And this new life is what we received at our baptism, and what we celebrate and renew in our Eucharist tonight and in every Eucharist. Paul tells us that, joined with Christ in his death we have been raised to a new life. All our previous struggles and failings have been given meaning in the light of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.’
Although what might be termed an existential approach brings to the preaching of Christ’s resurrection a particular quality of conviction and incorporation, that does not mean that more conceptual considerations should be dismissed. As O’Collins so powerfully puts it in his consideration of Augustine, there are significant arguments to support resurrection faith and we preachers should not shy away from utilizing them. We must be prepared for intellectual rigour as well as existential engagement - always seeking God’s wisdom to appreciate which is the best perspective in any given circumstance. Our readiness to change tack should indicate a willingness to engage wholeheartedly rather than any querulousness on our part.
Combining heart and mind
Authenticity is reckoned to be the touchstone in much popular discourse. Personalities willing to declare in public that they have struggled with some complex issue or illness often attract a ready audience. Indeed, they may become powerful advocates in awareness raising campaigns. The ring of authentic personal experience convinces people in a way a statement of facts cannot. But that does not mean that facts can be set aside. Authenticity and the emotions prompted provide a platform from which the facts can be assessed anew with fresh power. The previously ‘unthought’ becomes a matter of discussion and conviction in a new way.
Such ‘combination communication’ can only empower our preaching of the resurrection. Brett Ward’s quotation of a prayer from an art installation in Southwark cathedral makes the point concisely and poetically:
God of mystery,
when the cloud descends,
when you seem unknown,
when doubts assail me
and darkness surrounds me,
lift the mist, break into the darkness
and let your light shine
in me and through me. Amen
Via such honest acknowledgement of the struggles of faith we dare to declare the reality of resurrection life. As Nigel Robb’s sermon so compellingly puts it, ‘No matter what befalls us, nothing can rob us of the one who is the resurrection and the life, whom the powers must obey. Jesus stands even now outside our tombs in which we are buried, literally and metaphorically. We need to hear his voice calling us forth to newness of life.’
In the words of the ancient rhetorician Quintilian, ‘passion strikes the words’ – that’s a combination that convinces.
Christopher Burkett is Editor of The Preacher, and Director of Ministry in the Anglican Diocese of Chester.
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