Until I studied rhetoric, I was vaguely fuzzy on what Christian preaching was good for. My own sense of duty made me think that I should be present when it happened, but since, in my own tradition, the worship service derives its form to some extent from nineteenth-century revival meetings, it seemed somewhat strange that I should be present, week by week, as the call to “return home” was given. After all, once I’d returned home once, that should be enough, I figured.
Now that I’ve spent a few years intensively studying what rhetoric is for in the ancient conception, and how Christians appropriated that and saw its fulfillment in the life of the Church, I appreciate the sermon, both as I preach ’em and as I’ve heard ’em. The main goal, I realized, is not to get people to “walk the aisle” (no matter what the old-timers who remember fondly their “week-long revival” days say) but to shape the desires. That’s what Plato got me to see in the Phaedrus, and that’s what Augustine picks up on On Christian Teaching. The kosmos (in the Johanine sense, not the Carl Sagan sense, but that’s part of the point) constantly works on us, believers and unbelievers alike, drawing us towards certain objects, setting before us relationships among things-in-the-world and suggesting, not always verbally, a picture of how all of those things fit together. The “world” of nationalism and the “world” of consumerism and the “world” of historical progress all do such work on us, the work that rhetorician James Berlin calls “epistemic” work, the sustained rhetorical suggestion that each “world” and the reality it assumes is in fact what is “natural” and right. The Christian sermon is one means (not by any stretch the only means) by which God sets forth a counter-rhetoric, situated more successfully or less successfully in the congregation’s historical moment, by which the Spirit (I do take a high view of preaching) reaches out to the gathered congregation and sets forth a new way to “see” reality, a way that de-naturalizes what is fallen and holds forth the hope that God’s forgiveness, through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, does in fact make possible what was impossible in our own sins.
Such is what 1 John does in its opening chapters: through the repetition of the word “proclaim” and its cognates, the text reminds hearers (and readers) that the kosmos is not itself eternal, that God can vanquish and has vanquished the powers that bind, the forces that keep us from eternity. The words “life” and “fellowship” that 1 John repeats stand as calls out of the death and the isolation that the kosmos constantly threatens, whether through execution or exile, through neglect or the market’s ostracism. The salvation that Jesus brings is not in an atomistic sense a rescue of the individual believer out of the world but approaches because Jesus died “for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2 ESV). We can live faithfully because the redeemed life is the true life, the one that does not ignore the metaphysical change which the resurrection hath wrought. Because the world’s sins are now died-for sins, the world stands open to the work of God, and the Christian’s proclamation is a call to that world: You who were dead, arise! You who knew no life, be alive!
Such is the work of the Christian sermon: where consumerism cries “scarcity,” Genesis 1 says, “It is good.” Where nationalism says, “We must destroy our enemies,” the Sermon on the Mount declares that the faithful pray even for those who persecute the faithful. Where historical progress would have us discard those symbols and stories and teachings that offend this week’s cultural sensibilities, Jude tells us faithfully to hand down what we have received. The counter-rhetoric of the sermon, in the days of 1 John and in ours, offers an alternative shape to human desire, a way to see that the kosmos would forget, ignore, destroy. Such is why we preach.
May our words and our works all proclaim the life eternal, and may the ears of those who hear, by grace, stand open.