Saturday, 29 August 2009

Importing the Sacraments

In a recent post I expressed my reservations about the disappearance of textual sermons from the contemporary pulpit and their replacement with topical or thematic sermons, which by their nature are less controlled by the Biblical text in their content and structure. In the course of that post I also referred to what I call "pan-sacramental" preachers for whom every text seems to be a jumping off point to a sacramental discourse on either baptism or the Lord's Supper. I implicitly questioned whether this type of preaching, which is quite popular is some circles, is really submitting itself to the biblical text, even if the desire to uphold the sacraments as means of grace at a time when they are devalued is commendable. Is this not, I continue to wonder, bordering on the sort of allegorical method of interpretation that Luther rejected? (Not to mention the mystagogical preaching of the early church which is being revived in modern Orthodoxy and is also open to this sort of criticism.)

This "pan-sacramental" homiletical style must have had a beginning, at least in more modern times (as mentioned, go back in history and you can find antecedents). I think that beginning might well be traced to the question of "What do you preach when a text is all law and no Gospel?" The answer could be: import the sacraments, since they are pure Gospel. In such a case, I'm willing to suspend my above-mentioned concerns.

A good example of such a predicament is tomorrow's Gospel pericope in the Revised Common Lectionary: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23.

Here it is from the NIV:

1The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and 2saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were "unclean," that is, unwashed. 3(The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. 4When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)
5So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, "Why don't your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with 'unclean' hands?"

6He replied, "Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:
" 'These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
7They worship me in vain;
their teachings are but rules taught by men.'8You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men."

14Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, "Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15Nothing outside a man can make him 'unclean' by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him 'unclean.'

21For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23All these evils come from inside and make a man 'unclean.' "

And here is Francis Rossow's comment on the text, from his generally helpful book, 'Gospel Handles', which seeks to point out Gospel connections in all the RCL Gospel pericopes: "This is one of those rare texts in the Bible...containing no Gospel - no explicit Gospel at least. The text is a profound analysis of the source of human evil (internal rather than external). It also analyses the vanity of human efforst to remove that evil from the sight of God - whether it is the Pharisaic dependence on a traditional, ritualistic wshing of hands or the more contemporary reliance on clean living and a decent life-style. But profound as that analysis is, it is Law. Gospel will have to be imported for a sermon on this text. The most obvious importations are to point out that we are clean through Baptism (Titus 3:5), through the Word (John 15:3), or through Christ's vicarious atonement (2 Cor 5:21)." (Rossow, Gospel Handles, Concordia Publishing House, 2001).

So what makes "importing the sacraments" justifiable in this or a similar case? There is no textual mention of baptism, it's true, but the thematic link is clearly there with the mention of washing and what makes one clean or unclean. A homiletical discourse on holy baptism in this case is therefore an organic development, rather than a merely abstract one or something forced upon the text. I would therefore contend it is a legitimate homiletical development, and serves the purpose of bringing the Gospel to bear on hearer's lives through an otherwise Law-dominated pericope.
(And it is what I am doing tomorrow).

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