Friday, January 25, 2013

Incarnational Preaching

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, "Christianity conceals within itself a germ hostile to the church."  Wow!  The truth of the gospel authentically proclaimed is actually opposed to the institutional church is it now stands, according to Bonhoeffer.  I believe that this "germ" likewise effects preaching when preachers are not rooted and grounded in the Incarnation.  Here is what Bonhoeffer has to say about this.  "First of all, a sermon can never grasp the center, but can only itself be grasped by it, by Christ.  And then Christ becomes flesh" in the preacher.  A true proclamation of the good news of the Kingdom of God comes about when the preacher senses Jesus in his or her flesh when preparing and delivering the Word of God.  The incarnate Lord in the preacher results in carefully crafted words that reflect the power of Jesus in Creation, Redemption and in the world.

Whether or not we are always aware of it, even after seminary, we are often view reality in terms of a bi-polar division between the "spirit" and the "flesh."  When we think or pray to God, we visualize God above us in heaven, apart and distinct from that which we empirically know, the world that we observe.  We don't consciously think this way, it just happens.  Since few of us believe in a hell below anymore, we are pretty much stuck with a two storied universe, unless you believe in an intermediate state.

When preaching is caught up in the dichotomy of "spirit" and "flesh/matter/earth", the preacher is trapped in a yo yo spin that reaches up into the "spirit" world for inspiration and then swings down into the real time activity of the sermon.  In sermon preparation, we reach up for the biblical narrative, then pull the words down into the world of real preaching without necessarily making the incarnational connection between the two.  Fundamentalists are really good at this.  They present the bible as the ideal, literal and absolute revelation of God.  This preacher yanks biblical phrases from above, out of context, and throws them verbally at the listener, often presenting an angry God who brings down wrath on something or somebody.  Homosexuality is their favorite enemy in our time.

To make the exegesis into an incarnational unity, the preacher needs to abdicate the two storied universe by understanding that Christ is in the preacher in creation, life experiences and the sacramental life of the church.  Christ embedded in the preacher wipes out the duality of homiletical Platonism, and takes on the character of an Aristotelian, or incarnate preaching style that is complete with Grace, power, relevance and earthiness.

This is not to negate a Pauline view of salvation that he presented in Romans.  Indeed Christ did die for the ungodly and we are justified by Grace through faith.  But the debt theory of the Atonement, which started with Anselm a thousand years after Paul, is not the beginning and end of the proclammation of Jesus Christ.  Some evangelicals have grabbed ahold of this and tried to make it the only message of salvation.  Incarnationalists respectfully disagree.  We view salvation like the writer of the fourth gospel; salvation begins in creation and culmnates in the process of the incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, the gift of the spirit in the life of the church.  The incarnational preacher is thus grounded in process; an evolutionary system of salvation that embraces the created universe as well as the life and ministry of Jesus.  This is why Anglicans see grace in great art, music and science.

Anglican/Episcopal preachers who are well educated, intelligent, thoughtful and mature, understand that preaching biblical literalism is wrong.  Whatever the hermeneutic, our best preaching is evident when we link the incarnate Christ to the cosmos, the earth, the political and economic world, its people and the church.  From the spiritual point of view, it means that the preacher believes that the Word made flesh came in creation, in the salvation work of Jesus, culminating in the resurrection and the Holy Spirit in the life of the church and the world.  The preacher knows and proclaims that the embedded Word of God continues in the ongoing revelation of God not only in the bible, but throughout history and in these times.


  1. Wow, Bob,I think this essay is your best yet!. I am and have been with you on this since my teens in becoming an Episcopalian in Oklahoma among the dualistic fundamentalists and sanctifieds. It is Jesus whose crucifixion is the outward sign of the embedded Christ, the sanctity of all creation as of full divine origin and eternal continuity. Thanks, Bob, you make my day or so. . . !

  2. Wow-nothing like self-satisfaction to announce a real change of heart.
    Why would anyone except for an ex-Fundiegelical bother with simply switching one form of self-congratulation for another?
    No wonder the fastest-growing segment of the US's religious population is "None of the Above".