by Kurt E. Reinhardt, pastor of Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kurtzville, Ontario
Editor's Note—This article first appeared in Lutheran Theological Review (Vol. 21). Apologies go out to Editor Tom Winger of LTR for our failure to realize this prior to our publishing of the article here.
In St. Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians, with these profound words, he lays out the heart and center of all Christian proclamation. A Christian sermon should have something to do with Christ. It is a truth that should perhaps go without saying, but sadly all too often the word that comes from many “Christian” pulpits lacks this one needful thing (Luke 10:42). A question that rightly belongs in the sermon writer’s repertoire for constructive critique of his own work should be precisely this: “What have I said about Jesus?” The answer will help him to identify to what extent his work is truly Christian. Again it should go without saying that a sermon that has nothing to do with Christ cannot be truly Christian. Yet as one of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe characters, Professor Kirk, rightly wonders: “Logic! Why don’t they teach logic at these schools?” In our reason-phobic world the logical must often be stated.
A Christian sermon should have Christ at the center of it. Simply tacking the name of Jesus onto the end does not fit the bill. Otherwise we would have to admit that Christian sermons are being delivered all over the world in school yards, alleyways, offices, on television, at the movies and wherever else our Lord’s name is used in its predominant form as an “expletive to express shock or surprise.” A Christian sermon is not delineated by a few nice words about Jesus’ love or forgiveness at the end of ten, twenty or even thirty minutes. As St. Paul rightly lays it out for us, the sermon should preach Christ. He should be the heart and center of the whole proclamation. He should be its whole point and raison d’être. Without Christ the words should tumble into a pile of letters at the bottom of your page and the words of your mouth should degenerate into nonsense. Again, such truths should perhaps go without saying, but a quick examination of a completed sermon can reveal surprising results to the most faithful of preachers. How much air time does our Lord get in comparison to that cute story or funny joke that will get a laugh or smile out of the hearers? How much time do we spend talking about ourselves compared to the time we spend talking about Christ? How long do we spend inviting the listeners to examine themselves compared to the time that we fix their eyes on Jesus?
A Christian sermon should have Christ at its center, but not just any Christ as St. Paul further tells us. The Christ at the center and heart of the Christian sermon should be a crucified Christ. The nail marks in his hands and feet and the spear wound in his side should distinguish the greater prophet we proclaim from the lesser one who came before him. A sermon can have a high Christ content yet still fail to be Christian if the only Christ who is proclaimed has more in common with Sinai than Calvary. A crucified Christ has a lot to say about sin, since the wounds he bears make a powerful declaration about its depravity, gravity and toxicity. These wounds leave us without a doubt that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). They also declare our own inability to free ourselves from our sinful condition and the bonds that so entangle us. Yet these wounds also speak the most powerful and dramatic word about the love of God and the forgiveness his Son has accomplished for us. A crucified Christ is a Christ who has earned salvation for his people by paying for their sins. He has delivered them from the dominion of death by his own journey into it with their burdens around his neck. Although this Christ is the one who placed the tablets into Moses’ hands, Christ’s hands are the ones that suffer their consequences for Israel and all mankind (John 1:17).
Yet again, another self-evident truth about this wounded Jesus, who stands in the center of the Christian proclamation and so should have pride of place in every sermon that aspires to be Christian, is that he has such hands that can be wounded. A crucified Christ is an incarnate Christ. The word that the Christian Church proclaims is an enfleshed word. As St. John lays out for us in his gospel, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14).” The incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ involves the permanent binding of the Word of the Father with the flesh and blood he took on in the womb of the blessed virgin Mary. The only begotten Son of God was for us and our salvation made man, and remains man to this day. There is no Word of God that can be encountered apart from the flesh and blood of Jesus of Nazareth. We have no Gnostic Christ who encounters us in some spiritual way floating down to us from the heavens on the whims of fancy. We have no Christ who is present with us everywhere who is not present bodily. Mary Magdalene grabs hold of a real body when she lays her hands on to her beloved Lord (John 20:17). The Emmaus disciples are not accompanied by a spiritual Christ on their evening journey. Hands made of real flesh and blood break the bread at the table to reveal the identity of their companion of comfort (Luke 24:30). A real man eats fish and bread before the disciples in the upper room (Luke 24:41-43). Thomas puts his fingers into real tangible wounds in living hands and feet and side of a human body that his doubt might be fleshed away (John 20:27). This incarnate Christ is the one who promises to be with his people even unto the end of the age as they gather in his name (Matthew 18:20; 28:20).
This incarnate Christ and no other is the Christ of the Christian proclamation. To proclaim a Christ who has not been made flesh and who does not continue to come in the flesh is the not the task of the Christian preacher but, as St. John declares, the work of the antichrist (1 John 4:1-3). The Christian preacher does not proclaim a Christ who is far away but a Christ who comes to his people and dwells with them. The incarnate nature of our Lord determines the means that he uses to abide with and in them. The sacramental life of the church is not simply a product of her whim or for that matter the Lord’s whim, but rather naturally and necessarily flows from the Son’s incarnation. The necessity of the sacramental life of the Christian does not exist because God simply wanted it that way. This sacramental life is not something that exists purely because of our weakness and our need for tangible things to assure us of the Lord’s active presence in our lives. Although both of these things may be said to be true, the sacramental life of the people of God necessarily flows out of the personal union of the divine and human natures in our Lord Jesus Christ. There is no true Christ who is not a sacramental Christ. An incarnate Christ is a sacramental Christ. When our Lord became incarnate, the sacramental nature of our life with Him was determined and fixed. As our Lord was made flesh, that flesh, true to its nature, encounters us in fleshly things. As the Son took on our matter to redeem all matter, he determined that there would be no other means to deal with us than through that matter. This is not to deny the almighty will of God or limit his power as though something from outside himself was imposed on him, but rather to simply recognize that his decision to become incarnate for our salvation included the sacramental life that flows from that incarnation.
The Christ that the Christian preacher is called to proclaim is not a God who is far off but a God who is near in the flesh and blood of Jesus. To preach Christ rightly, then, involves preaching an incarnate Christ who encounters his people sacramentally. The preached word in and of itself has a sacramental character when Christ is proclaimed rightly. The called and ordained servant of Christ who stands in the pulpit proclaiming the word of God does so in Christ’s name but also in Christ’s stead. The Lord says of those he sends out to proclaim the Gospel, “He who hears you hears me (Luke 10:16).” The voice of the preacher becomes the means by which the Lord speaks his word into the hearts and minds of his people (John 13:20). This word is powerful and effective and creates saving faith in the hearer where and when the Holy Spirit pleases. As St. Paul indicates in his epistle to the Romans, “And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? (10:14)” The pastor becomes a meeting point between the Lord and his people, as through the church the Lord identifies the pastor as the one who speaks for him. To hear from him in his office is to hear from the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:20). Interestingly enough, the great writer of letters to the churches emphasizes that faith comes through hearing rather than from reading. Our Lord does not write any letters that we know of in his own hand to the church, but rather appoints apostles and sends them out to preach the good news (Matthew 28:19-20). The good news is meant to be proclaimed from a living mouth to living ears. The Lord, through the pastor, comes not simply to inform the hearer of certain truths but to declare a truth in person to them and about themselves in Christ. The pastor is called to make a “for you” declaration to the Lord’s people, which is from the Lord himself. Thus, the pastor can even boldly take up the voice of Christ in the first person, as he speaks in the stead of the Lord for the benefit of God’s people, as Luther often does when preaching.
Although the preaching office may be recognized as having a sacramental character that naturally flows out of the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, it has not traditionally been identified as one of the church’s sacraments. The Lutheran Confessions identify three of our Lord’s gifts as belonging to this category: holy baptism, absolution, and the sacrament of the altar. If the proclaimed word of God creates saving faith in the hearts and lives of God’s people, and if our Lord is present in the pastor to proclaim such a word, why does he give such gifts to the church and command their observance (Matthew 28:18; John 20:21-23; Luke 22:17-20)? The sacraments are not optional; they have a divine mandate and are also a divine imperative. The church is not given the option to baptize; she is told to baptize. The church is not given the option of forgiving sins; she is told to forgive sins. The church is not given the option of celebrating the Lord’s Supper; she is told to celebrate it. Thus we see in the book of Acts that these very things are taking place as sinners are baptized and forgiven and as the disciples meet every Lord ’s Day to break bread together (Acts 2:40-47). On occasion, in wrestling with the question of the necessity of these gifts for salvation, it is possible to slip into considering them as in some way being optional. Our Lord Jesus, however, does not say, “If you want to, you may do these things”. Rather, he states them in the imperative which, granted, establishes the church’s mandate but also speaks of necessity. The Lord has commanded these things to be done and, for the church to be church, she needs to be doing them (Luke 12:35-48). The right administration of the sacraments is rightly identified by the Lutheran Confessions as one of the marks of the church for this very reason.
Although the three sacraments along with the proclaimed word of God serve the Lord’s purpose of creating faith in Jesus Christ, their individual mandate and command argues for a unique purpose in the lives of Christians. Our Lord never lists them as options to be chosen from depending on the circumstance or preference of the hearer, and the church historically has not offered them buffet-style either. They form a cohesive whole and are meant to work together for the new life of faith. The question of whether or not one may subsist on one portion alone sadly can degenerate into the laying aside of one or the other because faith does not “need” them to survive. The Lord, however, did not just give us one or the other but gave all and commanded their observance. Faith may indeed survive on one or the other, but our Lord’s commandment would imply that faith would be much healthier with a well-rounded diet of all that he has laid out for it. Simply because we can does not mean that we should. The proclaimed word and sacraments are not independent options but interdependent parts of the life of the Christian. Understanding this interconnectedness can help the preacher to proclaim rightly the incarnate crucified Christ who lives out life with his people sacramentally. In baptism we know that we have a new birth into Christ Jesus where the Holy Spirit is given and our sins are washed away (Romans 6:3; Galatians 3:27). In absolution we know that we have a return to our baptism where our Lord Jesus cleanses our feet from the dirt of our journey through this world (Matthew 9:8; John 13:10; John 20:23). In the sacrament of the altar we know that we have a place at our Lord’s table where He joins himself to us with the feast of his life-giving body and blood (1 Corinthians 10:16). In all of these three we have an encounter with our incarnate Lord where he creates, renews, and nourishes our unity with him. The proclaimed word as it presents the incarnate Christ to his people should direct, encourage, and create a hunger in them for an encounter with their Lord in these places where he has promised to be found.
The proclaimed word of God undoubtedly creates a bond between the Lord and his people as he declares his love and forgiveness to them. Faith is created through this word as the Holy Spirit works through it to convert the hearts of the hearers. Yet the sacraments play a unique role in the life of the Christian in uniting them to their Lord through his flesh. In baptism the Lord unites himself with the sinner to take on his sins while imparting his holiness in return. In private confession the Lord meets intimately with the sinner to touch him to remove the leprosy of his sin. In the sacrament of the altar our Lord most clearly comes bodily to his people in his flesh and blood to give them forgiveness, life, and salvation through their union with him. These sacraments are all given through the word of God and derive all their power from it, yet remain distinct in that they involve an incarnate impartation of the Lord himself to his people. In marital terms we see the wooing of the bride in the proclaimed word which leads to marriage and a life of love together in a unity of one flesh that unfolds in the sacraments. The bride and bridegroom share a life of mutual conversation but also a sharing of themselves in physical union in love. Mutual conversation involves an impartation of themselves to one another as they share their life together, yet it is distinct and different from the physical impartation. Both are essential parts of the unity that the bride and bridegroom share. Both are important and should not be pitted against one another. Neither is dispensable. Yet they are distinct and involve a different facet of the relationship. The relationship of the preached word to the sacramental word can be viewed in a similar way as two distinct but indispensable facets of the life of our Lord with his church. The incarnate Lord speaks to his bride and shares his flesh with her. This truth has been lived out in the life of the church where, from the beginning, the divine service has comprised both word and sacrament. The neglect of either is an aberration from the practice of the church catholic and so also from the Lutheran confession.
The framework of our Lord’s life in the synoptic gospels follows this pattern. The preaching of John flows into our Lord’s baptism followed by the continued proclamation of his life which culminates in the intimacy of the supper table on the day of his passion. The Gospels follow the framework of the divine service as we see it being lived out in the book of Acts in accord with our Lord’s command and institution on the night that he was betrayed. Once again, our Lord’s life does not exhibit any conflict between these two elements of his incarnate life with his people, but rather shows them abiding in harmony with one another, the one leading to the other and back again. The interplay between the proclaimed word of Christ and the physical contact between him and those he has come to save is reflected in his earthly life. The Lord not only proclaims but he reaches out, repeatedly, to touch, to release, and to heal. The Lord not only touches but also proclaims. The word is an enfleshed word that not only rings through the air but also reaches out through it to touch. This enfleshed word establishes not only the communion of the heart, but the communion of the body as well in order to save both from sin, death, and hell. The Lord’s proclamation creates a longing in the hearts of the hearers to reach out and touch him. The striking image of the woman with the twelve-year issue of blood demonstrates the heart of faith that longs for contact with the divine flesh, knowing all that is contained within in it. She reaches out to touch the hem of his garment, believing that what contains his body bears life and healing for her (Matthew 9:20-22). The Lord’s proclamation leads to outstretched hands. He stretches out his hands on the cross to save us. He stretches out his hands to touch us with his healing in the sacraments. He stretches our hands out to touch him in turn, to chase away our fear and doubt. The outflow of his sacrificial life is shown in the resurrection narratives where the spoken word is paired with both touching and eating. The Lord’s word of promise to his church is not only a spoken word but also an embracing word that binds his life with hers in Spirit and truth. The proclaimed word presents Jesus and leads the hearer to Jesus.
Preaching’s role of leading the hearer to sacramental union can be seen throughout the book of Acts, as the apostles fulfill their mandate of preaching the word of God to all nations. The church’s inaugural sermon that Peter gives on Pentecost leaves his hearers with one burning question: “Brothers, what shall we do?” to which he replies, “”Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Luke further provides the connection between the preaching of the word and baptism with the assessment, “so those who received his word were baptized.” Philip’s proclamation to the Ethiopian eunuch leaves him questioning, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” The Lord’s interaction with Saul also leads to baptism at the hands of Annanias (Acts 9:18). The gentile Cornelius and his whole household are brought to baptism after Peter’s preaching as the descent of the Holy Spirit indicates that they also are to have this intimate communion with Christ (Acts 10:48). Lydia has her heart opened by the Lord to what Paul said and she and her household were baptized (Acts 16:15). The Philippian jailer and his whole family receive baptism as a result of Paul’s proclamation of the word (Acts 16:30-33). The apostolic preaching and teaching is not an end in itself but leads the hearers to Christ. Their purpose is to preach Christ crucified. Through the preaching of the incarnate, wounded Savior of the world the hearers are led to the place where he is to be incarnately found in his sacraments. The proclamation makes the Savior known to them and then draws them into intimate communion with him. This communion is lived out in the sacramental life that involves a continuation and development of the intimacy between saved and Savior. The proclaimed Word continues to play this role in the life of the baptized Christian as he struggles through this world with his own sin and the sins of others. This word proclaims Christ crucified to him and leads him to the basin and towel, to the supper table, and to the intimate care of his Savior, where he learns to live out his life in communion with his Lord.
The sacramental life of the church, it must be remembered, provides the historical background for the reading of the New Testament. The church who receives these documents is the church who is following her Lord’s mandate to baptize, to forgive, and to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. The church who is reading the Old Testament is the church who knows that the Hebrew scriptures proclaim Christ crucified and so also foreshadow the sacramental life that flows forth from Him (Luke 24:25-27). The scriptures are being read by a sacramental people as they are written to be read and understood by a sacramental people. The church and her sacramental life predate the writing of the New Testament. The New Testament does not establish the sacraments, but rather the Word of Christ, who institutes and commands their observance by the apostles. The evidence of this sacramental life is woven into the very fabric of the New Testament writings. The burning question with regard to gentile Baptism resolved through Peter’s interaction with Cornelius demonstrates the essential nature of Baptism to the life of the church in accord with our Lord’s command at His ascension. The living out of the baptismal life in communion at the Lord’s table is laid out in the apostles’ practice observed at the beginning of the book of Acts, but also by St. Paul’s correction of the sacramental infraction of the Corinthians, where the underlying assumption is that they meet regularly to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in accord with our Lord’s command to do it often (1 Corinthians 11:20-34). Paul emphasizes how this sacrament forms an essential part of what He has handed on to them from the Lord. The Gospels themselves must also be read keeping in mind the truth that the sacramental life of the church is fully established when they are written. They are not written to establish this life, even though they record its establishment and unfold its meaning for the church. To assert this is not to say that the New Testament material is fabricated to bolster the practice of the church, but rather simply to bear in mind that the writers of the Gospels would have had a sacramental mindset as they organized and recorded the events of our Lord’s life.
A further important christological truth that should be kept in mind is that, due to the personal union of the divine and human natures in Christ, the Lord Jesus fully knows the plan of the Father for the salvation of the world. He knows about the cross and how the fruits of that cross will flow out to his church through the gift of the sacraments that he himself will establish. Understanding this truth dispels any difficulty with the Lord speaking in a sacramental way prior to the establishment of a given sacrament. To assert that passages like our Lord’s great discourse about the benefits of the eating and drinking of the flesh and blood of the Son of Man in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel cannot have any sacramental import or inference because He speaks these words before the institution of the Lord’s Supper, negates the truth that the one who speaks is true God, who knows all things and in a way akin to the prophecies of the Old Testament may speak of the gifts before they have been given. For the Lord to speak of these gifts prior to them being given would be consistent with his parabolic teaching where truth is revealed even as it remains hidden. The gift of the Holy Spirit was the Lord’s way of revealing these things to the church as the disciples were led into all truth after our Lord’s ascension. Repeatedly we hear throughout the Gospels that the disciples only understood certain things after our Lord’s resurrection (John 2:22; 12:16). The beloved apostle who lay on our Lord’s breast when the gift of his heart was given in the sacrament of the altar certainly must have at least given some thought to the Lord’s Supper when he recorded the sixth chapter of his Gospel for the church. If the hearer can rightly understand that the sacraments naturally flow out from the incarnation of Christ and from the beginning are meant to and in fact do form an integral part of the church’s life with her Lord, then there need be no hesitation to see a wealth of sacramental inferences within the scriptural texts even if they are not explicitly mentioned. The historical grammatical method of interpreting these scriptures would in fact demand such an approach, as the writers and hearers of these writings would in fact have had a sacramental outlook. The early church knows no non-sacramental church, which according to the Lutheran Confession is an oxymoron.
Faithfully proclaiming Christ crucified then involves the preacher fixing the eyes of the hearers on Jesus and directing them to the places where he is waiting for them with outstretched arms. The word comes through the ears into the mind, but its goal is man’s twisted heart that needs to be turned around and brought running back to his Lord. The encounter of the hearer with the living Lord who became man that he might dwell amongst His people should be the preacher’s goal. Although intellectual in nature in the truest sense, as it brings true wisdom to the hearer, it should not simply be an intellectual exercise but a word that draws the hearer to Jesus. The effectiveness of that word lies solely in the purview of the Holy Spirit but, if it is not a faithful word that seeks to lead the hearer to Christ, it cannot be a vehicle for the Spirit. The word needs to be the right word. The goal needs to be the right goal. Otherwise, as stated at the outset, the proclamation is not Christian and so the Holy Trinity will not be involved with it. We do not preach an aimless word, but a directed word that leads people to the risen Christ for the salvation of their souls. The proclaimed word should leave the hearer longing for and looking for the font, the basin, and the table. As Luther rightly points out, we force no one to receive the sacraments, but we should preach about them in such a way that people demand them of us. In convicting the sinner through the law and wooing him with the gospel, the hearer should be left with the question, “Brothers what shall we do?” to which the faithful preacher should point to the crucified Christ in His gifts. The preached word should create a hunger and make the mouth water. It should make the heart yearn, the mind quest, and the soul long for an encounter with Jesus so that the hearer might be touched and be healed, and so that the believer might touch and believe.
Sacramental preaching is not just a matter of the interpretation of the sermon text, but an understanding of the whole ethos of our Lord’s sacramental life with his people and the impossibility of a life with him outside of it. If this is rightly understood, then every sermon will have sacramental focus in one form or another as it presents the Christ crucified who dwells among his people in his flesh. As previously stated, the texts of scripture provide ample opportunity for directing them to the sacraments, as they are not an added appendage to the word of God but are an integral part of it. They are a part of God’s plan of salvation from the start and so are prefigured along with Christ from the beginning and are reflected upon with him from the moment of the incarnation. A sacramental interpretation simply takes the end result of the life God has given us and reflects back to see it prefigured from the beginning in the word of God. St. Peter does this when he makes the connection between baptism and the flood in his first epistle (3:21). As God unfolds the history that leads to the incarnation of the Son and the salvation of the world through the cross which flows forth from Calvary in the sacramental word, the history itself reveals its end goal. The genealogy of Christ contains many who provide insight into who their mighty descendant will be and what he will accomplish. The same is true of that salvation history with regard to the sacramental life that will flow forth from Christ’s pierced side. The flood, the parting of the Red Sea, the crossing of the Jordan, the Passover lamb, the manna in the wilderness, the whole sacrificial life of the people of Israel, and countless other events and mandated observances have all been recognized as prefiguring the sacramental life of the church even as they form part of God’s plan to bring it all about. The life of Christ himself, as well as his teaching, follows a similar pattern in particular with regard to his cross and so also with regard to the sacraments. Our Lord repeatedly speaks of the cross before it occurs, unfolding its import to His disciples prior to its victory (Matthew 16:21; Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22; John 3:14; 8:28; 12:32). As he speaks of the cross in this way, the gifts of the cross may also be seen to appear in similar allusions and events. This homiletical approach to the text does not argue that such texts are to be used to establish the doctrine with regard to a given sacrament, but in accord with the clear truths we know about them, may serve as signposts for the Christian as well as the preacher to these great gifts.
If the sacramental life is embraced as the outflow of the incarnation through our Lord’s crucifixion and resurrection, and the notion of its prophetic prefiguring in the events leading up to its gift is not rejected out of hand, then the scriptural texts open up before the preacher filled with a veritable gold mine of sacramental references. This treasure trove is brought into deeper relief when the preacher approaches the text looking for its sacramental connections. Some texts speak of the sacraments directly and there can be no question of expounding the truth about them as well as directing the hearer’s attention and faith toward them. Other texts, however, contain allusions or elements that certainly raise the opportunity to direct the hearer to God’s grace in the gospel that flows to them from font, basin, and table. With regard to baptism, its earthly element of water as it occurs in a text certainly provides the opportunity to speak of it as does any references to new birth, new life, sonship, fatherhood, cleansing, drowning, citizenship, kingdom, exorcism, new clothes, and so on. The gift of holy absolution may be evoked and so referenced with regard to many themes as well that speak of release and forgiveness, such as slavery and freedom, deliverance, cleansing, washing, as well as any references to touching and healing. The sacrament of the altar, with its earthly elements of bread and wine, is brought to mind by the meal references throughout the New Testament. These meal references bring to mind our Lord’s gift of love in Holy Communion, as do references to the bridal relationship, to blood, to flesh, to sacrifice, to wine, to bread, and so on. If the preacher identifies the directing of the hearer to the sacramental life that flows out from the pierced side of the crucified Christ as part of his task in Christian proclamation, then indeed he will find sacramental connection points within the scriptural texts as is evident in the work of the early church fathers.
The scriptural text, however, is not the only source for sacramental direction in the Christian sermon. The liturgical and social occasion may also provide opportunity to direct the hearers to Jesus in his sacramental gifts. When a baptism occurs, obviously it is a good time to talk about baptism and remind all the hearers of what great gifts the Lord has given them in their new baptismal life with him. The prepared altar of the divine service is also a reference point within the sermon. A preacher’s hand pointing to the altar, where the crucified Christ will soon be enthroned before his people as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, speaks volumes without directly addressing the sacrament in speech. The preparatory seasons of Advent and Lent both provide a liturgical context to encourage the hearers to prepare their hearts for their coming Lord through confession and absolution. The feast of our Lord’s nativity is the perfect setting to talk about the gift of our new birth. The journey of the shepherds to Bethlehem begs the preacher to invite the hearers to the altar to see this thing that has come to pass which the Lord has made known. The great Passover of Easter from Maundy Thursday to the glorious first day of the week is one big invitation to the feast of victory for our God. A wedding opens up the opportunity to speak of the new life the Lord shares with his bride the church at his banquet table. A bride and groom making their vows between the font and the altar provides an entry into addressing how the Lord would have the couple live out their new life in forgiveness as children of God nourished from the life of Christ given at his table. A funeral provides one of the greatest opportunities to proclaim the objective working of God’s hand in a person’s life through the incarnate Word in baptism, absolution, and the Lord’s Supper – not only for the soul but for the body as well. Thanksgiving allows the preacher to speak about the great thanksgiving of the Lord’s table where just as we show appreciation to Mom by loading our plate at dinner we also give thanks to the Lord by eating of the bounty of his table.
To preach sacramentally, the preacher needs to understand the essential nature of the sacraments to the life of the Christian. They must be seen as an integral part of the word of God, rather than a distinct entity from it. The sacraments are simply the Word made flesh. They are the word of God given in a tangible form, distinguishable in the manner of their giving and their purpose for the life of the Christian, but not separate from the proclaimed word. The sacraments are not only all about Jesus; in a very profound way they are Jesus. We are baptized into Christ. Baptism’s whole purpose is to unite us with Him. He is in Baptism. In holy absolution Christ hears us as we hear Him. The pastor’s forgiveness is God’s forgiveness. Sins are confessed as to Christ himself and the absolution is given by Christ himself. The Lord’s Supper is none other than the true body and blood of Christ given under the bread and wine for us Christians to eat and drink. This sacrament is the gospel in the purest form, where the church proclaims the Lord’s death to her children and to the world until the Lord comes. The sacrament of the altar sets the cross and its victory before the eyes of the faithful, even as it delivers the fruit of that cross to them. As the Christian preacher seeks to proclaim Christ crucified, his hand should naturally rise to point to the font, to the altar rail, and to the altar itself, where that crucified Christ comes to His people. Sacramental preaching is simply preaching Christ crucified in the fullness of His incarnation and the incarnate life he shares with his bride the church. Here the preacher faithfully gives answer to the believers’ plea, “Please sir, we would see Jesus” by presenting their Lord to them and directing them to the places he has promised to be in his gifts for them. In Christian proclamation the preacher takes his brothers and sisters and invites them to come and see Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, about whom Moses and the prophets wrote. He points them to the one who loves them in word and in deed, in spirit and in truth.
The temptation for the preacher, particularly in modern society, is to feel that a faithful hand that repeatedly sets Jesus before the eyes of the people in word and sacrament is tiresome and boring. How many times does he need to repeat himself to the people of God? How many times do they need to be reminded of their baptism? How often do they need to be encouraged to go to confession? How often do they need the menu for the supper set before them with the required nutritional analysis? How much do they need to hear about Jesus? The question really answers itself, does it not? Can poor, miserable sinners ever hear too much about Jesus? Can poor miserable sinners ever have too much Jesus? Can there ever be a day or a week that can go by that I do not need Jesus? As Luther points out in his questions and answers for those who intend to go to the sacrament, if you do not feel a need for it you should pinch yourself to see if you still have your wicked flesh, take a look to see if you are still in the world, and know you have the devil around you. The sinner can never have too much of Jesus, as the saint well knows. Faith as it grows stronger only grows in its thirsting for its Lord; it is never so strong that it can survive without its object. An objectless faith is an illogical construct. Faith requires an object to be faith. Furthermore, a faith that claims it can forego the Lord’s gifts is no faith at all, as pride is diametrically opposed to faith. Faith thirsts for Jesus with an unquenchable thirst that even in heaven will not disappear, but will rather be continuously satisfied. We will thirst no more, not because we will not desire the water, but because the water will be continuously flowing into us. As a foretaste of that perpetual spring the church therefore as a whole, and the servant of Christ in particular, proclaims Christ crucified week after week, knowing that the bride never tires of hearing of her beloved, of gazing on him, and of being made one with him.
We preach Christ crucified. Sacramental preaching simply strives to do this great task in faithfulness to the truth of our Lord’s incarnation and its resulting life for the church. The task is no easy one, given the depths of the mystery that we encounter at the heart and center of the Christian faith. The new life we have of birth, washing, and nourishment is a simple reflection of our life in the world, as our Creator made us, and so is recreating us. The sacramental life is simple, and yet its depths descend far beyond all human understanding within the heart of the Trinity. A lifetime is spent not only being nourished by them, but also reflecting on them. The preacher who seeks to faithfully fulfill his calling has a wealth of wisdom to relay to his hearers that can only be understood and imparted with the Spirit’s aid and counsel. How humbling it is to see God’s great grace that imparts such treasures to the care and keeping of sinful men. May the Lord make us faithful, dear brothers, to our Lord in leading his people to him, even as he works to draw us to himself as he is lifted up before our eyes for our salvation in his word and gifts.
1. “For the sacrament has not been invented nor introduced by any man. Without anyone’s counsel and deliberation it has been introduced by Christ” (LC V.4).
2. “But if ordination is understood as carrying out the ministry of the word, we are willing to call ordination a sacrament. For the ministry of the word has God’s command and has glorious promises, ‘the gospel… is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes’… If ordination is understood in this way, neither will we refuse to call the laying on of hands a Sacrament. For the Church has the command to appoint ministers, which should be most pleasing to us, because we know that God approves this ministry and is present in this ministry” (Ap XIII.11).
3. “Therefore, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and absolution (which is the sacrament of repentance) are truly sacraments. For these rites have God’s command and the promise of grace, which is peculiar to the New Testament. When we are baptized, when we eat the Lord’s body, when we are absolved, our hearts must be firmly assured that God truly forgives us for Christ’s sake” (Ap XIII.4).
4. “For Christ has not instituted it to be treated as a show. Instead he has commanded his Christians to eat it, drink it, and remember him by it” (LC V.42).
5. “The church is the congregation of saints (Psalm 149:1) in which the gospel is purely taught and the sacraments are correctly administered” (AC VII.1).
6. “Furthermore Baptism is most solemnly and strictly commanded so that we must be baptized or cannot be saved” (LC IV.6). “Rather we give this counsel: If you are poor and miserable, then go to Confession and make use of its healing medicine. He who feels his misery and need will no doubt develop such a longing for it that he will run toward it with joy. But those who pay no attention to it and do not come of their own accord, we let them go their way. Let them be sure of this, however, that we do not regard them as Christians” (LC V - An Exhortation to Confession). “At the outset, we must again make this preliminary statement: we do not abolish the Mass, but religiously keep and defend it. Masses are celebrated among us every Lord’s Day and on other festivals” (Ap XXIV.1). “Nevertheless it must be known that people who deprive themselves of and withdraw from the Sacrament for such a long time are not to be considered Christians” (LC V.42).
7. “Last, since the tyranny of the pope has been abolished, people are no longer willing to go to the Sacrament, and thus they despise it. Here again encouragement is necessary, yet with this understanding: We are to force no one to believe or receive the Sacrament. Nor should we set up any law, time, or place for it. Instead, preach in such a way that by their own will, without our law, they will urge themselves and, and as it were, compel us pastors to administer the Sacrament” (Preface to SC 22). “Only set forth clearly the benefit and harm, the need and the use, the danger and the blessing, connected with this Sacrament. Then the people will come on their own without you forcing them. But if they do not come, let them go their way and tell them that such people belong to the devil who do not regard nor feel their great need and God’s gracious help” (Preface to SC 24). “In conclusion, since we now have the true understanding and doctrine of the Sacrament, there is also need for some admonition and encouragement. Then people may not let such a great treasure – daily administered and distributed among Christians – pass by unnoticed. So those who want to be Christians may prepare to receive this praiseworthy Sacrament often. For we see that people seem weary and lazy about receiving the Sacrament…They act as if they are so strong Christians that they have no need of it… Some pretend that it is a matter of liberty and not necessary. They pretend that it is enough to believe without it” (LC V.39-41). “So here there also is need for us to continue to preach so that people may not become weary and disgusted. For we know and feel how the devil always opposes this and every Christian exercise. He drives and deters people from them as much as possible” (LC V.44).
8. “When we are baptized, when we eat the Lord’s body, when we are absolved, our hearts must be firmly assured that God forgives us for Christ’s sake. At the same time, by Word and by rite, God moves hearts to believe and conceive faith, just as Paul says, ‘Faith comes from hearing’ (Romans 10:17)” (Ap XIII.5).