What to Preach?
One of the oldest and deepest admonitions throughout the years of Christian ministry has been “preach Jesus.” Time and again, from professors to lay people, we have heard this advice: don’t preach politics and don’t preach your own personal perspective (as if we had any other); just preach Jesus. Several years ago Billy Graham’s own daughter, Anne Graham Lotz (whom I admire) had a series of evangelistic rallies under the theme “Just give me Jesus.” Sounds good to me!
The challenge is that when we do this, there are two underlying questions:
- Whose Jesus do I preach?
- Is there a difference between preaching Jesus and preaching what Jesus preached?
For each and every one of us, the Jesus we preach is a mediated Jesus who comes through the lenses of our understanding. The Jesus we know is mediated to us through scripture – and how we understand scripture determines how we see Jesus. The reality is that we never, no matter how much we try, preach a pure and objective Jesus. The Jesus we preach is the Jesus we know through our culture and education.
In a recent tome, The Aryan Jesus, Suzannah Heschel, daughter of the late Joshua Heschel, traces how German scholars tried to de-judaize Jesus during the days of the Third Reich. As I worked through this quite intense and detailed work, I was struck by how scholars whose names I recognize–Gerhard Kittel, for one–participated in this campaign. Some even went to great lengths to show how Jesus not only stood outside Judaism, they tried to connect him with the heroic “gods” of German mythology. Then, upon reflection, it hit me like a slap upside the head: this is something that each of us does subconsciously unless we have seen otherwise. Each of us reworks Jesus into the person we want him to be; not necessarily the person he was or is.
Whether we are conservative Christians who make Jesus the hero of the Religious Right, or liberal Christians who make Jesus a revolutionary taking on the establishment, each of us remakes Jesus to some degree or another. As I have read the works of the Jesus Seminar, it has struck me as quite ironic that the Jesus they give us is the Jesus who looks and thinks like them. As I have returned to look over my sermons of the last three decades, I have come to see that far more often than I like I have been guilty of the same sin. Rather than let Jesus be who Jesus is–and admit that I am uncomfortable with Jesus–I remake Jesus to be the person I want him to be. The problem is that in so doing I limit the Jesus people can encounter to the Jesus of my understanding, and that can be quite a hurdle for them to overcome.
The second question is equally challenging and interconnected as the first: Do I preach Jesus or preach what Jesus preached? Let me assure you, there is a difference! I have discovered that people would much rather have me tell them about Jesus as Savior than to challenge them with the ethical demands of Jesus. Who wants to hear about loving one’s neighbor or losing one’s life? Who wants to be challenged as to the hierarchy of loves and values which, while culturally acceptable, are called into question by Jesus? Preaching what Jesus preached is highly dangerous (it was for Jesus) for survival in the pastorate. Only the rare congregation can hear these sermons and maintain its equilibrium. We love the Baby Jesus of Christmas and the Crucified and Risen Savior of Holy Week and Easter, but not so much the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount. Turning one’s cheek, laying down one’s life, going the extra mile; these are not exactly what we have in mind when we say that we are Christians. Do we want a preacher to lead us to have an emotional catharsis wherein we repent of our sins? Yes, do that regularly for there are sinners who need to hear that truth! Do we want a preacher to challenge us as to the nature of those sins, particularly those that are systemically ingrained and therefore hidden in our culture? Not on your life!
The problem is that there is no way we can truly preach Jesus if we do not preach what Jesus preached. Who Jesus was and continues to be is inextricably bound with what Jesus taught and proclaimed. If we do not preach what Jesus preached, we are preaching “another Jesus”; which Paul roundly condemned. If, as we proclaim, salvation is found in Jesus, then can we be saved by the Jesus we create? Must we not preach what Jesus preached in order to preach the Jesus of the New Testament?
Now, as astute readers you have probably recognized the conundrum: how can I preach Jesus (and preach what Jesus preached) if the only Jesus I can preach is the Jesus of my own perspective? The answer is to be found in two basic but often ignored concepts: humility and openness. Every sermon we preach must occur with the understanding that no matter how right I may feel about it, I must in humility consider that my perspective is limited at best. There must be openness in my soul and spirit to the perspective of the Christian community. I must always be open to the possibility, even probability, that some or all of what I proclaim is at best imperfect and may even be self-serving and wrong. How could well meaning German Christian scholars give themselves over to such a heinous act as de-judaizing Jesus? Quite simply, they bought what culture was selling and in their own egotism never realized that their perspective could be wrong. History may not be a kind judge, but it is usually a sure one.