Best Practices for Holy Week Preaching
'Are you prepared to make the most of those days before Easter?' Interview with Stewart Ruch III
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Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday—like Christmas, they come every year, and for many preachers, so does the dilemma of breathing new life into a season that feels familiar and, well, predictable. So what can freshen up Holy Week preaching? PreachingToday.com editor Matt Woodley sat down with Bishop Stewart Ruch III from Church of the Resurrection, in Wheaton, Illinois to hear best practices from the pastor of a church who celebrates Holy Week second to none.
PreachingToday.com: What makes preaching for Holy Week and Easter so difficult?
Stewart Ruch III: There are three things that make preaching during Holy Week a significant challenge.
The first is the same challenge all of us as preachers have when we come, say, to Christmas Eve or other holidays—familiarity, of the day and of the text. You rarely get a chance to pull off a preacher's surprise or a major epiphany. So it requires the preacher to come to these texts with prayer, freshness, creativity, and imagination. We have to think Okay, I've literally preached Good Friday and the Last Supper fifteen times. I've preached about Christ's resurrection fifteen times.
Palm Sunday, for example, is especially hard—because there are two or three things happening within the Palm Sunday event. We have to ask, How am I going to come at this in a fresh way? That's the challenge for five different preaching events during Holy Week—Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, in our case Easter Vigil, and then Easter Day. That's the first challenge.
Number two: You're carrying an immense spiritual weight all week. In the case of a liturgical church like ours, you've got a lot of worship leadership that you're also enacting. So you've got the liturgical spiritual pressure and responsibility to bring that tradition fresh, to bring it to life, and to lead through that.
Then third, there are often so many services in a row. You're preaching consecutive times, if you do all the preaching, as I used to. Sometimes three or four times in a row day after day.
So those three things really conspire to make it a great week to preach, but a challenging experience.
I've heard that you had one Holy Week season that was really difficult. What was it like to preach through this holy season in the church year when the church was struggling?
It was our very first capital campaign. Unfortunately—and it was a misfortune—the timing of our building project forced us to run a capital campaign during Lent. That in itself was extremely challenging—to preach through Lent with a capital campaign. But then our commitment Sunday was Palm Sunday, and I knew I was going to get the numbers on what was committed over against what we were hoping to receive.
I got a phone call at three o'clock on Palm Sunday afternoon. I remember exactly. I was up in our bedroom. I was sitting in our bed, and I remember the very first words that our business manager said. I don't know what she said, but her tone was so deflated and so sad and anxious to give me the news that my heart just sunk. And she then shared that we had fallen significantly short of our goal that we had broadcasted and put in front of the church and said we were hoping to meet. That sent me into an emotional tailspin; it sent me into a spiritual tailspin: Why did this happen, God? A leadership tailspin: Did I not do this well? And a preaching tailspin: I preached all five sermons leading up to the commitment Sunday, and perhaps I hadn't connected. I was in a difficult place.
I had to do a couple of things to get through that Holy Week and the preaching assignments I had. Before I could even preach I had to gather the key senior leaders and friends and advisors on that Monday right after Palm Sunday and seek the Lord together. I had to come away with them with some sense of how God was leading us, some sense of direction. I also had to know—had I sinned? Had I done something wrong? Had I made a strategic error? Had I not preached well? And I had to have a really significant heart-to-heart with about six or seven people in the room on that Monday and ask those questions. I knew I couldn't preach the services I was being asked to preach, especially Easter Day if I had sin in my own heart or if I hadn't sinned but I screwed up and I didn't know it and everyone was thinking it.
I needed a sense of full transparency and of clarity with my team before I could preach the gospel. And so I did that. And that was an extremely healing time. The feedback came back loud and clear: I had not sinned in this process. That certainly helped, but my energy was still extremely low coming into the Holy Week season. As much as I didn't like it, I had to sketch out three different outlines on Tuesday and Wednesday for my Easter Day preaching. I didn't like the outlines, and I couldn't get them to gel. But I still sketched them out and worked on them again on Saturday afternoon before our four-hour vigil service before Easter morning.
Finally, my Easter Sunday sermon came together at 4:30 A.M. on Easter morning. It was purely that the Holy Spirit put the sermon in my imagination. That's the only way that I can say that that particular sermon happened after a week like that. I tried, I made myself available to the Lord, but it was literally a last minute visitation of the Lord.
Did you learn anything from that experience that you could share about struggling to preach during this season?
Three things happened for me. One, I was very intentional in getting prayer from my friends and leaders in the community. I made myself very vulnerable and said, "I don't know how I'm going to do this week with this massive disappointment. And I need help." So that was really, really key in the whole process.
I would say, too, I let the Holy Week service minister to me, and I needed them to. So I actually got better as the week went on. I didn't get worse, because I walked with Jesus in Gethsemane and I tried to pray with him there. I was with him at the cross on Good Friday. I celebrated his resurrection at Easter Vigil. And by the time I got to Easter Day morning, yes, I was physically exhausted, but I was actually more spiritually enriched because I let the services minister to me more than usual. I was better prepared to write that sermon Easter Day morning than I was on Tuesday or Wednesday, even though I would have preferred to have had it done Tuesday and Wednesday as I usually do.
Third—and I think this is probably the biggest lesson from that event and from so many similar situations—is that I came away, again, realizing every single sermon is a gift. I've never earned one sermon. I've never worked myself toward one sermon that was as good as it needs to be. Every single sermon is a gift. And that the Lord wanted the resurrection preached more than I did.
Let's talk about the two big themes of Holy Week—the cross and the resurrection. What is the main concept you want your church to connect with when they think of the cross?
I remember being in a seminary class where the professor said, "You know, on Good Friday you hardly have to preach. The service preaches itself." I remember wondering about that at the time, and I have to say that while the service is very rich in our tradition, I have come to disagree with that comment.
Here's why. I don't think there is a better time to preach and particularly to preach toward healing than Good Friday. I think that my vision and what I'm trying to do on a Good Friday sermon and Good Friday ministry is to preach toward profound healing. So it's an Isaiah 53 opportunity to proclaim that by his stripes, "we,"—the personal plural pronoun—"we" are healed. And so I view the work of Good Friday as really a healing sermon. It's a call for the deepest of forgiveness and the most profound sort of medication of the Holy Spirit, the ministry of the Holy Spirit to heal deep, deep wounds. And I find that there is no time that people are more open to receive deep healing than at that service. I see healings of people's hearts, their minds, and their bodies on Good Friday that I am unable to imagine at any other time of the year.
So we have seen significant physical healings. We see the most physical healings on Good Friday. We see some of the most profound healings from emotional entrenchment, psychological patterns, obsessions, addictions. We've never seen such profound sexual healing of people but on Good Friday. And I think it's obvious. It's because there at the proclamation of the cross of Jesus Christ, Christ has given us peace with God and peace within, in our personhood.
So healing is what I'm trying to preach on Good Friday—which is a different emphasis than Easter Day.
How does repentance and confession of sin connect with this message of healing?
When we are clear and explicit about our sin, when we repent and confess our sin, then we can know immediate freedom, immediate cleansing. And I can't talk about the preaching of Good Friday without also talking about the fact that at least in our tradition our custom is that people have a chance to physically approach the cross—a huge cross up on the stage/altar area—and actually touch it. To meet others up there, to spend time, and to pray. People come in droves. They're weeping. They're repenting. They're receiving healing. So if I'm preaching on Good Friday, I'm preaching for that moment when people will actually put their hands on the cross and have that physical encounter with Christ's cross and the confession of their sin and the cleansing of their sin. That dynamic has a level of profundity—people are able to access what they always want to access, if they're believers, God's forgiveness, God's power. But there's a level and ability to access that on Good Friday with the utter ministry of the cross that I don't have any other time of the year to that degree.
Very powerful. So tell me about preaching for Easter Sunday.
I've pretty much preached every Easter Day for the last fifteen plus years. First of all, every time I come up to it I'm freaked out. Even talking about it now I start getting freaked out about Easter Day 2014. I'm always begging God to give me a word, just begging him. And that's where I start. I start asking him, pleading with him, Please, give me an Easter Day message.
There are two things I'm trying to do with that message. It's one of the times in the year where I almost always employ a level of old-school apologetics. What is the proof that Christ was raised from the dead? Are there proofs? And I go back to what I don't usually do in my preaching, which is more of an old school apologetic model that points to a case for Christ's resurrection. And I find that extremely important, even though a lot's been written about millennials and that they may not be interested in apologetics. I find that on Easter Day it's still important to make a strong case for why it makes a great deal of logical sense that Christ was raised from the dead, understanding the circumstances and the evidence. I find that is a very powerful way to deal with the first half of my sermon.
And then in the second half of the sermon I want to shift from the apologetic to a vision for life now lived in the wake of the resurrection, the way in which our lives are profoundly changed by the resurrection of Jesus. We now have a power that we didn't have before. So I try to move from apologetics to power and to help people understand that this is true—evidentially true and supernaturally true. This is absolutely true. And it has a profound, supernatural, powerful effect on your life in that the Holy Spirit can now fill you with the resurrection power of Jesus. It's not only a historical event; it can be for you a profoundly personal event. I want to marry the historical and the personal, I want to do that with a couple of really strong contemporary parables—either personal or cultural illustrations—and I want to clock in twenty to twenty-two minutes in doing that.
So it's fairly brief.
Yeah, I'm trying to cut about five minutes from my usual Sunday sermon knowing that I have my people, who are very tired from the Holy Week experience, but also hundreds of guests who are going to give me about twenty minutes. And they're deciding if they can even track with me at all. So I preach Easter Day for my guests primarily. That's who I'm preaching to. I'm very focused on the people that are visiting on Easter Day. I've been preaching to my core all week long.
How do you stay fresh on a personal level during this time?
I think it's critical to get three days away the week or two weeks before Holy Week. Go on a prayer and planning retreat. You really have to put in your bank. You've got to bank refreshment in the Lord. You've got to bank time with the Lord. You have to bank personal communion with the Lord before you're going to spend it. So I do a personal three-day retreat before every Holy Week, and that has been critical. I don't just write sermons; I also spend time with the Lord. I want to spend time reading the Bible for growth, reading the Bible to know the Lord, reading the Bible to be with him, taking long prayer walks, and then praying over every one of the services. I'll take a different prayer request sheet for each of the services, and I'll lay them out on my bed at the retreat center, and I'll pray over each of those over and over again. I think that's been the most important thing. And if I have any secret to preaching through Holy Week, that's been my secret. It has been defining and very significant.
My second thing is, to work really hard to maintain a life of prayer and personal communion with the Lord as I'm preaching, as I'm leading services during Holy Week. I really am intentional about that.
And third is—and I've grown in this as a preacher—that I have learned how to renounce the expectation that I will preach a great sermon on Easter Day. I've learned to refuse to live by that. I do want to preach a great sermon on Easter Day. But if I go out with the result of preaching a great sermon on Easter Day then I've already lost the battle of the Easter Day sermon. So I really try to refuse to try and meet the expectation, usually my own and some others, frankly, that I preach a phenomenal sermon on Easter Day. I refuse that. I try to compartmentalize that and put that away, and I try, instead, to work really hard at asking: What's the word for this year, Lord, from your Holy Scriptures? That's what I'm going to preach.
That has actually created, I think, my strongest Easter Day sermons.
Stewart Ruch III is the rector of the Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois and the Bishop for the Midwest Diocese for the Anglican Church in North America.