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Sermon Aims to Be Biblical but Uses Wrong Text

The text is about the Lord's Supper, but the sermon is about community.
Sermon Aims to Be Biblical but Uses Wrong Text
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What's the difference between a preacher and a motivational speaker? Both are concerned about and adaptive to their audiences. Both want to be relevant. Both want to make a positive behavioral change in the lives of their hearers. For all the similarities, however, there is a qualitative difference between Billy Graham and Zig Ziglar: content.

Preachers have a unique burden. We preach the Scriptures. We are bound by calling and conviction to communicate God's ideas, not merely elaborate on our own observations. How successful is the clinic sermon "Add a Leaf to the Table" in being biblical? I give the sermon scores of great, great, and not so great.

The preacher's task is to discover the one intended meaning of a section of Scripture and pass it on.

Strength: The preacher defers to Scripture.

This sermon gets great marks for good intentions. One strength of this message is the preacher wants to communicate scriptural truth: his goal is to connect the congregation with God's Word. This objective becomes evident as the preacher constantly defers to the Scriptures. The deference begins early when he asks the congregation to turn to Scripture to find the answer to the question raised in the introduction. When a preacher says, "Open to 1 Corinthians 11. Here is the definitive word, the biblical, theological basis for our potlucks," he deliberately ties the sermon to the Bible.

He also deferred to Scripture when he testified, "I began to dig through this text and decided there's got to be a timeless truth here for us." Once again the preacher links and limits the sermon to the biblical text.

A third instance of biblical deference is the exegetical work included in the body of the sermon. When our preacher directs his congregation's attention and much significance to the missing word broken in 1 Corinthians 11, he reveals a pro-Scripture bias. I applaud this preacher for wanting to say what God says.

Strength: The sermon actually says what God says.

I also give this preacher great marks for actually delivering a message in harmony with Scripture. It is possible to have good intentions and bad content: to say in God's name what God does not say. This message does not fall into that trap. This preacher did not subject a congregation to secular sentimentality delivered in a stained glass voice. When the clinic preacher told the congregation, "They were truly a family . . . and they were to come together to share," he told the truth. Sharing within the family of God is a biblical concept clearly taught in Scripture. I commend this preacher for actually saying what God says.

Weakness: The sermon misses Paul's purpose for writing the text.

The area of content where I give this sermon a "not so great" rating is in authorial intent. The sermon is biblical in that it is true to Scripture in general. But it is not biblical in that it does not express the original scriptural author's (Paul's) main idea.

William Ames wrote in The Marrow of Theology:

There is only one meaning for every place in Scripture. Otherwise the meaning of Scripture would not only be unclear and uncertain, but there would be no meaning at all — for anything which does not mean one thing surely means nothing.

The preacher's task is to discover the one intended meaning of a section of Scripture and pass it on. The clinic sermon earns a "not so great" rating because it does not communicate the main thing Paul intended to say to the church in Corinth.

The main point of 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 is not that we should share with fellow Christians. Paul is not primarily castigating the church of Corinth here for hoarding food. What upsets him is they consumed the food in an "unworthy manner." The bread and cup they enjoyed had ceased to serve as reminders of the sacrificial death of Christ. For the Corinthians, the Lord's Supper was no longer a poignant spiritual experience. It had degenerated into a smorgasbord.

This loss of theological focus is so serious that Paul warned them, "Anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself." Since 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 does not primarily deal with potluck dinners, sermons based on this passage should not deal primarily with that subject either. Selfless sharing within the family of God is a soundly biblical and appropriate subject to address from the pulpit, but would be better preached from a biblical passage where the original author directly addresses the issue.

This clinic sermon demonstrates a high regard for Scripture. The preacher knows the difference between a motivational speech and a sermon, and intended to be entirely true to Scripture. He nearly succeeded.

Kent Edwards is professor of preaching and leadership, and director of the doctor of ministry program at Biola University in La Mirada, California, and author of Deep Preaching (B&H).

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