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Sermon Chooses Good Expository Path but Stumbles

The preacher made an astute choice of the text but fell short on two critical areas.
Sermon Chooses Good Expository Path but Stumbles
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Preaching is heralding. Preaching should announce what God has already revealed. It is appropriate, then, that we begin this series of clinics on the sermon "Add a Leaf to the Table" by asking if this sermon is biblical. I give a qualified yes, because some of the sermon's strengths turn into weaknesses.

Paul is severe, but the sermon is warm.

Strength: The sermon handles a distinct unit of Scripture within its literary and cultural contexts.

"Add a Leaf to the Table" is an exposition of 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. This passage is a distinct thought unit, and the preacher has done well to preach the whole thing. It may have been tempting to preach only half of the unit because, as the preacher says, there is a "big jump" in logic between verses 22 and 23. Even so, the preacher shows how the ideas relate to each other.

The sermon also briefly mentions how this unit of Scripture fits into the whole book. The preacher says, "From that point forward in Corinthians [Paul] hammers away on 'the body, the body, the body.' "

In addition, the sermon situates the passage in its cultural context. The preacher refers to the architecture of Greek house-churches and the working conditions of the rich and slaves. These brief explanations help listeners understand the conditions that prompted the text. That's important because reading epistles is like listening to one side of a phone conversation.

Weakness: More qualification is needed.

The emphasis on culture, however, turns into a minor weakness. The preacher needs to qualify some assertions. We simply don't know with certainty the sociological and cultural details behind 1 Corinthians 11. The preacher can't say for sure that "Corinth knew nothing about the Jewish custom of the Sabbath." He could say, "Since many of the Corinthian believers were Gentiles, they probably knew little about . . . ." But even this statement is probably off-target since the Gentile converts likely were "God-fearers" — Gentiles who had attached themselves to the synagogue.

Strength: The central idea of the sermon captures part of the central idea of the text.

Although the preacher does not explicitly identify the central idea of the text, I believe a sentence toward the end of the sermon is his summary of the passage: "The Corinthians' selfish attitude hampered the redemptive life . . . they could have shared with others." This statement captures much of what is in the text.

As a good herald, the preacher fashions this feature of the passage into the central idea of the sermon: "Put another leaf in the table." The metaphor is an effective tool to exhort listeners to do selfless acts of charity. The preacher clarifies the metaphor with repetition, concrete examples, and exhortation: we should befriend lonely people, give a Kleenex to someone who is weeping, and care for the sick. No one could leave this sermon without a clear sense that we are interconnected and must not be selfish. The Lord's Table reminds us we are a body. The passage teaches this. The passage, however, teaches more than this.

Weakness: The sermon doesn't go far enough.

The passage also teaches that God judges those who abuse the Lord's Table. The sermon says nothing about judgment. Paul is severe, but the sermon is warm. To be truly biblical, the sermon should capture the passage's tone and convey its complete idea. Phrased formally, the subject and complement of the text might be:

God has revealed that eating the Lord's Supper is serious business. The sermon needs to herald that too.

Weakness: The sermon uses a paraphrase instead of a translation.

Perhaps the sermon captures only part of the text's full idea because it is based on The Message, a modern English paraphrase. The addition of "sandwiches" to the Corinthians' diet (verse 34) and an awkward double negative (verse 22) is of less concern to me than more weighty issues.

For example, verse 28 in the NIV, NASB and New Living Translation speaks of "judgment," but The Message speaks of "serious consequences." The Message states that the Corinthians were bringing in "a lot of food from the outside," but that idea is not present in the Greek text or alternate readings.

The sermon would be more biblical if it used a translation. While using this paraphrase adds to the sermon's warm tone, a translation like the NIV or New Living Translation would do the same without sacrificing accuracy.

Jeffrey Arthur is professor of preaching and communication at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

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