One of the key ways in which the Bible is actually is during church services, particularly with a sermon or homily. ‘Preaching’ can refer to both reciting scripture and to the exegesis on it. In denominations where preaching is seen as more important than the Eucharist preaching may take on a sacramental character. This means that it will typically be longer, more central to the service, and involve more personal discretion of the minister. Elsewhere, the big churches of Catholicism, Methodism, and Anglicanism share a liturgical devise called the Lectionary. This is a calendar of readings from the Bible which cycles every three years, each year based around a Synoptic Gospel– with John used on special occasions.
Here, each set of readings also has a Psalm, another reading from the Old Testament and another reading from the New Testament- four passages in total which often display intertextuality with one another. One of the features of this intertextuality is that it provides the minister with material that they can weave together in their homily.
For simplicity, however, in this session we shall just focus on one Gospel passage, since we are going to discuss how to write your own sermon. Here is a randomly chosen reading:
“On that day, when evening had come, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’” – Mark 4.35-41
1. Read the passage several times.
2. What’s the passage about? – summarise, identify your audience. Is there anything that might need explaining so that the passage is understandable? Technical language? Cultural differences? Intellectual objections?
3. What do you think (for you) is at the heart of this text? What sticks out to you?
4. So, what do you think the text might want to say to your audience…?
5. Do you anticipate any problems in your audience and how might you overcome them…?
6. Is there a personal story you have (or a less personal one), a poem, an image or something else that might illustrate what you mean?
It was not possible, nor would it necessarily have been desirable to give you the sermon plans produced by all of the people present at the discussion so I will just give a sample of some of the thoughts which were shared.
To begin with we agreed that it would be important to relate the appropriate nautical terms and remind the audience of the importance of fishing to these people. It would be important to categorise it not only as a miracle story but also as among the many Biblical stories involving the sea or water. Moreover, it is significant but little known that in the contemporaneous Hebrew culture, water and particularly the sea was not viewed as a positive thing, but as something to be afraid of, a source of chaos outside of civilisation, one which divided people.
Issues that it would be useful to address with the audience here are Christology, whether the historical Jesus really could control the weather and the nature of faith- particularly in relation to hardship. More specifically this could be hardship to do with fear (“There is nothing to fear but fear itself” – John F. Kennedy), depression (lots of metaphors for depression in the story) or the ‘problem of evil‘.
The message that I’m most familiar with hearing in church, even in the Catholic church, is that this is a myth, an allegory written to give comfort and encouragement to the early Church which was then suffering persecution. This reading is implicit in the composition of the lectionary since this reading comes after Pentecost in the Church’s year and therefore fits in to the story of the early Church rather than that of Jesus’ ministry. Living faithfully rather than in despair helps us to see things from God’s perspective and thereby be more like him.
If they had faith the Apostles wouldn’t have got frightened and bothered Jesus for help, but paradoxically they must have had faith in him or they wouldn’t have thought that he -not an experienced sailor- could help them. I suppose this must be because the faith they had was the wrong type of faith, they wanted magic tricks to make life easy rather than to be able to trust in God so that they were strong enough to make it through struggles.
The message that I received myself when we did this exercise was that the fishermen among the Apostles were proud of their skill at sailing and so they thought they were looking after Jesus: “they took him with them in the boat, just as he was”. But, as with many of Jesus’ parables there is a dramatic reversal: they are humbled to discover their experience is in fact very fragile and that it is Jesus who actually holds everything in balance.
See the rest of Bible For Bluffers.