Transformative Preaching: A Sermon Based on Acts 3:11-26
(Slide 1) Today we are in round two in our reflection on our church’s vision statements. Two Sundays ago we began our project of reflecting on our churches vision. The idea is that before we can know we know where we are going, we need to consider our past vision statements, and whether they still describe where we believe God is leading us. We began the series by reflecting on the statement, “We value worship which honours God and engages all God’s people.” This Sunday, we’ll reflect on preaching as a value of this church. The statement reads, “We value, reformed, Christ-centred preaching that transforms us.”
My hunch is that for most people, the word Reformed is the stumbling block in the statement. If you haven’t grown up in this tradition, you might be wondering what it means to be reformed! If you have grown up in the Reformed tradition, that word can have a whole lot of negative connotations. I didn’t grow up in the Reformed Tradition, but I’ve learned that the word ‘reformed’ can be associated with a certain type of legalism. Kids in the reformed tradition used to find Sundays brutal because it was forbidden to ride bikes on the Sabbath or do anything fun. You were expected to just sit around all day. Sometimes reformed people had a reputation for being way too heady, and tended to avoid matters of the heart and were resistant to the Holy Spirit. Reformed Christians have also sometimes been perceived as arrogant, acting as though the reformed view of theology is the only one that matters. As a result, a person with that sort of stereotype floating around in their head might expect reformed preaching to be about laying down the law, defending doctrine, be super intellectual, and not have much to say for about the heart or the Holy Spirit.
From what I gather, there were parts of these stereotypes that did fit our congregation, but it certainly isn’t the whole picture. Riemke Hiemstra’s husband, John, was known for having an incredibly deep faith, who’s heart was deeply touched by Jesus. Those who knew him were often touched by his deep commitment to the Reformed Tradition, as he prayed with conviction, loved God with his heart and mind, and lived with incredible humility. His memory is a reminder that the cultural stereotypes of reformed Christians don’t capture the whole picture. Moreover, when you strip away those cultural stereotypes, you can find a lot of beauty in our tradition.
If I were to try and summarize how our tradition can help us draw closer to God, I might say that reformed Christians want to be “biblical, Christ-centred, and transformative.” Which would beg the question, why have the word “Reformed” in our vision statement at all? Why not just say that “We value biblical, Christ-centred preaching that transforms us”? I see the word “reformed” as playing an important function in this statement. It clues us into the fact that we mean something very specific by each of the words ‘biblical,' ‘Christ-Centred’, and ‘transformative’. Not everyone means the same thing when they say something is biblical, or Christ-centred, or transformative. So when we add the word ‘Reformed,’ we are making a statement about how we understand those words.
To make this more clear, lets look at the word “Christ-centred. In the Reformed Tradition, the phrase ‘Christ-Centred’ has a very specific historical context. It goes back 500 years, to October 31, 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the Wittenberg Door. This began the Protestant Reformation. When Martin Luther nailed these statements to the door, he was making a bold religious and political statement about what it meant to be “Christ-centred.” Luther was protesting the way that the Catholic Church had been getting money through indulgences, which was buying people out of purgatory with money. Luther was disgusted by an itinerant preacher who was known to say, (Slide 2)“As soon as the coin in the copper rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” For Luther, Christ-centred meant something different. Luther emphasized a Christ-centred theology that radically departed from his contemporary church. Luther preached that it is Christ alone who saves us. That’s the heart of what we mean in the Reformed Tradition when we talk about Christ-centred preaching. We take our cue from Martin Luther, who took his cue from St. Augustine, who took his cue from the Apostle Paul, who was right in line with Peter’s Christ-centred preaching. Peter says (Slide 3) “And on the basis of faith in Jesus’ name, his very name has made this man—whom you see and know—strong. The faith that is through Jesus has given him this complete health in the presence of all of you.” Peter had witnessed a crippled man receive the ability to walk through the powerful name of Jesus. Yet Peter says he wasn’t simply physically healed, he was given complete health, denoting mind, body and Spirit. Peter then goes on to talk about the complete forgiveness of sins through turning to Jesus. That’s what we mean when by Christ-centred in the reformed tradition. We are taking our cue from Peter, who in this one short sermon says a spectacular amount about what it means to keep Christ centre.
Pastor Bruce Milne notes all that Peter says about Jesus, “He is the servant of the Lord; He is the Holy One; He is the Righteous One; He is the Healer and the source of the powers of the kingdom of God; He is the Sufferer, appointed by God through whom sins may be wiped out; He is the long promised Messiah; He is the Returning One, through whom God will finally restore everything; He is the Prophet foretold by Moses; He is David’s promised heir as foretold by Samuel; He is the offspring of Abraham through whom all peoples of the earth will be blessed… It is all Jesus!” This is what we mean by being Christ-centred.
(Slide 4) Now, let’s look at the word “Biblical”. There’s a couple of things to say about this word in relation to the Reformed Tradition. First, the Reformed preaching has a long tradition of explanatory preaching. That’s where we read a passage of the Bible, and the sermon is an attempt at explaining what that passage means, and how we apply it to our lives. This type of preaching is different from a sermon that is about a particular topic like “capitalism”, and then uses a bunch of Scripture to help us think about capitalism. The Reformed tradition holds that preaching should be about explaining Scripture, because we believe that Scripture is God-breathed, and authoritative for all matters in faith and life. We believe that Scripture teaches us everything we need to know about God, and gives us all the tools to live faithfully in this world. That’s why, in the reformed tradition, we try and stick close to the Biblical text in our preaching. Again, we want to take our cue from Peter who is backing up everything he says with Scripture. Second, as we interpret Scripture our starting place for Biblical interpretation is to try and understand how the passage would have been understood by the original audience. For example, to best understand what Peter’s sermon means, we need to ask a lot of questions, such as where this story fits in the book of Acts, who the author was, who he was writing to, we need to understand the genre, and the rules of that genre, we need to understand the language.
But once we understand the Scripture passage in its original context, the next step is to ask how a given passage of Scripture points to the messiah, Jesus. This means that we interpret Scripture on a few different levels. We begin with how the passage might have been understand by its primary audience, but then we follow Peter’s lead. Did you notice how Peter’s sermon finds Christ throughout every part of the Old Testament. Peter talks about Jesus as the Holy and Righteous One, as God’s Servant, as the One who was destined to suffer. (Slide 5) All these phrases are pulled from Isaiah 52 and 53, which anticipates the coming of God’s servant, “who was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” Peter talks about Jesus as the prophet God promised Moses in Deuteronomy 18: (Slide 6) “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command.” Peter talks about Jesus as the one looked forward to by all the prophets from Samuel on. (Slide 7) So, when we talk about Biblical preaching in the Reformed Tradition, we first try and understand how the passage meant in its original setting, and then we take our cue from Peter and ask how any given passage points to Jesus. So when we listen to the Old Testament, we listen for what it would have said to its first hearers, and we look for how it points forward to Jesus.
(Slide 8) We value preaching that transforms us. What might we mean by “transforms us” in the Reformed Tradition? I’d like to point out two things. First, this statement seems to imply that its preaching that transforms us. Rather, it is Christ who transforms us by the means of His Holy Spirit. Jesus can certainly use preaching to bring about that transformation, but it is definitely not the preacher who does the transforming. If transformation is the sole job of the preacher, God help us all. And God does help us. Again, I think that we should take our cue from Peter, who always gave the glory to Jesus. (Slide 9) Peter says, “Why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk?” Transformation is the work of God alone. Of course all of us can participate in this work (including preachers), but as Peter reminds us, all credit goes to Jesus. Its Him alone who restores us to wholeness. That’s a pretty Reformed perspective. (Slide 10)
The second point I’d like to make has to do with the word, “us.” Our vision statement could be taken to mean that the only important response to preaching is that the people in the pews are transformed. But people in the reformed tradition typically takes a larger view of the word transformed. Again, we might be taking our cue from Peter in this passage. Peter reminds us that the work of Jesus is to transform every aspect of this world. A person’s physical well-being is restored. People are encouraged to repent and turn to God who will wipe out. People are invited into God’s covenant family. Not only that, Peter invites us to wait for the time God will restore all things. As preachers, we take our cue from Peter and anticipate fact that God is in the work of transforming this entire world! One reformed theologian, Abraham Kuyper, articulates this well when he says, (Slide 11) “There is not one square inch in all creation over which Christ does not declare, “Mine”’. We anticipate that God will not only transform us, but transform us to transform the world for the glory of His Name! (Slide 12) In light of these comments, what if we tweaked our vision statement to read: “We value biblical, reformed, Christ-centred preaching that anticipates Christ transforming the world through the Holy Spirit.”
Let me conclude with two thoughts. First, reformed people aren’t the only one’s who adopt these lines of interpretation. After all, we’re not talking about different religions, it shouldn’t be that surprising that there are commonalities between different Christian traditions. It shouldn’t be terribly surprising that reformed Christians, and anabaptists, and baptists, and pentecostals and even Catholics would grow to embrace a similar view of the Bible, Christ and transformation. Its not that the views I just spelled out are the sole property of the reformed tradition. The second thing I’d like to note is that the Reformed tradition certainly has its blind spots and needs to be in dialogue with other traditions. We aren’t the only people with something important to contribute to the understanding of our faith. For example, a Pentecostal might look at this passage and emphasize Peter’s claim that faith in the name of Jesus is what brought healing, and encourage that type of prayer. An evangelist might read Peter’s sermon and emphasize the importance of calling people to a decision to repent so their sins might be wiped out. At the First Nations conference I was at last week I learned that the indigenous church has something to teach us about God as Creator and Christ as the “Author of life”. Or the Catholic church might look at when Peter says “God sending Jesus to us,” and might remind us that one way God sends Jesus is through the sacramental presence of Jesus in the Lord’s Supper. Someone from the developing world might remind us that the person who was healed was a beggar, and remind us that part of the universal restoration Peter talks about must begin with abolishing structures that perpetuate poverty.
I think that’s a pretty decent place to land as a church. As we continue to proclaim the Word of God, we recognize and are grateful for our heritage in the Reformed Tradition. The Holy Spirit has given us some very important contributions to our view of the Bible, Christ and His transforming work. But no one has the whole picture. We dialogue with other traditions, sometimes in agreement, sometimes in disagreement, but as we do, we grow in unity for the glory of His name.