Here is Dr. Böhmer’s sermon on John 6:66-69 held at the chapel of St. Timothy at our Lutheran Theological Seminary in Tshwane (Pretoria, South Africa) yesterday morning during Morning Prayer: After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”
Samuel Clemens, or Mark Twain – the author of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer and many other great works of literature – had many problems with Christianity. He called it “bad, bloody, merciless, money-grabbing and predatory,” and he defined faith as “believing something you know ain’t true.” Small wonder then that he was not the most gracious listener of sermons. The story is told that Mark Twain attended a divine service somewhere and said to the pastor afterwards: “I have heard this sermon of yours before. In fact, I have already heard it several times.” The pastor immediately tried to defend himself and protested that he had not copied his sermon from his anybody, but that it was the product of his own hard work. Clemens insisted that he had a book at home containing every word the pastor had preached. The pastor insisted that his sermon was original and challenged Clemens to send the book. The next morning, a parcel arrived. The pastor opened it to find a dictionary inside. And inside the dictionary was a note from Clemens that read: “Words, just words, just words.”
No pastor likes being told that his sermons are boring or long-winded or difficult to follow. But Twain went one step further. He claimed that the pastor’s sermon was in fact meaningless. “Just words.” Is that what sermons are? Just words? What would have made the pastor’s sermon better? More wit? More humor? More stories? Should it have been longer? Shorter? How do you, in fact, distinguish between a good sermon and a bad one?
Dear students, as you begin to prepare for the Holy Ministry, as you take classes on preaching or as you begin to practice the craft, as you take what you have learned and use it to evaluate preachers on TV or online or in mass arenas or simply in church on Sundays, you will need to become able to answer that question. What is it that makes a sermon good – or bad?
I will submit that it may very well be that the best sermons pastors ever delivered in the history of the Christian faith have been lost forever. That they were never recorded. Why? Because what we have in the historical record is some of the sermons of some of the most popular preachers in history. And it may very well be that the best sermons are not among them. That the best sermons were held not in cathedrals, but in shacks; not by superstar preachers, but by obscure figures; not in power, but in humility. Dear students, as you prepare to become preachers, you will probably choose one or the other preacher figure to model yourselves after. You will be tempted to adopt a foreign persona to do so. You will be tempted to adopt a style that does not come naturally to you. You will be tempted to emulate those who have made it to fame and fortune. You will be tempted to preach what the people like to hear, and to avoid what they don’t. You will be tempted to go for the greatest impact and to work for the most visible change. You will be tempted to measure your preaching by the results it brings, by the responses the people make, by the number of Facebook likes or by the number of shares, or by how long the youth can still quote you. You will be tempted to measure your preaching by the number of people who join the church, or who come back to the church, you will be tempted to measure your preaching by the money that people put in the collection plate or who stay after church to talk. And not only will you be tempted in all these things, but your people will too. They will also be tempted to measure you in these ways, and to put pressure on you to change your preaching to produce the best results. And you will be hard-pressed to find an appropriate answer when people respond the way Mark Twain did.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, I do not mean to say that pastors should not be sensitive to their people’s reactions or that they should not endeavor to preach as best as they possibly can. Far from it. Sermons communicate, and so it is vital that they communicate well. But I do mean to say that the standard for good preaching is not the standard of the world, nor the common standard of success, nor the standard of popularity. This leaps out at us as we study John 6. According to worldly standards, this chapter sees Jesus go from hero to zero. At the beginning of the chapter, he’s got thousands of disciples, followers, and hangers-on, hanging on his lips and handing out plates for bread. Jesus is walking on the water, the Lord of Creation, the God of the Storm. But as his preaching goes on, the people get disillusioned. They start grumbling at his preaching. The problem wasn’t that they didn’t understand him. Oh, they understood him very well. But they didn’t like what he was saying. He, Jesus, is the bread of life? He is the bread from heaven? But we know this man! That can’t be true! And then he says that no one can come to him and believe in him unless the Father in heaven draws him, that to believe in him means to eat his flesh, that unless you eat his flesh and drink his blood you have no part in him and are destined for death. So we see that they were offended at Jesus’ preaching, they did not like it, and they voted with their feet. In dribs and drabs, in fits and starts, they staged a mass action campaign, and the numbers dwindled; a mass exodus was taking place. John says that “many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. They went back to their old preachers and to their old standards and to their old ways of life. Ways of death, more like it. The point is that Jesus was no longer hot news, no longer the preacher du jour, no longer the go-to guy. The people sent Jesus a dictionary and flipped the channel to Joel Osteen or Creflo Dollar or Jesse Jackson or Ray McCauley. Best go preacher-shopping someplace else.
Do you see the irony? This is Jesus preaching, and the people leave! That’s many times worse than Mark Twain’s reaction. What else could you possibly do to keep them and persuade them and save them? Now if this were you or me in Jesus’ position, we might well become thoroughly alarmed and ready to try anything to get them back. We might conduct exit interviews with them and ask them: What would it take to bring you back? What would have kept you under my pulpit? But Jesus does none of these things. The fact is that Jesus knows these people are not losses. They never believed in the first place, or if they did, their faith had withered and died like a shoot on rocky soil in the noonday sun. Instead, Jesus calmly turns to the Twelve and asks them: “You don’t also want to leave, do you?” Now it is not as if Jesus wants to seek comfort and solace for himself and the reassurance that his chosen few will not leave; no, he is gently testing them.
It is clear that the Holy Spirit has worked faith in Peter, for no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:3). Peter speaks for the Twelve when he says: Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God. They are “in statu confessionis,” called upon to make a confession, and the Spirit of God produces it in them. Yes, Jesus has been speaking words. But not just any words. Harsh as they might sound, unpopular as they may be, Jesus’ words are words of life. They are words of life giving through eating; Jesus is the living bread, and he must be eaten for life to be imparted. This is what faith does. It lives not on itself or on popularity, but on the death and life of Jesus. Now the vocabulary Peter uses is the vocabulary Jesus has been using throughout this chapter. Peter is speaking back to Jesus what Jesus spoke to him: No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him… whoever believes has eternal life… As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feed on me, he also will live because of me. Amen!, says Peter. You are of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, the Holy One of the Holy One. Jesus has spoken the words of life, and Peter speaks them back. This is confessing, this is God-pleasing, this is faith, this is faithfulness.
Dear students, every time you speak the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed, you are joining in this confession, separating yourself from the world and standing with Christ, by grace, through faith. This then it also the secret to good preaching. It is preaching on a full stomach, a stomach that has eaten of the bread of life, it is preaching with the breath of the Spirit, which proclaims none but Christ, and him crucified. It is preaching, not pandering, it is proclaiming Jesus and not the flavor of the month, it is faithful even though and even when it is unpopular, it speaks the words of life and does not sugarcoat Jesus’ unpalatable words with the syrup of sentimental speech. It calls you and your people to die to yourselves and to die to sin and to be raised up with Jesus by forgiveness, to sing the song of Jesus and the song of the church. Where else will you go? What else would you preach? It is my prayer that the Lord God will use you to speak those words and be faithful to that Lord and know that Holy One and confess that name and have faith and life in that Jesus and none other. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria
Pastor Karl Böhmer