Jesus is at the center of gospel preaching. His story and its meaning for us today is the central focus of the Christian testimony. This is why the New Testament begins with the gospel narratives, even though they were not the first writings to emerge from the Christian movement. They constitute the stories that circulated among those first believers throughout the Mediterranean world in the first century. Likewise, telling listeners of the birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus is the first duty of the preacher.
Every year the Academy of Preachers selects a preaching theme. In 2015, it was “Heaven & Earth,” and in 2019 it was “The Gospel and the World.” With all of these themes comes a selection of preaching texts and among these are always texts from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. But the first year, and periodically thereafter, the theme is simply Jesus, and we direct the young preachers to take any text from the story of Jesus.
Our first volume of printed sermons was entitled A Beautiful Thing taken from a sermon by Lucas Rice AoP’10, then a student at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary; he preached on the episode recorded by Matthew when a woman named Mary anointed the head of Jesus with an expensive perfume just days before his crucifixion. while all sermons do well to invoke Jesus in some way, here is we are reminded that regularly some sermons must focus on Jesus: his person, his message, his significance, his encounter with specific people. This is the heart and soul of Christian preaching and has been so from the beginning.
Preaching that sidelines Jesus is not Christian preaching; it may be excellent speech or effective motivation, but when it fails to present some part of the Jesus story it fails to be gospel preaching. Yes, there may be some occasions when explicit references to Jesus might be omitted; as in some public an civic occasions or a funeral for a person of another faith. But week by week, in the parish preaching to a Christian congregation, Jesus takes center stage.
There are Christian preachers and theologians who contend that texts from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) can, and should, be interpreted without reference to Jesus; they assert this orientation to Jesus misconstrues the original and essential mean of the text. Sermons that truly and powerfully engage the text, therefore, can be preached without appeal to Jesus; or so they say. Some of this contention is well placed; certainly, true and helpful teaching on the Hebrew Bible without mentioning Jesus can be presented to the edification of the assembly; I have been the beneficiary of many. There is much good news in the Hebrew Bible, to be sure. But gospel preaching in the Christian assembly is testimony to Jesus and interpretation of Jesus.
The prime examples of Christian preaching are the sermons in the book of Acts, and every preacher would do well to use them as a pattern. They tell stories of Jesus; they connect Jesus to the Hebrew/Jewish tradition; they interpret Jesus as the fulfillment of both Hebrew and human hopes; they call people to respond to the invitation of Jesus to live fully and faithfully in the kingdom of God. Peter’s great Pentecost sermon can be summarized thus: God sent Jesus; evil men killed Jesus; God raised Jesus from the dead. Believe this good news and receive the Holy Spirit of God.
There are many ways to incorporate Jesus into Christian preaching.
In some cases a preacher is wise simply to tell an episode from the life of Jesus; we must not assume that our people know the basic events of the life of Jesus. The most powerful resource at the disposal of any preacher is simply the life and teaching of Jesus; his story consistently inspires admiration, devotion and imitation—and this is the aim of gospel preaching.