Of the various congregations I have addressed over the years, it is my current flock of teenagers that poses by far the greatest homiletic challenge and opportunity. Usually, in a parish, the people voluntarily turn up, are more or less signed up, and generously put up with whatever preaching is set before them as nourishment for the week ahead. Theological depth is by no means universally valued. One often gets the impression that what people really want from their preachers is a joke, a heart-warming story and a vignette of vicarage life to make everyone feel involved in the compelling soap opera that is sometimes the Church.
This is not my current experience. Working in a school that retains a tradition of compulsory daily chapel, I do not unfailingly encounter a breathless zeal among the masses to hear the Word of God. That said, there is a generally high degree of willing participation in singing, listening and engagement with chapel, suggesting that, provided certain principles are not forgotten, a school’s constituents are likely to accept the essential premise that the Christian tradition in which a school was founded (in 1480 or 1840 or whenever), is one we gain more by maintaining than abandoning, even if we are no longer a recognisably ecclesiastical institution or Christian society.
But the provisos I alluded to are fundamental and quite unforgiving. You can’t, for example, simply iterate the tenets of the faith (even from a high pulpit) without saying exactly what you mean by them. To preach that ‘Jesus came down to earth to save me from my sins’ (the staple of so much Passiontide teaching) simply won’t do when delivered without a single word of commentary. An audience that has the blood-red instruction to ‘SAY WHY’ blazoned across its essays every week is unlikely to be understanding of any unsubstantiated glibness in a preacher.
So phrases like ‘God so loved the world …’ are to be used with particular care, avoiding the landmines of the anthropomorphism that can so easily turn God into Santa Claus, while steering equally clear of the cosmological vagueness that uses ‘God’ only as code for whatever incomprehensible physics permeates the star-spangled cosmos.
Where then do we turn to find words that are true and helpful? As always, the best words will be those that are rooted in people’s daily experience. If we’re talking about God’s love, we might find a way into the concept by thinking about the nature of the world as capable of the endless invention and re-invention that allows us (for example) to experience restoration after loss and reconciliation after discord. It is true that this outpouring of love will require for God a role in creation greater than many will be happy to yield; but if we can start to pick a hole through that muddle, it will allow preachers to talk of a God of love when other registers may sound too sing-song, convenient, infantile.
And when this talk of loving turns to the ‘only-begotten Son’ of John 3.16, we will need to avoid anything that hints at family trees and sexual reproduction, replacing them with the poetry that speaks of Christ as ‘radiance’ and ‘imprint’ (Hebrews 1) or as ‘image of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1.15).
As for enjoying ‘everlasting life’, I am not hopeful that many of my listeners would be able to imagine themselves as eternally-experiencing subjects (as my colleagues in the philosophy department would say), but this need not lead us to jettison all attempts at identifying that quality of human life that reflects deepest reality (what we might call divinity), and that enjoys the sort of ongoing significance that could be considered permanent.
Now, I know that none of this is news. Using words that can be understood and defended is fundamental to any educational or homiletic task; which is why I suffer such despair when prominent voices address matters as complex as the Passion in markedly unhelpful ways. Consider this Good Friday tweet, for example: ‘From the cross, Jesus cried ‘It is finished.’ That means that every sin you ever committed or ever will commit has been paid for. Your worst secret is known to God and the price has been paid. The only thing left to decide is: Will you accept this gift?’
Thus Mr Farron, the former political leader who has already given us a pretty shrewd idea of what he considers ‘sins and secrets’ to include. Leaving aside the question of how healthy it is to conceive of human life as an agglomeration of supposed failings (and I’m clear that it is generally unhelpful and damaging to the point of abuse), this mechanistic account of salvation is strong on certain readings of the Cross, but rather weaker on questions of how and why salvation occurs.
I certainly do not want us to go through life thinking that we are immune to all failings and devoid of any faults. That would be an opposite but equal sort of abuse. But I do want a person’s knowledge of Christ to be based on more than a reductionist concept of him as a kind of moral Mr Muscle who removes the grime of sin, leaving everything sparkling clean and good as new.
By all means let us talk of sacrifice, but let us begin by considering the sort of reparation we recognise and rely on when our trust is broken and our own relationships falter. Anything else will be in danger of making Tarzan-leaps across gaping chasms that only the already-convinced will find remotely comprehensible.
Now, I am aware that in making these remarks I may either sound churlish or simply be stating the obvious. All I can observe from my corner of the vineyard is that being clear about theology (and open to its awkward questions) is the indispensable first step in engaging in faith-talk with lively minds. Too often, the supposition seems to be that, if only we can get the message slick enough, the marketing strategy well enough directed, the teeth white enough and the participants drop-dead cool enough, everything else will follow. This is not my experience.
Of course, we who belong to a supposedly life-giving community wish to commend it to others by welcome and example. But this work cannot take place in a theological vacuum. We must seriously and rigorously address pressing intellectual matters if we are to commend to a new generation the faith once delivered to us.
Just saying happy stuff from time to time is unlikely to be sufficient.