This year as we celebrate the incarnation of Christ, it is natural to also reflect on the importance of physical presence in light of the COVID pandemic that has kept us physically apart. If ever we needed a reminder of how important the human touch is, a year and more of no handshakes, hugs, or high fives provided just that reminder. None of us will ever forget the pained longing we saw on people’s faces who could only press palms to window panes as a dim substitute for visiting grandparents in person in the retirement home.
For preachers, however, the physical absence of the congregation—of the whole congregation for much of the first year of the pandemic and most of the congregation once things started to open up—presented other challenges. Pastors did not just miss shaking hands at the church door after the service. They missed the living presence of people, of faces turned upward to hear the sermon, of eyes and eyebrows that send signals in a thousand little ways that the sermon is working, is being understood, is moving people.
Most of my tradition is a far cry from the traditional call-and-response worship and preaching in African American churches. Shouted lines and words of “Amen!” or “Hallelujah!” or “Preach it!” or “There it is!” just don’t happen during the sermon in most Reformed congregational settings. But when preachers even in my tradition began to preach into a dead camera lens or when they preached from their usual pulpit but to a room of completely empty pews or chairs, they realized that, far more than we are usually conscious of, the congregation even in more quiet and staid traditions sends signals to the preacher all the time. Most preachers I talked to at the height of the pandemic said the vacant sanctuaries not only gave them a sense of loneliness or isolation, but left them feeling empty. A vital part of the preaching experience had simply been evacuated.
There may be a thousand lessons in that on the nature of preaching. Theologically, however, this need for in-person contact during a sermon makes perfect sense. Christianity is, after all, the religion of the incarnation. The bodily reality of the Son of God was so vital that the early church wrestled with the ins and outs of this doctrine for a couple of centuries. One person with one nature, two persons with two natures, one person with a blended nature—all options were on the table until the church finally declared the longstanding orthodox doctrine that the Son of God who was born Jesus of Nazareth was one person with two distinct natures. What’s more, the divine nature did not soup up the human nature, and the human nature did not water down the divine nature. Both humanity and divinity were up and running simultaneously in the one man who became known as Jesus after his mother, Mary, gave birth to him.
The incarnation was so vital that the church simply had to get it right. All of this is now summed up in the Athanasian Creed, which some historians think might have been memorized by preachers (in times when they had nothing available to them in print) who would then use the creed’s summaries of the Trinity and the incarnation as a set of guardrails to keep their preaching on the orthodox road. Before you gave a sermon, you passed it through the Athanasian Creed to make sure everything lined up just right.
The Son of God could never have accomplished salvation by remote control or from some great distance. He had to come here in person, and once he did—as Luke’s gospel shows so brilliantly—he literally touched so many people. “He stretched forth his hand,” we read again and again. He took the children into his arms. Jesus was an eminently physical Messiah. What’s more, the human nature and body he assumed from his mother, Mary, was so vital that he stayed in a physical form after the resurrection. The church has long taught—though people often forget—that Jesus will have a human body for all eternity. The incarnation was not temporary.
It makes sense, then, that the preaching used by the Holy Spirit to connect us to Christ, to one another, and to the kingdom of God needs to be an in-person, physical event. Take that away from us (as COVID did), and proper feelings of incompleteness abound.
This is why I wonder about the phenomenon of multisite megachurches where the pastor’s presence for the majority of church members is ever and only as projected onto a screen. I have even heard talk of fiddling with 3D holograms of pastors to make it appear as if they are actually on the stage—except they aren’t, of course. There are lots of people who go to church each week who have never looked their pastor in the eye, never shook his or her hand. I realize that many pastors in these situations are doing the best they can, and some take care to appear at a different site each week so the whole church can see the pastor in person on a regular, if not weekly, basis. I don’t mean to suggest that meaningful preaching and ministry does not happen in these settings. I simply wonder about that lack of the physical presence of the pastor and the people.
In the end there can be no substitute for the living presence of the preacher and the living presence of the people. We can thank God that Jesus did not give us only his virtual presence. Jesus as a hologram from heaven would not have cut it.
Of course, the writing and production of sermons is a curious enterprise. Mostly it happens with just the preacher and the Word with no one else in sight. True, some preachers involve members of a weekly Bible study to do a pre-sermon discussion of the text, but at the end of the day, most of the work involved in sermon making is done in the quietness of a pastor’s study. (I wish pastors still talked more about having a study than an office, but that is a subject for another day.) An image from the Beatles and their song “Eleanor Rigby” comes to mind. Among “all the lonely people,” the song says, is a preacher: “Father McKenzie, writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear. No one comes near.”
Happily, our sermons usually do get heard. Though sermons start without the people being present, sermons cannot be complete until the people come near. They lean in. They look. They nod. They dab away tears. They smile. In and through all of that the Holy Spirit of Pentecost blows through the room, turning the preacher’s words into God’s own Word to build up the faith of the people listening.
Preaching is such a physical, embodied phenomenon. The incarnate Son of God, who stands at the center of all true preaching, wants it to be nothing less.
This column is provided in cooperation with the Center for Excellence in Preaching. For more on the CEP, its upcoming events, and its online resources, visit cep.calvinseminary.edu.