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Preaching: Get real, man

26 February 2016

Melanie Marshall on preaching the way, the truth, and the life


O King enthroned on high: fresco of Jesus Christ, in the Coptic Orthodox monastery of St Antony the Great, in Egypt’s Eastern Desert

O King enthroned on high: fresco of Jesus Christ, in the Coptic Orthodox monastery of St Antony the Great, in Egypt’s Eastern Desert

“JESU, thou art all compassion.” All compassion? Even his blood-vessels? His liver? His nose? It is difficult to talk about someone who is a human being and also divine love itself. And yet, this truth provides both the most challenging and comforting things we can say from the pulpit.

Jesus is a person. So we can say that love cannot be a mere idea or feeling, but is tangible and active, as a person is. Jesus’s love is known in what he does and suffers for our sake. Our love (or lack of it) is known in the same way. And why can Christ do and suffer so much? Because his will is conformed to the will of the Father. Conformation is not fashionable, needless to say. But it is the essence of being “in Christ”. Christ is conformed to God, and we to Christ, through sacrament, Bible-reading, and worship.

Jesus, then, is our hope. Human beings trundle on, in their fleshly desires and weakness (no preacher will have to look hard for illustrations of that). And yet, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself. It is worth pointing out that God isn’t “fixing” human nature. He is reconciling human nature to divine nature, showing us that the two are not distinct, like apples and pears, but wholly compatible.


WE OFTEN associate creation with the Father, but the Son is the agent of creation. All things were made through him and for him. It is his own creation that Jesus visits (in the incarnation); that he suspends or intensifies (in his miracles); that he restores (with his teaching and healing).

The rest of us humans are less real than Jesus. Our world is less real than the one he intends and points to. We can draw these comparisons in preaching, and appeal to shared human experience of the durability of the real. The risen Jesus is the realest thing of all.

We have a habit of talking about Jesus in the past tense. How about a policy of using the present tense? Everything Jesus did in his earthly ministry, he is still doing now: blessing, guiding, comforting. And he is present: in the poor, about which we should have much to say; in the guise of bread and wine, as Corpus Christi.

There is only one Jesus, a fact that can pose a challenge in a multi-faith world. But if he is “the way, the truth, and the life”, then whatever is “way” and “truth” and “life” anywhere belongs to him, whether or not it comes from our tradition. There is nothing so generous as Christ, the friend of tax-collectors and sinners — we might ask whose friend he would be today.

Most people are pretty hard on themselves. We can remind them that God has given all judgement to the Son: to the one who knows how hard it is to be human.


The Revd Dr Melanie Marshall is the Chaplain of Lincoln College, Oxford.

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