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steve taylor – feeling the emotional weight of texts

Last week I provided the opening night input for a citywide lay training event. The topic was God at earth. What does it mean to follow a God who in Jesus is real, local and grounded? In preparation I began to reflect on the feelings of Jesus: Jesus who feels sorrow in the Garden of Gethsemane; tears at the death of a friend, Lazarus; anger in the temple; compassion at the crowds harassed and helpless; and radical love when faced by the rich young ruler.

As I explored the Scriptures, I began to sense some implications for mission, for our following of God at earth. In response to compassion in Matthew 9:36, Jesus sends the disciples on mission. In response to anger in Mark 11:15, Jesus enacts justice. In response to radical love in Mark 10:41, Jesus extends the challenge of radical discipleship. So often mission comes out of our heads. But what might it mean to connect our feelings with the feelings of God at earth?

In preparing for the evening, I was forced to reflect on my own feelings – the pain of a recent change of ministry and location, the suffering of watching my home city of Christchurch experience such destruction and disturbance in recent months. Coincidentally, the last week has been incredibly difficult emotionally. I found myself awash in sadness. I began to wonder if I was losing it, burning-out even.

In hindsight I have since begun to wonder if I was simply processing the Biblical texts, working through the pain of my past, the pain of my city, the pain of being the Christ, holding the cup of suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane in Mark 14:33. Might it be that some sermons are simply heavier, weightier, more emotionally draining than others?

With reflection, I realised that it was a similar experience leading a church through Holy Week one year by offering on each day a twenty minute worship experience. Betrayal, abandonment, sin, death – these are heavy themes to process. They left me exhausted.

This matched a similar exhaustion I experienced one week after preaching Matthew 5:17. One commentator called it “the most difficult passage to be found anywhere in the Gospel.” Trying to present the text clearly, gracefully placed new demands on my emotions and energy levels.

Am I being neurotic? Or should I avoid such places, and instead invest my time in Bible texts more likely to build the body? Or might it be that in fact some Biblical texts, some sermons actually do cost us more? They demand a depth of emotional engagement, a facing of the dark side of human nature, which will leave us vulnerable and fragile?

If so, how does one care for oneself, be a good father, a courteous team player, under the emotional weight of such texts? I am not sure I have many answers. But I do wonder if the dark places of preaching might in fact be the most transformative of us and others.

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Steve Taylor is a Baptist-on-loan and a kiwi-in-exile, working as Director of Missiology for the Uniting College of Leadership and Theology, Adelaide, Australia. He is author of Out of Bounds Church?, Learning to Create a Community of Faith in a Culture of Change and writes regularly at

steve taylor: too blunt? the mirror held by early church preaching

Is the phrase “Biblical preaching” simply too blunt? I began to wonder this as I gazed into the preaching mirror held by the early church.

With over forty years of missionary service in Africa, David Dunn-Wilson has made a study of the sermons of the early church. In his book, A Mirror for the Church (Eerdmans, 2005) David points out how sermon change – in style, in subject – as the needs of congregations and contexts change.

The chapter headings tell the story.

The missionary preacher pastors. Paul’s letters are designed to be read aloud. As sermons they are a Biblical response to the arrival of new converts, mixing education and exhortation. They utilise what is a new technology – the epistolary sermon.

The apologist preachers. In the 2nd and 3rd century, the Roman Empire undergoes widespread cultural anxiety. The sermons of the likes of Origen and Irenaeus offer “distinctly ‘Christian’ exegesis of Old and New Testament passages.” They are mixed with the poetry of Homer and Vigil, in order to engage the challenges of a resurgent intellectual paganism. For Dunn-Wilson: “As part of their strategy, they create a common cultural climate by interlarding their treatises and sermons with hundreds of references to classical writers.” The goal of their Biblical exposition is intellectual apologetics and the announcement of an alternative Christian lifestyle.

The mystic preachers. Antony of Egypt is often pigeon-holed as the first Christian monk. Yet he was also widely respected as a preacher, offering a ministry in which he used the biblical texts to urge a radical, heart-felt discipleship.


The theological preachers. The Cappadocian fathers were preaching pastors as well as towering theologians. Their sermons offered a Trinitarian theology that engaged regular congregational life in all its pastoral height and depth. One example, Basil, was noted for the way he paused in the pulpit to invite questions and respond to audience participation. Another theologian of this century was Hilary of Poiters. His conversion came as a result of studying the Bible. As a result, throughout his ministry he insisted that Scripture be read before he preached. His sermons fused painstaking exegesis with a practical spirituality. As well as preaching, he also gave time to write hymns, believing that songs could serve “Biblical preaching” by teaching doctrine.

The homiletical preachers. Ambrose, Augustine and John Chrysostom belong to the age of “magnificent preachers.” Their sermons are essentially Biblical exposition. Yet, all excelled in the art of persuasion, preaching sermons noteworthy for their use of cultural tools such as rhetoric in order to aid digestibility and enhance evangelistic effectiveness.

Reading about the preaching ministry of the likes of Anthony, Origin and the Cappadocian Fathers has given much food for thought. All emerge from congregational life. All share a passion to advance the good news. All share a commitment to Biblical exposition. Yet each outwork “Biblical preaching” in such diverse ways.

In response to a changing world they adopted different pulpit postures. For some it became a place to pastor or a space to offer mystical encounter. For others it became a time to speak theologically or engage culturally.

I thought back over my recent sermons. Does my being “Biblical” capture the diversity and nuance offered by these early church preachers?

A challenging mirror, worth polishing.

steve taylor: stories can be a sermon’s best friend

They make great introductions, serving to capture attention, orientating people from their world to the world of the Biblical text. They can aid application, serving to illustrate exegetical material or embody the gospel in life today. They can provide a way to engage the Bible, amplifying plot and character in the narrative genre’s of the Bible. Indeed, some of the best feedback I have had in recent years came from telling two Jesus encounters in Mark 2:1-5 from the perspective of the friend of the paralysed man. The feedback was extraordinarily positive. Such is the power of story.  (more…)