Bible Freedom Science NetworkCopyright © 2008 Charles Henry Johnsen, III

What is a Homily?

HOWTO for reading sermons

Sermons are not essays

A homily is not a literary form but an oral form. If you read them as if they were essays you will miss the meaning and the force of their rhetoric (in the good sense that the word rhetoric had before progressive elective politics).

An essay has a topic and a sermon has a text. This is the first and most mportant difference between the two forms. Even if an essay quotes lots of Bible passages, it is still an essay if it is organized and written around a topic, even if that topic is a teaching of the Bible. This is a good thing because it encourages free thought, inquiry, and speech—the Prime Directive for theology in the Judeo–Christian tradition. On the other hand, rather more discipline is required in the pulpit because it is a one way communication without any chance for questions or challenges, because it must express the faith of the people and not the opinions of the preacher (no matter how correct), and because it is a part of the liturgy, the work of the people, as they again become and share the Body of Christ. If you want to convert people, become an evangelist (a good thing!). If you want to change their minds about some doctrine they are wrong about, hold a Bible class and argue away (also a good thing!). But neither of these belong to the homily at the Eucharist which is for people who already believe and who cannot talk back if they disagree. The sermon is not the center of the Eucharist, the Body of Christ is, both laying on the corporal and sitting in the pews. Therefore the sermon, and its preacher, is the slave of the Gospel lesson appointed for the day and the mouth of the people who trust that Gospel.

What about visitors? Are they unwelcome? Absolutely not. But here as well, for the sake of the unchurched, even the unbaptized, we present ourselves united and convinced of the basics of Law and Gospel. The witness we wish to make in this context is not prerfection of doctrine or acceptance of any old dumb belief, but of dependability, faithfulness, loyalty to the Word, and a reasonable understanding of Scripture. At the door of the church, as visitors leaving shaking hands, detain them for Bible class. I mean, ask them to stay and ask about the faith we have. And be sure and ask about theirs. The trick here is to be firm in the fundamentals and open to the ideas and faith of all—both at the same time.

This discipline generates a structure that is like a tree with three branches on a rooted trunk. The root is the Word of the lord. The trunk is a specific passage of the Christian Bible, usually the day's Gospel lesson, often a few verses, sometimes a whole chapter. Perhaps some more gifted preacher (Geshua himself comes to mind) would be able to enlighten us in detail without such a great rush of words. Unfortunate for you, the preacher you have before you is not so gifted and a word or two in the text becomes, well, a sermon.

A Goal, a Malady, and a Means

I follow this order in all my preaching. First, the Word of the lord which is the root and invisible, then Scripture which is the trunk and visible, then three branches which force the preacher to focus on the text and the people and shut out the preacher's own pet ideas. These three branches are a goal, a malady, and a means; all grounded in the text and focused on the pew sitter. So far, all of this is a given for me, set before I even begin thinking about a sermon. I do have a role in this process, I pick up leaves from the ground and put them like decorations on the three branches. Those leaves are specific sentences and words, ideas and word pictures. The goal always begins with the word We…and spells out what the text wants us to do today. It is a behavior thing, although sometimes trust and love almost become tasks for us to do. Obviously each Sunday and each congregation will set itself different tasks and goals for the week and the rest of life. It is the preacher's job to let the text tell him or her what the people know they need to do. This goal cannot be a surprise, unheard of, or against the values or the faith of the people. If you, the preacher, discover some new revelation in the text, save it for a discussion group and shut up about it at mass. Ego is a necessity for public speaking and a blessing to the preacher, but self indulgence, showing off, and elitism have no place in the midst of the Eucharist.

The next section is the malady, which for those of us who are flawed sinners ourselves, is the easiest part of the homily. Here we want to identify and name what it is that keeps us from the goal. What do we do instead and why do we do it? Again, the proclamation is very specific to the text and the people and not full of generalities like sin is bad. Here also we begin with the word We…A Eucharistic preacher should never use the pronouns you, your, I, me, or my. It is always we, us, our. If that is not obvious to you (I can do this in an essay) then you have no business in the pulpit. Yes, there are exceptions, rare and carefully edited, where a personal experience helps the pew sitter understand and identify into the same situation. Just remember that while you are speaking the Word of the lord, you are also preaching to yourself.

The means is the hardest part of a sermon. It is also the most important part. It should be Gospel, pure Gospel, straight Good News, forgiveness, salvation, and comfort. The first word is now He…Here is what the text offers us to overcome the malady, our sin and flesh, and accomplish the goal. This is all His doing. The creation, the cross, the birth, the resurrection, the forgiveness, the absolution, the hope, the faith–these are all His work and none of our doing. Word and Sacraments are the Means of Grace.

A word about repentance. While the preacher is logically drawn to ask for repentance during the malady, that is not the place. It is, after all, a good work to repent and so the second place for a call for repentance in the sermon would be the goal. But, again, not so. Repentance belongs with the Gospel, the means, because repentance is trust that the absolution will come, it is pure Gospel when properly understood as the work of the Word. When I put it like that it becomes clear that a call for our repentance would be at home, with a different aspect, in all three sections.

Usually these three follow each other in the order of goal, malady, means but sometimes a sentence of one or the other will show up out of order. These are like a quick cut, flash forward or back, in a film and help the listener assemble the whole from the parts. But be careful. Usually this is not necessary and might be confusing. At least do this: Keep every sentence to only one of the three. If that ends up in a three sentence sermon, your reputation and popularity as a preacher is made.

For more about this preaching discipline see the glossary entry. There is a link there to a longer essay on Goal, Malady, Means.

More than a Style

The second difference between a sermon and an essay is that a homily is a proclamation, or, in biblical language, a prophecy. The essay makes no such claim because it is the voice of one person, the writer. Clarity is all, authority nothing, agreement is sought. In the sermon agreement is assumed, authority is all, and clarity is important.

I hope that I may get by without mentioning the obvious fact that prophecy in this context has little to do with oracle–like prediction of the future. It is simple. The prophetic office is the call from the lord to proclaim the Gospel, rather the Law and the Gospel, in public. There is nothing perfect or inerrant or even accurate about any preacher's words and ideas. The only question is Law and Gospel: Does this sermon call for repentance and offer forgiveness by the Means of Grace from our lord Geshua? No matter how many errors or mistakes, even in quotes from the Scriptures, if the Law and Gospel are proclaimed in His Name that sermon, so endowed, is the Word of God.

For this reason the statements are flat out declarative sentences. This simple, straight forward manner of speaking bothers some people today. In an essay a tone that hedges, discusses alternative views, and avoids direct, declarative sentences is common and appropriate. But that is not the function of a sermon. Discuss alternative views in the Bible class and take questions. But in the liturgical setting the function of a sermon is to proclaim the common and catholic faith of the parishioners. The burden on the preacher in this setting is very heavy and his internal editor must be drilled and vetted by seminary and ordination. No preacher I know does this perfectly or even well. But then the Word of God was not given to rocks or angels, but to human beings with beating hearts and leaky minds.

Then, why do it at all? Because the text we read is old and first written in another language from a culture the people sitting in the pews do not know. Because Law and Gospel, the call for repentance and the offer of forgiveness, is not always quickly apparent from the texts appointed. Because each Sunday and each congregation is different in detail and needs the attention of a carefully written liturgical sermon. Because everyone of us, in the pew or in the pulpit, has a couple of odd ideas or doctrines and are best disciplined by the public office of liturgical preaching. By the way, this is also why propers are proper. In liturgical churches such as Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican the lessons read and preached are selected by the larger church and not the individual pastor or congregation. These lists are stable for hundreds of years. Heresy is too easy when important and difficult texts are left out of the lectionary or ignored by the preacher.

A preacher is a prophet in a disciplined and ordered way. The usual prophet we encounter is the parish priest or pastor when he is preaching or teaching us about our faith. Sometimes a celebrant is a priest, representing the people to the deity, and sometimes a prophet, representing the deity to the people. A priest prays and a prophet preaches.

This distinction is an age old part of the liturgy that disorders when it blurs. Prayers that are sermons sound like a stupid man reminding his God of what the God already knows. I have heard too many prayers like that. They are always way too long and sound more like the Pharisee than the publican. The only reason they do not put our God to sleep is that He is getting angrier and angrier with every sentence. On other other hand, a sermon that fails to proclaim Law and Gospel, that fails to ask for repentance and offer absolution, is a less entertaining version of CSPAN's Book TV and not the prophetic Word.

Old as dirt or young as a lamb, learned or country plain, a preacher with a sense of this prophetic call cannot climb the pulpit stairs without shaking hands and sweat on his brow. If a sermon or homily is not God's Word it is no more than a one sided discussion of various topics.

Not for Silent Reading

Finally, these exhortations are not meant for reading but for speaking in public at the communion table. The pacing is slower and full of pauses. There are cadences and rhythms, vocal pulls and pushes, and hanging phrases meant to be completed in the mind of the hearer. Sometimes I fear it is no good to print these, but only to publish them in my own voice as recordings. That may still happen, but for now this is all I have time for. HTML5 promises to offer open standards for audio and video but so far that is just a promise.

I know of no other way to read these homilies but out-loud, pretending to be the preacher yourself, standing with a congregation of fellow believers, vested, and part of the Eucharistic or Baptismal celebration. Make gestures! These are like speeches in a play, full of drama and interest, and public. Are they any good? I don't know. But I have done my best to be true to the preaching office of the church and ask your assistance in presentation.

Each sermon I preach attempts, rarely succeeds but always attempts, to be specific to the text and the people on that day. God knows, and I mean that literally and piously, even the hour's difference between an early and a late service can curdle an winner into a loser. A homily that is preached, word for word, many times is no homily at all. Speeches are a good thing, and speeches that proclaim the Gospel a blessed thing. But only a single use, this day, oration is a liturgical homily. It is okay to publish them, as I have here, but their time and place is no more. That there is something here that strikes you as common to your private situation is to be expected. We are all, after all, in the same situation. But none of these are meant for use again without modification, rewrite, and refocusing. They are examples only.

I hate to have to mention this, but if you are professional clergy please click on the link below to my copyright notice. As always, you are utterly free and welcome to use my ideas and insights (they are, after all, not really mine at all) but you may not use my words more than a sentence or two without attribution or in public without my written permission. Please read the notice. The copyright of the sermons actually delivered (and actually paid for) have been assigned to their repective churches, as noted. But since they must follow my original copyright terms, veiw the web page below.


So it has been for me for 50 years. But more and more I arrange my thoughts into a different order when thinking about sin and grace, Law and Gospel. Following the examples of the Ten Commands and the Lord's Prayer, I see that our religion is based on acts by our God in history and in our personal lives that offer to us a Covenant of gratitude. This will drive a different sort of preaching, one that sets up our sorry situation, declares the grace of God to heal, and then an exhortation to respond to His love with love of our own. Same three parts, different order. The goal idea presupposes that the Law is given for its own sake and is prior to the Gospel. In the gratitude schemata He acts, in love, first, and all of our acts are second and derivative. Tune in tomorrow for more on this subject.

For more on this and the relationship of preaching and prophecy, see the essay The Prophetic Voice in the glossary at