Is it possible that what the New Testament means by preaching is not quite the same phenomenon that goes by the name “preaching” today? Consider simply the length of Christian sermons. The sacred scriptures of the New Testament record four verbatim sermons given by St. Peter and St. Paul. The lengths of these truly biblical models of Christian sermons, calculated in the number of words in the Greek text, are as follows:
Acts 2:14b-36, 441 words
Acts 3:12b-26, 297 words
Acts 10:34b-43, 181 words
Acts 17:22b-31, 193 words
You can see that the longest of these apostolic sermons, the sermon that St. Peter delivered on the day of Pentecost, consists of 441 words total. An equivalent English text (in this case the NRSV) has 508 words. In case you’re wondering how this works out in minutes and seconds, you’ll be very pleased to know that I have accurately and scientifically timed the Greek text of Acts 2:14b-36, reading at a moderate pace and utilizing a Timex Ironman Triathlon sports watch, and the total duration of the sermon given by the holy Apostle Peter on the day of Pentecost—the longest recorded in the New Testament—comes out to six minutes and fifteen seconds.
This raises a basic question. Why would modern preachers depart so flagrantly from the apostolic pattern of preaching given in the holy scriptures of the New Testament? Do they somehow imagine that they have more wisdom to impart than the apostles of Jesus Christ? Do they imagine that their modern hearers are more apt to tolerate a longer sermon than people in the first Christian century? Surely the wickedest excuse for longer sermons is the rationale that says that the sermons recorded in the New Testament were only summaries of the early Christians’ preaching, some like a Reader’s Digest Condensed Version of the apostolic preaching. But there’s nothing in the New Testament texts or in the ancient contexts to suggest that. I think it’s more likely a case where our contemporary practice of preaching and hearing 15-20 minute (or longer) sermons is such an established fact that we suppose that the New Testament must be corrected. Our practice becomes the norm by which the holy scriptures are judged.
One of the problems is that, despite the apostolic examples, our congregations are so accustomed to hearing non-apostolic (15-20 minute) sermons that they would probably take it as a violation of contract for a preacher to preach sermons of the apostolic length. I can imagine the chair of a Pulpit Committee or Pastor-Parish Relations Committee delivering the bad news to such a hapless preacher: “We’re sorry to inform you, but there is simply a degree of pain that we expect our preachers to inflict upon us, and you have failed to deliver this. We cannot tolerate this behavior and consequently we have no choice but to look for another preacher in your place.” Or, ask the Bishop for another preacher in your place.