The Lectionary is a good thing … in the main. It’s good because it prevents those of us who are preachers from operating our own “canon within the canon” (sticking with our own favourite themes and texts).
It’s good, too, because, by focussing on a different gospel each year, it forces us to recognise the uniqueness of each evangelist – his approach, his concerns and priorities, and his distinctive presentation of the significance of Jesus. Theoretically, it prevents us from operating with a “jigsaw theory” of the gospels – the idea that we build up a complete picture of Jesus by trying to slot the various pieces from each gospel into a comprehensive jigsaw. That approach is best exemplified in the Easter “Seven Words from the Cross” services, which does fundamental violence to the different ways in which each evangelist tells the Passion story. There weren’t “seven words” from the cross! The differences are there because each evangelist has a distinctive take on the cross. We are not being somehow more historically accurate by combining each narrative: when we do that, we miss the point that each evangelist is trying to make!
But we find some significant flaws as we use the Lectionary. For a start, it isn’t consistent with its own aim of following each gospel through. Those of us who have preached through each year are well aware of the fact that no single gospel is ever properly finished. It’s rather like missing the final episodes in a series! And the interleaving of John’s gospel into the synoptic narratives is probably more problematic than it is helpful: it disturbs any serious attempt to enter as faithfully and attentively as possible into the specifics of a particular gospel writer’s narrative.
Perhaps the two most irritating and unhelpful features of the way in which the Lectionary is complied is that the compilers themselves operate their own “canon within a canon”, leaving out the bits that they simply don’t like! The Old Testament texts, in particular, studiously avoid the more challenging and problematic passages about Yahweh’s anger and judgement – something that Walter Brueggemann, for example, helpfully refuses to do. When these are omitted, we end up with a different picture of Yahweh from that which the biblical writers convey. It may be easier to deal with, but it gets us off the hook of having faithfully to wrestle with the texts. God is not easy. Our experience tells us that, and the biblical narrative bears faithful witness to that fact. It is in the wrestling with our experience of the world and our experience of God that we are enabled to know and live faithfully in response to the God revealed in the Scriptures.
But secondly, and more importantly (from my perspective), the Lectionary compilers operate firmly within the historical-critical approach of treating the gospel narratives as isolated pericopae that the evangelists have “cut and pasted” together to form a story. Now, while I have no quarrel with source criticism and form criticism as helpful ways of shedding light on the process of composition and the structure of some of the narratives, the disadvantage of that approach is that it fails to recognise that each evangelist is both a theologian and master story-teller. It makes a huge difference to read each gospel as a story with its own narrative integrity. It is when we read the gospels in this way that we discover the narrative strategies that the evangelists employ – themes that are repeated and developed, symbols that gradually build in power and significance, distinctive threads that are developed and followed. At a basic level, for example, we lose sight of the way in which Mark builds the storm clouds of opposition and impending doom from very early in his narrative. Or we miss the symbolic significance of geography. We lose the sense, in other words, in which each gospel draws us into a story of Jesus that challenges and enters into conversation with our own story.
In looking at the texts, I try to do two things: the first is to put each incident into the context of the wider narrative. It means that we are always engaging with the author’s wider concerns and theology. It’s less tidy and tight than treating each passage as an enclosed narrative and an end within itself, because we are forever engaging with the narrative as a whole, but it’s actually more faithful to the intention of the writer.
The second thing is to try and uncover the links between the various texts for each week – to try and illuminate, in other words, what might have been in the minds of the compilers in selection the different passages for consideration. I look for a common theme (or themes), giving priority to the gospel passage and using the other texts to illustrate and develop the central gospel theme. I don’t claim that this is what the compilers intended – indeed, that isn’t my concern. Nor do I treat the Old Testament texts and the epistles in the same way as I would if they were our sole concern. Instead, they become conversation partners with the gospel texts, with stress on the ways in which they reflect the concrete experiences of the communities of faith. I find this to be a helpful way of reflecting on the passages in order to preach a sermon that draws the reader, the believing community and the biblical community into a conversation.
I do this is the conviction that Walter Brueggemann is right when he contends that the biblical narrative’s primary function is to open up a new world (what he calls “The Third World of Evangelical Imagination”) that confronts and challenges the worlds of the individual believer and the wider context of today’s believing community. The function of the text, then, is to present a different construal of “the world as we know it” – to portray the world as infused with the presence and saving activity of God. It challenges the imagination, kindles hope and faith, and spurs us to live differently. It is sacramental (it mediates an encounter with God) and it is converting. That is when the Bible becomes the Living Word of the Living God – which is, after all, the purpose of preaching!