I had only been a Christian for a few years when a friend of mine told me that he was leaving our church for the Episcopal Church. His reasoning was simple: “they elevate the Eucharist to the center of the worship, while Protestant churches elevate preaching.”
He went on: “Throughout church history, Christians have worshiped the body and blood of Jesus, not the words of men as they talk about the Bible.”
The charge kind of surprised me, and as a somewhat new believer I didn’t know how to respond. It actually provoked me to start reading church history books, where I discovered (lo and behold) that preaching was actually an important part of the early church worship, and not an invention of the enlightenment.
In the Gospel of Mark, we are told that in the beginning of Jesus’ ministry he healed countless people from Peter’s house in Capernaum. As the crowds increased, Jesus desired to sneak away and go to smaller towns, where he could preach. In fact, he told Peter that preaching “is why I have come” (Mark 1:38).
This purpose statement provoked J. C. Ryle (himself an Anglican) to decry the tendency to attribute more importance to the Euchrsit than the sermon:
Let us never be moved by those who cry down the preacher’s office, and tell us that sacraments and other ordinances are of more importance than sermons. Let us give to every part of God’s public worship its proper place and honour, but let us beware of placing any part of it above preaching.
By preaching, the Church of Christ was first gathered together and founded, and by preaching, it has ever been maintained in health and prosperity. By preaching, sinners are awakened. By preaching, inquirers are led on. By preaching, saints are built up. By preaching, Christianity is being carried to the heathen world.—There are many now who sneer at missionaries, and mock at those who go out into the high-ways of our own land, to preach to crowds in the open air. But such persons would do well to pause, and consider calmly what they are doing. The very work which they ridicule is the work which turned the world upside down, and cast heathenism to the ground. Above all, it is the very work which Christ Himself undertook. The King of kings and Lord of lords Himself was once a preacher. For three long years He went to and fro proclaiming the Gospel. Sometimes we see Him in a house, sometimes on the mountain side, sometimes in a Jewish synagogue, sometimes in a boat on the sea. But the great work He took up was always one and the same. He came always preaching and teaching. “Therefore,” He says, “came I forth.”
Let us leave the passage with a solemn resolution never to “despise prophesying.” (1 Thess. 5:20.) The minister we hear may not be highly gifted. The sermons that we listen to may be weak and poor. But after all, preaching is God’s grand ordinance for converting and saving souls. The faithful preacher of the Gospel is handling the very weapon which the Son of God was not ashamed to employ. This is the work of which Christ has said, “Therefore came I forth.”
(J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on Mark (London: William Hunt, Steam Press, 1859), 20-21.)