The past few Sundays, I've found myself saying to my congregation that if they could leave a service and apply what I've just preached, then I've failed them.
Sounds a bit strange, I know. But I was explaining to them why communion is now at the end of our services-- as the climactic moment, not an afterthought-- instead of having it right after the singing portion of our worship, as we had done for the better part of two years. (We made the switch during Lent.) The reason is quite simple:
The proper response to the preaching of the Word should not be, "Oh, that's a great little insight. I think I'll go apply that." I think it ought to be, "O God, what are we going to do now?" The New Testament often records people being "cut to the heart" after one of the Apostles preached. Their goal was not to give people a few tips on their marriage or a few pithy phrases to guide their business transactions. (Though there are "wisdom" books in the Old Testament that do that...there is a place for it.) The overall goal in New Testament preaching was to reveal Christ-- Christ as the full revelation of God the Father, Christ as the only Savior of the world, Christ as the true and rightful King of this world, even now!
When you preach that way, people will inevitably see how far off we are. No theatrical voice inflections or guilt trips required. The Scripture is sufficient. I had a professor in my undergrad who used to say that we read the Bible so that we can "know God and become His people." When the Word is proclaimed, when we enter the story and soak ourselves in the narratives, not only is God revealed, but God's goal for us in becoming the people of God is revealed. (And yes, that includes ways of being better husbands and wives and children and employees, etc.) But the first response is not to take information and apply it. If that's all people are doing with our sermons, then they should stay home and watch daytime TV during the week. As pastors, we are not merely dispensers of good advice; we are proclaimers of the Word of Christ.
And more than that, we are the ones who call people to the Eucharist. For centuries, churches that practiced weekly communion did so after the sermon for precisely this reason. When people hear the Word proclaimed, the proper response is confession, repentance, humbling ourselves before a gracious and mighty God. In that place of humility, we come to the Table of the Lord, empty-handed. There is nothing we bring to this meal. It is not a potluck. We come with empty hands, and Christ gives us His body as our bread and His blood as our drink. Christ becomes our sufficiency and our sustenance. He is our meal that we take in to our lives. The Eucharist is a sacrament, which in one sense simply means an occasion for the grace of God to break through into our lives. But it is the sacrament because it tells the story of the brokenness of the world, the suffering of our Savior, and the wholeness that is now coming into our lives because of Jesus Christ. You can't get the Eucharist on a podcast or a Webstream or a TV channel, as good as all of that may be. You break the bread and take the cup when you gather with other believers. That's why even though we offer podcasts and Webstream for folks in our congregation who travel or are stationed overseas, we know there is no substitute for gathering with the people of God around the Table of the Lord.
I really can't think of a better way to respond to a sermon and end our corporate time of worship together. Plus, I have a hunch that if more of us preachers had to think about our sermons leading into a humble approach to the Lord's Table, we would end not with an empty challenge for people to "do better", but with a call to throw ourselves upon the grace of God and ask for Christ in us to be our hope of glory.