Recently my wife and I ventured to Regent University for me to deliver a paper. While there we got the chance to view one of the University’s new acquisitions, namely a Torah scroll from Yemen.The fact that a Christian university could acquire such a donation is a sign of the times: Evangelicals are about the only reliable Gentile group the Jews have for support, in spite of the attempt by BDS types to worm their way into the system.
A New Testament passage that prominently features a synagogue reading (not from the Torah) is this one:
Coming to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, Jesus, as was his custom, went on the Sabbath into the Synagogue, and stood up to read the Scriptures. The book given him was that of the Prophet Isaiah; and Jesus opened the book and found the place where it says– ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, For he has consecrated me to bring Good News to the poor, He has sent me to proclaim release to captives and restoration of sight to the blind, To set the oppressed at liberty, To proclaim the accepted year of the Lord.’ Then, closing the book and returning it to the attendant, he sat down. The eyes of all in the Synagogue were fixed upon him, And Jesus began: “This very day this passage has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16-21 TCNT)
The curator noted that, when Jesus was asked to read from the scroll, the reading was not of his immediate choosing, but came from a cycle of readings–a lectionary–that the synagogues employed. He was told what to read, he read it and then interpreted it (not entirely to their liking, I might add…)
Lectionaries are the stock in trade of liturgical churches such as the Roman Catholic Church, Anglican/Episcopal churches, Orthodox churches and the like. But Evangelicals avoid such constraints like the plague. A good example of this came to me when I was in undergraduate school at Texas A&M.
One of the nice things that ministerial associations promote is pulpit exchanges, where ministers from different churches preach in other places. For a Catholic church, this can be problematic, but in the 1970’s things were easier. Our exchange was with a Baptist church; the Baptist pastor and our priest were good friends, shown by their mutually swelling waistlines. (Gluttony, I might point out, was a sin for the Catholic, but a way of life for the Baptist.)
So the time for the Gospel reading came, and the Baptist preacher got up and, ignoring the fancy three-year lectionary cycle introduced by the Novus Ordo Missae, read from John 15. His subsequent sermon on “love one another” was different: he observed that “the Aggies love the Aggies and the Catholics love the Catholics, but the Baptists don’t always love the Baptists.” (Subsequent experience would bear that out.) That alone was probably worth the side trip from the lectionary, but it still was a side trip.
As was the case here, Evangelicals are loath to follow any kind of lectionary or reading pattern for the Scriptures. There are two main arguments against the practice.
First, some will say that it smacks of “formalism,” which is their objection for the liturgical concept. But there’s no evidence that using a lectionary is a more “formal” way of doing things than doing it ad hoc every Sunday.
Second, Pentecostals and Charismatics will argue that it “blocks the move of the Spirit” if they are forced to preach out a set pattern of the Scriptures. However, if it was good enough for Our Lord to not only read from a lectionary but to proclaim the fulfilment of prophecy, are we any better?
The major downside of doing it without a lectionary–assuming, of course, the lectionary is comprehensive in its coverage of the Scriptures–is that our ministers tend to develop a very limited repertoire of scriptures and sermons. And didn’t Our Lord having something to say about repetition?
And, of course, special occasions pretty much demand a lectionary type of choice. The first funeral I ever helped preach was for a former employee down in Georgia. We got to the graveside, and the credentialed minister actually asked me what scripture to use. (The answer can be found in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer.)
So my advice to Evangelicals and Pentecostals is this: don’t disparage those who follow a lectionary, it just might improve what you are doing.