What is a homily?

A homily is defined by the New Oxford American Dictionary as a "religious discourse intended primarily for spiritual edification rather than doctrinal instruction; a sermon." It comes from the Greek word homilia meaning "to converse or discuss in a crowd or gathering." Forms of this Greek word are used in the Bible: in Luke 24:14–15 when the two traveling on the road to Emmaus were discussing what had happened in Jerusalem, in Acts 20:11 when Paul conversed with the believers in Troas after raising Eutychus from the dead, and again in Acts 24:26 when Felix called upon Paul to converse about Paul's faith in Christ.

In today's English language, the word homily is used in Catholic, Lutheran, and Orthodox churches to describe the exposition, or sermon, delivered after the reading of Scripture during the mass or service. It is an important part of the liturgy that helps to explain what the Scripture means and how it applies to the lives of the congregants. Because each minister writes a homily to apply to a specific congregation at a particular time in history, each homily will be different, highlighting different points, drawing different conclusions, and calling for different applications, even when based on the same scriptural text as neighboring churches or previous years.

The homilies in highly liturgical churches tend to be shorter than the sermons preached in less liturgical churches because the homily is only one aspect of the service where other parts (like corporate confession, communion, or benediction) are given equal or greater importance. In less liturgical churches, the sermon is often the main or most important aspect of the service and can last forty-five minutes to an hour. However, in both instances, the homily and sermon are meant to expound on a scriptural text for the purpose of the spiritual growth of the congregation. Paul wrote to Timothy that "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16–17). So when a minister uses Scripture to teach a congregation how to conduct themselves through a homily or sermon, he is correctly using Scripture to equip them for good work.

God commanded the Israelites, "And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates" (Deuteronomy 6:6–9). God expected the Israelites to discuss His words throughout the day in various circumstances. A homily is simply one way God's Word is discussed in a gathering of people so that it may remain on our hearts.

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