What is a Good Sermon? (part III)



Our attention might be elsewhere today, but I’d like to continue to meditate on preaching. Very quickly, then, in my earlier attempts, I wrote that giving and listening to a sermon is an entrance into that same movement of the Spirit that inspired the much more authoritative words of the prophets and apostles. Since the Spirit chiefly means to instill the new covenant in our hearts, a sermon can’t be a mechanical repetition – it isn’t merely a matter of saying the right things. Preaching truly must be transformative, not simply orthodox, erudite, or impossibly clever. This also means that a good sermon cannot be disconnected from our lives. Our bishops have told us that a sermon must be “a scriptural interpretation of human existence which enables a community to recognize God’s active presence, to respond to that presence in faith through liturgical word and gesture, and beyond the liturgical assembly through a life lived in conformity with the Gospel.”

Todd has also given some very good practical advice on preaching. Today, I want to reflect on preaching based on a line from Lumen Gentium: “Among the principal duties of bishops the preaching of the Gospel occupies an eminent place” (39). Susan K. Wood, SCL, tells us that we can say the same, by extension, about priests, and that the stress of Vatican II is on bishops and priests “building up the church” – the ministerial priesthood “forms and rules the priestly people,” “shepherds the faithful,” and “builds up the body of Christ, the Church.” This means that we can better understand the meaning of preaching by better understanding the ministerial priesthood and how it might build up the body of Christ. I want to (try to) help us do this by looking at St Paul’s concept of ministry, borrowing from a recent article by the exegete Frank J. Matera.

Paul certainly does have a concept of ministry. In 1 Corinthians, he had written that “Some people God has designated in the church to be, first, apostles; second, prophets; third, teachers; then mighty deeds; then gifts of healing; assistance, administration, and varieties of tongues” (1 Cor 12:28). But, Fr Matera tells us, Paul’s most complete exposition is in his Second Letter to those same Corinthians. After the First Letter, Paul had sent Timothy to Corinth and Timothy had returned to report gross immorality and the presence of false apostles (“super-apostles”). Paul had then gone to Corinth only to be insulted. Paul, his apostolic authority threatened, wrote a harsh letter (which no longer exists), and Corinth had then repented and punished the insulting fellow. In response to this repentance, Paul wrote 2 Corinthians, which, naturally, includes a description of the nature of ministry.

Paul begins by suggesting that this ministry can be, well, counterintuitive. He is a prisoner who is being led in a procession (a “triumph”) that will result in his death. But the conquering general is not Caesar, but a merciful God. Paul is for some “an odor of death that leads to death,” and only to certain others “an aroma of life that leads to life.” The basis for ministry is not some obvious qualification or a number of official letters of recommendation, but the more elusive ability to mediate a new covenant whose proof is in the hearts of the Corinthians. This is the covenant that Jeremiah said that God would write upon his people’s hearts, and Ezekiel’s “new heart” and “new spirit within you” (Jer 31:31-33; Ezek 36:26-27).

Moses had covered his face with a veil – he did not want to Israelites to stare intently, for he knew that the glory of his ministry was not complete. But Paul’s ministry is complete, for Jesus Christ is the “image of God,” and “All of us gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit” (3:18). Fr Matera says that ministry is really about believers seeing “the glory of God on the face of the crucified Christ, when they hear the gospel of the crucified Christ” in preaching. When they see this, they are transformed from glory to glory.

Ministry is also counterintuitive because it is not about perfect ministers, but their suffering. The minister’s acceptance of hardships paradoxically manifests glory. Paul writes, “We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body” (4:7-10). By accepting pain and affliction, the priest testifies to belief in the Resurrection, that the end of time will not bring meaninglessness, but “the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive recompense, according to what he did in the body, whether good or evil” (5:10).

Finally, ministry is once more counterintuitive, since it shows a new mode of perception, regarding nothing “according to the flesh,” but through the light of Christ’s reconciliation. Christ inaugurated a new order – “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ” (5:19) – by taking on the fullness of the human condition and taking our place on the cross, so that, in turn, “we might become the righteouness of God in him” (5:21). Paul is but an “ambassador” of this reconciliation with God. Any minister of this reconciliation, Fr Matera tells us, must also build a community whose members extend the reconciliation they have received from God to others, not seeing other people “according to the flesh” or “counting their trespasses against them.”

So, based on St Paul’s conception of ministry, what can we say about a good sermon?

First, a good sermon must be about the new covenant, the glory of God on the face of Christ. And it must express trust that this new covenant is empowered by the Spirit. A good sermon can only very indirectly be about politics or the institutional church, fascinating though they may be. A good sermon must not express despair about the presence of the Spirit in the community that is the “temple of the living God” (6:16), tempting though that might be. It should instead show attentiveness to the murmurings of the Spirit in the community of believers.

Second – and relatedly – a good sermon will draw our attention to how the Eucharist manifests this “new and everlasting covenant” (3:5).

Third, a good sermon will not shy away from suffering for the sake of the gospel. A good sermon will be untouched by pride. In his book, The Reformed Pastor, the great Puritan divine Richard Baxter wrote about the ministers who did not deny themselves, “When they should inquire, ‘What shall I say, and how shall I say it, to please God best, and do most good?’ it makes them ask, ‘What shall I say, and how shall I deliver it, to be thought a learned able preacher, and to be applauded by all that hear me?'” More generally, a good sermon will not ignore affliction or perplexity, but will show that, since death and resurrection are intertwined, even these difficult things can be signs of glory.

Fourth, a good sermon must be about reconciliation. God reconciled the world to himself, and the church must be a community of the reconciled, where forgiveness is a daily practice. Fr Matera tells us, “Consider the difference between this gospel of reconciliation and a gospel that divides and separates people. Consider the difference between the gospel of a new creation and a gospel that maintains the status quo of the old world.” A good sermon will, needless to say, be about the first gospel. I’m reminded that St Symeon the New Theologian said, “A saint is a poor man who loves his brother.” A saint realizes that he is poor before the God who has nevertheless freed him from “debts”; the saint then does not expect any sort of payment from others, and is able to be reconciled to all. A good sermon will let God work to make many of these “poor” people who love their brothers and sisters.

What do you think?

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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