Friday, 8 May 2009

Sharing through being

As someone who preaches for a living you would think that after twenty years or more of talking about God in all kinds of different circumstances – weddings, funerals, services of all kinds, assemblies, celebrations, memorial services, radio presentations, Parochial Church Council meetings, Area Deanery Conferences, etc – that I would really believe in its efficacy as a means of communicating the gospel message? That I would see preaching as a kind of sacrament, a means of grace, to all those on the receiving end of what I have carefully prepared. And for over twenty years I have. In fact, if I am honest, it was preaching (and teaching) that attracted me most about “going into the Ministry”. In my rather arrogant – alright VERY arrogant youth – I believed I could preach better than one former Vicar who seemed only to stand in the pulpit and (so it seemed at the time) give history lessons. How can people get to know about God unless the preaching was of the higfhest callibre? And this man was failing dismally according to me. In retrospect I was probably being very unfair on the poor man as very likely I was not listening closely at the time and so did not appreciate then the importance of context. I wanted fireworks and he gave me reasoned arguments or a simple sermons. I wanted showmanship and he gave me workmanship. How proud I was. God have mercy on me a sinner.

Anyway the point I am making, rather laboriously, is that I believd fervently in the power of preaching and the need to perfect my art as best I could. I put it on a pedestal as THE most important work of a priest and for the last twenty or so years I have preached at any and every opportunity. And that will not change much until I retire/die. BUT, and it is a ‘but’ that is growing ever larger, I am not sure now that it is THE most important work I can do as a priest or a Christian. Or at least I believe that it is a much smaller part of what I and all Christians are called to do. Here are a few of my reasons for making that statement:

Preaching can become a substitute for living a holy life. This has certainly been true of me. When deadlines loom or things become busy it is my prayer-life that has suffered first. I have been more prone to cut the length of my prayers before the length of my sermons. The reasoning appears sound, particularly if you believe in the importance of preaching ‘the Word’ as I do (did?). People must hear the good news – we are all to be witnesses Jesus said – or they won’t hear about Jesus and they won’t get ’saved’ and if that happens I/we will be failing in my/our calling. So prayer out and preaching in.

Also preaching is in many ways easier than living a holy life. I can talk the talk (or even talk the walk) and that will take my attention off who I am and how I am living while making me feel good about myself because after all I am telling people about God. This provides a neat cover-up of the emptiness of my inner life. It looks and sounds good without the need to work on being good.

Another reason is that I don’t think Jesus put as much emphasis on preaching as we do. In fact I suspect that the emphasis we place on it today is more to do with the Reformation or the Enlightenment than the New Testament or Jesus. Here is my argument. Jesus’ three recorded sermons (as far as I rememeber) are
1. In Matthew 4 where he preaches “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17).
2. The ‘Sermon on the Mount’ (Matthew 5-7 and the Lukan version (Luke 6) – although this was less ‘public’ and more private i.e. intended for his disciples although the crowd listened in.
3. And Luke 4 where he ‘taught’ in the synagogue and announced he had come to fulfil the prophecy of Isaiah.
Other than these occasions he ‘taught’ in parables using them as didactic tools to communicate eternal truths, or through miracles which acted as visual aids to demonstrate the kingdom Jesus was promising was near. But were they ‘preaching’ in the sense we understand it today? And were they intended to be the primary means of drawing people to the Kingdom?

The emphasis in the gospels seems to be more on the life of the messenger rather than the proclamation of the message itself. Look for example at Matthew 5. After a series of promised blessings to those who were the possessors of ‘kingdom qualities’ Jesus further reinforces his theme using the twin pictures of light and salt. “Let your light so shine upon men that they may SEE your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven”. (Matthew 5:15-16) The emphasis here is on proclamtion through presence not preaching. Also verse 14 talks about being salt and the quality of the salt and the effect that that has on what it comes into contact with. Here then its not words but influence – the influence of a holy life.

I could go on but suffice it to say that the emphasis in my own life is slowly shifting. I want to – no need to – talk less and ‘be’ more. I want to be fire rather than to talk about it (see earlier post). I want to share Jesus through being like Him. And I suspect that what the world needs now is less talk – they get it all the time through books, Bibles, and broadcasts – and more walk. They want to see this thing in action. And until they do all the words in the world will not convince them of the truth which we proclaim.

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