The Reverend Dr Michael Hull writes…
Good preaching is rare these days. Regular churchgoing proves it. There are, to be sure, exceptions to the rule, but they only go prove it. For that reason, good preaching stands out, and in many cases, good preaching stands the test of time. On 27 January each year, the Church commemorates John of Antioch, a bishop of Constantinople, who died in the early fifth century. Among his many qualities were holiness, austerity, a flair for writing, zeal for the reform of church leadership and love of liturgy, yet he is best known among us today by a posthumous sixth-century moniker: ‘chrysostomos’ or ‘gold-mouth’. St John Chrysostom is acclaimed for his outstanding preaching.
Good preaching was also rare in John’s day. He made a concerted effort, however, to eschew the mediocrity of his contemporaries by leading a life of prayer, simplicity and study to support his Christian, and eventually, ministerial vocation. He considered preaching fundamental to his priesthood. The words of St Paul echoed in his mind, ‘For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for necessity is laid upon me; yes, woe is me if I do not preach the gospel!’ (1 Corinthians 9.16). John put his heart and soul into his preaching. It is recorded that whilst preaching as a young priest in his home city of Antioch, congregations often burst out in applause, much to his chagrin. John wanted only to serve God by explaining His Word. The Lord would call him to the bishopric of Constantinople, where he would continue to preach well. His bold proclamation of Holy Scripture cost him the support of corrupt civil and ecclesiastical figures, and resulted in his deposition, exile and death.
By God’s grace, over 800 of his sermons survive him. A perusal of those texts shows why his preaching was so good. On the one hand, John saw preaching as the science of understanding and explaining Holy Scripture from the pulpit. John favoured a literal reading of Scripture and an exegetical preaching style. John recognised the place of allegorical interpretation in appreciating the Bible but held fast to the truth that such interpretation must be grounded in the biblical text, and not in the fancies of the interpreter or the aeon, both steeped in sin.
It behoves preachers today to follow John’s model of using Scripture to interpret Scripture. God’s people are hungry for God’s Word. Nothing else will satisfy their hunger; and the Church and the world are starving for it. John’s sermons are chockfull of biblical quotes, references and citations. For instance, John preaches, ‘O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep’ (Easter Sermon). How many scriptural allusions do you count?
On the other hand, John made full use of rhetorical devices. He had been trained in classical rhetoric and its techniques. He worked tirelessly to apply his training in the delivery of the profane word to the delivery of the sacred word. John’s yearning to proclaim the Good News meant that he used the means available to him. John used simile, metaphor and comparisons, just to name a few. Typical of his style of question-and-answer is part of a sermon on Matthew 2.1–2. To those who would doubt God’s prudence in positioning a star for the Magi, John thunders, ‘Why, what should He have done? Sent Prophets? But the Magi would not have submitted to Prophets. Uttered a voice from above? No, they would not have attended. Sent an Angel? But even him they would have hurried by. And so, dismissing all those means, God calls them by the things that are familiar’ (Homily 6 on Matthew).
If John’s yearning to proclaim the Good News meant that he used the methods available to him, it certainly means that contemporary preaching ought to do the same. Twenty-first century rhetoric may be different to that of John’s day, nevertheless, the preacher is no less required to master it than John was to master that of his day.
Maybe good preaching has always been rare, but there is no reason why it should always be rare. The celebration of John, a golden-mouthed preacher, is an occasion for preachers to reflect upon their fidelity to the understanding and proclamation of Holy Scripture, that is to the content and form of their sermons. It is also an occasion for every churchgoer to bend the knee and beseech God to send us more Chrysostoms.
The Reverend Dr Michael Hull has been an Assistant Priest at St Vincent’s since 2015, and is Director of Studies at the Scottish Episcopal Institute.