Challenges to Preaching Paul

St. Paul is a role model for the preacher because he exemplified faith, passion and utility in his letters.

Preaching Paul is no mean feat. The Pauline literature in the Lectionary includes the thirteen disparate letters bearing Paul’s name, as well as Hebrews.1 To be sure, Paul’s letters are, at one and the same time, some of the most pastorally sensitive and theologically profound writings in the New Testament. There is no doubt that they present a richness of theological insight, which ought to be expounded from the pulpit for the benefit of the people of God.2

In order to speak about challenges to preaching Paul, my departure point is a definition of preaching by Brad R. Braxton, an African-American Baptist minister, who teaches homiletics at Vanderbilt Divinity School. In his book Preaching Paul, Braxton says: “Preaching is the faithful, passionate reporting of God’s useful news.”3 Braxton’s definition is very helpful because it focuses on three challenges in preaching: the challenge to be faithful, the challenge to be passionate and the challenge to be useful. On one level, these challenges transcend Paul’s preaching and our own preaching of Paul, inasmuch as these three challenges are immediately present in all preaching, either from the Old or New Testament. Yet on another level, they are particularly poignant because they are conspicuous in Paul’s letters.4

Even a cursory perusal of Paul’s letters reveals his faithfulness to his calling on the Damascus road and his desire to finish the “race” that he first describes in 1 Cor. 9:24. The imagery is picked up again in 2 Timothy: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (4:7; cf. Heb. 12:1). So too, we cannot forget his passion in Romans, when, lamenting the lack of conversions to Christ among his fellow Jews, he says, “For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race” (9:3). Paul’s passion leaps off the page! And, as far as usefulness goes, no one speaks more to practicalities than Paul. Paul talks about anything and everything, whether it be women in church in 1 Corinthians 11 or fighting with Peter and company in Galatians 2. Once again, as Braxton has it, “Preaching is the faithful, passionate reporting of God’s useful news.”

The challenge to be faithful

It is a challenge to be faithful in preaching. A homily has to be faithful, that is, faith-full. God’s people need to hear about the faith from the pulpit. They do not need to hear about anything else. What is somewhat confusing is the distinction between having the faith and knowing the faith. Since the lion’s share of preaching is the competence of the ordained, it is helpful to recall the rite of ordination to the diaconate. There, the candidate is handed the Book of the Gospels and the ordaining bishop says: “Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you have become. Believe what you read, teach what you believe and practice what you teach.”

In terms of preaching, it is, obviously, vitally important for the preacher to be faithful, but it is also vitally important for the preacher to have knowledge of the faith. Many may still recall the days of the “canonicals,” when priests had to pass examinations before they could hear confessions or preach; or the days of “simplex” priests, mostly in religious orders, like the famous Capuchin Friar Solanus Casey, who were ordained priests who could not preach. Even though faculties are concomitant with ordination in the new Code of Canon Law, the Church still reminds us in law, particularly in the strict requirements of seminary studies, that knowing the faith is vital. Preachers ought to think of themselves as, to quote Paul about himself and his fellow apostles, “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God,” as “trustworthy stewards” (1 Cor. 4:1–2; cf. 1 Pet. 4:10).

A preacher who wants to be a faithful steward, who wants to be trustworthy with regard to preaching, and particularly with regard to preaching Paul, needs to do quite a lot of reading and studying and reflecting. Paul’s letters are by far some of the richest fare in all of divine revelation, but they are an acquired taste. They are at the fulcrum of some of the hottest debates in contemporary theology—about grace, faith, justification, resurrection and parousia—just to name a few. No theologian is able to speak about the realities of Christianity without speaking about Paul. One aspect, then, of the challenge of faithfulness is the preacher’s obligation to improve himself in terms of knowing the faith. A related aspect of the challenge to be faithful is the obligation to serve God’s people. Paul himself reminds us how important preaching is when he says, “So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ” (Rom. 10:17).

When preachers fail to read and study and reflect as they ought, they have little to offer God’s people. Allow me a limping analogy: If a priest were to find one day that he had forgotten to consecrate hosts at Mass and that the tabernacle was empty, I doubt he would start to give out popcorn or potato chips or raisins at Mass and call them the body of Christ. If he tried it, it would not fly because they are not the real thing, and the priest would be fooling no one. Likewise, when a preacher mounts the pulpit unprepared—both in remote preparation from a lifetime of reading, studying and reflecting, as well as in immediate preparation for a particular sermon—he does not have the real thing, and he fools no one. When a preacher begins to tell stories that are only tangentially related to the Good News, to make bland comments about current events, or to recount “what came to my mind as I was doing…,” well, it is nothing more than verbal junk food. “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:11–13).

Yes, the preacher must have the faith, but he must also be learned in it. Our people rightly expect to hear about God from the pulpit, not about anyone or anything else. Paul preached about Christ, not himself: “For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor. 4:5–7). The faith is that treasure, the proclamation and preaching of the Good News is that treasure. The transcendent power of the pulpit “belongs to God and not to us.” Yet that transcendent power is with us when we preach. As Paul asks, “But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how can men preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach good news!’” (Rom. 10:14–15; cf. Eph. 6:15 and Isa. 52:7). To be faithful, then, is to recall that the same necessity laid upon Paul by his encounter with Christ is laid upon every preacher: “For if I preach the Gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!” (1 Cor. 9:16).

The challenge to be passionate

If it is a challenge to be faithful in preaching, it is no less a challenge to be passionate in preaching. A homily has to be passionate. If preachers do not care about what they say, it is hard to ask anyone else to care about what they say, if they are saying anything at all. A homily’s content notwithstanding, it ought to be evident that there is some fire in the belly of a preacher if his message is to be effective. It is not uncommon for Protestant preachers to shout out in the middle of a sermon, “Can I get a witness?” What they mean, of course, is for someone’s experience to confirm what they are saying. Likewise, it is important that the preacher be someone whose life centers on the Gospel, someone who can witness to what he preaches. The Word is alive in the minds and hearts of the people of God, and to a certain extent the people of God can tell when it is or is not alive in the minds and hearts of those who preach among them.

Consider this quote: “Just as the Reformation four centuries ago, the progressive dechristianization of society today is attributed to a failure of preaching. The factor that more than any other made the Reformation possible was the theological confusion that marked the preaching and teaching of the faith in the early sixteenth century. Today preaching is admittedly orthodox, but it is often vapid and lacking in vitality. It no longer seeks to make converts or to lead to sanctity those who already have the faith.” Surprisingly, these words are over forty years old. The quote is from the Dominican Friar Jerome Murphy-O’Connor’s Paul on Preaching.5 The quote is also found twenty years later on the first page of the Jesuit Father Walter J. Burghardt’s Preaching: The Art and the Craft, published in 1987.6 And it remains descriptive of our own day.

Notwithstanding questions of orthodoxy, preaching is often “vapid and lacking in vitality.” It is often not passionate. Perhaps the best way to revive homiletic passion is to recall that the bulk of our preaching is localized in the liturgy. Preaching is, for the most part, a liturgical act. That makes it different from an academic discourse. We are wont, quite rightly, to say that the Mass is the re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary, that each time we celebrate or participate at Mass we are encountering the Lord’s passion and resurrection. Braxton rightly notes, “In certain academic interpretations of Scripture precision is the goal. In devotional interpretation, presence is the goal.”7 Now his Baptist vocabulary may not be the same as ours, but his emphasis on the Word as present in the liturgy is noteworthy. The Word is proclaimed. The homily is the place for a “devotional interpretation” of what God wishes to communicate to his people through the Word, which comes to them through a homilist’s words, through the words of those who are supposed to preach what our people have already believed (see 1 Corinthians 15).

Paul’s own passion for the Word is revealed not only in the fact that he traveled extensively and suffered greatly for the sake of preaching the Good News, but also in his strong desire to ensure that his people would “get it” and “get it right.” On the one hand, he tells us of his physical sufferings (2 Corinthians 6 and 11) to the point of revealing that he bears “the marks of Jesus” (Gal. 6:17). On the other hand, he is vehement to make sure that the truth of the Gospel is preached purely, to the point that he says anyone preaching anything else is “accursed” (Gal. 1:8–9). Now there is a fellow who is passionate about what he is saying! How passionate? When Paul suspects hypocrisy on Peter’s part, he is hardly loathe to write of it: “When Cephas came to Antioch I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned” (Gal. 2:11).

In fact, Paul could become so passionate in his letters as “to lose it,” as we say today. In 1 Corinthians, Paul is so upset with the discord among the baptized at Corinth that he rails: “I am thankful that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius; lest any one should say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any one else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the Gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1:14–17). Now that is that sort of passion we see peppered throughout the Pauline letters and Luke’s recounting of Paul’s missionary activity in Acts.

Preachers are challenged, therefore, to recover some zeal. To be sure, every preacher needs to pray to the Holy Spirit to reignite the flame within him, but it would not hurt for him to do some fanning of the flame on his own. Vapidity and the lack of vitality do not come solely from a dearth of time in the library; sometimes they come from a dearth of time in the chapel. Paul himself is big on passion as he describes the faith in Romans: “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us” (5:1–5).

The challenge to be useful

It is a challenge to be useful in preaching. When I first read the definition offered by Braxton—“Preaching is the faithful, passionate reporting of God’s useful news”—I thought he had made a poor choice with the word “useful”; I thought “relevant” would better fit the bill. But as I reflected on it, I realized he was right on the money. “Relevant” is a buzzword, a jargon word. To a great extent, the word “relevant” has been so “relevantized” as to be irrelevant. Sermons do not have to be relevant; sermons have to be useful to God’s people. Again, when the preacher stands in the pulpit, he is not there to deliver anything other than the Good News—and the Good News is always useful. It is useful because it answers the fundamental questions of our hearts and souls. It is useful because it is God’s own self-revelation. It is useful because with the Good News Jesus leads us (back) to God. As Paul says, “We also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received our reconciliation” (Rom. 5:11). What could be more useful than that?

In Murphy-O’Connor’s aforementioned quote, orthodoxy on the part of the preacher was presumed; also presumed was “the progressive dechristianization of society.” Unquestionably, things have gotten worse since Murphy-O’Connor penned those words. We now have in our churches a generation, if not two generations, that is basically illiterate in the truths of the faith. Without questioning natural virtue or the power of grace, a vast majority of Mass-going Catholics do not know the basics of our faith. Preaching today is very rarely “preaching to the choir.” Since great numbers of our people are bereft of knowledge of the faith, they need to hear again and again that Good News to which they ought to align their lives and minds and hearts. Being a useful preacher, certainly, is telling the people what they need to hear, not what a preacher may want to say, no matter how good it may sound. What I mean is this: In order to be a useful preacher, the preacher must do what Paul did, namely, preach Christ, who, as Paul says in the Philippians hymn, is the one “God has highly exalted,” the one on whom God bestowed “the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9–11). That is the one useful thing to give them that they cannot get anywhere else.8

Consider what Paul says to the Corinthians: “When I came to you, brethren, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in much fear and trembling; and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:1–5). While it is true that one must do some “packaging” in preparing a homily, that one must tune homilies to God’s people in terms of style, that one must give a good “presentation,” it is also true that the preacher cannot forget that the substance of his preaching is not his own, nor can he improve upon it. In that sense, our product, the Good News, ought to sell itself.

Whether or not Paul was being uncharacteristically humble when he wrote that some thought his letters “weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account” (2 Cor. 10:10), he was in fact affirming that for the preacher the medium is not the message. It is necessary to guard that neither the accidents of the homily nor the person of the homilist become confused with the message, that is, the Messiah. Recall, if you will, Marshall McLuhan’s famous book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man . It came out in 1964, just one year after Murphy-O’Connor’s Preaching Paul. McLuhan writes: “In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message.”9 I do not think Paul would mind my quoting John’s Gospel on this one. Have you ever heard anything more antithetical to: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (3:30)? McLuhan’s quote illuminates Murphy-O’Connor’s prescience about the dechristianization of society, but it also highlights the dangers of this dechristianization, dangers that threaten preachers, who often confuse the Good News itself—the message—with the messengers—themselves.

What does Paul say about what he preached? To the Corinthians, he says: “Now I would remind you, brethren, in what terms I preached to you the Gospel, which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved, if you hold it fast—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:1–4). That is the primary kergyma that needs to preached, as we proclaim it at Mass: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”

Again, while one certainly has to prepare a homily in such a way as to make its words accessible, the preacher needs to keep in the forefront of his mind that the medium of the homily is not to be identified with the message that is Christ. Paul expressed this well when he remarked, “Even if I am unskilled in speaking, I am not in knowledge; in every way we have made this plain to you in all things” (2 Cor. 11:6). And a large part of that was theological instruction and moral exhortation. We need only remember Paul’s profound theological instruction vis-à-vis justification by faith in Romans and Galatians, the resurrection of Christ and of Christians in 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians, or the Christological hymns in Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians; or Paul’s strong moral exhortation vis-à-vis marriage in 1 Corinthians, laziness in 2 Thessalonians, or even paying taxes in Romans. If a homily has to be a reporting of useful news, that is, the Good News, with some application to present-day situations, that means that it has to speak not only of concepts but of behavior, for preaching “useful Good News” means at once theological instruction and moral exhortation. Here, Braxton is on the mark: “The pragmatic focus in Paul’s preaching provided gravitational pull to his theological conceptions, preventing those conceptions from hovering above the daily struggles of his converts. Surely Paul realized that preaching that neglected to provide useful guidance for daily living was woefully inadequate.”10

The preacher, then, is challenged to be faithful, passionate and useful. Paul is a role model for the preacher because he exemplified faith, passion and utility in his letters. Furthermore, Paul’s words are some of the richest sources of homiletic fodder in the New Testament. To be sure, the challenges to be faithful, passionate and useful in preaching are not limited to preaching Paul, but they are exemplified in him insofar as he himself is a guide to meeting them.11 Therefore, let us conclude with Paul’s words: “Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my Gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed and through the prophetic writings is made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith—to the only wise God be glory for evermore through Jesus Christ! Amen” (Rom. 16:25–27).

  1. Since the Vatican’s Latin Vulgate continues to list Hebrews under the heading of Paul’s letters, Hebrews is included in the Lectionary under the same title. Here, I use the terms “Pauline literature” and “Paul’s letters” interchangeably. Most scholars think that Paul was only directly responsible for seven letters—Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon—and most scholars believe the pastorals (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) came from other hands than Paul’s, although ones well-schooled in his thought. As for Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians, the jury is still out. As to Hebrews, scholarly consensus maintains that it is not written by Paul, not a letter, and not written to Hebrews. What I say here applies to Paul’s letters and to the others mutatis mutandis
  2. Note that I use the words “sermon” and “homily” more or less synonymously, though I recognize subtle distinctions; for the distinctions, see “From Sermon to Homily” (chap. 1) in Robert P. Waznak, An Introduction to the Homily (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1998), 1–30. Likewise, I apply the term “preacher” inclusively to both the ordained and non-ordained who spread God’s Word; those times when what I say refers exclusively to one state or the other should be evident to the reader. 
  3. Brad R. Braxton, Preaching Paul ( Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004), 27. 
  4. For helpful ways to discern ways to preach like Paul, see James W. Thompson, Preaching Like Paul: Homiletic Wisdom for Today ( Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001). 
  5. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, Paul on Preaching (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1963), xiii. 
  6. Walter J. Burghardt, Preaching: The Art and the Craft (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 1. 
  7. Braxton, 71 (emphasis original). 
  8. To develop useful sermons according to the pattern of Pauline readings given in the Sunday Lectionary, see Frank J. Matera, Strategies for Preaching Paul (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2001). 
  9. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964; rpt. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1964), 7. 
  10. Braxton, 39. 
  11. As Daniel Patte writes, “In order to learn how to preach Paul’s Gospel, there is no better teacher than Paul himself” (Preaching Paul, Fortress Resources for Preaching Paul {Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984}, 17). 
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avatar About Rev. Michael F. Hull

Reverend Michael F. Hull, S.T.D. is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York and a professor of Sacred Scripture at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie) in Yonkers, New York.

Comments

  1. avatar HPR Site Admin says:

    This was a popular thread on the previous HPRweb site, and we wanted to maintain the conversation regarding it. Some were comments were nested (in reply to other comments, not the article); unfortunately, that formatting has been lost. The comment section follows.

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    Dr. John W. Daniels, Jr. Th.D. |72.158.115.Xxx |2010-03-10 17:Mar:th
    A short note to say that Fr. Hull’s two articles on preaching Pauline texts (this one and the one in the March 2010 edition of HPR) are the most enjoyable articles I’ve ever read in HPR. Admittedly, I haven’t read every HPR article, and there are gaps in the history of my subscription. Nevertheless, it is refreshing to find an article(s) on the text that priests and deacons, after all, have to preach about. I’m surprised HPR does not publish more articles on the text like Fr. Hull’s. Nicely done!

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