we preach not ourselves

A couple of years ago I happened across a book on preaching in the Regent College bookstore. Stumbling across books at Regent Books is a habit of mine that comes from having an office so close to temptation. I had not heard of the book or the author before: "We Preach Not Ourselves: Paul on Proclamation" by Michael P. Knowles. Published by Brazos Press in 2008 the book cover reported that Michael Knowles is a Canadian, an Anglican priest and professor of preaching at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton. What most caught my eye is that the book is an offer for preachers rooted in a careful reading of II Corinthians 1:1-6:13. I continue to find myself drawn back to the book over and over again. In part, that is because I have been drawn to Paul over and over again in recent years. Paul's letters speak with power to the struggle to build up a sustainable, faithful congregation in a time when we are struggling to see the way ahead. But I also return to "We Preach Not Ourselves" often because it is the kind of book that I can open on most any page and find sustenance.

Here are a few quotes that spoke to me yesterday, while waiting in the hospital for my second weekly dose of chemotherapy to be delivered (on that score so far, so good). The nurses regularly ask what book I am reading, expecting the latest novel. I suspect that not too many patients arrive with books on preaching. The following quotes are taken from the section on II Corinthians 4:16-5:15 (the verses from which we have a lectionary reading upcoming on Sunday, June 10 and from which I intend to preach) ...

"To be governed by this orientation to the holy and to commend it to others requires preachers, paradoxically, to acknowledge the reality of personal suffering within themselves and their congregants, whatever form that suffering might take. For only the painful acknowledgment that one is indeed, "wasting away" will likely be sufficient to sustain the search for alternative sources of life, or to elicit the discipline required for such careful listening. The confident and polished rhetoric of the "super-apostles" and their ilk (however illusory) will otherwise prove far too appealing" (p. 196)

"To preach on this model is to urge one's hearers, as does Paul, "Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ" (I Cor. 11:1). That is, one preaches on the basis of one's experience of Christ, not in the sense of imposing a spiritual regimen from above, but offering (in self-defense if necessary) an explanation of what has proven spiritually sustaining in personal experience, and therefore may be of benefit to others. Paul's preaching points to the possibility of Christ being at work in his hearers and, by implication, seeks to identify the evidence of that reality within them, amid whatever difficulties they currently face. His homiletic method, if we may call it that, consists primarily of conveying a vision of Christ's gracious activity among them. Although it is heavy with theology and has many implications for morality, his message hinges on spirituality.

It is daunting to think that one's main qualification as a pastor or a preacher should be the depth of one's spiritual need (which is not, fortunately, quite the same as emotional or psychological need). Yet this is what Paul confesses to be his own qualification. True, he is also certain of having been divinely commissioned, but the claim of commissioning is in itself no proof of personal qualification. Even if it had been, subsequent events have convinced him that the source of his ministerial authority and effectiveness does not lie within him. This being the case, the model he purposes is one of vulnerability and transparency, of confessing that one is (in a number of senses) "wasting away," in continual need of spiritual sustenance, and at the same time constantly "being renewed" by the power of God. Although there is the danger in such an approach of narcissism and excessive introspection (all the more so given the narcissism and excessive introspection of Western culture), Paul seems to escape this trap, managing as every preacher must to maintain a focus on Christ." (p. 198)

"To preach on the model of Paul is to acknowledge with one's hearers that the evidence of Christ's power is, by contrast, not overwhelming. That is to say, insofar as the God of Jesus Christ does not compel belief, neither does preaching employ coercion, but is an expression of trust that invites others to similar trust. Indeed, communication of the Christian message can be no more commanding or coercive than was Jesus himself in choosing self-sacrifice over the use of force as the means to inspire faith (cf Matt. 26:53,55)."  (p. 201)

"Much as it may seem confusing, or even contrary to social expectation, the life and ministry of the preacher is to be an expression and embodiment of the cross and resurrection." (p. 217)

1 comment:

  1. Would this also apply to the community to which the preacher is called? As a community of Christ, are we not brought together to proclaim the salvation of God as met in Christ Jesus and not focus so much on us as what God is calling us out to?

    This faith we are called to is both very personal and very global in nature.