Reflecting on a life as a preacher

Yesterday I was asked to give a brief presentation at the start of the homiletics class, addressing three questions as a preacher:

What do you think preaching is/does?

How to do prepare to preach?

What is the most important thing you have learned about preaching?

I’m at a reflective time in my life, so I appreciated the invitation to think back on something that has been a central occupation of mine for forty-four years.

When I was a young preacher, it became my habit to read from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Finkenwalde lectures on preaching every Sunday morning.[1] After spending many hours during the week crafting a sermon that I thought would engage, surprise, challenge or comfort my congregation, I found it important to remind myself what my task actually was that morning. Here are some passages that I underlined, so that I could find them quickly.

“…the proclaimed word is not a medium of expression for something else, something which lies behind it, but rather it is the Christ himself walking through his congregation as the Word. (p.126)

“This proclamation of the Christ does not regard its primary responsibility to be giving advice, arousing emotions, or stimulating the will – it will do these things, too – but its intention is to sustain us. The Word is there that burdens may be laid upon it. (p.127)

“This self-movement of the word to the congregation should not be hindered by the preacher, but rather he should acknowledge it. He should not allow his own efforts to get in its way. If we attempt to give impetus to the word, then it becomes distorted into words of instruction or education or experience. As such it can no longer uphold the congregation nor sustain it. (p.128)

“By forsaking my personal ambitions I accompany the text along its own way into the congregation and thus remain natural, balanced, compassionate, and factual. This permits the Word’s almost magnetic relationship to its congregation. I do not give life to it, but it gives life to me and to the congregation. The movement of the Word to its congregation is accomplished through the interpretation of it.” (p.138)

Re-reading these quotations three other things from when I was a young preacher came to mind. First, Bonhoeffer’s perspective is obviously consistent with the Uniting Church’s understanding of both preaching and ordination as it is expressed in its Basis of Union. On preaching, the Basis reaffirms the Reformation claim that Christ is present (Christus praesens) in the proclamation of the Gospel:

“The Uniting Church acknowledges that the Church is able to live and endure through the changes of history only because its Lord comes, addresses, and deals with people in and through the news of his completed work. Christ who is present when he is preached among people is the Word of the God who acquits the guilty, who gives life to the dead and who brings into being what otherwise could not exist. Through human witness in word and action, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ reaches out to command people’s attention and awaken faith; he calls people into the fellowship of his sufferings, to be the disciples of a crucified Lord; in his own strange way Christ constitutes, rules and renews them as his Church.” (paragraph 4)

The understanding of ordination, then, is a logical conclusion to this doctrine of the Christus praesens:

“Since the Church lives by the power of the Word, it is assured that God, who has never left himself without witness to that Word, will, through Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit, call and set apart members of the Church to be ministers of the Word. These will preach the Gospel, administer the sacraments and exercise pastoral care so that all may be equipped for their particular ministries, thus maintaining the apostolic witness to Christ in the Church.” (paragraph 14a)

At the time Bonhoeffer’s lectures on homiletics came into my hands I was completing doctoral research on the development of the understanding of ministry in the Australian church union negotiations. Bonhoeffer was explaining what was later crystallised in the Basis of Union.

The second thing that came to mind was that, if asked, I remember I used to say “I try to preach on Sunday the message that converted me during the week”. That is, I would read the lessons for the following Sunday first thing on a Monday morning and then live with them through the week. Of course, I’d have the help of commentaries, Lectio Divina, John Wesley’s Forty-four Sermons or other historical and theological resources. But, essentially, I understood myself to be a congregation of one waiting to be encountered by Christ the Word in the text, so that I could then be a witness to that Word on Sunday.

Third, I was recently reminded of a prayer that I wrote to pray before delivering my sermon. I would pray silently “Lord Jesus Christ, although my words will undoubtedly humiliate you, please accept them all the same; and through the humiliation of preaching may we be encountered by you who bore the humiliation of incarnation and the cross for our sake and the world’s.” Then I would say aloud, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”[2]

And what have I learned about preaching? Three things come to mind. Each is a piece of advice I was given after one of my many failures as a preacher:

Be yourself. Be humble. Be authentic.


[1] Clyde E Fant, Bonhoeffer: Worldly Preaching. With Bonhoeffer’s Finkenwalde Lectures on Homiletics, Nashville and New York: Thomas Nelson Inc, 1975

[2] Quoted in Wesley J Wildman, God Is… Meditations on the Mystery of Life, the Purity of Grace, the Bliss of Surrender, and the God Beyond God, Eugene Oregon: Cascade Books, 2019, xxi

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