Chapter 5: The Preacher

Preaching the Gospel
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 5: The Preacher

Both as the title for this chapter and frequently in the course of our discussion I have used the word ‘preacher.’ My reason for doing so is obvious; the topic which we are considering is the proclamation of the gospel which in common parlance is called ‘preaching’; and hence the person to whom has been entrusted this task as part of his responsibility as an ordained minister is frequently called ‘preacher.’ As a matter of fact, there are also Christian groups in which that is the normal term for an ordained person.

It is important, however, to stress that in the wider Christian tradition preaching is but one of the functions of those who have been ordained. In the Catholic tradition an ordained person is commonly known as a priest; in the Reformed communions he or she is called an elder or presbyter; in all Christian thought he or she has been known as a minister, with duties that are distinctively his or hers through having been ‘set apart’ to act representatively for the wider ministry of all Christian people. That is the appropriate context for whatever we may wish to say about the duty of preaching or the proclamation of the ‘good news.’ This fact is important not only in respect to ‘church order’ but also in very practical ways.

I say this because I am convinced that the preaching of the gospel is best done by one who has a more extended range of ministerial obligations. Some have talked about the ‘ministry of prophecy’, which is indeed a very real aspect of the Church’s work. But prophets are not ordained; they are called by God, usually from among the laity, to speak a word in season. In the Old Testament this is plain enough; only Isaiah among the canonical prophets whose oracles are reported to us was a member of the Jewish priesthood. In the history of the Christian Church prophets have appeared from time to time, sometimes of course from the ordained ministry but more frequently without the benefit of such authorization to act on behalf of the community. This is why I for one object to the kind of discussion which presumes that the preaching function is in itself a prophetic one. There is an important distinction here which must not be forgotten.

Many do not like the word ‘priest’ as a term to describe the ordained person; but it is a relatively harmless usage? After all, as a well-known saying in England centuries ago put it, ‘new priest is but old presbyter.’ Which is to say, the leader of the community in this or that place acts as the designated ‘elder’ and performs what can rightly be known as priestly functions, even if that particular word is not employed. The job of the ordained person, acting always on behalf of the Church itself and always as an ‘under-shepherd’ of the Good Shepherd who is Christ, is to labor as one who seeks to bring God to God’s human children and to bring those human children to God. It is, so to say, a mediatorial task, although as such it is not one’s own by any gift or quality which he or she may think to be personal to the minister; it is by designation to serve representatively for the mediatorship which Christian faith assigns to the Lord alone in any ultimate and abiding sense.

But the very term ‘under-shepherd’ which I have just used will be helpful to us. A shepherd is a ‘pastor’; and basic to all ministering by those ordained is this sort of service. To use the perhaps outmoded idiom of an earlier day, the ordained person is to care for the flock of Christ, to see that they are fed and tended, to aid them and urge them to be what they are -- Christ’s people gathered into a community whose chief Shepherd is the Lord but on whose behalf the ordained person is to do a particular sort of work. Thus we might say that preaching is part of a pastoral ministry; it is a way, if not the chief nor the only way, in which the care of the people of God is to be carried out. If with this we associate the usual ‘catholic’ view that a priest is especially assigned the responsibility of administering the sacraments of the Church and in particular the celebration of the Eucharist, we have a proper setting or context for the labor of proclamation. There is a balance here, a proportionate arrangement of duties and obligations.

Having said this, as a way of putting the matter in the right perspective, we may now go on to consider some necessary aspects of the preacher’s own existence which provide the background for the duties to be carried out in preaching. I shall mention several which seem to me to be inescapable for any responsible minister.

The first thing that should be said is that a responsible preacher is not concerned to proclaim his or her own opinions, ideas, or beliefs. Because a preacher is representing the agelong Christian tradition, what he or she is expected to do is to speak forcibly and boldly on behalf of that tradition. This is not to say that a preacher will be a parrot who repeats over and over again either the exact words learned in theological school or assumes that the ‘everlasting gospel’ does not stand in need of continual ‘up-dating.’ The essence of the proclamation is the importance of the event of Jesus Christ as the disclosure of the divine reality at work everywhere in the world and the releasing of the divine love which brings shalom to the sons and daughters of the human race. Obviously every preacher will have his or her own way of making the proclamation; his or her own understanding of it, as well as his or her own experience of what it entails, which will inevitably affect the way in which he or she must speak. At the same time, there is some truth in the remark made by a very young clergyman who when rebuked by a lady in his congregation because he was such a young man that he had no business speaking so forcibly to his congregation replied, ‘Madam, when I put a stole around my shoulders I am two thousand years old!’ Of course that was both a silly and a presumptuous remark. But as I have said, it has its truth, which is simply that the preacher, representing the historic Christian tradition, is commissioned to proclaim the Church’s gospel, by which it lives and for whose declaration it has been given the inescapable responsibility. This need not, for a moment, suggest there will be nothing fresh and new in the preaching; after all, the gospel is both ever-old and ever-new, which means that it is about a given affirmation which is to be adapted to (but not altered for) the people to whom it is being brought.

To say that, of course, is also to say that a preacher needs to be an informed person. The years which such an one spends in study preparing for the exercise of ministry is intended to make him or her such an informed person. I remember a young priest whom I knew who told me with some pride that he had not ‘cracked a theological book’ (as he phrased it) since he had left theological college. I could only think that his preaching must be pretty inadequate; and when the next day I heard his sermon I found that I had thought correctly. It was nothing but a series of outworn clichés, showing that he had failed entirely to keep himself alert to new ways in which the old truth may be said; while he also made the sad mistake of assuming that whatever seemed to him interesting or significant constituted in itself the gospel which he had been ordained to preach. I did not want him to preach theology; as I have said, that would not be genuine preaching at all. But I did wish that he had kept himself sufficiently informed so that when and as and if he did (almost by accident!) preach that gospel it would not appear to be either his own invention or (even worse) so stale and pointless that nobody could be expected to take it seriously.

Again, a preacher who knows his or her business will be aware of the people to whom the sermon is addressed. I have spoken about this in an earlier chapter; here I need only say that one of the great assets of the pastor-preacher is precisely that acquaintance with the men and women who assist at worship will provide real awareness of how those people stand in need of what is proclaimed and how they may best be helped to assimilate the reality which in Christian faith is given to the world. I may speak personally here, but with due apology for doing so. Most of my preaching in recent years has been in a college chapel at services which are attended by hundreds of people about whom I know little if anything. I find it extremely difficult to put myself in their place and to try so to preach that the content of my sermon -- which is always, so far as I can make it, the proclamation of the importance of the event of Jesus Christ as decisive and focal in the God-human relationship -- can be brought home to my auditors. Fortunately, in addition to preaching at these great and crowded services in our chapel I have had the opportunity quite regularly to preach briefly to the young men and young women of the college who have come on Sunday evenings to what we call ‘college communion.’ I know them, often very well; and I find that I can speak to them with confidence and the sense of meeting to some degree their needs and speaking to ‘their condition’, as Quakers would put it. This means that there is what might be called a much more personal relationship between us, which is almost entirely lacking on the other occasions to which I have referred.

In another piece of writing I have told about a clergyman whom I knew slightly during my years of teaching in New York City. This older man, I learned, had a practice which seems to me admirable but which so far as I know is very seldom found. A day or two before he was to preach at the main Sunday Eucharist he would go into the church which he had served for many years. There he would seat himself at various places, front and back and in the middle, calling to mind the persons, young and old, who normally occupied those places at the service. As a faithful and devoted pastor he was well-acquainted with them all. He would ask himself, in each place, ‘What does John or Mary or Samuel or Helen need to have said to them, so that they may more truly and deeply understand and experience the meaning for each of them of that which God has accomplished in Jesus Christ?’ Then in the preparation of the sermon he was to preach on the Sunday, he would do this with them in mind, so that he might be able to some degree at least to make the gospel relevant to them and meaningful for them, precisely in their given situation and need. I was told that this priest was not only much loved by his people but was considered by them to be a highly effective preacher. No wonder!

Another matter which needs stressing is that a preacher like any Christian needs to keep his or her own faith fresh and alive. This is easy enough to say but its implementation requires a life of Christian discipleship which is nourished by prayer and meditation. In other words, such a preacher should be devout in the best sense of that word. I have spoken of my old friend Theodore Ferris. He once told me that he not only spent many hours working on what as delivered seemed very simple and straightforward both in expression and in content. He also brought his preparation and the sermon which was its result into his own praying. He did not expect that God would give him with no effort on his part the words which would be right; but he was sure that by ‘thinking prayerfully’, in the attentive presence of God’, about those words which seemed to him to be best he would be able to come closer to preaching with a sense that these were right for him to use -- and what is more, he could commit them, along with his own admittedly inadequate and deficient effort, to God so that they might be used in a way pleasing to God and more likely to find acceptance from God’s people.

In a book whose topic is the preaching of the gospel, it would not be appropriate or necessary to speak at length about the devotional life of the preacher of that gospel. None the less, a few words may be useful on the subject. Certainly every priest or pastor worth his or her salt will be one who himself -- or herself -- seeks to live as a Christian disciple; and that means having the habit of prayer and meditation. (Incidentally, I have regularly added ‘her’ or ‘herself’ because I am convinced that sooner or later the Christian churches, both Catholic and Reformed, will be obliged to recognize the role of women, not least in the ordained ministry. All arguments, whether biblical, theological, or of any other type seem to me to be mistaken, sometimes based on surprising ignorance, and usually merely an expression of masculine prejudice!)

One way into a brief series of comments on the devotional context for the right preaching of the gospel is found in considering seriously the words that are used at the ordination of a clergyman. As myself an Anglican, I shall use the words that are found in the Alternative Service Book of the Church of England. Similar language is employed in other such ordination services, whether in the world-wide Anglican Communion or in other Christian denominations.

In the English Alternative Service Book (pp. 356 and following), the bishop who is ordaining candidates for the priesthood is directed to speak in this fashion in what is called ‘The Declaration’; which is then followed by questions and answers in-tended to demonstrate the reality of the ordinands’ ‘call to ministry’:

‘A priest is called by God to work with the bishop and with his fellow priests, as servant and shepherd among the people to whom he is sent. He is to proclaim the word of the Lord, to call his hearers to repentance, and in Christ’s name to absolve, and to declare the forgiveness of sins. He is to baptize, and prepare the baptized for confirmation. He is to preside at the celebration of the Holy Communion. He is to lead his people in prayer and worship, to intercede for them, to bless them in the name of the Lord, and to teach and encourage by word and example, He is to minister to the sick, and prepare the dying for their death. He must set the Good Shepherd before him as the pattern of his calling, caring for the people committed to his charge, and joining with them in a common witness to the world.

‘In the name of our Lord we bid you remember the greatness of the trust now to be committed to your charge, about which you have been taught in your preparation for this ministry. You are to be messengers, watchmen, and stewards of the Lord; you are to teach and to admonish, to feed and to provide for the Lord’s family, to search for his children in the wilderness of this world’s temptations and to guide them through its confusions, so that they may be saved through Christ for ever.

‘Remember always with thanksgiving that the treasure now to be entrusted to you in Christ’s own flock, brought through the shedding of his blood on the cross. The Church and congregation among whom you will serve are one with him; they are his body. Serve them with joy, build them up in faith, and do all in your power to bring them to loving obedience to Christ.

‘Because you cannot bear the weight of this ministry in your own strength but only by the grace and power of God, pray earnestly for his Holy Spirit. Pray that he will each day enlarge and enlighten your understanding of the Scriptures, so that you may grow stronger and more mature in your ministry, as you fashion your life and the lives of your people on the word of God.

‘We trust that long ago you began to weigh and ponder all this, and that you are fully determined, by the grace of God, to give yourselves wholly to his service and devote to him your best powers of mind and spirit, so that as you daily follow the rule and teaching of our Lord, with the heavenly assistance of his Holy Spirit, you may grow up into his likeness, and sanctify the lives of all with whom you have to do.’

I have ventured to quote this in full, because it can be useful for those who are familiar with this charge to read it again, while for others it provides an admirable outline of what Christian ordained ministry both means and establishes. Of course the language of the Alternative Service Book lacks the oratundty and elegance of the similar ‘exhortation’ in the old Book of Common Prayer; but it says the same things in a more contemporary idiom and speaks directly to the persons who hope to serve in the ministry.

It will be noted that great stress is put on the personal devotion of the minister. Prayer to God is an imperative, both for strength to perform the duties which are laid upon such an one and also for the insight and understanding of the gospel of which he or she is to be a representative and a spokesman. Above all, as he or she seeks to ‘grow stronger and more mature’ in ministry, he or she is to ‘labor to fashion [his or her] own life and the lives of [his or her] people on the word of God’ -- that is to say, on the gospel of God’s act in Jesus Christ. And the proclamation of that gospel, along with presiding at the celebration of the Eucharist, is said to be central to the ministry which is being undertaken.

Perhaps I need not say more on this subject, save to urge again that the Ordinal is very clear about the way in which the minister’s own life of prayer and meditation is intimately related to all of the duties and responsibilities which attach to that ministry, The point surely is that unless an ordained person is a convinced and practicing Christian, the performance of those various functions will be less than right; ‘only by the grace and power of God’ received through earnest prayer can those functions be properly exercised, We also observe that the end or purpose of preaching, quite as much as of the other things to be done by the ordained person, is to bring the people to what the older Prayer Book Ordinal called ‘ripeness’ in Christ -- a sharing, to the limit of each Christian’s possibility, in the life which is lived ‘in Christ’ and which is then to be ‘witnessed’ to ‘the world.’

In the course of this exhortation, much is said about ‘the word of God’ and about the ‘understanding of the Scriptures.’ This brings us to the subject of the next chapter, which is about the Bible, the tradition of which the Bible is a part, and the relation of both to the Christian proclamation. But before we come to that subject, one final comment seems to be indicated. That comment has to do with the manner in which the ordained person, and in the context of this book the preacher, looks at himself or herself and at ministerial activity. The danger is that it is always possible to be altogether too much concerned to emphasize one’s own place and person in this exercise.

When I was young, brought up in what was called ‘the High Church’ tradition, I often heard priests speak about their Eucharist or Mass, It did not dawn upon me until much later how wrong was such an expression. In other traditions, I gather, something of the same sort was thought and said, so that one could hear clergymen speak as if their preaching was in fact their preaching. Language of that sort was surely not intended to be presumptuous or blasphemous; it was only a careless way of speaking. Yet it is sadly wrong and improper. As I have said, that it was this only dawned upon me in after-years, as I became more and more certain that ordination does not confer a status but authorizes a function. There was a day when those who had been ordained might easily think that they had been given a very special status as between God and humanity; after all, the sort of world in which many people believed was a world in which such matters of status were familiar and acceptable. Whatever may have been the case at that time, however, no longer can we entertain any such view of the world; nor can we think of ministry in this fashion. I have discussed this at an earlier stage in this book.

The ordained minister who understands correctly what ministry in Christian terms signifies will therefore have a certain deep humility as he or she thinks about the office entrusted in ordination. Whatever is done by one who is ordained, is not done instead of but on behalf of the wider ministry of the Church of Christ. It is done representatively, for and in the Christian community. If that is true, then it is done also and ultimately for the Lord of the Church himself. It is as if God in Christ were preaching, celebrating the sacraments, absolving and declaring forgiveness, visiting those who need help, and everything else that is proper to the ministerial task.

So a priest cannot speak or think of his or her Eucharist; a preacher cannot speak or think of his or her preaching, his or her sermon, his or her proclamation of the ‘good news’ about God’s decisive action in Jesus Christ. Of course it is he or she who does the actual celebrating and the preaching; it is his or hers hands, voice, vocabulary, gestures and the like which are the necessary finite human means through which the thing is being done. Yet he or she will bear in mind, sometimes with vivid awareness but (since after all an ordained person is human) more frequently as an ever-present but often only vaguely felt sensibility, that God in Christ, God defined by and enacted in the event of Jesus Christ, is the doer, the speaker, the preacher, the pastor, the absolver, the helper. At best the one who serves in the ordained ministry is an unprofitable servant of God. At the same time, however, God deigns to employ human agents and to use human instruments for the accomplishment of his purpose.

In an older theology this would be described in terms of what was known as ‘the principle of incarnation’ or ‘the sacramental principle’: that is, things divine are expressed and made known in and by things creaturely. We may not wish to use that idiom today, although there is much which commends it as still valuable and suggestive, But whether we prefer to use some other fashion of speaking or are content to use the older idiom, the basic truth remains constant. It is that basic truth which ought always to be part of ministerial equipment, as we may phrase it.

The exhortation which I quoted in full had several significant references to the Bible and to the Holy Scriptures. I noted this m my comments immediately following the quotation. To that subject we shall turn in the next chapter whose title is ‘The Bible, the Tradition, and Preaching.’