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Preaching from Year B, May to July 2021: Where does Paul belong in our preaching?

12 March 2021

Where does Paul belong in our preaching?

Features Editor, Roman Catholic Permanent Deacon in the Westminster Diocese, former Principal Lecturer in Theology, St Mary’s University, Twickenham

The theme of this issue invites us to ask where the Pauline letters figure in our preaching, how we can use them and what they have to teach us. As Ian Paul points out in his article, ‘Why Preach on Paul?’ the popularity of narrative preaching tends to draw preachers to the Gospel readings rather that the epistles, on the basis that we live in a culture where ‘people prefer stories to ideas.’ But as Ian points out, this is based on a misconception since ‘the form of the texts need not determine the form of our preaching.’ Nor is it necessary to ‘preach in a wholly narrative style when preaching on the gospel’ or ‘not to use a lot of stories when preaching on Paul.’

 

SO WHY DO PREACHERS OFTEN NEGLECT PAUL?

This frequent neglect of Paul’s writings is not helped by any of the lectionaries in common use. In the core liturgical seasons of Advent through to Epiphany and Lent to Pentecost (‘Liturgical Time’) there is a unity in all three readings, governed by the Gospel reading. However, in post-Pentecost or ‘Ordinary Time’ the Old Testament reading is thematically linked with the Gospel, and the second New Testament reading, is continuous and has no necessary link with the other readings. Since this is the slot where Paul’s epistles occur, they are often either ignored or used as a fortuitous illustration for the theme of the Gospel. This neglect of Paul is unfortunate since, as Ian reminds us,

‘Paul’s writings are full of vivid metaphors, as he uses the full range of rhetorical strategies to communicate the power and the passion of the good news’ and ‘we actually need very similar skills, and the same kind of careful attention, to read and preach well on the gospels and Paul.’

 

ALL THINGS TO ALL PEOPLE

Power and passion in preaching derives directly from the personal conviction of the preacher. In one survey most respondents stated that what the most wanted was simply to hear a person of faith preaching.

Here Paul has much to teach us. All good preaching is both contextual and autobiographical. At the contextual level, the world of the New Testament is in many ways hugely different from our own. As Robert Evans reminds us, we want to know what the text meant in its original context ‘so that we can see how the teaching applies in our own congregations’ and as Ian tells us, Paul offers ‘a model of making sense of the good news of Jesus in a quite different social and cultural context … taking the good news of Jesus from a rural, Jewish context into a mostly urban Gentile one.’

 

KNOWING NOTHING, EXCEPT FOR CHRIST

At the autobiographical level too, Paul has much to teach the preacher about the importance of being able to communicate the strong sense of personal conviction that is fundamental to good preaching, and even more important than rhetorical skills (Chris Campbell, 4 July sermon). Paul, in 1 Corinthians 2:1-6, disclaims any rhetorical skills in his own preaching. He came among them, he says, knowing nothing ‘except for Christ, and him crucified’ Having said that, Paul is great autobiographical writer who related his faith to his personal story, both in his epistles and - at least as refracted by Luke - in his speeches in the Acts of the Apostles.

 

A GOSPEL OF RECONCILIATION

In the sermons that follow, the lectionary readings offer texts from Romans, 2 Corinthians, Ephesians (the latter being Pauline in its message, whether or not it was composed by Paul himself) and finally, another epistle with disputed authorship, the Second Letter to Timothy.

From among some excellent offerings by preachers from a variety of Christian traditions, Chris Thomas’ Ascension Day homily provides what Robert Evans would describe as a ‘participationist’ perspective on Ephesians 1:17-23. Meanwhile, Ashley Beck follows a similar path in his Trinity Sunday homily based upon Romans 8:14-17, providing a social application to the doctrine of the Trinity that is particularly apposite for our present circumstances.

This social application is to the fore in Carla Swafford Works exemplary commentary article on 2 Corinthians 5.16-21: ‘The new has dawned. God is in the business of rectifying God’s creation, and Paul has seen God in action … The distinctions that matter in the old world — Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free — do not matter in the real world. Because in this new world, God is reconciling all to Godself … All are enemies of God and stand in need of reconciliation.’

Clive Burrows preaching on 2 Corinthians 5:6-17 (13 June) describes 2 Corinthians as a ‘magnificent letter’ that ‘expounds clearly the “Gospel of Reconciliation”, through the redemptive work of Christ, and spells out its implications for all disciples of Jesus.’ Clare Hargreaves (18 July sermon) finds the same theme of reconciliation in Ephesians, contrasting the image of Christ breaking down the dividing wall of hostility with the Separation Wall between Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The relevance and topicality of the Pauline texts as expounded in these and other sermons in this section reinforce the wisdom of Ian Paul that, ‘If we do not preach on Paul as well as on the gospels, then our congregations will be missing out on being “equipped for every good work.”’

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