Wednesday 3 June 2015

The Spiritual Character of the Preacher

A short homily preached before the bishops and priests gathered at the European Coptic Clergy Conference in Venice, May 2015

My holy fathers, I am not worthy to address this congregation on any subject, but I do so in obedience to the instruction that I speak for a few minutes about the spirituality of the one who preaches.

The spirituality of preaching is not concerned with the techniques we might use to communicate an idea, but it is to do with the spiritual quality and character of those who preach, and the spiritual quality and character of those things which are spoken.

In the Gospel for the Liturgy which was provided in the Katamarous for yesterday, I read the words from John 7:18...

"He that speaks from himself seeks his own glory, but he that seeks the glory of his that sent him is true and there is no unrighteousness in him".

What does this mean? It surely means that it is possible to speak from a heart that seeks our own glory rather than the glory of God. Such a one might well have a reputation as a great preacher. But he cannot preach Christ if he is preaching himself. His preaching may be clever, but it will not be wise. It may be amusing to the congregation and entertaining, but it will not be transforming. It cannot draw people to Christ since the heart of such a preacher is concerned, even if he does not realise it, with the glory of self.

We can see in our own hearts if we are seeking our own glory. We will be disturbed if we are not often praised for our great abilities. We will be jealous of the success of others. We will hesitate to say anything that might lead to a loss of our popularity..

But such a focus on our own lives, on the glory of self, as the Gospel teaches, is neither true nor righteous.  It is not true because there is no glory in us. It is not righteous because it is an expression of pride, the greatest of sins, and makes us like Lucifer, who saw the divine glory reflected in himself and believed it was a glory that belonged to him.

If we are to speak, it must be as those who seek the glory of the one who has sent us, and has given us this ministry of service which we do not deserve and cannot accomplish in our own strength. To seek the glory of God is to deny our own self.

It is the Lord Jesus Christ himself who sets us an example of what it means to be those who seek the glory of God rather than the glory of self. He entered this world in humility and took the form of a servant. He endured the hatred and abuse of those he loved with an unfailing love, and he became obedient, even to death, saying on behalf of all mankind in the Garden of Gethsemane, "Your will be done".

The one who would preach to the glory of God in truth and righteousness must be just such a humble and obedient servant of the loving will of God.

If we will seek to glorify ourselves then our service is of self. If we will deny ourselves then the glory of the Lord will fill our hearts and will shine forth in all we say and do.

We read in the New Testament on three occasions that it is said to those who have the ministry of care for the Church that they are to "feed my sheep".

In John 21 our Lord asks St Peter three times if he loves him, and when he replies that he does then he is commands, "feed my sheep".

Our service and our preaching is of no value if it is not conducted out of love for God and for Christ who gives us this ministry. These are not our sheep. They belong to the Lord, and we are granted the privilege of serving with the Great Shepherd of the flock, but our service must be in love.

Our service must be one of nourishment. We are to feed the sheep. Not to entertain them, nor to show them how clever we are and how much we have read. If our preaching and service is to be in love, and for the glory of God, then we must address the needs of the flock of Christ when we speak.

In Acts 20:28, St Paul, also instructing the priests of the Church, and repeating the words "feed the Church of God", says, "Pay attention to yourselves and to the flock over which the Holy Spirit has made you shepherds".
To feed the flock we must be aware of the needs of the flock. What are the concerns that burden them? What struggles are they enduring? What are the special temptations to sin and doubt that afflict them?

If we are to feed and nourish the flock over which we have been given charge then we must pay attention to the flock, we must know each of the sheep by name, and know their needs so that we may feed them with spiritual nourishment.

But St Paul instructs us to pay attention to ourselves. The quality of our own spiritual life will be reproduced in those over whom we have responsibility. Can one who is filled with anger teach others to be gentle? Can one who does not pray lead others into the presence of God within the temple of the heart? Can one who does not love the Scriptures open their inner meaning to those who want to hear the word of God from his lips?

We must pay attention to ourselves because the spiritual life we experience is all that we have to offer others in our teaching and preaching.

Our Lord Jesus Christ, in Matthew 12:35 speaks of the good man, who out of the good treasure of his heart brings out good things.

If we are to be those who preach to the glory of God and for the salvation of souls then we must have this spiritual treasure already in our heart so that we are able to bring it out in the service of others.

The duties of the spiritual service are many, but it is not possible to serve in our own strength. To do so is to glorify self. Our Lord went away from the crowds and found nourishment himself in the presence of his Father. How much more necessary is it for us to be committed to the spiritual life, not as something extra and additional to our service, but as the very basis and foundation of all service.

Our Lord Jesus Christ sent out his disciples saying to them, in Matthew 10:8, "Freely you have received, freely give".  This is the necessary quality and character of our preaching. It must be the speaking of that which we have already received. It must be the fruit of our own spiritual experience. It must be the experience of a life lived in humble and obedient seeking after the glory of God.

And when we feel unable and unworthy, we may remember the Lord commanding the disciples to feed the great crowd that had come to see him. He said to them, "you feed them". All they could find were a couple of fish and a few loaves of bread, but offered to God and transformed by his presence, it was enough for all.  

May the little fruit we offer the Lord, fruit of our own spiritual life with Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, be used in the same manner to feed the flock of God. Amen.

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