Preaching Gospel as Gospel: Distinguishing Law and Promise

mestzaje_c-pantocratorFather Aidan Kimel is doing a fantastic little series right now. He has given me permission to repost his series on my blog. I really think this is some delightful stuff he is sharing. Make sure to check out his blog “Eclectic Orthodoxy“! This is the third part of his series.

Part I 

Part II 

Preaching Gospel as Gospel: Distinguishing Law and Promise 

If the gospel is unconditional promise, then that means … well … no conditions! The language of unconditionality has become so commonplace when speaking of the love of God that it is very easy to miss the radicality of the gospel itself. In itself, to say that God loves unconditionally is simply to describe God, either in his trinitarian relations or in his relationship to creatures. It’s good to know this about God, yet it is not yet gospel. The descriptive statement “God is love” is not a promissory utterance that directly and personally interprets, challenges, and reconfigures my hopes, fears, and sins. One might just as easily have said “The Rocky Mountains are huge.” Both are true statements, but both leave me untouched in my present situation. I can well imagine hearers responding, “Oh really. That’s nice to know. Would someone please pass the salt.” In order to move the statement into gospel-speech, one needs to translate it into something like “Because God is unconditional love, therefore _____.” The preacher needs to fill in the blank with something that he knows will address the hearer in his need and sin. Possible candidates to fill in the blank might include:

Because God is unconditional love, therefore all of your sins are completely and forever forgiven. You may therefore let go all of your guilt and self-condemnation.

Because God is unconditional love, therefore you can stop trying to earn your way into God’s good graces. You are already accepted by him.

Because God is unconditional love, therefore you are assured a place in the kingdom. His love will triumph over your disbelief and sin.

So forth and so on. Personally I believe that it would be better to express the unconditionality of the divine love more explicitly through the story of Jesus Christ. By itself “God is love” is too general and abstract to really do the job as gospel utterance. But the critical homiletical point is the move from description to unconditional promise.

To clarify the power of an unconditional promise, let’s reflect a bit on conditional promises. Conditional promises are typically formulated as “If … then …” statements:

If you get straight A’s on your report card, I’ll take you to the amusement park.

If you avoid a speeding ticket for five years, your insurance rates will go down.

If you meet your sales quota, you will get that job promotion you have coveted for so long.

For each the outcome is dependent upon the performance of the one to whom the promise is made. If the promise is spoken to me, I am the one who bears the responsibility, and burden, of fulfilling the prescribed work. The conditional promise puts before me a task to be performed. If the task is within my abilities and powers, I will eagerly work to obtain the reward and afterward will celebrate and take pride in my accomplishment. But if the task is beyond my abilities and power, then I’ll probably just give up on it.

But think what happens if the promised result is a penalty of some kind.

If you go faster than the speed limit, you will be fined $85.

Okay, that’s not too bad. I just have to stay disciplined and watch what I am doing.

If you do not meet your job quota, you will be fired.

Uh oh. Things are not looking so good now. The economy is depressed. I’m already working 70 hours a week. How am I going to meet this demand. And if I lose my job, my wife and children will suffer terribly. I guess I’ll just have to start working 90 hours a week and hope I get lucky, before I collapse from exhaustion.

If you do not pull the trigger and kill that man, your son will die.

Precisely this situation occurred in the latest episode of “The Bridge.” The Mexican police officer was placed in an impossible situation. What was he to do? All outcomes were bad.

Now consider the following conditional promises that are regularly spoken by preachers of the gospel:

If you believe on Jesus Christ and repent of your sins, you will be saved and will enjoy eternal life.

The promised outcome is wonderful—what could be more wonderful than eternal blessedness?—but how difficult will it be for me to believe on Jesus and repent of my sins? It might be fairly easy (or seem easy) if I am already largely persuaded by the arguments presented to me that Jesus truly is the Son of God, and if I’m not too addicted to my patterns of sinfulness and I don’t really have to give up too much. But as the level of existential difficulty increases, so will my sense of discouragement. I may even find myself lost in despair. And if “faith” is understood in its full biblical significance, then it becomes an impossible condition to fulfill.

If you sell all that you own, give the money to the poor, and become a missionary in Africa, you will be rewarded with the riches of heaven.

Uh oh. The stakes have been raised. I live in a lovely home right on the coast in Malibu. I’m the successful president of a technology firm. I love all the perks of my job. I’m in relationship with the lovely Gwyneth Paltrow. I fly around the world in this incredible iron suit. I’m not sure if I’m willing or able to give all of that up and live in poverty in Africa. Isn’t there another way?

If you do not obey the moral law perfectly, Almighty God will condemn you to everlasting perdition.

Oh my. This is the worst news I have ever heard. I covet the wife of my neighbor two doors down. I regularly lie on my tax returns. I gossip about my boss behind his back. I hate wasting my time in prayer. I spend too much money on entertainment and don’t give enough to charity (what is enough?). I dislike like my parents and would prefer never to speak to them again. I cannot forgive my wife for divorcing me for another man. I drink and smoke too much. I am a prisoner of my passions. How the hell can I ever avoid hell?! It’s all too much! I am lost!

As the stakes get higher and the attainment of the promised reward, or the avoidance of the promised penalty, becomes increasingly difficult, the conditional promise becomes more and more destructive in my life. It binds me to the past and closes the future. In essence a conditional promise is just a form of law, sheer demand and obligation. Robert Jenson elaborates:

The “law” is the totality of all human communication, insofar as what we say to each other functions in our lives as demand, or, what is the same, poses the future conditionally. Literal laws say, “If you do such-and-such, such-and-such will happen.” They open a desired or feared future and make that future depend on what the person addressed does or is in advance thereof. The way the Reformers used “law” supposes that explicitly lawlike utterances make up a good deal of the human conversation, and that a strong law-factor pervades the whole. (Lutheranism, pp. 43-44)

How does a particular utterance pose a future to its hearer? Clearly a promise poses a future in a very particular way: as gift. All the rest of our communication, various as it is, shares one common character: it poses a future not as gift but as obligation. The whole network of our discourse and community, except insofar as it is promise, functions for each of us individually as demand. We share life in the demands which each of us, in his self-communication, is for all the rest of us. … The theological tradition has used the label “law” for the web of our communication insofar as it has this character; for civil and criminal laws are a clear paradigm of the way in which non-promise words pose a future. “If you do such-and-such,” says the law, “then such-and-such will happen.” Such an utterance poses a possible future, but also binds it to a prior condition, binds it, that is, to a past. Whether the possibility offered by the “then …” part is realized depends on the “if …” part, on what I do or do not do beforehand. And on this that I do or fail to do therefore falls the weight of the utterance; it is a demand on my performance. (Story and Promise, p. 7)

A conditional promise throws the promisee back upon his own efforts and resources to obtain the reward and blessing of the promise. The promisor has done his job—he has tendered his offer, presented the contract. Now it is up to the promisee to fulfill the stated conditions and complete the transaction.

But consider what a difference an unconditional promise makes. Unconditional promises are typically formulated in the form of “Because … therefore.”

Because you have done so well in school this past year, I’m giving you a week-long holiday in Cancun. Surprise!

Because I love you, I am going to take you out to dinner tonight.

Because you are finding it so hard to learn French, I’m going to spend two hours an evening with you this week and help you with your lessons.

We immediately observe that the burden for fulfilling the “contract” has shifted from the promisee to the promisor. In fact, there is no contract. There is only the gift. The promisee does not have to do anything—no ifs, ands, or buts, no hidden clauses. The unconditional promise liberates one from the past and opens up a new future. When I irrevocably pledge myself to you, I personally enter into your life in a creative and life-giving way. You are no longer enslaved to the discourse of law and contract, with all of its threats. You are no longer alone with the demand to perform in order to succeed in the task of life.

A promise goes: “Because I will do such-and-such, you may await such-and-such. The pattern is “because …, therefore …,” the exact reverse of “if …, then …” Here a future is opened independent of any prior condition, independent of what the addressee of the promise may do or be beforehand. Indeed, we may say that whereas other communication makes the future depend on the past, a promise makes the past depend on the future, for it grants a future free from the past, and so allows us to appropriate also the past in a new way. This is the point of all the biblical and churchly talk about “forgiveness”; if we are accepted in spite of what we have been, we are thereby permitted to appropriate what we have been afresh, as the occasion and object of that acceptance. (Story, p. 8)

But there is a hitch. Despite our best intentions, the unconditional promises we make to each other must ultimately fail. Two lovers stand before each other and pledge their undying affection and fidelity, yet at any moment death can step in and steal one from the other—and then the survivor is left alone once again. In unconditional promise I commit my future to you, yet my future is not ultimately mine to commit. Death implicitly renders all our promises conditional.

In the early 16th century Martin Luther and others began to experience the preaching and teaching of the Latin Church precisely as law, as unfulfillable demand and thus as condemnation. We need not rehearse the rights and wrongs of the Reformation. All that needs to be noted is the existential crisis that provoked it:

There are times in history when precisely the best people of the age suddenly find their own lives a question too terrible to be borne. At the end of the Middle Ages, some of the most devoted children of medieval Christianity found themselves thus threatened with spiritual destruction, by their very Christianity. … Those most decisively caught by Christianity sought to rebuild their lives by renewed attention to Christianity’s constituting message, the “gospel.” But under the weight of this unprecedented concern, the fundamental medieval understanding and proclamation of the gospel proved unable to sustain itself as gospel, “good news.” Luther and others encountered in it not good news, but news so bad that it destroyed their grasp on the value of life. …

The Reformers’ fundamental insight was that the radical question about ourselves can accept as answer only an unconditional affirmation of the value of our life. (Lutheranism, pp. 38, 41)

If I am experiencing the kind of existential crisis suffered by Luther and others in the 16th century, and no doubt suffered by many both before and since, then no conditional pledge can deliver me from it; for the problem lies precisely in the conditionality of the discourse that shapes, informs, constrains, and determines my life. I am trapped in the law, oppressed and enslaved by the law, destroyed by the law. The Apostle rightly speaks of “the law of sin and death” (Rom 8:2). Only an unconditional word of life and hope, spoken personally to me by one who lives beyond death, can break through the walls of my nomistic prison and liberate me from my despair and darkness. Yet no mortal human being can genuinely speak such a word to me; our inevitable quietus voids all such commitments.

And yet the gospel declares that there is One who can and does speak true promise. In Jesus Christ, writes Jenson, “a sheerly unconditional promise was said and became sayable in the world” (Story, p. 50). To continue speaking this Word of renewal and life is the mission of the Church.

Patristics and Preaching

preachingI stumbled across this amazing little article written by a Dominican monk in the Catholic Church who is also a part of their Order of Preachers. He speaks a little about the Roman Catholic Church, but then gets into how the Church Fathers and homiletics go hand-in-hand and how we as preachers need to be informed and trained in Patristic exegesis and to live grounded in strong faith. I believe there is much to glean from this wonderful little article for anyone who is a preacher! Enjoy Fr. Peter John Cameron’s article


by Fr. Peter John Cameron, O.P.

In The Art of Oratorical Composition, Fr. Charles Coppens, S.J. Asserts:

Divine Providence has bestowed upon the Church, from the earliest ages of its existence, a number of men remarkable alike for their learning and for their saintly lives, who in copious writings, especially in commentaries on the Holy Scriptures, have explained the faith for all succeeding ages….Quotations from such authorities are certainly most suitable to impress upon the faithful the truth and the importance of the doctrines explained in a discourse. But, unfortunately, in these days of secular knowledge many Christians are too ignorant of Church history to appreciate such matters as they ought. (pp. 282-283)”

Of course, some may playfully contest that the impartiality of Coppens’ book is impaired by its practically patristic publication date (1885). Which is why the recent counsel of the Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks with particular cogency:

The Church, a communion living in the faith of the apostles which she transmits, is the place where we know the Holy Spirit…in the Tradition, to which the Church Fathers are always timely witnesses. (688)”

For faith is not self-generating:

You have not given yourself faith as you have not given yourself life….I cannot believe without being carried by the faith of others, and by my faith I help support others in the faith. (CCC 166)”

To this end, the Directory on the Ministry and Life of Priests insists that the priest must feel personally bound to cultivate, in a particular way, a knowledge of Holy Scripture with a sound exegesis, principally patristic, and meditated on according to the various methods supported by the spiritual tradition of the Church, in order to obtain a living understanding of love. (46)

Robert Louis Wilken, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia, eloquently attests to the timeliness of the Fathers’ witness when he writes:

In recent years homilists, preachers, teachers and readers of the Bible have become dissatisfied with the results of historical-critical biblical scholarship. It is not that critical biblical scholarship is without value, but that a strictly historical understanding of the biblical text independent of theological or spiritual concerns has limited usefulness for the Church’s preaching and teaching and for the individual’s growth in faith….One way to rediscover the tradition of spiritual and theological interpretation of the Bible is to return to the classical sources, the commentaries and homilies that were written during the early years of the Church’s history. (“The Church’s Bible,” Crisis, Vol. 13, Num. 9, Oct. 1995, pp. 14-16)”

The Pertinence of the Fathers of the Church for Preaching

Metropolitan Emilianos Timiadis’ insightful short book, aptly entitled The Relevance of the Fathers (Brookline: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1994) provides an appropriate guide for analyzing the instrumental role of the Church Fathers in forming contemporary preaching intellectually, spiritually, pastorally, and humanly. In Timiadis’ view, contemporary people of faith need to rely on the writings of the Fathers of the Church to discover “how to interpret their thought to current new situations.” (p.81)

To preach with a reliance on the Fathers means to start from a stance of intellectual humility. Timiadis notes that the writings of the Fathers “prefer a holistic, inclusive approach. By this, they invite us to be more humble, honest and not to think we are the first to deal with this or that doctrine.” (p. 58)

The Fathers possess an exclusive authority and trustworthiness when it comes to the matter of the faith.

The Fathers are the privileged witnesses of the spirit, of the conscience and of the heart of the Church….They are the first who labored on the architectural designs of the building from the gathered material; they formulated the doctrine against ambiguous circulating versions. They are the nearest to the purity of the origins of our faith….In taking this precious material, they were able not only to preserve it unbroken and intact from any falsification and deviation, but even to develop and enlarge it, preserving the core and nucleus. (p. 67)”

The theological integrity of the Fathers appears most poignantly in their approach to Sacred Scripture. Timiadis observes that “patristics offers not only reason but also an inner intuition as the means of understanding the Bible” (p. 5). Timiadis also bemoans constrictive hermeneutical methods when he writes:

The Fathers help us tremendously in finding the counterweight to the emptiness and spiritual poverty found in many modern commentaries which under the pretext of appearing scientific, strictly critical and historical pass over the fundamental dimension of our salvation in Scripture….The patristic exegesis brings forth an indispensable corrective. (p. 56)”

From a spiritual perspective, the Fathers of the Church demonstrate the transforming force of the theological virtues. They bolster faith by manifesting the permanent relevance of Christian values.

Being guardians of the past, they at the same time live their values in order to show their everlasting significance, their relevance for every time and every place. They incarnate this past as “priests of commemoration,” filling the gap produced by the loss of authority and of stable reference in a given society….The Fathers while reminding us of the past, were revealing the renewing power of the Holy Spirit to a total new vision. They know how to communicate the old as new, as current for today, actualizing in the present the plan of God. (p. 25)”

The Fathers enhance hope by cultivating a holy mindfulness of the centrality of Christ in Liturgy and life.

Knowing that the world around them was desperately seeking a better life, by indicating the uniqueness of the Gospel, they spoke about the uniqueness of Christ, as Savior and Redeemer. To transfuse hope, a theological hope, they described the liturgical feasts as realizations of God’s promises….The Fathers, with boldness, declare that a society with its members is submerged, inundated by an ocean of sins, the gravest of which is a contempt for and the forgetting of our Creator, our God….Patristics reminds us that the time of trial and testing may also become a time of ascension and perfection. (pp. 19, 38)”

And patristics enkindles authentic charity since “for the Fathers the task of theology is spiritual edification, warming the suffering heart.” (p. 59)

The Fathers’ mode of transmittal was principally pastoral. They endeavored to present an integrated, comprehensive plan of the theological life that drew people into a deeper relationship with God – a plan that current programs of priestly formation, like Pope John Paul II’s Pastores Dabo Vobis, seek to recover. As Timiadis points out:

The great doctors of the Church had not yet distinguished between dogma, Eucharistic liturgy, worship, morals, asceticism, or mysticism. They were treating the Christian religion as a whole, as indeed it is, one and simple….The Fathers teach us wholeness, integrity, inner harmony and unity. (p. 11, 17)”

This insight applied in a particular way to the patristic conception of morality as it is ordered to happiness:

The Church Fathers understand Christian ethics as a unique aid to help in finding a meaning to life, an orientation, and a way. (p. 21)”

At the same time, the Fathers recognize their responsibility to challenge the People of God. In this respect, they come across as genuinely “liberal:”

The Fathers were encouraging Christians to live with questions for awhile without fearing that everything would fall apart….The Church Fathers inhabit a household built to endure stress…..They reconcile new ideas and confirm old views. (p. 15)”

But most of all, the Fathers cherish their God-given paternal role:

The Fathers are invested by the Holy Spirit with all that is constructive to replenish the missing elements within the members of the ecclesiastical body. They are not merely consultants, or advisers, but guides and spiritual fathers in the true sense. They know that this flock needs continuous nurture, guidance for growth, and a more accurate understanding of the Holy Scriptures, in order to solve the delicate and complicated issues which emerge in the healing of committed sins. (p. 49)”

Finally, the Church Fathers show forth their perduring relevance as astute students of human nature. In this regard, they imitate Jesus himself who “needed no one to give him testimony about human nature. He was well aware of what was in man’s heart.” (Jn 2:25) As Timiadis remarks:

The Church Fathers deeply appreciated constructive elements and teachings of the non-Christian ancient world….The Church Fathers knew human nature quite well. And they never ceased to repeat that true man is the person who overcomes fallen man in his weakness….The Fathers use a variety of language and arguments….They see with penetrating eyes an earthly existence full of contradictions….The Fathers are aware of human decline and ugliness but instead of turning their eyes away in disgust, they exalt God’s philanthropy. (pp. 33, 18)”

At the same time, the Fathers profoundly grasp the fundamental truth that only God himself satisfies the deepest longings in the human person. As the Catechism expresses it, “the desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God….Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for” (27).

Timiadis summarizes his book by saying:

The Fathers tried to permeate the inner depth of man’s world and to show the terrible vacuum and desert without any reference to God….The Fathers point at the desperate need of God, not only for the sake of the belief in his existence, but for solving all proceeding problems during our existence on earth….It is indeed astonishing how these Fathers made such a deep diagnosis with almost transhistoric eyes, seizing the roots of evils and proposing appropriate remedies….Their penetrating ability and admonitions on how to get out of impasses and complicated dilemmas is extraordinary. They have thus become our contemporaries. (pp. 92, 93)”

The integrity of both the Fathers’ writings and their lives effects a holy realism for the Church.

The Fathers transmit the conscience of the Church from one generation to the other….They show us the interaction between dogma and life, that every article of our faith is closely related to human reality. (p. 6)”

In this they realize a central insight of the Catechism:

There is an organic connection between our spiritual life and the dogmas. Dogmas are lights along the path of faith; they illuminate it and make it secure. (89)”

Moreover, the humanizing dimension of the Fathers’ influence insures that we do all things in memory of Christ:

The Fathers…[become] ‘reminders,’ directing and healing our memory….The Fathers also refer to the past but in quite different terms, and for them the past fortifies us in our fight against forgetfulness, against collective amnesia, characteristic of frequently manipulated public opinion. (p. 24)”

The Patristic Theology of Preaching

In addition to their theological message, the Fathers’ theory and theology of preaching help to overcome common obstacles in contemporary preaching so as to engender excellence. St. John Chrysostom understands preaching as a means of the priest’s sanctification:

Preaching improves me. When I begin to speak, weariness disappears; when I begin to teach, fatigue too disappears. Thus neither sickness itself nor indeed any other obstacle is able to separate me from your love….For just as you are hungry to listen to me, so too I am hungry to preach to you. My congregation is my only glory, and every one of you means more to me than anyone of the city outside….Oftentimes in my dreams I see myself in the pulpit speaking to you.”

The Fathers are unanimous in voicing the preacher’s need to be steeped in the Word of God and the teachings of the Church. Chrysostom exhorts us: “We must take great care that the Word of Christ may dwell in us richly….Let a man’s diction be beggarly and his verbal composition simple and artless, but do not let him be inexpert in the knowledge and careful statement of doctrine.” St. Augustine expresses it this way: “Know your subject matter and the words will follow.”

However, doctrinal preaching is not to be doctrinaire. Rather, effective preaching should provide practical, pastoral applications, as suggested by St. Leo the Great’s instruction on social justice:

It is not only spiritual wealth and heavenly graces that are received from God’s hands. Earthly and material riches also flow from his bounty. Therefore, it is with justice that he will demand an account of them. He has not so much given them to be possessed as put them in trust to be administered.”

The Gospel authenticity of preaching proceeds from the authenticity of the preacher’s own life of faith. St. Leo underscores how much Gospel preaching relies on fervently lived faith, and not on fancy rhetoric:

When Christ was about to summon all nations to the illumination of the faith, he chose those who were to devote themselves to the preaching of the Gospel not from among philosophers or orators, but took humble fishermen as the instruments by which he would reveal himself, lest the heavenly teaching, which was of itself full of mighty power, should seem to need the aid of words….For rhetorical arguments and clever debates of man’s device make their chief boast in this, that in doubtful matters which are obscured by the variety of opinions they can induce their hearers to accept that view which each has chosen for his own genius and eloquence to bring forward; and thus it happens that what is maintained with the greatest eloquence is reckoned the truest. But Christ’s Gospel needs not this art; for in it the true teaching stands revealed by its own light.”

As St. Augustine makes clear, the preacher who fails to manifest passion for the faith becomes a bore even to himself:

You have had to acknowledge and complain that often, because you talked too long and with too little enthusiasm, it has befallen you to become commonplace and wearisome even to yourself, not to mention him whom you were trying to instruct by your discourse, and the others who were present as listeners.”

At the same time, a pastorally sensitive preacher recognizes that there is a certain theatricality essential to preaching. St. Augustine observes:

You must not believe, brothers and sisters, that the Lord intended us to be entirely without theatrical spectacles of some kind. If there were none here, would you have come together in this place?”

Accordingly, as St. John Chrysostom explains, preaching calls for a certain creativity and ingenuity that counters the craftiness of the Evil One:

Unless the man who means to win understands every aspect of the art, the devil knows how to introduce his agents at a single neglected spot and so to plunder the flock.”

Finally, the Fathers were especially mindful and responsive to the receptivity of their congregations. St. Augustine warns against “the torpor induced by surfeit” – a problem arising from the failure to possess “due regard for the capacity and powers of our hearer and the time at our disposal.” Augustine, therefore, provides practical directives for remedying restlessness in the congregation:

It often happens that one who at first was listening gladly becomes exhausted…and now opens his mouth no longer to give assent but to yawn, and even involuntarily gives signs that he wants to depart….When we notice our hearer becoming weary, we should…say something to refresh him, and to banish uneasiness from his mind, should any breaking in upon him have begun to distract him….For faith consists not in a body bending but in a mind believing.”

In order to cultivate this process of believing, St. Gregory the Great instructs preachers to steer clear of what the congregation cannot understand:

The preacher should be sensitive to the mind of his hearer and never overtax it, for the string of the soul when stretched more than it can bear can very easily snap…For all deep things should be covered up before a multitude of hearers, and scarcely opened to a few….Every preacher should give forth a sound more by his deeds than by his words; by good living he should imprint footsteps for men to follow rather than by speaking show them the path of truth.”

In fact, the personal faith-witness of the preacher carries greater weight than we might expect. St. John Chrysostom goes so far as to say that the congregation does not sit in judgment on the sermon as muc as on the reputation of the preacher….Unless his sermons always match the great expectations formed of him, he will leave the pulpit the victim of countless jeers and complaints. No one ever takes it into consideration that a fit of depression, pain, anxiety, or in many cases anger, may cloud the clarity of his mind and prevent his productions from coming forth unalloyed; and that in short, being a man, he cannot invariably reach the same standard or always be successful, but will naturally make many mistakes and obviously fall below the standard of the real ability.

With this sobering admonition, the preacher does well to make his own the homiletic objective of St. Gregory Nazianzen:

The scope of our art is to provide the soul with wings, to rescue it from the world and give it to God, and to watch over that which is in his image—if it abides, to take it by the hand; if it is danger, to restore it; it is ruined, to make Christ dwell in the heart by the Spirit; and in a word, to deify and bestow heavenly bliss upon one who belongs to the heavenly host.”

Toward Patristically-Informed Preaching: A Sample Homily Outline

How does the preacher implement the theological message and the homiletic method of the Fathers of the Church? Here follows one example of a schema for a Pentecost homily. The patristic quotes can be used either verbatim, or as the impetus for further reflection and homiletic development that would in turn need to be expressed by means of appropriate illustrations, stories, images, or examples. The citations given below respond to each of the readings assigned to the solemnity of Pentecost (in honor of the Year of the Holy Spirit). Note that much more material than can be included in one homily is provided; a selection and synthesis must be made.


(Acts 2:1-11; Ps 104: 1, 24, 29-30, 31, 34; 1 Cor 12:3-7, 12-13; Jn 20:19-23)

PREMISE: In our acts of personal forgiveness, God makes visible the power of the invisible

Person of the Holy Spirit; we know the Holy Spirit when we are devoted to forgiveness.

Point #1: Life in the Spirit means accepting the divine gift of forgiveness.

  • Sin impairs the image of God in us – St. Gregory of Nyssa: “Because of sin, each person’s spirit is a broken mirror which, rather than reflecting God, reflects the image of shapeless matter.”
  • We require something greater than ourselves to overcome our sin – St. Diadochos of Photiki: “Only the Holy Spirit can purify the intellect, for unless a greater power comes and overthrows the despoiler, what he has taken captive will never be set free.”
  • Jesus’ breathing on the apostles is a kind of re-creation: “You send forth your Spirit, they are created…”
  • In re-creating us, the Holy Spirit gives us a share in his divine power – St. Thomas Aquinas: “This is exactly when the Holy Spirit works. He interiorly perfects our spirit, communicating to it a new dynamism so that it refrains from evil for love….In this way it is free, not in the sense that it is not subject to the divine law; it is free because its interior dynamism makes it do what divine law prescribes.”
  • By our sharing in the redemption, we reveal to others the life of the Spirit – St. John Chrysostom: “Through the gift of the Holy Spirit we have been changed from men into angels, those among us who cooperate with his grace:…while remaining in the nature of men we show forth a manner of life that is worthy of angels.” When we live the dynamism of forgiveness, the privileges of the Spirit become our own – St. Augustine: “If we keep to the end what we have received, what the Holy Spirit has we also shall have; wherein nothing of ourselves shall war within us, and nothing shall be hidden in us from one another.” 

Point #2 – Life in the Spirit means extending forgiveness to people in their hurts and fears.

  • “Jesus came and stood before them” – relate to Jn 7:37-39: “Jesus stood up and cried out: ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to me;’…Here he was referring to the Spirit.” Therefore, those thirsting for God’s mercy find it—and the Holy Spirit—as we stand before them offering forgiveness.
  • As the apostles were hidden in the upper room, people try to hide in their sins – St. Gregory the Great: “It is true of every sinner that when he hides his sin within his conscience, it lies concealed within, secreted in his heart. The dead man comes forth when the sinner voluntarily confesses his acts of wickedness. The Lord told Lazarus, ‘Come forth,’ as if he were telling everyone dead in sin, ‘Why are you hiding your guilt within your conscience? Come forth now by confession, you who are lying concealed within yourself by your act of denial.’ Let the dead person come forth, then; let the sinner confess his sin.” (Note the marvelous parallel between Lazarus coming forth from the tomb and Christ coming into the locked “tomb” of the upper room in Resurrection, beckoning his disciples to “come forth” from the death of sin.)
  • The Holy Spirit provides the grace to confront our sinfulness and that of others – St. Leo the Great: “Nor can he ever attain to the remedy of forgiveness who no longer has an Advocate (Paraclete) to intercede for him. For it is through him we call upon the Father; from him come the tears of repentance, from him the groans of those who kneel in supplication.”
  • Jesus uses our fear to convince us about the compassion of the Spirit – Venerable Bede: “The apostles assembled with doors shut through that same fear which had scattered them; in this is shown the infirmity of the apostles. Jesus came in the evening because they would be most afraid at that time.” (Therefore, in the same way we manifest the Holy Spirit when we reach out to people mercifully in the depth of their fears.)
  • We are most receptive of the Spirit when we are most detached – St. Basil: “The Spirit is not united to the soul by drawing near to it in place, but through the withdrawal of the passions.”
  • The peace of the Spirit comes through our sharing in the wounds of Christ – St. John Chrysostom: “In showing them his wounds, Christ shows the efficacy of the cross, by which he undoes all evil things and gives all good things, which is peace.”
  • The Spirit’s peace is the very source of forgiveness – St. Gregory the Great: “You see how they not only acquire peace of mind concerning themselves, but even receive the power of releasing others from their bonds.”
  • The Spirit’s forgiveness transforms betrayal into friendship – St. John Chrysostom: “See how the Spirit wipes away all this iniquity, and uplifts to the highest dignity those who before had been betrayed by their own sins.” 

Point #3 – Life in the Spirit means speaking the common language of mercy as our God-given


  • “To each person the manifestation of the Spirit is given” through our active forgiveness.
  • The “bold proclamations” and the “speaking about the marvels of God” = the Good News! (CCC 1847: “The Gospel is the revelation in Jesus Christ of God’s mercy to sinners.”)
  • The love of the Spirit calms the Tower of Babel of life – St. John Chyrsostom: “Where there is charity the worst faults come to nothing; where there is charity the unruly thoughts of the mind come to an end.”
  • The fire of the Spirit’s charity fills us with the desire to live for God – St. Gregory the Great: “Fittingly did the Spirit appear in fire; because in every heart that he enters into he drives out the torpor of coldness, and kindles there the desire of his own eternity.”
  • The Spirit’s fire enkindles in us a healthy sense of sin – St. Gregory the Great: “The Spirit came in fire above men…because we should through zeal for justice search out our own sins…and consume them in the fire of penance.”
  • The fire of forgiveness purifies and perfects us – St. Ambrose: “This is a fire which, as with gold, makes what is good better, and devours sin as stubble.”
  • Through the goodness of our forgiveness, others come to know the Holy Spirit in us – St. Basil: “The Holy Spirit is by nature inaccessible, yet he yields to goodness.” 

A Selected Bibliography of Patristic Preaching Resources

Two superb patristic resources remain staples for every preacher’s library have recently been reprinted. The first is Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels Collected out of the Works of the Fathers, compiled by St. Thomas Aquinas. It is published in seven volumes by Preserving Christian Publications (Albany, New York, 1995).

The second is The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, edited by M.F. Toal. It is published in four volumes by Preservation Press (Swedesboro, New Jersey, 1996). For the computer savvy, the Eerdmans reprint of the Edinburgh edition of The Early Church Fathers is now offered on CD-ROM by Logos Research Systems, Inc. (available through Paulist Press).

Preachers can look forward to two extremely promising imminent resources. One is Medieval Exegesis, Volume I by Henri De Lubac, translated by Mark Sebanc, to be published April 1, 1998 by Wm. B. Eerdmans. The second is also published by Eerdmans—a monumental multi-volume a series of biblical commentaries based on the Fathers of the Church entitled The Church’s Bible. The project, edited by Professor Robert Wilken, aims to put in print commentaries that will promote biblical books central to Christian faith and life, namely, John, Matthew, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Isaiah, Genesis, Psalms, and Song of Songs. The first volume is due to be released in 2000.

In addition, the following patristic resources are extremely helpful for preaching:

• Barnecut, Edith (Ed.). Journey with the Fathers: Commentaries on the Sunday Gospels, 3 volumes. Hyde Park: New City Press, 1994.

• Gregory of Nyssa, St. From Glory to Glory. Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Press, 1995.

• Gregory the Great, St. Forty Gospel Homilies. Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1990.

• Jurgens, William A. (Ed.). The Faith of the Early Fathers, 3 Volumes. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1970, 1979.

• Leo the Great, St. Sermons. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996.

• Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, Philip, Ware, Kallistos (Trans.). The Philokalia, 4 volumes. London: Faber and Faber, 1979, 1981, 1984, 1995.

• Romanos, St. On the Life of Christ. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.

• Russell, Claire (Ed.). Glimpses of the Church Fathers. London: Scepter, 1994.

• Spidlik, Thomas. Drinking from the Hidden Fountain: Cistercian Publications, 1994.

• Wiles, Maurice & Santer, Mark (Eds.). Documents in Early Christian Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975. A Patristic Breviary. Kalamazoo:10

The last word goes to St. Augustine, one of the greatest Fathers of the Church, on the Fathers of the Church:

They have transmitted to us all that they have received. They have taught to the Church what they have learned within the Church. All that they found in the Church, they kept; that which they learned, they taught. That which they have received from the Fathers, they have transmitted to the sons.”