There’s an old joke that there’s no such thing as a bad sermon: sometimes, it’s the preacher’s words that are most enriching; at other times, it’s the silence between the words that are the morsels to be savoured. If we’re honest, I suspect we’d have to admit that listening to sermons isn’t always our paradigm case of Christian joy. Shouldn’t it be a sin to bore for Christ?
St Paul describes preaching as “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:14). In our own times, these two poles of preaching can often be misunderstood. Far from being a matter of liberation, truth-telling can easily be seen as the shouting of truths at people who don’t want to hear, the type of confrontational revelations worthy of the stage of Jerry Springer or Jeremy Kyle’s lie detector; ‘love’ can be reduced to a general permissiveness, an 'anything goes' mentality that denies the truth in the name of a false freedom (‘all you need is love’!). What keeps truth and love together in Christian preaching is joy: the Christian preacher does not just proclaim a theory of life or a set of doctrines, but rather heralds the source of their hope, a joy tasted and offered for inexhaustible sharing.
The preacher invites others into the joy of their friendship with Christ. What is proclaimed is neither abstract truth nor general love, but the relentlessly particular friendship that Christ offers to each and every one of us. The source and font of this joy is Trinitarian—the one God who dwells in three persons. The preacher participates in this joyful communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and invites others to be caught up in this eternal love story. This is the story of a two-fold economy of desire: God’s desire to enjoy us, which constitutes our desire to enjoy God. But the fact that this love story culminates in the bloody execution of Christ should caution us against simplistic accounts of joy as a panacea for all troubles, the promise of a quiet life that brackets out the fullness of human experience.
The preacher’s task is a formidable one. The homily is the moment when the Gospel of Christ is drawn into contact with the experience of a particular Christian community, with all their joys and hopes, their fears and anxieties. For this reason, preaching is an essential task of the priest. Ordained to represent the people to God, and God to the people, it is human sorrow and human hope that the priest touches when he anoints the sick, when he consoles the bereaved, when he baptises or witnesses matrimony, and when he hears what only the Almighty should hear in confession. We can teach rhetoric and public speaking, we can make sure that the theology is in the right place, but the greatest preachers will always be those whose friendship with Christ overflows into their friendship with Christ’s people, the shepherds who (as Pope Francis reminds us) have both the ‘smell of the sheep’ and the ‘smell of the Good Shepherd’.
In every sermon there is an implicit, often subliminal, prayer that begs God to further reveal the meaning of our lives. Preaching is a human activity, but cannot be reduced to a human activity alone. The Protestant theologian Heinrich Bullinger even went so far as to claim that “the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God”. Obviously the preacher’s words remain human words and never become divine; the preacher’s words carry authority only insofar as they conform to God’s Word. But preaching is much more than a didactic or catechetical moment when the scriptures are exposited. In the mystery of salvation, human words come to do divine things: the ever-creative word of God speaks afresh through the words of his preachers, calling into being new realities and strengthening the Christian community. For that reason, every sermon truly is worth listening to.