Archbishop Fulton Sheen, who knew a few things about preaching, once wrote, “The preacher who bores others in the pulpit is a bore before he even gets into it.” Why? Is it because the preacher hasn’t worked on his delivery? Or because he has failed to be relevant in his words? No, Archbishop Sheen wrote, it is due to a much deeper reason: “He is not in love. He is not on fire with Christ. He is a burned out cinder floating in the immensity of catchwords. … Some other source than Christ is behind the sociological platitudes, moral chestnuts and political bromides of the preacher.”
Strong words, but words to be taken seriously. The Church and the world both need good preaching — and preachers who are in love with Christ.
Today’s first reading describes the second powerful sermon delivered by a man who would not ordinarily, as men gauge such things, be considered a candidate for “great preacher” status. Although the Apostle Peter had been a successful fisherman and businessman, he likely possessed a modest educational background; he certainly was not a theologian in the sense of having studied in academic halls and having earned degrees. In addition, Peter often displayed a rash, petulant personality ill suited for the responsibility of preaching.
But not only was Peter not a boring preacher, he was a preacher who spoke with power, authority, conviction and words cutting to the heart. His sermon on Pentecost (Acts 2:14-41) was a masterful and moving declaration that Jesus Christ is Lord and Messiah.
Peter exhorts his listeners to repent and convert so sins might be removed, or “wiped away.” The removal of sin is through baptism, by which the Holy Spirit cleanses and purifies man, bringing him into intimate communion with the Father through the person of the Son. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, “Baptism is the principal place for the first and fundamental conversion” (No. 1427).
St. John, in his first epistle, provides further theological insight into this saving work. The Son, he writes, is a righteous and holy advocate for us before the Father, as we cannot merit any favor or grace by our natural efforts. Jesus “is expiation for our sins,” that is, he took upon himself the punishment we deserved for our sins, and therefore made divine reparation as only the Incarnate Word can do. Now made children of God, we are called to keep the commandments — not as mere duties, but as active and willing participation in the love of God.
These saving truths are communicated in various ways, and preaching is an essential part of that proclamation. Dominican Father Peter John Cameron, in his book, “Why Preach: Encountering Christ in God’s Word” (Ignatius Press, $16.95), notes: “Preaching is not speech-giving. No one was ever saved by a message. It would have been a waste of time for the Word to become flesh if it sufficed for the Father to send a memo instead of his Son. No one was ever saved by a mere discourse.”
No, he insists, preaching discloses truth through “an encounter.”
That encounter is with the risen Lord. “Look at my hands and my feet,” Jesus told the frightened disciples, “Touch me and see.” There is the encounter: Look at Christ. Touch Christ. See Christ. Not just with physical sight, but also with spiritual vision. Then love is born — and it is never boring!
Carl E. Olson is editor of ignatiusinsight.com.