If you ask pastors what they love most about their ministry, many will say preaching. There’s just something transcendent about standing before a congregation after hours of rewarding and diligent study, passionately proclaiming God’s word, and seeing heads nod or hearing the occasional “Amen!” as the truth sinks in and lives are transformed.
Well, at least that’s how it is according to the more romantic view of things that’s more common to people entering seminary than leaving it.
Yes, there are days in which the preacher feels in the grip of God and booms with the cocky confidence of Elijah on Mount Carmel. And then there are the more mundane experiences of struggling with a passage, trying to squeeze out its meaning and come up with some way of communicating it to these people in this place. On those days, one hopes for a miracle—that some way, somehow, we will find the grace of God winding its way through our human words.
At its core, preaching has never been a way to win a popularity contest. Indeed, in Paul’s rather unattractive metaphor, when we preach the gospel truly to someone who rejects it, we “smell like a contagious dead person” (2 Cor 2:16, CEB). Eugene Peterson paraphrases Paul even more sharply: “those on the way to destruction treat us more like the stench from a rotting corpse” (The Message).
Um, thanks Paul. I think.
I’m sure I’ve preached my share of stinkers, though of course that was never my intent. I know for a fact that there have been moments in which I’ve reached for something I thought was humorous or clever, only to have it fall flat, and times when people laughed at things I hadn’t intended to be funny. It all comes with the territory.
But Paul’s grounds the practice of preaching in the integrity of one’s life as a Christian, forcing us to take the calling to preach far beyond the level of rhetorical competence. He continues:
Who is qualified for this kind of ministry? We aren’t like so many people who hustle the word of God to make a profit. We are speaking through Christ in the presence of God, as those who are sincere and as those who are sent from God. (2 Cor 2:16b-17, CEB)
Here, Paul seems to be taking a swipe at the people he will refer to as “super-apostles” later in the letter (e.g., 11:5). These false teachers were probably quite good at self-promotion and — in their minds and the minds of vulnerable Corinthians — well-deserving of the fees they collected for their polished rhetoric. But Paul considers them hustlers: the word he uses suggests the kind of hucksterism we once identified with snake-oil salesmen.
By contrast, Paul lays down four characteristics that should characterize all Christ-centered preaching: a literal translation would be that he and all true apostles speak “from sincerity…from God…before God…[and] in Christ.”
What are the implications for preaching? More on that in the next post.