I heard that during Obama’s visit to Rome this spring, Pope Francis gave him a copy of the Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel. If Obama reads this document he may be surprised by two things. First, the Pope speaks a lot about economics and the common good but in ways that do not fit within the liberal conservative binaries of American politics. Second, Obama may be surprised to learn that what Francis has given him is not actually an economic manifesto but a preaching primer, a homiletics manual.
Francis wrote The Joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium or EG) in response to a request from church leaders who wanted guidance on the church’s task of evangelization. As an Apostolic Exhortation it does not carry the weight of an encyclical, but it bears the stamp of Francis more than The Light of Faith. In this long letter (over 50,000 words), Francis addresses the need for reform in the church’s missionary work in order to confront the challenges in the present world. At the heart of this need reform is a call for the renewal of the ministry of preaching.
Francis begins by asserting the universality of the preaching vocation. “Every Christian is challenged, here and now, to be actively engaged in evangelization; indeed, anyone who has truly experienced God’s saving love does not need much time or lengthy training to go out and proclaim that love” (EG, 120). Perhaps Methodists could lift up the ministry of lay preachers as the first fruits of what Francis hopes to see in the church. Incidentally, it is interesting to observe that Catholic priests face temptations familiar to Methodist pastors. Some apparently do not set time apart for study and rely on the Holy Spirit to give them the words when they climb to the pulpit. To these, Francis says: “A preacher who does not prepare is not ‘spiritual’; he is dishonest and irresponsible with the gifts he has received” (EG, 145).
Francis spends a significant amount of time shedding light on the social depths of the kerygma (the proclamation of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection). “Our faith in Christ, who became poor, and was always close to the poor and the outcast, is the basis of our concern for the integral development of society’s most neglected members” (EG, 186). The connection of kerygma and society is very Methodist, but easily missed. I was recently in Peru with a pair of Duke doctoral candidates. They were teaching theology to Methodist pastors in the Andes. In the class discussion, their students spoke articulately and passionately about the economic and environmental challenges facing their communities, and yet when pressed they admitted that they had never preached explicitly on these matters. Apparently, Peruvian Methodists have a hard time seeing mining companies and the agro-industrial complex as gospel issues. So do we.
In preaching, content matters, but form matters too, and Francis offers various pieces of advice with respect to the sermon from which Methodists might benefit.
- Sermons should be simple. “The greatest risk for a preacher is that he becomes so accustomed to his own language that he thinks that everyone else naturally understands and uses it” (EG, 158). What Wesley calls “plain speaking” is crucial.
- Sermons should be clear. “Our language may be simple but our preaching not very clear” (EG, 158). In an era where many, for good reasons, decry the three-point sermon, and encourage preachers to explore more narrative, inductive approaches, it still remains true that a three-point sermon beats a no-point one.
- Sermons should be brief. I once heard a Dominican friar (a member of the Order of Preachers) state that the first five minutes of preaching belong to the Holy Spirit, the next five minutes belong to the preacher, and anything beyond that belongs to the devil. Francis cites scripture in support of this principle: “Speak concisely, say much in few words” (Sir 32:8). Allowing for more generous time limits, Wesley would agree: “People imagine the longer the sermon is the more good it will do. This is a grand mistake” (“Letter to Mrs. Johnston”).
- Sermons should be good news. The chief motivation for preaching is joy. “A renewal of preaching can offer believers, as well as the lukewarm and the non-practicing, new joy in the faith and fruitfulness in the work of evangelization” (EG,11). Preaching is always more of an Easter “Hallelujah” than a Lenten lament.
Some will be skeptical as to the utility of the Pope’s preaching primer. And yet, I dream of a day when The Joy of the Gospel may be found not only on the desk of the Oval Office but on book tables at Annual Conferences. Methodists who heed this exhortation may discover anew that “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” is not a burden that we bear but a joy that bears us up.