Preaching Paul

I have a confession to make: I don’t like preaching Paul.

I know that’s something Lutheran preachers aren’t supposed to say. We are supposed to revel in Paul’s Letters, loving every angry outburst and convoluted sentence, resting ourselves in Romans like pilgrims in a foreign land. But I don’t, and I think I know why.

For one thing, Paul’s Letters are meant to be read rather than heard. In Colossians and other places, he says, “read this to the church” (Colossians 4:16). But that doesn’t change the fact that his Letters are intended as written documents, not oral speech. I can verify that from experience. It is my practice to recite the sermon lesson from memory, and I have found it’s much easier to recite a chapter from the Gospels than a paragraph from Galatians.

For another thing, Paul often relies on logical arguments to make his points and carry them forward. So if we, as preachers, stick close to the text, we often sound more like professors than pastors. While logical argument may work for some in the pews, I suspect that many find these hard to follow and check out of the sermon well before the end, especially in this postmodern age when logical argument is more and more suspect.

Finally, preachers must contend with the fog of history. A lot of water has passed under the bridge between Paul’s day and ours. Some of the things Paul writes about have floated downstream forever, leaving us without even a ripple of meaning. Just what was this baptism for the dead Paul writes about in 1 Corinthians 15:29? Your guess is as good as mine.

When it comes down to it, I just don’t enjoy preaching Paul. But I’ve had to learn to make a go of it recently. My congregation is reading and preaching its way through the New Testament this year. We’ve spent the better part of three months in Paul’s Letters and have another month to go before we’re done. So I’ve had to learn to live with Paul and figure out some way to preach pericopes from his Letters week after week. Let me share with you two lessons I’ve learned.

Take the time to learn the context

Paul is not writing in a vacuum. He’s writing to real congregations that actually existed in a real place at a real time; and each one of them was a little bit different from the others. That bit of difference makes a significant difference in what and how Paul writes. For example, Paul had never met the congregation in Rome. When he writes to them, he’s trying introduce himself, establish his bona fides, solicit their financial support, and even to do a little name dropping (Romans 16). On the other hand, Paul knew the congregation at Philippi well. He was free to be less formal with them, more personal, more joyful.

Or, consider the different way Paul treats the Galatians and the Corinthians. Corinth was a town that made the Big Easy look strait-laced. Paul preaches the Law to the Corinthian church, encouraging them toward a “godly sorrow [that] brings repentance that leads to salvation” (2 Corinthians 7:10). By contrast, the Galatians were far too uptight and needed above all to hear a word of grace. Paul writes them, “You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ” (Galatians 5:4). It’s not as if Paul is being inconsistent, but rather that different situations called for different pastoral responses — the one of Law, the other of Gospel.

Put flesh on the bones of the text

The language of the Letters lends itself to abstraction. Paul frequently  writesabout “justification,” “sanctification,” “atonement,” “propitiation,”and so on. I find myself tempted to dust off one of my term papers from seminary and deliver a discourse on Systematic Theology. But behind each one of these doctrinal issues, there is a real-life crisis. Find it and preach it. And for many people, the Word will suddenly come alive!

The lesson of a few weeks ago, 2 Corinthians 6:3-10, described Paul’s “beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, and sleepless nights.” Although it’s not apparent in the pericope, from the Letter we know that at issue was Paul’s claim to be an Apostle. It seems that in his absence, some “super-apostles” came to Corinth, preaching a new and improved version of the gospel (2 Corinthians 11:1-15), and making a handsome profit in the process (2 Corinthians 12:11-13). That background puts flesh and blood on the bare bones of the Letter and gets people’s attention. A sermon on the issue of apostolic authority might be interesting, but a sermon on an apostolic scandal is intriguing and people will eagerly listen, especially if the preacher can show that there are “super-apostles” in our day spreading a message of success and prosperity that sounds like Gospel but isn’t.

I still don’t like preaching Paul all that much, but at least now I’ve got an approach to his Letters that has worked for me, and I hope will work for you, too. Besides, the Gospels are only a few weeks away…