Paul’s letters unfold to congregations the significance of the good news of what God has done in Jesus, and the summons to live worthy of God’s call on their lives – within the community of faith and in the face of the wider world.
His letters are not sermons, clearly, but they were written as a substitute for his presence, read out loud in Christian gatherings, and so give some indication of what Paul would have said had he been present. If Paul’s letters do provide a window of sorts into his preaching, they might give us a model for our preaching ministry more generally.
What, then, do we learn from Paul about preaching?
1. We preach to a people who are being discipled by culture
Learning a certain pattern of life is inevitable. It’s not a question of whether we will or won’t be ‘discipled’ as we go about our lives, but of who or what will disciple us. Many problems in the church at Corinth, for instance, had to do with their tendency to think and act in ways that were typical of first-century Corinth. On issue after issue that Paul tackles, there was an uncritical acceptance of the values and behaviour of the society in which they lived.
Here, then, is a reminder that Christians need to be discipled for the places where they spend the majority of their time, and for the particular challenges and pressures they face there. As we take our cue from Paul, we can see the significance of preaching which seeks to nurture Christian communities – in Colchester or Cleethorpes as much as in Corinth – into the likeness of Christ.
But how do we do this?
2. We preach to remind people of the gospel of God
In his letters to different churches, Paul is able to appeal to what’s foundational in their various circumstances, taking his cue from the core events of the death and resurrection of Jesus, through which the Christians have been saved and brought together as one in the body of Christ. In doing so, Paul often reminds his congregations of what they already know or have previously been taught – a helpful encouragement that we don’t have to say something new every week!
Back in Corinth, the gospel is core to how Paul directs the church there. Paul calls the Corinthians to a different way of living, to rethink the norms and practices of their society in the light of the gospel. So, in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4, Paul reminds them of the gospel he had preached to them as something he had himself ‘received’ and ‘passed on’. Jesus Christ crucified and risen again, ‘according to the Scriptures’, is the ‘good news’ that Paul preached, on which the Corinthians have taken their stand, and by which they are saved. Following Paul’s example, we should never be embarrassed about reminding God’s people about the gospel they already know – a gospel in which we stand, a gospel through which we are being saved.
In fact, the whole of 1 Corinthians invites us to reflect on how the good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus – which stand as bookends between chapters 1 and 15 – calls us to live. Paul assesses cultural values (such as wisdom and power) in the light of the cross and resurrection, and calls the Corinthians to live out the implications of the gospel. Such an approach encourages us to preach letters like 1 Corinthians from the perspective of our missional identity and see how what Paul says shapes us in our own walk of faith, hope, and love.
But such an identity flows from our place in the bigger story of God’s work in the world, from creation to new creation.
3. We preach to draw people into a bigger story
Paul wrote letters, not stories, but his letters have ‘a narrative substructure’ – the story of God’s dealings with Israel, and with the whole of humanity, indeed with the whole creation, from the beginning of all things to the renewal of all things.
Sometimes the story bubbles to the surface of his letters so that we get a short summary of it, as in Philippians 2:5-11 or Colossians 1:15-20. Much of the time, though, it’s implicit, and Paul can allude to it, or refer to particular parts of it to make a point – Abraham here, the law there, the temple here, the wilderness wanderings there. This shows how Paul deals with issues on the ground in specific contexts not in an ad hoc way, but by appealing to the larger story of God’s dealings with his people and with the world, and the place of Christ in that plan.
It’s on this basis that Paul calls his congregations to be a part of an alternative world – the new creation God has brought about in Christ – and to a way of living that runs counter to their previous way of life and the life of the world around them. This is not to escape the world, but to enable them to live in it with integrity as followers of Jesus, as those who take their identity from Christ, bearing witness to him in word and deed, participating in God’s own mission to the world.
For reflection or discussion
1. What can we learn as preachers from what Paul is doing in:
- 1 Corinthians 10:1-13?
- Romans 8:28-39?
2. Which part or parts of the big story told in Scripture are particularly pertinent to your congregation at the moment?