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Metropolitan Korniliy: On the Sermon and the Preachers

Before ascending into Heaven, our Lord Jesus Christ gave the commandment to His disciples: “Henceforth, you shall make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them all to observe every branch of the commandments given to you” (Matthew 28:20). Christ indicated to the Apostles, and in their person to all those who receive the ministry of preaching – that is, to the pastors of the Church, the duty to teach, to perform the sacred services and to stand guard over His commandments. In these instructions, the Lord placed teaching in the first place, as it awakens faith in God in the souls of the people and draws them toward the Heavenly Kingdom. The Apostle Paul directly states that Christ has sent the disciples to preach the Gospel (1 Cor. 1, 17) and therefore adds further: “And woe to me if I do not proclaim the Gospel” (1 Cor. 9:16). The Apostle Paul stirs up his disciple Bishop Timothy to this, saying: “Proclaim the Word, … with all patience and teaching, convict, forbid and beseech” (2 Tim. 4, 2).

Metropolitan Korniliy: On the Sermon and the Preachers

Christ commissions His disciples to go into every corner of the world, to bring to the pagan world the good news of deliverance and salvation, the good news of the path to the Kingdom of God. The Christian testimony of God’s truth in the face of a secular, vice-ridden world today is the continuation of that ancient and sacred tradition of the Apostles, the essence of which lies in the words of the apostle Paul: I became all this for every man, that in any event, I save some (1 Cor. 9:22).

The holy martyr Archpriest Avvakum considered teaching the most important duty, devoting many pages of his epistles to it. He writes in his moralizing address to the pastors: “But it is fitting for us to study the law of the Lord and His commandments every day: to sit down with the Teacher, lay open the [sacred] Books, to hearken to the Word of God and spread it abroad to others.” And then he talks about understanding his mission as a preacher:

“To whom should I liken myself? I am likened to a poor beggar[1], moving through the streets of a city, asking for alms through the window. Having finished that day and having ended at one man’s house, in the morning he packs up his bags to move along to the next. Thus also I, sojourning in diverse parts all my days, gather a collection for you, the nurslings of the Church, – yes, I place it before you, begin, be nourished, to find the life for yourselves and joy in it. From the Man of many possessions—for Christ is a Tsar— I shall beg for a bit of nourishment from the Gospel; from Chrysostom[2], from the man of the Exchange[3], I will obtain a piece of discourse; from King David and Prophet Isaiah, from the city-dwellers[4] of the City, I asked a quarter loaf. I gained a full satchel and I give it to you, the inhabitants of the house of my God. Well, if its good for you, I’ll wander again along with the windows, and they’ll give me more; those people are very charitable to me – they assist me in my poverty. And I again with you, poor ones[5], will share however much God may provide. It’s not appropriate to hide the talent given to you [priests], let us not be hoarders [in time of famine]… ”And then he adds to his address:“ Do not be the idler on that Day[6], [wretched] dog! ”

The Holy Church has always animated the pastors of the Church to proclaim the Word of God, threatening with removal from the priesthood those who neglect to do so. The Canons of the Holy Fathers require the pastor to preach every day, especially on Sundays (Canon 19 of the 6th Oecumenical Council) [7], and neglect of this sacred duty incurs a punishment, up to and including expulsion from holy orders (Canon 58 of the Holy Apostles [8]. Those who zealously fulfill their responsibility as a preacher are honored to be called teachers of the Church (1 Tim. 6:17). Nowadays, when false doctrines, sins, and vices have multiplied, when many, especially young people, do not have solid Orthodox moral foundations and traditions, there is a great need for the Church’s teaching for Orthodox people to oppose the confusion and folly.

Now there is the most urgent need for proclaiming the Word of God since the level of spiritual enlightenment and morality in society leaves much to be desired. But how great a [potential] harvest and how few laborers there are to educate and uplift the Russian people! Today, the Shepherd is called upon to answer the questions that arise in the spiritual search for the true values ​​of life, to shed light upon the widest range of questions related to the Faith and life of a Christian.

The content of the sermon should first of all be addressed to those who have embarked on the path of salvation, striving for God, and, of course, the sermon of the pastor is addressed to a person who feels a responsibility for the salvation of his own soul and of the world, who believes in the triumph of good over evil, and reflects on the meaning of life on earth and the ways of salvation, that is, about those issues that at all times again and again confront a person.

Today, there are very significant differences between parishioners in the level of their spiritual preparation for the reception of the sermon, in their social status, education, age, culture, and other characteristics. This means that the language of preaching and the concepts used in it may be adequate for some and completely ill-adapted for others.

Therefore, the conversations and sermons of the shepherd should not be in the form of abstract theoretical and scientific reasonings, unlikely to be accessible to the comprehension of the majority, but rather may consist of simple elucidations of the truths of the Faith, should be spoken from the heart, with love and humility, and based on the pastor’s life experience; then they will be nigh to and more convincing to Orthodox Christians who will receive with their hearts these simple truths. In sermons, it is imperative to elucidate the importance of Christ’s reconciling sacrifice as well as the need for one’s own labors and deeds in the work of salvation, to explain that only by the constraining and dolorous path, bearing one’s cross with much patience and long-suffering, can there be the way to life eternal.

Love, meekness, and humility are the most necessary qualities of both a preacher and a hearer of the Word of God. According to the Apostle, the simplicity and inspiration of the preacher combines with the inner power of his words and the grace of the Holy Spirit to conquer and save the hearts and souls of the audience: without the Holy Spirit all our eloquence and all our beliefs would be like sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal (1 Cor. 13).

In such an important holy work as the preaching of the Word of God, every thought and word should be considered so as not to give rise to temptations and misunderstandings, which are very harmful and dangerous for the Church.

In this regard, the Canons of the Holy Fathers instruct the priest “not to interpret the word of God in any other way, except as the luminaries and teachers of the Church have explained it”, so as not to transgress “the limits and traditions of the God-bearing Fathers” (Canon 19 of the 6th Oecumenical Council). Speaking a sermon without a well-thought-out plan, without proper knowledge of the dogmas of the Faith and the rules of moral conduct, that is, without preparation, can even harm the listeners and undermine respect for the preacher and the great work of ecclesiastical preaching.

The novice preacher must ponder and write down the main thoughts of the sermon, prepare and write out the necessary texts from the patristic teachings. From the experience of skilled preachers, the following tips for beginners can be noted:

1. Before going to the sermon, you must be prepared for the first phrases with which you will begin. It’s better to write them down.

2. One’s first sermons are best given with a small gathering of people, so that shyness does not interfere.

3. The sermon should be started calmly without rushing, in a deliberate manner, not with shouting, so that the listeners may focus on the words being spoken.

4. It is better to preach not from time to time, but constantly – this will develop the skill of thinking, memory, and the possession of a living word.

5. If you involuntarily stop during the sermon, when the thought is interrupted, you need not be embarrassed, but after a pause, continue the topic.

6. The sermon should not be too long, and if the listeners are tired, the preacher should draw it to a conclusion.

7. In preaching, one should adhere to the main chosen topic or theme.

8. The sermon should concern mainly spiritual issues, including those affecting modern spiritual and moral problems.

It is inappropriate to make use of political and economic questions to connect the sermon to the burning issues of the day. The preacher must remember that “the Kingdom of God is within us” [cf. Luke 17:21] among ourselves, and it, not something it is possible to reach through revolution and rearrangement of the economy.

In matters of the Faith, a preacher should not rely on worldly proofs; he needs to remember that the power of Christian preaching is based not only on the words of human wisdom, but should be supported by the model of the preacher’s life, by his good deeds, for the Apostle said: “And my word and my preaching were not by human wisdom, but in the demonstration and power of the Spirit” (1 Cor. 2:4). The moral right to teach others is the preacher’s because on his life’s journey he learned the Christian truth, experienced its benefits and has the experience of struggle and victory over temptations and passions, and can lead his listeners to salvation and eternal bliss in God’s Kingdom. Conversation and teaching should be made warm with paternal love for his listeners, carry the spirit of peace and harmony, like the teachings of Jesus Christ, for, it was through His love that the Lord created Man, and “begat us by the Word of Truth that in us should be a kind of first-fruits of His”(James 1, 18) and commanded us to carry the Word of [His] love to the world [cf. John 3:16].

[1] By likening himself to a poor beggar concerning the Holy Scriptures and Fathers, Avvakum stresses his reliance, not on his wisdom, but divinely-sanctioned authorities, the Gospel, Prophets, and Church Fathers.

[2] Chrysostom [St John] “of the Golden-mouth” [of Constantinople], a traditional Russo-Byzantine authority on Orthodox biblical interpretation. “John (Chrysostom) of Constantinople, the Teacher of the Church” (6th Oecumenical Council, Canons 16&32); “We further declare that we hold fast to the decrees of the four Councils, and in every way follow the holy Fathers, Athanasius, Hilary, Basil, Gregory the Theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose, Theophilus, John (Chrysostom) of Constantinople, Cyril, Augustine, Proclus, Leo and their writings on the true Faith.” (5th Oecumenical Council, Session I) The esteem in which the Orthodox Church holds Chrysostom’s writings appears in its rule of worship, e.g., in the Troparion and Kontakion for Chrysostom, appointed to be chanted by all Orthodox churches at every regular Divine Liturgy.(“Grace shining forth from your lips like a beacon has illumined the universe…Instructing us by your words, O Father John Chrysostom pray to the Word Christ our God that we are saved!” “Having received divine grace from heaven, with your mouth you teach all men to worship one God in Trinity. All-blest and venerable John Chrysostom, we rightly praise you, for you are our teacher, revealing things divine!”)

[3] торговова человека: торг ‘exchange or trading’, being used here because it is similar in sound and meaning to the word תרגום torgum or targum ‘the Paraphrase’, the official explanatory paraphrase [“exchange of wording”] read in Jewish and Syrian religious communities after the Biblical text, a role played by [Syrian]Chrysostom’s commentary in Russo-Byzantine tradition. The Russian Stoglav Council of 1551 mandated the interpretation of Chrysostom (a native of Syria), be read along with the Gospel in church: “…after examination of the sacred canons, the ruling was rendered by the Council, guided by the Holy Spirit…the churches must observe to celebrate the divine services, executed …in its entirety and according to the traditions of the Holy Apostles and Holy Fathers, according to the Typicon of the Church and the Sacred Canons, without altering anything….*They are to read the Gospel with its explanation – St. John Chrysostom,* as well as the Lives of the Saints, the Prologue, and the other holy books wherein the soul is profited, by which it is instructed and enlightened, by which it is formed toward sincere repentance and good works, by which there is proven spiritual fruitfulness to all Orthodox Christians.” (6th Royal Cession, translated from Le Stoglav, ou Les Cent chapitres: Recueil des décisions de l’Assemblée ecclésiastique de Moscou, 1551, tr. E. Duchesne, Paris: É. Champion(1920), pp. 50-51)

[5] Бедненьким, utterly lacking, either money or food, but here spiritual nourishment is meant. Amos, 8, warns of “a day of famine, not famine for bread or thirst for water, but a famine of the hearing of the words of God. On that day, men will wander about from sea to sea, from the North even to the East, seeking the Word of the Lord, and will not find it. Blossoming maidens and virile young men will faint from their unquenched thirst.” True preaching is scarce.

[6] Having referenced the Parable of the Talents (Mt.25), Avvakum finishes his exhortation by reminding pastors what happened to the cynical, lazy steward who hid his entrusted deposit in the earth, on the day his lord returned.

[7] “Those presiding over churches are obliged every day but especially on every Lord’s Day, to instruct all the clergy and people with sermons on piety and right reverence toward God, collecting out of holy Scripture things carefully studied and determined in accordance with the truth, and not exceeding the boundaries now fixed, nor diverging from what has been handed down from the God-bearing Fathers. And if any controversy should be raised in regard to a Scripture, let them not interpret it otherwise than as the Lights and Teachers of the Church have explained it in their writings, and in those teachings let them glory rather than in composing things out of their own heads, lest through their lack of sources they deviate from what is right. For through the teaching of the aforesaid Fathers, the people have come to the knowledge of what is good and ought to be desired, as well as what is harmful and ought to be shunned, will reform their life for the better, and not be led about by ignorance, but, paying diligent attention to the teaching, will not be careless, so that no evil befall them and they will work on their salvation in fear of the retribution hanging over them.” (Canon 19 of the 6th Oecumenical Council).

[8] “If any bishop or presbyter acts negligently toward the clergy or the people, and does not instruct them in the way of godliness, let him be excommunicated, and if he persists in his negligence and idleness, let him be deposed.” (Apostolic Canon 58)