18 January 2012

Preaching with love and with authority

‘I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people’ (Deuteronomy 18: 18) … Patrick Pye’s Triptych in Saint Macartan’s Cathedral, Monaghan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary for Sunday week [Sunday 29 January 2012], the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, are: Deuteronomy 18: 15-20; Psalm 111; I Corinthians 8: 1-13; and Mark 1: 21-28.

For this semester, we have decided in our tutorial group, to look at the Old Testament readings provided in the lectionary.

Deuteronomy 18: 15-20

[Moses spoke to the people; he said:]

The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. This is what you requested of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: ‘If I hear the voice of the Lord my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.’ Then the Lord replied to me: ‘They are right in what they have said. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak – that prophet shall die.’

Making connections:

The other lectionary readings for the day are:

Psalm 111: The Psalm tells us how great the works of the Lord are, and ends with that wonderful verse (10):

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
Those who act accordingly have a good understanding;
His praise endures for ever.

I Corinthians 8: 1-13: In the New Testament reading, the Apostle Paul reminds us of the difference between knowledge and love. There is a difference between knowing who God is, and loving God, just as there is a difference between knowing who someone is, and loving that person. Discipleship, and ministry, are less about knowing, and all about loving.

Mark 1: 21-28: The Gospel readings is the story of Christ’s visit to Capernaum, where he teaches in the synagogue and preaches. All are astounded at is teaching, but when he actually puts it into practice, they are all amazed: He not only teaches, but he puts it into practice, he teaches not just with knowledge, but with authority; not only can he say, but he can do.

Reflecting on those readings may help those us who want to preach on the Old Testament reading that Sunday morning.

Looking at the text:

‘Hang all the law and the prophets’ … the statue of Bishop Charles Gore at the west entrance of Birmingham Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

In the verses immediately preceding this (Deuteronomy 18: 9-14), the people are warned against false religion in the form of worshipping false idols, false gods, divination, magic, sooth-saying, sorcery and child sacrifice.

At the time, this must have been seen as weird, every other religion and culture in the region engaged in these practices, and hardly saw them as superstitious.

Then, having dismissed all that, Moses talks about how to tell if a prophet is a true prophet of the Lord. A true prophet is like Moses, conveying ideas and principals consistent with God’s commandments. False prophets are those who intentionally, through deceit, or unintentionally, because of self-delusion, preach false teachings or offer inaccurate predictions.

The people have the laws and instructions from God that are the measure of truth for them. They stand for something so they are not to fall for just anything – in theory, anyway.

If we see the reading as one about law in terms of the Old Testament code repeated in Deuteronomy, we may get bogged down. But we know what the summary of the Law is: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength … You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Mark 12: 30-31; see Matthew 22: 34-40; Luke 25-28).

The story is told that when Charles Gore – founder of the Community of the Resurrection, the first Bishop of Birmingham, and the Editor of Lux Mundi – loved to play a particular prank on friends and acquaintances.

As a canon of Westminster Abbey, he enjoyed showing visitors the tomb of one of his ancestor, the Earl of Kerry, with an inscription that ends with the words (in double quotation marks): “Hang all the law and the prophets.”

On closer inspection, he would point out, the words are preceded by “... ever studious to fulfil those two great commandments on which he had been taught by his divine Master ...” (see Matthew 22: 40).

So, may we may want to hang some of the prophets if they preach the Word of God as if these were not the two commandments on which depend all the law and the prophets.

If we approach this reading in the context of the difference between knowledge and love, then we may find a more useful, reflective and pastoral way of approaching this passage.

Here we find a good antidote to those who preach, and who know their Bible, but who impose their own rules and regulations on people, without taking any account of the scope of God’s love, which is seen in the life, passion, death, resurrection, ascension, and coming again of Christ.

Sometimes, listening to them, or hearing about them, can be a deadening experience. If they put their preaching into practice, it might be a very love-less world indeed, and may indeed want to hang all the law and the prophets.

Recently, as I was preparing to preach in three churches on a Sunday morning, I was asked how many sermons did I normally preach.

I replied: “Three.”

And she asked: “Every Sunday?”

No, I said. I only have three sermons to preach, and humorously summarised them as:

1, Love God.

2, Love one another.

3, Love God, and Love one another.

And if that is at the heart of your preaching, you will find you are preaching with knowledge and with love, perhaps even with authority.


Creator God,
who in the beginning
commanded the light to shine out of darkness:
We pray that the light of the glorious gospel of Christ
may dispel the darkness of ignorance and unbelief,
shine into the hearts of all your people,
and reveal the knowledge of your glory
in the face of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

Generous Lord,
in word and Eucharist we have proclaimed
the mystery of your love.
Help us so to live out our days
that we may be signs of your wonders in the world;
through Jesus Christ our Saviour.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. These notes were prepared for a Bible study with a tutorial group of MTh students on Wednesday 18 January 2012

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