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a pandemic preacher (part 2) – geoff new

In this second reflection on the life of Gregory the Great (c.a. 540 – 604), we consider some of the messages from his preaching ministry for us in the 21st century.

“This is my unchanging conviction in changing circumstances”

The circumstances that forced Gregory into new ministry spaces and the inner conflict he experienced because of that – caused him to think through what might be the best response:

“Granted, then, that he continued to feel acutely the tension between his own desire for the contemplative life and the care for all the churches, which fell upon him daily, it is not surprising that he devoted much thought to how not only he but others as well should resolve that conflict and exercise authority in the church. An outgrowth of his thought on the subject is his conviction of the importance of preaching and his understanding of    what makes it important.”[1]

As Gregory reflected on the catastrophic events traumatizing life for people, these shaped his understanding the gospel.[2] While there were times when one particular catastrophe threatened (e.g. war), Gregory would frame it with a wider perspective from Scripture and history. This perspective leant on eschatological hope and an emphasis on the church’s primary business of salvation. Gregory called people to adjust their lives so that should even the world be destroyed, they would not be. For Gregory, all other church responsibilities that demanded attention were secondary to the proclamation of salvation.

questions for reflection

What convictions about preaching do you hold onto – that not even the threat and effect of COVID–19 can change?

What new convictions are being created for you during this time?

“Preach to the one and the many”

The fruit of Gregory’s internal struggle and his realisation of the importance of preaching resulted in his preaching ministry operating at two levels.

1.  The Importance of Preaching as a Person

Gregory was foremost a man of prayer before he was a preacher. He was foremost a child of God in deep conversation with his Creator. Hence, Gregory’s sermons were fueled by his prayerful contemplation and the individual listener was very much in view. Gregory’s personal spirituality came to bear on each person listening to his sermon. A striking example of this preaching dynamic is found in one of his sermons from his famous series on the Book of Ezekiel:[3]

“’Mortal, I have set you as a watchman to the house of Israel.’ Note that Ezekiel, the one   the Lord sent to preach the word, is called “a watchman.” A watchman or sentinel takes a post on the highest point, in order to see whoever may be coming from a distance. Similarly, anyone appointed watchman to a congregation should live a “higher” life so as to keep all things in sight.

 As I say these words, I realize I am reproaching myself. For I do not preach as I ought, nor does my personal example accord with these principles that I’m preaching even now. I can’t deny my guilt, for I’ve become lethargic and negligent in my work; though perhaps by recognizing my failure I’ll win some sympathy and pardon from the Judge. Before I started this work, while living in a religious community, I was able to refrain from talking about idle topics and to devote my mind to prayer. Since taking up this new pastoral position, I have been unable to concentrate on prayer, because I’m so distracted by my responsibilities. . . I am split and torn to pieces by the variety of weighty things on my mind. When I try to concentrate and pull myself together to preach, I feel inadequate to that sacred task. I am often compelled by the nature of my position to associate with worldly people, and sometimes I become casual in my speech; because if I spoke as my conscience dictates with all formality, I know some of them would simply drop me and    that I could never influence them towards the goal I desire for them. So I endure their aimless chatter in patience. Then, because I am weak myself I am drawn gradually into idle chitchat — and I find myself saying the kind of thing that before I didn’t even want to listen to! . . . What kind of a watchman am I? Far from the heights to which I aspire, I am constrained by my weakness. And yet — the one who created me and redeemed me and all humanity can give me, even in my unworthiness, some grace to glimpse the whole of life, and the skill and ability to speak of what I see. So it is for the love of God that I do not spare myself in preaching.

Gregory bares his soul and his sermon shows evidence that he – as preacher – is the first person confronted by the Word of God. While people may have different responses to such personal disclosure and even question the wisdom of it, it is hard not to be moved by Gregory’s raw description of his spiritual struggle and to find yourself connecting with it.

Gregory advocated a preaching dynamic which was preacher–to–individual.

2. The Importance of Preaching as a People

Gregory was strong in his belief that everyone was equal.[4] Such were the times he lived and the nature of the church, these deeply held views about equality could not be easily aired and expressed.[5] The nature of how leadership was structured in the church distressed him greatly, especially given his leadership role was so elevated. His view that all were equal influenced his vision of the ministry of preaching. He considered all Christians had a responsibility to each other through the duty of preaching.[6] “As Gregory sees it, the ministry of the Word is a ministry of the whole Christian community.”[7] Gregory’s preaching ministry allowed truth to be received from members of the community to the preacher, and in turn for the community to receive truth from the community. This might appear as nothing especially extraordinary, but at that time in history with a strongly hierarchical church leadership structure this was astonishing.

It is helpful too, to see how Gregory located the preacher and community within the context of Scripture and divine revelation.

As mentioned in the previous section, one of the prominent sermon series Gregory preached was from Ezekiel. He used the vision of the four creatures in Ezekiel 1 to formulate his vision of the word of God as it related to preaching.[8] The four creatures had the face of a human, lion, ox, and eagle. In considering Gregory’s reflection, it needs to be noted that allegory was often utilized in his day and age. Gregory proposed the vision of the four creatures:

  • Speaks of Christ (Word of God)
  • Speaks of the gospel writers (writers of the Word of God)
  • Speaks of preachers (proclaimers of the Word of God)
  • Speaks of the faithful (who hear and obey the Word of God)

Such was the Word-shaped community Gregory envisaged. The immediate worshipping community to which he preached was part of a wider, historical, and timeless community formed by the giving, receiving, recording and response to the Word of God.

Gregory advocated a preaching dynamic which was community–to–preacher.

questions for reflection

What spiritual fruit is emerging from your time during the various Alert Levels that will bless individual listeners when you preach?

What opportunities are arising from the COVID–19 Alert Levels that allow you as preacher to receive truth from the community you serve?

“Preach taking seriously Christ’s declaration that ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away’”

Of all the preachers the world has been blessed with, Gregory the Great is well-named. His deep love of the Scriptures and study of them birthed beautiful sermons.

He brought the sprawling and eternal message of the Scriptures to bear on the sprawling and temporal nature of the world. He is also one of the first great preachers to introduce non-scriptural illustrations and stories to illuminate the bible text.[9] Gregory’s preaching practice ranged between lectio continua (preaching through a book of the bible) and using the lectionary.

For example, when the Lombards were invading from the north, Gregory was engaged in a lectio continua sermon series in Ezekiel and was at chapter four. However when the Lombards were at the gates of Rome he jumped to Ezekiel 40 which is about the heavenly Jerusalem. Ezekiel had preached to a people invaded from the north and prophesied a heavenly kingdom; Gregory took his lead from the prophet. In this Gregory demonstrated the skill required when employing lectio continua: “Half the genius of great lectio continua preaching is selecting the right book or portion of a book at the right time.”[10]

Gregory’s extraordinary sermons on Ezekiel highlighted the everlasting glory, holiness, and majesty of God at a dark time in history when the grandeur of human achievements were fading. “Gregory’s greatest contribution was to assure an age that was at the edge of chaos that there is an ultimate order.”[11]

Also during his time, the lectionary was still being formulated and there were a number of Sunday’s and special occasions with no assigned text. Gregory populated these with selected texts and he is considered the final authority of the Roman lectionary. The tension between Gregory drawing on what had been done previously and adding to that, is contained in this observation about him: “This very creative Christian leader understood himself as a definer of the tradition rather than as an innovator.”[12] Yet perhaps defining traditions in times of great uncertainty is a crucial kind of innovation. Especially when new traditions are birthed from circumstances never before experienced. Such innovation is clothed with challenging creativity (“new”) and comforting familiarity (“tradition”).

questions for reflection

I.  If you are mostly a lectionary preacher: how has the Spirit led you in the use of the assigned Scripture during this COVID context?

OR

II.  If you are mostly a lectio continua preacher: how has the Spirit led you to select a Scripture during this COVID context?

Then consider this:

Gregory utilised both the lectionary and lectio continua: if you favour one approach over the other – what would it mean for you to create a new tradition by trying the other approach?

(This reflection first appeared on the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership website)


[1] O.C. Edwards Jr, A History of Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon, 2004), 138. Emphasis mine.

[2] Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church: Volume 2, The Patristic Age (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 436.

[3] https://gregorians.org/gregorians/gregorythegreat.php – accessed 1st May 2020

[4] Whit Trumbull, “Equality and Pastoral Rule: Pope Gregory the Great’s Inner Conflict”, Priscilla Papers, Vol 22, No. 1, Winter 2008, 17-20.

[5] He also advocated against slavery but conceded the expediency of it as a social institution but called for humane treatment of slaves. Trumbull, “Equality”, 17.

[6] Edwards, Preaching, 139.

[7] Old, Preaching of the Scriptures, 441.

[8] Old, Preaching of the Scriptures, 442.

[9] Edwards, Preaching, 140.

[10] Old, Preaching of the Scriptures, 438.

[11] Old, Preaching of the Scriptures, 438.

[12] Old, Preaching of the Scriptures, 430.

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