If you ask pastors what they love most about their ministry, many will say preaching. There’s just something transcendent about standing before a congregation after hours of rewarding and diligent study, passionately proclaiming God’s word, and seeing heads nod or hearing the occasional “Amen!” as the truth sinks in and lives are transformed.
Well, at least that’s how it is according to the more romantic view of things that’s more common to people entering seminary than leaving it.
Yes, there are days in which the preacher feels in the grip of God and booms with the cocky confidence of Elijah on Mount Carmel. And then there are the more mundane experiences of struggling with a passage, trying to squeeze out its meaning and come up with some way of communicating it to these people in this place. On those days, one hopes for a miracle—that some way, somehow, we will find the grace of God winding its way through our human words.
Moreover, we must soberly remember that preaching is not a way to win a popularity contest. Paul uses a rather unattractive metaphor: when we preach the gospel truly to someone who rejects it, we “smell like a contagious dead person” (2 Cor 2:16), translates the Common English Bible. Not to be outdone, Eugene Peterson paraphrases Paul thus: “those on the way to destruction treat us more like the stench from a rotting corpse” (The Message).
Um, thanks Paul. I think.
I’m sure I’ve preached my share of stinkers, though of course that was never my intent. I know for a fact that there have been moments in which I’ve reached for something I thought was humorous or clever, only to have it fall flat, and times when people laughed at things I hadn’t intended to be funny. All of that comes with the territory.
But Paul’s rather blunt metaphor grounds the practice of preaching in the integrity of one’s life as a Christian, forcing us to take the calling to preach far beyond the level of rhetorical competence. He continues:
Who is qualified for this kind of ministry? We aren’t like so many people who hustle the word of God to make a profit. We are speaking through Christ in the presence of God, as those who are sincere and as those who are sent from God. (2 Cor 2:16b-17, CEB)
Reading a bit between the lines, we find Paul taking a swipe at the people he will refer to as “super-apostles” later in the letter (e.g., 11:5). These false teachers were probably quite good at promoting themselves as superior to Paul, and therefore (in their minds and the minds of vulnerable Corinthians) well-deserving of the fees they collected for their polished rhetoric. But Paul considers them hustlers—the word he uses suggests the kind of hucksterism we once identified with snake-oil salesmen.
By contrast, Paul lays down four characteristics that should characterize all Christ-centered preaching: a literal translation would be that he speaks “from sincerity,” “from God,” “before God,” and “in Christ.”
“Sincerity” has the connotation of purity; it can suggest wine that hasn’t been diluted, such as an unscrupulous merchant might try to sell. Paul, therefore, doesn’t water down the gospel (like those other guys!). To be an apostle means to preach the truth: the whole truth, and not just the parts people will like, the parts that keep them happily tithing. It means to preach with the confidence of one sent from God, but the humility of one speaking before God, that is, in God’s presence. And all this, because Paul knows himself to be united with the Christ who stands at the center of the gospel itself.
Most people (that I know of) don’t enter the preaching profession to become rich or famous. And there is nothing wrong with taking some pleasure in the recognition that often comes in response to a carefully crafted sermon, delivered with godly passion. We should take delight when God’s word is preached well—whoever the messenger happens to be.
But accolades and admiration are seductive. Soon, the focus begins to shift. There’s a difference, for example, between including a joke for sound homiletic reasons, and working for a laugh. It’s not either-or, but we should take care always to examine our motivations. We may not consider ourselves to be hucksters. But have we ever watered down the gospel for the sake of approval? If so, we may have already compromised our integrity.
“Who is qualified for this kind of ministry?” Paul asks, somewhat rhetorically. The super-apostles? Certainly not—at least, not if they understand what the ministry truly entails. The answer to Paul’s question is implied: no one. No one is qualified.
Unless, of course, God makes it so.
Cameron Lee is Professor of Marriage and Family Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is a licensed Family Wellness Trainer and a member of the National Council on Family Relations.Lee is also a teaching pastor and licensed minister in the congregation where he is a member.
Follow Fuller Seminary on Twitter at @fullerseminary.