Encyclical Letter of the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America on Preaching
Published in 1989 at Pascha (that’s 24 years ago – but who’s counting), this encyclical has much to offer still today. What do you think?
To Lift Man to the Heights of Heaven
“From that moment on, Jesus began his preaching with the message ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.’”
– Matthew 4:17
Jesus: Wisdom, Word and Power of God
To lift man to the heights of heaven, Jesus Christ, the Only-begotten Son, who before the ages was born of the Father, and who, in the fullness of time, was born of the Holy Spirit and the Ever-virgin Mary, came on this earth!
We know from the Lord’s own lips that he did not come to condemn but to save, not to cast aside but to gather together. His short ministry among men had been greatly longed for and his return is anticipated with rejoicing.
Our Lord, as Teacher and Prophet, considered preaching of the truth one of his essential services.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” (Luke 4:18-19, Isaiah 61:1-2)
On his ascension into heaven to sit at the right side of his Father in that glory that always was his, the compassionate Redeemer sent the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, to dwell in and among his disciples and to thereby assure his Bride, the Church, that the powers of hell would not overcome her.
The Apostles’ Preaching
That same Holy Spirit, coming as distinct tongues of fire and resting above the heads of Christ’s followers on the great day of Pentecost, entered their hearts, empowering them to speak in many and various recognizable languages to thus herald the Good News, the Gospel of Jesus of Nazareth. It was the preaching of the life, death, resurrection, ascension and return of the Lord by his disciples and their urgent call to repentance which made the number of believers swell by 5,000 on that day.
Christ shared his purpose
“I must preach the good news of the Kingdom of God to other cities.” (Luke 4:43)
with his disciples. The Gospel spread into villages, towns, and cities, even to the capital, Rome, and entire peoples were won for Christ. The preaching of the Cross displaced and dethroned other symbols, bringing healing, peace and hope to people of various social stations.
Outstanding among the first preachers was St. Paul, who, after a revelation on the road to Damascus, continued the preaching of the Word of God to which he had been a witness at the martyrdom of St. Stephen. He became the great Apostle,
“to the Jews first and then to the pagans,”
realizing the universality of the salvation message.
Through the centuries, other dynamic preachers rose up in a great
“show of power of the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 2:5)
to tell the next generation of the wonders of God. Among these were St. John, Patriarch of Constantinople, popularly entitled the “Goldenmouth” for his eloquence in preaching. In his fifth chapter On The Priesthood, he described the great labor and diligence with which the preacher must prepare to
“engage in discussions in defence of the truth.”
New World Vineyard
God calls on the Church in America to speak with the same “power of the Spirit” in her mission in the “New World.” Until recently, most of the faithful heard the sermon and worshipped in various languages transplanted from abroad. Today, however, when English is the dominant language of old and young alike, sermons must be in English in order to affect the heart and move to repentance.
Christ preached to the converted and the unconverted, repentant and unrepentant. Likewise, the Church addresses those who have put on Christ and those who have yet to
“taste and see that the Lord is good.”
Preaching must feed the flock already in the fold, call to repentance those who stray, and add new sheep to the flock through Holy Baptism.
The Royal Priesthood
“All you baptized in Christ, you have all clothed yourselves in Christ,”
and have thus been made members of the “Royal Priesthood.” Each has been called to witness to Christ in word and action,
“some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers.”
It is the power of the message of God in one’s life which moves each member to action in his fullest capacity and strengthens his resolve to
“love God above all else,”
as our Father, Saint Herman of Alaska teaches us.
Therefore, each member of the Church is a “preacher” and cannot but proclaim the “tidings of gladness and joy.” The power of the Gospel, while dwelling within, tends to flow outward, transfiguring every aspect of creation. Where we have not been individually or collectively responsive to the Gospel of justice, it may be partly because of our own reluctance to permit the power of the Word to move us to actions of faith. Society itself cries out for an Orthodox witness: we must not only hear but act upon the Word which we have heard.
Some feel that it is not their responsibility to speak out to the world, to loved ones and family, to fellow workers and neighbors about the Good News. This kind of attitude has weakened the witness of the Royal Priesthood. But the Lord’s parables about hiding one’s lamp under a bushel, about salt losing its flavor, apply to all of us. Out of pure love for God and in thanksgiving, all baptized in the Lord should not resist the power of the Spirit within, and should bear witness in word and in action.
The Ordained Priesthood
In addition to the responsibility for proclaiming the Word in speech and action which is borne by every member of the Priesthood of Believers, there is that preaching ministry bestowed through the laying-on-of-hands which enables the bishop, and presbyters enabled by him, to speak out in an authoritative way (i.e., “from the Ambo”) before and within the entire community of believers. It bears a unique seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit by whom it is kept pure. It is this authentic teaching, the weapon against Satan, which saves souls from the depths of hell.
In the early Church, it was the function of the local presiding officer, the bishop, to preach on the readings of the day. St. Justin the Martyr reminds us that
“in his speech, the bishop should admonish and exhort all to imitate the beautiful teachings just read.”
Gradually, because of the growth and expansion of the Church, the bishop shared his prerogative with his priests. Whenever present, however, he as shepherd was and is expected to
“rightly teach the word of truth.”
The custom was for him to hold both Gospel and staff to show both the source and the authority of his preaching.
The ordained preacher, however, must know what to preach. He must know it first in his own heart and live it in his own life. Moreover, the gift of preaching well is not necessarily bestowed at ordination. For some a
“special grace” (1 Peter 4:10)
is evident and this special talent is used to promote the kingdom of God. Others, however, must work more diligently, laboring with more effort.
True, the power of the Word of God is forever, but the quality of preaching is directly related to the effort expended by the preacher in such cases.
The Homily: An Offering to God
There are those who have the gift to preach spontaneously. Others find it necessary to prepare their homily even to the point of writing it out. When such is the need, the preacher must set aside a scheduled and sufficient amount of time in which to prepare his sermon. Carefully chosen words are an offering to God and food for the faithful.
The discipline to set aside a definite and fixed time in which to study the Word of the Lord and prepare a sermon must come from love of God and the desire to serve one’s neighbor. Lesser duties, administrative tasks, must be set aside for this obligation which gives meaning to the call of the preacher: planning his text for presentation, anticipating to feed the flock of Christ.
No sooner have the words flowed from the pulpit than ought the diligent preacher prepare his heart for the next occasion. The prayer to “open the eyes of our mind to the understanding of your evangelical proclamations” in the Divine Liturgy ought never leave his lips.
The Subject: The Word Who Is Life
The true and only subject of the sermon is God himself;
“Something which has existed since the beginning, that we have heard, and we have seen with our own eyes; that we have watched and touched with our hands; the Word who is life – this is our subject.” (1 John 1:1)
The Word who is life, the Lord Jesus Christ must be preached and his message made known. The birth, death, resurrection and second coming of the Son of God, the simple apostolic kerygma is the theme which moved those present at Pentecost, giving meaning even today and offering salvation.
A prominent call to repentance should be found in the homily, and the themes of heaven and hell can, properly presented, avoid the pitfall of making this world the be-all and end-all of existence.
The Good Shepherd, caring for his flock, spoke of the final judgement hoping thereby to bring man to humble himself and to recognize his limitations and from the depth of his soul call out to his Creator and Redeemer for reconciliation.
In love and compassion, but with honesty, the reality of personal sin must be stated. Unless the patient is made aware of his illness how can he seek the cure and healing from the Physician of body and soul? The preacher must repeat, like a clarion call, the words of St. John the Evangelist:
“There is no man born who does not transgress”
except the Only-begotten Son.
The Light that never fades, the joyous Light of the holy glory of the Father, having won the victory for mankind himself illumines all men. The preacher, servant of that Light, must warn his flock of spiritual darkness and of Satan and his companions. Jesus called himself the Light:
“I have come as light into the world, that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.” (John 12:46)
He that does gloss over the war waged against man by the powers of darkness may later cry out “Lord, Lord” but the Savior of our souls may not acknowledge him before his holy angels.
The Second Coming
An urgent and eschatological element marks traditional Orthodox preaching. Moreover, from Orthodox monasticism comes the call to wake and sing to the newly arriving Bridegroom Christ. This cry of Christ’s bride, the Church; the expectation of the imminent advent of the Lamb; the cry,
“Come, Lord Jesus, come,”
should not turn cold in our hearts. A neglect of eschatological preaching, a glossing over of what is truly an article of faith would imply that human endeavors are, in fact, “the answer”, and that Christ’s Gospel can be laid aside to a later time.
God’s Holy Ones
There should be many styles of preaching in the preacher’s inventory and he should know his audience and use the style fitted for it; however, simplicity is always best. The Lord Jesus was understood by both the unlearned and the learned. His presentations were clear and authentic, simple and urgent. Sophisms, clichés, slogans, slang, and literary affectations should not be in the preacher’s inventory. Instead of revealing, they obscure; in place of transfiguring, they confuse. Elaborate and lengthy presentations should be avoided; they signify pride and vanity more than edification and humility. The faithful will benefit more from a well prepared and brief sermon than by a poorly prepared, unprepared, or rambling discourse.
The message of salvation should be free from all possible overtones of personal problems, accusations, judgements, reprimands and cynical remarks. There are ample opportunities for personal guidance on a one-to-one basis outside the time of the sermon. Like our Lord, the preacher does not preach to condemn but to save, not to cast aside but to heal. Moreover, financial needs of a community can be stated at other appropriate times.
In the Divine Liturgy we sing,
“Save us, O Son of God, admired in your saints.”
It is laudable to recall the Mother of God and the saints and events in the life of the Church in a homily but at the same time we may not forget the Crucified One, the Word, who is the only Source of Life. The choirs of saints are like stars but the Lord Jesus is the Sun of Righteousness. Care must be taken to present lives of the saints, reflections of Christ, in the context of their total dedication to the Lord.
The Place for the Homily
Within the structure of the Divine Liturgy the traditional place for delivering the sermon is immediately after the Bible readings.
If determined by sincere pastoral concern the preacher may deliver his sermon after the hymn, “Blessed be the Name of the Lord,” but before “The blessing of the Lord be on you.” A sermon should be delivered at every Divine Liturgy. The abuse of following a summer schedule which intentionally excludes a sermon must be stopped.
The presiding officer or celebrant knows that it is in the traditional context of the Liturgy of the Catechumens that the teaching ought to be given. In fact, one wonders how such things as “church schools” or “Sunday schools” have replaced the didactic part of the service. The Litany of the Catechumens with its directive for the non-baptized to leave reminds us that they were fed the Word of God and taught until they were baptized and could be totally prepared to receive the Life-giving Body and Blood as nourishment for body and soul.
Although the eucharistic celebration is the familiar time during which a sermon is preached, the caring pastor will use all opportunities to expound the Good News. Funerals, weddings, baptisms, devotional services all are fitting moments at which the flock of Christ may be fed with the Word of God. Certainly more than one sermon may be delivered at any service including the Divine Liturgy. At Vespers, the All-Night Vigil, or even Matins, homilies may be given. Certainly during the Holy Week services homilies are in order and ought to be delivered.
The readings prescribed for the services are based on a cyclic schedule which must be maintained. Adherence to the established “calendar” of biblical readings distinguishes the Orthodox Church from a collection of congregations. The cyclic reading tradition has, in fact, made such an impression on the lives of Orthodox Christians that they can identify seasons and Sundays with names of parables and thus give added meaning to their lives in a secular world.
Every Christian Preaches
Considering that we are in the “race for salvation” and continue to “fight the good fight,” we must use every moment to know and love God, the Gospel and its invitation to salvation. Christians have a sacred duty to preach. Where not already offered, seminaries should introduce homiletics courses into the curricula: where such are already offered they should be supported and strengthened. Provisions for continuing education and refresher courses for priests, deacons and the other ranks of the clergy should be made.
The establishment of bible studies on parish and city levels is a beneficial thing. While relatively new, the practice of publishing annual calendars on which the daily scripture readings are given has also been a source of direction for the laity. Having these tools and applying them would be a part of evangelism on the part of the entire Church. Thus the faithful strengthen themselves.
Preaching With New Tools
The extension of the ministry of preaching into homes and the market place is made possible through the wonderful variety of electronic tools available to us. Not only can a homily be heard in the context of a liturgical service or at the church proper, but also in the privacy of the home. In addition, it can be seen. The printed word, radio, television, including home video, are all tools which ought to be more extensively used to spread the Good News.
The Church has newspapers in which sacred doctrine is taught, spiritual advice shared, hierarchal encyclicals and homilies promulgated. Parish priests use their bulletins to teach on a regular basis and these come into the home of each parishioner. Available printed media should be utilized with the same care and dedication to the printed word as to the spoken. The bulletin is a way through which to systematically teach and give spiritual direction. The major part of the bulletin should be concerned with things nourishing the soul and not reports of donations and names. The printed bulletin should be considered an extension of the pulpit.
Radio broadcasting is another precious tool which has still to be used more seriously by the Church. With the efforts of a team of individuals, fitting programs can be broadcast across the land, reaching out to millions of believers and unchurched, as well.
The broadcaster need not be ordained, but should be trained in speaking. For hire or through stewardship, a radio announcer, trained and experienced, can present whatever the Church prepares in the form of a radio script. Orthodox hymns and poetry, readings from the fathers and lives of the saints are a treasury waiting to be aired to the listening public. While the faithful attend the eucharistic service and hear a sermon, the world may still be caught in the “net” of radio broadcasting and led into communion in the Holy Spirit.
The benefit of television will always be under discussion but our concern is how does the Church make use of this wonderful “iconographic” tool. In addition to services pre-taped or broadcast live on certain occasions, there are many ways of entering the world of homes to share the Gospel message. Certainly the experience of St. Prince Vladimir of “seeing and hearing” the service in Hagia Sofia can be offered to millions of television viewers in search of the same things as was he.
Panel discussions, catechetical presentations, and preaching, are all viable television material. Cost should not be the pivotal issue; it’s rather our preparation for and actual use of this medium in our ministry.
While some may question the value of home video, the use of this medium opens great possibilities to the pastor and it should therefore be used to the maximum. Catechetical presentations, explanations of the Holy Mysteries, spiritual talks, and good sermons are all material for home videos.
The Home: A Micro Church
The reality of the Church in the New World is that parishes, and dioceses are not the compact units of Old World. Distance is a great problem. Our faithful work far from their homes and live far from their local church. Time is taken up with travel and preparations for it. Once the faithful are at home it is not easy to call them out again for other programs, no matter how spiritually beneficial. The home is however still the “micro/mini church” and we should focus in on that.
Thus, in making available the printed word, radio broadcasts, television and especially home videos, we are extending the Word of God into the Christian household. The media should also help to sanctify the home, drawing families together to see and hear the Good News. Micro and macro Churches thus strengthen each other.
The use of mass media is like an extension of the Liturgy of the Catechumens; it allows us to reach both the baptized and the nonbeliever; it can help us fortify the sheep and call out to others. Of course, no one would think that radio programs, television and home videos substitute for worship. They may be a means to inspire the faithful and the clergy; such programs provide a necessary alternative to secular programs.
Once, preaching was heard only in a formal setting. Now through the media it reaches into the home, hospitals, rest homes and institutions. It is available to that vast world outside the doors of our particular parish churches. Without knocking on doors or standing in the market place, Orthodox Christianity’s Good News, the good seed, can be broadcast, be received, planted and grow through our own wise stewardship of time and talents. In this area, specifically, the royal priesthood and the ordained can work together to produce outstanding witnessing to the Good News.
It is in following the example of the holy martyrs whose
“preaching was the consubstantial Trinity”
and for which they
“contended valiantly and were crowned”
that Orthodox Christians in the New World will also find salvation. In proclaiming the Word of God, we are part of the fulfilling of the Lord’s command to go forth and preach to all nations
“the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
May the fulfillment of this exhortation to preach hasten our Lord’s glorious, triumphant and much awaited return.
HOLY SYNOD of the ORTHODOX CHURCH IN AMERICA
Archbishop of Washington Metropolitan of All America and Canada
Bishop of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania Bishop of the Bulgarian Diocese
Bishop of New York and New Jersey
Bishop of Dallas and the South
Bishop of Philadelphia and Eastern Pennsylvania
Bishop of Sitka and Alaska
Bishop of Detroit and the Romanian Diocese
Bishop of Hartford and New England
Bishop of San Francisco and the West
Bishop of Fort Lauderdale
Administrator of the Diocese of the Midwest
Bishop of Edmonton
Administrator of the Diocese of Canada