Monday, May 28, 2012

The Golden Mouth

John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople in the late fourth century, left behind a huge collection of sermons – more than six hundred of them. Exegetical in nature, each sermon proceeds verse by verse, sometimes phrase by phrase, through a passage of Scripture and explains its meaning while revealing nuances, implications, attitudes, and excluded alternatives. Like many pastors today influenced by Chrysostom’s tradition, he seemed to preach long series of sermons, each systematically covering all the material in a given book of the Bible. And they must have had enormous effect at the time: John’s contemporaries praised his eloquence by calling him “Chrysostom,” the “Golden Mouth.”

This month I read the first thirteen of his sermons on the letter of Paul to the Romans. I learned several things about the letter, about the historical situations at Paul’s time and at Chrysostom’s time, and about Byzantine theology of the fourth century (which is remarkably similar to mine). I kept wondering if John delivered these sermons one per week – in which case, it would have taken him seven months to finish the series on Romans and over a year to finish his sermon series on the book of the Acts of the Apostles – and who and how many came to hear him. Chrysostom demanded a lot of his congregation, whoever they were. It seems he expected the listeners to be very familiar with the texts; he even starts the series on Romans by saying that Christians have an obligation to read the words of Paul themselves and to understand them. He certainly expected the congregation to have the patience and intelligence to sit (or stand?) through long, detailed arguments and explanations.

Here are some of the specific points that stood out to me:

• After Paul has described God’s judgment on the foolishness of the world, he says that the Creator is blessed forever (1:25). Chrysostom says the phrase indicates that God is not injured at all by either the world’s sin or the insults directed at Him. We, too, should let insults roll off our backs and remember that they hurt the insulter more than they do the insulted. You wouldn’t feel hurt by the insult of a child, he says; threat your adult acquaintances the same way. I need this advice, but the first argument, that the insulter hurts himself more than he hurts me, makes more sense to me. Unfortunately, I can be hurt by the insults of a child.

• Forget punishment and reward, Chrysostom says. Make the state of your soul and your relationship with God its own punishment or reward.

• We should treat all suffering the same as a voluntary sacrifice. Bearing it nobly strengthens our soul more than our laxity in good circumstances. So be thankful for both good and bad.

• Voluntary virginity, voluntary poverty, and contempt of death (as in the martyrs) were rarely seen among those under the Law; their prevalence among Christians show the power of the Spirit that has set us free from the law of sin and death.

John’s sermons are clear, instructive, and powerful. His careful readings and explanations show that the “I” in the second half of chapter 7 does not stand for Paul but for any human before and during the time of Moses, that “flesh” doesn’t always mean the body, and that “death” means at least four different things in this letter. And the  exhortation at the end of each sermon appealing to his hearers to live a life worthy of the grace God has given them moved and inspired me halfway around the globe after 1600 years and at least one translation. Whoever his original listeners were, I agree with them in ascribing to John a Golden Mouth.

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