Way way back many centuries ago, not long after the Bible ended, there was a famous preacher called Chrysostom. I thought I’d share a bit of his thinking today. He’s reflecting on the tension created by the applause that was culturally part of the public speaking event, and had come into the church too:
There are many preachers who make long sermons: if they are well applauded, they are as glad as if they had obtained a kingdom: if they bring their sermon to an end in silence, their despondency is worse, I may almost say, than hell. It is this that ruins churches, that you do not seek to hear sermons that touch the heart, but sermons that will delight your ears with their intonation and the structure of their phrases, just as if you were listening to singers and lute-players.
Then he offers a helpful simile to show the dangerous temptations facing preachers (still today, I would say):
We act like a father who gives a sick child a cake or an ice, or something else that is merely nice to eat – just because he asks for it; and takes no pains to give him what is good for him; and then when the doctors blame him says, ‘I could not bear to hear my child cry.’ . . . . That is what we do when we elaborate beautiful sentences, fine combinations and harmonies, to please and not to profit, to be admired and not to instruct, to delight and not to touch you, to go away with your applause in our ears, and not to better your conduct.
Finally, he gives a vulnerable and honest insight into the inner struggle he faced as a preacher. Let’s face it, the flesh is a potent feature in every preacher’s experience.
Believe me, I am not speaking at random: when you applaud me as I speak, I feel at the moment as it is natural for a man to feel. I will make a clean breast of it. Why should I not? I am delighted and overjoyed. And then when I go home and reflect that the people who have been applauding me have received no benefit, and indeed that whatever benefit they might have had has been killed by the applause and praises, I am sore at heart, and I lament and fall to tears, and I feel as though I had spoken altogether in vain, and I say to myself, What is the good of all your labours, seeing that your hearers don’t want to reap any fruit out of all that you say? And I have often thought of laying down a rule absolutely prohibiting all applause, and urging you to listen in silence.
Most of our churches don’t have applause breaking out mid-sermon. But we still have the flesh!
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This quote taken from S. Chrys. Hom. xxx. In Act. Apost. c. 3, vol.ix. 238., quoted by Edwin Hatch in The influence of Greek Ideas and Usages upon the Christian Church, 1897, p111.