This morning I came across a sermon by Augustine from around the end of the 4th Century AD. It is on John 1:34-51 and its format fascinated me.
Firstly, it is so recognisable to a contemporary Christian setting. For example he begins almost conversationally:
“We rejoice at your numbers, for you have come together with readiness and in greater numbers than we could have hoped. This it is that delights and consoles us in all the labors and dangers of this life, your love towards God, and pious zeal, and assured hope, and fervor of spirit.
He then goes on to remind them of what they had heard in previous weeks:
“But I imagine, beloved brethren, that you remember that this Gospel is read in order in suitable portions; and I think that it has not escaped you what has lately been treated of, specially the recent matters concerning John and the dove. Concerning John, namely, what new thing he learned concerning the Lord by means of the dove, although he had already known the Lord.
Expository series were evidently a feature of his preaching ministry. Then throughout the rest of the lengthy sermon there is a high expectation of the congregation, both in terms of biblical literacy and in their ability to follow the flow of the his arguments.
There are also wonderful historical details. The surrounding pagans are celebrating a festival of blood which commemorates the time when a notable woman’s gold earring was snatched from her ear. On recovering the earring the gold was weighed against the blood spilt from her ear and the blood was miraculously found to weigh more. Augustine goes on to use this demonic miracle to illustrate the comparable “weight” of the blood of the Lamb of God:
“My brethren, if we acknowledge our price, that it is the blood of the Lamb, who are they who this day celebrate the festival of the blood of I know not what woman, and how ungrateful are they! The gold was snatched, they say, from the ear of a woman, and the blood ran, and the gold was placed on a pair of scales or on a balance, and the advantage was much on the side of the blood. If the blood of a woman was sufficiently weighty to outweigh the gold, what power to outweigh the world has the blood of the Lamb by whom the world was made”
Then he finishes with an evangelistic flourish to appeal to those present to pray for their pagan neighbours:
“And if we have detained you somewhat longer than is our wont, the design was that the dangerous hours might pass: we imagine that those people have now brought their vanity to a close. But let us, brethren, having fed upon the feasts of salvation, do what remains, that we may in a religious manner fill up the Lord’s day with spiritual joys, and compare the joys of verity with the joys of vanity; and if we are horrified, let us grieve; if we grieve, let us pray; if we pray, may we be heard; if we are heard, we gain them also.”
I can’t quite put my finger on what fascinates me about this. Partly it is just history, but – and I don’t want to over-egg the contemporary comparisons – it is comforting to see something so clearly recognisable. At the very least it enhances one’s awareness of being part of the universal church, it increases our love for that mystical body and helps us to appreciate our own part in it today.