There are few theologians who have influenced me more in the last half-dozen-or-so years than Robert F. Capon. This alone is a remarkable statement, considering his entire ministry was conducted as an Episcopal priest. My friends over at Mockingbird have been supremely helpful in introducing me to Capon’s body of work. And while I am not always in line with his particular interpretive style, I am indebted to his stubborn resolve in bringing to bear the grace of Christ. His book, The Foolishness of Preaching: Proclaiming the Gospel against the Wisdom of the World, is a commendable resource for any preacher and teacher of God’s Word. His aim, throughout, is to envelope the one charged with expositing the Scriptures with nothing but the evangel of Christ crucified. Here are ten quotes from this little work,1 which will hopefully serve to enrich your spirit and whet your appetite enough to encourage you purchase and peruse this book yourself.
1: If you can make up your mind, when you go into the pulpit, to forget everything except Jesus Christ and him crucified, you’ll have nothing to give them but Good News. (13)
This concise statement almost serves as my ministerial maxim. I pray every week to be able to get out of the way so that the spotlight of worship might fall squarely on Christ crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). I know, beyond doubt, that there’s nothing else I need to hear — which, I imagine, is true for the churchgoers to whom I’m preaching, too. I pray to always be captivated by this good news whenever I’m afforded the opportunity to proclaim God’s Word.
2: You were not sent to spout opinions they can dismiss. You were sent to proclaim the sharp, authentic Word to them — the Word who isn’t NutraSweet. Tell them that no preacher worth his or her salt ever turned for the Gospel into a trademarked substitute for the authentic sweetness of Jesus’ death — and that you’re not about to risk it yourself. (134)
Likewise, Capon’s insistence on the purpose of proclamation from the pulpit is worthy of deeper consideration. I am not sent into that “sacred desk” in order to “spout opinions.” I am there to extol the Word of God made flesh, who dwelled with and died for those who sinned against him. Too often preachers get mired in current events and social issues, which make it far too easy to shout opinions when what’s really needed are the words of forgiveness and reconciliation spoken over and over and over again. Such, I think, is why resolutely Word-centered preaching is among the chief needs of the Church today. Which is a good segue:
3: We’ve hidden the Gospel of grace under a bushel of moral judgments. We’ve eclipsed forgiveness as the Good News and made guilt the touchstone of our relationships, with God and with everybody else. (39)
If you’re affixing your gospel proclamation to the end of your sermon, as if it’s an after-thought and not the driving force of your sermon, this will likely be the result. You’ll end up shrouding whatever gospel you intend to proclaim under a bevy of “moral judgments” and guilt trips. Perhaps preachers ought to remember that children’s song: “Hide it under a bushel, no! I’m gonna let it shine!” Let the gospel of grace shine throughout your sermon, preacher!
4: They don’t like being bitten by the Gospel. They’d rather be gummed to death by platitudes. (133)
This reminds me of St. Paul’s word to Timothy: “For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, will multiply teachers for themselves because they have an itch to hear what they want to hear” (2 Tim. 4:3).
5: Unless we who speak the Word are willing to be utterly nothing — unless we’re willing to admit we’re sinners, and welcome the annihilation of our glittering images of moral success and clerical reputability — our words will be nothing more than the words of fakers, and we’ll never come within a million miles of that astonishment at grace which alone can make those words come alive. (20)
In other words: preacher, preach to yourself! I’ve striven to make that my aim. Like I said earlier, I pray to get out of the way as I seek to lift high the Word of Christ alone. And the reason why I endeavor to exalt Christ Jesus week in and week out is precisely because I know how desperate I am for Christ Jesus himself. The words of the gospel are rich with meaning for every sinner in the sanctuary, including the one in the pulpit.
6: Repentance is a celebration, not a bargaining session in which we work up enough resolve against sin to con God into putting up with us. (22)
7: The church is not in the world to teach sinners how to straighten up and fly right . . . The church is supposed to be in the forgiveness business. Its job in filling pulpits is to find derelict nobodies who are willing to admit that they’re sinners and mean it. It’s supposed to take sheep who can be nothing but lost — sons who can except their failure as sons, crooked tax collectors who can stare at their shoes and say they’re worthless human beings — and stand them up to proclaim that lostness, deadness, uselessness, and nothingness are God’s cup of tea. The church’s job is not to go around implying that those desperate states are conditions we must get over as quickly as possible once we’ve been found; its true work is to invite us all to go moonstruck over the news that the one operative consideration in our life is the Passion of the Finder to find — the wild enthusiasm of the God who makes all things, old and new, by bringing them out of nothing but nothing. (23–24)
I love these lines from Capon. The “straighten up and fly right” mode of church is too often the default ministerial gear. Where the gospel of grace might be the theoretical claim of the church, more often than not the functional position something more restrictive and conditional. But, as Capon puts it, the church ought to be “in the forgiveness business.” That’s its modus operandi.
8: God doesn’t run away from our sins or from the sins of any human being; he meets us in them by the indwelling of his incarnate Word in every last child of Adam and Eve. (22)
9: All God needs to make a universe is nothing; all he needs to make a preacher is a nobody. (26)
10: I think good preachers should be like a bad kids. They ought to be naughty enough to tiptoe up on those and congregations, steal their bottles of religion pills, spirituality pills, and morality pills, and flush them all down the drain. The church, by and large, has drugged itself into thinking that a proper human behavior is the key to its relationship with God. What preachers need to do is force it to go cold turkey with nothing but the word of the cross — and then be brave enough to stick around while it goes through the inevitable withdrawal symptoms. But preachers can’t be that naughty or brave unless they’re free of their own need for the dope of acceptance. And they won’t be free of their need until they can trust the God who has already excepted them, in advance and dead as door nails, in Jesus. Ergo, the absolute indispensability of trust in Jesus’ Passion: unless the faith of preachers is in that alone — and not in any other person, ecclesiastical institution, theological system, moral prescription, or master recipe for human loveliness — they will be of very little use in the pulpit. (14)
This last quote gives you the playfulness with which Capon wrote about theology and ministry and the church. His aim seemed to always tend towards making the buttoned-up churchgoer slightly uncomfortable, showing them that grace looks like a loosened tie. For my own part, I pray to be brave enough to preach “nothing but the word of the cross.” If it was good enough for St. Paul, it’s probably good enough for me, too.
I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. (2 Cor. 2:2)
But as for me, I will never boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Gal. 6:14)
Soli Deo Gloria. Amen.
Every quote cited here has been excerpted from Robert Capon, The Foolishness of Preaching: Proclaiming the Gospel against the Wisdom of the World (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998).