“What’s the good of my having become a Christian?”

Augustine asked that question in Sermon 33a, a sermon scholars think was given on September 11, 410 CE, less than three weeks after the Goths sacked Rome. Augustine continues his questioning, “Has it made me any better off than one who isn’t a Christian, than one who doesn’t believe in Christ, than that other one who blasphemes my God?” Augustine knows from Isaiah 40 and 1 Peter 1 that “all flesh is grass…. But the Word of the Lord abides forever.” He comments, “Look, the grass has perished.” “Do you want to avoid perishing?” he asks. Augustine then advises, “Hold fast to the Word” (S. 33a.3; tr. Hill). His preaching was for Christians who doubted, who suffered, who wanted to have hope. His preaching has resonance today.

I began writing The Power of Patristic Preaching: The Word in Our Flesh, published this past May, with this very questioning of Augustine and his homiletic exhortation to “Hold fast to the Word” in mind. I learned a great deal while writing this book. It has a running theme of the Word’s incarnation, deification, and proclamation by the power of the Holy Spirit. From that trifold consideration, each of the seven chapters focuses on an early Christian preacher, in chronological order, with a particular emphasis in the Christian life. Chapter 5, for example, focuses on Augustine of Hippo, “The Word in Our Flesh for Love.”

I chose “love” as the focal point to consider Augustine’s life and preaching not only because it follows upon the book’s two chapters on what are called other “theological virtues”—with Chapter 3 on Gregory of Nazianzus, “The Word in Our Flesh for Purification and Faith” and Chapter 4 on John Chrysostom, “The Word in Our Flesh for the Hope of Salvation”—but also because Augustine the preacher is, indeed, all about love. Augustine preached to his people because of love. He says in Sermon 17, delivered later in life, “I don’t want to be saved without you” (S. 17.2; tr. Hill). As one who is professed and ordained in the Order of Preachers (the Dominicans), I want to be like Augustine—to live, preach, and write for people in that kind of sacrificial love: “I don’t want to be saved without you.”

Augustine loved his people because he experienced in a profound way God’s love for him. One of Augustine’s favorite scriptural quotations is Romans 5:5, “The love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit given to us.” God gives us in grace the gift to love him, for Augustine. He says in the Confessions: “You pierced my heart by your Word, and I loved you” (10.6.8; tr. Bourke). Inspired by that love for God, he wanted to share in love for his neighbors that story in his Confessions of the Word of God touching—piercing—his heart. He frequently returned to love in the over 900 sermons extant from him.

God’s love changes us. Augustine shows that through God’s love we are called to love in a way that’s radically different from worldly loves. For example, I think about the second tractate on First John and Augustine’s interpretation of “Do not love the world or the things of this world” (1 Jn 2:15). Augustine says that we become what we most love. “Do you love the earth?” he asks. If so, you will love the earth. He then questions, “Do you love God?” He pursues what that means: “What shall I say? Will you be a god? I dare not say this on my own. Let us hear Scripture: ‘I have said, “You are gods and sons of the Most High, all of you” (Ps 81[82]: 6; Jn 10:34).’” Augustine then concludes, “If, then, you wish to be gods and sons of the Most High, ‘Love not the world, nor the things of this world’ (1 Jn 2:15; tr. Rettig).” Augustine wants us to know that we are deified by our love for God. There is much good in having become a Christian—if we hold fast to the Word.

Having done this work on Augustine’s preaching on “The Word in Our Flesh for Love,” I hope to imitate Augustine and to share with others the love that God so lavishes upon us in the Word made flesh dwelling among us.