The World in Small Boats
  • Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Word in Small Boats
Sermons from Oxford
By Oliver O’Donovan. Eerdmans. Pp. xiii + 192. $18, paper.
ISBN 978-0-8028-6453-6

Review by Michael Poon

These “Sermons from Oxford” testify to the bold ways that Professor Oliver O’Donovan undertook his preaching and teaching ministries for over 30 years, from Toronto to Oxford, and now in Edinburgh. O’Donovan’s students, past and present, will find in these sermons a powerful reminder of the high calling to disciplined and lifelong attention to God’s word in the places they serve, a calling their professor has exemplified.

The book consists of 32 sermons. Except for three — preached at St. Mary’s Islington, York Minster, and Southwell Minster — the rest were delivered in Christ Church, where O’Donovan was Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology and Canon of Christ Church Cathedral from 1982 to 2006. Five are from the 1980s, ten from the 1990s, and 17 from the 2000s.

The sermons are grouped into four sections. Section One, “The Mission of God’s Word,” consists of eight expositions on the Christ event, from Advent to Pentecost. The seven sermons in Section Two, “The Community of God’s Word,” explore the gift and task of communion amid the realities of imperfection, hiddenness and vulnerability in the present age.

Section Three, “Tradition, Truth, and the Public,” focuses on upheavals in the political realm: from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the Gulf War, the 9/11 attacks, and the Iraq War. The eight sermons are acts of truth-telling in the midst of horror, chaos, and despondency during that period.

Section Four, “Launched upon Life by God’s Word,” directs our attention to the storms of life from within: in the human experience of being uprooted, growing old, facing death; on the temptation of wealth and knowledge accumulation; and, even more fundamentally, on being human.

The sermons are “from Oxford,” which, Professor O’Donovan would underline, is a “place.” For him, places are connected with the “missionary economy of the Spirit”:

Places emerge out of mere spaces as people gather … to hear and invoke the name of Jesus, whom God has set forward as an ensign to the peoples. So mission penetrates inwards within a place; it gives the place its centre… . As the mission of the Spirit goes forward, the identity of the place becomes defined, its common life structured and beautified, its people’s energies released to the service of God’s love and the learning of God’s truth. (p. 60)

These sermons, in the missionary economy of the Spirit, are prophetic words spoken in Oxford to the late-modern Western society. In other words, Oxford becomes the place where the preacher was requisitioned for the service of God’s word, where hearers are summoned and launched upon life by God’s word. The word travels in “small boats,” frail and yet mobile, but they are the vessels through which we set out on the adventure of being human: in learning to be in communication with one another, in holding things in common, and in enhancing them with new social significances.

A breakdown of communication and breakup of communion has been a central concern in O’Donovan’s two major works, The Desire of the Nations (1996) and The Ways of Judgment (2005), that spanned his Oxford years.

This failure is evident in the present-day Anglican Communion crisis, which O’Donovan particularly addressed in two of his sermons: “A Word Travelling in Small Boats” and “Dividing the Kingdom.” When cyberspace becomes a main instrument of airing grievances and proposing solutions, there is little prospect for true communication and communion.

The Word in Small Boats therefore comes to our shores and imagined boundaries as a challenge and a gift. The prophetic words from Oxford challenge the ways we see God’s mission and the Church. They are not matters of self-projection and self-expression. Both need to come under the discipline of the Gospel: to become the mission and the community of God’s word.

These sermons direct churches in southern continents to the central theological task of preaching and teaching, so that bold sermons from Kampala, Singapore, Cape Town, Nairobi, Seoul, and São Paulo may elucidate minds and establish hearts toward a fresh vision of communion.

The Rev. Dr. Michael Poon is director, Asian Christianity coordinator of the Centre for the Study of Christianity in Asia, Trinity Theological College, Singapore, and a member of the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith and Order.

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