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“Give me a lover and he will know what I mean.”

By Mac Stewart

St. Augustine, in his Homilies on the Gospel of John, was making the point with this pithy sentence that those who can find delight in earthly loves have at least some inkling of the kind of delight God wants to give us in himself.

But Augustine’s saying could also serve as a good summary of a recent webinar on these homilies, a full, new translation of which is now available from New City Press. The publisher teamed up with The Living Church Institute and the Augustinian Heritage Institute to provide a two-hour Zoom session on June 8 for more than 1,800 participants. The session was primarily aimed towards active preachers, who will encounter four consecutive weeks with Gospel texts from John’s “Bread of Life” discourse in the Revised Common Lectionary later this summer.

The panelists, whose discussion was moderated by Augustine scholar and Episcopal priest Paul Kolbet, were two of the leading lights in contemporary Augustinian studies: Professor John Cavadini of Notre Dame, and former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, recently retired as master of Magdalene College, Cambridge. Each of them described Augustine as the “theological love” of their lives, and their status as Augustine’s “lovers” in the ancient bishop’s own sense was clear throughout the session.

Williams, a preacher himself, and Cavadini, a lifelong “listener” of preaching (as he put it), both emphasized the deep contemporary relevance of Augustine’s preaching. To the question of whether ordinary lay people could possibly have paid attention to what often seem like long and meandering homilies, the panelists pointed to the evidence of the texts themselves.

The homilies, taken down by stenographers in the moment and edited very little by Augustine afterwards, display moments when Augustine is actively engaging with a responsive congregation: he affirms their enthusiasm, engages their puzzlement, and addresses their worries.

He does not reduce the images of Scripture to abstract concepts or dilute the power of its stories with his own quaint anecdotes. Rather, he shows at every turn his deep confidence in the disorienting and transforming force of the images and stories of Scripture themselves.

The good news that they deliver is not a neatly packaged set of final answers, but an invitation into a new world opened up by Jesus Christ. Augustine invites his congregation to romp through that world with him, and his preaching is carried forward as much by exploratory questions as it is by settled interpretive solutions.

Both panelists avoided the old commonplace that wrote off Augustine as the puritanical originator of a self-destructive kind of Christian “contempt of the world.” One need only peruse these homilies, they pointed out, to see the “warm-heartedness” of this ancient bishop, his practical love for his flock, and his fundamental sense that God is, at the end of the day, a hedonist. Both also encouraged preachers of the Church in our day to have the same kind of warm-hearted joy in the world-transforming news they have to share.

Mac Stewart is studying for a doctorate in historical theology at the Catholic University of America, and is a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina.