Mar 31, 2024

Gregory the Great

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Most of my sermons follow a predictable pattern. I begin by attempting to draw people into the message, aware that most congregants decide in the first minute or so whether they will give full attention to the sermon. The middle portion of my message seeks to engage listeners in the major themes of the featured Biblical text. I then close with application, asking, what difference does this sermon make in my life? I detect a similar pattern in the sermon Gregory the Great (540-604) preached at St. Mary’s Basilica in Rome on Easter Sunday, 591 AD. Gregory was formerly Prefect (mayor) of Rome before relinquishing his title and treasure to join a monastery and was eventually elected bishop of the church in Rome (think: pope) in 590 AD. It took a considerable amount of soul-searching before Gregory would accept the election as the will of God. Gregory began his sermon by announcing he would not be reading from his prepared manuscript. Since most people listen indifferently to sermons read to them, he resolved to speak directly from the heart in the hopes of awakening “sluggish souls.” His teaching in the middle portion of his sermon centered on the ending of Mark’s gospel (Mark 16.1-7). He contrasted this present life to the future one awaiting believers, “There are two lives: one of which we know and the other we do not know of. The one is mortal, the other is immortal; the one linked with human infirmity, the other with incorruption; the one is marked for death, the other for resurrection…the one he endured by dying, the other he revealed when he rose from the dead.” He closed his sermon with the application, “Beloved, let us love with all our hearts this glorious resurrection…For the love of it, let us be prepared to die…Let us pass over evildoing to virtue.” We join in praying Gregory’s Easter prayer:

It is only right, with all the powers of our heart and mind,
to praise You Father and your Only Begotten Son,
Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Dear Father, by Your wondrous condescension
of your loving kindness toward us,
Your Servants, You gave up Your Son.
Dear Jesus, You paid the debt of Adam for us
to the Eternal Father by Your Blood
poured forth in loving-kindness.
You cleared away the darkness of sin
by your magnificent and radiant Resurrection.
You broke the bonds of death
and rose from the grave as a Conqueror.
You reconciled heaven and earth.
Our life had no hope of eternal happiness
before You redeemed us.
Your Resurrection has washed away our sins,
restored our innocence and brought us joy.
How inestimable is the tenderness of your love!

The Easter Prayer of St. Gregory the Great, The Liturgy Archive

Rev. Dr. Peter James served 42 years as the senior of Vienna Presbyterian Church in Vienna, VA — 21 years in the 20th century and 21 years in the 21st century. He retired in 2021 and now serves as Pastor-in-Residence at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Even as a pastor, prayer came slowly to Pete. Read Pete’s story.