Augustine as preacher of the "hard sayings" of Jesus
The sermons of Augustine gained some of their impact from the fact that he did not attempt to avoid preaching those aspects of Christian belief that were the most difficult for his listeners in Hippo to accept. For example, one of his sermons on the grace (in Latin, gratia) of God and eternal life contained statements that proved too difficult for some of his listeners to accept.
Learning of this, Augustine at a subsequent sermon publicly defended his inclusion of issues that some people had found difficult. He stated that even doctrines that initially appeared unpalatable always offered positive outcomes in the lives of the hearers. He said, "I preached as I did because of those who think it sufficient to believe with their minds but then go out and live evil lives." Augustine saw temptations as plentiful and evil abounding. As an antidote, he made no apology for preaching the protection offered to Christians by their following the so-called "hard sayings" of Christ, even if various members of his church would at times have preferred not to be confronted by them. Although from life experience he knew what it was easy to reject the abundant assistance of God, Augustine preached the ideal of a good Christian life. Living "in Christ, through Christ and with Christ" was to be the goal of all believers, especially - but not exclusively - in sexual matters. This expectation discouraged many candidates (catechumens) from advancing on to baptism.
For some candidates (catechumens) to move to baptism would require them either to end or else to regularise their living arrangements with their sexual partner. Augustine himself had been an example of this personally; with considerable emotional reluctance in Milan while contemplating his baptism, he had separated from his concubine of the previous dozen years. (In another example, Augustine's father, Patricius, was a catechumen for a number of years, finally going forward to baptism not long before he died; it can be wondered whether this delay may have been for reasons of faith or for reasons of morality.)
Members of his church in Hippo heard blunt words from Augustine because they were still maintaining or at least still tolerating pagan habits. These included the consulting of astrologers, incorporating pagan practices into the burial rite of Christians, and adopting pagan ways of honouring the martyrs and of venerating their relics. Some rich members of the church in Hippo were challenged by the uncompromising passages in the Bible about the difficulty for the wealthy to enter eternal life. They needed reassurance that if they used their wealth rightly, they could be saved. From experience Augustine was aware of the counterproductive effect to the Christian message when examples of marital infidelity within the local church and of sexual scandal among his priests became public knowledge and the source of unhealthy gossip. In his sermons he faced such situations frontally, and freely acknowledged the damage that bad example imposed on the Christian community.
In all or any of these issues, Augustine challenged his listeners to avoid spiritual procrastination by calling on them to change their ways at once. He preached, "God promises you that your sins will be forgiven, but not that you will see the light of tomorrow morning. Therefore mend your life now. For it is by the mercy of God that you are still alive today and able to change today." From specific internal evidence included by Augustine in a few of his sermons, it is known that some of those who heard Augustine preach week after week, and at times day after day, transformed their lives as a result. These people stand as lasting witnesses to the policy of Augustine of preaching the full Gospel in season and out of season, whether acceptable or unacceptable.
The Scriptures were his norm for sacred oratory. He said, "The better his knowledge of the Scriptures, the more wisely will the preacher be able to speak. By 'better knowledge' I do not mean that he reads the Scriptures a great deal and learns them by heart, but that he understands them correctly and examines their teaching carefully, that is, that with the eye of his mind he penetrates the very heart of the Scriptures." (De doctrina Cristiniana, IV, 5-7) And in Sermon 179, 1, Augustine stated, "If a preacher himself fails to pay heed to the Word of God in his own life, he will preach it in vain to others."Augustine: an effective preacher
The success of Augustine as a theorist and practitioner of homiletics can be seen in the sheer number of sermons and works preserved today. In his life time, Augustine probably preached 8,000 sermons. More than nine hundred of them still exist in printed form today. But perhaps the best way to judge him, the way Augustine himself would perhaps prefer to be judged, and a way most fitting for an essay on his view of the audience, is by the effect he had upon his hearers. For those who were not educated, Augustine took his own advice and preached in vivid images and with word pictures about daily life. Yet, among the people in his church at Hippo were a few with a liberal education, and others who were professional speakers. How could he keep the simple content while not boring those with more astute minds? One method by which Augustine accomplished this was by the use of his sheer skill with words. Augustine, by his skill, drew the respect of even his most severe critics.
One of his Manichean opponents, Secundinus, said that, although he would not acknowledge much in Augustine that he saw as Christian, the bishop of Hippo was on all occasions a born orator and a veritable god of skilled words. By his ability to turn a truth quickly into an aphorism and to grasp the heart of a long argument in a brief summary, all in an extempore fashion, Augustine attracted and identified himself with those listeners who were educated. Though people varied greatly in their life experiences, Augustine understood the nature of the human soul in all of its weakness and inclination to evil. For this reason, he was able to approach all who came to hear from the standpoint of unity. This often became his most effective means of relating to his listeners and then applying the truth of the Bible to their everyday living.
The sermons of Augustine are full of emphasis upon the shared humanity of himself and his hearers. In one sermon he said, "We beg that our debts may be forgiven us. For debtors we are, not in money, but in sins." And "You are saying possibly at this moment, and you too? We answer, Yes, we too. What, you Holy Bishops, are you debtors? Yes we are debtors too." And "What you, my lord. Be it far from you, do not yourself this wrong. I do myself no wrong, but I say the truth; we are debtors." It was this shared humanity that made his sermons so filled with the call for his hearers to be reformed and born again. In his First Homily on the Gospel of John, Augustine refers to the ability of the Word to create the world. He applies this to the lives of his hearer life with an encouragement that the Word of God can also remake those who have unmade themselves and to recreate those who have made themselves worse.
Augustine had the ability to understand the common substance that he and his listeners shared. He could identify with them not only in word but also in deed. This made them so willing to be not simply hearers of the word but persons who actually live it. An example of this is given as Augustine relates an incident that occurred while preaching. In the middle of his preaching he launched into a different subject that was completely unintended. A day or two later Augustine was approached by a stranger, Firmus, who told him that he had been won over by the strength of the arguments of Augustine. Augustine discovered that Firmus was referring to what for Augustine had been his diversion from his intended subject. The man, Augustine says, sold his business and later became a priest. Those who heard him week after week, at times day after day, and had their lives transformed, stand as the lasting witness to the view of Augustine about preaching. The listeners to Augustine were often swept up by his gifted words - applauding, weeping, cheering or shouting out Bible verses as Augustine preached.