The Gothic sack of Rome in 410 is the well known impetus for one of the great masterpieces of Christian theology. But what was Augustine preaching while he wrote The City of God? What did he say as Hippo was being overrun with wealthy Italian refugees and the Barbarians stood outside the city gates? In this paper I seek to answer those questions. First, I set the historical scene, and then offer a rhetorical examination of several of the key sermons from Augustine’s often neglected collection of sermons on the Gospel of John preached in 417.
There is a vast amount of scholarly literature on Augustine, yet his sermons receive surprisingly little attention. James O’Donnell in the Cambridge Companion to Augustine says, almost dismissively, that his preaching had a “short and scrappy focus on issues of pastoral urgency.” With the fall of Rome and the assumed collapse of society, one would imagine a certain pastoral urgency. Yet, the sermons also reveal that Augustine had to deal with other pastoral problems: distracted listeners, a widely diverse audience who found deep spiritual reflection difficult or undesirable, and many who preferred superstitious practices, pagan feasts and the word of astrologers rather than the word of their Bishop. Yet, through it all, Augustine’s sermons are marked by a deep and profound love for Christ, love for those redeemed by Christ’s blood, and a love for Christ’s flock that had been entrusted to him. The sermons are marked by a deep desire to see the congregation grow spiritually. While the Roman Empire crumbled, Augustine labored to build Christ’s kingdom, one sermon at a time.