Since my first encounter with Robert Jenson’s construal of justification as metalinguistic rule back in the 1980s, I have sought to proclaim the gospel in the mode of unconditional promise. I have often not been successful nor consistent—it’s harder to do than one might imagine—but this at least has been my goal. My conviction that all properly Christian preaching should conform to the metalinguistic rule did not change when I became Orthodox. How could it? Precisely at this point we are touching on something that goes to the core of the faith or at least to the core of my faith.
But the metalinguistic rule is controversial. So many passages in Scripture and the Church Fathers seem to argue against it, and so many contemporary sermons do argue against it. Surely, we say, there are conditions for salvation—faith, repentance, love, virtue, good works, prayer, self-denial immediately come to mind. Given these conditions (all of which may be descriptively true), how can we faithfully proclaim Christ in the performative mode of promise? How do I dare to speak to someone and say, “Because God has raised Jesus from the dead, you are destined for eternal life in his kingdom”?
This was, in fact, one of the very first questions I posed to Robert Jenson when I sat down in his office at the Lutheran Seminary in Gettysburg. How can we speak of the gospel as unconditional promise, when so many salvific conditions are stipulated in the Scriptures? He smiled and bade me, “Go back and read the Bible again.” At the time I didn’t think this was a very good answer. After all, I was an Episcopalian, and Episcopalians don’t read the Bible—they hear it read to them on Sunday mornings. But over the years I have come to see the wisdom of his response. The unconditionality of the gospel is not something that one picks up from a mere surface reading of the biblical text. It’s more akin to how a scientist discerns the proper paradigm through which to interpret the data before him. A creative act of imagination is needed. Similarly, I suggest that coming to an understanding of the unconditional love of God is a paradigmatic truth that only God himself can teach us through his Spirit. This knowledge is acquired, if it is in fact acquired, through prayer and meditation upon the Scriptures in the sacramental-ascetical life of the Church; ultimately it is only acquired through the experience of the love and mercy of the Father through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. And once one has learned this truth—which is to say, once one has been so loved by God—one begins to read the Scriptures in new and liberating ways. And if you are a preacher, you will begin to preach the Gospel in new and liberating ways—you will begin to preach in the Spirit.
The preaching of the gospel in the performative mode of promise all begins with the resurrection. In its most succinct and compact form, the gospel is the announcement of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus is risen! This is the unbelievable good news that the Apostles proclaimed throughout the Roman Empire and beyond. Jesus is risen! If nothing else be said by the Church, this must be said. Jesus is risen! The gospel is not teaching about theories of atonement and hypostatic union. The gospel is not descriptive reflection on the process of salvation. The gospel is not exhortation to love one’s neighbor, do good works, and pray more often. Theological teaching about the doctrines of the Church may be important, and exhortation to virtue and prayer are certainly necessary for the spiritual health of believers—but they are not the gospel. The gospel is proclamation of the resurrection: Jesus is risen!
We begin with the subject of the gospel announcement. The one who is risen is Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary, prophet from Nazareth, Messiah of Israel, friend of publicans and whores, healer of the sick, proclaimer and inaugurator of the kingdom of his Father. Here is why we have been given the four gospels of the New Testament—to identify this Jesus whom God has raised from the dead. The gospel is good news precisely because it is Jesus—this Jesus named and identified in the gospels—who now lives. If it were instead Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, or Al Kimel, it would not be good news at all. It would in fact be the most terrible news conceivable, as it would mean that evil had eternally triumphed over love and goodness. The gospel is good news because it is this specific man, Jesus of Nazareth, who has destroyed death and will return in glory to judge the quick and the dead.
Now let’s turn to the predicate. What does it mean to say that the one who was crucified by Pontius Pilate is now alive? Well, one characteristic of a living person is that he can surprise us:
If Jesus is risen, he must now be alive; i.e., whatever is the minimum differentium of a live human from a dead one must now be predicable of him. I suggest: the minimum difference between a live person and a dead one is that the live one can surprise us. Your life is one life, it makes a personal unity, in that after the fact the rest of us are able to grasp each new act of yours as dramatically coherent with what we already know of you, are able to say, “That’s Jones, alright.” But your act is that of a living person in that before the fact it is in some way unpredictable. If you are alive, then just when we have you all figured out you may undo all our reckonings. When you become too predictable, we say, “What ails Jones? All the life is gone out of him.” And when you die, we begin writing biographies, i.e., descriptions of an object that will hold still for analysis. It is this liveliness of life that the Bible and the biblically influenced parts of western intellect tradition name “spirit.” Guided by the word’s uses, I may venture a last formulation of the present point: you are alive if and only if you come to us from the future. (Robert W. Jenson, “Toward an Understanding of ‘… is Risen,'” dialog 19 : 31-32)
A dead person no longer surprises. His self-definition has been completed and finalized at death. He is now a corpse that inhabits the past. When the Church proclaims the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, she declares that he is now alive in all the surprising ways that living persons are alive. In the community of faith Jesus is present to love and bless, to instruct and judge, to heal and save. That he is so present is the surprise of the resurrection.
The risen Christ continues to address humanity from the future, but not just from any future—from the final future. He communicates himself audibly and visibly, in Word and Sacrament, in the panoply of communication events that constitute the churches of God. In this blog series, I am thinking principally of preaching, but I am well aware that Christ’s self-communication is not restricted to the verbal Word. I focus on preaching because I suspect that most preachers, particularly in the Orthodox and Catholic traditions, really do not understand its importance. The Second Helvetic Confession declared: “The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.” Similarly, Martin Luther said: “Tis a right excellent thing, that every honest pastor’s and preacher’s mouth is Christ’s mouth, and his word and forgiveness is Christ’s word and forgiveness.” Just as the faithful partake of Christ by their mouths, so the faithful partake of Christ through their ears. Preaching is a sacramental event. When the gospel is proclaimed rightly, the living Jesus is present. He is the speaker, content, and gift of the homily.
Now I realize that believing in the sacramentality of the homily may be infinitely more difficult than, say, believing in the existence of a transcendent Creator. I too have heard plenty of bad homilies in which nary an inkling of the voice of Christ could be heard. Unlike the holy mysteries, there is no ex opere operato guarantee that the risen Lord will speak when the preacher opens his mouth. Yet as the Apostle Paul declares, the gospel is “the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith” (Rom 1:16). Every pastor must believe this when he steps before his congregation, and every congregation must pray that Christ himself will speak through their pastor by the power of the Spirit. Authentic preaching is nothing less than a miracle of the resurrection. But the preacher can assist the Spirit if, at the right time and in the right way, he gathers up his courage and boldly bestows upon his hearers the unconditional gift of salvation.
Note that I am speaking as if the homiletical and sacramental experience of the Church is a mystical experience of the Trinitarian God. That is exactly what I am claiming. By faith the disciples of Christ indeed hear the voice of their risen Savior. By faith the disciples of Christ indeed partake of their Lord’s Body and Blood. By faith the disciples of Christ indeed experience the Spirit of the Christ. Some Orthodox tend to think of mystical experience as something only the hesychasts of the desert experience, but hesychastic experience is grounded upon the simple life of the parish church, as prosaic and commonplace as it might seem (see John Zizioulas, “The Church as the ‘Mystical’ Body of Christ,” Communion & Otherness, pp. 286-307). This in no way depreciates the witness and power of the mystical experience of the saints and holy elders—quite the contrary! They are living sacraments of the risen Christ and are thus essential to the witness, mission, and spiritual vitality of the body of Christ. But their experience of theosis occurs within the ecclesia, which has been baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ and reborn in the Holy Spirit. All the baptized have been incorporated by faith into Christ; all the baptized are on the journey of theosis; all the baptized live within the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The risen Jesus addresses us from his future. Death belongs to his past; he now lives beyond death. Having accepted and destroyed the death the belongs to fallen humanity, he now exists as unconditional promise of our salvation. Unlike the promises that we make to each other—all of which are bounded by death and are thus doomed to fail—the risen Lord speaks unconditional promises that cannot disappoint and will be gloriously fulfilled. Again Jenson:
Jesus lives, i.e., there are addresses made in our world, identifying themselves as his addresses to us, that are spirited, that gladden and amaze, that “open the future.” These addresses are the telling of that very message we called “the gospel”; Jesus is risen in that the claim that he is risen does in fact interpret our antecedent hopes and fears in ways that liberate and transform us. Jesus lives in that he is present in spirit, in that he comes as from the future; but this spirit is the spirit of the word of the gospel. … If Jesus is risen, he must have been dead. If nevertheless he now lives, he lives with death in the past tense. The resurrection was not a resuscitation; it is not as if Jesus merely resumed life as before, to die again afterward. The very point of the resurrection-claim about Jesus is that death is not in his future. … That for Jesus death is past and not future, means that the future from which he comes is the last future, that the spirit in which he is present is the Breath of the Kingdom, that the gospel-word that is his address is an eschatological judgment. For whereas all the promises we make one another are rendered conditional by the future of death, Jesus’ resurrection makes his intention for us unconditional. All my commitments are iffy, for I commit a future I do not surely have. Jesus’ commitment to us is rescued from conditionality and cannot but triumph utterly; such a triumph, vice versa, must be the conclusion of the entire human enterprise. (p. 32)
In the name and authority of her risen Lord, the Church dares to promise and celebrate the eschatological future of every believer. This promise cannot fail, for Christ himself is the promisor. “Jesus the Son now has death behind him,” declares Jenson; “therefore nothing can hinder the unconditionality or fulfillment of his loving promises to us” (A Large Catechism, p. 27).
But perhaps we might ask, Why should we believe that the risen Christ actually intends the fulfillment of our future in his kingdom? The answer, I believe, lies in the fact that it was precisely for this purpose that Jesus accepted death instead of compromise, in faithfulness to his mission. “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3). By his free embrace of Calvary the divine Son irrevocably bound himself in love to humanity:
If Jesus died and lives, the fulfillment of his life opens unconditionally to him. But his life was speaking the promise of Israel’s Kingdom to other men, acting it out with them, and doing both in a way that removed all conditions and refused all social and religious distinctions. Therefore the fulfillment now promised to Jesus, is exactly that the promises of Israel will be fulfilled for his fellows, and that his fellowship will reach to all men. “The Word of God” is first of all the word by which the man Jesus now lives; and what that word says to him is: “All men will be your brothers, despite their alienation and unconditionally, in the new order that will fulfill Israel’s hope.” Just so this word is equally addressed to us, without distinction; it is the word that each of us may speak to the other in Jesus’ name, and in this form it says: “Israel’s hope will be fulfilled for Jesus’ sake, and for you; despite all past or future failed conditions, despite all alienation, and despite the death that rules in both.”
Therefore we cannot speak of Jesus’ aliveness without speaking also of ourselves. If it is clear who Jesus was, then to say that he lives is, with no additions needed, to speak to and about each other. It is not too much to say that “Jesus’ lives” is equivalent to “The prophets’ promises are unconditionally proclaimed among men, and to all sorts and conditions of men–and are factually true.” This equivalence in no way limits his freedom or reality; for what his life willed was not to exist apart from his fellows, and it is this will that now succeeds and defies death. (Story and Promise, pp. 49-50)
Jesus is risen! Every bishop, every priest, every parish pastor needs to re-learn the good news of the resurrection. Only thus will they be able to speak that liberating word that heals the broken and restores life to the dead.