On 27 November 2014 I gave a talk titled “St Isaac the Syrian, Apokatastasis, and the Renewal of Orthodox Preaching” at the first Theotokos Institute Conference in Cardiff, Wales. An expanded, footnoted version of the talk will be published in the journal Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies in 2016. I am grateful to the Theotokos Institute for the invitation to deliver this address and for the helpful and encouraging responses from the conference participants. I have divided my talk into three sections: (1) St Isaac the Syrian and Apokatastasis, (2) the Proclamatory Rule of the Gospel, and (3) Preaching the Kingdom. Please do not reblog or reproduce these articles without permission.
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I know that many of you are now silently protesting, “We have never heard of such a hermeneutical rule.” George Lindbeck has a ready rejoinder: “Rules can be followed in practice without any explicit or theoretical knowledge of them” (The Church in a Postliberal Age, p. 43). Homer was a supreme master of Ionic Greek long before the grammatical rules of the language were codified. One may speak a language well without being able to state the rules that govern the language. Hence it is at least possible—and I would argue highly probable—that from Pentecost on Christians have lived, known, celebrated, preached, and sacramentally enacted the unconditionality of grace, even in the absence of an explicit regulative canon. It is also highly probable, indeed certain, that at various times and places pastors and preachers have compromised the gospel by reducing the free gift of salvation to a work that must be earned.
I invite you to consider the proclamatory rule in light of the eschatological nature of the Holy Eucharist. In recent decades Fr Alexander Schmemann and Met John Zizioulas have powerfully argued for a recovery of the eschatological dimension of the Eucharist. Schmemann speaks of the Eucharist as the “sacrament of the Kingdom”; Zizioulas, “the icon of the Kingdom.” Zizioulas loves to quote the words of St Maximus the Confessor: “For the things of the Old Testament are the shadow; those of the New Testament are the image. The truth is the state of things to come” (The Eucharistic Communion and the World, p. 44). The Church lives from the future. The kingdom that is to come causes the Eucharist and confers upon it its true being. The Divine Liturgy does not merely commemorate the events of past history: it blesses, invokes, and anticipates the future; it even remembers the future. “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” the celebrant intones at the beginning of the liturgy. At the Great Entrance he declares to the assembly: “May the Lord God remember all of you in His kingdom, now and forever and to the ages of ages.” And the anaphora of St John Chrysostom strikingly recollects not only the cross and resurrection of Christ but also his “second and glorious Coming.”
In the Mystical Supper the risen and ascended Son comes to the Church from his eternal futurity; or, to make the same point in different imagery, in the Supper the Church is lifted up by the Spirit into the heavens and united to the Messianic Banquet. The kingdom is Jesus Christ, risen, glorified, returning. Zizioulas elaborates:
What we experience in the divine Eucharist is the end time making itself present to us now. The Eucharist is not a repetition or continuation of the past, or just one event amongst others, but it is the penetration of the future into time. The Eucharist is entirely live, and utterly new; there is no element of the past about it. The Eucharist is the incarnation live, the crucifixion live, the resurrection live, the ascension live, the Lord’s coming again and the day of judgment, live. (Lectures in Christian Dogmatics, p. 155)
As the Metropolitan of Pergamon elsewhere states, “In the Eucharist, we move within the space of the age to come, of the Kingdom” (Eucharistic Communion, p. 57).
To proclaim the gospel in the mode of unconditional promise is to speak the language of the parousia. The words of the preacher become words of prophecy bearing the living reality of the eschaton. The gospel is nothing less than the final judgment proleptically let loose into history. It thus confronts us with decisive authority, an authority not of law and condemnation but of blessing, forgiveness, and hope—the authority of apokatastasis.
When the preacher obeys the hermeneutical rule, he moves from talking about salvation to giving salvation. This move from second-order discourse to present-tense proclamation is crucial. As long as the preacher remains within the mode of description and explanation, the kerygmatic Word remains unsaid. Every homily is of course informed by the preacher’s own exegetical reflections about the appointed biblical text, as well as by his reflections on how the text has been interpreted within doctrinal and pastoral tradition. But at some point he needs to move from saying words about God to actually speaking gospel in the name of God. (See the letter Gerhard Forde wrote to me thirty years ago; also see his book Theology is for Proclamation.)
As an analogy, consider the difference between the language of lovers and the language of psychologists. Psychologists can tell us all about what lovers experience, what they feel and do, how love changes and energizes them. It’s all quite informative. But when you are in love, this kind of information is not what you want to hear from your lover. What you want to hear, what you need to hear, is “I love you.” This simple declaration makes all the difference.
Gospel-preaching occurs when the message becomes salvific deed and act. The Word of God effects what it announces and does what it proclaims. By the unconditional promise of Christ Jesus, the preacher converts, justifies, regenerates, illumines, deifies his hearers. He communicates salvation. He doesn’t just speak about salvation—he does it; he performs it. By the gospel of resurrection the preacher re-creates the world of his hearers in the power of the Spirit. Sinners are absolved, saints are made, new life is bestowed. The homily thus becomes eschatological event that slays the old being and births the new. “The proclamation of the Word,” Schmemann writes, “is a sacramental act par excellence because it is a transforming act. It transforms the human words of the Gospel into the Word of God and the manifestation of the Kingdom. And it transforms the man who hears the Word into a receptacle of the Word and a temple of the Spirit” (For the Life of the World, p. 33).
When the preacher instead presents the good news of Christ in the form of conditional promise and synergistic transaction, he violates the eschatological reality of the Eucharist. It doesn’t matter if he does so for moralistic, ascetical, or doctrinal reasons. The result is the same—the good news is reduced to law. The gospel tolerates no conditions, for in the kingdom there is no longer time for the fulfillment of conditions. The kingdom has come. In response there can only be faith or offense. We either find ourselves celebrating the joyous gift of eternal life or cursing the uncreated radiance.
Brothers and sisters, Jesus is risen! He comes to us in his Word in utter grace, infinite charity, unmerited forgiveness, startling generosity, omnipotent benevolence, transforming holiness, deifying triumph—this is the gospel we are commissioned to declare. Amen.
© 2014 Alvin F. Kimel