Preaching the Politics of Pascha

Since November 8th, contributors to Public Orthodoxy have advanced various responses to the unexpected victory of Donald J. Trump. Fr John Jillions proposes that the Church needs to practice a politics of communion, which includes charitable works, prophetic political witness, and renewed ascetical life. Aristotle Papanikolaou asserts that the Church needs to vigorously denounce racist, sexist, and xenophobic rhetoric. Samuel Bauer maintains that before the Church can effectively contribute to the healing of our country, she must “seek forgiveness from the marginalized of society, the very individuals whose dignity it has at times assailed.” Each proposal has merit, but each lacks that one needful thing, the proclamation of the gospel itself. The Church has one word that she, and she alone, can speak to the world—Jesus is risen! There are many penultimate words that the Church may and must speak; but if she does not proclaim Pascha, not just one Sunday a year but every Sunday, all other prophetic and pastoral words are emptied of significance.

Jesus is risen!

Since my retirement I have heard numerous Orthodox and Roman Catholic homilies. With few exceptions, they have been horrid—poorly constructed, poorly delivered, and lacking in substance. But bad technique may be forgiven if the preacher is at least attempting to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. Alas that has usually not been the case. What I have heard is exhortation … to imitate Christ, obey the ten commandments, be nice to my neighbors, pray more often, confess my sins … even a lengthy harangue scolding the congregation for its failure to support the parish festival. Exhortation and more exhortation, exhortation and admonition—dreary, legalistic, impotent words that do not convert, do not heal, do not transform, do not deify. A few years ago I listened to an interview with Fr Theodore Stylianopoulos in which he described the kinds of sermons he heard growing up. He called them “try harder” sermons. Yes, I thought, that’s what I’m hearing now. No wonder church is so depressing. If “try harder” is the only word the pastor has to share, then it would be better to skip the sermon and allow the Divine Liturgy itself to enact the good news of Pascha.

Jesus is risen!  

This is the apostolic message that transformed the Mediterranean world. It did not refer merely to an event in the past but to an eschatological act that had made possible a new kind of discourse—a discourse of unconditional promise, liberating permission, unconquerable hope.

Jesus is risen! … and you are free from the bondage of sin.

Jesus is risen! … and you have been liberated from the power of death.

Jesus is risen! … and your existence is good.

Jesus is risen! … and you have been freed from the law and every moralism.

Jesus is risen! … and you may joyfully subject yourself to the commandments of God.

Jesus is risen! … and you may live in the hope that your deepest desires will be fulfilled.

Jesus is risen! … and you may embrace your very different neighbor, of whatever color, race, or ethnicity,  with extravagant love.

Jesus is risen! … and you may dare to live in the freedom of the Spirit, despite the tyrants, plutocrats, and oppressors.

Jesus is risen! … and you may share generously and sacrificially from your bounty.

Jesus is risen! … and you may dare to live the politics of the coming Kingdom.

Jesus is risen!

When was the last time you heard a truly evangelical sermon proclaimed in your parish?

When was the last time you heard your pastor declare that because of Easter you are now free to live in the Spirit, to live a kind of existence—of sacrifice and joy, of asceticism and prophetic discipleship—that would be nonsensical and absurd if Christ Jesus has not been raised into glory by his Father.

I vividly remember my first Orthodox Pascha. It was all quite glorious … but then came the homily. Instead of announcing the wondrous news of the resurrection and its implications for our lives, the pastor urged us not to celebrate excessively and to maintain niptic sobriety. He concluded his homily with a reminder that non-Orthodox were prohibited from receiving communion (this I already knew) and the Orthodox only permitted to receive if they had kept the Holy Week fast and made their confession. My heart fell. So much for the eucharistic manifestation of the Kingdom. It was as if the Paschal Homily of St John Chrysostom had not been recited only an hour earlier. Needless to say, only the usual suspects ate and drank the Body and Blood of the resurrected Lord that morning.

“Behold, the days are coming,” the prophet declares in the Name of the Lord, “when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord” (Amos 8:11). We are in the midst of famine. Many priests and congregations pride themselves on their dogmatic orthodoxy and steadfast adherence to Tradition, yet the good news of Pascha remains unpreached. To these congregations—but especially to the priests who have been entrusted with the stewardship of the gospel—the terrifying condemnation of Jesus is spoken: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are” (Matt 23:15). Exhortations and admonitions will never create the righteousness that justifies. Those who are dead in sin cannot raise themselves from their graves; they cannot pull themselves up by their Pelagian bootstraps. Only the gospel, the unconditional promise spoken in the power of Spirit and absolute Love, can bestow the new life that is repentance and faith. But if that word is never declared, where will faith be found?

Jesus is risen!

While it is tempting to think that post-election America needs a more prophetic, socially conscious Orthodoxy, I respectfully suggest that this is wrong-headed, a putting of the political cart before the evangelical ox. If Orthodox Christians are not thinking through their politics with a Christian mind, then this is probably because parish priests are not preaching the gospel and thus not creating a gospel-converted people. And if parish priests are not preaching the gospel, then that, and not something else, is the urgent task now confronting the Church. There is a world of difference between the politics of Pascha and the ideologies, both from the Right and from the Left, that are now being blasphemously promoted in the Name of Christ.

The good news of Pascha is the liberating news that our congregations need to hear, the news that America and the world most need to hear. Only the Church can speak it.

Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs
Bestowing life!

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21 Responses to Preaching the Politics of Pascha

  1. Young and Rested says:

    These words are especially timely for me, so thank you Father. I’m currently attending an Evangelical church and we’re in the midst of a sermon series where the pastor has been using the books of Joshua and Judges to tell us that if we fail to obey in even the smallest details then it will have dire consequences in our lives. We’re being ‘challenged’ to constantly ask ourselves “who is really on the throne in my life?” The whole thing seems to me like it’s setting an impossible task in front of us by demanding perfection and placing the burden of performance on our shoulders. Of course, it all gets juxtaposed with statements to the effect that salvation is not about works and that God doesn’t care about our performance as a criteria for bestowing his love on us. It all gets pretty confusing to me at times and frankly I’m growing weary of the general approach.

    These days I feel that a more effective way to inspire obedience is to strive to give a clearer account of who God is and to make room for glimpsing his beauty. In my life I’ve found that in those moments when I see or understand God even a little more clearly, I am driven almost compulsively to worship and the desire to obey is made stronger.

    I think that by making the focus on finding the things that are “on the throne” in place of God we may be unwittingly giving them more respect than they deserve. Perhaps a better approach would be that instead of “driving out” what is impure through our efforts, we seek to let God in and those other things will be more apt to leave.

    None of this is possible without the Good News of Pascha.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. AR says:

    It’s hilarious anyone thought President Trump’s victory was unexpected. It’s hilarious anyone finds the need to craft a “response” to it. I knew Trump would win from the moment I went into a truck stop and saw how excited the truckers were about him. People want to talk about the marginalized? Who do they think elected this man of action?

    Certainly not the educated, the sophisticated, or the adherents to professorial codes.

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    • brian says:

      Hey, just to clarify for you that there is diversity here, I voted for Trump. While I have my reservations about him, I had many more about Hillary Clinton.

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    • AR says:

      Brian, I cannot think what might have given you the impression I’d give a tinker’s damn about the political “diversity” of the denizens of this blog. The whole topic is crazy. It’s like it’s 1910 and President Trump is Halley’s Comet.

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  3. Frank says:

    “There is a world of difference between the politics of Pascha and the ideologies, both from the Right and from the Left, that are now being blasphemously promoted in the Name of Christ.”

    Thank you for this, Father. Knee-jerk reactionary style politics is out of place with Orthodoxy, which has always been somewhat “foreign” to American soil. Also, “the Left” is increasingly beginning to mean something other than what it used to mean (it is no longer counter-culture, anti-capitalist, pro-Russia, or anti-war). “The Right” too has been atrocious for decades now, with websites like Breitbart only seeming to want to double down on much of what makes it so unappealing. Identity politics are permeating both sides, due in part to “the Left” equating “racism” with anything and everything “white” -thus creating a climate for white nationalism to flourish. Strange, sad, albeit very interesting times.

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  4. Jonathan says:

    I don’t know why we’re still talking about Donald Trump. The name of the man who runs America is Stephen Bannon. But I digress…

    The quality of the homilies where my wife and I worship in downtown Detroit is varied. Sometimes they’re wonderfully poetic, sometimes not so much. Honestly, my default mode is to not pay attention during the homily: it’s not why I’m there. If I find myself suddenly paying attention, it comes as a shock and I know it must be going well.

    As someone who read and lived his way into the Christian faith, it never once occurred to me that what I’d be hearing from a pastor or priest would be very important. As a modern, I would say, it doesn’t occur to me that I *hear* anything of great importance — other than music (and liturgical music is very important to me). We don’t live in an oral/aural world the way most of our Christian ancestors did. We live in a world of silent reading (well, some of us anyway, those of us reading here obviously) and if we pay attention to what someone is saying it’s because they’re acting dramatically, likely on a screen. I take this to be an established fact that has been remarked upon for a while now by many people much smarter and more learned than me.

    So what is the fate of preaching in such a world? I think that’s the bigger question here. Before we can evaluate the content of a rhetorical mode, we have to ask what is the current historical and material context of that mode. Given that this is an age of internet memes, tweets, texts, rallies and sloganeering, how powerful and how essentially apposite (rather than merely topical) can we expect any sort of preaching to be?

    Alright, so I don’t want to go out on a cynical and depressed note. I have actually heard good homilies. And I’m wonderfully privileged to live a life in which I occasionally get to have a real and good actual honest to God conversation. I know a very few people who still know stories and how to tell them. And I know there are people who have a more positive experience of oratory generally than I have. I take my generalizations with a grain of salt, offering them only as a possible frame for the question about preaching. And since I said music is the only regular and reliable way I hear (rather than read) anything important, here are some relevant lyrics from Bob Dylan (and of course they’re much more haunting if you *hear* them in the song):

    Preacher was talkin, there’s a sermon he gave
    He said every man’s conscience is vile and depraved
    You cannot depend on it to be your guide
    When it’s you who must keep it satisfied

    For what it’s worth, I’d be willing to bet Dylan really did hear a sermon that struck him enough for him to put these lines in “Man in the Long Black Coat,” which is a great song you should all listen to if you don’t know it, on the album Oh, Mercy! (1989). So there’s that for kerygmatic exhortation anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I like to think that had you been a member of one of my congregations in the days of yesteryear, my sermons would occasionally have kept you awake—with the Spirit’s help, of course. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Jonathan says:

        No doubt. But you would in consequence have had to deal with me coming up to you after mass or liturgy and fervently telling you about how that thing you were talking about in your sermon, there’s a Dylan song about that.

        Liked by 2 people

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      On a more serious note, I want to suggest, Jonathan, that the gospel, as an act of verbal communication, is (1) the voice of God in history and (2) the divine act that creates us as eschatological beings fit for the Kingdom. For these reasons, priests need to take the task of evangelical preaching more seriously and congregations should rightly demand evangelical preaching from their parish pastors. As Christians we live by the Word spoken to us. If we are not, then we are simply living out of our autonomous heads and most likely living by some other word. To put it simply, we cannot forgive ourselves; someone must speak to us the word of forgiveness in the name of Christ.

      There are some priests who are simply incapable, despite the charisms bestowed upon them in ordination, of proclaiming the gospel in the form of a homily. In that case, they should skip the homily and focus on the offering of the Eucharist, which is well capable of standing on its own as the communication and embodiment of Christ.

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      • “There are some priests who are simply incapable, despite the charisms bestowed upon them in ordination, of proclaiming the gospel in the form of a homily.”

        One wonders if a return to the practice of books of sermons (a la Luther’s postils and the Church of England’s Books of Homilies, and The Gospel Commentary from medieval Russia) might be an aid to those ministers without the charism of preaching.

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      • Jonathan says:

        Oh I agree completely. It’s just that in addition to limitations that individual priests have to deal with, I think there are historical contingencies that also curtail the efficacy of even talented homilists.

        But are we talking about the words of the Bible now, and prayers of special poetic and spiritual force, hymns, etc that have made it into the traditions of worship; or are we talking about the actual sermon/homily? it seems to me that these are different kinds of language. I was admitting (not too flippantly, I hope) that I am wide awake for the prayers of the Mass, some of which come in the form of music (which is something I can never not pay attention to, for good or ill), and all those parts of it that are quotations and readings from scripture. But a homily is not prayer, no matter how focused on the Gospel it may be, nor is it the text of scripture itself. So, serious question for the room: What sort of language, what kind of discourse, ought a homily or sermon be? What does it mean in literary and linguistic terms to preach the word?

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  5. danaames says:

    Thank you, Father. Our priests don’t bludgeon us with “try harder” – and the Resurrection connection needs to be emphasized much more. May God help us all.

    As for politics: Discussion of politics does not seem to be good for hesechyia. I participate too much, even if the conversation runs only in my head… Lord, have mercy.

    Dana

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I agree completely with your assessment of modern Catholic preaching. I don’t think I have ever heard a good, evangelical, Catholic homily before. I’ve heard some informative homilies about various aspects of theology, I’ve heard many exhortations, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard the Gospel proclaimed in the raw. It saddens me because the heretical protestants seem to have one up on us in this particular game. Back when I was an evangelical the preaching I experienced was superb. Very Christocentric and Gospel focused. Not so in the Catholic church.

    I’m going to attempt to enter seminary and train to be a priest next year. I will definitely be keeping in mind the points that you made in this article. I don’t want to be giving theological homilies all the time, I want to be proclaiming the Gospel and delivering salvation to my congregation. I will also keep in mind your advice from elsewhere on this blog to “proclaim the Gospel in the mode of unconditional promise”. All absolutely brilliant advice

    Liked by 1 person

  7. It is a fear of a friend of mine at Church. We are becoming more and more detracted by our own political views we are neglecting a) that the moral teachings of the Church must guide our social doctrine (and where they are unclear, to shut up and pray that wisdom guides us through the blur) and b) we are forgetting that our religion is Christ. Not Donald Trump. Not Hillary Clinton. Not “What-is-Aleppo?”.

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  8. MJH says:

    Reblogged this on the pocket scroll and commented:
    Powerful words about the most important message the Church needs to offer not only in post-election America but in post-Brexit Britain, in Canada, and to the ends of the earth.

    Like

  9. John H says:

    Alana, as one of the denizens of this blog, may I point out that Trump did not even come close to prevailing in the election; he lost by almost 3 million votes. And I am certain that Alexander Hamilton would be spinning in his grave if he knew that the institution that he crafted would be used 200 years later to put an incompetent buffoon into power for the next 4 years. The electoral college was designed by the Founders as a check on the unbridled power of the masses to elect presidents not qualified to serve; how ironic that it was used to select probably the most unqualified president in our history.
    A good friend of mine who served honorably in Iraq is scared that Trump’s travel ban will actually make the country less safe by being used by ISIS for propaganda purposes to recruit more terrorists. A travel ban will surely not prevent such determined individuals from entering the U.S. illegally. So how does the implementation of Trump’s idiotic policies make us all safer???

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  10. Thank you, Fr. Kimel, for this wonderful essay. As far as the politics mentioned, I will just relay the message from a Christian (Universalist) friend on FB: quit moaning and arguing and start loving the leader we have, which will be the ultimate challenge of my own faith and compassion.

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  11. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I am exercising my authority and hereby forbidding any further comments on Trump. Please restrict comments to the content of the article itself, namely, the preaching of the gospel. Thank you.

    Liked by 3 people

  12. Mike H says:

    When was the last time you heard a truly evangelical sermon proclaimed in your parish?

    If by “evangelical” you mean the proclamation of the gospel as “unconditional promise” then never. I’ve never heard one. The churches that I’ve attended simply do not have an understanding of the gospel that could permit such a thing. And even if those words were used, there’d be much else to convince me that I’d misunderstood.

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  13. John H says:

    Thanks for ending that, Father. And I pray that Christ, who has trampled down death by death, will also bring unity to our deeply divided nation and, in the words of our greatest President, cause the better angels of our nature to prevail in the years ahead.

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