The Proclamatory Rule of the Gospel: Preach Good News!

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What difference does apokatastasis make to the churchly preaching of the gospel? All the difference in the world, all the difference to the world! How we understand the conclusion of the gospel story informs how we tell the story.

About fifteen years ago I realized that I could no longer remain in the Episcopal Church. Suddenly I found that instead of having to deliver Sunday sermons, I was “privileged” to listen to them. I have heard dozens of homilies—Roman Catholic homilies, Maronite homilies, Eastern Orthodox homilies). With a few exceptions, they have shared one dominant feature, exhortation—specifically, exhortation embedded within a conditionalist linguistic structure. Orthodox and Catholic preachers alike appear to believe that their principal homiletical task is to urge their hearers to behave differently. Let’s just skip the evangel and get on with the admonishing, adjuring, imploring. Orthodox preachers tend to emphasize ascetical behavior, Catholic preachers moral behavior; but the message is the same—try harder! To put the matter in the language of the sixteenth century Lutheran Reformers, Orthodox and Catholic priests preach law.

The discourse of law shares a common transactional structure: if … then … It can be presented in positive terms (the language of reward and merit) or negative terms (the language of penalty and punishment):

If you work hard and get straight A’s on your report card,
your mother and I will give you a new car.

If you mow my lawn and trim the hedges,
I will pay you $50.

Or:

If you do not turn in your term paper by the end of the semester,
I will flunk you.

If you arrive late to work one more time,
I will terminate your employment.

These and all similar pledges make the outcome contingent upon the performance of the promisee. They pose to us a future for which we ourselves are responsible to actualize. If we fulfill the specified conditions, we will bring about the promised result, either as reward or punishment.

We are all intimately acquainted with this kind of transactional communication. It is the discourse of commerce, our civil and criminal judicial systems, and religion. It is the language of our Pelagian world. We determine our futures by the contracts we make. Law functions as demand upon our performance, and upon this performance falls the weight of the utterance. Once a conditional promise is spoken to us, we had best get busy, either to obtain or avoid the consequent. Conditional promise, in other words, presents the future to us as demand, obligation, and threat. It structures the fallen world in which we live; hence it is not surprising that legalism penetrates into the preaching of the Church.

Unconditional promise also has its own characteristic linguistic pattern: because … therefore … Here I cite examples with explicit Christian content:

Because Jesus is risen,
your future will be glorious.

Because you are baptized in the Spirit,
you are now capable of living a life of faithfulness and love.

Just as conditional promise posits a specific kind of future, so does unconditional promise; but note how differently these two kinds of utterance impact our lives. When God speaks to us a conditional promise, the burden of its fulfillment falls totally upon us. Existentially, it doesn’t matter if we are also told that God will help us by his grace. What matters is doing, or not doing, what needs to be done. Herein lies the difference between heaven and hell. But when God speaks unconditional promise, he assumes responsibility for our future, independent of our performance; he is its guarantor. In the unconditional promise God presents the future to us as eschatological gift.

“If you repent of your sins,” the preacher declares, “God will forgive you.” On the face of it, the pronouncement is clear-cut. Divine absolution is offered on the basis of the fulfillment of a prior condition. If we wish to obtain reconciliation with our Creator, then we had best put our noses to the grindstone and get on with the work of repentance. James B. Torrance calls this legal repentance. Of course, somebody will need to explain to us what repentance involves—but that is by the by. The critical point is that the responsibility and burden of fulfilling the stipulated condition lies on our shoulders. And at every moment hangs the threat of failure: What if I am unable to achieve a whole-hearted repentance? Will God forgive? If I die in mortal sin, can God forgive?

But now consider the difference when forgiveness is declared in the mode of unconditional promise: “Because Jesus has borne your sins upon the cross, God forgives you and will make things right; therefore, repent and live in the joy of the Spirit.” Suddenly everything changes. By the word of promise, God raises us from the condemnation of sin and grants us a future no longer bound to the past. He enters our lives as a liberating power. Whereas in response to the conditional promise our activity is directed to the fulfillment of the specific work demanded of us, in response to the unconditional promise our lives are liberated for freedom. Repentance is no longer a task that we must accomplish in order to obtain absolution: it is the fruit of a freely bestowed absolution. In other words, forgiveness is logically prior to our penitential response. Torrance calls this evangelical repentance. Life in Christ becomes joy, lived in thanksgiving and tears, discipleship, holy works, ascetical discipline, and the worship and praise of God. At every moment we are surrounded and upheld by the divine mercy. We were lost but have been found, blind but now we see, dead but now we live in the kingdom.

Immediately our minds raise a host of objections. I am acquainted, I think, with most of them. They boil down to a single concern: if God declares me unconditionally forgiven, does that mean that I am free to disobey the commandments of God with impunity? Or to state the same concern in its universal scope, will all be saved? What about free-will? At this point we are brought back to the robust hope of St Isaac of Nineveh.

So what difference should apokatastasis make to the churchly preaching of the gospel? Above all, it should encourage and authorize our pastors to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ precisely as good news. No more qualifications and compromises; no more ifs, buts, and maybes. The gospel is a message of triumphant hope, or it is not gospel at all. This does not mean that each homily must now be about universal salvation. Quite the contrary. As always, the pastor will continue to preach on the lectionary texts appointed for that day; but he now searches for ways to proclaim even the harshest biblical passage in the mode of promise. Every text now speaks Christ, crucified and risen. Every text now summons to a life made possible by the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Brothers and sisters, Jesus is risen! He has transcended death and lives with death behind him. In our fallen world, all of our promises ultimately turn into dust and ashes—we cannot pledge a future we do not possess. At any point death may intervene and nullify our commitments. But by his paschal victory, Jesus of Nazareth possesses the final future. Only the risen One can make an unconditional promise and mean it unconditionally. In the words of Robert W. Jenson: “If Jesus has death behind him, then his intention for his followers, defined by his particular life and death, must utterly triumph, there being no longer anything to stop him” (“On the Problem(s) of Scriptural Authority,” p. 238).

If Jesus were Attila the Hun or Joseph Stalin, the resurrection would be horrifying news; but the resurrection of Jesus is the best, most wonderful, brilliant, and transforming news, because of who Jesus was and is. Neither death nor life, neither principality nor power, can defeat the love by which our Savior lived and died. His intentions for his brethren, his intentions for all of humanity, his intentions for you and me, must and will triumph—utterly, completely, gloriously. The preaching of the gospel is simply this—the annunciation of the resurrection, with all of its consequences and implications for our lives.

Eastern Christians know this—surely we know this. At the Vigil of Pascha we declare the words of St John Chrysostom:

Enjoy ye all the feast of faith: Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness. Let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shown forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free.

The indicatives of the gospel precede the imperatives; the evangelical narrative prefaces all doctrinal teaching and qualifies all ethical and ascetical exhortations. Pastors may dare to boldly promise the kingdom, for the Crucified lives and has given himself as surety.

But not only does Jesus guarantee the promise of eschatological fulfillment, he is its ultimate speaker. Every address is the personal presence of someone. In this article I am presently intruding into your life with my idiosyncratic, and perhaps controversial, reflections on preaching. But were I to stand before you and unconditionally promise you eternal salvation in the kingdom of the incarnate Son, then it could not be only me addressing you. I cannot rightly make such a pledge, for I cannot implement its promised outcome. Only the One who has death behind him can do so. Only the conqueror of death may bestow the final future. When the preacher dares to proclaim the gospel in its radicality and power, there is the gladdening and inspirited voice of Jesus Christ. The making of eschatological promise must be his act, his presence, his Word, his kingdom. “If the gospel promise is true and unconditional,” Jenson writes, “then the event of the living word, of one person speaking the gospel to another, is the locus of God’s reality for us. Where is God? He is where one man is promising good unconditionally to another, in Jesus’ name” (Lutheranism, p. 102). Or as our Lord has taught us, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am between you” (Matt 18:20). A homily rightly proclaimed is a sacrament of Christ.

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I propose the following grammatical or hermeneutical rule for our preaching: so proclaim the story of Jesus Christ that it elicits from our hearers nothing less than faith or offense. Or to put the rule in its most succinct form: proclaim the gospel in the mode of unconditional promise. Robert Jenson calls this a meta-linguistic rule, George Lindbeck a meta-theological rule. Their point is the meta-. The rule does not specify the content of our preaching—that content is given in the Scriptures and the Sacred Tradition of the Church. The rule, rather, prescribes and instructs how to rightly proclaim this content: preach the gospel of the crucified and risen Son of God, not as law and obligation, but as a word that liberates sinners from the bondage of sin, conquers despair, and empowers believers to live lives of holiness, love, prayer, sacrifice, and radical discipleship. The proclamatory rule invites preachers to speak into the world the coming kingdom of the Lord.

(cont)

(2 December 2014; edited)

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11 Responses to The Proclamatory Rule of the Gospel: Preach Good News!

  1. Andrew says:

    Honestly I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a sermon either as a Lutheran or an Orthodox believer or anywhere else where the message of the Gospel was presented as an unconditional promise. God’s unconditional love was on occasion mentioned from in this or that sermon but inevitably aspects of the same sermon undercut that notion. I think it may be reasonably asked, especially in light of the topics discussed on this blog, whether the Gospel has ever truly been preached since the time of the Apostles. That may be an uncomfortable thought, blasphemous even to some, but to me it seems reasonable to say.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      It’s a reasonable question indeed. The gospel is communicated in a host of ways in the life of the Church—and occasionally even in the homily. 🙂

      Whenever Christ is proclaimed in such a way as to generate faith and hope, surely we may say that the gospel is proclaimed.

      Does not the entirety of the Divine Liturgy declare the gospel, is the gospel? If there were not true, we could not sing these words:

      We have seen the true light; we have received the heavenly Spirit; we have found the true faith, worshiping the undivided Trinity, for the Trinity has saved us.

      Do we not hear the gospel in the Paschal Homily of St John Chrysostom?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Andrew says:

        I suppose the Gospel is proclaimed whenever the Holy Spirit uses any means to impress upon the heart any of the truths and hopes of the Kingdom of God. Yes of course, the Pascal Homily contains the Gospel! The Holy Spirit has always used this great “ship of Grace” (as I once read the homily described) to proclaim the Gospel, even if one needs to parse the message from messenger in this case. What I mean is St John seems to use a hermeneutic of “unconditional threat” in much of his preaching, so different from what you describe above. The same could be said about most of the fathers- a mix of Gospel and threat, Gospel and Hellenism, Gospel and asceticism. No unconditional promise. Yet we hear the Gospel somehow, when it is read in Church, when the Spirit enlightens us. I guess its obvious to say that since they walked the earth the Gospel has never been preached like the Apostles preached it. Yet we don’t admit that in the Church, we act as if threat is the same as unconditional promise. As if the Three Great Hierarchs and Constantine are equal to the Apostles. It’s not and they are not.

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  2. Dan says:

    Excellent post. Even before a homily takes form, our underlying hermeneutic shapes its outcome.
    The way one reads the Bible/Tradition is the way one thinks salvation happens. So, perhaps the problem in having promise-less homilies is that the preacher from the start has been reading (taught to read?) the holy Scriptures and Tradition in a legalist’s way? “If you want salvation, then you’d better get busy.” Or, “If you want God to really love you, behave!” On the other hand if our approach to Scripture/Tradition is that salvation is purely and always only gift, our homilies will reflect that.

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  3. As a Catholic i ask myself everyday “am i repenting?” “am i doing what God wants me to do?” the problem is that there is no direct answer from God, at least in the Catholic faith we are taught to strive to do the will of God and hope that we will be counted among the elect on the day of judgement. What i would like is a more reassuring teaching where you don’t constantly worry about what state you are in but rather relax in the knowledge that as long as you don’t despair of Gods mercy he will always forgive you.

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    • Steven says:

      I’m a convert to Catholicism, and a subsequent revert after a lapse, and I’m with you on your concerns. I got no particular wisdom to share with you, but I’ll offer you a bit of my personal experience that you may or may not find beneficial to your situation. I’ve explored a number of Christian traditions before finally settling down in the Roman church and found that no matter where I go, my existential anxiety about where I stand with God follows me, spoils my spiritual life. I have a great many criticisms about legalism within Roman Catholicism, but I’ve found to my dismay that this spirit lodges quite comfortably in every Christian tradition, adjusting its shape and appearance according to the differing theologies and customs. What’s been beneficial to me is looking within our tradition for rays of light that cut through the institutional legalism and the joylessness I see on so many Christians. I find this in the mystical tradition, with Julian of Norwich and St. Faustina being two of my favorite mystics as of current. I also find rays of this light in some of the post-Vatican 2 theologians of the church such as Karl Rahner and Bernard Haring, and in the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales. In other words, the joy of knowing and loving Christ (perfect love casts out fear), must be sought after diligently within the church, and cannot be had simply by following the rules and knowing the right doctrines. These are necessary reference points so that we do not lose ourselves in prideful self-deception, but they are not substitutes for cultivating personal interior communion with Jesus.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      It’s a real problem, Oliver, particularly for introspective people. Once the turn inward is made, perpetual self-condemnation is inevitable. That voice refuses to go away. And this is why Martin Luther’s experience (despite whatever heresies he may have affirmed) is relevant to the wider Church. He discovered (re-discovered) that only an external word of unconditional grace can short-circuit the condemning conscience. And this is why the sacraments were decisive for him (see David Yeago, The Catholic Luther). The sacraments embody the unconditional promise of Christ and thus speak a word to which the conscience must submit in faith.

      Unfortunately, so many pastors have not learned the lesson of Luther.

      There is a place in the pulpit to speak of synergism and to call to repentance. In the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, the preacher only as 10-15 minutes per sermon. Hence it’s really important for the preacher to ask himself, “Over the course of the year, if my people only remember one thing, what is it that I want them to remember?”

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  4. Absolutely, i think priests need to preach more on what these saints and mystics have taught instead of the usual carrot and stick homilies we often hear. I feel that we should not be doing good because we are afraid of Hell but because by doing good we are living out the kingdom of God right now, what could be better than that?

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  5. Chad says:

    Dear Fr. Kimel,
    I am only just beginning to follow your blog and twitter. I’m fascinated by this piece and I’m trying to wrap my head around it still. As I was reading this, this prayer came to mind, “ora pro nobis, Ut digni efficiamur promissionibus Christi.” This comes from the end of the Salve Regina. You mention the move to place the indicative before the imperative as a kind of meta-theological preaching strategy. The prayer is a subjunctive passive, let us become worthy by the promises of Christ. I wonder how this squares with your admonition. It seems to me, this kind of construction implies that this is a process, but also one that it is not incumbent on us to produce. That is, it fulfills your warning against placing to much of a weight on the imperative, but is not as static as the indicative might imply. So, I’ve gone rather far afield on grammar here, but it seemed like an interesting continuation of the conversation. I would love to hear your thoughts.
    peace,
    Chad Kim

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