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.
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.
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.
(2 December 2014; edited)