26 April 2008

Preaching the Catholic Christ

The catholicity of the Church, as confessed in the Creeds, is not simply its universal spread throughout the whole world. It is especially the gracious and glorious presence of Christ — in all His fullness and with all His gifts and benefits — in each and every parish of His Church on earth, wherever His Gospel is preached and administered in His Name.

What I mean by "the preaching of the catholic Christ," therefore, is the preaching of Christ in all His fullness, with all His gifts and benefits. Such preaching not only proclaims what He has done for everyone (once-for-all); it actually delivers every good thing and all that He continues to do for each person in each place.

This preaching of the catholic Christ is essential to the catholicity of His Christian Church. It is divinely necessary, He says, that repentance be preached in His Name to all the nations (St. Luke 24:46-47). Such preaching bestows the forgiveness of sins, precisely because it is the preaching of Christ, the Crucified and Risen One. We hear it already in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2:36-39). It is the continuation of all that Christ Jesus still does and teaches, the continuation of His Holy Gospel (Acts 1:1-2). Upon this Rock, He builds His Church.

The preaching of the catholic Christ is kerygmatic (proclamatory) and catechetical, announcing the fulfillment of the Holy Scriptures in the Cross and Resurrection of Christ Jesus. It opens the Scriptures to reveal them as the Word of the Word-made-Flesh, who has entered into His Glory by the way of suffering and death. Such preaching is the Voice of the Father speaking His Son and breathing His life-giving Spirit into man. By this Word and Spirit, ears and minds and hearts are opened to recognize Christ Jesus in His Church, and to believe in Him.

This preacing of the catholic Christ is the preaching of repentance, because it is the preaching of the Law and of the Gospel. Not simply facts and information "about" the Law and the Gospel, but the commands and prohibitions of God the Lord, which accuse and execute the sinner, and then the very Word of forgiveness which raises the dead man up with Christ to newness of life. Learning to preach the Law in this way, as the Lord's own commandment, forbidding every manner of sin and requiring every act of love — and learning to preach the Gospel in this way, as the Lord's own voice of Holy Absolution, which does and gives exactly as it says (the forgiveness of sins) — that is the perennial challenge of real preaching. It is far easier to scold, or lecture, or inform, or entertain, or simply to ramble on a bit before stopping . . . but none of that is real preaching, and it doesn't accomplish what needs to be done in the Name of the Lord.

The preaching of the catholic Christ is not generic or bland or the same every week. It is not the proverbial vicar's sermon that tries to include the "whole counsel of God" from Adam and Eve to the final judgment. The "whole counsel of God" is embodied in the Person of the catholic Christ, who is preached concretely from the appointed Holy Gospel of the Day. Such preaching tells the story of Christ Jesus, the narrative of His Gospel, in such a way as to draw the congregation into that story. It is not "once upon a time," but "now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation" (2 Corinthians 6:2).

This preaching of the catholic Christ is not simply preaching "about" Him (although it's always good to be talking about Jesus), but, better still, it is really His own preaching. The pastor preaches in the Name of Jesus, in His stead, from within His Office. The pastor preaches in the same way that he baptizes and absolves, as the one who has been called and ordained to speak with the voice of Christ Himself. In preaching, therefore, it is Christ Jesus who is speaking to His people, calling them to repentance, forgiving their sins, giving them His life and salvation.

In other words, Christ Jesus is the proper Subject of the preaching in a two-fold sense: both as the One who is "doing the verb" (i.e. He is the Preacher), and as the Content of the preaching. Christ is the One who preaches, and Christ is the One who is preached.

This preaching of Christ necessarily includes the preaching of His means of grace. Not simply as dogmatic facts, nor as legalistic obligations, nor as automatic downloads and deposits of divine favor, but as the real continuation of the Gospel narrative in this time and place. In this way, the Words and works of Christ Jesus are revealed to be happening here and now. Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and the Holy Communion are thus declared to be the genuine fruits and benefits of the Cross, and the Christian's foretaste of the Resurrection and the Life.

Even so, "sacramental preaching" does not primarily describe a didactic preaching "about" the Sacraments. It rather refers to the preaching of the incarnate Lord Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. Certainly, there should be ongoing instruction (catechesis) in the Sacraments within the life of the Church, also in sermons from time to time, especially as the Propers of the Day may suggest. But the preaching itself is properly sacramental when it delivers the flesh and blood of Christ — from His Cross and in His Resurrection — with His forgiveness of sins. That is to say, the preaching is sacramental when it proclaims Christ Jesus Himself into the ears and hearts and lives of His people. Ordinary words cannot do or accomplish such amazing things, but preaching is the Word of Christ, with which He Himself is actively present and at work.

St. Athanasius of Alexandria's beautiful treatise On the Incarnation is a marvelous case in point: It barely mentions the Sacraments, if at all; yet, it is a powerful preaching of Christ Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, crucified in the flesh for us mortal sinners, and bodily raised from the dead for our salvation. On the Incarnation is an example of "sacramental preaching," not because it discusses the means of grace per se, but because it is a means of grace: a pointed proclamation of the Gospel to and for the hearer, which is itself a call to faith in the forgiveness, life and salvation of Christ our Lord. For such preaching of the Gospel is the way and means by which the Holy Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies the entire Christian Church on earth and keeps it united with Christ Jesus in the one true faith.

Similarly, the preaching of the catholic Christ is "liturgical preaching," not so much when it incorporates references to the order of service or incidental remarks on the Propers of the Day, but when it serves its own place and purpose in the order of service. The sermon is "liturgical" when it proclaims what has been read in the appointed Lections as fulfilled in the hearing of the people, and when it brings them by that particular Word to the Altar of Christ in repentance and faith (whether or not there is any explicit reference to the Sacrament). "Liturgical preaching," properly speaking, is not a lecture or a commentary on the "parts" of the Divine Service; rather, it is an integral part of the Divine Service, and so should it be undertaken and delivered as such. Sometimes it will say quite a lot about one or the other of the means of grace; other times only a little bit; sometimes it will comment on all of the means of grace, whereas at other times it may not make any explicit reference to any of them. But however much or little it may say explicitly, the preaching of the catholic Christ will always have the Sacrament of the Altar especially in view as the very height toward which the entire Divine Service is moving.

In all events, the liturgical and sacramental preaching of the catholic Christ has for its entire goal and purpose the forgiveness of sins in His Name. Whatever other benefits may be derived — including the new life in Christ that arises with faith in His forgiveness — everything else is contingent upon this most necessary preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of sins in His Name. No preacher should ever ascend the pulpit with any other intention or agenda than that; nor should he presume to preach without that goal and purpose of forgiveness in view.

I have often found, myself, that my best preaching (which ultimately has nothing to do with cleverness or eloquence, but the Gospel) has occurred on those occasions when I have specifically reminded myself that the point to preaching is the forgiveness of sins. So I have written these thoughts out loud to remind myself of that very thing, and thereby also, perhaps, to serve and assist my fellow preachers of the Gospel. To Christ alone be all glory and honor and praise, with the Father and His Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.


Chris Jones said...

This is an outstanding post, Pr Stuckwisch. I have commented on it in a post on my own weblog, here.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Thanks for your comment, Chris, and for your kind words on your blog, as well. I'm also glad to be made aware of your blog, as it looks like one I'll enjoy reading.