Dr. James K. Mathews was Bishop of the Methodist Church serving the Boston area at the time this article was written (about 1960).
This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
The proclamation "Jesus the Christ is Lord" is the very Church of Christ and points to an ever-occurring happening in which a people find their self-understanding, an aspect of which is the very proclamation of this happening, which proclamation is both deed of concerned involvement in life and witness in the face of the life questions that such involvement provokes — through which the Christ-happening happens to others and, in turn, becomes their life meaning.
1. Up the Rejang River in Sarawak in Northern Borneo the Ibans, a primitive but emerging people, dwell. I was there once. I do not claim to know their language, but one phrase I did understand. A group of little boys and girls in my presence lifted up three fingers and said, "I sa Ke Tuhan," which means "Jesus is Lord." Since that day I have had a pause.
2, All of us recognize in these words what is probably the oldest Christian creed. Indeed, it was the confession at baptism in the ancient church, the affirmation at the very initiation into the Church. The earliest Christians knew their very salvation to be in confession "that Jesus is Lord." They grasped that the oneness of the Church was based on this confession, and they were persuaded that God had ordained that "every tongue confess that Jesus the Christ is Lord," In brief, they saw Jesus the Christ as lord of their lives, as Lord of the Church, as Lord of All. To see and embody this was to be the Church of God.
Kyrios and Kerygma
3. This bold assertion is still made today. And when it is made as the confession of an experience and not as a metaphysical statement, there is the Church. The very being of the Christian, today, as yesterday, depends upon this affirmation. In acknowledging Jesus Christ as Lord, he acknowledges a new relationship with life into which he enters wherein he is enabled to receive life as it is offered, as good and significant, and goes about man’s proper business of living it to the full. This he understands is what it means to be in authentic relation to God, the giver of our lives. In that relationship, he understands himself, in a final sense, and he knows that he has no real existence outside of it. Furthermore, he is aware that this experience and self-understanding is never in isolation but is realized in fellowship with others who also so comprehend themselves. Indeed, to make this affirmation of Christ’s Lordship is to be this fellowship. The very word, Church, as used in Northern European languages — "kirk", "Kirche", "church" — means literally "that which belongs to the Lord." This is to say that the Church today, as always, is her affirmation that Jesus Christ is Lord.
4. Now this affirmation of being, in and through which the Church is the Church, embodies within it the proclamation of that affirmation in and to all the world. In other words: to be, in this sense, includes the witness concerning this being. This witness is the Gospel that is preached in the Church, The preaching of the Gospel, then, as not the relating of a biographical sketch nor a bit of recollected history. It is not instruction in metaphysical truth. It is not the articulation of a philosophy, a world view, or a way of life. Neither is it the declaring of the revelation of some moral principles such as the brotherhood of man and the fatherhood of God. Rather, it is a proclamation that, in the happening of Jesus the Christ, God discloses himself as the ever-present giver of our lives, and, therefore, we are free to live our lives as they are given moment by moment. It is the announcing of the Word of the Cross and the Empty Tomb: that when or whenever we surrender our demands that life be as we desire it, just then do we live, just then are we resurrected into life, This is the Christ-happening.
. The preaching of the Gospel is the setting forth of this Christ-event in such a way that for the hearer it becomes a current event. His own event. What God did, he does! What happened, happens! God’s time is not two thousand years ago. It is Now. This is to say that the preaching of the Gospel is not a testimony to any abstract idea that God is Love, but a witness to the concrete and personal fact that God is loved that he receives us. However the message is put, when it is heard it will be heard by the hearer that God loves and accepts him as he is. As a matter of fact, whatever goes on in this world, either loves us as we are or he does not love us at all. For if he loves only the person who might have been or can become, that person does not, has not, and never shall exist. The impact is always, "as you are"! It is this unbelievable quality of the Gospel that makes it Good News. Luther called John 3:16 "the Gospel in miniature." It is all right there: its inclusiveness, its exclusiveness. Its decisiveness is there too.
6. The preaching of the Gospel summons men to decision. The hearer is accosted and affronted by it. It involves him. His whole presumption of self-reliance is challenged and undermined. The issue is put very sharply to the hearer: Will you die and receive life as it is given by the rule of life and death? And the accosted answers either ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. There is no escape. To say ‘Yes’ is to experience the event of the Christ in our lives. And this, to say it again, is what is indicated by the confession’ "Jesus the Christ is Lord." In and through this experience, which becomes the illuminating event of our total everyday life, one finds himself in a great company, the Church: a member of a body that lives in the Christ-happening, dwells in this Word of the Lordship of Christ.
7. The confession that "Jesus the Christ is Lord," then, is the very meaning of the Church’s being and, at the same time, it constitutes her pronouncement. These are not two separate entities. To be and to proclaim are here but two facets of the same reality. The Proclamation is dependent upon the being of the Church and, more fundamentally, the Church is dependent upon the Proclamation. It is this Word that is continually told to one another within the Church through the drama of worship and the office of preaching; through fellowship and common study. The "priesthood of all believers" means that not every man is his own priest, but that each Christian man is his brothers priest. We continue existing as the Church, continue to be who we are, precisely by the telling of this Word one to another. But if we really do tell and hear it among ourselves, that is, if we really are the Church, we must and will tell it to the world. Here is our task, our mission, our historical significance. Proclaiming to the world this Gospel, that the world is received, is finally that without which we are not the Church and that without which we fail to grasp the meaning of the confession that Jesus the Christ is Lord.
Kerygma and Diakonia
8. This brings me to the last emphasis in our pause: the Church as mission to proclaim this Word in and to the world, which, as was said above, is included in what we mean by the declaration of the Lordship of Christ. It would appear that the Church goes about being this mission in the world in two ways: first, by articulating through verbal signs the gospel message (kerygma) and, secondly, by performing acts of concerned, involved service (diakonia). Yet these two aspects of the outreach of the Church, the word and the act, cannot finally be distinguished. There is abundant New Testament evidence of their utter interpretation. Together and never separately, they constitute the proclamation of the Church in and to the world.
9. The outreach of Christian service obviously can be performed by the humblest individual but it must also, and especially in our massively complex age, be performed corporately. This corporate thrust is made through the direct effort of innumerable local congregations and through the thousands of varied denominational institutions, all of which constitute a manifold witness to the Lordship of Jesus Christ as they set forth the fact that there is no human need and no human concern which is not His concern.
10. But whatever be the particular form or fashion of it, the Church is, by its very nature, service in society. To proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord is to be engaged self-consciously and wholeheartedly in history with all its wonders and tribulations. First of all, the Church is in the midst of life ministering to life because she is liberated to care for life. The reality of acceptance before God actually is in itself the grateful involvement in the enterprise of human culture, and always with particular and peculiar concern for the outcast and the suffering ones in the midst of that enterprise. It is apparently not obvious to just any man that he should care for the need of others, but to be Christian is to identify oneself with humanity in its deepest suffering and highest glory. To be the Church is to be all that can be meant by the term "responsible neighbor" and for no other motive than to be just this responsible neighbor in serving others.
11. Now in responding to the needs of men, the Church shows by these very actions that the sick, the dispossessed, the illiterate, the unlearned, the young, the old, the widows, the fatherless, in sum, that all men are accepted in this world if other men are to take seriously the affirmation "Jesus Christ is Lord," the Christian must take seriously his own role as mission. The eyes of faith know that the deepest, and final need of every man is for the Word of Christ, the word that his life is significant and that he can, therefore, receive his life and live it. Our ministry to his everyday need makes possible our ministry to his final need. Here ‘diakonia’ and ‘kerygma’ merge.
12. Think for a moment of the acts of mission of Jesus. It is a pity that we commonly call so many of them ‘miracles,’ thereby setting them completely apart from our own experience. It was out of the very soil of these acts of service that there arose questions as to His identity. The structures of the synoptic Gospels clearly reveal this. As He went about doing good, the air in Galilee was electric with this question: Who is he? Provoked by his engagement with others, this question was asked by his disciples, his enemies, by his hometownsmen, by the common people, by religious authorities, by John the Baptist, by Herod the King. Finally, it was asked by Jesus himself, to which question Peter affirmed "You are the Christ." The movement here is from service, to the question of life, to the announcement, to the possibility of the Christ-happening in the life of an individual.
13. May I suggest that today our corporate witness of healing, of teaching, of social service and social reform, of judgment and forgiveness in society provokes precisely the same question. And when the question is asked, then there is unrivaled occasion and maybe the only occasion, for preaching the message, for declaring the word of possibility for life. There is ample evidence that this is exactly what happens. In Calcutta a mission executive went to a photographer’s shop to pick up colored slides he had left there. The Brahman owner asked him if he wanted to see his pictures projected on a screen. Finally the reason for this request was made clear. He came to the picture of a missionary nurse holding in her bare hands the foot of a man afflicted with leprosy as she bound up his wounds. Then the Brahman said, ‘What I want to know is the secret of that."
14. The met need here opened the possibility of dealing with the need behind all human needs. Service opened the way for the kerygmatic Word which ministers unto the illness of the human spirit. Genuine concern provides the opportunity to point to the source of that concern. Not pious service, but service which is always a provocative deed. It provokes man’s deepest questions about life to which the proclamation of the Church addresses itself. When one has fathomed these depths, he may have some idea of what Jesus meant in saying that those who served the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the prisoner, in reality served Him. When they are served, He is there. The Proclamation in the world that Jesus Christ is Lord is both the deed and the word.
15. In the midst of the Church’s bearing the everyday burdens of man, she discovers that the question of life addresses them in such a fashion that they themselves can ask about the meaning of life; to which query can be directed the witness that the meaning of life is to receive life as a gift from God. The one who finds courage to embrace this Word knows it to be the only relevant Word. It is indeed Lord of ALL.
16. Our pause is ended for this moment. The proclamation "Jesus the Christ is Lord" is the very Church of Christ. It points to an ever-occurring happening in which a people find their self-understanding, an aspect of which is the very proclamation of this happening, which proclamation is both deed of concerned involvement in life and witness in the face of the life questions that such involvement provokes — through which the Christ-happening happens to others and, in turn, becomes their life meaning. That One, in and through and about whom this ever-contemporary happening intruded into history, is Jesus the Lord.
17. As I was saying: up the River Rejang in Sarawak, Borneo, the Ibans hold up three fingers and say, "Isa Ke Tuhan."