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Preaching the Gospel by Norman Pittenger


Dr. Pittenger, philosopher and theologian, was a senior member of King’s College, Cambridge for many years, then Professor of Christian Apologetics at the General Theological Seminary in New York City, before retiring in 1966. Published by Morehouse-Barlow Co., Inc., Wilton, Connecticut, 1984. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Chapter 4: The Setting in Worship


So far we have spoken about the gospel which is to be preached. It is the gospel of God’s loving action in this world finding its focus for us in what took place in Palestine in the life of Jesus Christ as this was acted out and met response. We have also spoken of the people to whom that gospel is to be preached. These people are men and women and children who among the ‘sundry and manifold changes of this world’ need desperately to be given the assurance that in and behind and through all created things there is a divine Love, a cosmic Lover, who provides a grounding for their dim sense that human life has an abiding value or significance which nothing can destroy.

But the proper setting for that proclamation to such people is normally in the setting of Christian worship. Worship is the human activity in which the divine Love is acknowledged, accepted, and gladly received. When Christian people obey the admonition in the New Testament tractate called Hebrews that they are ‘not to forsake the gathering of themselves together’, they come to engage in a corporate act or ‘liturgy.’ Thus to join oneself with others who hold the faith -- sometimes with utmost seriousness, sometimes and often with little more than the desire to do exactly this -- is to express in a visible way the sense of companionship or human fellowship which is not only a natural desire but is also and supremely an outward sign of their intentional discipleship.

Other religious traditions, generally speaking, with the exception of the Jewish faith which is the background of specifically Christian faith, do not seem to have this necessity of corporate worship as part of their very existence. Such worship, in company with brothers and sisters in the faith, is no incidental part of the total Christian way of life; rather, it is integral to it and essential for it. Nor does it depend upon emotional conditions; for the Christian ages it has been both a privilege and a duty. Thus it is altogether right that the preaching of the gospel or ‘good news’ should have for its fitting setting precisely these occasions of corporate worship.

It was Martin Luther, the great Reformer in Germany, who wrote about the way in which the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was a means for receiving into one’s life the reality of ‘the Word’ preached in the sermon which he wished always to be associated with the sacramental celebration. The two held together as a single action were to be the main Sunday service of worship for every Christian. So also the Swiss Reformer John Calvin wanted to have the regular Sunday service in Geneva a combination of Eucharist and sermon. The English Reformers, in the Prayer Hook which was prepared by Thomas Cramner in 1549, had exactly the same intention -- as is shown by their providing that only at the eucharistic celebration was there to be the collection of alms and the making of parochial announcements.

Failure to follow the wishes of these Reformers, which was of course identical with the ancient practice of the Church, has been a tragedy. The reasons for this failure are probably to a large degree ‘social’, in that laypeople were not sufficiently instructed to see the point, while working conditions doubtless also made their contribution. Another reason, as we can see in Scotland, has been the fear that by too frequent observance of the sacrament there would be a cheapening of the rite and forgetfulness of its importance. But whatever may have been the reason, the fact remains that it is only in our own time that the Reformed churches have begun to recover the centrality of the Eucharist in worship, while in England (and elsewhere in the Anglican Communion) the Tractarian movement and its Anglo-Catholic successor was responsible for the recovery of the traditional observance of the Lord’s Day. In Roman Catholic circles, of course, the Eucharist or Mass has always been the chief service, but unfortunately (until Vatican II required a sermon or homily at every major celebration of the sacrament) the preaching of the gospel has not always or often been associated with the rite. Fortunately this defect has now been remedied; and there is a growing agreement among all Christian people that the two -- sacrament and sermon -- belong together and that every Christian ought to be present and assist at such an act of worship every Sunday.

I have said all this because I wish to emphasize in this chapter that the proper setting for preaching should be the Eucharist -- although of course there will be other important occasions when the proclamation of the gospel will stand by itself or take place in other contexts. Evangelistic meetings, evening non-sacramental worship, outdoor preaching (as in London at the Tower and in Hyde Park), and similar times and places may very well include an address whose main purpose will be the presentation of the reality of Jesus Christ to those who otherwise would not know about him. But as I have said, historically the normative occasion for preaching is in connection with the Eucharist. It will be proper, therefore, to discuss in this chapter the way in which that sacramental action is indeed, as Luther said, the setting-forth of the Gospel which is presupposed whenever the Eucharist is celebrated.

There is a remarkable parallel between the Eucharist as an action in which the Christian fellowship regularly engages and the meaning of preaching as it proclaims the event of Jesus Christ, what that event has accomplished, and what its ‘benefits’, or results in the life of the believer, bring to the believer.

First of all, then, let me stress that the Eucharist is indeed an action. The gospel narratives tell us that at the Last Supper Jesus said that his disciples were to do this ‘in remembrance’ of him. They were not told to think about him or meditate on his self-sacrifice on Calvary. They were to do something; and this, which they were told to do, has in fact been done regularly and faithfully throughout the history of the Christian community. As Dom Gregory Dix, in a now famous section of his book The Shape of the Liturgy, put the matter, Christians through the ages have known of no better and more appropriate way to remember’ Jesus than by participating in the offering of the Eucharist as ‘the continual memory’ of his passion and death -- which also means, of course, the life which preceded Calvary and the knowledge of the risen Lord which followed the crucifixion.

Here are Dix’s splendid words: ‘Jesus told his friends to do this, and they have done it always since. Was ever another command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacles of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth. Men have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the wisdom of a Parliament or for a sick old woman afraid to die. . . One could fill many pages with the reasons why men have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them. And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom, the pastors have done this just to make the plebs sancta dei -- the holy common people of God.’

In recent years, all Christian groups have recovered an awareness of the way in which that memory includes, indeed is, the whole action in its integrity. It is not only in the specific ‘words of institution’ that this occurs; the presentness of the Lord is accomplished through the entire rite as something that is done, not merely thought about gratefully and devoutly.

Something done: the Eucharist is in itself an event; it can be properly understood and adequately interpreted only in the light of that fact. But as I have just said, it is an event which has a remarkable parallel to the originating Christian event of Jesus Christ; and this is one reason why it is appropriately the setting for the proclamation or preaching of the Lord who is central to the historical moment.

Let us first indicate the elements or aspects of the eucharistic event. Then we shall be enabled to trace out what I have called the parallel which exists between the two events, one historical and in the past, the other contemporary and very much in the present. Nor is that parallel nothing more than an interesting accident; I believe that it is a parallel so profound and so revealing that it gives us insight into the nature of the Eucharist as the chief piece of Christian worship while it also provides us with the clue as to how the gospel which is proclaimed can become the life-giving reality of the Christian tradition down the ages to the present day.

The elements or aspects to which I now direct attention must be discussed in some detail, but only a book or a series of books could do justice to their significance. In the space at our disposal, however, we may yet say enough to point toward their indispensable expression of our responding Christian faith as it is confronted by the action of God in Jesus Christ ‘for us men and for our salvation.’

First, the action of the Eucharist is a memorial. The sense in which this is true must be explored; it will suffice at the moment if we repeat once again that ‘memorial’ here does not indicate mental reverie but rather a genuine and vital re-call of the past into the immediacy of present experience. Secondly, as an action the Eucharist is sacrificial in quality, since it has to do with an oblation, offering, or self-giving which was the characteristic mark of the life of Jesus in obedience to what he took to be the vocation given him by his heavenly Father. Thirdly, the eucharistic action has to do with a making-present, or as I prefer to put it ‘a presentness’, of the originating Christian event, brought into the ‘here and now’ of contemporary Christian existence. Fourthly, the Eucharist as action establishes, thanks to that presentness’, a communion between God and humanity and also among those men and women who are privileged to assist at the celebration of the sacrament. Fifthly, the Eucharist as action is given an imperative quality in that it results in a ‘sending out’ or a mission received by the worshipers, which they are to carry on in their daily life of witness and work in the world of human affairs.

With these five there is an overarching and inclusive renewal of the kind of human existence which we have seen that St. Paul could define as ‘life in Christ’, with all that this implies for the Apostle and with all that it still implies for the Christian believer today.

Perhaps it is already evident how these aspects and elements which are thus characteristic of eucharistic observance have their correspondence to the proclamation of the gospel. For that proclamation is concerned to affirm that the Jesus Christ who is so central to it is no mere figure of the past; he is remembered in the most serious sense as still making a difference. Again, when he is proclaimed, he is proclaimed in the full integrity of his human life which from beginning to end, as the apostolic witness indicates, was an obedience in self-giving in response to the vocation given him by God. It is also an insistence that in thus remembering the totality of his life, there is established a present awareness of him as active in the world today through the Spirit was released in and through him. There is the bold affirmation that through the event of which he is the center a relationship between God and humankind, and among men and women too, has been made possible, with its own distinctive quality. And proclamation leads to mission, since those who have genuinely heard the preaching are impelled to act upon it in such a way that in what they say, think, and do there is a witness to which testimony is given and a task to which they are called. Finally, because of all this, the Christian proclamation has as its end-product the bringing to the hearers an awareness of the reality of newness of life -- what in the Fourth Gospel is called ‘eternal life’ and ‘abundant life’, what St. Paul is getting at when he speaks of ‘life in Christ’ as possessing a particular and specific quality of giving-and-receiving in love, in divine Love which is then reflected and enacted in human loving, with its association with justice and righteousness and deliverance from loveless existence.

We have already said a great deal about ‘memory’; here I wish only to remark that the use of the Process conceptuality can be of great help to us here. That conceptuality puts an emphasis upon the way in which past events have their efficacy in the present and prepare for the future. While in one sense they ‘perish’, to use Whitehead’s word, in another and more profound sense they are never lost because they are, so to say, ‘immanent’ in what follows them and upon which they have had their enormous influence. They provide the material which is ‘prehended’ or grasped in the present. So it is that in the eucharistic memorial there is a genuine bringing of the event which is thus ‘remembered’ into the immediacy of the new moment in which the celebration takes place. There is a similarity here to the Jewish observance of the Passover seder. In that supper, shared by a Jewish family once a year, the deliverance of the Jewish people from the Egyptians, as recounted in the book Exodus in the Old Testament, is the central point of the occasion. When the father of the family recounts the story of that deliverance, it is no mere mental recollection which is in view; rather, it is the making into a contemporary event, in which those present are able to share, of that which (in Jewish belief) God accomplished at the Red Sea many centuries ago. The eucharistic memorial is similarly a bringing of what might have been ‘the dead past’ into the present moment. The Negro spiritual asks, ‘Were you there when they crucified my Lord?’ To this the Christian answer is ‘Yes. I am there whenever the command of Jesus to "do this" is obeyed by those who are of the Christian fellowship.’ Furthermore, we may point out that Rudolph Bultmann, the distinguished German form-critic, was accustomed to urge that whenever the gospel was faithfully preached there was also a bringing of the past event of the crucifixion into the immediacy of the present. Thus for him the preaching was, so to say, an occasion of ‘resurrection’, since the Lord who died on Calvary was now available and actively expressed as he was proclaimed.

But this brings us to the second element, sacrifice. For as in the preaching, so also in the celebration, the self-offering of Jesus as known as the Lord’s action at the Last Supper is remembered. We have seen that in Christian understanding the death of Jesus is always to be set in the context of his total existence in self-dedication to God in fulfilling the vocation which he believed had been given him. In this sense, as we can see, there is deep truth in the medieval saying tota vita Christi misterium crucis ‘the entire life of Christ is the mystery of the Cross’ -- because, as the apostolic witness testifies, Jesus gave himself at all times and in all places and with all those who met him, as One obedient to the divine Father’s purpose for him. Thus the notion of eucharistic sacrifice is not confined to the specific point of actual death; it includes the whole of the event of which Jesus is the center. All that went before Calvary was preparation for or (better) was anticipation of the death. What followed afterward, in the conviction that the Lord who had died was the Lord who was raised by God from ‘among the dead’, is equally a part of the picture. The preaching declares this to be the case; the celebration enacts it in a visible and available manner.

In doing this, the memorial is the way in which what I have styled the presentness of the Lord is made possible. Jesus is not taken to be only the One who walked and taught and acted in Palestine two thousand years ago. He is the One who even now, through the operation of the Holy Spirit whose work (as I was taught in my childhood) is ‘to make Jesus present still’, is known to and available for his people. In the Process conceptuality this is given a context which can be most helpful to us. That conceptuality speaks of the fashion in which events or occasions are received into the divine life, making a difference to God; it also speaks of the way in which God gives back, as it were, the past event -- it ‘floods back into the world’, in Whitehead’s way of saying it -- so that it is not ‘dead and gone’ but is effectual in the ongoing relationship between God and the world. Thus the risen Lord, which is to say the Jesus who now is incorporated into the divine reality as an everlasting element in that reality, is made a present fact in the existence of those who will respond to him and obey his will, to serve as he did for the increase of ‘amorization’ in the world. Here once more the preaching and the celebration are concerned to accomplish the same thing.

Through that renewed presentness there is opened up a communion between God, defined in Christ, and the world of human life. At the same time, and as a necessary consequence, there is a communion among those who have been caught up into Christ, so that when the Eucharist takes place those who are assisting at its observance find themselves belonging with each other in a new and vitalizing fashion. This is not simply another instance of human friendship and companionship, because now it is so rooted and grounded in the divine accomplishment that it has about it an enduring quality which nothing can destroy. It is ‘the communion of saints’, in which those ‘saints’ (which in New Testament usage indicates all ‘faithful people’) are given a unity which is made possible because they have become ‘sharers in the divine nature.’ So the Petrine epistle puts it; and this does not mean any identification of divinity and humanity, as if ‘man became God’, but rather means such profound participation in God’s life, available in what God has done in Christ, that while their oneness is indeed on the level of human existence it is also and more significantly ‘in the heavenlies’ where men and women ‘seek that which is above’ their ordinary human aims and are enabled to know something of the divine reality as the dominant principle of their continuing existence. The preaching of the gospel has precisely the same purpose: the bringing of men and women into an abiding communion with deity and with one another, here and always. And it is worth saying once more that this life together is nothing other than ‘life in love’, human love because also sharing in divine Love, in God who is Love-in-act.

Finally there is the mission, or the sending’, which is integral to the sacramental rite. In the old Roman Catholic liturgy of the Mass the words of dismissal at the end were ‘Ite, missa est.’ Sometimes this phrase has been translated simply as ‘You are now to leave because the Mass is finished.’ But that translation is inadequate. The Latin verb mittere, of which ‘missa’ is a participial form, has a much deeper sense; it is a way of saying that ‘you are now sent out . . .’ Sent out or given a mission, then, for doing the ‘works of Love’ in the world. The prayer of thanksgiving in both Latin and English liturgies today makes this abundantly clear. And this is exactly what responsible preaching also has in view. When the proclamation of the ‘good news’ has ended, there is no conclusion of the matter in a very serious sense the proclamation continues to be effectual as both requiring and empowering a life that is ‘in Christ’ and hence a life in which the believer is to express in all that he or she says or does the reality of the divine Love in which that person is now a participant. So it is that the last of the points made some pages back, summing up the several elements of eucharistic action, comes to the fore. The point of the whole exercise, as also the point of the preaching of the gospel, is the establishment of the specifically Christ-existence, in which the ‘love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ is known, shared, enacted, and manifested.

I have said that the proclamation of the gospel and the celebration of the sacrament constitute together the normative worship of the Christian community. Yet even when that is not realized in concrete fact there is always in Christian worship of any kind a similar pattern.

In conservative evangelical circles, whether in the Anglican Communion or in churches of a ‘reformed’ type, the recovery of this normative worship in eucharistic observance has not always been achieved, although there are many signs which point toward a growing awareness of its importance and centrality. But it is still true that when the chief act of worship on a Sunday is in Anglican circles Mattins or Morning Prayer and in ‘reformed’ churches a much more sermon-centered type of worship, there is also a liturgical or quasi-liturgical setting for the proclamation of the gospel. The hymns, readings, and prayers are directed toward a genuine awakening, among those who are present, of the ‘memory’ (in the deep sense I have indicated) of the originating event, with its insistence on the full obedience of Jesus in his self-offering to the Father on behalf of his human brothers and sisters. There is an awareness of his presentness and hence a renewed sense of communion with God in Christ and with one another; there is an imperative for Christian witness and work; and there is a seeking of a life which is ‘in Christ’ and which reflects and enacts his own loving concern for others. It would be unfair, as well as uncharitable, to exclude such worship from the tradition which in more catholic’ circles finds its expression in Eucharist-proclamation worship.

As I have urged before, there can also be preaching which is not in the context of worship at all. This may be necessary when the more traditional context would make little if any sense to those who must be reached. None the less, there is much truth in the saying that if we wish to tell the non-Christian what the Christian enterprise is about, the best thing that we can do is to persuade that person to attend a Sunday celebration of the Eucharist in which there is also and of necessity a proclamation of Christ. Obviously this cannot always, perhaps often, be done, since for a great many people today the whole idea of worship has little meaning. Nor are the services of worship readily intelligible to somebody who has no acquaintance with the tradition of which it is an expression. Here there is a very special responsibility laid on those who do share the tradition, above all on those whose task it is to prepare the forms of worship which are used regularly in the churches.

As everyone knows, ours is a time when there has been much liturgical revision and in which new services have been prepared for use in the parishes. This is certainly to be welcomed, since frequently the idiom which is conventional in Christian circles is very difficult for contemporary people to understand. I believe, however, that a good deal of this revision has been misguided or ill-informed. I shall end this chapter with a few comments which may be relevant here.

First of all, responsible liturgical revision cannot consist only in the use of more contemporary language or in the avoidance of what are known as ‘sexist’ phrases (which are so dominantly masculine that women often feel excluded from what is going on) or in a return to biblical idiom to replace other (perhaps medieval) terminology. We shall be seeing in a later chapter that the biblical idiom is not to be taken in the wooden fashion which so often such revisions seem to follow. It is also true that merely putting ‘You’ where more traditionally ‘Thou’ would have been used in address to deity is hardly sufficient. Again, entirely contemporary language can so much ‘reek of the present moment’ that the sense of belonging to an agelong tradition can be lost or seriously diminished. These are valid criticisms of a good deal that has been done by the liturgical commissions set up by Christian communions.

I myself have ‘no wisdom’, as the saying goes, which will provide appropriate guidelines for these commissions. But it seems to me that if the preaching of the gospel is today to be undertaken in an idiom, and with the use of materials, that speak directly and meaningfully to men and women of our own time, so also the services of worship, above all the Eucharist, must also be carried on in just that same way, with direct and meaningful conveyance of the insights and understanding of Christian faith, so that the service of worship will not seem archaic, even archaeological, in nature, and lacking reference to or relevance for those who by necessity live in a world that is interpreted differently from the way in which it was interpreted in an earlier age. To accomplish this liturgically is no easy matter, any more than is the finding of language for the authentic proclamation of the authentic gospel. The best that can be hoped for is that experts do the job to the best of their ability in the expectation that others may correct and amend what has been proposed. For my own part, I believe that most of the revisions which have now been adopted are along the right lines; what they require is such modification here and there as shall meet responsible criticism.

In any event, what is said, like what is done, in the worship of the Church must be sufficiently in line with the inherited usage that it is recognizably Christian in its historical emphasis, while at the same time it is sufficiently intelligible to contemporary experience and understanding. To put it in the way in which others have spoken, both eucharistic celebration and proclamation of the gospel should always be in a fashion that is appropriate to the witness of the Christian past and at the same time available for the thinking and feeling of the people who take part. Otherwise we shall be either disloyal to our own Christian past or absurdly anachronistic.

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