Chapter 2: What We Proclaim

Preaching the Gospel
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 2: What We Proclaim

The title of this chapter, although convenient, can also be misleading. For it is not so much what we proclaim as preachers; it is whom we proclaim. And the short answer to that question is that the ordained minister’s function is to proclaim Jesus Christ and him crucified and risen from among the dead. To put it that way indicates the point of the entire Christian ‘thing’; and it opens up for us the necessity for coming to understand, and then to declare to those who listen, the full significance of what God is up to in the whole world. For to say that Jesus Christ is important, as I have done again and again in the preceding chapter, is to say that he, as One who lived and worked at a given time and place, provides the clue to the divine nature and the divine activity wherever that may be found.

Although this is the case, the preaching of the gospel is not to be confused with theological discussion. Neither is it to be taken as discourse upon moral responsibility. In a later chapter we shall have occasion to point out that all preaching worthy of the name must be theological, by which I mean that it must be, as the very adjective indicates, ‘a word about God’ and hence about God’s decisive action for humankind in the event we name when we say ‘Jesus Christ.’ But that is very different from saying that the sermon is to be about theology as a subject. Perhaps that is not a likely danger today. What is more probable is that preaching will be taken to be an exercise in moral exhortation. Again, however, we can say that while all preaching is to be moral, concerned to make clear the ethical implications of the gospel, it is not a matter of morality or ethics in itself. The distinction between preaching which has a moral quality and discussion of morality as such ought to be plain enough. Evelyn Underhill once said very wisely that the gospel is concerned with the divine indicative – ‘what God has done, is doing, and will do’ -- rather than with an human imperative, or what we should be doing, although the latter should be an inevitable consequence to the former.

Hence we may now turn to what the ‘good news’ is all about.

First of all, then, the gospel is not philosophical or religious speculation. Neither is it moral exhortation. I have already said that. It has to do with something that happened; it is about an event. To understand what this means, it is first necessary for us to see that the world is made up of events. In our opening chapter, we insisted upon this truth as part of a general conceptuality which makes sense in our time. Thus to talk about ‘the event of Jesus Christ’ is to talk about a reality that is not exceptional or unusual in the world -- that is, so far as the ‘event’ aspect of it is concerned. But this event has the speciality which is proper to it; indeed, each and every occurrence in the creation has just such a quality of speciality -- nobody is identical with anybody else; every happening in the world, especially as we come to what might be named ‘the higher levels’ in that world, is itself and nothing else. Hence it is entirely right to say that the event with which our Christian proclamation has to do is an event which is both particular and special.

When the preacher declares this event, he or she is saying something else too. That ‘something else’ is that the event of Jesus Christ is to be taken in faith as peculiarly and distinctively a disclosure of God, the dependable, worshipful, unsurpassable reality who is creatively at work in everything that takes place, even in that which is evil. This does not make God responsible for evil, for God never wills or wants anything that is against goodness, justice, truth, and beauty. Rather, it is simply the recognition that without the creative energy of God, providing aims, luring toward fulfillment of such aims, and always prepared to accept creatively achievement into the divine life, there would and could be no patterned creative order at all.

This fact tells us that whatever we may claim for Jesus Christ is not the denial of nor contradictory to the wider creative purpose and activity of deity. In the language of classical Christian theology, ‘redemption’ (as it is called) is another act of creation; it is in line with and part of the continuing divine working in the world. In other words, there is a general revelation of God in the world which provides the basic, indeed the cosmic, context for whatever may be said about the particular event with which we as Christians are concerned. God’s general creative activity gives the setting for the particular activity of God in Jesus Christ.

But that activity in Christ is particular or special. Its significance is found in what as an event it brings about in the wider ongoing process. For as Whitehead insisted, an event or occurrence has its consequences -- it brings into existence a ‘stream of influence’ which has affects in the world. What is thus distinctive about this event? I have already hinted at this when I spoke of its being a disclosure of God. While all occurrences disclose God in creative activity and doubtless also to some degree in redemptive activity in providing some guarantee of life’s significance and value, this event is especially important. Its importance, or the fact that ‘it matters’ (again in Whiteheadian idiom), is for Christian faith found to be a vivid and focal revelation of what God is always and everywhere up to in the created order.

There is more than that, however. For the ‘stream of influence’ in this case has a specific quality about it. It is the releasing into the world of the divine power of love -- and to this we must return in a few moments -- which brings to those who are caught up into it a remarkable sense of ‘comradeship and refreshment’ -- once again to use Whitehead’s words -- that both enables and ennobles human existence. Men and women who are participant in the continuing consequences of the event of Jesus Christ are given a new awareness of the divine perspective, the divine presentness in the world, and the power which makes human existence a rich and enriching experience. It is this double-quality -- disclosure and release of God in the human creation -- which explains why there is in Christian understanding an attempt to interpret or define who is the One about whom the proclamation is made,

What I have sought to do in the preceding paragraphs is to speak about what is usually styled ‘incarnation’ and ‘atonement’ but in an idiom which is appropriate both to the originating event and meaningful or intelligible to those who see the world in the way which I have described in our opening chapter. It may not be our idiom, this talk of ‘incarnation’ and ‘atonement’; but the point is clear. Whatever terms may seem more suitable for us today, the reality that is affirmed remains the same, We are not to preach ‘the Incarnation’; we are to preach Jesus Christ. We are not to preach ‘the Atonement’; we are to preach Jesus Christ. Yet in each instance, that which the older language sought to express will be present in the preaching, since the event which is proclaimed is both disclosure of God in act and the source of the renewed life that is known within the Christian tradition as ‘life in Christ.’

Now when we speak about an event, we are speaking about a fact that is somewhat complex. Any and every event at the human level has its antecedents, which have been efficacious in making that event possible. It has its specific location, so to say, in this or that particular time and place, centering in this or that particular person -- what that person said and did; how that person was understood; what response was made to him and to his words and deeds. And a human event also has had results, since its decisions and consequent actions have made their particular contribution to the ongoing of things at the human level. Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke about this in a telling sentence; he said that ‘Jesus Christ has been ploughed into history.’ There can be no escaping him in that sense. Whether or not he has been recognized, he has brought about -- or better, God has brought about through him -- something that has made a difference.

That difference is not only in human affairs; it is also a difference in God, since God is always so related to the created order that what takes place in it has its influence and affect upon him or her, upon deity itself. While the divine character and nature do not change, the ways in which these are brought to bear upon the creation must change if God indeed is influenced and affected by what has taken place in the world. Simply phrased, God now has available for further divine activity in the human order the reality of what occurred in Jesus Christ.

Some readers may think that all this has been either meaningless talk or an unnecessary complication of basic Christian preaching. I do not think so; on the contrary, I believe that what has been said opens up for us. above all for the preacher of the gospel, valuable and fascinating ways of making sense of that gospel. Obviously enough the preacher will not speak in the fashion which I have adopted here, Yet he will have this background in his mind as he speaks Sunday by Sunday of the crucial importance of Jesus Christ.

Let us suppose that this preacher -- call him Mr. Jones or Dr. Jones or Father Jones -- enters the pulpit during a service of Christian worship. His task in that pulpit is to speak of Jesus Christ as the One to whom all that is going on that morning has a specific reference. He will seek to find appropriate ways to make the importance of that figure meaningful to the congregation. Perhaps he will take as the text for his sermon some incident in the gospels which tells of Jesus’ doings or perhaps he will choose some bit of the teaching of Jesus as this is reported in the gospel narratives. He will not do what so often I have heard done by thoughtless ministers: simply repeat what the text says or attempt to elaborate on it as if it stood entirely by itself without context. No; he will endeavor to relate that given material (which has provided him with his starting-point) to two things. First, he will refer to the total picture of Jesus which the biblical record presents; in other words, he will use the specific act or teaching in context. And secondly, he will indicate how the total event, of which this act or teaching is a part, is both a disclosure of God and a reporting of its ‘letting loose’ in the world of the divine love-in-act.

An example may help to make my meaning clear. The incident which has been chosen for the morning sermon may be, shall we say, the story of Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman. She has come to ask Jesus to heal her daughter who is sick. The story relates how at first Jesus seems reluctant to do this; after all, he is a Jew in background and thought and she is a non-Jew who in the typical Jewish understanding of that time was considered ‘a dog’ before whom the treasures of Jewish conviction were not to be asserted. But the woman persists and finally Jesus consents to heal the daughter. Whatever may be said of its actual historical basis this story is a demonstration of the way in which the One who is being proclaimed learned through what as a human being he experienced. The tract to the Hebrews speaks of Jesus as having ‘learned through what he suffered’; and the Greek verb in that text means ‘experienced’ rather than suffering in the more obvious English sense of the word. The preacher can now use the story to make plain to his hearers that the event of Jesus Christ is indeed on a genuinely human level; like all the rest of us, Jesus had to grow and develop in his awareness of the divine purpose in the world. He had to learn that it was not a purpose for Jews only; it was for the whole world.

But we must also see that in thus interpreting the given material as found in that narrative the preacher has a further task. Now he is to assert that what there was enacted is a veritable disclosure of God at work. God is not going to confine the divine revelation to any one section of humanity. The self-disclosure of God is for all people, wherever they may live and whatever may be their background or culture. At the same time, the preacher is to affirm that the release of the divine power of love, pointedly effectual in this particular incident in the reported healing of the daughter, is also for all people, bringing to them the ‘comradeship and refreshment’ of which they stand in need for the living of a truly human life.

Maybe this example will help to make my point clear. The apostolic Christian fellowship by whose interest and by whose memory this story came to be told -- and here the contribution of form-critical and redaction study of the New Testament material is enormously helpful to us -- did not use the incident as an interesting bit of historical information. It used the incident, as it used everything else that was given it in the oral tradition about Jesus which preceded the setting-down in written texts the story of Jesus, as a way in which the importance of the originating event was declared. Here, it said, the reality of the divine self-disclosure in act and the release of the divine love into human existence had a vivid and remarkable expression.

When a preacher understands this and is prepared to wrestle with it in his thinking before he does his actual preaching, he will have a deeper insight into the long-continuing Christian awareness of what God was ‘up to’ in the event of Jesus Christ and hence what God is always and everywhere ‘up to’ in the divine dealings with men and women in any and every culture.

What then does it come down to? The answer is that it comes down to a conviction that God who is everywhere at work and everywhere available to men and women is indeed nothing other than Love-in-action. ‘God is Love’, says the first letter of St. John, summing up in that simple three-word phrase the conviction to which the primitive Christian community had come when it thought about, meditated upon, responded to, and in profound acceptance came to grasp what indeed God was ‘up to’ in that crucial event which took place at a given moment in history. The same writer, in the same chapter of his letter, goes on to say, ‘Herein is love, not that we loved God’. He was realistic enough to see that any such statement is absurd on the face of it and is denied by the way humans fail in loving and hence are in desperate need of the assurance that love is central in things. ‘Not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son so that in him we might live.’ As I once put it in another book, to us humans in our deep need, God comes with a loving deed -- a deed which both discloses the divine nature and also makes available for men and women the possibility and power of responding to that divine activity in and as love.

There is a danger here. It is perfectly possible for a preacher simply to affirm that ‘God is Love’ as if it were an interesting significant speculation about the nature of the divine reality. The danger is that in doing this the preacher may suggest that this is but a human concept. However valuable and interesting that concept may be the preacher who knows his business cannot be content with any such bland statement. He must remember that precisely because God ‘sent his Son’ it is possible to affirm that God is indeed what in that event he enacted in human terms. In other words, preaching is never a nice piece of philosophical or religious thought. It is always proclamation -- and as proclamation its focus is upon that which God does and not upon our human meditation on some supposed truth about God.

So far so good. Yet no preacher will wish to stop there. He will want to go on to draw out the practical implications of what he has proclaimed. He will feel bound to indicate at least some of the consequences which follow from acceptance of Jesus Christ, in the total integrity of the event of which he is the center, as a matter of Christian discipleship. It is at this point that the theological and moral aspects of Christian preaching become both relevant and inescapable. Let me say something briefly about these.

In the first place, so far as its theological aspect is concerned, we can see that those who respond in faith to Jesus Christ are impelled to read the whole of human existence, indeed the whole of their experience of the created world, in the light of that which has taken place in that important moment. They must be brought to see that here is the clue or key to the divine activity on all occasions, not just in this signal and decisive one. A man or woman who has been grasped by this central Christian conviction will thereafter be intent upon finding traces of the divine working in every aspect of his or her experience. In some fashion everything ‘speaks of God as Love.’ The world is the sphere or arena in which the divine Love is operative, recognized in various ways and with differing degrees of intensity. There is here a call to claim for God the whole world in its every aspect. To revert to the incident of the Syro-Phoenician woman and the response Jesus was led to make to her plea for help, we can now say that whenever and wherever there is healing in the world, it is the divine healing power which is behind such human endeavors as may be found desirable or necessary to effect that healing. At any time or place in which humankind is led to find value and significance in existence, it is the working of God which is present to provide the ground and explanation for such a realization. By extension every good deed, every struggle for justice and deliverance from oppression, every effort to care for and show concern about those who are in need, will be not merely a reflection of the divine mercy and righteousness but also an instrument for the bringing about of just such shalom or ‘abundance of life’ for God’s human children, So one might go on, almost without ceasing, to show that response in faith to the action of God in this vivid moment has its implications and applications for the whole range of human life and experience.

In the second place, with respect to the moral aspect, there is a call for men and women, once they have been grasped by this central and transforming conviction, to labor on their part for exactly that establishment of loving relationships, with justice for all, with deliverance from oppression for those who are in bondage or undergoing deprivation and suffering, and for the establishment in the widest possible fashion of the shalom which is ‘abundant life’ -- what Jesus is represented in the Fourth Gospel as saying was his vocation to bring to humans from his heavenly Father. The point is not that the preaching is to be a discussion of moral issues, such as might be entirely appropriate in a lecture or discussion-group; rather, the preaching is both a challenge to and a demand for a response which will represent in act that requirement of love in action in the world. Thus to present the moral implications is to do what Reinhold Niebuhr once said that all preaching ought to do: ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.’ No one who has really heard the gospel of God’s righteous and holy love enacted and released in Jesus Christ can be content to ‘sit at ease in Sion.’ There is work to be done; and a consequence of genuine proclamation is the recognition that this is indeed the case.

Emil Brunner put this in a telling sentence: ‘God’s grace is a human task.’ To accept and receive the loving-favor of God, which is what grace is all about, is at the same time to be impelled to act in a fashion which is appropriate to that response and acceptance. Otherwise the point of the gospel-message has been lost and those who think to respond in faith without response in act are deluding themselves and are forgetting other words put into the mouth of Jesus: ‘By their fruits you will know them.’ Jesus is also represented as having said that we are not to call him ‘Lord, Lord’ without doing that which his very lordship implies and expects. Thus it is clear that there is an inescapable moral aspect in all preaching, an aspect whose purpose is to awaken conscience and to move the hearers to do what Kierkegaard once styled ‘the works of love.’ Like the theological aspect, this moral side is inescapable; and a sermon which does not somehow require it is like ‘salt that has lost its savor.

I can think of no way more appropriate to close this chapter on the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ than by quoting some words by that remarkable English saint of the fourteenth century, Dame Julian of Norwich. In her account of her ‘shewings’, by which she meant the disclosures (or series of revelations) which she believed were given her in the cell which as an ‘anchoress’ or hermit she occupied adjoining St. Julian’s Church in Norwich (hence the name which has been given her), she sets forth what she has learned to be the proper ‘ghostly [spiritual] understanding’ of the basic Christian message. She says that she heard God say to her, as she contemplated the Lord Jesus Christ, ‘Would you learn your Lord’s meaning? Learn it well: Love was his meaning. Who showed it to you? Love. What did he show to you? Love. Wherefore did he show it to you? Love. Hold yourself therein and you will learn more in the same. But you shall never know nor learn therein any other thing, without end.’ Earlier in her book she says that she had seen ‘a little thing, the quantity of a hazel nut, in the palm of [her] hand; and it was as round as a ball.’ She had looked upon this with an ‘eye of understanding and had thought: Whatever may this be? And it was answered generally thus: it is all that is made . . . it lasts, and ever shall, for that God loves it.’

Thus the beginning of all, as well as the end or purpose of all, is simply and plainly Love -- Love-in-act, God as Love, God as the cosmic Lover whose sweep is all-inclusive but the application of which is particular for each and every man or woman or child. To proclaim that the historical event we name when we say Jesus Christ is important and decisive in our understanding of the God-human relationship is also to affirm -- as the very heart of Christian faith and life -- that it is, as Dante puts it at the end of The Divine Comedy, this unsurpassable Love which ‘moves the sun and the other stars’ and which seeks entrance into every human existence so that it may also move that existence toward loving. The end-result, as Dame Julian also wrote, is an awareness that ‘God is nearer to us than our own soul; for God is the ground in whom our soul stands.’ This awareness gives the assurance, again in Julian’s words, that ‘all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’