The Way Forward (2): The Scriptural Christ, part 1

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I’ve been writing about a spiritual agenda for traditional Christians in the ELCA after the August Assembly, starting with penitence. But true penitence is inseparable from faith in Jesus Christ. The “way forward” must also begin and continue with a renewed encounter with him.

An advantage of this proposal is that almost no one will disagree with it. That’s also its disadvantage. We all know that Christ is important; we’re Christians, aren’t we? It’s not so easy, however, to get out of the box of routine and reconsider what encountering Jesus means.

I am going to begin this series of posts by relaying six observations that make me uneasy about the role Jesus is playing in our preaching and life. They are of course generalizations to which there are many exceptions; I am not indicting every pastor and teacher in the ELCA. Also, I admit up front that this is subjective evidence.  The question for you the reader is whether they add up to a picture you can recognize. You may be wholly unconvinced that there’s a problem at all, and I can’t refute you. I can only share my impressions.

1. Most of the sermons I have heard or read over the past several decades have been based on the Gospel lesson, but a majority of them have not really been about Jesus. Sermons tend to get diverted early from the concrete figure of Jesus to focus on some truth, value, imperative, or experiential possibility supposedly represented by Jesus.

2. What good thing does God give us in the gospel? I hear very few sermons that follow Luther (in the Catechisms) in saying that the good thing is having Jesus as our Lord instead of the devil. Instead I hear a lot of abstractions about being accepted (but into what?), stirring but vague rhetoric about new possibilities, and a lot of generic assurance that “God is with you.”

3. Even preachers who make the point that it’s Jesus’ presence that saves us don’t often seem to have much to say about him. The affirmation that his presence saves us doesn’t often lead to an interest in knowing what he is like, what sort of fellow he is, and what it would be like to have him present with us. He tends to be described in doctrinal or metaphorical formulae, remaining what literary critics call a flat rather than a rounded character.

4. Increasingly often I hear a kind of casual de-christologizing of the Eucharist – vague talk about “God’s presence with us in bread and wine” as though the gift of the body and blood of Jesus of Nazareth, God’s incarnate Son, gave no special shape to our joy or our hope.

5. I hear Jesus appearing less and less as the subject of verbs in sermons on the Gospels. Instead we hear about what Matthew or Luke is telling us by this or that way of presenting Jesus. Does profiting from modern insights into the theological distinctness of the Gospels require that we always say “Mark presents Jesus as saying” rather than “Jesus says”? This distances Jesus from the assembly; the Gospels become veils of opinion behind which he is hidden rather than media of his presence in our midst.

6. Finally, what has Jesus got to do with “Lutheranism”? My impression is that theologically articulate Lutherans of all schools can talk a blue streak about justification, grace, faith and works, law and gospel, etc., without ever saying more about Jesus Christ than the formalistic “for Christ’s sake” of Augsburg Confession IV. It certainly doesn’t seem that standard ways of explaining Lutheran themes have the effect of directing people towards the concrete figure of Jesus and involving them more closely with him.

Let me be clear that I have by no means observed these trends only among “liberal” Lutherans. As I said in my last post, we traditionalists are not so very different from our revisionist brothers and sisters, and this is one of the ways in which that is so.

In my next post, I’ll try to sum up my concerns.

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12 Responses to “The Way Forward (2): The Scriptural Christ, part 1”

  1. Kevin Scheuller Says:

    Thanks, Prof. Yeago for another challenging post. After reading it, I was relieved to see I don’t do a lot of the things you mention. I almost always use present tense active verbs for Jesus’ actions, and seldom treat the gospels as literature more than scripture.

  2. Diane Roth Says:

    I never had you for a student. I’m sure I would have benefitted. I will make sure that, as one of my other professors said, in my sermon, “God is the subject of active verbs.”

  3. Robb (LP) Says:

    Not only do I agree about the preaching issue, but plead guilty as well. It is far too easy to extrapolate moral lessons from the stories of Jesus ala Aesop, and far more difficult to focus on the person and action of Christ. This does make me think that the Missouri Synod was on to something when they included a Service of Prayer and Preaching in the new LSB that has an option of serving as a catechetical service. Seems Lutherans of all stripes could use a good dose of the catechism these days.

  4. Bill DeHass Says:

    David, ever since our days together at LTSG you continue to inspire me by your writings and your wisdom. It was and is appreciated. As one who preaches every week and mostly always on the Gospel I take your concerns to heart.

    I too struggle with many of your concerns and have probably failed as much as succeeded in what you are observing about preaching these days. Thankfully, tne thing I let go of a long time is the “Mark has Jesus saying” blah, blah, blah. I do use the language of “Jesus says…” So hey, one out of six isn’t bad!

    In all seriousness though I think some of what you present can come back to simply answering the question, “So what difference does the Gospel make?” When a preacher sets out to answer that then many of the points you made begin to be dealt with. I know that if I talk about Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist I try to get beyond that to talk about the benefits, but even there it takes more than a laundry list of identifying the benefits — yet I don’t always do a good job of that. Fortunately one of the benefits is forgiveness so I do not despair, but at the same time, I am always challenged to make as clear and simple as possible what difference the Gospel makes in our lives.

    The only criticism I have of your article is that I would have liked you say much more about each of your points in terms of how to proclaim things more faithfully. I got the “what is wrong” part, but I always like to hear more of the “this is a better way to go at this”. I realize that is my responsibility as well, but hearing from others is always helpful.

    I look forward to your continued contributions here and elsewhere.

  5. dyeago Says:

    Bill DeHass – Great to hear from you! It’s been a really long time, hasn’t it? Thanks for your very thoughtful comment. If I can provoke the sort of thinking you’re clearly doing, then I’m succeeding.

    Let me just say that my posts on this will continue and get to the positive points you mention before too long. It’s hard to say too much at once in under 1000 words, which is where I’m trying to keep these posts. (Much more than that you don’t have a blogpost but a lecture.)

  6. phillip schrader Says:

    You have not heard Pastor Ryan Mills (Our Redeemer- Grand Prarie Texas) He definitly portrays a 1 on 1 with Jesus. You not only hear Jesus, you feel Him in your soul. Especially at the sacraments.

  7. Jack Wilder Says:

    You have hit the nail on the head. These are concerns I have been wrestling with since seminary, and probably have not succeeded too well in finding a solution. Indeed, I have probably contributed my share to the overall problem as I have wrestled through all this over the years.

    I knew a Franciscan friar in New York who urged preachers to ask “so what?” I think this is the point that Bill DeHass gets at. So what that we teach the Real Preseence or justification by faith? So what that this has anything to do with Jesus? It may be our inability to deal adequately with the “so-what’s” that leads us to de-christologize Word and Sacrament.

    We end up with baptism as nothing but “doing the baby,” and we can’t tell you why but we’ve always done it that way, and Communion ceases to have meaning (and even becomes something to be celebrated only if the Altar Guild “feels like” setting the altar that weekend) but we do it for no reason than that we’ve always done it that way.

    We end up marginalizing Jesus who becomes a necessary name to invoke as we grope about for “new and better” meanings for Word and Sacrament.

    And “so what?” either isn’t answered or it is vaguely answered in terms of the reigning (and changing) social-political-economic-psychological trends of the day.

    I look forward to more of your posts and Dr. Root’s as well.

  8. Sarah in Minnesota Says:

    Dr. Yeago, I am grateful to have stumbled across this blog (actually, people keep posting links to it on facebook). I find your comments helpful even when I (rarely) disagree with them, which is more than I can say about most discussions around these issues.

    I find myself troubled, though, by your use of “traditionalist” and “revisionist” language (maybe you explained this somewhere and I missed it?). Are there some terms we could use that would be less polarizing? In the current discussion, “traditionalist” has mostly positive connotations while “revisionist” in inescapably negative. But while there are certainly revisionists and traditionalists around, I am seeing them on both sides of the fence at the moment! To me, this language is more distracting than helpful. (I admit that my context is shaping my gut reactions on this point.)

    I apologize for digressing from the intended topic of this post. I’m looking forward to part 2! I know all about making God (and Jesus) the subject of active verbs, but like most of us, I can fall into the trap of reducing the gospel to “Jesus is with us” if I’m not paying attention.

  9. Tony Metze Says:

    Two books come to mind. One by Francis Rossow, “Preaching the Creative Gospel Creatively,” and “Law and Gospel,” by Herman Stemple (not sure of the name.) For Rossow preaching is meant to lead someone to the cross, to understand their failings and how Jesus atones for our sins. Stemple clearly articulates the place for law, gospel and a call to obedience in each sermon. These two books continue to be the lifeblood of my inspiration. Of course, the other most influential part of my preaching is the teaching of Dr. Richard Carl Hoefler who truly knew the gospel. I am thankful that Dr. Yeago has pointed out the easy errors that can creep into my preaching. I will be watching closely this week as I encounter the Holy Word.

  10. Bill DeHass Says:

    David – thank you for your response. Yes, you did cause me to think and anytime that happens it is good. Of course in the words from a Garrison Keillor monologue — I think slow so I don’t have to do it again.

    Sorry about using the word “criticism” in my post. I should have just asked for you to write more – which you indicate that you will do. Thanks.

    I look forward to reading more and being challenged by it!

  11. Fr Jay Scott Newman Says:

    This is a challenge for preachers of every stripe, not just Lutherans. Too many preachers, in my experience, content themselves with what I call “God Talk,” as in “God loves you.” That true enough, but it’s a bit like calling a puppy a mammal. “Daddy, Fido is such a cute mammal!”

    God loves you. OK. Which God? Zeus? Isis? Gaia?

    The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob finally and fully revealed Himself in the Lord Jesus Christ, and if we preach any God other than the One revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then we preach a false god. “God” has a proper, revealed Name, and preachers should use that Name, the only Name by which men are saved, lest they simply preach themselves.

  12. Matt Musteric Says:

    I would substantially agree with your observations that often “themes” of love, mercy, grace, forgiveness, etc. (all usually loosely defined) are regularly substituted for the particular person of Jesus of Nazareth in sermons.

    I wonder if one of the many reasons for this trend is that the particularity of the self, who I am as a particular person, has eclipsed much of the desire to know Christ and follow him. It is a much easier (and often subtle) hermeneutical move to argue that (1) the Gospel is really about [fill in the blank: grace, forgiveness, love, mercy], (2) then to define those terms in ways that fit neatly with our present life, and finally (3) to walk in that way, which as it turns out, is simply following oneself rather than Jesus.

    I will continue to pray about ways in which we as the church might “intrude” Jesus upon the world.

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