Wednesday, April 23, 2008

"The Difference Between a Theory and a Confrontation"

From Arthur Vogel's book The Power of the Resurrection. Vogel begins the chapter by describing a time when he found that the composition of his Easter sermon seemed especially easy:

"A special inspiration seemed to strike and the flow of thought quickened. When the grip of the inspiration relaxed, I took a step back to see what I had done, secretly feeling quite proud of myself. Then, just as suddenly as the ideas had come, my heart sank. I realized I had not proclaimed the resurrection as I had first thought at all; instead, I had been drawing general conclusions about the way any creature would be related to God regardless of whether or not Jesus had been raised from the dead.

The ease which had suddenly come to my writing had not been inspiration about the resurrection; instead, the ease came because I was no longer writing about the resurrection! I had started out to proclaim the unexpected good news of Jesus Christ's rising from the dead, but I had subtly slipped into drawing predictable conclusions from predictable ideas.

Is anything lost in beginning to talk about the resurrection of Jesus Christ and concluding by talking about the power of God in general terms? Indeed there is, if our consideration is diverted from the life of the historic person Jesus to the deduction of abstract ideas from abstract ideas. In the latter case we deduce conclusions from premises which have no special location in the world; in the former case we are taught something about ourselves because of what happened to a specific person, Jesus of Nazareth. It is the difference between a theory and a confrontation.

At the moment to which I referred in writing my sermon, I also realized how far much of my past preaching had been from the true Christian message. More than that, I realized with new depth how a life could be filled with the attempt to teach about the Christian God and yet be kept from doing so by the very use of the Christian proclamation that Jesus is the Son of God! The heart of the matter is whether Jesus is used as an example of something we know about God without reference to Jesus, or whether Jesus makes God present in such a radically new way that previous ways of knowing God are forever surpassed in him.

As I had begun to develop the importance of the resurrection for our lives in the world, I discovered I had unconsciously begun to substitute the word 'God' for the 'Christ.' This was the escape I had made, the ease I had provided for myself...What I had done, I discovered to my embarrassment, and what I had been doing for much of my life, I discovered to my chagrin, was to dilute Christianity's claims by substituting for the presence of Christ the abstractness of 'God' as an idea. I thereby removed myself from confrontation with the person who rose from the dead, so that he could not question me about my allegiance to him. I was saved from decision.

If the power of the resurrection is related to 'God' without constant reference to God's presence in Christ, the resurrection is easier for us to handle. It then becomes something to think about rather than someone calling to us and asking whether we hear him. That way the resurrection can be explained as a doctrine; it begins and ends in words. As such it will never embarrass us by its demands, but it will also never save us by its power...

To talk about God is easier than to talk about Jesus Christ, for Jesus is too concrete, too demanding, too meaningful. Here we discover the risk we must take in order to receive the power of Christianity, but the excitement of Christianity is discovered at the same time....because it is something that happened--and still happens. Because it is a happening, it is historical. Its truth is found in singular events, not general principles, and its credibility is based on eyewitnesses, not theories.

The lives we live are filled with particularity. No one else is exactly like me. No one else can live my time for me..." And in his book Radical Christianity and the Flesh of Jesus, Vogel says, "We cannot live our full lives in the fleshless world of ideas and geometrical color configurations...We cannot be ourselves in an abstract world...It is too thin...Christianity begins in the flesh, and it begins in the movement of the fleshly life of Jesus...He came not to tell us about God but to take us into the life of with Jesus is the only way to solve the problem of living with Jesus...There is nothing to know of Jesus but the dynamism of his life; the quickening of our lives by his life is his presence with us....Everything is moving, dynamic, spontaneous; nothing is frozen, static, calculated...We can freeze to death while thinking of fire, and we get no real help in our lives from God by merely thinking about God...Christian living does not proceed from thought to action...
If we try never to discuss Jesus or deal with Jesus in less than a truly personal manner, that context will change many of the things we say about him--and many of the things we say we are doing for him..."


Anastasia Theodoridis said...

What an excellent observation. Too often people talk about God in the abstract, not even realizing it. But revelation doesn't happen primarily in words, but in events, which later we seek to articulate. Revelation happens in relationship with Jesus Christ.

JTKlopcic said...

For a while, one of my "benchmarks" for what I considered to be a good sermon was what I called the "Five Finger Jesus Test". I would close my hand at the start of the sermon, and every time the preacher mentioned the word "Jesus" or "Christ", I would lift another finger. Many were the sermons that would leave me with my fist still partially clenched, as the preacher would be glad to speak of God in the abstract, but never make Him personal.