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Preaching as though the world has already ended

By Peter Sellick - posted Thursday, 22 September 2016


On the face of it the Hebrew/Christian Scriptures adhere to chronological time in which events are placed on a time line receding back into the past. It begins with creation and ends with the end of the world. Events are often dated as, for example, at the beginning of prophetic book : "In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month.."(Ezekiel 1:1) or for events in the gospels: "In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius…." (Luke 3:1). Thus the Scriptures affirm the reality of events in history.

However, something else is going on that is easily missed. As I have pointed out before, there exists another understanding of time in which events interpret other events that are separated by time. This occurs often by using typology. For example, Jesus becomes the new Adam. By his disobedience Adam is expelled from the Garden of Eden and the presence of God to work for his food by the sweat of his brow and to die. Jesus, by his obedience to God, restores paradise and the presence of God for all of humanity and defeats death.

My particular focus in this essay is on how writers of the gospels use the imagery of the end of the world to interpret the death of Jesus. This occurs in Mark 13:14-27 with what is known as the little apocalypse and in Matthew 27:51-52 and Luke 23:44.

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Thus three of the gospel writers make a connection between the death of Jesus and the end of the world. If we take this seriously then Christians should live and preachers should preach as though the world ended when Jesus died. Of course the mountains did not melt and the seas did not evaporate, but something ended, something we may call "a world". This is the world that Jesus says in John's gospel that he has conquered. (John 16:33)

Using the typology between Adam and Jesus we may say that it was world that Adam inaugurated that ended, the world held captive to sin and death. By nailing Jesus to the cross, that world was exposed for what it was, a lie and the way of death and was put to death. This death was final, as all death is, but the power of this death still takes time to have its effect. We thus live in the time of patient waiting for its fulfilment as the kingdom of God. The technical description of this "time between the times" is Christian eschatology, the science of the last things.

A new freedom has been won on Golgotha. All of the authorities of the world have been put in their place. While we honour the family, the family does not have ultimate authority over us. The same can be said of civic and religious power. While these have their place they can never be ultimate because we own ultimate authority to one Lord. This was why the disciples and the Church that followed named Jesus "the Lord".

The freedom of the Christian is that he is no longer under tutelage to the law, even though the law is not done away with. Rather, a new way of being has come that does not need the law to keep us in check because motivation towards the interests of the self have been replaced by membership in a community that has love as its central organising power. The Church is thus the new community that is the harbinger of the Kingdom even in all its weakness and failure.

Preaching is radically conditioned by the understanding that Adam's world has been put to death and that we live in a new world, as yet unfulfilled, in which we live in radical freedom. Thus preaching takes place in a mood of crisis. It is always an announcement of this good news; that the old has past away and the new has come.

The focus of eschatological preaching cannot be determined by the old world in which men and women were under the thrall of the law, religion, civic or familiar power or self-interest. The passion narratives and the ministry of Jesus have named these things as belonging to the old world that were implicated in the crucifixion of Jesus. If the resurrection is God's vindication of Jesus then all of these powers have come under judgment and are in the process of being swept away. This is how Jesus has conquered the world.

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Preaching that understands Jesus as the "good teacher" misunderstands his status. Indeed the gospels are relatively free of spiritual advice. Even the much-loved Sermon on the Mount is not a prescription for living but a radical overturning of the world of Adam. Jesus did not bring a new ethics or found a new religion. He came to set fire on the earth so that the old will be burnt away and that men and women could become truly free and truly human.

The invitation to come to Christ is framed in terms of a different kind of slavery: "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matt. 11:28,29)

The dictatorship of the powers: civic, religious, familial and personal are taken from us and exchanged with the gentle yoke of Christ. The irony is that this yoke is freer than the shallow freedom we seek to establish in secular society. This is why there was concern about lawlessness in the early Church. Some thought that the freedom bought for them on Golgotha was not a freedom directed towards the neighbor but took it as license.

Preaching that does not understand that the world of Adam ended on Golgotha will inevitably be caught up in giving spiritual and moral advice that will simply replicate the old world in the lives the those who listen. This is perhaps the greatest travesty perpetrated by so-called Christian preaching because we once again find ourselves subject to the old powers.

In this case, a phrase my first teacher was fond of is apt. "Where God is so loudly proclaimed there He is most radically denied. Beware of parishioners who thank you for your "message". Beware of parishioners who see you as a bulwark of respectable societal values. Beware of parishioners who look for spiritual uplift so that they can bear the awfulness of their lives.

The preacher is the subject of many projections. But he or she preaches for one reason only, to proclaim the apocalypse, the end of the world.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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