Tag Archives: kerygma

Preaching the Gospel

Sunday, June 16 (O.S., June 3), 2019: Holy Pentecost-Trinity Sunday; Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Church.

Epistle: Acts 2:1-11

Gospel: John 7:37-52; 8:12

Today, our Lord Jesus Christ sends the Holy Spirit down on the disciples and apostles. Receiving the Spirit, those who were once frightened men and women boldly proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The disciples and apostles don’t proclaim the whole Christian faith in all its particulars. They don’t speak about sacraments and fasting, they didn’t engage others in debates about doctrine and church history. Instead, they proclaim the kerygma that Jesus is the Savior of the world.

While the rest of the teaching of the Church is important–essential in fact–it rests of the foundation of the kerygma. Unless and until a person understands, accepts, and believes that out of His great love for us God sent His only begotten Son into this world as a sacrifice for sin and that by His death and Resurrection Jesus has overthrown the powers of sin and death, the rest of the Gospel is mere moral philosophy. Without belief in the kerygma, what the Church teaches is at best only a set of interesting ideas that have no power to save.

Unlike the disciples on that first Pentecost, not only do we often fail to begin the evangelical work at the beginning–that Jesus loves us–we often speak to peoples whose hearts–unlike the hearts of the “Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven” in Jerusalem–are not ready to hear the Gospel.

At least some of the those in Jerusalem were able to accept the Gospel because their hearts had been prepared by the Law of Moses or the study of philosophy. These were men and women who already believed in God, who cultivated the life of virtue, and who had confidence in the ability of human reason to know the truth.

Today though many of the people–I dare say most–of the people we speak to have hearts that are not ready to hear the Gospel. They have an impoverished view of human reason and they think the moral life is a matter of opinion or preference that has only one standard: that we don’t hurt others.

As for the existence of God, the best we can say is that many–including many Orthodox Christians I’m sad to say–believe in a God Who asks nothing and offers nothing beyond a wanting us to be happy.

Added to all this we must overcome the moralism, bad preaching and erroneous theology that have become associated with the Gospel in our popular religious culture.

Like the disciples and apostles, we have each of us personally received the Holy Spirit not in part but in full. But the way in which we fulfill our evangelical vocation is different than how they did it. Before we can preach the Gospel, we must do the hard work of preparing the hearts of those to whom we would preach.

This work begins in friendship.

Not a calculating friendship that draws close to someone simply to make them Orthodox. We must rather be true friends–to unbelievers and believers alike. We must be committed to seeking what is best for them and we must respect their consciences. Many, most really, of those with whom we are friends will never commit themselves to Christ. Among those who already have, most will likely not become Orthodox.

Whatever they may or may not do, our task is above all else to love them. When and how someone responds to God’s grace is beyond us. This doesn’t mean we are indifferent to the salvation of our friends. It does, however, mean we must remember that while “one sow” it is often another who reaps (John 4:37). We have our role play in the salvation of the world. But frequently it is to prepare the heart so that someone else at some other time, can lead the person to Christ and His Church.

This is why, and this the second thing we must do, we must cultivate a life of prayer. We must pray not only for each other but for our friends and, yes, even our enemies and antagonists. It is much better, to borrow from St Paisios of Mount Athos, to talk to God about our friends than to talk to our friends about God.

To friendship and prayer, we must add respect for the ability of human reason to know the truth and a practical appreciation for the life of virtue. Too many Orthodox Christians I am sorry to say have made their own the world’s conviction that truth is really about power and that what really matters is not virtue but good intentions.

When we deny reason’s ability to know the truth and the necessity of living a morally good life–and please understand, these are two sides of the same coin—we set ourselves adrift in the sea of relativism. This doesn’t free us. Instead, it degrades us.

When “true” means “true for you” and the only moral standard is “don’t hurt others,” we don’t free ourselves from conflict or disagreement–these are always with us–but lose of the desire and the ability to resolve our differences. Absent reason and virtue all we are left with is our desires and so the unchecked pursuit of power.

It was this, the imposition of the strong on the weak, that the Gospel corrected. In Christ, I discover that power, authority, wealth are not for my own self-aggrandizement but of my service to my neighbor.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! We have received in fullness they same Spirit as the disciples and apostles on Pentecost. And, like them, we are called to proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If the particulars of how we fulfill our evangelical vocation are different, the work is the same.

Like the disciples and apostles in Jerusalem, seeing the enormity of the task or the anger of those who disagree with us, we might be afraid. And realizing our fear and seeing the obstacles before us we might be tempted to remain silent and justify our silence by appealing to a false sense of humility.

But when we are overwhelmed by the work to which we are called, we should remember that–like the disciples and apostles–we have received not a portion of the Holy Spirit but the fullness of the Spirit so that, again like the disciples and apostles, we can preach Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2 ) to the world and so lead others to faith, to the forgiveness of their sins, and to becoming themselves shares in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4) and witness to the Resurrection.

Blessed Feast!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Preaching the Kerygma

Icon of St. Kosmas Aitolos preaching to the people

When Jesus begins His public ministry (Luke 4:17-21), He does so be reading from the Holy Prophet Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4: 18-19, NKJV; compare Isaiah 61:1, 2).

Jesus doesn’t begin His ministry by explaining the mystery of the Holy Trinity or of His own incarnation “by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary.” No, He announces Good News to the poor, the blind and the captive. He proclaims the kerygma.

Sherry Weddell in her book Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus, asks what you might be asking. “What is the kerygma?” She quotes the late Pope John Paul II who says the kerygma is “the initial ardent proclamation by which a person is one day overwhelmed and brought to the decision to entrust himself to Jesus Christ by faith” (p. 66)

Another way to think about it, she says, is this, it is “the essential nucleus of the Gospel that awakens initial Christian faith.” The goal here is to inspire the person to say, “Jesus is Lord!” More systematically, the kerygma “the basic outline of the life, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ” (p. 66).

Orthodox Christians tend to be maximalists (at least in theory). So talking about the “essential nucleus of the Gospel” can sound to our ears like a bad thing. “Why,” you might ask, “would I want to give someone a ‘simplified’ version of the Gospel? After all, we have the fullness of the Gospel?”

That last, theological point, is certainly true. I believe that the fullness of the Gospel is found in the Orthodox Church. But as the saying goes, a thirsty man doesn’t need to drink the whole river.

The kerygma is really an invitation, a starting point, to accept the Gospel. When we proclaim this very basic teaching about Christ we are following the example of the Apostle Paul. Speaking to the Corinthians, he says that he “could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it.” Unfortunately, they “couldn’t even digest spiritual milk and even now you are still not able; for you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men? For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not carnal?” (1 Corinthians 3:1-4, NKJV)

The kerygma is our starting point. If the Apostle Paul is any guide, the presence in our lives (or parish) of “envy, strife, and divisions” would suggest that even though we have been baptized, regularly attended the service, go to confession and receive Holy Communion, something is wrong (here).

While we ought  “to be teachers” we still evidently need someone to “teach [us] again the principles” of the Gospel. We still need the “milk” of the kerygma and aren’t ready yet for the “solid food” of doctrine and the inner life of prayer. These are only fully available to us when we commit ourselves to be disciples of Jesus Christ.

Though concerned with the pastoral situation in the Catholic Church, Sherry’s observations are also applicable to Orthodox Christians. “One of the obstacles to calling our own to discipleship is that few Catholics have ever heard of the kerygma or the ‘Great Story of Jesus’ (to borrow a wonderful phrase from Father Robert Barron), and even fewer know what the kerygma contains or have heard it preached clearly” (p. 67). Later she asks

If Christian faith flowers only in the presence of the kerygma, what does that mean for our pastoral practice? How is our generation to believe without someone who proclaims the kerygma? We can no longer presume that people around us already know the story. On the contrary, we have to presume that (a) many don’t know the basic facts of the Story; (b) a good deal of what they “know” may be wrong; (c) they don’t know how the parts of the story fit together to make a whole; and (d) they don’t know what the story means for them personally. Nor do they know what it means for their family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, or the world (p. 203).

When we talk about the importance of preaching the Gospel in fostering discipleship, we mean focusing on the kerygma, on the Great Story. In Forming Intentional Disciples (pp. 207-216) there is helpful summary of the Great Story:

  1. The Kingdom of God
  2. Jesus: Face of the Kingdom
  3. Jesus: The Kingdom in Word & Deed
  4. Jesus & the Cross
  5. Jesus: Resurrection, Ascension & the Church.
  6. Jesus Asks Me to Follow Him
  7. Personal Sin
  8. Dropping the Net
  9. The Life of Discipleship

I would encourage Orthodox Christians—clergy or laity (and indeed anyone interested in evangelism)—to read this summary (and really, the whole book).

For now, I think it is important to keep in mind that like salvation, discipleship is a process. We grow in holiness because we grow in our participation in the divine nature (see 2 Peter 1:2-4). God calls us ALL grow in our likeness to His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Discipleship begins in the sacraments and our personal acceptance of the kerygma. But, to return to the Apostle Paul one last time, “How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14, NKJV).

Discipleship begins, in other words, not simply in “you” hearing the kerygma but in “me” preaching it.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory