Preaching Jesus First

Note: This article first appeared in Consensus, Volume 3, No. 2, May 2005.

The Church Militant is always fighting. Our Lord not only foresaw this: He ordained it. He is the one who brought the sword. Tennyson was onto something when he noticed tooth and claw red with blood. This corrupt and dying world is hostile to life. It is so hostile that life often ends too soon, in unfair and even violent ways. Eagles slash open the bellies of bunnies. House cats torture mice for amusement. Some pregnancies end before coming to term. Others end with disfigured or demented babies. Some, God forbid, are not wanted at all. It should not be so. Soon it won’t be. But for now it is. This is death’s domain and we belong to Life. So we fight.

We fight against death and the powers of Hell. We are drowned and rise again with repentance and contrition, in faith given from above. The only way out of death is through death. When a man loses his life, he gains it. We go the only way that leads to Life: the Way of the Lord, the way of suffering and sorrow, of frustration and betrayal, of fighting, and of prayer. The student is not above the Master. Crosses meant for killing must first be borne by the one to be killed.

It hurts. It is awkward and uncomfortable. It divides husbands and wifes, fathers and sons, friends and colleagues, pastors and parishioners. But we have to fight. A “peaceful synod” is the siren’s song, the tempter’s seductive prize, the forbidden fruit that is not given to us in this life. The only way to peace in this life is to let the devil have his way. As soon as the fighting stops, as soon as all is quiet and comfortable, we have lost. We have given up and given in. We’ve joined the ranks of Judas and formed a church in our image, as a capitalist enterprise, instead of dying and rising, being formed by the cross. When the strong man’s goods are undisturbed they are also at peace. We must be disturbed. We must fight.

We wield the Sword that Jesus brought. We attack and defend. We suffer losses and know some fear. But we do not despair. For the Sword we wield is none other than the Word of God. He can neither lie nor fail. He will not return void. He has authority in heaven and on earth. He is Life. He has spoken us clean and pure, made us new, and He gives us courage and hope in His Body and His Blood. Our days are long and weary. The outcome of individual fights is always uncertain. But our future is as sure as Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.

We fight by preaching Jesus. We wage this war where we are placed, where we’ve been called and sent. We are not generals. We do not have the luxury of picking our battles. We are privates. Often as not, given how foolish and tired we are, it seems to us as though there is no plan or strategy at all. The enemy is all around and seeking to destroy us. We are out-gunned and out-manned. But even though the plan is beyond us and circumstances look grim, even though preaching Jesus seems futile against the power and might of the enemy, we cannot actually lose. It is never futile to tell the Truth. When we are weak, we are strong.

It is a foolishness to the Gentiles and a scandal to the Jews, but this battle is mainly fought in and from the pulpit. The first order to us privates is to preach Christ crucified. Our office is most definitively named the preaching office. It is from preaching Christ crucified, understood or not, that all other battles come. For what the devil hates most of all is the truth and the salvation of men. We preach Jesus first, second, last, and always. Our preaching is not just Christ-centered, that is, with Christ somewhere in the middle or in focus. Rather, our preaching to the Church Militant is Christological, that is to say that all the words testify and reveal Christ in His gracious self-sacrifice and love. This is the only thing that will comfort and encourage the downtrodden warriors in the pews. They must be converted, again and again, for the old man must daily drown and the new man emerge, if they are to return to their labors and families as witnesses to Grace and continue to resist death. This is also the only thing that will enable preachers to stand and face the terrors of Hell, whether they are sometimes afraid or not. For preachers, too, need conversion and comfort, rebuke and absolution. This is no game or playful philosophy. It is war and it is deadly serious. Our preaching is an act of war. We preach Jesus first because that is the way the devil is defeated and the souls of men are won.