Joseph Sittler preached this sermon at the 1982 Commencement of Trinity Lutheran Seminary. It was first published in the Trinity Seminary Review Fall 1982 issue (Vol. 4, Number 2), and is used here by permission.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I want to fulfill a duty immediately. The president of our seminary in Chicago – a sister school – and the faculty thereof asked me to extend to all their colleagues in this faculty, to the members of the graduating class, and to all the parents and relatives of the same, their warmest congratulations and friendship on this day.
Now it is endemic to old age for people to get nostalgic and to begin remembering. Part of it is they don’t have much else to do! And if I indulge in some quite personal recollections at the opening of this little meditation, it will not only be in order to enjoy the recollections and hope you enjoy them too, but to lead to the one single and simple point I want to make in the main substance of what I have to say.
I indulge in these reminiscences because my roots are in this place. My early childhood, adolescence, and college years were all spent in central Ohio; in Columbus, Obetz Junction, Delaware, and Lancaster, where I go tomorrow to preach at the hundredth anniversary of the building in which my father was once pastor. My father was awarded his degree in 1898 by the predecessor of this seminary. I was, I am afraid, reluctantly awarded my degree in 1930 from Hamma Divinity School. I say “reluctantly” because I had a difficult time with courses in homiletics, because I could not find it possible to squeeze every text into three parts. So it is not only because of my roots in this place and my affectionate remembrances of childhood here that I recall the past, but it is because in remembering that I came to think of the kind of thing I want you to reflect upon with me this afternoon.
In carrying on those reflections in my mind, I began to reflect upon the kind of issue to which such reflections always lead. What is the nature of the transmission of the Christian faith? How did each of us come to it? Does not each of us have an interior story whereby in our youth we moved from the usual concerns of youth to a kind of focusing and solidification around the sense of vocation, whether it be to the ordained ministry or to making, as a layman, the general Christian confession? What is the strange, tangled, various, tumultuous, often ductile road, but not always recoverable, by which we came to the Christian faith? It was in the process of recollecting my father in this place, my own youth in central Ohio, my adolescent and precollegiate years at Lancaster, Ohio, that these reflections became enriched with a kind of immediate and recoverable concreteness, whereby I could begin to hone in on the issue I want to talk about.
What is the core interest, allure, secret, which draws us into this discipline of the Christian faith? As I thought about that, some elements of the symbiotic process came to my mind. Lest any of you tend to diminish the role of speech, consider this: before I knew exactly what was being said, or before I got very deeply into the substance of the readings of the epistle, Old Testament, and the Gospel in my father’s church, the alluring, haunting beauty of the language itself began to do its strange interior business with me. I shall never forget the day at the end of World War I – I was then fourteen – when my father was asked by the local clergy to preach a memorial service for all the dead from our county. I recall the marvelous beauty of the passage he read about the lament of David over the death of his son Jonathan. I recall the language of the scripture – the marvelous rhetoric of joy and pity and indignation and judgment and grace and beauty. All these things are the kind of subterranean transmissive force which no one – no one- daring to speak of the great stories of the faith should neglect. That is the number one item: the language itself, a kind of substance delivered under the guise of gravity and beauty, the substance which to the young mind need not mean with clarity but draw with a kind of purity. The second thing I recall as I try to account for my own passage from the ordinary, as it were, adolescent pagan childhood (any adolescent who is not part pagan is not fully boy) is the stories of the New Testament, that is, the stories of the words and deeds and the teachings of Jesus. Now I said that I was going to say a single and very simple thing, and I proceed now with considerable brevity to do it.
Last summer Professor Krister Stendahl and I were asked by the president of the Iowa District to come for a four-day study conference. It was a moving moment on the third day when Professor Stendahl had finished one of his clear, substantial lectures on a New Testament problem, that a layman in the congregation asked Krister Stendahl how, as he put it, did you get “hooked” on the Christian faith? Now we all leaned back and expected from Stendahl a fairly long-haired description of the historical, conceptual, liturgical, familial path by which many of us came, and it was a great moment when Stendahl said; “My family were not church people at all and the only way I could rebel against the mores of my family was to go to church! And when I got to church, within six months I fell in love with Jesus.” Now the very simplicity of that statement takes on power because it comes not from a simple-minded, sentimental man but from a very distinguished New Testament scholar, and therefore I want to say what I have to say around that simple phrase.
As I tried to discern the tangled history of my own coming to the Christian faith, my own study as a young seminarian of what of it I could learn, and my incessant digging away at the various aspects of Christian theology and history and liturgy and devotional life, as I tried to come to the very core of that, I ended up as I was thinking of what I ought to say on this occasion, with a statement very much like Professor Stendahl. My whole life has been haunted by the reality of Jesus and I can say no wiser more devout word to this class than to let that happen. Now let me detail it somewhat more in full. What do I mean by “haunted by the figure of Jesus”? Two large aspects of that: first of all, the objective reality of Jesus insofar as we can recover that. Take one aspect. The New Testament community greeted Jesus with all kinds of words, ascriptions, titles, but what fascinated me when I first learned of it in New Testament study, and has not ceased to fascinate me to this day, is the way in which Jesus both wore and rejected the titles. The community used the language of the hope of Israel to acknowledge the presence of this new thing – Jesus of Nazareth – and, as it were, they flung over him the garments, the rhetorical garments of their expectations. “He is the king.” “He is the Messiah.” “He is the son of David.” “He is the son of man.” “He is the son of God.” “He is the anointed one, he that should come.” The whole rich language of Israel’s expectation of God’s most mighty act was wrapped around Jesus. And now notice the interesting thing: Jesus never explicitly rejected nor did he ever explicitly adopt that language. He seemed always to acknowledge what the intention was of those who ascribed that kind of language to him, but he was never content to shrink the dimensions of his reality to the language of our expectation. This fascinates me absolutely. We use the language of our expectation or the historical expectations all the way from Judaism through 1900 years. We use the language of our expectations as a kind of descriptive, ascriptive, christological language. Jesus himself lives within that language but he always slips out and exceeds the nature and intentionality of that language. There was a certain woman, for instance, who stood before him, thrilled by the words that proceeded from his lips. She muttered – perhaps only to herself – but he heard it. “Oh, how happy your mother must be to have a lad like you.” But with an abruptness, almost brusqueness, Jesus says, “Yea, rather, blessed are they that hear the Word of God and keep it.”
In every situation in which an effort was made to say, “Aha, now we know who you are, now we have the linguistic label whereby to pin the secret of your reality,” Jesus seems quietly or openly to slip away from the confines of our own ascription and to affirm his own reality.
That is the objective fact which first caused me to use the strong words “the haunting figure of Jesus.” The second is a much more subjective, but no less legitimate fact of my own history. All my life, particularly since I have had the ordained obligation to preach and teach the Word of God, that haunting reality has not diminished. There has been no abatement in the allure of it. I find that, despite all the scholarship which has taken place between my seminary days and this moment, there is no abatement in the power of the haunting allure of the figure of Jesus. From Barth and Bultmann and Kasemann to the constructionist and the structuralist and the deconstructionist and the existentialist, Jesus seems somehow to live. Each illuminate aspects of his reality but none of them succeeds in buttoning up a conceptual, descriptive proposition that includes the reality of Jesus.
I use an illustration which you who have studied here as the first class to have your entire formal training in Trinity Lutheran Seminary will understand. In the last four years have you pondered the overwhelming, the overflowing magnitude of the New Testament story – particularly the parables? I have preached, for instance, on the parable of the unjust steward for now fifty-two years. Yet I end up with the strange, exciting situation that I not only know that I probably have not reached the bottom of it, but I have come up with the interesting notion that there may be no bottom. What I am saying is that when we confront the statements of Jesus, this objective allure of his own escape from all confining ascriptions is matched by the subjective experience that every attack upon a parable of Jesus is a new raid on the inarticulate. So the parable of the unjust steward. “And Jesus commended this man for his prudence.” He didn’t commend him for his morality, but he did commend him for his prudence. The English word “prudence” is much too prissy for what the Greek word means. A better word would be “commended the man because he was canny.” He was shrewd. He was a man who knew what the score was, and he acted in relation to it.
When I was first in seminary studies, I remember it was said to us by a teacher and by books that the parables have lasted through the centuries because they are marvelously concentrated little stories about the way things are. The longer I studied them, the more ridiculous that notion appeared. The secret of the parables is exactly that they are about the way things are not. They are stories that are attacks upon our expectations. They pull the rug out from under what we think the nature of things is. Every parable about the kingdom is not a kind of seconding of the obvious notion but a voice of rebellion against the accepted notions of the God-man relationship.
So if I have one single thing to say to you young people who are entering the ordained ministry, it would be not to take too lightly what the church used to call “the mystery of Christ” and what I have called the allure of the figure of Jesus. This allure is not only something that I am theologically reporting or homiletically confessing, but it is something that comes straight out of my weekly work for thirteen years as a parish preacher. I had the sense of something which was bigger than I was and more compelling than my own sense of vocation. It almost rescued me from absurdity time and again! I had the sense of the allure of that strange figure just over my shoulder every time I sat down to prepare a sermon. This grave man with all the pathos and the magnificence of his life must not be betrayed. I must not talk nonsense about this man. I must not make jokes about him. I must not trivialize moralistically the awesome figure who in his death cried out, “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” So I take that simple ending, that awesome ending, of Mark’s gospel, and make it a kind of symbol of what I have this day called the inexhaustible, the unshakeable, and the insoluble allure of the figure of Jesus. I do not know any way more honorably to discharge my responsibility to you.
Now may God bless you in your ministry.