Maybe it’s because we don’t use the term much anymore. Or, more troubling, maybe it’s because we don’t ponder the very idea much anymore. But when I ask people—including seminarians getting ready to take their oral comprehensive exams—if they know what “the session of Christ” refers to, I usually get blank stares. Some people wonder if I’m making the term up or if it’s a trick question (like asking someone to locate the book of Hezekiah in the Bible). No, I’m not making it up—“session” is a venerable theological term.
The session of Christ refers to Christ’s now sitting at the right hand of God the Father Almighty where he rules the church and the entire cosmos as Lord and King. At Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I attend, we have a stained glass window above and behind the pulpit that depicts Christ upon his throne. I tend to meditate on that window each week when we recite the Apostles’ Creed because so much of our theology is bound up in Christ’s session.
Christ’s being at the Father’s right hand is proof that he won the victory over sin, death, and the devil. His sitting on the throne now shows that the resurrection was true and that the ascension was the powerful cap-off of the entire arc of Jesus’ earthly ministry (he did ascend amid shouts of victory).
What’s more, it is from this position of power and sovereignty that Jesus has sent the Holy Spirit, who in turn now equips the Church with all the gifts needed for ministry and all the spiritual fruit needed to be a community that reflects our Savior and Lord. And from that position, Jesus intercedes for us and is our Mediator, bringing our concerns to God and beaming the love of God back to the church via the Spirit.
There is even a Lord’s Supper connection to the session of Christ. The reason we say “Lift up your hearts / We lift them up to the Lord” when we begin a celebration of communion is because we believe that the Holy Spirit elevates our spirits to commune with Christ at God’s right hand. We Protestants don’t believe that the substance of the bread changes, nor do we imagine Jesus coming physically down to each and every communion table. What we do believe is that we are lifted up into his holy presence, and it is that communion with Jesus in session that truly feeds and nourishes our souls through the bread and the cup of the holy supper.
The session of Christ is a big deal! But that means that we preachers are always preaching in the context of Christ’s session. At Neland, whenever I am a guest preacher, I preach my sermons directly underneath that window in which Christ upon the throne is looking down on me. Spiritually, though, the same thing is true of all us preachers no matter what pulpit we’re occupying—we do what we do because of the truth that Jesus died, rose again, ascended to heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
But how might the fact that we preach under the rule of a sovereign Lord and King influence us when we preach? The truth is—and might this be a reason we don’t think more about the session of Christ today?—that in a lot of our cultural contexts we don’t have sovereign kings or queens, and most of us are just fine with that. We have democratically elected leaders, and once they are in office—as president or prime minister—they are fair game for all the criticism and partisan bickering we can muster. Where there are real kings and queens yet—the Netherlands, England—they are figureheads. As such their jobs may be easier than the ones faced by Barack Obama or Justin Trudeau, who endure the steady drumbeat of op-ed articles, blogs, and cable TV talking heads that run them into the ground 24/7.
But King Jesus upon his throne is not there for us to ignore, or to treat as a symbol, or to lambast with our criticisms. He really is the King and Lord of the universe, whether people know it or not and whether they like it or not. That also means he is the one to whom we bow in the church, and we all need to take his will for that church more than a little seriously.
Yet today so much preaching has strayed away from trying to shape the church community according to the dictates and loving commandments of our King. Too often people want “practical preaching” that is one part Dr. Phil and one part DIY Network as preachers impart more Good Advice than Good News by giving tips on parenting, business success, marital satisfaction, and character formation. Some of these topics may be important, but a lot of them don’t exactly assume a high profile in the New Testament.
The New Testament’s concern is that the church be holy, that it be a distinctive community from the rest of the world, that it be a place of sacrificial love and service where titles, socio-economic status, and worldly success fall away as we all bow humbly before Christ’s throne as fellow disciples. The church is to radiate grace and show in its own fellowship how long and high and broad and deep is the love of Christ.
When you preach in front of Christ Jesus in session, in other words, you need to talk a lot about Jesus! You need to proclaim the love he is sending to his people right now from the Father’s right hand. You need to tell the truth about his desire for his church to be set apart from the world, to be holy. You need sometimes to say hard things, that King Jesus expects obedience and we as members of his Body are called to hold each other accountable for failures of love, for letting our status as wealthy people or poor people, as successful people or marginalized people, dictate too often how we treat each other even at church.
Ordinarily I would not put theologian Dallas Willard and comedian Stephen Colbert into the same thought unit, but Willard once wrote, and Colbert once said, pretty much the same thing. In the introduction to his book The Divine Conspiracy, Willard wrote that one of the reasons we’ve downplayed the idea of Jesus as Sovereign is because although Jesus’ will for our lives is pretty clear, “We just don’t do what he said. We don’t seriously attempt it. . . . You have only to look honestly at our official activities [in the church] to see this” (p. xiv). Similarly, Colbert once said “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”
Preaching under the session of Christ is about making people want to live what Jesus said. He is the Lord. He is the King. He calls the shots. He is sovereign over all of our lives, not just the so-called “religious” parts.
We pastors need to preach like we believe this.
This column is provided in cooperation with the Center for Excellence in Preaching. For more on the CEP, its upcoming events, and its online resources, visit http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/.