Sun 30 August 2020
(this sermon was in seriously modified version preached at the Prague Christian Fellowship on Sunday, August 30, 2020).
So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.
—Romans 10,17 ESV
This is one of the famous verses in the New Testament, and if you were among Christians at least for some time, I am quite sure that you have heard a sermon on this verse at least once. In the missionary oriented churches, like ours, we have a sermon on this almost every year.
A warning and a disclaimer first. I must warn you, this sermon will probably be more negative and critical than is usual in this church. There won’t be any names used, but there will be a criticism of some things I really don’t like. I apologize to anybody who may feel offended, please, don’t. Take it as my one-time repayment for all the times I had to suffer through sermons which I didn’t like.
I would be willing to summarize those sermons on this verse into one certainly exaggerated schema: faith to our poor unbelieving neighbours comes from hearing of what you should be telling them. In order to be able to provide them with the word of Christ, you need to study the Bible more. And to put it mildly, the fact there are so many unbelievers all around is your fault, because you are too lazy and too ashamed of God to move your behind and share the most important news of your life with them, despite the danger of being ridiculed by them. Shame on you, and get up from that chair and go spread the gospel!
People who have personally found being a missionary as their life-long calling usually preach such sermons, and they are cheered by those in the audience who feel likewise. Rest of the congregation feels dutifully ashamed of themselves. Some of them are ashamed to the level that they actually try some one-time desperate action, which being a one-time desperate one, will fail, and so the total result is that those who were already persuaded are enjoying their persuasion, and the rest are even more ashamed of themselves. Next year, the whole exercise is repeated.
To ease the atmosphere a bit, let me show you this video, which is very relevant to this verse, and let me then continue with some of my thoughts on it.
So, the first thing is that faith is from hearing. I believe that "hearing" is very under-valued in Protestant practice, that I could talk hours just about that. Or even these sub-areas: hearing God on the personal level, silence, and the tradition of the Desert Fathers in Egypt, hearing and listening in the pastoral care and interpersonal conflict resolution, or hearing as the foundation of the mission. We don’t have those hours, so I will just keep my sermon on a very abstract level and I will have just a few notes on the subject.
Let me add another self-defence disclaimer: I am very proud to be a Protestant. I am proud to stand in the tradition of Martin Luther, Pilgrim Fathers, Czech Brethren, and many others who lived radically their lives of faith. However, it doesn’t stop me from seeing the weaknesses of our tradition.
Painting with a very broad brush and drawing just a very large picture, I would suggest that the strongest part of the Protestant tradition is a purposeful action. The heroes of our faith are great preachers like Martin Luther, Jan Ámos Komenský, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, John Wesley, William Wilberforce, William Booth, Dwight Moody, Charles Spurgeon, Hudson Taylor, Eric Liddell, Billy Graham, Watchman Nee, Loren Cunningham, Oral Roberts, Reinhard Bonke, and many others. These were the people of action, organizers of large missionary organizations, courageous people who step into dangerous and unknown territories, people whose action changed the world. And we have every reason to be proud of this tradition and to be challenged to follow in steps of such fathers of our faith. These are certainly the leaders, who spoke God's message to the world, and we should reflect on the outcome of their lives and imitate their faith (He 13:7) However, when the spirituality turns only towards one tradition it can stop being an asset and a challenge, and it can also start to be a burden.
What would you do if you were a deacon in your church charged with managing donations of the congregation for the various missionaries and you’ve got an application from a young failed school teacher, whose only mission statement is “to hug the dying poorest in the streets of the poorest city in the world”? Not building a hospital or hospice, just hugging them. Or what about a missionary who had the real passion for the poor, so much so he got into conflict with his comfortably middle-class denomination, tried to have mission on faith without any outside support, but poor were really poor, so he failed again, and the his mental illness started to show, so he asks for the third chance, and he wants to start painting pictures completely different from anything anybody painted before him? How high would these stand on the list of the church-sponsored missions? My deep suspicion is that they would never get much if anything from your congregation. Congratulations, you have just rejected the support for Mother Theresa of Calcutta and Vincent van Gogh. Many people don’t know it, but because of his madness he had to leave the mission field and thus he became just one of the most influential figures in the history of Western Art.
Vincent van Gogh is just one of many representatives of how Protestantism completely missed on art. I was saying that the biggest Protestant tradition is one of purposeful action. The problem is that true art doesn’t have any purpose. It is much closer to the Jewish (and Catholic!) idea of sacrament (in this context, it has nothing to do with the Lord’s Supper and baptism). Not far from us, at Hradčany, there used to be until recently a monastery of the Discalced Carmelites nuns, who basically shut themselves into something which seriously resembles a prison for the rest of their lives and they just pray there for the nation and the world. There is absolutely zero return on investment from their prayers, they just believe that the Lord will use those prayers in His own way. I am not saying that I personally like the idea, but even I should accept that this very old tradition honoured by our brothers in Christ for centuries. But mostly the incomprehensibility of this Christian tradition for us makes me suspicious whether we haven’t got too much stuck in our own ways.
Or back to artists. They give to God his best without much knowledge of what God will use his gift for. If ever for anything. From the first-class masters who really changed the history of art and who were openly Protestant I can think perhaps only about Johan Sebastian Bach, and he was a Lutheran (who are much closer to the Catholicism than any other branch of Protestantism, perhaps except for the Anglicanism) and most of his commissions were from the Catholic German princes anyway. And since then the relationship between the greatest Protestant artists and Church was usually tight at best. One example of many. When they asked Johnny Cash in his last interview before his death (who would certainly qualify as a deeply believing Protestant Christian and a first-class artist breaking new ground in his field), whether he was a Christian artist, he resolutely rejected the idea saying “I am not a Christian artist, I am an artist who happens to be a Christian.” I believe he meant by the Christian art that which is purposeful, music and other forms of the artistic expression which are meant to serve to help Christians to worship, to create beautiful churches, but which is not true art in above-mentioned terms of the purposeless sacrifice.
I could talk about the avoidance of pain in the so-called Christian Art, but that would be another awfully long digression, of which I will spare you.
So, I wonder whether by avoiding hearing we lose a huge part of the Christian spirituality, which could lead to our voice being more authentic in the rapidly changing new world we are entering.
II. The Word of Christ
How many times I have heard in the sermons on our leading verse that we need to study the Word of God more to have more to spread among unbelievers. That is just not simplistic and overly didactic, but flatly wrong. When the verse says “hearing [comes] through the word of Christ,” it doesn’t use the Greek word λόγος, which could really represent the Holy Scriptures, it uses the Greek word ῥῆμα. The latter is much less frequent in the Ancient Greek texts and there are still many discussions about its true meaning, but in the context of the New Testament interpretation it is usually understood to mean not the universal God’s word written on the paper (which is λόγος), but more the God’s utterance, God speaking to the specific situation, specific moment, and for the specific person. Another way to explain this distinction is to point to what’s normally called “knowledge in one’s head” and “wisdom in one’s heart”. It is simple to increase the amount of knowledge in our heads, it just requires well-developed what our German brothers call das Sitzfleisch, the muscle used for sitting.
It is much more difficult and painful to get wisdom in one’s heart. In fact, it is one of the most important parts of our whole-life Christian growth. It requires living through God’s ordained experiences, to overcome one’s pain, hurt, let-downs. It requires asking for forgiveness and forgiving others.
What shall we say then? Is the study of the Bible useless, and we just need to live through our life and learn by the school of hard knocks? By no means! I am the last person in the world who would discourage any academic effort. Son of a university professor, with two university degrees, always type 5 (head-head) on the Enneagram, proud Ravenclaw in the Harry Potter universe. Of course, we need the head knowledge of the world around us based on the Bible. We desperately need to get a true God’s view of the world, what’s right and what’s wrong, and we can get those only from the Bible because certainly, the world won’t teach us about God’s perspective.
Moreover, I believe, that studying of Bible is one of the pre-eminent God’s methods how to speak to us, how to give us ῥῆμα. Many times, when struggling with some problem in life, when I don’t know what to answer somebody who asks me when I am lost and desperate, a verse from the Bible suddenly shines to me as ῥῆμα and illuminates my way. Or even more often, some verse from the Bible shines on my past, and it shows how I screwed up and what should be my lesson from that experience.
Did I say that the study of the Bible is the pre-eminent method of acquiring ῥῆμα? That’s not exactly true. There is a better one.
In the past couple of months, PCF led a sheltered life, because there were no public services, and even the small groups were hurting a lot because people were not willing to go out much. However, that’s a big problem! I believe that truly the best method to obtain ῥῆμα for your own life and your own situations is to listen to others what they’ve got as ῥῆμα for their situations. Of course, that’s what sermon is supposed to be, and that is certainly also what happens a lot in the personal environment of the home groups. So, let me challenge you here and now: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” Hebrews 10:24f. It is important because we are literally starving our spirit of its most important nutrients.
III. Just for evangelization?
Let us return to those stereotypical sermons on this verse I dislike so much. So far, I have listened to at least ten of them, most likely more, and all of them were preached by somebody who devoted their lives to the missions. There is no surprise then that all of them considered this verse only in terms of evangelization as if the faith which should be a result of that hearing (or speaking for most of them) was the salvation moment of the pre-believer going from death to eternal life.
And yes, the whole chapter is focused on Paul’s laments about his fellow Israelites not knowing Christ, but let me suggest here, that in Paul’s time the division between the Jewish community and Church was by far not as great as later, truly, that what Paul talks about here is more talking about the pastoral care, about leading his fellow brothers back to the right path, and less about the missions to heathens. Consequently, let me suggest that the faith Paul mentions here is not just the saving faith but faith in all its manifestations. Paul later talks in the Epistle to Ephesians that
[…] he gave [to the Church] the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors, and teachers, … (Ephesians 4:11 ESV)
I don’t want to dive into the discussion whether this list is exhaustive (and we truly should talk about the Fivefold Ministry of the Church), or whether it is just a demonstrative list and there are many more ministries given to the Church by Christ. Either way, I am persuaded that the final product in the hearts of believers for all these ministries is the same: renewed (or new) faith and closer relationship with the Lord Jesus. And for all of them, it applies that such faith comes from hearing: both hearing of those who are receiving the ministry as well as hearing God’s voice to the situation. And for all of them certainly, it is true that it is necessary for ῥῆμα, the living utterance of God, to come to our hearts and truly make the change which restores our life and our faith.
Let us pray that we will hear the Lord more every day of our lives and that we will be able to share ῥῆμα with those who need it.