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Sun, Oct 29, 2017

Words and the Word

Duration:17 mins 45 secs

“Words and the Word”

Sermon on 1 Thessalonians 2:1-13

Reformation Sunday

                The biblical scholar J.B. Phillips once said that translating the New Testament from the original Greek into English was like rewiring a house with the power still turned on. I have a mental picture of the words sizzling on the page as he wrote out his translation.

            I thought of Phillips’s remark as I was thinking about the importance of this Sunday, as we remember the Protestant Reformation sweeping through Europe in the early 1500s. Luther’s Ninety-five Theses against the sale of indulgences were the flash point that made the movement really take off, but it had been gathering momentum for a long time. By Luther’s time it was like a tidal wave swelling and rising and ready to break over Europe with astonishing force. In the Reformation the Word of God was on the loose on the continent, electrifying the populace and convulsing the old Holy Roman Empire.

            The Reformation was about many things, but at its heart was the rediscovery of the Scriptures and the Christian gospel, the simple yet stunning good news that God is for us, not against us. The gospel that had galvanized the Apostle Paul and his missionary brothers and sisters had gotten buried over the centuries under the weight of church teaching: rules and regulations, prescriptions for holiness, priests and confessors, the whole bulk and heft of the medieval church standing between a man or woman and their God.

            I’m simplifying, of course – the medieval church has handed down to us some wonderful traditions. But the Reformers came to the conviction that the wealthy Roman church, with its hierarchy of clergy and laypeople and its apparatus for mediating sin, had sold the faithful a bill of goods in the matter of their own salvation.

            And now the words of grace and faith that Martin Luther and the other Reformers found in their Bibles, the good news of God’s mercy, God’s acceptance of human beings, the news that the Apostle Paul had proclaimed to the ancient world, was revealed once again. People began to find power in the words of Scripture itself, the kind of power that the Church could no longer lay claim to.

            Words were the engine that fueled the age of the Reformation: words printed in books that carried new ideas between the great urban centers of trade and discovery, words of Scripture translated into the languages of the people so they could read the Bible for themselves. Above all these words stood the Word, the Word of God found in the Scriptures that points to the power of God in the person of Jesus Christ.

            As more and more people read the Bible for themselves, their eyes were opened to a story bigger than they had ever imagined. As Hilary Mantel observes in her novel Wolf Hall, people “knew Noah and the Flood, but not St. Paul. They could count over the sorrows of our Blessed Mother, and say how the damned are carried down to hell. But they did not know the manifold miracles and sayings of Christ, nor the words and deeds of the apostles…They had seen their religion painted on the walls of churches, or carved in stone,…but now God’s pen was poised, ready to write [God’s] words in the books of their hearts.”[i]

            In other words, until the words of Luther and Tyndale, Hus and Wycliffe began to emerge, most people didn’t know what the four evangelists had written about or what Paul had preached to his scattered congregations before the institutional church began to take shape. Paul had declared, to the Thessalonians and others, “the gospel of God” – the good news of God’s favor toward the human race in Jesus Christ – “in spite of great opposition.”

Paul tells the Thessalonians that he is thankful that “when [they] received the word of God…[they] accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is at work in…believers.” The word of God that Paul calls “the gospel” is what New Testament scholar J. Louis Martyn has called a “performative word”: it does what it proclaims. To say it another way, the word itself has the power to create faith in the person who hears it or reads it. What Paul emphasizes most is that the gospel is “not of human origin” (Gal. 1:11). It wasn’t taught to him, and he couldn’t have dreamed it up by himself – it was revealed to him by God.

This gospel, as Paul came to understand it and as the Reformers later rediscovered, is not at all the same thing as religion – it is over and above religion. It is the good news that stays news in every age, the Word that assures us that God has taken the initiative toward us, for our benefit and not our destruction. The living Word is Christ himself, and the Bible, said Luther, is the written Word of God not just because of what it says but because of what it does: reveals Christ in such a way as to awaken faith in him. For Luther and the Reformers after him, the written Scriptures are important not just for what they contain but even more for what they convey: The Word Incarnate, Jesus Christ, to be taken hold of by faith. That’s what Paul is talking about when he says the word is “at work” in believers.

            And that is why this word had such power in 16th century Europe. It scared the people in authority, because it threatened their power and it gave a new dignity to ordinary men and women who began to read their dangerous Bibles for themselves. One especially dangerous Bible was William Tyndale’s English translation. Many of those who were able to acquire it for themselves kept it under lock and key for fear of being caught with it. Tyndale himself was burned at the stake for heresy. That’s how threatened the princes of the Church were by the Bible.

            As many of us learned in World History 101, the Protestant Reformation couldn’t have happened without the rise in general learning in Europe, or without the relatively new invention of the printing press. The Reformation may have been the real beginning of the print culture, the culture of widespread literacy that has continued into our century. The Reformation was about the Word – the Word of God – but it was also about words. It couldn’t have happened without the conviction that the printed word has power, that we can find truth in what we read in print media, that the printed word has the ability to convey reality to us.

            Lately many people have wondered if we are now in a post-print, even post-literate culture. Newspapers have seen marked declines in subscriptions over at least the last decade and a half – though I understand that there has been an uptick in readership of papers like The Washington Post and The New York Times since the election of Donald Trump. In fact, one writer for The New Yorker magazine, wondering if something like poetry can still get an audience, observed with some surprise that three days after Trump’s inauguration the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof announced a Donald Trump Poetry Contest – and he got about two thousand submissions.[ii] Several anthologies of poems about the Trump presidency have already come out, and more are undoubtedly on the way. So the written word still matters. Clearly, people still find meaning in reading the printed word.

            And millions of people still find the Word of life – and words for life – in the Bible, this ancient chunk of collected stories, legends, histories, poems, and letters, which contains for believers not just words about God but the Word of God. These ancient words from cultures so remote from ours still have power. These words still sizzle on the page, because something is going on here, something that conveys Christ, the Word Incarnate, to us.

            But we don’t receive this Word passively. Reading the Bible, like reading other works of literature or history or poetry, is a work of the imagination, because it is reading. Reading, as opposed to watching TV or most movies, actively engages us – we can’t passively receive what is on the page the way we can passively receive a TV show. The Scriptures invite us to bring our whole selves to that reading: heart, mind, and spirit.

            People died so we could read the Bible. They died so we could find what they had to rediscover, “in spite of great opposition”: The Word of God, the gospel proclaimed in the Bible, the message of God’s love and acceptance and good intentions for us, is still the power of God for salvation.

Lisa Kenkeremath

Manassas Presbyterian Church

October 29, 2017


[i] Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2009), 422.

[ii] Louis Menand, “The Defense of Poetry,” The New Yorker, July 31, 2017, 67.

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