God's Word from Outside
…and the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us…
John 1:14 (NIV)
Dear People of God,
Hanging on the wall above my desk are two framed documents which certify my call as pastor of Edison Lutheran Church: my Letter of Call (issued by the congregation) and my Certificate of Ordination (issued by the ELCA). These documents declare me to be “a minister of the Church of Christ in the Office of Word and Sacrament,” or in fewer words: a public preacher.
The call to preach is not something to be taken lightly. In addition to the responsibility entrusted to any community leader, it also requires the preacher to speak on behalf of God, faithfully delivering the commands and promises of Scripture to God’s people in new times and places. This is an audacious task and an awesome responsibility, one that no one should presume to undertake on the basis of their own authority or internal conviction, but only as authorized by the calling and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
When I look up at those certificates on the wall and see those six signatures, I am reassured that this impossible call I am following is not something I invented for myself. Rather, it has been ratified by these six church leaders and the whole cloud of witnesses they represent. Though they are mere sheets of paper, they serve as external confirmation of the vocation I have received against the doubts that inevitably creep in. Regardless of my feelings of confidence or apprehension on any given day, these documents declare an objective fact: I have not invented this call for myself, rather I have received it from others.
The preached promise of God functions for believers in much the same way as the certificates on my wall, though it is infinitely more trustworthy. This promise is not just a nice idea, but a sacramental word which comes to a person from the outside in material form: water, bread, wine, and the mouth of a preacher. When it is preached, it comes as an objective material thing that stands independently of any internal feelings the recipient might have. The reality of God’s promise given in sermon and sacrament is grounded not in the recipient’s internal acceptance, but in its objective nature as an external word. Believe it or not, once the promise has been preached to a person there is no taking it back; the water cannot be unpoured, the bread and wine cannot be undigested, the vibrations of the sermon in the air cannot be unuttered.
At first, the objective externality of God’s promise may seem to deny the necessity of faith, but in fact the opposite is true: apart from this externality faith is impossible. A person cannot find assurance in their own thoughts or ideas any more than a pastor can justify their call by making their own certificate. Only a promise from beyond ourselves can create faith in us, and only faith in that promise can pull us out of our inner turmoil to live as creatures of God’s new creation. We cannot preach to ourselves; only the external words of the Holy Spirit can preserve us against the fickleness of our feelings.
This is what makes the Gospel so revolutionary, and what makes preaching so powerful. This is why we gather Sunday after Sunday to once again receive this Word which restores us and opens us to God and all creation. For in the preaching of this promise, Jesus Christ himself dwells among his people as the Word Made Flesh, just as surely as he did two millennia ago. In the promise preached to you through sermon and sacrament, Jesus Christ has given himself to you fully and completely, holding nothing back. This self-giving of Jesus does not rely on your right feeling or thinking, and therefore it can be trusted absolutely. And unlike the pieces of paper on my wall, it is backed not merely by the testimony of church leaders, but by the very guarantee of God given in Jesus Christ crucified and raised, proclaimed by the apostles, handed down in Scripture, and applied by the Holy Spirit specifically to you.
Your Brother in Christ,
*This essay was inspired by Gerhard Forde's Theology is for Proclamation, pages 158-166.