No Substitute for the Word

Faith is not only born of the Word, but lives by the Word.

The word proclaimed is central to Reformed worship. If and when it is neglected the body can no longer stand with any real integrity and uprightness. The priority of preaching in worship and as worship is one of the contributions of the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition to the larger ecumenical community. So does the Reformation still matter? Yes, more than ever, and particularly as regards the word of God preached.

Yet, sadly, somewhere along the way it seems we have lost the joy, the sheer joy, of what it means to be a Presbyterian in this vital sense of the word. We have too readily yielded the field. We need to shave a few minutes off of worship to receive an update from a committee, or present announcements, or even to include longer musical responses in the Lord’s Supper liturgy, so… “Preacher, shorten that sermon! Can’t you make it a homily instead?” However, as people of the Reformed tradition, we know ourselves as ones marked, claimed, commanded out of the waters of baptism and we know ourselvesas a people gathered and renewed for that claim and command by the power of the Spirit present in the preached word. Presbyterians sit before the word and together we think. 

Placed before the word we are called to put our minds into the service of God, to engage our best wits and our noblest selves to ponder the One who is above and beyond us. The heart has a significant and enduring place within the life of one’s faith. The heart is “at the heart of it” so to speak. Emotionalism not so much. But the mind, and the mind must not be ignored. This was one reason Luther and Calvin spent time translating the Bible, the word of God for the people of God, so that by the Spirit’s power, they could hear and understand.

Our life together has been born of this Word read and spoken. As John Leith writes in his Introduction to the Reformed Tradition:  

The Reformed tradition has been a very verbal religion with great confidence in spoken and written words to communicate thought, emotion, and intention. Critics of contemporary culture have warned of the declining power of words and have emphasized the effectiveness of new forms of communication in television, in the arts, and in personal relationships … There is not convincing evidence that words, either written or spoken have lost their power. Language still ranks as one of the highest and most significant human achievements.  It may be supplemented, but it cannot be supplanted without impoverishing the human spirit (227).

No one wants a diminished human spirit.  We want our human spirit to bump up against God’s Holy One. Despite the beauty of dance, the soul stirring of art, the loveliness of song and hymnody, the pageantry of worship, the sheer power of the meal, without the proclamation of the Word these moments of splendor would not be intelligible to us. Presbyterian ministers are ordained as ministers of “Word and Sacrament.” The sequence of Word and Sacrament is not arbitrary. The Word is necessary to understand the Sacraments. To receive the Sacraments in faith we must first hear the Word, for “faith comes by hearing” (Rom. 10:17). We want to taste and see, but to do so we must understand. To understand we must listen, and there must be something worth listening to. And there is.

The word proclaimed must be captive to the word of God (sola scriptura) or it will hold no one captive.  The word proclaimed must be more than mere words, it must be the Word (solus Christus). Proclamation must look to what is beyond us (soli Deo gloria) by way of a love that is steadfast and merciful (sola gratia). The Word of God by the power of the Holy Spirit produces faith (sola fide). Faith is not only born of the Word, but lives by the Word. This is why preaching the Word is such a serious matter.  It is a matter of life and death.

The pulpit afire with the Word is the desk of the pastor-theologian. The pulpit is a working place, the place of the last stand against those slinging prosperity gospel pap, those of the finger wagging crowd promising wrath and damnation, and the worst of it all, the speakers of the great apathy that pervades society. To stand and speak of God, week in and week out, in the face of the onslaught of this world, to a people who are sometimes only half-listening, is nothing short of a high wire act. Perhaps from this fear alone is why the sermon is sometimes marginalized. The understanding that the preaching of the word of God is the word of God (Second Helvetic Confession) and the need to handle it correctly can be unnerving to the one called to walk upon the air.  This is not an excuse, but it is the truth. The congregation that rightly understands this truth––preaching as the dangerous conversational act it is, the dialogue between God and community as it is meant to be, will enter into the spoken word trembling as well––for the Word we meet is a Good so good he is called holy.

At times silence is enough, and the “act of presence” all that is necessary. But more often than not, a word of gospel is that which makes the difference. This word of gospel is what the Reformed tradition celebrates on this 500th anniversary. It is not so much about Luther and Calvin and all the rest. A hurting and confused world is as desperate today as it was 500 years ago for the one Word alone. So, step up preachers and speak. People of God, hear. Together may we carry this Word into the world proclaiming the wide mercy of the God of heaven and earth and a good hope for all.

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The Reverend Trish Crout Gwinn is Pastor of Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), Mauldin, SC.   

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