Tenth Sunday After Pentecost 2017 — Preaching Notes

August 13, 2017 (Year A)
by Taylor Burton-Edwards

#ThreeSteps  |  Step 1: Step Out...Into Faith

 

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There is a scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade that has made faith visceral for me. If you’ve seen the film, you probably know what I am describing. Indiana Jones is at the end of one cave passageway, with what appears to be a wide and deep chasm lying before him and an opening on the other side. He has a guidebook that tells him he should expect to see only a chasm, but keep walking anyway. It’s clear to him and to us, viewing it from his perspective, that there is no way to jump this chasm, and that what we are seeing is indeed a chasm. He has to decide, in that moment, whether to trust what his eyes and brain are telling him, or what the ancient guidebook tells him. He chooses the latter, and makes it across. Only as he walks are we given another camera angle that clearly shows a stone bridge, patterned on the top (Indiana’s angle) to appear to blend perfectly into the rock face below and around it, and so be invisible. (If you have a CVLI or other motion picture license, you may wish to show this clip).

In the guidebook, this is referred to as a “leap of faith.” This is a phrase we often hear to describe an irrational decision which may have good, or just as often tragic consequences. And so faith itself is often seen as ultimately a matter of extreme irrationality and uncertainty, and ridiculed for being such. 

Let me suggest that “irrational,” “uncertain,” and “faith” have little to do with each other. Faith is not a set of irrational propositions. Nor is faith assent to or a sense of certainty about such a set of otherwise irrational propositions. At least not as faith is described in the Bible. No. Faith isn’t about irrationality, nor even certainty about facts, at all.

Faith isn’t irrational because it is much more than merely rational. And it’s not about certainty or uncertainty about facts, because it is not ultimately about facts, as facts are usually understood. Faith, ultimately, is about relationships, and more specifically about allegiance. Faith is about where our loyalties lie. Faith, as the Bible most frequently describes it, as Paul uses it throughout his writings, and even as we articulate it in the historic Creeds of the Church, is about what, and more particularly whom, we stake our lives upon.

Faith is a matter of ultimate allegiance. It’s what we’ll stake our lives on. It’s what enables us to take the step forward in the face of a what appears to be a chasm below us. And it’s visceral, not merely notional. As Paul writes, paraphrasing Deuteronomy 30:14 “The spoken word of God is near you, in your mouth and in your heart.” It’s right there. You just have to step out to hear it, to receive it.

Some of us have heard verse 10 all our lives as the happy conclusion of a series of decontextualized snippets from Romans about the way to personal salvation often called “The Roman Road.” Romans 3:23 (All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God), followed  by Romans 6:23 (The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord), and then Romans 10:10 (If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you shall be saved-- all quotes NRSV). “The Roman Road” was put together as a quick scripture-based way to lead people to “their salvation experience” by saying a particular form of words (“I confess that Jesus is Lord”) and meaningfully assenting to (making themselves believe?) a particular belief about Jesus, specifically his resurrection after he died on a cross at Calvary to atone for their personal sins. 

For many of us who have lived or do live in the Southern United States, in particular, as well as anywhere the Roman Road has spread as an evangelistic or preaching tool, the Roman Road overwrites and underwrites both our understanding of salvation and more particularly our understanding of this important verse which is at the heart of Paul’s argument in Romans 10 about the nature of the righteousness that comes by faith, and, indeed, the nature of faith itself as the Bible describes it. Indeed, though the Roman Road may have been helpful toward bringing us into the fellowship of the church, some sort of relationship to Jesus, and even to a deeper study of the Bible (as I attest it certainly did for me!), it may also have, unwittingly, made it harder for us to understand or experience the very sort of faith Paul and the early church wanted us to know.

So back to the first century, and back to the heart of Paul’s description about faith and righteousness that comes from faith in Romans 10:10.

It’s first important to note that many English translations get the first part of the verse wrong. They add a “that” which isn’t in the Greek. The Greek does not say, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord.” It says, “If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord.’” The first is a statement of personal belief. The second is a statement of personal allegiance. In first century Rome, there was only one person with the title, “Lord,” and that was Caesar. It was Caesar to whom allegiance was due, particularly in Rome, and everyone knew this, including Paul as he wrote this. So to confess “Jesus is Lord” was not an act declaring preference among religions or religious beliefs, but rather an act of allegiance to Jesus and, in context, treason to Rome. To confess, in first century Rome, “Jesus is Lord,” was literally to stake your life upon Jesus.

It still means that today.

Which brings us to the second half of the verse. “And if you believe with/in your heart that God has raised him from the dead...” The problem we have with this verse as 21st century Western Christians is the phrase “believe with/in your heart.” More explicitly, our problem is with the word “heart.” For most modern Westerners, “heart” refers to the center of authentic emotions or deepest feeling. In the first century Mediterranean world, however, the heart was understood as the center of values. So even though the construction in Greek is “believe in your heart THAT God has raised him from the dead,” which might appear to us to say “authentically and emotionally assent to that proposition,” it’s really about the center of our values, again, our allegiance. In this case it’s an interior pledge of allegiance to the resurrection of Jesus, and through it, the promise of resurrection to all who have staked their lives on him. It is to say the resurrection of Jesus and the consequent promise of our resurrection because of him matters more to us than the potential death threat for confessing Jesus is Lord. The God who raised Jesus is the God to whom we give our allegiance.

And so the death threat from Rome for confessing Jesus is Lord has no power over us, any more than death itself had power over Jesus.

Faith as Paul describes it is visceral, palpable. It is near us, in our hearts and on our lips. We confess Jesus is Lord, and our values are centered on his resurrection which promises our own. Even when the image given us by culture or other powers around us is the chasm of death, we step out.

And each of us, individually, is called and will be empowered to take this step. Unlike much of the New Testament, the pronouns are second person singular here. The faith you are invited to exercise, the step you are invited and will be empowered to take, is yours, personally. It’s about your own confession with your own mouth, and your own allegiance to Jesus and the mystery of the Triune God through whom resurrection was and is made known. It’s right there. Right in front of you, right now. Have you taken the step in the past? Do you take the step now?

Once you’ve taken it, Paul reminds you and me immediately, there’s one more thing for each of us to do and keep doing: proclaim the good news of the One whose spoken word we have heard and for whom we took and keep taking the step.

So step out, keep stepping out, in allegiance to Jesus as Lord and the Triune God’s gift and sign of resurrection as pledge of the renewal of all things, including you and me.

And on the basis of that same allegiance, that same faith, proclaim the good news of this salvation — this visceral, palpable, earth-and-cosmos transforming salvation — so those to whom you proclaim it will know, and even feel, how near it is to them, too… when you invite them to take that step for themselves. 


 

Categories: Year A, Tenth Sunday After the Pentecost — August 13, 2017

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