Saturday, April 05, 2008

On the Word as word

Whatever else the gospel is, it is inescapably verbal. The gospel is always announced, preached, proclaimed, heralded, as demonstrated by the early disciples of Jesus. Luke could simply record that they "preached the word wherever they went" and "proclaimed Christ" (Acts 8:4-5), and Paul could thank God for the Colossians' "faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints - the faith and love that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard about in the word of truth, the gospel that has come to you" (Colossians 1:4-6a), as well as for the Thessalonians "because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe." (1 Thessalonians 2:13). Romans 10:14-15 has inspired many a missionary: "And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?"

But words have fallen out of favour. In a world where political spin seems to distort every column inch and broken promises run rampant in many relationships, we have become cynical about words. Talk is cheap, we say. The contemporary British poet Carol Ann Duffy captures the dissatisfaction over words in her short poem 'Words, Wide Night'. A seemingly conventional poem about someone expressing her longing for her distant lover, Duffy turns this on its head: "For I am in love with you / and this is what it is like or what it is like in words." Shorn of meaning, words cannot capture nor convey what I really feel. I may as well say "La lala la".

Such thinking can easily extend to the good news that Christians offer, good news all too easily obscured by prosperity preachers and graceless peddlers of the gospel. It is into such an environment that we need to hear Paul's words afresh: "God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe...we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to the capricious and foolishness to the postmodernists" (1 Cor. 1:21, 23). We are all too aware in today's environment of the fragility of words, and yet God has decreed it such that his gospel comes in the humble form of a message that Jesus is Saviour and Lord, come to redeem sins and restore creation.

Nonetheless, we can be confident about the adequacy of words. They are not disembodied, for words come from the exercise of the tongue, the movement of the hand. Where there are words, there is a person, whether this person is ignored or otherwise. Why else do we still value face time when we have Facebook? And this leads us to an important truth, that words need not be characterised as merely cerebral. No, words can be intensely personal, as Hollywood has long recognised when an intense scene culminates in the words being spoken: "I love/hate you!" Such words provide us access, access to another world where thoughts become concretised and bonds are formalised. Words are in themselves consequential: witness the couple exchanging the "I do"s of marriage vows or the captain shouting "Fire!" to members of his execution squad.

The words of human beings are finite and imperfect. But the word of a God who spoke creation into being, never fails to keep his promises and who sings over his people (Zephaniah 3:17)? Even more astonishingly, a Triune God who is so willing to reveal himself in relationship to a sinful people that "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth?" (John 1:14). Jesus, before returning to be with his Father, mandates that his disciples preach in his name to all nations, and assures them that those who do will do so in his power, through the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:46-49). The gospel is inescapably verbal, but this is not to pit the person of Jesus against the propositional content of Scripture. The disciples obey Jesus, as Luke tells us in The Acts of the Apostles. And when we get to the end, we find an invitation, there, to follow in the footsteps of Paul, an enemy of God who encountered the living Christ, repented, trusted and worshipped him, and "boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ." (Acts 28:31).

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