Sermon: Frank Moritz-Jauk
Bible interpretation 2 Romans 10, 8b-13
I want to continue the topic of Bible interpretation, which I have already started last Sunday. Last Sunday I talked about the importance of translating the Bible, to leave them in their historical context whilst also searching for opportunities to understand what is written in today’s context. I want to mention two keywords for those of you who have been here last Sunday to remember what we have been talking about: It was on one hand about the respect towards Judaism and on the other hand, I have mentioned a few examples, which triggered the literal Bible translations. The bull as a sweet burnt offering or the low-maintenance, German slave – those were the images, which are associated with this.
For those of you who have not been here, today’s sermon is about a different aspect of Bible interpretation: the collaboration of the scripture. My Bible interpretation and the relation between different texts of the Bible. I do hope that I am not alone in my Bible interpretation in this congregation or in the UMC in Austria, but this clearing up this terminology is very essential to me: the only thing I can do is explain my point of view about my interpretation and being able to find common ground is always depended on my other.
Not only did we hear today the gospel but also a piece of scripture from Romans, on which I want to focus today. We heard, “Because if you confess with your mouth ‘Jesus is Lord’ and in your heart, you have faith that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Verse 10 follows with, “Trusting with the heart leads to righteousness, and confessing with the mouth leads to salvation.” I believe with those two sentences we have reached the center of the protestant faith, a real Lutheran will have a warm heart.
And the Englishman, whose heart was warmed in Aldersgate, what did he say? I quote John Wesley, “Faith without works is not faith, it is dead faith, it is the devil’s faith.” Or instead of quoting Wesley I could quote the Epistle of James, “In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful works.” (Jm. 2,17).
An impatient teenager would ask, “Well, what now?” – Do we need works or is faith enough? Did they not say, confessing to Jesus is enough to be blessed?
Dear congregation, this questions leads us right into the discussion around Bible interpretation. Or how one might handle the Bible. Or how people read the Bible and are not able to understand what they are reading. Or that we need to confess when we are doing it like that. Exactly this is what I want to show you today. We need to see the Bible in its bigger context and not just in single quotes, which we put randomly next to each other. Luther vs. Wesley. As if those two would have written those two quotes in their lives. And I will say it quite bluntly in a modified quote of the comedian Hape Kerkeling. In one of his acts, he plays a Dutch life coach and he says, “Love is: work, work, work.” This says it all for me, “Christian faith is: reading, reading, reading.”
It needs to be read in a bigger context and as a whole. Being always eager to understand God’s reality, or wanting to understand what the author wanted to say here. Which aspect of the bigger context has the author just looked at and why does what he is doing. Whenever we read the Bible to find contradictions and thus deny, the Bible will always just be a book. A book of millions of books, which can be seen as good or bad, as entertaining or ludicrous, or whatever.
But people who have a longing to experience God or find God, those I recommend reading the Bible. Of course there are spiritual experiences and of course, they are also very much needed. But the beginnings, the basics, God’s self-revelation, the indication of how God is and how he treats humans and wants to treat them, all those things can be found in the Bible.
At this point I would like to ask you to not be misunderstood as someone who simplifies: I do not say that you only need to read the Bible and then one will automatically start to believe in God.
No, I too have my doubts on the concept of the Gideon Brethren, which focus on handing out Bibles and making them available. The opposite is true: I do not believe it is easy to read and understand the Bible. Some statements are easier and some are harder.
But to ask differently: Does a book like the Bible not need to be complex, with all its different texts and statements about God?
Shouldn’t human languages be a pathetic tool considering the greatness and the unimaginable vastness of God? It is an attempt, ideally an attempt, to look over and over again at different views?
The Bible is not a user manual for a technical device and even those are not always easily understood.
With the example of today’s scripture from Romans and the cited letter from James, I want to show you how those contrary texts can also be seen as something that belongs together. This works when we bring to mind that those two texts both talk about faith, but might talk about different stages of faith.
One could also say: faith at the beginning and faith as a way of living.
Then one could put those two pieces of scripture next to each other as different witness accounts.
Romans’ says something about the beginning: If you believe in the risen Christ, then you will be saved. Being saved means: You are no longer lost. Not as lost, as you would be when you tried to fulfill the Ten Commandments.
This is the background of the doctrine of justification: it is not so much about how humans act but more about how God acts, who has done with Jesus everything to save us. Faith in this phase is a gasp of relief: “Thank you, God, for having thought of a path so I can be saved. I was not able to do it on my own. For this, my love was too fickle and my will to weak. I thank you, Jesus, for my salvation, which you have made.” This is the classical doctrine of justification, which is at the beginning of the Christian faith, a quite cautious, weak and hesitating faith. It is a careful, “Hello”.
I believe it is helpful to see this kind of faith as the beginning of a romantic relationship. Because when we do we can compare it with our own experiences of our romantic relationships. Our romantic relationships at the beginning were cautious. From first sight to meeting for the first time. Preparing for the first date with sleepless nights because not knowing what to say keeps one from sleeping. Or even trying to make contact, how many times one tries to do it but never does. Nobody goes to the other person with a smile in their face saying, “Hey Baby, I would like to have your child. When should we marry?”
Faith in James’ letter is the one Wesley talks about and is about how to live your life. James says in the text, right before the quote I have cited, ” Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. What if one of you said, “Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!”? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs?” When faith just stays what we are saying and will not be faith working through love, as Wesley would say it, then we will be inauthentic. Faith, which has its love for God and for their neighbor as content and wants to feed the naked and hungry with devout words, is an empty and dead faith. And Wesley is convinced of the irreversibility of faith and good deeds, when he says, “First believe! Then you will do right.” Wesley believes that faith can truly renew people. Thus when people are done with the justification they will do God’s mission and will have the Holy Ghost work through them.
With hinting towards the good deeds, Wesley wanted to root faith in the experience of love and wanted to save it from spiritual trends of its time like Mysticism and Quitismus.
And just how much these interpretations can go together, when one considers the two different phases of faith, is shown in the following quote from Martin Luther, who writes, “It is a living, stirring, busy, mighty thing when it comes to faith so it is impossible to not be acting well without intermission. Faith does not ask if good deeds need to be done, but rather asks if they have been done and will continue doing it.”
In the interaction of those two letters as well as in the interaction between the quotes from Wesley and Luther, we can see how important the relationship between the different texts in the Bible is. This might be obvious for some of you but this does not make it less important to be clear and knowing about this to also be able to continue. It is about the bigger picture and this is why I will say one more time, “Christian faith is: reading, reading, reading.”
Alone, together and always with the Holy Spirit.