14 But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? 15And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’ 16But not all have obeyed the good news;* for Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our message?’ 17So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.*
Today’s passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans had me thinking about the folks in the world – many baptized Christians – who have heard the gospel from other folks sent to proclaim the Word, but at the end of the day haven’t believed in Jesus Christ as a personal savior and have no personal relationship with the triune God. Many in God’s church would say these folks are not ‘saved’, that they are not ‘real’ Christians. And those same people who would make that claim would be quick to site scripture to ‘prove’ that if someone hears the gospel then the job of the proclaimer is done and the ball is in the hearer’s court. Once heard, if you choose not to believe in Jesus Christ and call upon him, then, you will have to live with the consequences.
This interpretation develops from the point-of-view of a proclaimer – one called to preach the gospel to the four corners of the world. It presumes that because the proclamation is Holy Spirit inspired, the Word of God will be understood by all fortunate enough to hear. As on the day of Pentecost, when with a mighty wind the Holy Spirit descended upon all the tribes that had gathered in Jerusalem for the Passover so that they were each able to hear the good news Peter proclaimed. Not only heard but also understood and believed despite the plethora of ‘tongues’ (languages) peculiar to each tribe. The word was received in the hearing on Pentecost.
But how might we interpret Paul’s “hearing is believing” conclusion from the perspective of the proclaimer? In other words, if we don’t presume that all proclaimers get it right? Paul’s point is based on the gracious assumption that all call to proclaim the gospel, to walk the four corners of the earth so that all might be exposed to the gospel, are using language and witness and testimony that makes the Word known to the hearer.
I just don’t think this is a safe assumption. When I look around at God’s church, I see many filled with baptized Christians who don’t know what they believe or how to apply what they believe to how they then, shall live. There is some disconnect that has, perhaps, been ushered in not by the hearers, but by the proclaimers.
It seems to me the folks that assert that those who hear but don’t believe are not saved are assuming and presuming that the Word proclaimed through the prophets of today is comprehended. Some site Paul’s lack of success in Athens, for example, where the Word proclaimed through him was rejected. No church was established in Athens.
But I wonder. Was that the failure of the people to comprehend? Or was Paul’s message to that particular crowd the right one? How did he adjust his ‘pitch’ to fit his crowd, as Jesus so aptly does throughout his ministry using agrarian, royal, familial, political, economic, academic, religious language and metaphor to describe the realm of God, so that the hearer could perceive what they could not have possibly known or imagined. Helping the hearer perceive a truth that is beyond one’s imagination is just what Peter did, and Paul did for the most part, and all the apostles and disciples and church fathers, too. And many a preacher through time.
But that today’s church is filled with believers whose lives are not terribly distinct from non-church goers makes me wonder about what today’s proclaimers are preaching. How are we helping – or not – hearers perceive a truth beyond their imagination so that the truth would be applied in their lives, to be more like Christ, and less like the culture?
I find the research in color usage fascinating relative to perception. Did you know that ancient languages didn’t have a word for ‘blue.’ Scientists believe this is because our ancestors didn’t know the color existed. Say what? Turns out that until we have a way to describe something, we may not see its there. So our ancestors did not see ‘blue’.
Not all of our ancestors. Egyptians produced blue dyes and thus were the first ancient civilization to have a word for the color blue. Once their product spread others picked up on the color and began to integrate into their vocabulary and writing. And they began to see ‘blue’ in the water, in the sky, in eye color.
Do you know that the color blue is not mentioned once in the New Testament and and its appearance in the Torah is questioned (there are two words argued to be types of blue, sappir and tekeleth, but the latter appears to be arguably purple, and neither color is used, for instance, to describe the sky).
Very few colors are named at all in the bible, which is so interesting to think about if you, like me, find the colors of God’s creation – in sunsets, in oceans, in mountains, valleys, skies, clouds, flora and fauna, in eye color, in skin tones, in sandstone, in night skies, in moons, in snow, in water, rivers, insects…well in absolutely everything, breath-taking.
I can’t tell you how many times I would say to my young children as we drove here or there, ‘look at the sunset God painted tonight’, or “see what palette God is using today to tell us something.” It is so hard for me to imagine a world where I don’t see a blue because there is no word for blue.
But this is how it is for the human brain, it seems. We have to have the word to know the Word. So my hunch for all those churches filled with folks who have heard but don’t believe as Paul presumes they will simply upon the hearing, is that the right words haven’t been preached. And the proclaimer in those places and on the street corners and on the television or podcast or wherever might do them and the Lord God a favor to think about the words they are using, what they are saying. Preaching blue when blue is an unfamiliar concept?
Perception is reality. Yes. But if you are called to help God’s people to perceive a truth beyond their imagination so that they might comprehend and believe and apply that truth to their lives, I think you – we – have a huge responsibility to ensure we are using words that reveal the Word. Let’s not presume or assume. And let’s certainly not judge hearers who don’t practice what we preach. Let’s look at our messages. Is the Holy Spirit coming through? And just how many colors are in your preaching pallet?