Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

Kerygma vs. Didache  — do you remember learning that distinction? Since the publication of C.H. Dodd’s Apostolic Preaching and Its Developments  in 1936, the difference between what the church proclaims (kerygma) and what the church teaches (didache) has been an important distinction for many theologians. But while I value the attention paid to the different rhetorical force of each — kerygma to ignite faith, didache to build it up — I am not as convinced as I once was that you can distinguish between the two so easily.

According to Dodd and many others, preaching should be consumed by a concern for proclamation. I agree. But in a day when so few of our hearers have had even a modicum of catechetical training, I’m not sure they can understand the proclamation apart from instruction. For this reason, I find myself preaching more and more of what I would call “teaching sermons” that, while I hope do not sacrifice kerygma for didache, nevertheless take time to instruct hearers in the basics of the faith they seek to profess.

In this spirit, I think there is an excellent opportunity in the readings appointed for this Sunday to teach our hearers about the nature of faith — both what it is and what it’s not — that they might have a deeper appreciation for the lively, dynamic, life-shaping faith that is at the heart of the biblical witness.

Luke 17:5-10
Faith isn’t a substance that you can measure or count. It’s not something you can add to, subtract from, or in any way quantify. Little wonder, then, that when the disciples ask for more faith, Jesus quickly grows frustrated. By this point in the narrative the disciples have spent so much time with Jesus, have witnessed his ministry and miracles, have listened to his teaching and preaching, and are currently journeying with him to Jerusalem where he has told them he will meet his certain fate, yet still they don’t perceive that faith is about trust. Faith, that is, is highly relational. When you live in a fully trusting relationship with God, all things are possible. And when you live in a fully trusting relationship with God, you respond to God’s will instinctually, seeking neither reward nor praise, but simply desiring to do the bidding of your Lord.

Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
Faith isn’t easy. Habakkuk cries to the Lord demanding an account for the violence and injustice around him, and in doing so he represents all the faithful through the ages who have pleaded for some greater understanding of the hardships of their day. The Lord’s answer is telling…and difficult. The day for judgment and justice will come, but not yet. For this reason, faith is trust, even when circumstances don’t inspire confidence. And faith is patient, responding to the promise by waiting, even when it seems that the keeping of that promise has been delayed. Do you remember as a child how difficult it was to wait…for Christmas, for the next rest stop on a long road trip, for an already late parent to arrive home? Waiting for adults…for illness to pass, for a job to open up, for a healthy relationship to be restored…isn’t much easier. Faith isn’t easy because it implies waiting for a promise made some time go finally to be kept.

Psalm 37:1-9
Faith isn’t the opposite of doubt. We live in a religious culture that tends to pose these two elements as polar opposites. But just as courage, according to Plato, isn’t the absence of fear but rather the ability to do one’s duty precisely when one is afraid, so faith isn’t an absence of doubt but rather a tenacious commitment to keep believing even when surrounded by doubt. For just this reason, as Habakkuk testified, faith can be difficult. Also for this reason, we can call those in our community who are most racked with doubt “faithful.” When Martin Luther considered the classic “marks of the church” — the proclamation of the gospel, the presence of the sacraments, etc. — he felt no need to reform them, but he did add one additional mark: struggle. Wherever there is faith, Luther felt, there will also be struggle.

If faith isn’t the absence of doubt, what is it? Delight, the Psalmist tells us. Joy. Wonder. Anticipation. Faith is being caught up in the promises of God such that we slip free, even if only for a little while, from our usual and constant worrying and fretting about the future. Do you remember when you first fell in love, and how in the grip of that emotion the future felt entirely and wonderfully open? Perfect love, John writes, casts out fear (1 Jn. 4:18). Such is the life of faith.

2 Timothy 1:1-14
Faith isn’t something you can do alone. Paul writes precisely to encourage Timothy in faith.1 More than that, Paul reminds Timothy of his mother and grandmother who shared their faith with him. One of the primary reasons we come together in worship each week is to encourage each other in faith. Similarly, the best way possible for parents to pass on their faith with their children is simply to talk about it, to share, that is, how their own faith shapes their words, reflections, and deeds. Faith is a gift, given to us by Christ and mediated through all those persons in our lives that have shared their faith with us. In this sense, faith is always communal, even borrowed, as we stand and depend as much on the faith of those around us as we do on our own.

Whatever you may preach this coming Sunday, Working Preacher, know how grateful I am for your faith. Each time you climb into the pulpit to speak a word of mercy and grace, you are sharing your faith, making public confession of the hope that resides within you. Such an undertaking, done well, requires making yourself vulnerable and taking risks. Know that such risks are worth it, for as you give voice to your faith, listeners like me are better able to understand and appropriate our own. Thank you for that. Even more, thank God for you.

Yours in Christ,

1While recognizing that the historical Paul is most likely not the author to the letters to Timothy, when it comes to preaching I prefer to honor the tradition rather than risk distracting hearers with historical considerations that I find very helping in interpretation but less so during proclamation.