“No Uncertain Sound” (A sermon by Paul L. Lehmann)

The American Protestant theologian Paul L. Lehmann (1906-1994) was one of the premier theological ethicists of his generation and held professorships at, among others, Princeton Theological Seminary, Harvard Divinity School, and Union Theological Seminary. Lehmann was a careful reader of Barth and a friend of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, both of whom had a great impact on his work. I began reading Lehmann a couple years ago while copy-editing a collection of essays on his thought. That volume has just been released from Ashgate, Explorations in Christian Theology and Ethics, and I will be reviewing it here shortly.

The times are never as auspicious as the making ready to the battle seems to require. Your times are no exception […]

In our present pre-occupations: with experience over tradition, with immediacy over understanding, with immanence over transcendence, self-consciousness over obedience, we are not only in violation of the first and second commandments by which Jesus joined himself to Moses but are risking sending you out upon your several ministries with trumpets ill-equipped for giving no uncertain sound … how can we make you ready for battle?

The answer is: in the power of the Presence Before, Behind, and In Your Midst! – the Presence of Jesus Crucified and Risen, who meets us as He said He would in the sharing of the bread, which is the communion of the body of Christ, and in the drinking from the cup, which is the communion of the blood of Christ! It is He who dissipates our vacuum and makes us ready to the battle of no uncertain sound!

Marc Chagall has said that, “Christ is a poet, one of the greatest – through the incredible, irrational manner of taking pain onto himself.” In this act, which transcends human possibilities, Christ seems to him, “the man possessing the most profound comprehension of life, a central figure for the ‘mystery of life.’ And a contemporary of ours, in the graduating class at Columbia, has put it like this: “Our responsibility to the world, is not to succeed where Christ has failed, but to act because Christ has ultimately succeeded.”

So, “store up treasure in heaven, where there is no moth and no rust to spoil it, no thieves to break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart be also” (Mt 6:20-21). “For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall make ready to the battle” (1 Cor 14:8).

(“A Sermon: No Uncertain Sound!” Union Seminary Quarterly Review, Vol. XXIX, No. 3&4, Spring & Summer, 1974, 273-77)

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