The Great Amen
I Corinthians 14:13-16, II Corinthians 1:15-20
Did you know that every time we pray we speak in Hebrew? Or at least at the close of our prayers we speak Hebrew when we say “AMEN.” It is a word that we have chosen not to translate when we are praying.
Now it is such a little word, and yet it has had its minor squabbles. The issue in the past century was how to pronounce the thing. Do we say “Amen” or “A-men”? It has been the British practice to say “Amen” and the American practice to say “A-men” and some of us are caught between a rock and a hard place and are never quite sure. Both pronunciations are a matter of taste and background and have nothing to do with anything important. In fact both pronunciations are a bit off. The Hebrew would pronounce it “Ah mein” a bit like chow mein, but I would sound pretty strange pronouncing it correctly. Pronounce it any way you please. The important issue is not its inflection, but its meaning, and Susanna Wesley knew its significance.
The story is told about Susanna Wesley and her husband Samuel, the parents of John and Charles Wesley. The year was 1701 and Samuel was leading in family prayers and had prayed for the newly crowned king of England, William III. When his prayer was concluded, he waited to hear his wife say the customary “Amen.” But Susanna was silent. Susanna on that day refused to say “Amen” to her husband’s prayer. She could not agree with it. She had wanted one of the Stuarts to take the throne of England. Her refusal to say “Amen” infuriated Samuel. As he stomped out of the house he yelled back, “Two Kings – Two beds” and meant it. He did not return for many months. When he finally did they were reconciled and John Wesley was born 9 months later. Samuel & Susanna knew clearly that the word “Amen” was an important word.
Its range of Meanings
1. In our day the word “amen” has come to mean “over and out”. It is a “signing off the air” word. It serves as a sanctified period at the end of a religious sentence, or like the word “The End” at the close of a book or movie. We currently use it to simply indicate we are ending our prayer, we can now lift our heads, unclasp our hands and open our eyes. But that was not its ancient function.
2. In the entire Old Testament the word “amen” is used only 25 times, most of them occur in one passage in Deuteronomy 27:11-26 and at the close of the Benedictions that concludes each book within the Psalter. It is the Star Trek equivalent of Captain Jean Luc Picard’s “Make it so!”
3. In the New Testament Jesus uses the word “AMEN” 73 times but with a different meaning again. When Jesus says, “Verily, Verily, I say to you,” He is saying, “Amen, Amen. I say to you.” He is saying that what I am about to say is true, and important and binding. In these moments He is not offering just good advice. What he has to say is a matter that is crucial to the Christian life.
4. When most Christians spoke Greek, the church tried to translate this Hebrew word into the common language. The word that they felt was the closest was the word “aleuthinos” which means, “it is not false.” But that word was a rather insipid way of affirming something to be true. It was like translating the idea “I love you” with the words “I don’t hate you.” Hardly the same thing! So they scrapped the Greek equivalent, and used the Hebrew word instead.
5. But there was a word that had been used when the Old Testament had been translated hundreds of years before into Greek – the Septuagint (LXX). They had used the word ”Genoito.” That word meant, “I wish that it were so!” or “let it be so.” But that sounded more wistful than the bold affirmation that was part of the central meaning of the original word “amen”
6. Eugene Peterson tells us how the word was used in the congregation where Justin Martyr worshipped. Justin writes that the prayers were concluded by the congregation shouting the word “Amen” as though it were a shout of loud applause. So when Peterson paraphrases the Lord’s Prayer he concludes the words in this fashion. Instead of “Yours is the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory, forever, Amen” he writes
You’re in charge!
You can do anything you want!
You’re ablaze in beauty!
Yes! Yes! Yes!
7. In committee work, when a motion is made, someone seconds the motion. The seconder is saying “amen” to the recommendation of the first. Then when the issue is brought to a vote the chairperson says, “All in favour say “Aye.” Those opposed say “Nay.” When the members say “Aye” they are saying, “I agree with and stand by the motion.” I have been the long-standing secretary of various boards and committees. I kept the minutes of the decisions made by its members. It has been my practice in recording those minutes not to note who the mover and the seconder were, for in my understanding, if the committee passes the motion it is the responsibility of all. They have all said AMEN to the motion.
And when the church says “amen” to anything, it is saying, “We mean it. We own the words as our own!”
8. In the Old and New Testaments it picked up another meaning. It became a congregational response of assent to the words of the worship leader who was speaking on their behalf. The “amen” at the end of the prayers said, “We make those words ours too. We feel the same way about the matter! We are in agreement and want to add our voice to yours!”
When Paul writes to the Corinthian congregation, he says to those who want to speak in tongues in public worship, “if you do, how will anyone know how to say “amen” to your words?” He felt that the “amen” of God’s people was important enough to make sure that Christian service of worship was intelligible at all times. The people of God are not mere spectators watching performers. The word “amen” was not a pious form of saying “Hey that was good. Well done!” Oh no. The amen was the congregation becoming active participants in the acts of worship. They were not watchers they were worshippers, deeply involved in each moment of the service.
Do you remember what Kierkegaard said about what really takes place in a service of worship? We presume in much of our culture that the Minister is the actor, God is the prompter and the congregation is the audience. But Kierkegaard says, “Oh no. The minister is the prompter, the members of the congregation are the performers, and God is the audience. And the word AMEN is part of the congregation doing its vital part in worship.
The older hymnals that many churches had been using concluded with an “amen” at the end of the final stanza. It was a way of saying to those who were worshipping, “If you agree with what you have just sung, then say amen.” Add your “yes!” to its prayers and pronouncements.
In some churches we can often hear a murmur of “amening” rippling through a congregation as someone leads in prayer. It was not disrespect. Each one was punctuating the sentences of the prayers with their own affirmation. Even during the sermon, when the minister said something particularly meaningful, someone might speak an “amen” out loud, saying in a sense, “right on! I agree with that.”
But it is interesting to note that at the close of hymns, at the close of prayers, and at the close of scripture readings and throughout the sermon, the amen was spoken by the people of God. It was a word of high involvement. We are not passive in worship, but passionately involved in the praise of God.
9. But the word “amen” was important for another reason. In the ancient world, when the Apostles’ Creed was first used, people were often taking their lives into their hands when they said the “amen”. In times of persecution, to say AMEN to Christ and Christian teaching was to expose oneself to frightening possibilities. When a new convert was about to be baptized he was asked to say the apostle’s creed as his affirmation of faith, and then to drive a stake by concluding with his personal “Amen”. He was saying in that little word, “These truths I will believe, live by, stand by, and defend.” He was endorsing with his signature, signing his “X”, to what had just been recited. The Christians knew that one day they might have to stand before a Roman magistrate on the charge of being a Christian. The “Amen” on the day of baptism said “then I live or die with Christ and His church! I am one with them.”
10. The Amen of God. But I need to remind us of one more thing about this word. It was first spoken by God. It is God’s word to us.
Isaiah centuries before Christ had said that God is the God of the Amen (Is 65:16) He is the God who is faithful and true who says “yes” to us even in the face of our constant denials of him.
St. Paul tells us when he writes to the church in Corinth that God has spoken His amen to us in the person of Jesus Christ. ( I Cor 1:15-20)
Jesus, in the Book of the Revelation (3:14) calls himself “The Amen” of God. That is one of his titles. God has said his “yes” to us, and proven it in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It was this resounding YES that changed the early church’s whole view of God.
The people of that first century had been raised to believe that God’s favourite word was “no.” Maybe saying AMEN to the curses in the book of Deuteronomy had left that impression. Israel often saw God as the great permission denier. But when Jesus came and told us the full truth about God, we knew that God had been saying all along, “YES!” I do love you!” For God is not as hard to please as we have imagined. Love is easy to please. Grouchy cantankerousness is impossible to please. But God is love and his word to us to this very day is “yes!”
We have always painted God in our own images. We have a history of nay-saying. We have said “NO” to God so many times that we lost count. And we have presumed that when we heard the echoes of our own NO’s bouncing off the clouds above our heads, that those incessant “NO’s” were the voice of God. That was a lie! It was only when we quit saying “NO” long enough to slow down the echoes of our negative voice ricocheting around our heads, that in its place we finally heard the strong beat of a different drummer. And its incessant beat was “Yes, yes, yes!”
And so “AMEN” is our answer to the first “yes” that comes from God. When God asks the question, “yes????” we answer in the affirmative “Oh Yes!!!”
What should it mean in today’s world to say “Amen?”
The Apostles’ Creed begins and ends with the very same assertion. It begins with the words “I Believe…” It concludes with the word “AMEN” which says, “yes, I believe it enough to sign my name, to add my seal, to own it as an essential part of my life.
To believe is not simply that intellectually I can buy what the creed says. To believe is to rest my mind and my life on the reality that God is my Father, that Jesus is my Saviour, that the Holy Spirit is my traveling companion, that the Church is my family, that my sins have been forgiven and that God has granted me a life that is eternal.
One final note. We use “I” in our version of the creed, and not just “we.” We may stand together and recite together, but it is a personal affirmation as well as a corporate one. But perhaps some of us are not at the stage in our lives where we can say, “I believe … Amen”. I understand that. Some of us prefer to wade in the shallow end of the pool, not yet ready to dive headfirst off the high board. But when the church says “I believe…” it is saying, “This is what the church of Jesus Christ believes” and we invite you to join us in the conversation, until one day curiosity turns to clarity, and clarity turn to deep conviction.
Amen – May it be so!