Locating the Bible’s Place in the Church Today 2nd Timothy 3: 16-17; Hebrews 13: 7-9 A Sermon Preached by Lou Snead June 27, 2010 In traditional church liturgies today it is often common practice for the reader of the biblical text to say to the congregation after reading the text something like- “The Word of the Lord” or “This is the Word of God.” When we are reminded that we have just heard a word from God being addressed to us, the congregation is expected to respond appreciatively by saying “Thanks be to God”. Church denominations like Presbyterians often embrace this ritual response to the reading of Scripture as a way of emphasizing both the centrality of the Bible in the edification of our Christian faith and practice. This ritual response to the reading of Scripture also asks us to affirm that God is speaking to us through these ancient stories and writings that were compiled long ago by the Jewish community and by the early Church. In her new book about the Bible, Karen Armstrong, the Catholic nun turned religious historian and author, points out that all faith traditions have their sacred texts and we look to these stories and writings to provide us with our highest aspirations, to address our most urgent hopes and deepest fears, and to put us in touch with the divine. She points out, however, that Scripture today has often gotten a bad name. Terrorists use the Quran to justify their atrocities and violence in the name of God. Jews often use their Scripture to claim exclusive right to inhabit the land inhabited for generations by Palestinians. Some Christians use the Bible to campaign against the teaching of the evolutionary theory, to condemn homosexuality, or to promote various ideological agendas. Not only is there no clear consensus among all Christians as to what the Bible teaches us, the Bible has too often be used more like a weapon against religious opponents than an instrument to put us in touch with the grace of God that the writer of Hebrews urges. It is easy to understand why there so much suspicion and even skepticism about reading the bible today when we hear people attributing what sounds like goofy ideas to the Scriptures. While channel surfing on vacation I came across Pat Robinson pointing to a map of the Middle East on his 700 Club telecast and saying that the bible clearly outlines the circle of modern-day nations who threaten the survival of Israel and that the Bible contains God’s judgment against all of them. For all the reading of the Bible I have done in my life and in my ministry I have yet to find or understand where some Christians discover this notion about a “Rapture” taking place on earth where believers in Jesus are suddenly taken up into heaven to be with God and all the others are left behind. Where do they get this stuff? When you listen to some Christians talk about what they find in the Bible it is easy to understand how Bill Maher managed to produce the sarcastically funny movie called “Religulous”. I sometimes worry that our faith claims about the Bible containing “the Word of God” sounds spiritually arrogant to those who do not share our notions about the authority of the Bible. Take, for instance, what Pete read from the 2nd Letter of Paul to Timothy which affirmed that “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Are we to believe then that the instruction in Deuteronomy 13 about stoning rebellious sons to death is inspired by God? What reproof or correction in the name of righteousness are we to find in the passage in Numbers 31 where God tells Moses to avenge the Israelites on the settlers who already lived in the promise land and to take their virgins as spoils of war and to kill the other Midian women? Are we really suppose to believe that God inspired the instructions for slaves to work extra hard if they are owned by Christians, as 1 Timothy 6 says, or that wives are to be silent in the church, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14? Do such views as these somehow indicate that we belong to God and these teachings equip us for every good work? I can appreciate why the Protestant expression of Christianity took the Bible out of the hands of the clergy and put it into the hands of everyday Christians to read for themselves. But I often wonder about the statement in the Westminster Confession that says “The whole counsel of God …is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequences may be deduced from Scripture.” How is it then that even when depending on “the inward illumination of the Spirit of God” Christians come up with such varied and sometimes conflicting understandings on issues like abortion, homosexuality, capital punishment, war, euthanasia, and a host of other ethically important matters? If nothing else, we should not treat the Bible as a moral handbook that contains the whole truth and nothing but the truth about God’s will in such matters. We might want to continue to treat the Bible with ceremonial reverence in the Church, but what authority can we claim for the Bible when many of us who call ourselves Christians don’t read it or know much about what is contained in the Bible? I went this past week to see my new doctor for an annual check-up. He knows that I am a Presbyterian minister and he mentioned that he used to attend one of the large Presbyterian churches here in town. As he was going over some general health guidelines with me, he was emphasizing the importance of taking personal initiative to maintain a healthy lifestyle, eating right, exercising, getting enough rest, etc. Then, as a way of underscoring his point, he decided I could relate to this wisdom if it were put in Biblical terms, so he quoted a pseudo- Scripture passage where it supposedly says that “God helps those who help themselves”. I wanted to ask exactly where he found that passage of Scripture but he had not yet completed my physical exam so I thought it would be better if I let go of this biblical challenge. Perhaps the greatest challenge today within the Church and outside the Church about reading the Bible comes from the skepticism many of us have about the inherent “sacred” quality of these writings. In many ways, biblical scholarship has put used to be thought of as “Holy Scriptures” under the microscope of literary and historical analysis and found that the various books of the Bible were developed to a large degree out of ethnic and cultural interactions of the Israelites and the early followers of Jesus with the dominant forces under which they lived in the ancient world. When the Church began to acknowledge over the past 100 years the human creativity and socio-religious filters at work within these writings, it became more of a challenge for the Church to claim that these faith documents were “divinely inspired”. Consequently, more well-informed Christians today do not easily assume that the Bible contains “the Word of God in the words of men” (as we once claimed) but, instead, we are reading the faith convictions of those in the ancient world who perceived and interpreted how God was involved in their lives. Sometimes I think the Church would be better off if we simply made some honest confessions about the place of the Bible in our faith today. Here are a few confessions I would like the Church freely acknowledge: It is a gross mistake to try to read the Bible literally. Karen Armstrong is quick to point out in her book on the Bible that the early Church did not try to read the bible in a literal way. She points out that the Enlightenment emphasis on the reliability of human knowledge and understanding to contend with the vicissitudes of life not only has diminished our modern appreciation for the sacred sphere, it also pushed some Christians to think that everything in Scripture has to be literally true or else none of it is. One of the greatest disservices that has been done to the Bible in the past 200 years is to treat Scriptures as a kind of moral or doctrinal rule-book where all human behavior is somehow codified by God. We would do better to hear the encouragement of the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews when he says that we need only to remember our spiritual leaders in their imitation of Jesus, who is the same yesterday, today and forever. It is better, Hebrews says, for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by regulations about food or other observances. We limit and distort the spiritual power of the Bible whenever we seek to find one overarching or controlling message in Scripture; when we try to boil it all down to simple faith convictions like four spiritual laws or the idea that God has a plan for our lives and that plan can only be found in the Bible. As most biblical scholars are quick to point out today, there is no single message in the Bible; the editors of both the Jewish and Christian testaments included competing visions about God and humanity in their collections, often placing these competing visions side by side. The power of Scripture tends to come through when we are able and willing to listen to the variety of ways that God had engaged the lives of our spiritual ancestors who wrote these stories and gave voice to their experiences of faith. I heard a popular preacher in the emerging church tradition tell his listeners that the bible is best understood as Christian “propaganda” about the grace and love of God and God’s call for us to embody neighborly love to one another in all the various dimensions of life we find ourselves in over time. As 21st century North Americans, we need to admit that we are impatient seekers of spiritual truths. When we open the bible we want to find immediate and practical advice or wisdom that can be used in our daily living. We have a hard time navigating the distance between our world and our modern way of looking at things and the ancient world and culture out of which the bible has come to us. We get easily put off by the archaic language and paternalistic metaphors that the writers of Scripture used to talk about their experience with the holy. Rather than avoid or give up on the spiritual insights that are imbedded in this old language, I believe we need to do some re- translating of the religious metaphors we find in the Bible. If you can’t relate to the idea of God as Father or King or Lord or Jesus as Savior or have trouble with the idea of sin, use your spiritual creativity to find metaphors that speak more convincingly and clearly to your heart. Not long ago I was approached by one of the YMCA members I usually end up working out with in the mornings who asked me a question that I struggled with in order to find an adequate answer He knows that I am a Presbyterian pastor. He calls himself a recovering Baptist. He asked me this question one morning while we were resting, “Lou, which part of the Bible would be the most important for me to read in order for me to get the gist of the Bible’s message? I’ve tried to read the Bible from the beginning in Genesis and even by starting with the Gospel of Matthew, but I seem to get bogged down after reading just one of two of the books. Is there one book in the Bible that captures the substance of the rest of it?” This is a big question. I felt like he was giving me one shot at helping him to find some spiritual relevance in the Bible. My first thought was to suggest that he read the Gospel of Mark to get the essence of the Jesus story. But then I was tempted to ask him to read 1st John for the way it connects God and love. I thought that he might appreciate the little book of Jonah and the irony it contains about a God wanting to be gracious toward those who God’s chosen people didn’t want to associate with or for God to bless. Knowing his earthiness and his prejudices about the Bible, I almost suggested to my friend that he read the Song of Solomon. But then I remembered reading something that Barbara Brown Taylor had written about instructions for reading the Bible. After confessing that she wanted to write out a legal pad full of instructions for those who have trouble engaging the Bible, she offered this- “Start by reading Luke’s Gospel…. Ask someone to read these stories with you. Don’t try to figure everything out the first time through.” I would simply add, read it like you would a novel for its point and not just to distill some religious truth from it. By doing just that much, there’s a good chance that you might encounter a new way of understanding and interacting with the Spirit of the living God. Think of reading the bible as sitting and listening to grandma talk about how her life has been shaped by faith, hope and love and what her story may suggest to you about your own attempts at living joyfully. I have found that the Bible still has spiritual value for me whenever I can sit and read these stories without asking myself if they are true and immediately relevant to my life. I have found it to be more spiritually helpful for me to ask, instead, where I might locate myself in the divine-human drama that the biblical writers wanted to share from their experience with subsequent generations. Carlyle Marney, the pastor of First Baptist Church here in Austin years ago, was once asked in the a bible study class the rather speculative question about the Garden of Eden that is mentioned in the creation story in Genesis. One of his members asked Marney in the class if he thought this mythic garden of God’s favor and judgment may have actually existed somewhere at some time in human history. Yes, Marney said, I know exactly where the Garden of Eden with all its God-given abundance and all its human disappoint is located, and he gave his home address. If you can appreciate Marney’s interpretative angle on this biblical story, you may be able to locate the bible’s place in the spiritual odyssey going on within the Church today. May God so help us.
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