On Sunday, July 29 2012, the folks at Crafton Heights Presbyterian Church finished a series of four sermons dealing with how we interpret and understand scripture as the Word of God. Prior to engaging our readings, we shared the following prayer of confession:
You have given us your Word, God, bound in a book. And we ignore it. Sometimes we use it to prove that we are right and our enemies wrong. Sometimes we use it to hide from our responsibility to your world. Sometimes we use it to avoid change and growth. We use it as a weapon. We use it as an excuse. We use it to avoid thinking for ourselves. We confess that we read what we like, and pretend that the rest is not there, Worst of all, God, we think we can keep your Word bound in a dusty book, safe and harmless. We forget that you are a God who will not be bound, a God who breaks all chains. Gracious God, forgive our narrowness and our cowardly faith. Amen.
For the last month, we’ve been coming into this room and considering what we mean when we say that the Bible “is the Word of God”. We’ve talked about how it’s been used as a weapon and how it was intended as a gift. This morning, I’d like to walk around that topic one more time as we consider how we are to approach the Bible and respond to it faithfully.
As we do so, let’s consider first the witness of Jesus. If you know much about Jesus, you’ll remember that he was a troublemaker. I read a blog earlier this week that said, “in a culture where people got nervous around those who rocked the boat, Jesus danced in the canoe.” One of the charges that was frequently leveled at Jesus was that he had an apparent disregard for Scripture. Time after time he was berated for healing on the Sabbath, or for allowing his disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath, or for eating with gentiles, or for coming into contact with lepers or the dead. He had a reputation for being “soft” on the Word.
So it’s not surprising, then, when he sits down in Matthew 5 and begins his epic teaching, The Sermon on the Mount, that he wants to set the record straight. He looks at his disciples and the crowd, and then he looks at the dusty old Bible, and he says, “I came to abolish the Law, not to fulfill it.” And there was great rejoicing in the land. Jesus gets it! The Law is so old-fashioned. Nobody believes in all that stuff any more. We are free to throw out the Law and do what we want. Thanks, Jesus.
Except, of course, that’s not exactly what he said. What he said was, “I have not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.”
Yeah. Jesus, who was so often in trouble for his apparent disregard for the Law, refuses to let anyone off the hook.
When Jesus showed up and began to reveal a deeper insight into the heart of God, he raised some questions. He was not bound by all the traditional readings and understandings. And, to be sure, he taught that one’s first allegiance was to him. “Follow me” – that’s what he said to the fishermen by the lake; to the tax collector; to the crowds; to the sick and to the well.
But here in Matthew 5, he makes it plain that following him means walking in the Word of God. Follow me. Live in the word. People who follow Jesus are not free to disregard the Law. But neither are they free to substitute the Bible for Jesus. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said,
Jesus manifests his perfect union with the will of God as revealed in the Old Testament law and prophets. He has in fact nothing to add to the commandments of God, except this, that he keeps them. He fulfills the law, and he tells us so himself, therefore it must be true…that means that he alone understands the true nature of the law as God’s law: the law is not itself God, nor is God the law.
Bonhoeffer suggests that there are those in every time and place who make the mistake of putting the law in God’s place and in so doing make the law a god and make God a law. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus confronted the sin of bibliolatry – the tendency to be more in love with the rules than with the One who first made them.
When I first heard the term “bibliolatry”, I thought, “What’s the problem? How could anyone think too highly of the Bible?” But the truth is, people of God, that you all wrestle with this in one way or another. I know this because I’m the only person who will throw away an old Bible around this place. Every now and then there’s some raggedy old Bible laying around…it doesn’t matter how many pages have been torn out or how abused it is, you’re not going to throw it away. “I’ll let the pastor take care of that,” you say. “There must be a holy way to do it.” I’m not saying that bibliolatry is having a respect for the Bible – it’s putting the Bible in the place that belongs to God.
Jesus indicated, and we’ve said during the past few weeks, that the Scriptures are God’s inspired message that allow us to see into God’s heart. The intentions of the Father are revealed, by the power of the Holy Spirit, through scripture. In saying that, though, I do not mean to imply that the Bible is given as a handbook for correct behavior. While there are any number of rules and regulations that stem from a score of different times and places, the Bible is not a catalogue of rules telling us what we can and cannot do.
Rather, the Bible is the primary means by which God reveals God’s self to God’s children. Every Christian of every age is called to be diligently attentive to the Bible – but we are also called to remember that while the scripture guides us to God, the scripture is definitely not God. The scripture is a creature, not the Creator.
In the past couple of weeks, I’ve struck a nerve with some folks by using an example from the 21st century. Today, I’d like to consider a conflict from the first century.
The Old Testament said that following God meant being a Jew. And being a Jew meant that all males were circumcised. Jesus, as a male Jew, was circumcised. All twelve apostles, being Jewish men, were circumcised.
Paul was an apostle who was sent by God to tell the good news of Jesus to those who had not been raised as Jews. He was, as a Jewish man, circumcised. In the course of his ministry, he taught more people how to follow Jesus than anyone else. And Paul did not require people to become Jewish or to be circumcised before they became Christians.
For many of Paul’s closest friends and brothers, this was simply unthinkable. It was there, as plain as day, in Leviticus 12:3. Males who follow the Lord are circumcised. You want to belong to the people of God, you play by the rules. There are no exceptions.
Yet Paul taught that circumcision was an outward reflection of an inward reality. He said that it was a sign for a heart that had been changed – and that the most important thing was for one’s heart to be oriented towards God. In essence, Paul said that the law is designed to tell us who we are, not necessarily a checklist designed to tell us what we are supposed to do in any specific situation.
As I’ve mentioned in previous weeks, we best understand the Scripture as a living story – a narrative that tells an amazing story of an incredible God and his love for and call to his Creation. When we see the Bible as authoritative in this way, we understand that we enter into the Bible as a gift that helps us to discover who and whose we are, and based in that knowledge, then, we figure out how to live in response to that truth. Listen to how Dietrich Bonhoeffer told young pastors they were to interpret the Bible:
We become a part of what once took place for our salvation. Forgetting and losing ourselves, we, too, pass through the Red Sea, through the desert, across the Jordan into the promised land. With Israel we fall into doubt and unbelief and through punishment and repentance experience again God’s help and faithfulness. All this is not mere reverie but holy, godly reality. We are torn out of our own existence and set down in the midst of the holy history of God on earth. There God dealt with us, and there He still deals with us, our needs and our sins, in judgment and grace. It is not that God is the spectator and sharer of our present life, howsoever important that is; but rather that we are the reverent listeners and participants in God’s action in the sacred story, the history of the Christ on earth. And only in so far as we are there, is God with us today also.
Jesus, and Paul, and the early church all indicated that faithful discipleship is based on obeying scripture. Yet Jesus, Paul, and the early church stood against a literal reading of specific laws as mattering more than understanding the intent of the law-Giver. Obedience to the Word of God means knowing the heart and purpose of God as revealed through the holy Scripture.
Do you see? We are not free to take a section of the Bible, cut it out and paste it on our foreheads, our bumpers, or our policy statements, saying “this is the rule, now and forever – shut up and stop arguing.” But neither are we free to ignore it.
What do we do with the Bible?
We read it. Read it a lot. Read it as though you expect to hear an intrusive and insightful Word. Read it knowing that it comes as a gift – not just to those in the time and place where it was first written, but somehow to you and me as well, even though neither one of us owns sheep, wears robes in public, speaks Hebrew, or eats Kosher. Read the Bible.
Read it honestly and humbly. W. C. Fields was a comedian who was an avowed atheist. When a friend came upon him reading the Bible in the weeks prior to his death, he said, “I’m looking for loopholes.” That approach to scripture, in addition to being impractical, limits the possibility for its impact on our own lives. When I say that we are to read it honestly and humbly, I mean that we approach it expecting that the Holy Spirit who inspired the writing of those words will inspire our own hearts as we seek to live them in our own day.
Read the Bible with other people. Here at CHUP, we have a great gift in that virtually every Sunday of the year, there is at least one group of adults who are committed to sitting together and listening to scripture during the FaithBuilders hour. Most Sundays, there are at least two or three. Coming together in a community to hear and to explore what the Bible says is one of the best ways to understand its meaning in our lives. And as you gather with others to read scripture, make sure that you include people in that circle who have a different perspective. One of the great dangers in our church and in our culture is that we are increasingly likely to listen only to people who will back up our own opinions.
When I was in seminary, I took a class on the book of Romans, and in that context I wrote a 30-page research paper on a passage of scripture that dealt with one “hot button” issue in our church. I came down fairly strongly on one side of that issue. The next year, I had the same professor for a different course. When he was assigning topics and reading lists, he asked me to stay afterwards. It turned out that he was teaching the Romans course again, and a fellow student was going to write a paper on the same passage, and the professor was fairly certain that the other student would come to a strikingly different conclusion than had I. So the professor decided that he was going to make us meet together and discuss the issue. He said, “You two have spent as much time as anyone in this seminary looking at that text, and you have come to vastly different conclusions. It seems to me that it would be very profitable for you each to learn how the other arrived at your end. To give you an incentive, neither one of you will pass your class until you demonstrate that you’ve taken the chance to listen to each other.” He was right – neither one of us changed our minds, but we each grew in our ability to listen to the other, and more importantly, to see how scripture can be authoritative.
When I started to preach on the authority of scripture, I mentioned that my first car was a Honda Civic that sported a bumper sticker that said, “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.” Do you know what? Both the car and the bumper sticker proved to be too small for me.
Maybe it’s a good thing that I’m driving that giant SUV now, because if I could find it, I might choose a bumper sticker that says, “God said it. I interpret it, to the best of my ability, keeping in mind the limitations and filters imposed by my worldview. That doesn’t entirely settle it. But it does provide a trustworthy – if incomplete – platform on which to base my values and decisions.” The Bible is authoritative, and it does get to tell me who I am and what I am. But it requires some work on my part, too.
The late Rich Mullins put it this way in his song “Creed”:
I believe what I believe
It’s what makes me what I am
I did not make it,
No it is making me
It is the very truth of God and not
The invention of any man
I am sure that on this side of the Kingdom, we will not agree on everything when it comes to the interpretation of the Scriptures. I am also sure that our agreement on social or political issues is not what binds us together. We are one in the body of Christ as we come together as His people, asking for His spirit, seeking to hear His voice in scripture and in our own hearts. Thanks be to God for the gifts of God. Amen.