Last year I spoke about how to read the Bible. I observed the value of reading the Bible as a story rather than as a collection of facts-truths disconnected from lived experience. The Bible is the story of how God redeems and reconciles rebellious people and restores all of creation. But we may still wonder: Granted that the Bible is the story about God and humanity, why do we need to read it? What does it matter? One way to answer the question is to note the reality of evil in our world, which comes from our rebellion against God. The Bible tells us how to deal with the evil all around us, beginning with the evil in ourselves. I want to take a similar track that assumes this point, looking at the reasons that Luke and John give for writing their gospel accounts of Jesus.
Luke begins his gospel with these words:
1 Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. 3 With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
Luke was a physician and keen observer of life (cf Paul’s description in Colossians 4:14 and Luke’s precision in this passage). We assume Luke to be the author because:
a) In Acts 1 he identifies himself as the author of the gospel (so Luke and Acts are volumes 1 and 2);
b) In Acts he appears as a companion of Paul, who sometimes writes in the third person and sometimes in the first person plural—and where Luke leaves the party is where the shift occurs; and
c) Credible early church tradition makes the identification.
Mark and Luke were two of Paul’s closest companions. Mark was a converted Judaizer; Luke was probably a Greek-speaking Jew (I take “not one of the party of the circumcision” in Colossians 4: 10, 11 to mean “not a Judaizer, which Mark probably had been before Acts 15).
He wrote to Theophilus. The name means “lover of God”. He may have been an actual person, or this may be a pseudonym describing his character, or the name may refer to a group of people who wanted to know more about God as revealed in Christ. In each case, the purpose for writing remains the same.
Luke sifted through the available stories about Jesus to give a clear and accurate account. One of the clues about his desire for accuracy is the kind of language he used—a formal Greek normally used by the best Greek historians, so that his readers would know that he was capable of the kind of research he claimed to do. There were many stories floating about the early Christian world, and many of them are clearly fabulous—in the sense of fables without grounding in reality. Luke grounded his gospel account in simple sober factual reality.
Some people treat the Bible as a simple collection of facts. Facts are important, and here we see that Luke is aiming for factual accuracy. He uses these facts to tell the truth in a story, which is greater and more important than the facts by themselves. For this reason, Luke places a premium on eyewitness testimony. He wants to make sure that the people who met Jesus and walked with Jesus get to tell their story. He is not interested in second hand (or circumstantial) evidence. He wants us to know the truth.
Luke wants us to know the truth—and to be certain of the truth; but it is a specific truth he wants us to know: “an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us”. “The things that have been fulfilled among us” are the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Luke has only one overriding concern—to introduce his readers to Jesus. This is the purpose of all Scripture, to introduce us to Jesus the Son of God. From Genesis to Revelation Scripture seeks to bring us to Jesus, because in Jesus we meet God directly. The study of theology acknowledges the way that we meet God in every area of life—what we call “general revelation”. But Jesus is the direct revelation of God, come to earth and walking among us as the carpenter from Nazareth.
John 20 and 21
Turn to the end of John’s gospel. John’s gospel is unusual in that it appears to have two conclusions. At the end of chapter 20 he gives his reason for writing the gospel:
30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.
At the end of chapter 21 he repeats:
25 But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.
John 20:30 and 21:25 echo the idea in Luke 1 that there were many stories around about Jesus’ ministry, but John selected the most important ones that were in his memory for his gospel. Sometimes we call Matthew, Mark, and Luke the synoptic gospels, because they cover the same basic material, with a few exceptions. They have their own viewsbut they are clearly connected.
John tells the same story, but he has his own quite different perspective and memories. He has events in a different order, not because he didn’t know when they happened, but because he is making the points that he thinks we need to know. In 20:31 he tells us why the story is important: “these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.”
John wants us to meet Jesus. John wants us to know Jesus, who is the way to God, the truth about God, and gives us the life of God (John 14: 6). In the first chapter of John he tells us that Jesus is the Word (who was one with God from the beginning) made flesh. He wants us to know the living Word of God. Luke and John both write for the same reason: To introduce their readers to Jesus, in whom is life. We read the Bible to meet Jesus. We read the Bible to learn to know Jesus better. Without a relationship with Jesus we cannot read the Bible properly.
What Does “Christian” mean?
These thoughts lead me to wonder what people around us think, when they think about being Christian. What does the name “Christian” mean? I see a variety of ideas around us.
Culture Wars: Some see “being Christian” as fighting for a Christian society. It is true enough that Christian faith is under attack in North America and Europe, but our weapons are the weapons of peace and reconciliation—building relationships, not fighting back. So an idea of a culture war cannot be at the centre of Christian faith.
Social Justice: Some see “being Christian” as fighting for social justice. They want a just church and a just society. I applaud the desire and the struggle. Jesus made it clear in the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25) that church members are not just on the side of the marginalized, but are themselves the marginalized of the world. But I do not place any group of people at the centre of what it means to be Christian.
Right Doctrine: Some see “being Christian” as the struggle for right and pure doctrine—whether that doctrine concerns the Bible (such concerns as inerrancy) or the sovereignty of God (in a Calvinist understanding of grace and free will) or a commitment to justice in the world (as in Liberation Theology). But we cannot build our Christian life on correct doctrine alone. Words do not give life; life comes only through the Word made flesh.
I could go on with other examples. In each of these I see people who are trying to live the way that God wants them to live in this world, but I do not see the centre of our faith in these efforts. Rather I look back to what Luke and John hold up for us: Meeting the Word made flesh; relating to the human and divine Jesus of Nazareth.
My answer to the question “what is a Christian” is to come back to meeting Jesus, knowing Jesus, walking with and relating to and through Jesus. Paul expressed the centre of our faith in these words from Colossians 1:
15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
Life makes sense only in Jesus the Son of God. You may remember William Butler Yeats’ words (written about 100 years ago) from his poem “The Second Coming”: “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.” Jesus is the centre of our faith, and without him life falls apart. Refocussing our relationship with Jesus is the necessary piece that holds our lives together. All things hold together in Christ. All things cohere or make sense. Not that we will understand everything that happens to us—not this side of the grave, but that Jesus is the organizing principle of reality, and that life in Christ holds together when threatened by the chaos of our world.
Consider the way that Christians around the world read the Bible. Mennonites embrace the Sermon on the Mount with its commitment to the way of peace. Other European-background churches find Paul’s emphasis on God’s grace to be life-giving. We may think that these are the most natural way to read the Bible, but Mark Noll points out other possibilities (The New Shape of World Christianity, 36). Many African Christians start with Leviticus, since its concern with rituals and regulations for holy objects speaks directly to their own culture. Many Asian Christians like the book of Proverbs best, because it uses the category of wisdom in a way that resonates with their culture. Indigenous churches in tribal societies turn to the Old Testament patriarchs, whose family structure so closely resembles their own (polygamy and all). Some parts of the world experience power encounters, and they turn eagerly to the miracles of the Gospels and the book of Acts.
With all of this diversity in our life experiences and in our cultural backgrounds, what holds us together? What makes us truly “Christian”? I have wrestled with this question many times. The answer, of course, is our life in Christ. We are Christians because we know Christ. We are Christians because we follow Jesus. This is true wherever you come from or whatever your life is like. Mark Noll (From Every Tribe and Nation, 165f) answers the question this way:
From another angle, the more confusion that trying to look at the whole world creates, the greater the basic simplicity of what such an effort reveals. Jesus as Son of God is always at the center. The Scriptures provide an ever-present template. Transformed lives—along with an almost universal recognition of falling short of Christian ideals—show up everywhere. (I have used the present tense; Noll uses the past tense.)
African churches struggle with sorcery. Asian churches ask what to do about venerating the ancestors. North American churches ask how to relate to intersex people—or how to handle our society’s emphasis on sports. The issues are as different as one can imagine. If you make the Christian faith into a set of expectations that will fit every circumstance, you will fail. But if you take the Bible at its word and allow it to introduce you to Jesus, the Word of God who came to us as a human being, then everything falls into place.
What I am suggesting is harder to achieve than it sounds. We are constantly replacing Jesus at the centre with the cause de jour, which starts to calcify and falsify our faith. Reading the Bible as the story of God’s reconciling work, drawing us into renewed relationship with him, is hard work, possible only because Jesus enables us to do it. I have found this relationship finds expression in reading the Bible frequently, using hymns and Taizé songs (and music by Steve Bell) as aids to focus on God in Christ, and then entering into prayer in many different forms.
This is cyclical movement, from centring in Christ to using what I learn in daily life, and then bringing the questions that result back to Christ in prayer and Bible reading, and then back into daily life—at rest only as long as we stay in motion in this centring circle. The goal of this circle is that you and I will know Christ, for “these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.”
Preached at SMC, 28 June 2015
Texts: Luke 1; John 21