Sunday, September 18, 2016

Reading the Church’s Bible, 1

One of the issues our congregation is dealing with is the basic question: How does the Bible function in our lives? The “Confession of Faith in Mennonite Perspective” gives this summary statement about the Bible:
We believe that all Scripture is inspired by God through the Holy Spirit for instruction in salvation and training in righteousness. We accept the Scriptures as the Word of God and as the fully reliable and trustworthy standard for Christian faith and life. Led by the Holy Spirit in the church, we interpret Scripture in harmony with Jesus Christ.
A clear statement, but we may still wonder what it means. This morning I want to reflect on Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 3 and Jesus’ words in John 5. We could call this a consideration of Scriptural authority, or a reflection on the nature of the Bible. I have chosen to call it, “Reading the Church’s Bible” (after a course title at Providence Seminary).

I start with John chapter 5. Jesus had healed an invalid lying beside the pool of Bethesda. This person had been an invalid for 38 years and was lying beside the pool hoping to get in “when the water was stirred” (verse 7). The episode closes with Jesus’ words, “Pick up your mat and walk” (verse 9). Because this healing took place on the Sabbath, some Jewish leaders asked him what he thought he was doing carrying his mat around—an action against the rules for keeping the Sabbath holy (verse 10). The resulting interaction led them to Jesus, and they started to attack him (verse 16).

Jesus said that his authority to heal and to forgive sins came from his Father, that is, from God (verses 17). The Jewish leaders realized that Jesus was claiming equality with God (verse 18), so that they “tried all the more to kill him.” Verses 19 to 47 give Jesus’ responses to their attacks on him. He observed that there were several testimonies to his identity as the Son of God: John the Baptist was one; his miracles of healing and forgiveness were another; the Scriptures themselves were another. In this context then we hear Jesus say, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”

Some people read this statement to mean that the Scriptures do not give life. I don’t think that is what Jesus is saying. I think he is saying rather: “You’re right—the Scriptures bring you to life; but if you were really studying the Scriptures you would realize that I am Life.” Later in John’s Gospel Jesus says, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6). So the Bible is not our Life, but it brings us to Jesus, who is our Life. Without the Bible we have only our subjective experience of God’s presence, and Scripture shows us a more objective picture of who God is, as revealed in Jesus.

This is an important point, because the conversations we have been having in our church have an impact on our spiritual life with Christ. We pray earnestly, and we want to do God’s will, but we may find ourselves feeling the hurt of all that has been said and done. Our relationship with Jesus may suffer. When we feel the darkness of this world, we turn again to Scripture, not so that we can prove that we are right or that someone else is wrong, but so that Scripture can take us back to God, who comes to us in the person of Jesus Christ. We read the Bible in order to meet Jesus.

The letters to Timothy were written late in Paul’s life. The verses we read give us almost his last will and testament. (Consider the 4: 6-8, which follows: “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”)

Now Paul would not have said that reading the Bible was the centre of the Christian life. He expresses the centre of his own life elsewhere, for example in Romans 1:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
From a more extensive passage (2 Corinthians 5: 11-21), in which Paul describes his passion for the gospel, I note especially the following:
… Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. … All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the [ministry and message] of reconciliation…. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.
The gospel of God, the ministry and message of reconciliation: This is the centre of Paul’s message and of Paul’s life. So then why does he refer to the Scriptures in 2 Timothy 3? For the same reason that Jesus did in John 5. The Scriptures reveal God and God’s will for our lives. The Scriptures describe the gospel of God and give content to the ministry and message of reconciliation.

I want to focus now on the words he writes to Timothy in verses 14-17:
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.

Timothy had studied the Scriptures from his childhood. He knew the Bible stories. He knew what we call the Old Testament thoroughly. Paul encourages him to continue such careful study, because the Scriptures make one “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” (Do you hear the echo of Jesus’ words in John 5?) Then Paul describes the Scriptures more thoroughly.
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

You see, then, what the Bible is for. (Note that we extrapolate from Paul’s description of the Hebrew Scriptures to the Bible as a whole). It is for “teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness”, that is, it is useful for what we might call disciple-making. You remember that the Great Commission does not deal only with conversion (“baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”), but also with nurture (“teaching them to obey everything I [Jesus] have commanded you.” So the Bible is intended to bring us to Jesus, and to teach us how to live as God’s children (as followers of Jesus).

Sometimes we look at the Bible as a manual of instructions for the situations we face in life. I have a manual in the glove compartment of my car. It is useful for a Toyota Corolla, but if you have a Ford Fusion, it won’t help you as much. The problem with manuals is that they work for one specific situation. The Bible is much more than a manual. The Bible describes itself as the Scriptures that introduce us to Jesus and to the good news that in Jesus God has reconciled the world to himself. As we walk with Jesus and read the Bible, we learn more and more about how Jesus wants us to live in this world.

A Simple Point and a Problem
All of this is fairly obvious, I think. Next week I will talk about the different kinds of writing that we find in the Bible—from songs to laws, from love letters to practical letters, from gospels to apocalypses. Today I want to note just one thing about all of this: The Bible is true. That is what Paul means when he says that the Scriptures are “God-breathed”. The Bible says what God wants it to say. This is a simple point, but sometimes it trips us up.

The problem is that we read the Bible as though it speaks with one voice throughout. The Bible brings us the Word of God from a wide variety of human authors. Peter says this about Paul (2 Peter 2: 16): “His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” Peter and Paul write quite differently, because they are different people. Similarly in the Gospels Luke writes a more educated Greek and John writes a simple Greek. The Scriptures are “God-breathed”, but they speak with human voices. Jesus is God’s Word—fully human and fully divine. So also the Bible is God’s Word—a blend of divine inspiration speaking with human voices.

The Bible uses the language and cultural forms of the human authors and their audience. If you have ever moved from one country to another, you have probably been surprised by something that does not mean what you expect it to mean. That also happens in the Bible. Here is a simple example, told to me by a friend from the Middle East. You remember the story of Lot in Sodom in Genesis 19. Because of Sodom’s wickedness, God sent two angels to Sodom to warn Lot to get out of town before judgment. Lot took them in as his guests and gave them supper. After they ate, the men of Sodom came to the house and tried to abduct these men (not recognizing them as angels). Then we read these words:
Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, “Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.”
We read this story and wonder how Lot could consider giving his daughters to these terrible men. But my friend said something like this: “You think it means that he was willing to give them his daughters. But this is just how we talk in the Middle East. What it really means is that the law of hospitality is so strong that he could no more give his guests to these men than he could give his daughters to them.” In fact, we have a similar form of speech in our own culture; it is called sarcasm.

This change does not affect how we understand the whole story, but such misunderstandings can occur anywhere in the Scriptures if we read too quickly and don’t listen carefully. How do we avoid this problem? By reading carefully and repeatedly. I have a friend who did his Master’s thesis at Providence on the Gospel of Mark. The first step he took before trying to write the thesis was to read the gospel through in one sitting. Three times in a week. For ten weeks.

When we read over and over, we focus less on individual verses that we might take out of context, and we begin to hear the whole Gospel. We will still get some individual passages wrong, but we will get the whole message right. You see, alongside the many voices of Scripture, we hear always God’s Spirit speaking through the authors. It is one of miracles of inspiration that the whole Bible does tell one coherent story, speaking through so many different people. If you want to know that story and learn to live by that story, you have to read the whole Bible and listen to the whole Bible.

I think of my grandparents’ generation in the Brethren in Christ. Many people had only book: the Bible. For some their formal education stopped with Grade Eight, but they read the Bible. I have studied more than they—going on to seminary, but they read the Bible constantly and thoroughly. I suspect that they often read more clearly than I do.

A Concluding Thought
As we read the Bible together, we will sometimes disagree about what it says. We also disagree about how we can read the Bible. Some say that the Bible is plain and needs no interpretation. Others say that the Bible is complicated and we cannot understand it. Both are right. In its overall message the Bible is clear—even if we have some disagreements. In many places the Bible is complicated—but in fact those places are fewer than we might think.

We do sometimes disagree about what the Bible says. I have worked most of my professional life as a seminary teacher among people with whom I disagree. I am convinced that Jesus’ call to peace is integral to the message of the gospel. Reconciliation with God includes reconciliation with people. Most of my colleagues, however, see peace as a goal to work towards rather than a life to live now. They are not pacifists; I am. Yet we continue to work together. We live and work together as brothers and sisters of Jesus, children of God, saved by the blood of Jesus on the cross, gather around the communion table, reading the same Bible, willing to follow all that Jesus commands us to do.

The first thing that the Bible is meant to do, then, is bring us to Jesus. Then it teaches us how to live—using stories and examples from history. Precise lessons may be complex and we may disagree, but they always fit into the whole story of God’s reconciling ways. In our own struggles here and now, let the Bible call you back to Jesus, to walk with him until he returns.

Steinbach Mennonite Church
18 September 2016
2 Timothy 3: 10-17
A Final Charge to Timothy
10 You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, 11 persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. 12 In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, 13 while evildoers and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

John 5: 31-47
Testimonies About Jesus
31 “If I testify about myself, my testimony is not true. 32 There is another who testifies in my favor, and I know that his testimony about me is true. 33 “You have sent to John and he has testified to the truth. 34 Not that I accept human testimony; but I mention it that you may be saved. 35 John was a lamp that burned and gave light, and you chose for a time to enjoy his light.
36 “I have testimony weightier than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to finish—the very works that I am doing—testify that the Father has sent me. 37 And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, 38 nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. 39 You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, 40 yet you refuse to come to me to have life.
41 “I do not accept glory from human beings, 42 but I know you. I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts. 43 I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not accept me; but if someone else comes in his own name, you will accept him. 44 How can you believe since you accept glory from one another but do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?
45 “But do not think I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set. 46 If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. 47 But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?”


KGMom said...

One of my Facebook friends posted this quote:

“I had to learn that taking the Bible seriously doesn’t mean taking everything literally. I had to learn to read the whole Bible through the lens of Jesus, and I had to learn to stop making it into something it wasn’t—a glorified answer book or rule book or magic spell. I had to stop trying to reduce the Bible to something I could tame or wield as a tool. I had to let the Bible be everything it was meant to be, to cast away the idols of certainty, materialism, and control.”
~~Sarah Bessey, in "Out of Sorts: Making peace with an evolving faith"

I realize you are not talking about literalism, but too often that is where Biblical interpretation focuses.

Climenheise said...

I spoke more specifically about literalism in the sermon as I preached it. The danger with literalism comes more when people use the Bible to make specific rules that must apply everywhere and always. The best defense against literalism is to immerse oneself in Scripture, listening to all the varied ways that the Bible speaks.

N.T. Wright contrasts religious language with scientific language: "Well, many voices in the last generation have shown that, in the words of Jonathan Sacks, religion and science ought to be a ‘great partnership’, in which ‘science takes things apart to see how they work, while religion puts things together to see what they mean’." (See