Sunday, September 25, 2016

Reading the Church's Bible, 2

Why Should We Even Read the Bible?

Introduction: The Question
Last week we talked about why we read the Bible—“why” in the sense of “for what purpose”? I suggested (based on Jesus’ words in John 5) that the Scriptures are intended to bring us to God through the person of Jesus Christ. I added (based on Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 3) that they are also intended to teach us how to live as God’s people. We can see these two purposes for reading Scripture in the Great Commission (Matthew 28): Jesus told his followers to “make disciples of all nations”, baptizing those who come to faith in Christ and teaching them to obey all that Jesus has told us to do. The Scripture bring us to Jesus in conversion and then helps us to grow spiritually as followers of Jesus.

Many people around us, however, have a more basic objection. They wonder why we should read the Bible at all. The Bible was written over a period of about a thousand years, finishing about 1,900 years ago. What can such an old book have to say to us today? It was written by people in very different cultures from ours, in very different times from ours. Many people around us think the Bible is simply irrelevant. Why should we even read it at all, let alone make it our guide for faith and life?

Towards an Answer
To read the Bible with the eyes of faith requires an encounter with Christ. God saves us by grace through faith, and in faith we begin to read the Bible and find God there. This is not something that one can prove with human reason. We cannot say to people, “Here are the reasons,” and prove to them with human logic that this book is God’s Word for us today.

At the same time, our faith in God is a reasonable faith, and trusting the Bible is consistent with human reason. We would expect this to be true, since God made human reason. Here is a beginning step, then, towards believing in Christian faith by reading the Bible. In the passage that we read, Paul makes it clear that the centre of Christian faith is the person of Jesus Christ—Jesus lived in Palestine, Jesus died on the cross, Jesus rose from the dead. This is where our faith begins. Paul argues in the rest of the chapter that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the founding truth of Christian faith. If the resurrection did not happen, he says, our faith is misplaced and “we are of all people most miserable” (vv 14, 17). But, Paul says, Jesus did rise from the dead, so that our faith is true (v 20).

This is the key point. Dead people do not rise to new life. We know that, and the early church knew that too. Sometimes people think that the first Christians were just naïve and did not really understand that resurrections don’t happen. But of course they knew well that this event was not normal. That is one reason that they found the appearance of a healthy, glowing Jesus, full of life before their eyes over a period of 40 days, to be so amazing.

So if it is true that Jesus rose from the dead, we have something quite unique in history, something that changes everything that we think we know from nature and human reason.

I often quote C.S. Lewis in my sermons. Lewis was one of the greatest Christian writers of the 20th century. As you may know, however, he was an atheist before he was a Christian. Born in 1898 in Belfast in an Anglican family, he lost his mother to cancer when he was 10 years old. His father sent him off to boarding schools in England, where for a variety of reasons he became an atheist. He fought in World War One (which reinforced his atheism), and after the war attended Oxford University. After he graduated he found work at Oxford as a tutor in Philosophy, and then as a professor in Medieval English Literature in 1925.

His life at Oxford included friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien, who was a convinced Christian and Roman Catholic. Along with various other influences, their conversations and arguments opened Lewis up to the possibility that Christian faith is true. As began to read the Bible again, he realized that, if the resurrection of Jesus were true, then the Bible as a whole is true and God himself is real. He resisted accepting the resurrection because he saw where the logic of the resurrection would take him.

One day he was talking with a friend, an atheist (I think he was himself a professor of history at Oxford) who unintentionally helped Lewis move closer to Christian faith. Here is how Lewis describes it in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy:
Early in 1926 the hardest boiled of all the atheists I ever knew sat in my room on the other side of the fire and remarked that the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was really surprisingly good. “Rum thing,” he went on. “All that stuff of Frazer’s about the Dying God. Rum thing. It almost looks as if it had really happened once.” To understand the shattering impact of it, you would need to know the man (who has certainly never since shown any interest in Christianity). If he, the cynic of cynics, the toughest of the toughs, were not—as I would still have put it—“safe,” where could I turn? Was there then no escape?

There were other factors in Lewis’ conversion—especially his friendship with Christians and the discovery that the authors he liked best were all Christians. But this realization that historical evidence was on the side of the resurrection was an important piece. This is not of course hard proof that God exists, but once one accepts the reality of the resurrection of Jesus, then the door is open to faith in Jesus as God’s incarnate Son.

So How Do We Read?
Once we decide that we can and should read the Bible, we have the further question of how to read the Bible. This question requires a further series of sessions on its own, so I make only a few brief comments. I note two basic ways: critical reading and devotional reading. By critical reading I mean trying to understand what the original authors meant. By devotional reading I mean listening to Scripture seeking to hear God’s Spirit speak to us directly.

Critical Reading
Critical reading is necessary whenever we preach or teach from the Bible. If we want to apply what the biblical authors say to our own lives, we must know what they intended to say to their audience. We must know what the passage meant in its own literary and historical context before we can hear it speak clearly to our own time. Sometimes we want to derive rules for living directly from the Bible without paying attention to these critical questions, but of course we must study the original setting to know what was being said.

A good resource if you want to go into more depth for critical reading is a book by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart titled How to Read the Bible for all Its Worth. Fee and Stuart give good insight into the various kinds of literature in the Bible. We have letters and poetry, stories and history, legal material and parables, gospels and apocalypses. We read each of these differently. For example, poetry and law are quite different, and we do not read poetry like law, or law like poetry. We learn to read the gospels in paragraphs, not verses, looking for each complete episode as the writer puts it together. We learn to read letters as what we call “occasional documents”—something written for a specific occasion. We don’t have time to explore these different kinds of literature this morning. It is enough to note that we should know what we are reading before we are sure we know what it says.

Sometimes we refer to the unchanging nature of God’s Word. As we read the Bible, we see many things that are different from our time, so we may wonder how we can talk about God’s word forever true. We recognize, then, that what does not change is the principles that are being expressed in different situations. For example, 1 Corinthians 11 tells us that women should cover their heads in church. If we read this as a simple instruction, we miss the principle that Paul is applying. In Corinth there was a lot of disorder when Christians met together. In chapters 11 to 14 Paul deals with communion meals, with head coverings, with tongues and interpretation in worship, with prophecies, and with spiritual gifts. He concludes these chapters by reminding his readers that God is a God of order (which we know from many other places in Scripture). His concern with the various instructions about speaking in tongues and covering one’s head and so on all have to do with this principle: That order in church life reflects and demonstrates the presence of God’s Shalom.

There is more in these chapters than just this principle, but you see the idea. The principles undergirding all of Scripture are principles that are true always. So critical reading helps us find these principles by helping us understand the passages in their original context.

Devotional Reading
Critical reading can also be devotional. That is, as we seek to hear God’s Word clearly in its own context, the experience draws us closer to God. But we can also read the Bible devotionally without always asking what the original language said or what the historical context was. For example, I have heard many people appeal to the verse from 2 Chronicles 7: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

Now reading this verse critically we observe the context in Solomon’s dedication of the Temple, and the fact that the prayer refers to an extended drought within the Promised Land. It fits into a cycle of grace and disobedience as part of the Deuteronomic promises.

Reading devotionally, however, we hear it speak to our own fears for our own country at critical moments in our history. It is dangerous to build doctrine on devotional reading, because we may misread the verse in its original context. At the same time, God does speak directly to us through devotional reading, and God wants us to listen for his voice as we read our Bibles regularly. This kind of reading is an act of and aid to faith. In devotional reading we do not come to the Bible with questions of historicity or accuracy or anything else. We come rather as part of our relationship with God, desiring deeply to hear God’s voice.

I suspect that the kind of conflict we have been experiencing may either separate us from reading the Bible simply to hear God’s voice, or it may drive us back to the Bible because we realize that we are in crisis. I pray that it drives us back to the Bible and back to God.

Richard Foster tells a story that describes what I mean. It appears in his book, Finding the Heart’s True Home, in a chapter on what he calls “meditative prayer”. I have given this example before, but it shows what I am talking about more clearly than anything else I can think of.
Allow me to tell you the story of Jim Smith, a former student of mine. … Jim went on to do graduate work …. By the second year, however, he was struggling to maintain his spiritual life, and so he decided to take a private retreat. He arrived at the retreat house and was introduced to the brother who was to be his spiritual director ….
The brother gave Jim only one assignment: to meditate on the story of the Annunciation in the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel. That was it. …. For the first couple of hours he sliced and diced the passage as any good exegete would do, coming up with several useful insights that could fit into future sermons. The rest of the day was spent in thumb-twiddling silence.
The next day Jim met with the brother to discuss his spiritual life. … Jim shared his insights, hoping they would impress the monk. They didn’t. … “Well, there is more than just finding out what it says and what it means. There are also questions, like what did it say to you? Were you struck by anything? And most important, did you experience God in your reading?” The brother assigned Jim the same text for that entire day. All day Jim tried doing what his spiritual director had instructed, but he failed repeatedly … and still it was lifeless. Jim felt he would go deaf from the silence.
The next day they met again. In despair Jim told the brother that he simply could not do what was being asked of him. [The brother replied,] “You’re trying too hard, Jim. You’re trying to control God. Go back to this passage and this time be open to receive whatever God has for you. Don’t manipulate God; just receive. Communion with him isn’t something you institute. … All I want you to do is create the conditions: open your Bible, read it slowly, listen to it, and reflect on it.”
Jim went back to his room and began reading. …. By noon he shouted to the ceiling, “I give up! You win!” …. He slumped over the desk and began weeping. A short time later he picked up his Bible and glanced over the text once again. The words were familiar but somehow different. His mind and heart were supple. The opening words of Mary’s response became his words: “Let it be to me…let it be to me.” The words rang round and round in his head. Then God spoke. It was as if a window suddenly had been thrown open and God wanted to talk friend to friend. What followed was a dialogue about the story in Luke, about God, about Mary, about Jim. The Spirit took Jim down deep into Mary’s feelings, Mary’s doubts, Mary’s fears, Mary’s incredible faith-filled response. It was, of course, also a journey into Jim’s feelings and fears and doubts, as the Spirit in healing love and gentle compassion touched the broken memories of his past. Though Jim could barely believe it, the angel’s word to Mary seemed to be a word for him as well: “You have found favor with God.” Mary’s perplexed query was also Jim’s question: “How can this be?” And yet it was so, and Jim wept in the arms of a God of grace and mercy. …. They talked about this—God and Jim—what might be, what could be. Jim took a prayer walk with God, watching the sun play hide and seek behind the large oak trees to the west. By the time the sun had slipped below the horizon, he was able to utter the prayer of Mary as his own: “Let it be to me according to your word.” Jim had just lost control of his life, and in the same moment had found it!

We must read critically: The original meaning is essential to understanding how Jesus calls us to live today, and the principles that God’s people applied in their lives still live for us today. We build church doctrine on critical reading of the Scripture. This is a task that we engage in together as the community of faith. There is space at the table for experts and non-experts, people who have studied Greek and Hebrew and those who know only English (not even French or German!), people who have read the Bible many times and those who are just beginning. We all work together at the task of hearing God speak to use.

We must also read devotionally: God wants to speak to us deep within where no one else sees. This is a task we can do together and on our own. When you have many people in the church who grew up in Christian faith, the danger is that we may live on the memory of past encounters with God and lose sight of the Risen Christ within our own lives. Then the passage we read at the beginning speaks to us anew: Jesus lived; Jesus died; Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to the apostles and the disciples … and last of all has appeared also to us, even though we were born too late to see him on this earth. We see Jesus again, on our knees and in our homes, praying and reading and asking God to touch our hearts.

Different people have different passages that speak most clearly to them. For me it is verses about the cross, and especially about how Jesus bore the cross for us and how he calls us to bear the cross for him. For each of you there are other passages we can share with each other as we encourage each other to walk faithfully with Jesus. In our darkness and fear we turn again to God’s Word and ask God to bring us back to Jesus.

Steinbach Mennonite Church
25 September 2016
Text: 1 Corinthians 15: 1-11
The Resurrection of Christ
15 Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. 11 Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.

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