February 15, 2009
John 5:39-47; Luke 24:13-32
We are beginning today a short, two sermon series, around how God speaks to us through the scriptures. Today, I want to focus on what the bible is and its purpose in our life as a Christian community.
Then, next Sunday I will talk about how we interpret the bible in the context of the church.
I want to do this series because so often biblical interpretation has polarized the church and taken us away from the mission and ministry of Jesus in the world. The bible has too often become a tool for dividing people rather than uniting us and empowering us as witnesses of God’s good news.
Most of us believe the bible is inspired by God and is a fully reliable and trustworthy standard for our Christian faith and life – and yet, it is so divisive among Christians.
I sometimes wish that when Jesus lived there had been someone with a video camera recording every word he had ever uttered. I wish someone had captured on video his actions and healings and the way he related to people.
And wouldn’t it be nice to have a video of his facial expressions? To know when he was sad or angry or loving?
If we had his whole life on video – wouldn’t it be easier to believe in Jesus? Wouldn’t it stop all of our infighting and debates over what he said or meant?
I wish it would, but I know that it wouldn’t!!
Just having all the correct facts about Jesus and knowing every word and movement he had ever made would not solve anything – because having all the facts about Jesus will never solve the issue of “faith” for us.
Even the disciples who were constantly with Jesus for three years did not always understand him. And those who saw him heal people disagreed about how he did it. Some thought his power came from the devil. Other people discounted that he ever healed anyone.
Just because someone heard Jesus or saw Jesus in person does not mean they believed Jesus was the Messiah or were ready to follow him in life.
So, having a live video of Jesus’ life and knowing everything he ever said would not increase our faith in him. It would not stop us from arguing over what he “really meant” when he said this or that.
Many people still think more information or facts about Jesus will help them believe, but facts alone will never answer the question of faith in Jesus.
Jesus once told a parable about a rich man and a poor man named Lazarus. Lazarus lay at the rich mans door every day but he never helped Lazarus.
When the rich man died he went to Hades and when the poor man died he was taken to be with Abraham. When the rich man couldn’t get Abraham to send the poor man to him – he pleaded with Abraham to send the poor man to his brothers to warn them so they wouldn’t end up with him in Hades.
Abraham told the rich man – if his brothers won’t listen to Moses and all the prophets then they won’t be convinced by someone coming back from the dead either.
Jesus reminds us in this parable that we too have the prophets and many stories from his eye witnesses. So, a live video or even someone coming back from the dead will not convince us more about who God is.
We have now what we need in Scripture to understand God and God’s purposes for us and the world – we just need to come with hearts that are humble, open, prayerful, and willing to obey.
If we want to understand the scriptures – we have to always approach them with the eyes of faith – not simply as reporters or scholars looking for facts and figures and data about God. Knowing God always requires a step of faith.
The bible then is really a story book. It is the story of God trying to get to us. It is a testimony of God’s all out effort to liberate humanity from bondage and to restore our relationship with God, each other, and all of creation.
The bible is not a scientific book or a philosophical construction or a system of knowledge. The bible contains stories of God seeking us and of God’s people responding to God’s actions.
And yet, just knowing what the bible’s purpose is, doesn’t make the bible easy to understand.
The bible is not a simple book. It is complex and can be difficult to interpret.
I know that some Christians think the bible came straight down from heaven. They think God spoke the words into the ears of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and the other biblical writers. But that is not how it happened.
What we know as the OT are Israel’s sacred scriptures and they came together over many centuries by many different authors.
By the time of Jesus the OT books had been collected into three parts – the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings.
In our scripture from Luke 14 Jesus, in his conversation with the Emmaus disciples refers to the “the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms.” Since the Psalms stood at the head of the Writings sometimes the whole section of The Writings are referred to as the Psalms.
These 39 books in the OT were accepted as scripture by the Jews and Jesus and his apostles also endorsed them. These scriptures were also their scriptures.
One of the interesting things about what we call the NT is that these books were not officially accepted as scripture until the fourth century – some 300 years after Jesus lived.
There were many books and writings circulating around in the different churches until eventually the church adopted the current 27 books that we have now.
But there were several other gospel accounts and letters that did not make it in. The gospel of Barnabas, the gospel of Thomas, the epistle to the Laodiceans, third Corinthians, and several others didn’t make it into our scirptures.
The books that made it into the NT were all written before the end of the first century and they were chosen because they had the authority of the apostles behind them.
Now, sometimes Christians are troubled when they learn that the NT canon came together over several centuries and emerged out of the life and testimony of the church.
For some people this kind of process undermines the authority of the bible for them.
And yet, for me, this discerning process within the church at that time– instead of a top-down decision dictated by those in authority – strengthens my view of the bible’s authority.
The church at that time, with the leading of the Holy Spirit, chose only those books and letters that best taught a holistic vision of Jesus’ life and teachings and that strengthened and unified the churches.
In a sense, the church produced the NT part of the bible, but now the church is sustained, challenged, and reformed by it. The whole bible is now a gift to the church because it is the primary witness of Jesus.
So, when we say the bible is the inspired word of God, we mean that the Holy Spirit was at work in the writing of scripture and in the process of discerning which books became part of our bible.
At the same time, to say the bible is inspired does not mean we “worship the bible”. The bible always points beyond itself to God.
Scripture is not the supreme authority – God is.
The purpose of scripture reading is not to learn a bunch of facts and figures and information about God, but to discover what God is saying and doing in the world. It is to help us nurture an authentic relationship with Jesus.
In our scripture from the Gospel of John chapter 5 Jesus says to the scribes and Pharisees in verse 39 – “you search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me and to have life.”
The Pharisees thought that if they memorized the scriptures and knew them from cover to cover that then they would be saved. For them salvation was in knowing the scriptures.
Yet Jesus says the scriptures point to him.
So, for us to take seriously the scriptures and to truly be known as a “people of the book” today we will have to make Christ the center of our life – not the bible.
The bible is central in that it will always point us toward Christ but it must never replace Jesus as the focus of our faith.
In our time again, as it has happened throughout church history, we have tended to make the bible our focus instead of Jesus.
There are a whole set of Christians today who have reduced biblical faith to believing in a set of doctrines or propositions. They have squeezed the biblical story into an intellectual package and salvation comes from believing the right things about Jesus and the bible instead of entering into a relationship with Jesus.
Since the Reformation in the 16th century there has been an over emphasis on Paul’s letters.
Listen to what Martin Luther said in his preface to the NT.
In a section entitled – “Which are the true and noblest books of the NT? – Luther wrote, “John’s gospel is the one, fine, true, and chief gospel, and is far, far to be preferred over the other three and placed high above them. So, too, the epistles of St. Paul and St. Peter far surpass the other three gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke.”
Luther’s reasoning for this focus was that – anything in scripture that tells the “story of Jesus” was far less helpful than books describing explicit “doctrines about Jesus.”
The Gospel of John and Paul’s letters are more abstract and lengthy propositional discourses – while the three gospels contain more short stories and parables.
Now, prior to the Reformation and the printing press, the main focus in the church had been on the three gospels and the parables of Jesus. For people who were primarily illiterate – the gospel stories and parables were much easier to understand and remember.
Now, the renewed interest in Paul’s letters was good for the church in many ways, but it also led to more of a focus on moralisms and a rather legalistic approach to faith.
For those on the more conservative side of Christianity their concern has been with the “heart” and they have had a tendency to fear education. There has also been a tendency to emphasize Jesus’ divinity over his humanity.
On the other side of the spectrum is the more “liberal” approach to faith. Critical of the moralisms of the conservatives, the liberal theologians tried to uncover the historical Jesus.
But these theologians fell into the same trap they accused their more conservative sisters and brothers. They limited their study to the human figure of Jesus. They did away with things like Jesus’ incarnation, the miracles of Jesus, and his resurrection because those things were seen as unscientific.
If the conservatives focused on the heart – the liberals focused on the head and rationalistic thinking. They talked about God, but had little or no experience of God.
In many ways, both the liberals and conservatives have molded Jesus to fit their agendas – instead of letting Jesus set the agenda.
Now, no matter which of those two pitfalls we fall into – we are guilty of abandoning the bible as our guide for faith and practice.
Somehow, I think there must be a middle way – a way that faithfully practices what Paul taught in First Thessalonians 5:21. He wrote – “test everything and hold fast to what is good.”
This middle way is hard because it requires us to keep the scriptures central and at the same time to take a critical look at our culture and our church traditions.
That is no small challenge but it is very necessary and I think possible.
I think the place for us to begin today is by letting the bible read us. We need to capture again the Jewish way of reading scripture. The Jewish approach to reading scripture is that they don’t read the bible – it reads them.
Instead of the Jews interpreting scripture they see the Torah interpreting them. Since God is seeking us we come to the text in humility to listen for what God is saying to us.
In James 1:22-25 – James calls the scriptures a mirror in which we see our true selves.
Instead of mining the scriptures to obtain objective knowledge about God we let the bible read us. It becomes a mirror in that it helps us clarify our inner needs, our attitudes, and our hidden desires.
As we allow the scriptures to read us we learn to see the world with God’s eyes and to see God with new eyes of faith.
Many times in reading scripture we won’t see new things but the familiar things we already know will take on new meaning as we learn to see them from God’s perspective.
One of the practices that Christians are turning to help them overcome the distance between the written text and the living word is the ancient practice of Lectio Divina.
That is Latin for “divine reading”.
Lectio divina is a traditional way of combining prayer and reading scriptures so that the Holy Spirit may penetrate our hearts and we may grow in an intimate relationship with Jesus.
It is a more contemplative and meditative way of reading scripture.
Lectio divina was developed by the monks as a way of letting go of their agenda and opening themselves to what God wants to say to them.
It is a way of praying the scriptures that calls one to study, ponder, listen, and then finally to pray from God’s word. It is not so much a study of scripture as it is a personal reading of scripture and application to ones life.
Lectio divina involves reading a short text of scripture – out loud if possible. Then after meditating on the scripture, you are to focus on what word or phrase seems important to you.
After reading it a second time – you listen again for a further word God might have for you. You ask – what is God saying to me?
And then after reading it a third time you listen for how it might apply to your life. You ask – what difference will it make in my life?
There is nothing magical about this form of reading the scripture but it involves listening for God’s Spirit to speak to you and read you – more than study. It is humbly opening yourself to God’s Spirit and letting go of your agenda.
There will always be a place for rigorous study of scripture but people are once again being open to a more experiential and intuitive way of knowing God.
There is today a new appreciation for Eastern Orthodox practices that intentionally design worship services to include the five senses. For some people, a spiritual discipline is using icons for contemplation.
The Eastern Orthodox tradition has always had a preference for mystery and experience rather than reason and evidence.
In our scripture from Luke 24 we see this openness to listening to God and to experiencing God’s presence.
We have this story here of two disciples walking home after Jesus’ death, and then, the discovery by some women of his resurrection.
As they walk along, the risen Jesus joins them, but the text says that “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.
These two disciples tell Jesus everything that has happened in those three days and then when they are finished it says Jesus – “beginning with Moses and all the prophets interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”
When they arrived at home Jesus was going to go on but they invited him to stay. As they ate together – Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.
And as soon as he gave them bread it says – “there eyes were opened and they recognized him and he vanished from their sight.”
Then they said to each other – “were not our hearts burning within us while Jesus was opening the scriptures to us?”
Jesus helped them understand the scriptures and how the scriptures all point to him as the Messiah – the one who comes to save and redeem them from sin and to give them new life in all its fullness.
As they listened to Jesus interpret the scriptures to them their hunger and desire for God grew. They came to new understandings, but it wasn’t until the breaking of bread that they finally recognized Jesus.
Many times we experience God through mystery and intuition – not only the written word.
We don’t only know God with our minds – but also with our hearts. We need both and we are learning this once again in our day.
I believe a middle way of reading scripture is one of letting the bible read us. We must be ready to give our hearts, our minds, and our souls once again to Jesus – the one around whom history turns and life is made new.
As we allow the scriptures to read us and as we open ourselves to God’s Spirit – may we experience our hearts burning within us and may our eyes be opened to see and experience Jesus in our midst.
God desires that kind of intimate relationship with us and wants to unite us together as the body of Christ.
Let us pray.