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People of the Book

January 28, 2013

“People of the Book” Nehemiah 8:1-12; Psalm 19:7-14; Luke 4:14-21 © 1.27.13 Ordinary 3C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

In a meeting of Western Kentucky Presbytery around the turn of this century, we were debating one of those hot-button amendments to the Book of Order that never seem to go away. One conservative minister got to his feet, and bluntly accused those who supported the amendment of not believing the Bible. My associate pastor Michael, who was more progressive, rose right after him and responded, obviously offended and dismayed by the comments. “Wait a minute,” Michael said. “I believe the Bible, too; I just read it differently.”

That dialogue tracks well with what someone wrote around the same time as our debate. He said that most of the controversies in the church today can be traced to arguments over the authority of the Bible. He did not mean disagreement over whether the Bible is normative for our lives, but how it guides us.

And that’s what I want to talk about this morning. I speak to you as people who, like me, affirm the authority of Scripture. For us, and for every Christian, it speaks with the voice of God. But what separates believers today, at a very fundamental level, is the shape of life under the authority of Scripture. What does it mean to be people of the Book?

Let’s begin by acknowledging that some folks have a Bible in the house somewhere, maybe a big one in the KJV, but that’s just because good, decent people ought to have a Bible in the home. Perhaps they regard it with superstition, so that you never toss a Bible to someone, or if you have a pile of books, the Bible has to be on top. Or it’s a ritual prop, such as when someone is sworn into office. Could be it’s a family file cabinet, where old papers and genealogies are kept.

In all these cases, the Bible isn’t really read or its authority heeded, so that its tattered pages and broken spine are due to daily use. Instead, the condition of the book is due to neglect, and it’s only a showpiece or a file cabinet, not a guide for living.

But I suspect or hope that for most people who own a Bible of whatever size or translation, it really does matter. How it matters is the question we’re looking at today. For some individuals and even whole denominations, the Bible is a source of proof texts for cherished doctrines and moral codes. For example, some latch onto a particular text that they believe is about the future, and then spin whole scenarios, novels, and movies around it. Others—we Presbyterians for example—point to a passage about predestination or a form of church government and found entire churches around it. It’s well-known that the Westminster Confession went beyond Scripture in places in its arguments, trying to close logical loopholes Scripture leaves open. We also know that in some circles the Bible has been and is used as a weapon to silence, restrict or oppress particular groups. And, in certain denominations, the Bible is merely one leg of a three-legged stool held up also by tradition and experience. The rightness of something the Bible says is measured against what is already believed or whether it matches what we observe. In all these instances, rather than stand over against the church, the Bible is held captive to it.

What all these approaches have in common, I think, is that the reader approaches the Bible with his or her mind already made up. The real authority is elsewhere: some political position, a personal prejudice, a doctrine of the church, so-called “historic, biblical Christianity,” or the ever-present “the way we do things around here.” The Bible may be loudly touted as the basis for life, but one has to wonder if it is really allowed to speak, to challenge, to question. If you were to point out something that clearly contradicts some practice or belief, these people might say quite loudly “I don’t care what the Bible says! This is the way it is here!”

That’s so sad, I think, because it ignores the first step in becoming and being people of the Book. Those who have the Bible as their norm for life let it speak with its own voice. Someone has said that the theologian Karl Barth felt a responsibility to the text that forbade him to force it into his own categories. For him, sound interpretation demanded “continuing attentiveness, even keener listening.”

We get the impression that those gathered in the rebuilt Jerusalem were profoundly ready as well to pay attention to the reading of Scripture. They demonstrate what listening to the Bible is all about. Even their physical posture showed devotion. And they wept when they heard the word proclaimed! So deep was their sorrow that Ezra and his colleagues had to urge on the people an understanding that included grace as well as judgment. Listening to the Bible is not simply letting sound waves impact our eardrums. It is re-appropriating the words written long ago to help us find our identity and our calling for today.

Of course, that’s no easy task. Here we have a collection of books written from about the 10th century BC to the middle of the second century AD. They were composed in Hebrew, Aramaic, and ancient Greek, languages that are unfamiliar to us without learning them for the express purpose of reading the Bible in the original. The practices described in the Bible are often foreign to us, such as arranged marriage or polygamy or using a slave girl as a surrogate mother or stoning your child to death for mouthing off to you or not eating shellfish or not wearing clothes made of two kinds of cloth. We think of the near universal acceptance of slavery or the subjugation of women, who were often regarded as property to be transferred from father to husband. The weights and measures are even strange to us. Not pounds or kilograms or dollars, but homers, cors, ephahs, baths, shekels. Even if we were to get over all those hurdles—and we can—we would still have to fathom complex theological arguments, understand obscure references to forgotten places or find contemporary meaning in texts that stubbornly refuse to yield any. Like all the “begots” or some incident in which people who supposedly belong to God act in a quite uncivilized or immoral manner, such as engaging in genocide they said was commanded by God.

Such a problem is evident even in the story from Nehemiah. The Law being read was written in Hebrew, but the people had forgotten how to speak that language. Now they knew only Aramaic, related, but like German to English or French to Latin. The priests and others translated as Ezra read, and that’s the first step of interpretation. The leaders also preached, another way of helping the crowd understand and respond.

Anybody who wants to listen seriously to the Bible has to do homework with a good translation and some responsible guides for interpretation, such as we might find in a quality study Bible. To struggle with the text with such tools is an act of respect. We seek to bridge the gaps of language and years and culture and bring home the meaning for our postmodern world, where even in the church people no longer speak the language of faith and of community. It’s not enough simply to hold the Bible in reverence or have one in our homes or read it publicly. The meaning of an ancient text has to be presented, explained, interpreted and appropriated for a new day, namely, this day, right now. If the Bible is going to function as the authority for the church’s life, then we need to be a community that is convicted, empowered, liberated, renewed, and illumined by the Spirit of God. The written word of God is not some crusty relic. It is dynamic, capable of changing lives in every new age as God works through it. Scripture becomes the word of God again and again every time we seek to hear and do what it says.

In fact, it is that very adaptability and usefulness that gives the Bible its authority. As someone has said: “When the community…needed the challenge of one portion, it was there; when it needed the comfort of another, that too was there. When the community needed to settle and build, when it faced the challenges of peace and political stability, there were portions to call on to validate the activity; when the community faced upheaval and disruption and had once more to be uprooted, there were portions to call on to validate the activity” (The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. I, p. 848).

In general, the writings that were used over and over year after year by the church for worship, preaching, and teaching came to be the most highly valued. They were regarded as reliable guides that could sustain and inform the community, the standard by which it measured its faithfulness. So these books came to be included eventually in what we know as the canon, which means “measuring stick.”

We have the Bible as it is today because people of faith chose the sixty-six books as the best and most authentic guides among the very many competing for their attention and purporting to be from God. Not all Christians agreed or agree, of course, on which books belong. But the bottom line is that if the Bible created the Church, it is also true that the Church created the Bible.

The scope of our attempt to hear and use and be guided by what the Bible says has to be very broad indeed. The Bible is a private and a public document. Men, women, indeed all who could hear with understanding gathered in the public square, not in the Temple. They were trying to rebuild a nation, a world, devastated by official wrongdoing, war, deportation and displacement. The people needed a moral foundation as solid as the stone of the Temple and the halls of justice. If we are people serious about the authority of Scripture in our lives, then our private devotion will issue in public commitment. Someone may go around quoting the Bible or be known as a Bible scholar, but still not live under the authority of the word. The true “Bible believer” is the one who has internalized its viewpoints, heeds its warnings, loves its promises, and follows the example of the prophets and Jesus in calling society to care for those left out, looked down on, and despised. The Bible becomes the word of God in a public as well as private way when each and all of us pledge ourselves to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. As the evangelical writer Jim Wallis has observed in his book God’s Politics, religious issues are not just the ones about abortion or homosexuality; they also have to do with the environment, poverty, and war. Or we might recall the late Senator Ted Kennedy’s comment. A journalist asked him where the senator’s rabid concern for poverty came from. Kennedy looked at the man as if he were from Mars and responded “Have you never read the New Testament?”

Having said all that, the Bible has its greatest impact when it points us to Christ, the Head of the Church, the Word of God. It is his ministry which fulfills the promise and spirit of Scripture. As Jesus committed himself to free the prisoners and give sight to the blind, he told a congregation in Nazareth, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The biblical writers, in their own way and words, point us to Christ, some more clearly than others. And that is finally how the Bible is the word of God, because it introduces us to the living God, made known in Jesus.

People may ask whether you or I “believe in” the Bible or if we’re “Bible believers.” The late scholar Shirley Guthrie, Jr. had a fine answer in his book Christian Doctrine: “Strictly speaking, a Christian whose faith is grounded on God’s self-revelation has to say no to this common question—just when he takes the Bible seriously as the Word of God. Our faith is not in a book, but in the God we learn to know in this book. God himself, not the Bible, rules and judges and helps and saves us. We do not ‘believe in’ Isaiah or Paul or John. We believe in Jesus Christ…. [The biblical writers] do not ask us to place our trust and hope and confidence in them, but in the God to whose speaking and acting they point. We believe the Bible just when we do not believe in the Bible, but in the living, acting, speaking God to whom the biblical writers introduce us” (81-82).

Because God is living and active, so is his word as it leads us to Christ. The late Catholic theologian Karl Rahner was right. “Holy Scripture,” he said, “is not just another book. Generally we can read a book through once and lay it aside…. But [the Bible] is the word of God himself, the word of the God who condescended his own infinity and incomprehensibility to communicate and share himself in human words. That is why we can never ‘finish’ the Bible and lay it aside” (The Practice of Faith: 101). The Scriptures keep becoming the word of God to and for us in ever new ways as we truly listen to them and seek to live them in all of life. The Bible becomes God’s word as we grow in Christ, to whom the Scriptures bear witness. When we are people of the Book who live with the Bible as our guide, when we have taken it into ourselves, when its words are sweet, we are led sincerely and daily to say with the psalmist: “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heard be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.”

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