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“‘What Bible Do You Read?’”

April 20, 2015

“‘What Bible Do You Read?’” Luke 24:36-49 © 4.19.15 Easter 3B 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 a hot-button issue amendment to the Book of Order. One conservative minister got to his feet and bluntly accused those who supported the amendment of not believing the Bible. My young associate rose right after him and responded, obviously offended and dismayed by the comments. “Wait a minute!” he protested. “I believe the Bible, too; I just read it differently.”

Fast forward to about three weeks ago and a post by the Episcopal priest Susan Russell, writing about Indiana’s Religious Freedom Act. Here is an angry email she got commenting on her article: “‘Dear “Reverend” Russell,… What Bible to do you read? First of all, women are to be silent in the church—which you would know if you’d read 1 Corinthians 14:34. And secondly, what kind of priest would be against a Religious Freedom Act?’” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-susan-russell/what-kind-of-priest-would_b_6988636.html?ir=Religion&ncid=newsltushpmg00000003).

Both the Kentucky conversation and the online one point to the fundamental divide in the Christian church, one that actually has afflicted us for much more than the 20 years separating the debate in my church sanctuary and the nasty comment of a fundamentalist to an activist Episcopalian. The issue really is what Bible we read, and how we read it. At the root of so many of the arguments in the churches and even some in our nation about polity and policy, attitudes and actions, is our approach to the book we all agree is sacred scripture.

This morning, I propose we let the Bible itself, specifically the Gospel of Luke, guide us in answering our questions. The text we heard is a rich mine that with a little work can and will yield some nuggets of understanding.

First and foremost, Jesus is the key to interpreting Scripture. The story in Luke makes clear that the risen Messiah is one and the same as the executed Jesus who had walked with and taught the disciples. The author has Jesus show them his hands and feet and invite them to touch him, to feel flesh and bone, confirming that’s he’s real. He eats a piece of fish, for more proof. There can be no doubt that the One who rose is the Jesus who suffered and died. And it is this Jesus who is the center and norm of, the key to, the whole Bible, Old and New Testaments.

When we read the Bible, then, we have to measure the text against what we know of God’s will and way in Jesus. He is the One who included all sorts of people as his disciples, and he and his men went against cultural conventions by traveling with unrelated women, who provided financial support from their own funds. He made a hated foreigner an example of neighborliness when he told the story of the good Samaritan. He insisted that love was more important than following rituals and regulations when he accepted the care of a woman from the streets at a feast. He ate with sinners and collaborators as well as with the good folk of the day. And this Jesus who is the key to the Bible was crucified. He didn’t just die or get run through with a spear. He was put to death in a way reserved for political troublemakers, which showed the might of the Roman Empire to anybody passing by and served as a warning of the consequences for speaking or acting against Rome. He was executed that way because he proclaimed the kingdom of God, a different manner of living than that favored either by the Roman governor or by the elite religious leaders.

What does it mean to read the Bible measured against this Jesus, his teaching, his actions, his way of death? One commentator observes: “The second insistence in Jesus’ unusual presentation of himself to the disciples is that the risen Christ is the Jesus who died. This identification is critical, not just for theology but also for defining the nature of the Christian life. If the Jesus who died belongs to the historical past but the one disciples now follow is the eternal Christ, then the Christian life can take on forms of spirituality that are without suffering for others, without a cross, without any engagement of issues of life in this world, all the while expressing devotion to a living, spiritual Christ. The Gospels say no to such a definition of discipleship…This is Luke’s point here: ‘See my hands and my feet’ … is Christ’s word to the church. Easter is forever joined to Good Friday, and to follow the risen Christ is to follow the one who bore the cross” (Fred Craddock, Luke: 290). When we read the Bible, we need to do so in light of the ultimate revelation of God in One who displayed such self-giving love.

The late Marcus Borg, a renowned scholar, said in his last book, entitled Convictions: “Jesus is for Christians the decisive Word of God—decisive in the sense of ‘ultimate.’ Thus what we see in him transcends the Word of God in a book, the Bible. When there is a conflict between Jesus and the Bible, Jesus trumps the Bible.” He concludes by reminding us that such a view is ancient, orthodox Christian teaching (80-81).

Our Reformed confessional documents agree. “When controversy arises about the right understanding of any passage or sentence of Scripture, or for the reformation of any abuse within the Kirk of God, we ought not so much to ask what men have said or done before us, as what the Holy Ghost uniformly speaks within the body of the Scriptures and what Christ Jesus himself did and commanded” (Scots Confession). “The Bible is to be interpreted in the light of its witness to God’s work of reconciliation in Christ” (Confession of 1967). “Jesus Christ stands at the center of the biblical record” (A Declaration of Faith). “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death” (Theological Declaration of Barmen).

So also papers adopted in the 1980s by predecessor bodies of our denomination. “It is in Jesus Christ that God deals decisively with humanity and constitutes the church. This affirmation implies that all Scripture is to be interpreted in light of the centrality of Christ and in relation to the salvation provided through him. This principle requires a use of Scripture that recognizes Jesus Christ as its center, though not one that regards every text as a witness to Jesus.

“No understanding of what Scripture teaches us to believe and do can be correct that ignores or contradicts the central and primary revelation of God and God’s will through Jesus Christ made known through the witness of Scripture. Without implying a Word within the Word or a canon within a canon, and without rejecting the authority of the parts of Scripture that are not explicitly Christological, this principle insists that all of Scripture should be understood with reference to the central revelation of God in Christ. At the most direct level of application, this principle means that any teaching of the Bible on a matter of faith or life is to be used in a manner consistent with scriptural accounts of Jesus’ own teaching and embodiment of the person and will of God” (Presbyterian Understanding and Use of Holy Scripture/Biblical Authority and Interpretation [1983 and 1982, respectively; https://www.pcusa.org/site_media/media/uploads/_resolutions/scripture-use.pdf).

So, we read the Bible in light of Christ. But next, to understand the scriptures, we need an interpreter with a can opener or maybe a crowbar or a blow torch or explosives to open our minds. Luke says our Lord “opened their minds to understand.” The disciples could be and were just as closed-minded and clueless as any of us.

I can think of a number of reasons for closing our minds. One is fear. We’re afraid that if we listen to anything new, our world will be upset. Our routine that comforts us will be disrupted. We’ll find out that what we have been taught maybe “ain’t necessarily so.” The neat structure we have made will come tumbling down.

I remember vividly an incident in a Sunday school class when I was a teenager. The teacher was describing the crucifixion. He said that the Romans put the spikes through the wrists of their victims. Immediately, Dan, the pastor of my church, spoke up, clearly disturbed. “What does that do to the authority of Scripture?” he asked. “My Bible says ‘his hands.’” Changing or challenging one little detail for Dan would mean that nothing in the Bible was true.

Another reason we close our minds is lack of imagination. Quite often imagination is equated with make-believe, childish pretending, something that isn’t real. We don’t trust it. We might consider imagination something sensible people don’t approve of. It’s the land where anything is possible, like flying motorcycles or beaming up to a starship, with no boundaries. And we know such things can’t be done. Imagination keeps on asking “What if?” and “Why not?” and “Who says?” It’s thinking outside the box, longing for a different life.

Imagination is a luxury in the face of the harsh realities of life. But on the other hand, aren’t people who know how to make do imaginative? Someone who can jury rig with skill? “Necessity is the mother of invention,” and invention is an imaginative practice. We need not distrust imagination and close our minds to possibility; it can be eminently practical, helping us find solutions where there were none before.

A third reason is joyous incredulity. “In their joy they were disbelieving and… wondering,” says Luke. If there’s a good reason to close our minds, this is it. Something is too wonderful to be true! Someone thought lost or dead is found alive and well. A declaration of love, especially for someone with low self-esteem, is met by “You love me?” We suffer from a terrible illness, but then find we’re free of it. It seems like a miracle, and maybe it is. We ask “How can this be?” We declare “This can’t be happening; I’m overwhelmed” or “I’m so happy I don’t know what to say.” The hymn writer put this kind of wonder to music in the famous gospel song: “And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Savior’s blood?…’Tis mystery all!” (Charles Wesley) This is that rare case where something that seems too good to be true really is true.

Who is our interpreter whose task is to pry open our closed mental lids? He or she might be the translator who takes a fresh approach to an old passage, capturing the sense of the Greek or Hebrew in a way we have never heard that opens up a new world of meaning. Maybe our guide will be someone who reads a passage in a vastly different way, looking through the lens of another culture or class or political viewpoint or seeing it from the perspective of great sickness or tragedy. It could be we ourselves, as we go through different stages of life, and a passage that meant little at a younger age now begins to make sense with a few more miles or many under our feet. But the final interpreter is the Holy Spirit, given us by the crucified and risen Christ. It is that Spirit who will calm our fears, comfort us in our worry, expand our imagination, and turn our disbelieving joyful doubt into blazing, fierce, and still joyful confidence.

So Jesus is the key to Scripture. We become open to its message with the help of an interpreter. And finally, our understanding of the Bible is ongoing. It’s an unfinished conversation. Resurrection keeps happening as we embody the truth, as we “inhabit the truth,” as someone has put it. 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).

Fresh comprehension and new interpretations grow out of our experiences, starting right at our front door in our Jerusalem. It is going out in mission, being witnesses, that shows us the meaning of the Bible for real life. As we proclaim the Word, we discover anew what it means in our own context. When we confront a question no one posed before, when an issue arises that we have never addressed, when we can’t find the answer from a particular verse, what do we do? If we trust in the Spirit’s leading, we see all of that as a way that God is leading us into truth, working new life right in our midst. As Albert Schweitzer famously said: “He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: ‘Follow thou me!’ and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.”

What Bible do we read? The one that is a guide and tool for enlightenment, inclusion, and justice, not a weapon for exclusion, hatred, and condemnation. A ploughshare, not a sword. The one that tells us how God reaches out in love to the whole world in Jesus, who included those who were left out and looked down on. The one that insists we open ourselves to new truth that God may show us. The one that tells us not to be afraid. The one that reminds us that our mission is to begin in our Jerusalem and go tell the good news of the risen Christ. The one whose message of faith, hope, and love fills us with joy, so we may go on our journeys with confidence and grace.

That Bible.

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