God our refuge and strength,
you call us to give ourselves to Christ,
whether life is long or brief;
ground us in your love
and anchor us in your grace,
that we may find peace and joy
in knowing you;
this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
2 Samuel 6.1–5, 12b–19
The biblical scholars I love to read don’t go to the holy text looking for ammunition with which to win an argument or trite truisms with which to escape the day’s sorrows; they go looking for a blessing, a better way of engaging life and the world, and they don’t expect to escape that search unscathed. — Rachel Held Evans, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again, Kindle Ed., p.28
I want to ask a deceptively simple question today:
Why do we read the Bible?
I’m reading a wonderful book by Rachel Held Evans, called Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water and Loving the Bible Again. In her book, Rachel speaks of her rediscovery of the Bible after losing her love for it for awhile.
She was brought up in the American Bible Belt, which has a fairly intense relationship with the Bible. I have had a similar experience, and I know some of you have too.
You see, after I became a Christian in 1968 at a Billy Graham rally, my best friend at school invited me to his church. So I went. His church was a Brethren congregation, which I only found out once I got there. I’d heard bad news of the ‘Exclusive Brethren’, but I was assured my friend’s church was part of the ‘Open Brethren’. I soon settled in, because I was hungry for teaching.
If you don’t know much about the Brethren, think of them as ‘Baptists on Steroids’. In particular, they are fundamentalists who generally believe the Bible is inerrant and that it cannot contradict itself. The Brethren are really heavy duty. Yet they helped me to gain an excellent Bible knowledge.
But why did I read the Bible?
Back then, my answer would be to gain knowledge. I would have said that the Bible is the only source of knowledge about God.
I soon learned that there were people who were in error, people like Anglicans and Catholics, not to mention Methodists and Presbyterians. So I read the Bible to marshal arguments against such people. The Bible became a ‘blunt instrument’ for me to whack them about the head with. I loved to win arguments against those who were just plain wrong. It could be very satisfying.
In time, I became a little tired of this, especially as I began to see how much I could hurt people. But I didn’t know what else to do.
Two things made it impossible for me to keep going this way, and made me re-examine my approach to the Bible: the inconsistencies that are there in the scriptures (whatever the Brethren may say); and the way God is sometimes said to command things like genocide.
I was kept awake at night by this kind of thing because I had been taught that fundamentalist view of the Bible. Remember, a fundamentalist believes every word of the Bible was virtually dictated by God; if there seemed to be a contradiction it was only apparent. So last week, we saw that Mark said Jesus ‘could not’ do miracles in Nazareth, while Matthew changed that to ‘did not’ do miracles there. A fundamentalist might say there was no difference. But it is quite a different thing, and we have to live with it. And wrestle with it, and try to understand what it might say to us. For example, we can ask ourselves just how human are we prepared to let Jesus be…
But if every word of the Bible is true, then any inconsistency is a threat to that belief. So Mark and Matthew can’t differ. Neither can any other part of the Bible, not even in one single instance. It generated a lot of anxiety in me, trying to take the Bible seriously and keep it ‘error free’.
The other thing that bothered me was that I had to believe that God is careless of human life. There’s an example in today’s Old Testament Reading. In the bit that was left out, a man called Uzzah reaches out to stop the Ark of the Covenant from falling off a cart. God kills him on the spot for this impertinence.
I can accept this as a story to teach us that there are consequences if we fail to take what God says seriously.
I can accept that Uzzah died while they were moving the Ark.
I can’t accept that the God who came to save us through Jesus of Nazareth directly killed him.
Why do I read the Bible now?
I read it because it teaches me about Jesus Christ. I read it because it changes my heart to be more like his.
I read it with a listening heart, so the Spirit can remake me from within.
When I was inquiring about joining the Uniting Church, I became very excited about the Basis of Union. It was a breath of fresh air to me! This is part of what it says about the Bible:
The Uniting Church acknowledges that the Church has received the books of the Old and New Testaments as unique prophetic and apostolic testimony, in which it hears the Word of God and by which its faith and obedience are nourished and regulated. When the Church preaches Jesus Christ, its message is controlled by the Biblical witnesses. The Word of God on whom salvation depends is to be heard and known from Scripture appropriated in the worshipping and witnessing life of the Church.…
So: the Bible is the unique testimony in which we hear the Word of God. The Word of God without any qualification is not a book, however central it is; the Word of God is a Person, Jesus the Son of God.
The Bible points us to Jesus Christ who is The Word of God. The Bible says so:
In the beginning the Word already existed; the Word was with God, and the Word was God.… The Word became a human being and, full of grace and truth, lived among us. We saw his glory, the glory which he received as the Father’s only Son. (John 1.1, 14; GNB)
In Jesus, God’s eternal Word becomes human.
Some years ago, I was part of a Uniting Church–Muslim dialogue. They were curious about Holy Communion, so we held a service with the Muslim people present as observers. We Christians formed a circle of chairs in a little chapel, and the Muslim members of the group observed us in a wider circle.
After the service, a Muslim asked our chairperson if he had memorised the whole Bible. (It is important for Muslims to commit the Koran to memory, as for them it is the direct word of God.) The chair’s response was that memorising scripture was not as great a value among us. It was the best he could do off the cuff, but it wasn’t really a good answer.
A better answer would be that Jesus Christ is the Word of God for us, so we commit ourselves to him as our Lord and Saviour. Jesus is for us what the Koran is for Muslims. Our first love and allegiance is to Jesus and Jesus alone. At the heart of Islam is the Koran; Jesus is the heart of Christianity.
Back to scripture.
Sometimes, it’s hard to see how a passage of scripture, like that one about Uzzah, points us to Jesus Christ. Maybe then we have to prayerfully wait—and wait—for more light, rather than prematurely jump to the conclusion that God actually killed Uzzah.
Sometimes, we have to look at the context of scripture. How does it fit into the rest of the book it is in?
Take our Gospel passage today. It’s a terrible story of the abuse of power, the foolishness of those supposedly in charge, lust, hints of incest and much more. Where is the Good News in it? How does it point us to Jesus?
I’d suggest the context is the key. In other words, where does it fit in Mark’s story of Jesus? Right before this flashback to the death of John the Baptist, Jesus sends his disciples out. The story of Herod’s party shows us it’s not safe to be a messenger of the Good News. But when we read this story side by side with the death and resurrection of Jesus, we see that God is with us, even through death. Even through a terrible death.
And after this story, we have the Feeding of the Five Thousand which shows that God is able to do a great deal with whatever we have and give. If we offer our service, small as it is, God will multiply it in ways beyond our understanding.
The good news in this story may be found in the context.
Finally: 1600 years ago, back in the 400s, St Augustine had something to say about reading the Bible in On Christian Doctrine 1:36:40. He wrote
Anyone who thinks he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up the double love of God and neighbour, has not yet succeeded in understanding them.
In other words, we read the scriptures in order to love God better, God revealed to the world in Jesus Christ, God as Holy Spirit working in our lives and the life of the church.
And we read the scriptures in order to love our neighbour better.
You can have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Bible, but you do not understand the Bible if it doesn’t lead you to love God and to love others better.
So, Augustine said, there may be a passage of scripture that may be interpreted differently by different people. I may see it one way, you see it another. Yet even though we disagree, the scripture is meant to lead us to love one another. You may be right, I may be wrong. We should love each other. I may be right, you may be wrong; we should love each other.
In other words, let’s live together in love even though we disagree.
That’s part of what it means for us to let scripture lead us to love God and love our neighbour also.
We’ve heard about the same sex marriage debate the Assembly has had this past week. Differing interpretations of scripture play a large part in the disagreements between people. St Augustine would counsel us to live in peace with our differing understandings. He would counsel us to be a church that puts love of God and love of neighbour at the centre, and ahead of our particular view of scripture.
So why do we read the Bible?
To grow in the double love of God and our neighbour.
To grow in the grace of Jesus, the word of God, who has become our Lord and Saviour.
To live in the Spirit of Jesus, who is the Holy Spirit of God.
Not to use our interpretation of particular verses of the Bible as a club to beat others about the head with.
We’re going to hear more of this down the track. There may be those who counsel us in drastic ways. My counsel is, Do not listen to them. We can live together even with very different interpretations of scripture, because we recognise in one another the same love of Jesus Christ. And that’s part of what it means to be a ‘Uniting’ Church.
Preached at Wellington Point Uniting Church, 15 July 2018
Last wek, in its triennial Assembly, the Uniting Church determined to allow those who felt called to do so could marry same-sex couples. The pastoral letter from the President, Dr Deirdre Palmer, may be sound at https://uniting.church/freedom-to-decide-on-marriage