2 Timothy 3. 14–17
John 1.1–4, 14–18
It is part of the joy and glory of the Churches of the Reformation that they have come to speak of the Church not only as reformata (reformed) but as ecclesia semper reformanda (a Church always to be reformed). This constant reformation is to be by the Word of God, not by laws and precedents once derived from God’s Word, but by hearing now what God the Lord would say.…
The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments contain all things necessary to salvation, they announce to us the Name and Purpose of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and declare the mighty acts of God in reconciling the world through Jesus, who alone without qualification can be called the Word of God.‘The Church: Its Nature, Function and Ordering’, in Robert Bos and Geoff Thompson, Theology for Pilgrims
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. The Uniting Church lays upon its members the serious duty of reading the Scriptures, commits its ministers to preach from these and to administer the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as effective signs of the Gospel set forth in the Scriptures.Basis of Union, 1992 version
Today’s theme in our series on the Uniting Church is what the Basis of Union says about the Bible. And about the Word of God.
But before I talk about that, I’d like to back up a bit and give a little testimony about my own journey.
I’ve mentioned before that I was converted at a Billy Graham rally in 1968. A few months later, I found myself going to a little fundamentalist church in Brisbane. There, it was clear what the ‘Word of God’ was: it was the Bible. Every word was the Word of God. The Bible was inerrant. Every word was true, and there were no contradictions.
So: when people found out I was going to leave them for the Uniting Church, one of the first reactions some of them had was ‘But they don’t believe the Bible in the Uniting Church!’ And there was plenty of evidence, as far as my fundamentalist friends were concerned. The Uniting Church had women ministers. They baptised infants. They got involved in politics.
All signs, they said, of a bad attitude to the Bible.
Now, if you google ‘fundamentalism’, you’ll find a lot of derogatory statements online. There’s no need for that; and anyway, since I left my old fundamentalist church, I have reconnected with some old friends from those days. They don’t deserve to be called names. Our goal as Christians is reconciliation, not to run other people down.
I’ve already mentioned that word ‘inerrant’. An inerrant Bible is totally free of any errors or mistakes or contradictions. According to one statement,
This inerrancy isn’t just in passages that speak about salvation, but also applies to all historical and scientific statements as well. It is not only accurate in matters related to faith and practice, but it is accurate and without error regarding any statement, period (John 3:12).
(I don’t actually see how John 3.12 refers to inerrancy.)
Now, as a young person who embraced fundamentalism this troubled me. I had become an avid reader of the Bible, and it didn’t take me long to find a contradiction or three.
There was always an explanation for these contradictions. I tried really hard to find all of them convincing. But they didn’t convince me.
And it would take only one contradiction to wreck the whole inerrancy thing. A Bible with even one contradiction was no longer inerrant.
It felt to me like a house of cards. One big puff could blow it all down.
When I was nearing the end of year 12, I toyed with taking a Batchelor of Divinity course at Uni. I remember one lady advising me to go to a Bible College instead, because if I took the university course I would lose my faith.
I suspect she would think I have lost my faith. And in a sense I have — I lost the fundamentalist faith. But I was able to keep my faith in Jesus, despite the loss of an inerrant Bible. How I travelled that journey is a longer story, and includes the reading of non fundamentalist biblical writers who just made more sense, joining the House of Freedom here in West End, and then the Uniting Church.
In all this, the Basis of Union became a bedrock part of my story. When I first read the Basis, I was excited by its vision. I read what it says about the Scriptures; so when I joined the Uniting Church, I honestly believed I was joining a church that had no fundamentalists in it at all.
Doesn’t God have a great sense of humour? Of course there are fundamentalists in the Uniting Church! As I said last week, we are a broad church.
The Uniting Church has fundamentalist believers; yet I’m not sure how they square that with what the Basis of Union says. (No offence intended!)
Perhaps if we look at what the Basis says about the Scriptures, we’ll see more of what I mean. The Basis says
The Uniting Church acknowledges that the Church has received the books of the Old and New Testaments as unique prophetic and apostolic testimony …
In ‘Basis-speak’, ‘receive’ is a very strong word. We receive ‘the books of the Old and New Testaments‘ from God.
Now, it’s good to realise that the Bible isn’t a book; the Bible is a library of books. It contains different kinds of literature: Gospels, histories, prophecy, letters, poetry of praise and lament, and much more. Not everything in this library should be read the same way.
The Basis says this library of books is ‘unique prophetic and apostolic testimony’. There’s no other book like the Bible! The Bible is a unique testimony of people to the Word of God they heard. It’s a unique prophetic — Old Testament — and apostolic— New Testament — testimony ‘in which it [the Uniting Church] hears the Word of God’.
As this unique testimony, the Bible nourishes and regulates the Church’s faith and obedience. We can’t do without the Bible.
The Basis of Union also says this:
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.
‘The Word of God on whom salvation depends…’ Is there a typo there? Shouldn’t it be the Word of God on which salvation depends?
No. First and foremost, the Word of God is not the Bible. The Word of God ‘without qualification’ is Jesus Christ. The Bible says so!
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … And the Word became flesh, and lived among us …
This is from the first chapter of the Gospel According to John; it is most likely a well-known hymn that was chanted by John’s community in worship.
‘In the beginning was the Word …’ The Greek word for ‘Word’ is Logos. We use logos a lot in English. Theology, words about God; geology, words about the earth; biology, words about living things.
If this were a lecture, I’d go into the Greek and Jewish backgrounds of the word logos. (Honestly, it’s fascinating stuff!) But since it’s a sermon, I want to ask this question:
What are the words that the The Word speaks? What are words straight, if you like, from God’s mouth?
Let me suggest a few words from The Word.
In John’s Gospel:
I am the bread of life.
I am the resurrection and the life.
Also contained within the pages of John, Jesus says to the woman caught in adultery:
I do not condemn you. Go, and sin no more.
This is what he says to you and me today.
And in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus the Word-made-flesh says
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven …
In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.
When the risen Jesus appears to the disciples in the upper room, he says
Peace be with you.
Receive the Holy Spirit,
which is the Spirit of Jesus himself.
And today still, Jesus says to us ‘Peace be with you’ and breathes his Spirit into us.
God’s Word is living and active. (Hebrews 4.12)
The Word made flesh is the One who served those on the edges, who brought — and brings — good news to the poor, who opposed hypocrisy and who died naked and in agony on a rubbish heap outside the city. A place where decent people, nice people, good people, didn’t go. But the Word went there.
So if Jesus is the Word of God, then we must learn to read the Scriptures through his eyes.
We need to read the Scriptures looking for good news for the poor, for rescue for those who are sinking below the waves of life, for love for the unloveable. For challenges to love our neighbour as ourselves, and to love even our enemies.
When we read Scripture this way, it becomes three dimensional. When we read stories of genocide, we read them with the aid of the Spirit of Jesus. If we read something that makes us question God’s love, we ask Does the Spirit of Jesus really endorse this? Or do we have to wrestle with this Scripture? Let’s wrestle together!
The Basis of Union goes on to say ‘The Uniting Church … commits its ministers to preach from’ the Scriptures. After all, they are the ‘unique prophetic and apostolic testimony’ to Jesus, the Word of God. Preachers must wrestle with the Bible.
The Basis also says ‘The Uniting Church lays upon its members the serious duty of reading the Scriptures …’
Did you know that? Reading Scripture is not an optional extra for Uniting Church people. Reading Scripture is a ‘serious duty’.
Allowing the Spirit of Jesus to convert us through reading this ‘unique prophetic and apostolic witness’ to the Word of God is crucial to life on the Way of Jesus.
Fortunately, there is a lot of material to help. Let me suggest With Love to the World, which you can order as a booklet or download as an app. It looks at the readings for the coming Sunday plus other readings, and it is produced by some Uniting Church people in New South Wales.
Let me finish with a story. A few years ago, I was a member of a dialogue group between Muslims and the Uniting Church in Queensland. On one occasion, one of our Muslim friends told our chairperson that he had memorised the whole Koran. He asked our chair if he had memorised the Bible. I was glad I wasn’t the one put on the spot! My friend’s reply was that memorising the Bible wasn’t as valued among us as much as memorising the Koran was by Muslims.
Now, that’s true. And the Muslim man seemed reasonably satisfied. But looking back, I believe there’s a fuller answer that could be given.
Muslims value the Koran as the Word of God, words dictated by God. For us, the Word of God is Jesus Christ. So, just as a Muslim wants to have the Koran in their heart, so we want Jesus — not only his words, but his Spirit — in our heart.
That may shock some Christians. It might shock conservative Christians, who are used to calling the Bible ‘the Word of God’, who in fact think the Bible was dictated by God.
So, can we call the Bible the Word of God? Yes, but in a secondary sense. The Word of God without any qualification is the Word made flesh, Jesus who is the risen crucified One.
But I may have shocked some progressive Christians too, Christians who value Jesus’ moral teachings but do not want to call Jesus The Word of God. They may be nervous about making absolute claims for Jesus.
What we have here may be a failure to understand. Let me put it this way: Jesus — the rejected, crucified One, who was cast out by the powers that be — he is the Word of God. The Word comes to us from the edges, from the margins of life. From the powerless, not the powers that be.
This Word is a word of inclusion and reconciliation, a word of grace. The Word of God is Jesus of Nazareth, and so we see God through Jesus. We do not reject those who are formed through other religions, or through no religion; we see them through the Spirit of Jesus within and among us. We extend the grace of Jesus to all.
So: when the Basis of Union says ‘Word of God’, it means ‘Jesus Christ, the risen crucified One’. What did I become when I was ordained a minister of the Word? A minister is a servant; does ‘minister of the Word’ mean ‘servant of the Bible’? No. It means ‘servant of Jesus Christ, the risen crucified One’.
I invite you to read the Bible through the lens of Jesus Christ, the risen crucified Word of God. You may even think of Jesus as the glasses you wear as you read the Scriptures. Amen.
West End Uniting Church 15 November 2020