Basics of Faith 2 – June 27, 2017
A Sermon by Rev. M. Gayle MacDonald
Lessons read on June 27: Psalm 78, Part 1 (Voices United #792);
2 Timothy 1:1-7; Matthew 12:1-13
There was a time when the Bible, though a key document in the teachings of the Christian church – as the Hebrew Scriptures (or Old Testament) was/is in the Jewish faith - there was a time when the Bile was not readily available to read and pray over and interpret. Only people who could read had direct access to the scriptures and those people were priests, scribes, and sometimes teachers and very wealthy people who may have had tutors to teach them to read and to count, as well as the rudiments of whatever was considered a suitable education for their role in the world.
For a long time, ordinary folk were not encouraged to read the scripture because it was considered too deep for the ordinary mind to understand without interpretation. Two events changed that very rapidly. One was the Reformation movement of the 16th century of which Martin Luther was a key figure. There were others, but he is the main one we look to since the United Church is among what we call the reformed denominations. The other was the invention of the printing press in the same era, so that the Bible could then be mass produced, instead of having to be painstakingly copied by hand.
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenberg door in Germany. Though there were other scholars and clergy who were to reform the Roman Church from within and without; this act of Martin Luther pushed the Reformation into the public consciousness.
While the Bible played a central role in Martin Luther’s attempts to reform the Roman Church at the turn of the sixteenth century; as it did for various other reformation movements taking place; it was the excesses in material wealth of the papacy at that time, and the practice of indulgences that Martin Luther criticized and he did it on October 31, the eve of All Saints, because that was the day that some clergy would extract payment from people to “buy” salvation for their dead loved ones. These indulgences, as they were called were the main point of criticism, but only part of the 95 points or theses that got him excommunicated from the Roman Church.
Martin Luther had friends in high places and, in fear for his life, he was hidden for a number of years. During this time, he translated the Bible into everyday German, sometimes disguising himself and going to the market to find the vernacular words to make the Bible easy to read and accessible to Germans.
Since the printing press was invented in Germany about 50 years earlier, multiple copies Martin Luther’s translation could be printed in German as could his later books of theology. He was widely read. In our terms, he became a bestselling author. His books were printed and sold in the hundreds of thousands in his life-time and are still sold today as important books of theology in the context of Christian History.
Luther continued to study and write and teach. He was recognized as clergy; though he no longer was within the realm of the Roman Church. The Bible was central in the formation of Martin Luther’s faith and influencing the direction of the Protestant Reformation
So the Bible!
Bible – from the Latin “biblia, but ultimately from Koine Greek τὰ βιβλίαta biblia "the books", a word which itself is derived from the Greek word for paper or scrolls.
Koine Greek is the langue in which most of the New Testament was written – that and Aramaic. The Old Testament or Hebrew Scripture was written in Hebrew.
The Bible is not one book, but a collection of books covering a historical period of approximately 6000 years, ending about 130 years after the estimated birth date of Jesus. The earliest written manuscript of the Hebrew Scripture dates to only 2000 years ago.
The Bible was written by different authors at different times, in different communities and in different styles, and much of it was edited by other people before it was accepted in its present form.
I know someone who some years ago decided they would read the Bible from start to finish, a discipline I have not managed myself. When they had finished the very last chapter, after only a couple of weeks, they said, “the Bible is full of contradictions”.
Surprise!!! Why shouldn’t it be so considering the history of its making? Would we expect the writing of one author to agree completely with the writing of another author? Not likely. And how boring if we all held the same perspective!
Each book has its own purpose. There are books of law and instruction, of history, actual letters, books of prophecy and books of wisdom. The wisdom books contain poetry, proverbs, and stories with a moral or teaching purpose.
We sometimes say that parts of the Bible have a mythic dimension, and that requires explanation. A myth is really a story meant to illustrate a truth which is beyond words. To say something is a myth is not to say it is untrue – it is to say it has an elevated meaning which is expressed as story.
The people of the ancient middle east would have understood this and would have felt no need to quarrel with the author about literal details, unlike my friend who read the Bible in one go, from beginning to end, expecting to hear a coherent story.
The Bible, as we call this collection of sacred or holy books, has been used to justify wars, to justify slavery, to outlaw homosexuality and too often, to keep women in their place. As the church has struggled with these issues it has also had to struggle with the Bible and its place in the history of our faith as well as its use, and too often, its abuse within the teachings of the church.
The United Church of Canada has taken the stand that is iterated in second Timothy, Chapter 3:
16 All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.
We acknowledge the importance of the Gospels as a record of Jesus who is “the word made flesh”. We continue to teach that the Bible was inspired by God who is infallible, but written by people who are fallible; but, as we seek understanding, we also acknowledge the importance of Jesus, of the church community, of prayer and of our own acquired knowledge.
The advent of Jesus began a new chapter in Biblical history. When John says that Jesus is the Word made flesh, he means that the word of God that the people seek by listening to prophets and scribes on how to be God’s people is both visible and realized in the life of Jesus. If the written word is confusing, seek out the living word made flesh in the life of Jesus.
When we become confused in debates of what is right or wrong according to Biblical writing, we are really debating what learned men at a specific time in history felt God was instructing. Our fall back is to look to the Gospels. When we look to the life and teachings of Jesus for a final say, there is silence on many of the questions for which we seek answers.
That does not mean there isn’t instruction, for the instruction which Jesus gives is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves as the intent of what was written down before him. This simple, yet complex sum of the teachings of our faith is the light we shine of the rest of the writings in the Bible and on our own lives.
Do we then reject the parts of the Bible that no longer seem to us to be just; or that seem unusually cruel? Yes, and no. This is the past, the stories and the history which carried us on our journey thus far. There is no need to re-write the stories, or throw them out.
These are stories of people struggling with right and wrong in their time and place. The story of the people of faith is a never-ending story. Some things taken on their own and out of context make no sense, but put in their time and place they begin make some sense. Put within a story which shows a progression towards a more just and compassionate way of living, despite living in a harsh and unpredictable world, we unravel the journey and the struggles of a people trying to live faithfully. The people of God of several thousand years ago were no more perfect or complete in their understanding than we are today, and vice versa. They struggled with the truth and wrote down what they understood, and we struggle with the truth for our day.
One of the problems with this progression towards justice and compassion, towards God, is that the books of the Bible which we recognize as our most sacred Christian writing was closed and made Canon by the end of the fourth century, but we have continued as a species to grow and change, I hope, in our journey towards wisdom and understanding, in the journey of love.
The Bible is only one of the ways we come to understand God and the people of God. We also have at our disposal, the community that meets and prays and learns together; we have prayer and reflection; and we have the knowledge of our own education and experience. These are the tools by which we come to see and hear and understand God.
The Bible remains a the key document of our faith, and it should. It retains its power to inspire and instruct. The Bible is best read prayerfully, and not discarding what you already know of truth and justice and compassion, but with a willingness to remain open and to struggle with the text and with our own conscience.
This library of inspiration and information is not literal fact the way we understand the word “literal”, and yet is contains truth. It is the sacred story of people who were inspired to set down the truth as they understood it for their time and place for the benefit of generations to come – and, therefore, the words contained in here are true for them and, and as such, become a place of learning and inspiration for us.
United Church of Canada Statements and Creeds on the Nature of God
1925 - Basis of Union:
2.3.2 Article II . Of Revelation. We believe that God has revealed Himself in nature, in history, and in the heart of man; that He has been graciously pleased to make clearer revelation of Himself to men of God who spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit; and that in the fullness of time He has perfectly revealed Himself in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, who is the brightness of the Father’s glory and the express image of His person . We receive the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, given by inspiration of God, as containing the only infallible rule of faith and life, a faithful record of God’s gracious revelations, and as the sure witness of Christ .
1940 – Statement of Faith, 1940
2.4.9 IX. The Holy Scriptures We believe that the great moments of God’s revelation and communication of Himself to men are recorded and interpreted in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament . We believe that, while God uttered His Word to man in many portions progressively, the whole is sufficient to declare His mind and will for our salvation . To Israel He made Himself known as a holy and righteous God and a Savior; the fullness of truth and grace came by Jesus Christ . The writings were collected and preserved by the Church . We believe that the theme of all Holy Scripture is the redemptive purpose and working of God, and that herein lies its unity . We believe that in Holy Scripture God claims the complete allegiance of our mind and heart; that the full persuasion of the truth and authority of the Word of God contained in the Scripture is the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts; that, using Holy Scripture, the Spirit takes of the things of Christ and shows them unto us for our spiritual nourishment and growth in grace . So we acknowledge in Holy Scripture the true witness to God’s Word and the sure guide to Christian faith and conduct .
1968 (v. 1980, 1995) - .A New Creed - (Scripture not mentioned)
2013 – A Song of Faith
Scripture is our song for the journey, the living word
passed on from generation to generation
to guide and inspire,
that we might wrestle a holy revelation for our time and place
from the human experiences
and cultural assumptions of another era.
God calls us to be doers of the word and not hearers only.
The Spirit breathes revelatory power into scripture,
bestowing upon it a unique and normative place
in the life of the community.
The Spirit judges us critically when we abuse scripture
by interpreting it narrow-mindedly,
using it as a tool of oppression, exclusion, or hatred.
The wholeness of scripture testifies
to the oneness and faithfulness of God.
The multiplicity of scripture testifies to its depth:
two testaments, four gospels,
contrasting points of view held in tension—
all a faithful witness to the One and Triune God,
the Holy Mystery that is Wholly Love.