The Bible and People
Morning Service, to include the baptism of Samuel Schofield, led by our Minister.
This sermon is taken from John 21, verses 15-22 and Psalm 119, verses 33-40
The Bible and People
“Bibles that are falling to pieces,” it is said, “are generally owned by people who are not.”
The Bible has been a guide, an inspiration, a lifeline in times of trouble to millions of men and women. And yes, generally speaking, the more we open it and engage with it, the deeper the quality of life we gain from it. Two and a half thousand years ago, the writer of Psalm 119 wrote this prayer, praising the value of the Holy Scriptures. He believed that, through its pages, God spoke to his people. And we believe that through THESE pages, God still speaks to his people.
But a question that is often asked is why, if the Bible is the divinely inspired word of God, do different people understand what the Bible is saying in different ways? You may have heard Christian people quoting verses from the Bible to back up a statement they are making. “What I am saying has got to be right because it is in the Bible.”
OK, but when Wilberforce led the campaign against slavery, both the people who were anti-slavery and the people who were pro-slavery quoted from the Bible. When Millicent Fawcett led the campaign for women to be allowed to vote, both sides of the debate quoted from the Bible. When Martin Luther-King campaigned against racial segregation, his supporters and his opponents quoted from the Bible. The Palestinians and the Israelis today on either side of their wall, quote from the Bible. The same-sex marriage debate has Christians on both sides quoting from the Bible. And this is confusing. If Luci teaches Samuel Bible stories and Bible teaching on how to live your life, she can be fairly sure that if her teaching has been good enough to make him want to explore the Bible for himself, the time will come when he is answering back and saying, “yes but Mum, what the Bible is saying here is not the same as what you were reading there.” It is a daunting prospect….
Personally, I do not find it strange that people should understand the Bible differently. We are all different people; we approach the Bible from different backgrounds. If you have ever been to a Book Club, you will know that 8 people who have all read the same book, will share 8 different ways of interpreting it. If you follow a “soap,” on TV you will find that you and your family disagree on who is the really nice character and who is the secretly nasty one. Even football matches have fans on opposite sides telling a totally different story about the referee’s decisions, not to mention his future in this life and the world to come.
That old Bible on our Communion Table is one reason why the Authorised version of the Bible was produced. The Authorised version was the one those of us over 55 grew up with. It was the one with the “thees and thous.” Some people used to believe that “Authorised” meant “authorised by God” and so protested loudly about the modern translations. But in fact the Authorised version was authorised by King James and one of the reasons was that King James did not like that Bible on our table. If you take a look at it, you will see tiny notes in the margins, encouraging people to think for themselves about what the text is saying. And free thinking, in a land that had been torn apart by religious divisions was not thought to be a good idea. (The translators had also translated the Hebrew word for Ruler into the English word, “tyrant” and King James did not like that very much either.) So although the Authorised version of the Bible is a reverent and fairly accurate translation of the Biblical texts, there was another agenda. People translating and interpreting the Bible will always be influenced by their own agendas. They cannot help it.
Fair enough: human nature is human nature but this does present us with a problem. Firstly, unlike a Book Club where each member listens with interest and respect to other people’s opinions, the Bible, being seen as a holy book, arouses seriously strong feelings. Many groups of Christians have declared that their interpretation is the one personally dictated by God, and therefore they are justified in ostracising those who disagree; in holding them up to public ridicule; in setting up deep divisions within the church; even in imprisoning, executing and going to war against those who see things differently.
But on the other hand, more than once I have been asked to go into schools and talk to teenagers about our church’s views on abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, same sex marriage- all in 45 minutes. What they want are a series of tweet-sized statements on what our church believes. But the URC does not work like that. What I have is a weighty committee report on each subject, which will take hours to wade through and ends up telling you that you must make your own decision. And you can see that some teenagers feel let down by this. They have an essay to write. They want a few decisive quotes. And at their age they tend to think that religion should be about certainty.
The URC has been accused of being too wishy-washy about its beliefs and standpoints. Are we pedalling a “believe what you want” religion? A “do as you please” morality? A Bible that is not worth the paper it is written on because you can read into it anything you jolly well like? And a more rigorous approach is not just about strong-willed people waging war on their opponents; it is also about people in serious need searching for something real, something true to hold onto when life is tossing them about in deep darkness. What can we hold out to the men and women who are grieving; to those who are in pain; to those who are scared stiff? What can we offer our youth who are caught between a culture of greed and a culture of violence? When my youngest brother was born, the midwife who was a Christian and a family friend gave him a Bible in which she had written that this was “the most precious gift his nurse could give him.” How can we share the precious truths of the Bible with our children without pushing them into an unhappy religious bigotry on the one hand or into a rather sickly “pick and mix” approach on the other?
Let’s look at the story of Peter. He had been one of Jesus’ closest friends and most loyal followers. But he had had strong views- mostly reflected in the scriptures he had grown up with- on what he thought Jesus should be and what he thought Jesus should do. More than once Jesus had to tell him as nicely as possible to shut up because he did not understand what he was talking about. Then, when the crunch came, Peter let Jesus down. As Jesus stood trial for his life in front of a corrupt court, Peter, waiting outside, denied three times that he knew him. Jesus had forgiven Peter but Peter had not forgiven himself. Nor, if the truth be told, could he really reconcile himself to what had happened. Peter had expected a Saviour who would stand up for himself and fight back against his enemies. This was, after all, what his own holy Bible had told him to expect. So why did Jesus end up on a cross?
As we came into the story, Jesus is asking Peter if he loves him. The Greek word Jesus used for love was Agape, the very deepest, self-giving love. Jesus is asking for the total trust and obedience, that comes from this kind of love. And he is not asking it as some super-egotist who cannot be content without everyone bowing and scraping around him. He is asking this of Peter because this is how he (Jesus) loves Peter; with total understanding of who and what Peter is; with a complete commitment to giving Peter his life back and setting him on the right tracks. And Jesus knows that unless Peter can love him with all his heart and soul and mind and strength, he will never understand who Jesus really is and what Jesus is really all about.
Peter tries to respond. He says “you know I love you,” but he uses a different Greek verb. It is still translated as “love” but it expresses more a friendly love, a love which will have its limits. Jesus does not argue; he gives him a command: Feed my sheep. Maybe Jesus realises that in loving and reaching out to others, Peter will learn how to love him more.
And I wonder if this is the crucial criteria with which we should approach the Bible as the Word of God?
Not as a text to prove our a particular point of view because we have to accept that we all come to the Bible from a different place and with a different personal agenda.
Not to construct a neatly parcelled, unchangeable religion because faith in God is about an ongoing relationship with God and the best relationships evolve through the years.
But to open the Bible in the hopes of being able to feed the people God loves. To start from the understanding that God is love and that God is deeply and passionately involved with the human race. You cannot look at the person of Jesus Christ and deny that. And so we turn to the Bible-God’s Word- searching for spiritual food with which we can feed hungry people. And there are a lot of hungry people out there: people crying out for truth, for love, for justice, for hope, for faith. The URC may be accused of being too wishy-washy in its statements of religious belief but our leaders at Church House are usually among the first to make a public comment on peace and justice or issues of social concern. And their comment is generally backed up by carefully thought- out Biblical teaching.
When we talk of feeding hungry people, we are not talking about a kind pat on the shoulder or a few texts of peace and comfort; that is nowhere near enough. People need to understand what the Bible can teach them about God and his relationship with the human race; what the Bible can teach them about lasting peace with justice; what the Bible can teach them about the hope of everlasting life; what the Bible can teach them about suffering and faith; what the Bible can teach them about forgiveness and renewal; what the Bible can teach them about who they are. And I believe that, if we search for this teaching out of love for our world and its people, we shall find it. And yes, there will almost certainly be complex and difficult teaching to encounter but if we are searching with eyes and hearts of love, we shall discover the true and transforming Word of God.
As their conversation comes to an end, Peter looks round and sees John, another disciple, walking behind them. “What about him?” he asks. John appears to have been a very different person to Peter and they did in fact end up doing very different forms of ministry. Peter worked as a travelling evangelist and also as a leader of great influence in the wider church; John became the quiet pastor of a local church. Both loved Jesus. Both followed Jesus. Both did their utmost to feed the people in their care. So, as Jesus pointed out, Peter did not have to keep looking over his shoulder to see if everyone else was doing and thinking the same as him. His work was to follow the path Jesus showed him and leave Jesus to open the way that was right for John. So far as we know, despite doing very different work and almost certainly holding slightly different views on their faith, they never appeared to have cause to fall out and certainly neither could be accused of being wishy washy in their beliefs.
So let me finish with one of the most famous stories about Peter. The first Christian churches were exclusively made up of Jewish converts. So they kept all the Jewish laws and rituals, whilst worshipping Jesus Christ as the Messiah long promised to the Jewish nation. They saw no reason to involve anyone who was not a Jew by birth.
Then one day, when Peter was on his travels, he had a strange dream. He dreamed that he saw a whole lot of animals, declared by Jewish law to be unclean that is, unfit for human consumption. In his dream he was hungry and he heard a voice telling him to kill and eat one of these animals. “But I have never eaten any meat that is unclean,” he protested.
And the voice replied “you should not call unclean what God has called clean.”
Peter was woken up by someone knocking at the door. It was messengers from a Roman Officer named Cornelius. Cornelius was a good man and he had a deep hunger to know God and to learn the truth about God. He had heard of this Jesus Christ and wanted to know more. In his dream he was told to ask for a man called Peter.
The laws written in Peter’s holy scripture said that he must not enter the house of a Gentile. But Peter, thinking of his dream and remembering the love Jesus had always shown to people believed to be “unclean,” went to Cornelius’ house to meet him. They shared their strange stories and Peter, in explaining the person and message of Jesus to Cornelius, found himself moving on fast in his own beliefs and understanding. God was not just the God of the Jews but of the world. Jesus Christ had come to save the world. And, the story goes, the gift of the Holy Spirit- the Spirit of God- filled these Gentiles. They and those who had come with Peter knew themselves to be of one faith, one heart, one mind. And the Christian church became multi-racial.
Peter looked at what he had learned from his scriptures with love. Even in the Old Testament- his Bible- there were words accepting people of all nations into the family of God. As Peter looked on Cornelius with love, he understood where his Bible had been leading. He recognised the Spirit of God, seen in many mighty leaders of his old faith, now coming to birth in this Roman Officer. And he knew that he and the Christian church must move on. If he had not, then we might well not have been in this church today.
There is power in the Bible, real power and real passion. And it deserves to be treated as such. But, as God made himself known to us through the love of Jesus, let us seek out his truth in the power of his love.