A Sermon: Reading the Bible Together

Here’s a lightly edited version of this past Sunday’s sermon at New Community Covenant Church.

As a church we say that, “We desire to listen and submit to the Scripture, God’s revealed Word for His beloved children.” There are at least two important assumptions within this statement. The first is that God reveals himself through the Bible. God, being God, is so different from us that anything we know about God must be revealed by God. And though we don’t believe God has showed us everything about himself, as Christians we believe he has revealed enough for us to know him and experience his love and salvation. He has done this most importantly through his son. John’s gospel records Jesus’ praying,

“Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.” [John 17:25-26]

Jesus, we believe, reveals God’s love and destroys every barrier to our knowing that love.

In addition to revealing himself through Jesus, Christians also believe that God is revealed through the Bible. Now, before describing what this means it’s important to note what this doesn’t mean. I said before that there are two assumptions within our statement about Scripture. These are not proofs. Attempting to objectively prove the Bible as God’s revelation can quickly devolve to a circular logic that may comfort the convinced but does little to convince the skeptical. History, archeology, and biblical studies can make the case the Bible should be taken seriously, but none of these can prove definitely that it is in fact God’s revelation. And for most of Christian history this hasn’t been a concern. It’s only in the more recent decades that Christians have felt the pressure to play on the field of enlightenment skepticism. In the past, and hopefully still, Christians were mostly concerned with living the sorts of surprising lives that made plausible the Bible’s claim of revelation. So again, as we consider the Bible as God’s revelation I’m not setting out to prove anything.

In 2 Peter 1:20-21 we read,

Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

Christians use different words to talk about the dynamic Peter is describing, but the critical thing to see is the presence of the Holy Spirit. We simply cannot talk about the Bible without talking about the Holy Spirit. The authors of Scripture, says Peter, were carried along by the Spirit. The Spirit inspired their writings. And the same Spirit inspires our reading.

Yale professor of history Lamin Sanneh has pointed out that one of the unique attributes of the Christianity is how its holy scriptures are so frequently translated. Few of us are fluent in the Bible’s original languages, and that’s OK. Sanneh points out that Christian translation of the Bible into people’s indigenous language is what allows the Bible to speak particularly to that people. The Spirit translates the Bible – whether it’s into an entire language or into the context of our lives.

12 Years A Slave
12 Years A Slave

One of the many historical accuracies represented in 12 Years a Slave is how the slave masters (or the pastors on their payrolls) used the Bible to preach a message of submission by the slave to the master. Professor Brian K. Blount writes about this in Then the Whisper Put on Flesh.

“Their owners wanted them to perceive reality as they had constructed it; the slave lot in life was not only mandated by law, but was foreordained by God. God backed the bonds that held their lives in check. God made white folks free and gave them stewardship over any and every black person they could afford. In an attempt to draw God’s role as an accomplice even more sharply, slave owners and the theologians who supported them offered the Bible as the state’s primary piece of evidence for the secondary status of black Africans and, therefore, the divine prerogative of white Americans.”

We understand this abhorrent tactic. The ones with power manipulated a supposedly holy book for oppressive means. Yet, as Blount goes on to recount, something else happened. The message heard by the enslaved women and men was different than the one they heard preached.

“Jesus is an even closer companion to the slave believer because Jesus suffered as the slave suffers; Jesus can understand the pain, the tragedy, the hopelessness, the sorrow, and most important, the hope. Only one who has suffered as much can hope as steadfastly, and, if given the power that Jesus has been given, drive that hope toward a transformed – that is, liberated – reality. All of a sudden, Jesus’ monumental death on the cross and his resurrection from the grave, while continuing to signal human liberation from sin, take on the added significance of breaking the authority of the principalities and powers who preside over the institution of slavery.”

Despite the slave master’s best attempt to use the Bible to keep the slave in her place, history shows a different result: the slave encounters a liberating God who once led the Hebrew children from slavery in Egypt and who, through the power of his crucified and resurrected Son, would lead her from this new Egypt. Here we see Gods promise in Isaiah 55:11 come to miraculous fruition:” [M]y word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”

It is the Holy Spirit who inspired the biblical authors and the Spirit who makes possible our reading and understanding. Which brings us to the second assumption: The Bible is for our good. We can see this in Paul’s letter to the younger Timothy.  “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” [2 Timothy 3:16-17]

To be clear, the Bible doesn’t always seem that is for our good. The Bible is God’s story; one that has many twists and turns, one that we won’t always understand. It is a collection of books of ancient history, epic poetry, and narrative set within contexts that could not be more different than Chicago in 2014. It is a book that contains multiple perspectives on the same events, perspectives on God that make us squirm, and literary genres that have little comparison in our day. Despite the attempts by some to make the Bible a handy collection of answers to hard questions or inspirational sayings to help get you through a hard day, the Bible is ultimately not about us; it is about God. It is his story and is as surprising, beautiful, complicated, frustrating, and convicting as any story about God must be.

Despite the discomfort, squirming, and confusing bits, the Bible is still for our good: teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training. And there is an end to this good. Paul writes that we are equipped for every good work. In other words, the only proper Bible study is one that leads to righteous action.

So what is our action – our response – to these two assumptions about the Bible? As a church we say that we desire to listen and submit to the Scripture. Here we find at least two right responses. First, we listen to God’s story together. Hear the language Paul uses in Colossians 3:16

“Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.”

There are many ways people respond to the Bible. Some attempt to master its content. Others pull it out during a spiritual emergency. Many of us simply feel guilty for not reading it enough, whatever enough might me. In contrast to these responses we use the word listen. After all, Paul’s language is relational: the word dwells among us; we respond to this word with words of our own: teaching, admonishing, and singing. Given our two assumptions, we expect God to speak through the Bible, so we listen. And we listen together.

Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr on their way to prison.
Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr on their way to prison.

Fifty years ago Rev. Martin Luther King wrote is now-famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail. He was responding to group of white clergymen who had publically questioned King’s tactics and – though they may not have realized it – his theology. In response to their criticism of his presence in Birmingham King wrote,

“But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.”

What if those white ministers had regularly sat around a table with their African American colleagues and simply listened to the Bible together. They never would have written that letter. Their understanding of what God was doing would have been very different. They would have realized that their singular translation of the Bible was missing some critical elements.

Baked into the a Christian understanding of God’s revelation through the Bible is the implication that we will always have a fuller understanding of God’s revelation when we hear others whose backgrounds differ from our own read and interpret the Bible.

But here’s the challenge: In America it has been assumed that the readings and interpretations of the majority culture – typically white, male, and middle class – is the normal way to read & interpret the Bible. This has many implications as we’ve seen already. One of those is that those of you who are not white, male, and middle class have been told that your reading of the Bible must conform to mine. That’s a lie! For our church to be fully whom God has called us, we need you to listen to the Bible from the particularities of your own story: our experience of gender; race; cultural foundations; the length of time you’ve been in this country. All of these matter and we need you to speak from these places. Lord knows we don’t need more white, male perspectives unless – like me – you are a white man. In which case – like me- you’d do well to listen well to your sisters and brothers who have experienced the world in very different ways.

Our second response to God’s revealed word in the Bible is that we submit. In 2 Peter 3:14-16 the church is told, in response to the Scripture, to “make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him.” Because this is God’s story we can expect to be challenged by it again and again. So Peter writes that we are to make every effort as we respond to the Scripture, despite the difficulties and challenges we encounter.

It’s one thing to acknowledge the Holy Spirit’s role in the Bible’s writing and even our understanding. But when it comes to applying – to submitting – we act as though this is up to us, on our shoulders. But it’s not and this is why even a hard word – submit – a word few of us like, is a good word. For it is God who gives us the wisdom, strength, and stamina to live new and better lives in response to the Bible.

The Bible is for our good, so we can trust that our submission to it leads to healing, joy, and abundant life. Submission to the Bible by those women & men of African descent did not mean submission to the slave master’s twisted theology. Submission to the Holy Spirit-fired scriptures meant dignity; it meant resistance; it meant subversive songs; it meant escape; it even meant revolt.

The call to submit our stories to God’s story should not overwhelm us. After all, the same Spirit who inspired the writing of the Bible and our reading of the Bible is the Spirit who inspires our action, our response, and our submission.

Where is God’s Word calling you to submit to God’s Story?

6 thoughts on “A Sermon: Reading the Bible Together

  1. This is great, David. And true of so much more than gender, race, and income. Each of us, whether we are white middle-class males or not, have our own personal history, our own sinful tendencies, our own personalities, and everything else that makes each person created by God entirely unique.

    I offer these as additional to the gender, race, and income differences; not to minimize how dramatically those three have divided. These words are true for any differences between believers, seen and unseen.

    Thanks for sharing these great insights.

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