Our focus for the last 4 weeks has been about the Bible—how it came to be and why we take the Bible seriously, but do not have to take it literally. Would it be surprising to know that ancient people who put together this sacred library did not take it literally? They would not have conceived of such an idea. Even as the writings of the New Testament developed, a literal understanding as we understand it wasn’t the focus.
Last week I shared a story about a mom who, after taking a seminary class on the New Testament, said she was going to put warning stickers in her children’s Bibles: “Remember this book was written by human beings with agendas.” That statement is not necessarily a negative statement. In our day, however, it might be. Why? We are a nation of diversity—diverse people, diverse ideas, diverse understandings of faith and spirituality, diverse agendas. Perhaps more so politically, those agendas are seen as being on one side or the other. The Democratic agenda, the Republican agenda, the liberal or conservative agenda, politically correct agenda, the Tea party agenda. We probably have an agenda for just about everything. Agendas aren’t bad or good—they are agendas.
The Bible was written by human beings with agendas. The prophets had an agenda—help the children of Israel, the Hebrews, reconcile with God. The Gospel writers had an agenda—convince their readers Jesus was who he said he was and more importantly, following the way of Jesus would change you. The Church has had an agenda—to connect people to God through Jesus. That agenda got more and more complicated as people tried to figure out the right way to make that connection and began to determine the Bible had the formula. The tension has not been resolved. Perhaps it can’t be. Perhaps we have to find a way to live with each other in the midst of the tension.
While we have by no means covered all there is to know about the Bible, we learned it is a library that was first handed down by oral storytelling and has been collected in written form over the last 3,000 years. We learned context is important when reading the Bible. We also learned there is often more than one version of the story or event. We heard the story of creation, what we call the beginning. Now I want to share a portion of the last book in the library we know as the Bible. Keep in mind the order isn’t chronological. Revelation is the last writing in the New Testament. From chapter 21:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.2And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; 4he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” 5And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.”6Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.
The Bible is not about proof. To treat the Bible as though it “proves” things is to misunderstand it. The Bible does not examine creation and conclude that God is the creator. The Bible does not review Israel’s history and conclude that God redeems. The Bible does not probe the history of the church and prove that Jesus is Savior. The Bible asserts that God is creator and then derives statements about creation. The Bible confesses that God redeems and then asserts what this means for us. The Bible affirms that Jesus is the one who reconciles and then makes claims for the church. The Bible testifies to something greater than humankind and calls it God. The Bible witnesses that this God loves us so much that God came down to make a home among the mortals. In ancient times that idea was ludicrous—a God who makes a home among us. The confessions and testimonies of people who were inspired to tell the stories of Jesus say yes!
I am a progressive Christian. That means for me the authority of the Bible rests in relationship: in the relationship I have with God because a long time ago someone else told a story about their relationship with God; in the relationship I share with others because a long time ago someone else told stories about their relationships—the good, the bad and the ugly; in the relationship we share together with God—the community of faith.
For some others the authority of the Bible is “It says so right there!” What things are attached to that authority?
It doesn’t need to actually say that right there. You just need people to believe that’s what it says. Believe it because you say so. Believe it because it allows them to feel more righteous, more pious, more accepted, and more loved by God. It’s the carrot that keeps people heading in the direction that the powerful determine. And it separates the wheat from the chaff, at least in the minds of those who believe. It’s time for that kind of biblical interpretation to die.
The relationship with God has one persistent theme: love. We who call ourselves Christian have the life and teaching of Jesus who said there is only one commandment—love God, love your neighbor. And then added, love your enemies.
It’s not a difference in interpretation. It’s not even just a difference in opinion. It is a fundamental difference in approach that is rooted in control. There is no way to have this conversation with someone who has this view of the Bible. So don’t try.
Instead, nurture the soil. Create common ground. Instead of arguing, extend love. We don’t have to be right on this; as a matter of fact, the way they see it, we can’t be. We do, however, have to love one another. How do I know that? Because the Bible tells me so.