People of the Book: The Centrality of Christ
January 24, 2021
John 12:44-46, 49-50
Then Jesus cried out, “Whoever believes in me does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me.
The one who looks at me is seeing the one who sent me.
I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.
For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken. I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say.”
Let me ask a question – Does anybody else have those topics that you will argue and debate about with so much passion, but that maybe aren’t all that important really?
An example? Oh – I don’t know…something like……ranking the songs on Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 album Rumours from best to worst, just for instance.
I have seen people nearly come to blows over this.
What do I think? Well, since you asked – it’s clearly
Go Your Own Way, then The Chain, followed by Second Hand News, Don’t Stop, You Make Loving Fun, Gold Dust Woman, I Don’t Want to Know, Dreams, Songbird, Never Going Back Again and obviously in last place, Oh Daddy.
I mean – that’s just my humble and accurate opinion… but now I gladly await the flood of emails gently suggesting that I have lost my mind.
So if we can conjure up ludicrous levels of passion over something as silly as this, how much more so for the things that a great number of people care deeply about.
The Bible certainly ranks up there among some of the more hotly debated topics – and that is a good thing. We bring the most intensity to the things that matter most. The goal is not to care less about Scripture. The challenge is – how can we have the most productive, informed and mutually respectful conversation about Scripture.
For that reason we are starting a new series today called “People of the Book.”
We’re going to spend the next four weeks considering some of the different ways the Church has made sense of this Bible that we turn to for making sense of our lives. But first things first, why does the Church put so much stock in Scripture?
John Calvin – the forefather of our Presbyterian theological tradition – referred to Scripture as the spectacles of faith – the eyeglasses that enable us to truly see God. If I may paraphrase, Calvin said that when we look at the complexity of creation, the earth and stars – we may come to know that there is a God, but that without Scripture we have no idea what God is like. That kind of special revelation comes to us through the pages of Scripture.
And yet, it is not enough to simply pick up the Bible and read it. If only it were that easy.
Scripture must be interpreted.
Now, this is where I would invite you to consider a couple of things that I hold to be, not only true, but absolutely foundational for the practice of reading and interpreting Scripture.
First – this interpretive work is not just for ministers, priests or professionals. This work belongs to all people of faith. Too many people literally sacrificed their lives in order to translate the Bible into the languages of the people so that we might have access to it. Prior to that the Bible was in Hebrew, or Greek or Latin – that’s it…which means that it was only accessible to an educated elite. The Reformers understood that it’s not right to leave that much power and authority in the hands of the few. That power must be shared broadly because we understand God best when we are in community and in conversation with one another.
The second thing I would ask you to consider is that it is absolutely impossible to separate the Interpreter from the Interpretation. How I understand a certain passage can be quite different from that of a subsistence farmer in Honduras, which will be different from a young adult with a history of abuse, which will be different from an elderly black woman who still remembers segregation, which will be different from somebody who identifies as LGBTQ, which will be different from a person recovering from addiction…and so forth and so on. Our own experiences inevitably give shape to how we read and receive a given passage – the questions we ask of it; what we notice, what we do not notice. Furthermore, how I understand a passage today as a middle-aged and married father of three is different from how I understood it 20 years ago, and may very well be different from how I will understand it 20 more years from now. All of this is to say that Scripture itself may not change, but how we understand it is always changing.
If we accept that proposition – that it is impossible to separate the Interpreter from the Interpretation – then the natural takeaway is to have a little humility. None of us can speak for God…only Jesus could claim to do so. That is why I read from John 12 today. Jesus is the one and only person who could say “whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say.”
You and I do not have that privilege.
You may have called Meg and I to offer an interpretive word about Scripture each week, but hear me now when I say – “Do – Not – Take – Our – Word – For – It!” What we offer is nothing more and nothing less than just that – an offering. It is up to you to decide if it holds water or not – and disagreeing is not only allowed, but encouraged.
Our hope in the coming weeks is to share with you some of the tools that our Presbyterian tradition imparts to us for this work. One of the tools is a document called “The Understanding and Use of Holy Scripture.” It was adopted by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA in 1983. Return of the Jedi hit theaters that year and the radio waves had “Every Breath You Take” by the Police on repeat, but 1983 was also the year when the northern and southern Presbyterian churches reunited.
They split apart in 1861 and I bet you know why. Slavery and the American Civil War drove a wedge down the middle of the Presbyterian Church, and though the Union may have been re-established by 1870, these two Presbyterian churches would remain separated for more than another century. That’s an awful long time to…well, “go your own way.” So as there was talk of reunifying the Presbyterian Church you can see the need to create some guidelines for how these two collections of Christians might turn to Scripture to shape their common life together.
In the coming weeks I would invite you to read this document – or at least the first half of it. That much is only 16 pages, but it offers some helpful guidelines for how we might rightly interpret Scripture while also inoculating ourselves against less-helpful or even harmful uses of the Bible.
First and foremost among these guidelines is what we call “The Centrality of Jesus Christ.” This guideline is built on the foundation that Jesus is the fullest revelation of who God is, or as I explain it to my daughters, “if we want to know what God is like, we look at Jesus and that is where we see God most clearly.” If we accept that to be true, then no interpretation of Scripture can be faithful if it clearly goes against who we understand Christ to be.
Let’s play that one out a bit because on the surface that sounds easy enough, but it’s actually quite tricky.
The book of Leviticus is perhaps best known for its rather stringent rules about what is in and out of bounds for the people of God. It’s difficult to number all of the times it names the situations in which a community might be justified in carrying out a swift form of capital punishment – typically by stoning. The offenses punishable by death include everything from blaspheming the Lord or practici8ng idolatry to homicidal crimes, kidnapping, bearing false witness in a trial, not to mention a lengthy list of sexual offenses. All to say, if a mob felt so compelled to mete out justice in the streets, Leviticus could provide ample theological cover.
But Jesus had to go and ruin it all when, in the 8th chapter of John, as he was teaching, some Scribes and Pharisees brought a woman before him whom they accused of committing adultery. They kindly informed him what Leviticus demands before asking him what they should do to her. It was a trap of course, but instead of engaging them, Jesus simply began writing in the dust with his finger.
After they egged him on for an answer, he finally stood up and said “let any who is without sin cast the first stone at her.” Now, Jesus didn’t say that the Law was wrong. He didn’t throw it away simply because it was inconvenient. After all, he would say to the woman “Go, and do not sin again.” Jesus upholds the Law, knowing that its purpose is to help us become the best versions of ourselves. So it would be a mistake to say that the Law doesn’t matter anymore and we may as well tear those pages out of our Bibles.
But I believe that Jesus also understood that once we go down that path of purging our ranks in pursuit of purity, we’ve already missed the point.
So when another mob gathers with violence on the mind and somebody starts quoting Scripture to put a veneer of faithfulness on it, I would invite you to consider the “Centrality of Christ” guideline and how Jesus has this way of re-framing and refining how we understand this book that so powerfully shapes who we are.
We, too, are people of the book, too. These verses are a gift to us as much as anybody else.
We can take the Bible seriously without necessarily taking it literally.
We can lean in to the hard but faithful work of interpreting these ancient words for today.
May we never falter or fail in that calling.