The Third Sunday of Easter, Year B
April 15, 2018
Gracious Heavenly Father,
as the risen Lord Jesus opened the minds of his disciples to understand the scriptures,
open our hearts and minds
that, hearing your voice, we might be called into newness of life.
(Prayer for the 3rd Sunday of Easter, year B)
This was preached on the third Sunday after Easter in 2018. It is rooted in the texts for that day, particularly the Gospel reading that relates that the risen Jesus opened the minds of his followers to understand the scriptures.
When I was in college and the seminary, Biblical scholarship was predominantly occupied with dismantling the Bible as a book. This was a process that had begun years earlier, and was not without controversy, because many of the scholars who began to make these observations about the different authors and historical contexts of the various Biblical materials were perceived as dismantling the faith. There were just criticisms to be made. Some didn’t give enough care to the faith and piety of the church. We talked about the theology of John or the theology of Mark, but few wanted to talk about the book as a whole and its relationship to the faith of the church.
What happened in this country, in reaction to that scholarship, was the development of fundamentalism and a Biblical literalism that sought to hold on to the notion of the Bible as a single book, given by God, that it was true in all its parts. So a single verse about homosexuality, for example, is the end of all conversation. Each part is divinely authored and authoritative and final.
And while I agree with the statement that this book as a whole and in its parts is divinely inspired and authoritative, those words, “divinely authored and authoritative,” don’t mean for me – and shouldn’t mean for any of us – that the book dropped out of heaven as a whole. Even those who profess to take the Bible literally don’t really take it literally. They don’t imagine when David says, “The Lord is my rock,” that God is literally a rock.
There are deep and real problems with literalism and fundamentalism. And it doesn’t matter whether we are talking about the Bible or Islam or economic theory, the second amendment to the constitution on the right to bear arms, Confederate monuments, or global warming. Fundamentalism says, in effect, that all that needs to be known is known and we can and should stop thinking and stop listening.
Such fundamentalism is inherently dangerous and – more importantly – it contradicts the Bible itself. The Bible is full of struggle and questioning. What is the book of Job, but 35 chapters of theological argument and struggle ending with Job bowing in silence before a God he cannot comprehend? There is a whole category in scripture of works we call “wisdom literature” – including Proverbs and Ecclesiastes – that struggles to understand the way God has fashioned the world.
The God who encounters us in the Bible is a god who leads us into a new and unexpected future. Through the prophet Isaiah God says,
18 Do not remember the former things,
….or consider the things of old.
19 I am about to do a new thing;
….now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? (Isaiah 43:18-19)
The New International Version translates this as “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.” The Tanach translation says, “Do not recall what happened of old, Or ponder what happened of yore!”
The Biblical narrative is built around promises concerning the future. It is about what God is doing, where God is leading. It speaks of the human journey from the lost Garden of Eden to the promised City of God. Its foundational blocks tell of the journey of Abraham out from Haran towards the promise of God, of the journey of Israel out from bondage into freedom, of the journey into exile and home again. For the Christian community, the New Testament adds to these narratives the journey of Jesus to Jerusalem, the cross and the empty tomb, and the journey of Jesus’ followers to the ends of the earth. In the Book of Acts, on the day the risen Jesus ascends into the heavens, he says to his disciples: “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The rest of the book will tell the stories of the missionary journeys not only of Paul, but the whole Christian community.
And I need to say this: even the legal code in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, is not designed, at its core, to impose a category of right and wrong on the people, but to lead them towards a just society. There are things in there that certainly trouble us, but when we listen to them in their context, we see a profoundly different vision for human society than what was operative in the world around them. What we heard last week about the early Christians holding all things in common has its roots in the vision of the world reflected in the Law and the Prophets. As you have heard many times, Jesus gets the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself from the book of Leviticus. In the legal codes of the Old Testament, God is not trying to repristinate the past, but to call Israel into a radically new future.
So we betray the scripture wherever we cling to the past rather than walking with God faithfully towards God’s future. There are things to preserve, things to carry with us into the future, there is wisdom in the hymns and liturgy and insights of the past, but the focus of Christian faith is forward into a greater justice, a deeper compassion, a more faithful human community.
When Anna was first learning to walk, Deb would stand behind her helping to hold her up, and I would kneel down a little ways in front of her with arms open, inviting her to walk towards me. If you want a picture of God and the world, this is it. God stands behind us and before us. God helps us stand and go forward and God calls us to himself. God launches us and catches us. God calls us into God’s future, God’s reign, God’s kingdom. God calls us into the fullness of grace and the life of the Spirit.
The criticism of the gods of the ancient world that we find in scripture is that they couldn’t speak. They couldn’t call to us. They couldn’t change the world. They couldn’t save. They were gods of wood and stone, of gold and silver. They were powerless.
The gods of this world are gods of stability and order, who defend and justify the way of the world. The gods of this world defend the status quo. They are gods who support segregated schools and hospitals and bathrooms because that’s the way it’s always been. They are gods who support the wealth and power of kings and the poverty of peasants because that’s the way it’s always been. But the God who meets the world through the scriptures is a God who changes the world. He overturns unjust rule. He sets prisoners free. He forgives unpayable debts. He opens blind eyes and heals paralyzed limbs. He opens the grave. He leads us into newness of life.
In the Biblical story, when humanity rebels against God and loses the Garden of Eden, God posts a flaming sword that bars the way back to the garden. We cannot go back to Eden; we must go forward to the New Jerusalem. There is no refuge in the past – but there is hope in the future: the grave is empty.
The grave is empty. Christ is in our midst. He meets us in the supper. He opens our minds and hearts to the word. He gives us his Spirit. He sends us out with a commission and a promise to live and witness to the kingdom that is dawning.
There are deep and troubling problems with literalism and fundamentalism. And please understand, I am not just talking about religious fundamentalism. We are talking about a way of being in the world. Our political realm right now is shot through with rigid and absolutist ideas that are not open to any new facts or ideas. There’s no conversation. There’s no change. There’s no willingness to question or explore. What I disagree with or don’t like I reject as “fake news”.
This is not Biblical faith. And where the name of God is used to defend it, the commandment forbidding the misuse of God’s name is violated. When we say “God bless America” at the end of a sentence full of venom and falsehoods, we are asking God to destroy the country as God destroyed Israel when they did the same thing – when they betrayed God’s call and commission to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly.
Christianity doesn’t work with hearts that are closed. It doesn’t work with closed doors and high walls. Christianity isn’t a castle to hold out the world; it is a journey in the world to the world’s new birth. It is a journey in the human heart to the heart’s new birth.
There is a reason Jesus talks to us about being the salt that makes the fire of love burn more brightly. There is a reason Jesus talks to us about a city set on a hill, a beacon for all to see. There is a reason Jesus gives to his followers the fundamental task of testifying to the reign of God and assigns us the work of healing and casting out dark and demonic spirits.
A faith that wants to defend the injustices of the world is not a Christian faith. A faith that will not walk alongside a changing world is not the Christian faith. A faith that does not walk in hope and joy is not the Christian faith.
Since the school shooting in Florida, Ken has been after me to condemn the NRA. Well, Ken, here it is. I’m not going to condemn it from a liberal perspective, I’m going to condemn it because it speaks and behaves as fundamentalists. There is no engagement of the world. There is no listening to the voices of others. It reduces complex realities to simple absolutes. It takes refuge in slogans and chants. It builds walls not bridges.
Should Christians belong to fundamentalist organizations? I don’t think there’s a simple, black and white answer. There is some truth in the argument that we need to be a part of such things in order to help change them. But there is also a danger that we get led astray by them.
And please understand, there are fundamentalisms of all kinds, on the left and the right and in the center. I understand fear and why fear makes us want to look backwards. Fear and anxiety born of change makes us want to put on the brakes and turn back and nail things down But the way back is barred; we can only go forward. And we as Christians uniquely confess that the work of God is to raise the dead, to open the barren life, to heal the broken heart, to protect the vulnerable, to free the bound, to transform the world.
We need to recognize that this Biblical faith is not an American optimism. There are people who believe in the future because of the promises of politicians or science or the idea of human progress. These have been notoriously unreliable because they have little control over the future.
We don’t “believe in the future” we believe in the God who holds the future. We believe there is a power, a truth, a reality at the heart of all things that brought forth the world in love and calls it forth into love.
We put our hope, trust and allegiance in the one who calls us to himself.
Those scholars who began to take apart the Bible were correct. The Bible is not a single book. I have said to you that it is a library. It is a collection of books. The way Mark talks about Jesus is different than the way John talks about Jesus. Those two are different than the way the apostle Paul talks about Jesus. And all of those are different from the way the book of Revelation talks about Jesus.
It’s important for us to see this. The way Genesis talks about God and the journey of faith is different from Joshua. The book of Ruth is different from Ezra and Nehemiah. But scholarship got so preoccupied about looking at all the pieces it often forgot to pay attention to the whole. All these books add up to something. They don’t all say the same thing, but together they say something profoundly important. Together they are “divinely authored and authoritative.”
One of the other metaphors for the scripture I have used is to say that the Bible is a choir. It is made up of multiple voices. When the St. Olaf Choir sings F. Melius Christiansen’s exquisite arrangement of Beautiful Savior, some of the sopranos are soaring up here and some other sopranos are soaring over there, and some of the basses are traveling way down here and others are over here. They are not all singing the same note or the same words or at the same time, but together their voices exalt you up to the heavens.
The scripture is rich and wonderful and diverse. It is strange and foreign and yet deeply familiar. It has terrible stories and fearful images and soaring visions and profoundly sweet and comforting words. The various voices in the Bible are not all singing the same note or the same words or at the same time, but together their voices lift us up to the heavens – or, more accurately, together their voices bring heaven down to us.
Together their voices touch us with grace. Together their voices heal and renew. Together their voices call us into new paths of faithfulness and love. Together they call us into God’s tomorrow.
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Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:D%C3%BClmen,_B%C3%B6rnste,_Waldweg_–_2015_–_4649.jpg Dietmar Rabich / Wikimedia Commons / “Dülmen, Börnste, Waldweg — 2015 — 4649” / CC BY-SA 4.0, from Wikimedia Commons