Article IV- Confusing God with the Bible

Think about a holy moment: a memory that is excellent, lovely or good. Maybe you saw a leaf dance down from a tree, heard a toddler laugh, felt God in the bagpipes, or simply made some excellent tofu chili? Find that holy moment- linger in it like prayer.

Having found and held that holy moment, does your memory replace the moment? Are some moments too holy to be contained by words?  Leaves dancing free from the trees always restore my soul, but even my best memories can’t recapture the chill in the air, the sound of the wind, the smell of pumpkin-spice, or the mysterious science of our vision.  What makes a moment holy? What is the difference between heard stories of faith and our experiences of faith? For 35 years, John Wesley heard and preached the Good News that “Christ is Risen”, but on Aldersgate Street in London in 1738, listening to someone read Luther’s preface to the Romans,  Wesley spoke of his heart being “strangely warmed”. Something holy awoke within Wesley, the Text came alive and Wesley would return to Romans 5:5 over and over again: ”the Love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit!”  Hearing stories about God’s Love does not mean one has experienced the Holy.  The Apostle Paul describes being “caught up into heaven” but adds a disclaimer about the details:  “I do not know; God knows.” (2 Corinthians 12) “I do not know” may be one of our best theological sentences.   

Remind them of these things and warn them in the sight of God not to engage in battles over words that aren’t helpful and only destroy those who hear them.  Why do we battle over words that only describe the holy? Why do we deny or judge someone else’s slightly different experience of the Holy?  Have we forgotten that 1 Corinthians 13 tells us that we all only “know in part”?  Why is it so hard for us to confess about public policy, church theology, or family decisions: “I don’t know- but God knows”

 Remind them of these things and warn them in the sight of God not to engage in battles over words that aren’t helpful and only destroy those who hear them. Make the effort, do the work to present yourself to God (not to impress others- but as worship to God) as a tried-and-true worker, be a dedicated scholar who doesn’t need to be ashamed but is one who interprets the message of truth correctly. Have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels.  The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, patient, gentle even with opponents (2 Timothy 2: 14-15 & 23-25). The Bible is a 2,000 year old collection of 66 scrolls, gathered from oral traditions, written by hand in three different languages across hundreds of years on animal skins, for people without access to the internet, book binding technology, or really even libraries.  Timothy tells us that biblical interpretation is the work of all Christians. A Biblical faith requires interpretation, reason, experience, tradition and practice.   

My childhood church home was one of my safe places. Church should be a safe space.  As a heterosexual, white, middle class male, with never divorced, deeply committed, Christian parents no one questioned who I was, labeled me as “less than”, or put me in the  “Your-in-my-prayers” judgy pigeon hole. When I walked down the aisle feeling God’s call to vocational ministry as a 13 year old, I knew my church would welcome my one-day leadership. Our pastor took me under his wing. I preached on Youth Sunday, taught in Bible school, and accompanied him to a ministers conference during a week of snow days. BB offered me my first church job as a 19 year old and bought me lunch every other Wednesday at Lee’s Famous Recipe. Everything was great, but our growing youth group was drawing in divorced parent leaders, equipping young women who seemed more called and equipped than the young men, and welcoming a Jewish teenager. The simple presence of these Christ-like people challenged my legalistic in-errant Biblical worldview.  I had been reading my Bible and praying every morning for about 45 minutes since age 13, but at 22, the wheels were coming off my theological wagon. I saw God working in ways that challenged my rules and regulations. I struggled to make the Bible’s discordant passages fit together. How do you quote from Leviticus about human sexuality and ignore “suffer not the witch to live” or the command to stone sabbath breakers to death?  What do you do with Timothy’s prohibition of women speaking in church, when the Risen Christ tells Magdalene, Mary, Joanna and the other women to “go and tell my brothers!” and some of the young women in your youth group seemed called.  What about telling slaves to obey their oppressors?  I lacked the interpretive tools I needed to make sense of the Bible. In fact, I thought it was sinful to interpret the Bible, following Billy Graham’s mantra “the Bible said it, I believe it, that settles it”.  I knew at 22, that I could no longer settle, accept or ignore the Canaanite Conquest, slave holding, or telling women to be silent in church.   

I used to say, I had a crisis of faith, I now realize I had a crisis of theology. My faith was alright at least according to The Apostle Paul’s two Faith checklists in Galatians 5. You may know one of the lists: the presence of Christ produces: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control?”  A lack of faith produces “selfish motives, hatred, fighting, obsession, losing your temper, competitive opposition, conflict, selfishness, jealousy (and) group rivalry.”  There is no mention of scriptural fidelity or orthodoxy in that list is there?   My faith in love, joy, peace, and kindness was intact. I was struggling with the Bible. I was confusing the Bible with God. I was worshiping the Words, not the God who inspired the Bible.  The Letter kills our souls, but the Spirit always brings life. (2 Corinthians 3) Do you remember how on the Mount of Transfiguration Mark as narrator tells us that Peter did not know what he was saying or how to respond? (Mark 9) “I don’t know” is an orthodox confession of faith- acknowledging the presence of mystery! 

I love the Methodist church because when I was 22 the Methodist church accepted me, my doubts, my questions, and my mistakes. Love always welcomes us home. Love always makes space for everyone. “There is no fear in Love”, because fear is rooted with images of a punishing God.  ( 1 John 4)  I Love the United Methodist church because we imperfectly make room for differences in theology, scriptural interpretation and faith practice. Sadly, some folks are leaving us citing scriptural fidelity, some of them may see me as an infidel. If I was to prophecy, I would predict that today’s traditionalist theological tests over human sexuality will demand the testers revisit the ordination of women, inclusion of divorced pastors and ignore passages on slavery or the Canaanite Conquest.   Trusting in the letter always ends in throwing people out.  

Back in 1968, when the Methodist Church united with the Evangelical United Brethren, we did not engage in a line-by-line battle over differing foundational theological statements: the Methodist Articles of Religion and EUB Confession of Faith.  We simply accepted both as founding theological documents. If that bothers you then remember the early church chose Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  In the EUB Confession of Faith we declare that:   

“Article IV — The Holy Bible:  We believe the Holy Bible, Old and New Testaments, reveals the Word of God (we add a qualifier) so far as it is necessary for our salvation.  (We add a methodology) We It is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice. (We see the purpose of Scripture is to help us practice our faith and then we add one more qualifier.) Whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith nor is it to be taught as essential to salvation.

“We believe the Bible reveals the word of God” is different from declaring “the Bible is the Word of God”.  Preaching that “Christ is risen” is not the same thing as experiencing the Love of God being poured into your heart. (Romans 5) If I tell you how deeply I love my children that is not the same thing as the reality of my love. Reading about Thomas putting his finger in Jesus’ nail scarred hands or Paul being blinded by a holy light is not the same thing as meeting Jesus for yourself.  Although we say it at times, we understand that “The Bible is not the Word of God ” but the Bible reveals, makes known,  connects us with the reality of God that defies our trying to bind it to words.  In fact,  in keeping with John 1 and the Methodist Church’s Article Two  we understand Jesus as “the Word, or Son of God, The Son, who is the Word of the Father/Creator.”  Jesus did not only come through walls 2,000 years ago declaring “peace be with you, do not be afraid, I am with you”  but is still breaking down “barrier walls of hostility.”  (Ephesians 2) We believe God’s Word is with us: “You are Christ’s letter. Not written with ink but with the Spirit of the living God. You weren’t written on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts… Christ has qualified us as ministers of a new covenant, not based on what is written but on the Spirit, because what is written kills, but the Spirit gives life”. (2 Corinthians 3). God is still writing new chapters and verses in each of us. As John 21 says of the Risen Christ… “Jesus did many other things as well. If all of them were recorded, I imagine the world itself wouldn’t have enough room for the scrolls that would be written.” God is still speaking through the Bible, but also in our midst. 

We worship the God who inspired the Bible and God still speaks through it- but we do not worship the Bible. Next week, we will explore 4 specific  tools of biblical interpretation.  Today, maybe it is enough to remember that at our best, we Methodists believe God is still with us- God is still speaking.  We understand the Bible is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice.” We have a flame in our symbol to remind us that God’s Spirit is still speaking and shaping our lives. 

I love the Methodist church, because at 22 when a few folks had told me that if I believed differently I would go to hell, my newfound Methodist friends smiled and said welcome. The UMC has helped me learn that God is bigger than the Bible, grace matters more than law, scholarly interpretation matters, “I don’t know for sure- God does” is a confession of faith, and the Spirit is still speaking.  I love the people called Methodists, because they helped me hang onto faith, hope and love, when I had to throw out some harmful theology.  Would I have lost my faith? “I don’t know” I guess God does.  Amen

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