The pelican papers

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Preaching the essentials: The Bible

Posted by Ron George on September 18, 2011

Unity in the Body, by Ruth Palmer

The preacher’s right: Methodists tend not to know much about the Bible; in fact, it’s likely that most Christians know only what their preachers and Sunday school teachers have given them, a spoon-fed collection of proof-texts with which to run down people they don’t like or with whom they disagree.

The preacher would like to change that, at least among the congregation to which he was appointed four months ago. We are going to be people of the book, he said. It must be one of his favorite topics. He preached 45 minutes on the authority of scripture for the church – and yet omitted the scripture lesson from Sunday’s service. How odd.

To say he preached long doesn’t mean he didn’t preach well. He did, as he usually does, and though some of us looked at our watches at the end, it wasn’t because we were bored; moreover, it was fascinating to hear this young pastor walk the tightrope, weaving disparate strands of biblical exegesis into a taut, unified cord. If only we had taken a survey after the service to see what people believe they heard. My guess is that, typically, everyone heard what they wanted to hear – which is what the preacher hopes.

He satisfied those who wanted to hear that the Bible is God’s word in a literal sense, that God wrote it, so to speak, and in fact that’s exactly what the preacher said – several times. He spoke of the Bible as a unified work, which is pure fantasy and has been among scholars for centuries, but which is a dog that still hunts very well among most Christians, especially Protestant fundamentalists who simply close their ears to the idea that the Bible represents many often divergent or contradictory points of view.

Just when I thought we were hearing fundamentalism in mainline Protestant drag, the preacher declared that the Bible must be understood in historic terms in order to be interpreted for the present. (Ah, I thought, a nod to historical-critical method!) The biblical documents, he said, were written in particular times and places, addressed particular (often local) issues to particular (often local) people. That’s step one, he said, in sussing out what the Bible means to the church today. So, having said the Bible is a book written by God, the preacher also seemed to be saying that God’s word is conditioned by history, and of course that’s true – but how can it be both? It can’t, and the preacher knows it, but this is the set up for what’s to come (I hope): An intelligent and thorough study of Jewish and Christian scriptures that is neither literal nor academic – but prayerful and heart-full, in truly Wesleyan terms.

They believe it and that settles it

Perhaps the most telling quotation among several in this homiletic tour de force was of John Wesley, charmingly called “the reluctant founder of Methodism” (he was an Anglican priest until the day he died): “Is your heart right, as my heart is with your heart? If it is, give me your hand.” Wesley was quoting scripture, of course: 2 Kings 10.15-16a; and quite out of context, for the speaker in 2 Kings was Jehu, an especially vengeful and murderous king of Israel. Jehu’s question was loaded, and the story makes clear that he would kill anyone whose heart was not right with his. Wesley’s point, however – and quite the contrary – was that we may agree to disagree about inessential matters as long as we let our ultimate bond be love; and not just any love but the love of God in Christ Jesus. The preacher made this point, too; and it is the linchpin of his program to let scripture guide this stumbling congregation into fruitful ministry.

It will test his mettle as pastor and biblical scholar. It’s one of the more difficult pastoral paths to follow, that of honoring the scriptural tradition while acknowledging its origins, its blind-spots and its flaws. He made clear in his lengthy sermon that there are surprises in store for all who think they know scripture but have not examined the sources as well as they might. “God helps those who help themselves,” he pointed out, is not in the Bible, though many pious Christians recite it against what they perceive as the welfare state. It is not just inconsistent with Christianity, he said, but flat wrong, because it is clear from the gospel witness that God helps those who are not able to help themselves.

Love Divine, All Loves Excelling, by Diana Wolverton

That’s an easy matter, though, compared with Paul’s admonition in 2 Thessalonians 3.10: “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” On its face, it’s a biblical answer to food stamps; but at its core is one of those particular matters of particular interest to a particular congregation of Christians. Is it generalizable to all of Christendom and to the world? Well, perhaps that’s a matter of Wesleyan hope that our hearts and hands might be one with Christ in redeeming those whose are hopeless through no fault of their own. Something was bugging the church in Thessalonica about lie-abouts in the community of faith; so, how does that condition our compassion for the unemployed in the 21st century? Perhaps we can, in biblical terms, speak the truth in love to one another and discover a Christian response to unemployment and poverty that makes sense and is consistent with a Christian vision of the world.

And then there’s The Issue that seems most dear to the political right wing and their fundamentalist fellow-travelers: Homosexuality, and the very idea that we might stop treating homosexuals as second-class citizens in the church as well as in society. Scripture seems to be clear on this, but it’s not. What is clear is that the legalisms of Leviticus and admonitions of Paul are utterly ignorant of homosexuality as a way of being fully human; in fact, there is no term for homosexual behavior in all of scripture, in Hebrew or in Greek. It’s a blind spot in the vocabulary, and the only response we find to this ignorance is fear and violence. How typical.

To many Christians, though, that sounds like liberal claptrap. I’m recalling a bumper-sticker: “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” Can you hear the sound of doors slamming in your face? The preacher must address the fear that underlies that slogan, the insecurity in our changing world that yearns for certainty where there is none; moreover, that quails before the clear teaching of scripture that certainty is a chimera and that only faith – the willingness to let one’s self be loved by God – casts out fear of uncertainty and the unknown. Fear-driven Christianity results in biblical literalism and fundamentalism. Love is the remedy, not some patronizing love-the-sinner kind of love popular in fundamentalist churches, but love that acknowledges its own vulnerability and acceptance of grace from a power greater than itself; again, in Wesleyan terms, love Divine, all loves excelling.

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4 Responses to “Preaching the essentials: The Bible”

  1. Elizabeth McCafferty said

    Dad, I thoroughly enjoyed this one. I have always tried to temper my thoughts regarding Scripture and the Bible with the historical goings-on at the time.
    Glad to see other people think the same way…

  2. drfred60 said

    Good post, Ron. I especially enjoyed the irony of Thompson’s Trelawney as a symbol of fundamentalism.

  3. Michelle said

    Loved all of this. Thank you for your insightful post.
    -Michelle

  4. Ralph Willis said

    Ron this is the best post ever. A fellow clergy person from a mainline denomination “un-friended” me on face book for disagreeing with her and apparantely her church’s position on Robb Bell’s book “Love Wins”. Our preacher is preaching a series entitled “It may be so, I do not know” which seems to be a better way to approach the unknowns as well as the seeming conflicts encountered in the scriptures. Thanks for your thoughts

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