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Sunday, January 29, 2012

The End of the World: Rapture or Repetition?

Epiphany 4B              1/29/12

Ezekiel 7:1-9

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Ever since the mid-1700’s, just before Methodist elders are ordained their bishop asks them a series of nineteen questions formulated by Methodism’s founder, John Wesley: Have you faith in Christ? Are you resolved to devote yourselves wholly to God and his work? Will you visit from house to house? I was ordained in 1979 by Bishop Kenneth Goodson, who delivered a commentary before each question. Goodson loved to preach, whether he was supposed to or not.

The second and third questions are: Are you going on to perfection; Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life? Goodson’s commentary on this question was, If you’re not going on to perfection, where are you going? If you’re going on to imperfection, you’ve already arrived.

Where we believe we’re going and what we expect the future to be shape how we live our lives. People selling crack on the street corner don’t expect to live very long, so they’re going to make a lot of money before they go. Children who think they’re going to be famous athletes or entertainers decide they don’t need to do well in school, because they don’t need brains: they’ve got talent. Our lives are shaped by what we expect the future to be.

People like you and I, who live in relative comfort and privilege, hope things don’t change too much from the way they are. Sure, we’d like to have cheaper gas, lower mortgage rates but higher savings interest, cheaper health care, and safer streets – but the world looks pretty good to us. And we hope that we’re going to be here a long time, and that the world will be here for us, too.

That’s not how Jewish captives in Babylon felt in 539 BC. That’s not how Jews in Jerusalem who were being crucified by the Romans felt in 33 AD. That’s not how Christians being set on fire and fed to lions in Rome by Emperor Diocletian in 85 AD felt. For them, the world was a terrible place that needed to be blown up so it could start all over again, but this time without sin and suffering and evil. No change in political party, no adjustment to the economic order, no tweaking of nature would suffice. The world was irreparably broken, and God needed to start over from scratch.

The late chapters of the book of Isaiah, the books of Ezekiel and Daniel, sections of the gospels, and, most famously, the book of Revelation are written to and for those people. This scripture is called apocalypticliterature, from a Greek word meaning to uncover. God is pulling back the sheet covering the future, so the faithful can see that God really is going to punish the wicked, smash the world to smithereens and start over again, and reward the righteous. Now, that reward probably isn’t going to come in this life, but who would want it to? The reward is coming, the prophets cry, in a new life of glory side by side with God.

When Jesus was born two thousand years ago, shepherds and other witnesses expected him to be God’s Anointed One, who would bring the old sick world to an end and bring the new world of glory and righteousness. In his first sermon, (Luke 4:18 ff), Jesus read Isaiah’s prophecy about the coming of the Kingdom of God, then said, Today this scripture has been fulfilled while you listened. When Jesus didn’t begin a war against the hated Roman Empire, everyone was completely confused. When the Evil Empire killed him, all his followers lost their apocalyptic hopes. After all, Jesus had said to them some of you standing here will not taste death until you see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom (Mt. 16.28). When Jesus rose from the dead on Easter and stayed with the disciples for forty more days, they still kept asking him when he will bring the Kingdom of God. When he ascended from them to heaven, they expected him to return and bring that new world any day. Even twenty years later, St. Paul advised young people not to marry if they didn’t have to, because, after all, the world was going to end any moment and there really wasn’t time for that stuff (1 Corinthians 7:29-31).

As time passed in the first century after Jesus, the people who had heard Jesus say they would not taste death until they saw the kingdom come began to die off. This produced an enormous crisis on the early church. Was Jesus coming or not? If you died before Jesus came, would you miss the Kingdom? Would we ever see our loved ones again? And, as Rome began to ratchet up its persecution of Christians, was God going to save the faithful, or was all this just one more religious scam? Or, has in fact the new world come and we missed it?

When St. Paul wrote about the end of the world and the resurrection of the dead in 1 Corinthians 15 and 1 Thessalonians 4, he specifically addressed this crisis of faith in the young church. Listen to the language in Thessalonians: We do not want you to be misinformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died . . . For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare . . . that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. The point Paul is making is that when the new world comes, the righteous – whether living or dead -- will be together in Christ. What is important is not who is in and who is out, or the mechanics of resurrection, but that God will forget neither the dead nor the living in glory.

That is exactly the central point of the book of Revelation, which is John’s vision of God’s redemption of the Christians being slaughtered by Diocletian. Revelation is no great mystery to unpack when you understand that Rome is built on the seven hills that the Great Prostitute sits on; that the locusts and demonic cavalry from the East are Parthian invaders, that the combined letter values in Nero Caesar’s name add up to six hundred sixty six. Through John, God is telling the faithful to hold on. Yes, they’re going to be slaughtered, but in death they will sing around God’s throne with saints through the ages. And as for the wicked, oh, they’re going to get theirs in spades.

The current conservative Christian obsession with the rapture – of the righteous dead rising and the righteous quick flying not only out of their cars and beds and airline seats but their clothes as well (which, according toLeft Behind author Tim LaHaye, will be neatly folded with jewelry, wallets, keys, and pocket change arranged on top), stems from an eighteenth century minister named John Nelson Darby. Darby believed in the literal, word for word inspiration of the Bible. He believed history was divided into seven dispensations in which God related to human beings in different ways (the organizational principle of the Scofield Reference Bible – C.L. Scofield was a disciple of Darby). By cutting and pasting completely unrelated passages in Daniel, Ezekiel, Thessalonians, and Revelation, Darby taught that the “Rapture” (which, by the way, is not a Biblical word) of the saints would be followed by seven years of world war followed by the return of Christ and a thousand years of peace. He also believed God’s covenant of grace with the Christian Church (the sixth dispensation) was only temporary until the Jews embraced Jesus as the Messiah after those seven years of world war, which would bring Jesus’ return and the end of the world. Darby’s theology was at the core of the Niagara Bible Conferences in the 1880’s which formulated the five points of fundamentalism. When Israel was restored in 1947 and the six-day war in 1967 reclaimed the Temple Mount, Darbyism kicked into warp drive. Thus the linkage between fundamentalist Christianity and uncritical political support for Israel. Thus the linkage between fundamentalist Christianity and opposition to the environmental movement – after all, if the world is going to end at any moment, why save butterflies, fish, and trees? And, if the world is going to end tomorrow, why worry about leaving debt for our grandchildren, or about the future of social security, or health care, or schools? Do you begin to connect the dots?

But listen to Jesus: They will hand you over to be tortured and put to death . . . you will be hated by all because of my name. That doesn’t sound like Charles Stanley and James Dobson, does it? That doesn’t sound like the beautiful, wealthy, glamorous heroes of the Left Behind series, which has made an already wealthy Reverend Tim LaHaye a multimillionaire. Listen to Jesus: Of that day and hour no one knows . . . only the Father in heaven. If anyone says to you, Look, here is the Messiah! – do not believe it. But Christians have given Hal Lindsey and Jack Van Impe and others fortune and fame for predicting Jesus’ imminent return.

So, where are we going? What did Jesus mean when he said some of his listeners would not die before the Kingdom came? How will the world end, and when?

Literally, God knows. But we know this much for certain: that neither life nor death nor anything else in creation can separate us from the love of God for us in Jesus; that we must live faithfully every day, for life will end when we least expect it; that the Kingdom of God is neither here nor there, but, Jesus said, within us. And if you and I follow Jesus a little more closely tomorrow than we did today; if we love someone tomorrow that we didn’t love today; if someone’s life is better tomorrow because of us than it is today; if the world is a better, cleaner, safer, more loving place tomorrow than it is today because of us, then we won’t have to worry about how the world ends or when. Whenever, however, we will be with God and with each other. In the end, what else matters?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Medicine or Miracles?

Epiphany 2B                                                                                                           1/15/12
John 9

In the ninth chapter of John’s Gospel there is a hilarious story that mirrors twenty-first century debate about the relationship between faith and modern medicine.  Jesus and the disciples are walking, on the Sabbath, in or near Jerusalem and pass a blind man who is probably begging.  The ever-compassionate disciples, instead of buying a pencil from the man or stopping to pray for him, point to the sightless wretch and use him as the opportunity to ask Jesus whether he is blind because of his own sin or because of his parents’ sin.  God must be punishing him for something, they reason.  Jesus answers that his blindness has nothing to do with anyone’s sin but is an opportunity for God to demonstrate God’s power. Using a mud plaster made on the spot, Jesus heals the man.
What follows for the rest of the chapter sounds like a Monty Python sketch.  Some people declare this can’t be the same man, and the man insists he really is.  The Pharisees can’t figure out how Jesus could have been a channel of God’s healing power since he had healed – that is, done work – on the Sabbath.  They want to know how Jesus did this and whether Jesus is a sinner; the man keeps singing the first verse of Amazing Grace:  “I once was lost, but now I’m found, ‘twas blind, but now I see.”
The Pharisees, after all, are the ancestors of twenty-first century materialists:  the only reality is that which they can touch and see and explain.  All of life can be explained by cause and effect relationships:  If this happens, then this must follow; if this happened, it has to have a rationally explainable cause.  This healing makes no sense to them because it breaks all the rules.  But then, that’s what Jesus is always doing, from his conception to his baptism to his temptation in the desert to turning water into wine and forgiving prostitutes and eating with sinners to oh so inconveniently refusing to stay dead.
In this sermon series about religion and science, I want to build an argument that there are realities beyond material, scientific reality.  It is not that literal reality is not real – it is that it is not the only reality.  And all who believe in love and hope and metaphor and grief know that sometimes what is most real can’t be touched or proven.  If, then, there are realities we can touch and realities we can’t, how does God heal people when they are ill?
The Greeks, who laid the foundation for all thought in the Western world, thought human beings were made up of three parts:  a body, which, though touchable really only served as a kind of container for what made people real; a mind, which was people’s thoughts and intellect, and a spirit, which was the immortal essence of human life.  When people died, their spirits escaped the prison of their bodies and went to live with other spirits in a shadowy world where they were free from all physical need and harm.  The universe was constructed with physical Earth sandwiched between heaven, the dwelling place of the gods above, and Hades or Hell, the home of dead spirits.  There were pleasant parts of Hell – the Elysian Fields – for heroes and good souls – and lower, unpleasant regions where Episcopalians who eat with the wrong fork are tortured for eternity.  There are a few places where the three worlds touch, but they are well hidden. 
That worldview, which is the foundation for Western thinking, believes that the physical and the spiritual are utterly irreconcilable realities.  Devoted Christians still talk about heaven being up and hell being down, of their souls “flying away” from their bodies to a non-physical eternity, of being tempted by “their human side” when they should follow their “divine spark” instead.  If you believe in that division between body and spirit, then the best God can do when you are sick is calm your spirit:  your body is out of divine control.
The Jewish worldview, expressed in the Old Testament and in the teaching of Jesus the Jew and the Jewish apostles, was and is radically different.  The Great Commandment in Deuteronomy 6:5 talks about loving God with all your heart and soul and might, but those qualities of human existence could no more be separated from each other than heat and light from fire.  There is no human life apart from a body – Ezekiel talks about the resurrection of the dead, not ghosts; Jesus bears in his resurrected body the scars of his crucifixion and – this is the part I really like – eats fish on the beach with the disciples after Easter.  That Jesus feeds hungry people, resuscitates the dead, heals the physical ills of the sick, takes children in his arms, and makes a dinner the focal point of Christian discipleship shouts that human life cannot be carved up into separate categories.  The Jewish view of the universe was that heaven and hell and earth were all mixed up with each other, and Christians have understood since the first Easter that in Jesus those three come to a focus.
If that is the reality, as the Bible proclaims with its every breath, then God uses both material, scientific means to accomplish God’s purposes, as well as spiritual, non-physical means.  Both are of God.  Both material and spiritual reality can be good, and both can be bad.  The physical world is utterly shot through with the spiritual.  And so, when we are sick, God uses surgery and antibiotics and counseling – and God also moves in ways far beyond all physical explanations. 
So why, then, if God is a good and loving God, aren’t people always healed?  Francis McNutt, a Roman Catholic priest who for many years has been in the forefront of spiritual healing, lists eleven obstacles to healing:

1.             Lack of faith. Not lack of faith in God, but doubt that God can heal.  Physicians say that the attitude of the patient is absolutely crucial in the healing process.  That is also true physically.  If you do not believe you are going to be healed, either physically or spiritually, you probably won’t be.
2.            Redemptive suffering.  The night before his death, Jesus prays in the garden to be spared, but God has a terrible and larger plan.  I have known people who, through the faith they displayed in their illnesses, were such witnesses to God’s love that other people turned their lives around because of that loved one’s illness.  Isn’t this what we believe about those who have given their lives in war to save our lives and liberty?
3.            Not wanting to be healed.  There really are people who enjoy bad health.  It gets them attention. Or they believe they deserve it.  I have also seen people, especially the elderly, who are simply tired of living and decide to die. 
4.            Sin.  Sometimes there is something broken in someone’s life that prevents them from receiving the healing that God wants to give.  If sin is that which separates us from God, then it also separates us from God’s will for us.  Before healing can happen, they need to face their sin, repent, and be forgiven.
5.             Not praying specifically.  McNutt says we need to be bold in our prayers:  if someone has a tumor, pray for that tumor to be healed, not that they will feel better.  Why doesn’t God just read our minds and do what we really mean?  Because, if God wants us to be the instrument of the healing, then we need to focus our attention on the real problem.  If you need a heart bypass, the surgeon doesn’t just give you aspirin.  Be bold in your prayers:  if you don’t ask, the answer is always no.
6.            Faulty diagnosis.  Physicians sometimes simply miss diagnosing the real problem.  In the same way, there are times we pray for people to be healed spiritually when they need to be healed physically.  There are times we pray for people to be healed physically when they need spiritual healing.  Sometimes we pray for feet when we should be praying for heads, or for hope when we need to pray for forgiveness.  Focus your attention and prayers where they’re really needed.
7.            Refusal to accept medicine as a means of healing.  Do you know the story of the man stuck on his rooftop in a rising flood who refuses help from two boats and a helicopter, telling them that he’s prayed for God to save him, and he doesn’t need them?  After he drowns and finds himself in heaven, he asks God why God didn’t answer his prayer.  God replies, “I sent you two boats and a helicopter.”  Antibiotics, surgery, therapy, psychotropic drugs, and analgesics are means for God to heal.
8.            Not using natural means of preserving health.  God will not save you from heart disease if you eat a Big Mac every day, will not keep you from lung cancer if you smoke, will not save you from depression if you do nothing but think about yourself all the time (that’s really depressing), or keep your body thin and flexible if you rest on your rump all day long.  Jesus died to save us from sin, not stupidity.
9.            Now is not the time.  This is a hard one.  God’s timing is not our timing. McNutt says some healings are instantaneous, some are delayed, some happen gradually, and some do not seem to happen, at least in the physical sense, at all.  Sometimes the healing comes in a different way, as in death. 
10.         A different person is to be the instrument of healing.  Sometimes that’s a different physician.  Sometimes that’s a different person to lay hands on us and pray for us.  I have seen people in comas wait until a particular person arrives – or leaves – before they are healed by death.  I have also seen prayers by one saintly person have no affect, but prayers by another work miracles.
11.         The social environment prevents healing from taking place.  Our lives are inseparable from the communities in which we live and work and worship and learn.  Hatred, stress, and dysfunctional relationships make people sick.  Sometimes healing cannot happen unless the sick are removed from the circumstances that feed their illness, either physical, spiritual, or emotional.

If the universe is divided into separate physical and spiritual realities, and human beings are just temporary physical shells holding immortal spirits, then we have to choose between physical medicine and spiritual miracles.  That is not the world of the Bible, where spirit and body are eternally and wonderfully joined in the person of Jesus.  The best physicians I know are the ones who know that the emotional and spiritual health of their patients is absolutely inseparable from their physical well being.  The best spiritual counselors and healers I know believe exactly the same thing. 
Medicine or Miracles?      Yes!

Creationism or Random Evolution?

Epiphany 2B                                                                                                           1/22/12
Genesis 1:1-2:3

For the last two weeks I have tried to lay a foundation on which we could build a conversation about the relationship between Christian faith and modern science.  Two weeks ago we talked about the breakdown in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries of the traditional authorities – how feudal politics had been replaced by the uncertainties of democracy, static understandings of biology had been eroded by Darwin, simplistic understandings of the human psyche collapsed by Freud, the authority of the church undermined by Luther, and the certainty of the Bible compromised by Higher Criticism.  One reaction to crisis is to rigidly proclaim there are certainties in life, and from this reaction sprung Biblical Fundamentalism, which asserts that every word in the Bible is literally true, inspired by God, and authoritative for life.  I proposed a middle way of understanding the Bible, which recognizes that the Book is a richly layered tapestry of history, law, poetry, and story, all of which must be read with their own integrity.  I also suggested that the Bible is a window through which we see God, and not God itself, so, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we always listen for the Word in, under, around, and through the words.  Last week we looked at the difference between the Greek worldview, which carves reality up into often opposing categories of material and non-material reality
Today let’s think about the leading edge of the war between fundamentalism and American culture:  the argument between modern geology and biology, which believes that life on earth has evolved by adaptation over enormously long periods of time, and Creationism or its more generic companion, Intelligent Design, which believes that life as it exists was created by purposeful design by an outside force, God. 
In the ancient world, people believed that the world was itself a living organism with the qualities of divinity. To understand the world, you did not dissect it to discover how it worked – you learned its purpose and use.  Furthermore, to dissect the world for experiment was a dangerous thing to do, because the world was divine.  This worldview persisted into the Middle Ages.
It was in fact the rise of Judeo-Christian theology that gave birth to modern science.  God and the world were not the same thing, Jews and Christians said:  in fact, God had created the world and stood outside it.  The world was a good thing – God had created it to be enjoyed – and believers were encouraged by the Bible to use their senses to explore and discover this wonderful gift of God.  This separation of the world from the being of God, added to the affirmation of the senses as the means to know truth, gave people like Francis Bacon in the sixteenth century the freedom to begin to dissect the world and its pieces to learn how it worked.  Bacon is the real father of modern science, which defines truth by whether it can be observed empirically – through the senses -- and repeated.  There are many, many ironies about the supposed conflict between faith and science, and this is the first:  modern, empirical science proceeds from Christian theology and its distinction between Creator and Creation.
Modern science, then, is about observation, predictability, and repetition.  This is an absolutely – to make a pun – fundamental point.  If something cannot be observed, if it cannot be predicted, if it cannot be repeated, then modern science cannot claim it is true.  So Darwin’s observations about fossil data and adaptation were combined with other observations into a pattern:  the theory of evolution.  A scientific theory is not a guess – it is an explanation of a set of related observations or events based upon proven hypotheses and verified multiple times by detached groups of researchers. 
Now, any of you who are expecting me to trash Darwin are going to be disappointed.  I am neither a scientist nor the son of a scientist, but scientists are virtually unanimous that the observable evidence in the world points to life adapting over enormously long periods of time.  That’s the apparent empirical reality.
The question is, is empirical – observable, testable, repeatable, predictable reality – the only reality?  There are some people – some of whom are scientists, who would say so.  But, can you prove, or predict, or empirically test love?  Can you test or prove or dissect beauty?  Or sorrow?  Or envy?  Or joy?  They are real.  So perhaps not all reality is empirical, scientific reality.  The insistence that all reality, all truth, must be empirical is a heresy – taking a part of the truth and treating it as if it were the whole.
The task of science is to explain how things work.  It cannot explain why the world exists.  That is the task of theology.  Just as science has its authorities – empirical observations repeated by detached researchers – theology has its authorities as well.  But with the larger crisis of authority I talked about two weeks ago and a few minutes ago, there’s a debate about what our authority for faith is and how it is used.
Biblical fundamentalists, we’ve said, insist their authority for everything they believe is the inerrant, literally inspired words of the Bible.  Therefore, if Genesis 1 says that God created the world in a particular sequence, or in a specified time frame, or created plants and animals in their present form, then that must be literally true.  How, then, do we reconcile that conviction with the overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary?  Well, Creationists do that in many different ways, some of which are remarkably gymnastic.  My concern with Creationism and its twin sister, Intelligent Design, is not scientific, but theological
Many people view Christian fundamentalists as highly irrational.  The irony is that fundamentalism, which is only about one hundred years old, relies not upon a claim the Bible makes about itself, but upon a rational argument.  If this word is not literally true, fundamentalists claim, then this sentence, and this paragraph, and this chapter, this book, and, indeed, the whole Bible, may not be true.  If the Bible is inspired by an infallible God, then every part of it must be infallible as well.  Aside from the fact that reasoning’s not Biblical, this is a deeply flawed argument. It assumes there is only one kind of truth – literal truth.  Indeed, empirical truth. 
Thus the second irony of fundamentalism, especially with regard to the Creationist debate.  When fundamentalists contort scientific evidence to try to make it fit the Biblical story, they’re embracing the same heresy as bad scientists who say that the only reality is literal reality.  Unless the world was created in this way, say the fundamentalists, then the whole Bible is questionable, and our faith has no foundation.  That’s a rationalist, empirical argument that only holds if there’s no other form of reality.  But what about poetry, beauty, metaphor, allusion, and parable?  What about love and joy and peace and hope? They can’t be touched or proved, but aren’t they real, too?  Or does inspiration only count if it is literal?  That’s the argument of an empiricist.
Science tells us how the world was created.  But it can never tell us why.  That’s the work of faith.  What terrifies me about the Creation vs. Evolution debate is that some Christians seem so obsessed with how the world was created that we’re no longer talking about why it was created.  To use a Biblical image, we are selling our inheritance – helping people encounter a God who loves them and wants them to live the abundant life – for a mess of empirical, scientific cabbage.  Thinking unbelievers are looking for a connection to a world beyond what we can see and touch and reason.  Science can’t make that connection; if we don’t, then it makes no difference what else we believe.
            Can God make the world in six twenty-four hour days?  Of course. Can God make a virgin give birth, change water into wine, raise the dead, make the sun stand still, heal a leper, and enable people to walk across water?  Of course.  Blindfolded, left handed, behind the back, in God’s spare time.
            If you believe God made the world in six days, that’s absolutely fine.  But if you believe it took six billion years, that’s fine, too.  Neither our salvation nor the fate of the world hangs on that conviction.  So whether we are Creationist Fundamentalist or Darwinian Scientist, let’s not waste another moment arguing how we got here when the whole world is literally dying to know why. 

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Bible: Fairy Tale or Divine Dictation?

Epiphany B 1/8/12

John 1: 1-5, 14

Ah, the good old days! Remember them, when life seemed to be so sure and simple, when right was right and truth was truth and up was up? You know – the good old days – about five hundred years ago. You don’t remember? Well, it has been a while.

Today we begin a look at the relationship between Christian faith and modern science: can I be a faithful believer in Jesus Christ and still be an intellectually curious, thinking, educated person? Today I want to set the stage for the next four weeks. For the last five hundred years there has been an argument, by both scientists and believers, that we must choose between modern science and faith. Let’s look, over the next four Sundays, where that idea comes from, and whether it’s true or not.

Today, I want us to think about authority. When we want to know what’s true, what to do, how to live, what to believe, where are the authorities to which we turn? Five hundred years ago, the authorities for life in the Western Christian world were pretty clear:

  • Kings and queens were ordained by God to rule over lesser people, and life was defined by a class system that determined your relationship to the world and to other people. There’s security in that. 
  • The natural world, from the very beginning, looked pretty much the way it does now, and it always will. That’s reassuring, too. 
  • All life was composed of four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. Human sickness, including sickness of the mind and soul, was caused by an imbalance of those elements. Pretty simple. 
If you want to know what to believe about God, ask the church. And since most of us are too sinful to relate to God directly, the church will do that for us. That’s reassuring.
The Bible is a book written by God for our instruction. Of course, not many of us have a copy in 1500, but that’s OK: the church will tell us what it says and means. That’s convenient.

But around the year 1500, these authorities for life, which seemed so convenient and secure, began to fall apart. Political authority, invested in royalty, yielded to the infinitely more complicated and messy theory of democracy. Now nations had to decide how to govern themselves. And that produces tremendous anxiety.

For many years, people had been digging up the bones and fossils of strange animals that no longer existed. Human skulls had been unearthed that looked very different from modern human skulls. And then in 1859, Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, which explained the theory of natural selection: plants and animals had adapted to changes in the environment over long periods of time. We’ll talk more about this next week, but for the moment, suffice it to say that Darwin rocked the notion that life had always been the same.

The notion that all life was composed of four elements was eroded by anatomical studies and by the discipline of chemistry. But Sigmund Freud’s work in the late 19th century on the complexity of the mind defied simple explanations of human behavior. One more authority for life had been knocked over.

When Martin Luther wrote The Freedom of the Christian in 1520, he set forth the notion that every Christian was a priest, able to stand before God because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. With the distribution of this treatise the Roman insistence that only church leaders could properly interpret faith and stand before God began to erode. Now, your relationship with God was between you and God. Another authority collapsed.

Finally, scholars began to discover multiple and varying copies of ancient Biblical texts. It became increasingly clear that as monks copied Biblical texts by hand over a thousand years, they made copying mistakes and inserted notes written in the margins. Older copies of scripture sometimes gave clearer understandings of difficult texts. Higher Criticism began to show that instead of one manuscript, the Bible was a many-layered book written over a thousand years by multiple authors, yet all inspired by God.

When what we’ve believed to be true for ages begins to crumble, when all we once thought sure and certain proves to be fragile and flawed, people tend to react in two ways. Remember 9/11/01, or Hurricane Katrina? Or even when you learned your parents were flawed and human? One response is to decide there is no authority, no truth, no security whatsoever, and we are free to do or believe whatever we wish.

The other reaction to the breakdown of traditional authorities is to plant the flag, dig a moat, build the walls higher, and declare that no matter what anyone else says, here are the absolute, unshakeable fundamental truths on which life is based. There’s a little fundamentalist in all of us: every parent who has ever, in exasperation, told their child to do something “because I said so!” is a fundamentalist. And, I believe, there are some unshakeable truths in life. But we must be very careful in defining what those are.

In the 1880s, a movement among Protestant Christians to counter the breakdown of traditional authorities coalesced in a series of Bible Conferences at Niagara-on-the Lake, Ontario. These conferences defined five points of what has come to be known as Christian Fundamentalism:
  1. the word for word, inerrant, inspiration of the Bible 
  2. the virgin birth of Jesus 
  3. the deity of Jesus 
  4. that we are saved by the sacrificial death of Christ 
  5. that Christ will literally, physically, return to judge the world. 
Most Christians agree with the virgin birth, deity of Jesus, and the atoning work of Christ on the cross. Today we’re going to look at the Bible, and in three weeks look at Christ’s return. But first, there’s something incredibly important to say. What I’ve just laid out for you is the history which underlies most of the arguments between different factions of Christianity in this country today. And one of the characteristics of people who are reacting in crisis is their insistence that their way is the only way. If you disagree with them, it’s not that you simply differ in opinion: you are wrong. This is a characteristic of fundamentalist Christians, Jews, Muslims, and any other religion; it is a characteristic of political and moral fundamentalists both left and right. Furthermore, fundamentalists usually try to portray themselves as the true majority, speaking for the voiceless multitude. Osama bin Laden made this claim, as does Keith Olberman.

So, in this modern day and age, what authority does the Bible have for us? Our United Methodist Articles of Religion say that the Bible doesn’t tell us everything we ever need to know in life, but it does tell us everything we need to know to have a faithful relationship with God.

But how do we read and understand this enormous, layered, amazing book? To use a famous example, a liberal interpretation of the Book of Jonah might say that the story is a metaphor about obedience to God, of God’s never-ending claim on us, and on God’s love for the stranger. A fundamentalist, on the other hand, would insist that every word is literally true and to be taken at face value, and each sentence in the Bible contains a truth that stands on its own, regardless of context.

Where do the words in the Bible come from? A liberal interpretation would argue that the human writers of the Bible were relying upon their understanding of life, their intuition about truth, and reason, to tell stories and set forth standards of behavior. Of course, as the world changes, so Biblical commandments have to be reinterpreted for the present. What’s more important than the words are the ideas behind them. All of us who eat sausage, ham, or shrimp, or who wear wool and linen together (all prohibited in the Bible) are interpreting the scriptures liberally. Fundamentalists, on the other hand, insist that the words of the text are sacred, and are precisely what God intended to say to us. The Lord has risen and appeared to Simon is neither rational nor intuitive – it is the word of and from God.

United Methodists believe in a third, middle way of understanding the scriptures. It takes the best of both ends of the spectrum, and tries to avoid the pitfalls. The Bible is chocked full of metaphors. It’s also chocked full of bold declarations to be taken at face value. Some parts of the Bible are law – the ten commandments – and to be understood as such. Some parts are history: Samuel, Chronicles, Acts. Other parts are poetry, loaded with metaphor and allusion: he makes me lie down in green pastures is not the same as thou shalt not commit adultery. And, all of the Bible is the rich story of God’s love for the world, our rejection of that love, and God’s never-ending work to redeem us. Like any story, some parts are literally true – The Lord has risen – and others are metaphors – if your right hand offends you, cut it off. I’ve never seen a one-handed fundamentalist.

In the same way, the Bible faithfully witnesses to the Word of God. In the lesson from John 1 this morning, it’s clear that the Word of God is God’s creative self-expression, through whom the entire universe is created, and which finds its fullest expression in Jesus of Nazareth. Think of the words of the Bible as a window through which we see God. You don’t look at the window, you look through the window. The window – the Bible – is the means to know God, not the end of our knowing. The words point us to the Word – to God. That’s why the Bible never, ever, claims for itself what the fundamentalists claim – that every word is infallible and that every sentence stands on its own. That’s why Jesus always defeats the Biblical arguments of his opponents – including Satan in the desert – by putting their biblical quotes in the context of the whole book.

And that’s the key to reading and understanding what God is saying to us through the Scriptures – we put each part within the context of the whole. So beware of people who cut a verse from here and paste it with a verse from there in order to prove their ideas. What is miraculous about this book of 66 books written over a thousand years is its remarkably consistent theme of a God who is besotted with the world, of our rejection of that love, and of God’s sacrificial love to redeem us. But unless we look at the big picture, we can’t understand the pieces.

So, to answer the question at the beginning: is the Bible a fairy tale or something dropped intact from heaven? No. It’s something far more wonderful – it’s history, law, poetry, story, and biography, written by many people testifying to their encounter with a God who shines in, under, around, and through these words. Join us in getting to know this amazing book – and, more importantly, the amazing God who speaks to us through it.