Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Baptist biblicism as a gift to the church

On Sunday (January 22) I had three speaking engagements in Louisville, Kentucky connected with the observance of the 2012 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the first of which was serving as guest preacher in the morning worship service at Lyndon Baptist Church. In that sermon I pointed to a healthier sort of Baptist biblicism (there are less healthy sorts) as a gift that Baptists at our best have to offer humbly to the rest of the church as we move toward more visible forms of Christian unity through the mutual exchange of the ecclesial gifts stewarded by the currently divided Christian traditions. The text of the sermon appears below:

Let the Bible Be the Bible
(Jeremiah 31:27-34; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8)

Twelve years ago seems like an entirely different era to me. The year 2000 was pre-9/11, pre-parenthood, and pre-all sorts of other things. Back in that bygone era my wife and I watched more television than we have since becoming parents, and our newly discovered favorite TV series was “The West Wing.” In an episode that year titled “Let Bartlett Be Bartlett,” it’s midway through the first term of the Bartlett administration, and things aren’t going too well. In two years the administration’s only victory to speak of is the confirmation of a Supreme Court nominee. President Bartlett’s approval ratings are sliding into un-re-electable territory, and things are getting worse: the press has gotten hold of a memo written by a White House staffer underscoring all the weaknesses of the administration, staff morale sinks to a rock-bottom low, and everyone’s painfully aware they’re accomplishing nothing. Near the end of the episode, the chief of staff confronts the president. He convinces him the root cause of their ineffectiveness is that President Bartlett has spent two years trying to be and do what it seems the public wants him to be and do. He’s not being himself. He’s not leading from his strengths. His administration’s being driven by the expectations others have instead of the presidential vision, and it’s not working. They’re not winning anyone over with this strategy, and they’re starting to lose the party base, too. The President and White House staff decide they’re going to “Let Bartlett Be Bartlett,” and, this being the idealized world of a television drama, it works. Two episodes later, the polls go up, legislative victories start happening, and two years later there’s a second term.

Real life is rarely quite that neat. But that “West Wing” episode serves as a parable for what we’ve all too frequently done to the Bible. Modern Christianity hasn’t always done a good job of letting the Bible be the Bible. We’ve imposed on the Bible expectations God never intended the Bible to fulfill. We’ve battled over whether or not it’s historically accurate or consistent with modern science. We’ve advanced ever more precise theories of how God inspired the Bible. We’ve wrangled over what words best describe the Bible’s inspired and authoritative status. Words like “infallible” and “inerrant” became politicized litmus tests that some used as theological billy clubs to enforce orthodoxy. I should hasten to add that if people choose to use those words to communicate their belief in the inspiration and authority of the Bible, and if what they mean by those words is that we can count on the Bible to tell us the truth about how God saves us and how we should live in light of that salvation, I can go along with that. But if the intent behind those words is to impose on the Bible expectations the Bible can’t deliver on because God never intended Sacred Scripture for those purposes, and if the intent behind those words is to build fences that separate people who supposedly “really believe the Bible” from people who allegedly don’t, then I respectfully have to offer a dissenting opinion.

It just won’t do, though, to say the opposite of whatever we might deem an inadequate way of affirming the Bible’s inspiration and authority. If we decide words like “inerrant” and “infallible” don’t quite say what needs to be said, we don’t want to say instead that the Bible is “errant” or “fallible.” For as today’s Epistle lesson says, Scripture is nothing less than something that comes from God: it is “inspired by God,” which is a somewhat wimpy way of translating into English what the text says in Greek. All Scripture is theopneustos, God-breathed, breathed by God—or God-spirated, which gives us the words “inspiration” and “inspired”—and which is not coincidentally related to the word “Spirit,” for in the Hebrew Scriptures God’s Spirit is the breath of God. When 2 Timothy calls the Bible “inspired,” it’s not so much an affirmation of some quality Scripture possesses—it’s about something God does. God breathes the Scriptures. God breathed the Scriptures back then when God did things for Israel and the church that made known God’s salvation, and God breathed the Scriptures then when God moved people to tell and write about those things God did. God breathed the Scriptures then, and God breathes the Scriptures now when God speaks to us through the Bible and breathes life into us.

When we think about Scripture as something that God breathes, we ought to think of the language of the creation story from Genesis: God’s Spirit is the breath of God blowing across the face of the waters at the beginning of the story, and later in the story God’s Spirit breathes life into the nostrils of humanity. The same God who breathes creation into being and breathes life into humanity breathes the Scriptures, and through the Scriptures God breathes into being our Christian existence and the community of the church and breathes into it life. When we read the Bible devotionally and study it together in Sunday School and hear it read and proclaimed in worship, we’re not just reading and hearing and talking about words—we’re having a life-changing encounter with the creative and enlivening breath of God. We rightly revere it as Sacred Scripture, the Holy Bible. In this season of Epiphany when we celebrate the light God gives to the world in Jesus Christ that shows us things about who God is and who we are that we’d never have known apart from the light of God’s revelation, we give honor to the indispensable role the Bible has in God’s act of making these things known to us.

Scripture is something God did and does, and God-breathed Scripture does something. In the world in which Timothy ministered, people had much the same perspective they have today on the practicality of knowledge. An idea or a philosophy had usefulness if it did something—if it resulted in living the good life. So in addition to portraying Scripture as something God does, the text emphasizes what it is that God-breathed Scripture does. It’s useful; it’s good for something. In particular, Timothy’s told in chapter 3, verse 15, it’s good for instructing us for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. The Bible shows us that God is a God who wants to save us from what’s gone wrong with the human condition; it shows us that God has located salvation in the person of Jesus the Christ; and the Bible shows us how to live the life that belongs to the salvation God’s given us in Christ. In other words, “Jesus loves me, this I know; for the Bible tells me so.”

Verse 16 lists four things for which God-breathed Scripture is useful, but they really boil down to two. The first and fourth phrases express the Bible’s positive functions: it teaches the way of salvation and trains us, the way a child is trained toward maturity, to embody God’s own just character. The second and third phrases express the Bible’s negative functions: it reproves us, which means the Bible makes us painfully aware of our shortcomings, but it also corrects us, which means the Bible lets us know when we’re on dead-end paths and steers us toward the path that leads to life. The Bible does something. It’s useful. Its usefulness lies in the way God uses the Bible to bring us into saving relationship with God, with one another, and with the world, and its goal is to make us skilled at this saving relationship—“so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

The Bible does the saving thing God gave us the Bible to do especially when we read, hear, and heed the Bible in the context of worship. Thus Timothy’s told in First Timothy, “Give attention to the public reading of Scripture.” When we read and hear the Bible in a worship service, that act of worship makes present the biblical story so that we’re not just reading about something that happened long, long ago in a faraway land. Those events become present when we gather on Sunday around the reading of Scripture, in such a way that we’re invited to participate in that story. A Baptist theologian named James Wm. McClendon, Jr. tried to capture in a brief formula exactly what it is that happens when Baptists in particular read the Bible and participate in its story. McClendon’s formula goes like this: “This is that, and then is now.”  “This is that”—this thing that’s happening right here in the life of the present-day church is that very thing that we read in the Bible happened with the people of God back then. “Then is now”—then, that day in the future the Bible tells us about when God will make all things the way God intended them to be from the beginning, is also happening right now. The church here and now is a foretaste of the community of heaven in which we’re fully reconciled with God and fully reconciled with one another. “This is that, and then is now.” That gets at the heart of the best of the Baptist vision and the place of the Bible in it. But lest we get too arrogant about that, it should be said that this really expresses the Christian vision and the Bible’s place in it. It just happens to be something Baptists at our best have emphasized.

What’s the Bible trying to do in this service today? The Epistle reading isn’t only addressed to a young pastor who served the church in Ephesus 2,000 years ago. It’s addressed to us. We’re not all pastors, but we’re all called to fulfill the ministry of the church as a kingdom of priests, ordained to Christian ministry by virtue of our baptism. We’re the ones who are encouraged to continue in what we’ve learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom we’ve learned it. We’re the ones who are encouraged to let the Bible be the Bible as we proclaim its message and carry out our ministry fully. Baptists at our best have been that sort of radically biblical people, and it’s one of the gifts we have to offer humbly to the rest of the church. This is that.

The lesson from Jeremiah wasn’t merely reporting Jeremiah’s encouragement to the exiled people of Judah in Babylon way back in the sixth century B.C. We’re the people living in exile, whose true home is not this present order of things, who belong to another city but whom the prophet encourages to seek the good of this city where we live in exile. We’re the people who hope in the midst of exile for the full realization of the new covenant God’s already made with us—when God’s law will be within people, written on their hearts, and all will know God, and sins will be forgiven and remembered no more—and yet that’s already happening right here, right now, with us. Baptists at our best have had that kind of vision for a new order of things that comes from God’s future and not through some establishment of Christianity by government or culture, and that too is one of the gifts we can humbly offer the rest of the church. Then is now.

And in the Gospel lesson from Luke, we’re the people Jesus is talking about, who cry to God day and night for justice in this unjust world. We’re the people who know that God is infinitely more responsive to our cries than the unjust judge who grudgingly and grumpily grants justice so he won’t be bothered anymore. We’re also the people who know that the justice God will one day fully grant is the justice we’re called to seek in the world right here and right now. Baptists at our best have passionately sought justice for the oppressed and the marginalized, for once upon a time Baptists were oppressed and marginalized, and in many places in the world that’s still the case. That’s yet another gift we have to offer the rest of the church, with great humility. This is that, and then is now. That’s what happens when we let the Bible be the Bible when we gather for worship.

It isn’t only through the reading and preaching of the Bible that worship makes present the biblical story of the Triune God and invites us to participate in it and embody it. Every act of worship in this service has that function. The singing of choir and congregation throughout the service is rich in words and images that come straight from Scripture, and in our singing we participate in Scripture’s story with voices and ears and bodies. In confessing our sins and receiving God’s assurance of forgiveness, we enter into the heart of the biblical story. The Bible’s story of salvation is nothing less than the story of receiving ourselves and granting to others the forgiveness God gives us in Jesus Christ. The conclusion of worship sends us out into the world to embody the Bible’s story throughout the week.

That points to how we let the Bible be the Bible beyond what happens in worship. The Bible does what the Bible is supposed to do when we embody the biblical story in the way we live our lives. God helps us learn how to embody the biblical story by giving us examples—sisters and brothers in Christ who throughout Christian history and today, and even here in this congregation, show us what it means to live the life the Bible teaches. The Bible tells us we ought to be merciful. How do we have any earthly idea what it looks like to show mercy, other than some abstract idea of what we imagine mercy to be? When we read about mercy in the Bible, we know what that is because we’ve seen merciful people show mercy to others and show mercy to us. That’s why the church throughout history has honored certain Christians as saints, exemplary role models for living the Christian life. Timothy had his saints—at the beginning of this text he’s told, “Continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it.” Earlier in the letter, Timothy’s reminded that he learned the faith through the faith that lived in his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice. He learned how to live the life of faith because they and others who were before him and beside him in the church modeled the Christian life for him. Like musicians and artists and writers and athletes, we learn the Christian life through imitation, by looking to good examples and seeking to do likewise.

One of those exemplary Christians from the church’s past is Saint Vincent of Saragossa, an ancient Christian deacon from Spain who died early in the fourth century AD. We may not talk about St. Vincent much in Baptist churches, but on January 22 many churches throughout the world commemorate his life and martyrdom. We don’t know much about the life of Vincent, apart from the fact that during a major persecution of Christians under the Roman Emperor Diocletian in 304, Vincent was arrested for his devotion to Christ and put to death. According to early Christian tradition, Vincent was tried along with his bishop Valerius, who had a speech impediment and had Vincent speak for him. Vincent testified to his bishop’s faith and his own faith so passionately that he enraged the governor, and Vincent was condemned to being tortured to death, roasted alive on a gridiron. Martyrs like Vincent of Saragossa remind us that embodying the biblical story means taking up our crosses and following Jesus, and that bearing the cross costs us everything. It always involves a death to self, and it sometimes involves the death of our self.

A few years ago I wrote a hymn text that gave voice to some of the things divinity school students ought to be committed to about Christ, the Bible, and the ministry of the church. The second stanza was about the Bible, and in that stanza I tried to say something about what it might mean to let the Bible be the Bible in the life of the church. I’m not going to sing it, but the words go like this:

Through the Bible God has spoken
Pointing us to Christ the Word.
In its story of salvation
Still the Spirit’s voice is heard.
As we learn to teach the Bible,
Its great message to declare,
May we each embrace God’s story
That in God’s life we might share.

That applies not just to divinity school students preparing to be vocational ministers. Every follower of Christ is responsible to embody the biblical story in word and deed, to teach and declare it, but we can’t do that on our own. As we embrace the story of the Triune God told by the Bible, that story becomes our own story to such an extent that we’re participating not only in a story—we’re participating in God’s very life, and God’s life participates in us. When we let the Bible be the Bible, that’s precisely what happens. And when it happens, we find ourselves moving toward the unity for which we pray during this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Will you let the Bible draw you into God’s life and God’s life into yours? May it be so, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

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