“8 Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel, 9for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained.” Paul knew about chains, When he wrote this letter to Timothy he was quite literally in chains, held in a Roman prison. He could not go anywhere without his chains. And yet Paul knew that even though his body was chained, the message he carried wasn’t. The Word of God was loose in the world – the story of life and death and redemption. The Word of God is just too big, too wonderful, just too much for any earthly chain.
But we do try to chain up the word of God – we take the bits that we most agree with and use them to prove we’re right. Or we take bits and pieces from different books and put them together as if they are one story. Or we look at two similar stories and decide one is true and one isn’t.
We all know about using phrases from the Bible to prove a point – maybe we have all done it at one time or another. The problem with taking one sentence to make our point is that when we do that we are usually ignoring the context – we’re pulling that sentence out to stand alone, when nothing stands alone. When we do that we are using that statement to prove something that it may not have anything to do with at all. I could give examples of this proof-texting all day long, but here’s my favorite one: someone once told me to look at 2 Thessalonians 3:10 “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” They insisted that this phrase was proof that there should be no welfare! Never mind that throughout the Bible, Old and New Testament, we are directed to support the widows and orphans and aliens, or even that the first recorded argument in the early church was over an apparent preference for one group of widows over another when distributing food and funds for their support – for this person, here was proof that God said everyone should be self-supporting.
It’s tempting to use the Bible to prove our point over against someone else’s point. During the 25 years that I was away from church I read the Bible a lot, mostly in order to find arguments to use against Christians. And it’s really tempting to do that very thing in my preaching – just use one sentence, out of context, and preach the truth of it even if the “truth” I choose has nothing to do with the real meaning of the text – like that verse from Thessalonians. Although one person saw it as proof the poor should never receive aid, read in context we see that Paul was really talking about how he and his fellow missionaries always worked to support themselves where ever they went, and didn’t ask the churches to support them, and that everyone serving the church who could work, should. If we READ the Bible, the whole thing, we will find that many of our favorite proof-texts really don’t mean what we think they mean. And perhaps we will become less willing to chain up God’s word and use it as a weapon to abuse others.
On Mondays we are studying the Gospel according to John. And as we read the part where Judas comes to the garden to betray Jesus, we noticed some differences from the Easter story we think we know. In John, Judas did NOT kiss Jesus. But in the story we all know, Judas kissed him, the sign of love turned into a sign of betrayal. So we had to go back to Matthew, Mark and Luke to examine the differences in the stories. In some, Peter struck off the ear of the temple servant, in some an unnamed disciple did it, in some Jesus healed the injured man, in others he didn’t. Then we noticed that the whole trial in the temple simply didn’t exist in John, although we all know that’s part of the Easter story. As we continued to make comparisons between the Gospels we discovered that in John, the last Supper didn’t happen at Passover, in the others it did. In John, Jesus’ ministry lasted some 3 years, in the others only one. In John, Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, in the others he didn’t. When Ton’Ee and I were in Texas, my sister-in-law took us to a beautiful church that had life-sized stations of the cross outside, with a path nearly a mile long that wound around past all the stations. As we walked the stations of the cross, I carried a Bible and as we reached each different station I would flip through the Gospels to find the one in which that event appears. They weren’t all in the same Gospel, and some weren’t even in the Bible (I already knew that, but my sister-in-law didn’t.), but they all combine to make one coherent story of Christ’s passion – his suffering and death and resurrection. The thing is, the Gospels weren’t written as one coherent story. They’re all different stories, intended to make different theological points.
And look at the Christmas story. In our Christmas pageants and in the music we use for the Hanging of the Greens, we have Mary being greeted by an angel, and Joseph being told to marry her even though she’s already pregnant We see Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem for the census, shepherds being awakened by angels to go worship him, and magi showing up with gifts, even though these events don’t all happen in the same Gospels. We do have this tendency to take all the elements of the Gospel stories and put them together to make one, coherent story. It’s most obvious in our telling of the Easter and Christmas stories, but we do it other places too.
My personal favorite is the way we’ve merged the stories of the woman with the alabaster jar and the woman who washed Jesus’ feet and turned them all into one story starring Mary Magdalene as a prostitute. But if we READ these stories, one at a time, in context, we learn that not only is Mary Magdalene never named as a participant in any of these stories, she is not even a prostitute. Mary Magdalene is a woman who’d had a demon cast out of her who chose to follow Jesus after her healing. These stories each have a different woman in them, they each have a different emphasis and meaning. They are not the same story at all.
And then there’s the way we prefer one Biblical account of the same events over another.
Look at the book of Genesis:
In Chapter One God created man and woman at the same time, both made in God’s image. In Chapter Two God created man from the dust of the ground, then created woman from man’s rib, to be his helper. In Genesis there are two different stories about the creation of humanity, but we have chosen one to believe and use as the foundation for our society. If we don’t READ the Bible, we might not even know that first story exists.
Now look at the book of Joshua, one of the more disturbing books of the Hebrew Scriptures. God tells the Hebrew people to destroy every city in Canaan, and Joshua leads the Hebrews in doing just that. Then in Judges, after Joshua dies, the Hebrews move into Canaan and go to war against all the same cities again – cities where there shouldn’t be cities, or people to war against. And then, the Bible tells us “they did not drive the people out, but the Canaanites continued to live in that land.” In Judges, it seems as though the destruction in Joshua never happened. Two different stories about how the Hebrews ended up living in Israel, but we only know about the first one. As it happens, archeologists tend to agree with the account in Judges – there just isn’t any physical evidence of so many ancient cities being destroyed in the same time period.
Stories like Joshua, in which God insists that anyone in the way should be killed, turn a lot of people away from church – away from any contact with such a God. Why would anyone want to worship such a God – who created all humans but told his favorites to kill off anyone who wasn’t one of the chosen? Or one who placed one human above another, even though all were created in God’s image? We have chained up God’s Word, and God’s intention, and God’s design, and made them mean whatever we want them to mean.
And yet – if we look past Joshua into Judges, we discover God’s love and forgiveness. In Judges, over and over, the Hebrews disobeyed God – they turned to other gods, they ignored the plight of the poor, they abused the alien workers in their midst. Over and over their actions led them into trouble, they found themselves on the verge of being annihilated by other nations. And over and over, God forgave them. God let them start over.
And not just the Hebrews. We all know the story of Jonah – and we all pretty much get stuck on the whole “swallowed by a giant fish” part of it. We don’t think about the whole story. God told Jonah to go to Ninevah and tell the people there that if they don’t turn from their evil ways and worship God they would be destroyed. Jonah didn’t want to go, but he really didn’t have much choice in the matter. So he went, and he preached, and the people changed. And God forgave them. God exhibited love and mercy and compassion, not judgment and anger and punishment.
When I was in junior high I had a teacher who had us read the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament as literature and I fell in love with it. I discovered that the Bible is filled with wonderful stories and terrible stories. It has stories of romance and rejection, murder and punishment, cowardice and bravery, loyalty and betrayal, bad things happening to good people, and good things happening to bad people. It has boring parts – all those laws and all those lists of who begat whom - and it has exciting parts – wars and love stories. It’s filled with songs and poetry. It has really sexy stories and really horrific ones - there are stories in there I’d never read to children, because if they were movies they’d be rated PG17 or come with a warning about violence! The Bible isn’t just a history of the Hebrews. It’s the story of humanity. It tells us how people behave, and about relationship with God. If we read it carefully, we can see ourselves. If we read it carefully, we can see God.
If we only read bits and pieces, we only get bits and pieces of the whole story. We’d never read a novel in bits. If we did, the ending wouldn’t make sense. And students shouldn’t read text books in bits – there just might be a test question on the part we missed. So why, I wonder, do we read the Bible that way? All of the answers are in there – and so are all of the questions. Everything I need to know about how to be in relationship with other people and with God is in there someplace. But to find what I need to know, I have to read it. I have to study it. I have to understand the entire story.
When I read the Bible I discover a God powerful enough to create the universe with a word, and loving enough to create humanity in his own image. A God who loves us enough to let us go on our own way – even when that way is going to lead us into trouble – and forgiving enough to welcome us back with open arms when we realize our mistakes. A God who never says “I told you so” but rather says “I will not remember what you have done in the past.” Who shows us repeatedly that the greatest among us are not the wealthy and powerful, but those who devote themselves to serving their brothers and sisters. Who rejects no one who comes to God in love, to learn and serve. When I read the Bible, I hear God’s story – still speaking to us across millennia, across cultures, across traditions. I hear a melody, running through all the books of the Bible, sometimes loudly, sometimes so quietly we can barely hear it, singing God’s story of love, mercy, compassion and forgiveness. Let us read, and listen, and unchain that melody, and sing Alleluia! when we hear God’s story.
Hymn Alleluia! Hear God’s Story 330