Earlier this week I was reading a news article about a social issue, and the reporter had interviewed a pastor. And he was talking about this issue and he said, “the Bible clearly says that this is wrong”. And I remember thinking to myself, “actually, I don’t think that’s what the Bible says at all.” In fact, I think that the Bible says the exact opposite.
And it made me think about how many times I had heard that line: “the Bible clearly says”. And it made me think about the ways that we become confident that we are right, and the ways we can take what is meant to be a message of grace and hope and love for one another and instead turn it into at best a tool to justify our own worldview, and at worst a weapon used to impose that worldview on others.
I was thinking about that when reading today’s text. The passage we read today comes from the very beginning of the Epistle to the Galatians. “Epistle” is just a fancy word for “letter”, really, and this is a letter that Paul wrote to a church that he had started.
Paul had come to this community and he had taught the people there, who were not Jewish like many of the other early Christian people, all about God, and Jesus, and God’s love for them. Paul had taught a Gospel of grace. He had taught them about Jesus, a man whose compassion and love for the world had transformed the world. And he had taught them about being his disciples.
And then, after he left to go on and start other churches, the Galatians had been on their own. And that’s when other teachers had come to the church. And they started telling the Galatians, “you’re doing it all wrong”. And there wasn’t a Bible at this point, because it hadn’t been compiled yet, so they weren’t saying “the Bible clearly says”. But there was the law of Moses, the law that the Jewish community had followed for centuries. And most Christians at the very beginning had been raised in that law and saw that as the authority. And they were saying to these new Christians, “the law clearly says this is what you should do.”
And so, this church that had been taught about grace and about Christ’s love by Paul, all of a sudden was adopting the ways of their new teachers. And they were doing things like arguing about whether they should all get circumcised, and whether or not they had to prepare their food a certain way. And it was causing a rift in this new church.
Paul hears about it, and he writes them a letter. And this letter is probably the angriest letter that Paul sends to any of the churches. And he lays it out to them, starting with these first lines. He tells the Galatians, “look, I know the law”. Paul had been a lawyer, he had been raised in a family that followed the law, and he had been so committed to it that he had even persecuted the early church before his own conversion. He even says, “look, I was a zealot”. And he tells them this to show them that if anyone is going to say to them “Scripture clearly says” or “the law clearly says” he would know better than anyone.
And he tells them, “you know what I taught you” and people are trying to confuse you. He says to them, “I’m not trying to please other people. I’m trying to please God. And regardless of what the people coming in telling you what the law clearly says, don’t forget the real message of grace I taught you.”
Paul was speaking to a church 2,000 years ago. But, his words could just as easily speak to churches everywhere today. Because Christianity is caught in this tension about how we read the Scripture. And this has always been happening to some degree, but in our country the Bible is sometimes used as a political football, meant to justify or not justify whatever big issue is up for public discussion.
And I’m always fascinated when people say “the Bible clearly says this is wrong” or “the Bible clearly says this is right”. Because when it comes to practical matters, the Bible doesn’t clearly say a whole lot. Because the Bible is not just one book, it’s a collection of books, and it’s no secret to those who read it that often those books leave the reader with even less clarity than they had coming in.
And sometimes that means that the Bible has been used to justify some pretty heinous things. In the 1800’s in the South, Christian preachers used the Bible to justify slavery. The Baptist Church split into the American Baptists, the ones we have up here, and the Southern Baptists because the ones down South said “the Bible clearly says it’s okay to have slaves”. The same with the Presbyterians, the Episcopalians, the Methodists, and others, though they all later reconciled.
Fast forward to this century, and the Bible was used again to justify segregation in the South. It was used to fight giving women the right to vote. It’s used to keep science out of classrooms, and it’s used to in dozens of other ways. Someone is always willing to stand up and say “the Bible clearly says…” And God help you, literally, if you try to tell them otherwise.
It’s easy to get intimidated in those situations. Especially if you’re not someone who has devoted a lot of your life to studying the Scripture. It’s easy to feel like the other person must know what they are talking about. That’s especially true if you hear people quoting chapter and verse from memory.
But, that doesn’t mean that you don’t have something to say too. Because here’s what I believe. The Bible doesn’t clearly say much, but it does clearly say this: that God’s love for us is far bigger than anything we could imagine, that Christ taught us how to reflect that love to the world in our lives together, and that the Holy Spirit continues to guide us in every time and place.
That’s the test I use when someone says to me, “the Bible clearly says…” I go back to Jesus, the man who said love God and love your neighbor was the full extent of the law, and I ask myself whether that particular person’s interpretation of the Bible is in agreement with the way Christ asked us to love the world. And, often, I find that it’s not. And so I read the Scriptures for myself instead.
Now, you may disagree with me. And that’s okay. Because the clergy do not hold a monopoly on the Bible. The Bible, and the legacy of Christ, belong to you as much as they belong to me. Clergy are trained in a certain way, and we learn tools that help us to understand the Scripture, and we can be good resources for helping to interpret them. But in the end, this book belongs to each of us, not just some of us.
Martin Luther, the great reformer who helped to launch the Protestant Reformation, really believed that was true. He had been a priest in a time when only priests and a few others could read the Bible. That was literally true because, first, not many people could read. Second, the printing press hadn’t been invented yet, so there wasn’t much to read. And, third, what was available was often in Latin and not the language of the people.
Part of the Protestant Reformation, the movement that brought churches like ours, was the idea that everyone should be able to read this book. And printing presses were invented right at the time Martin Luther was doing his work, so the timing was perfect. And all of a sudden, it was possible for everyone to have a Bible. And not just a Bible printed in Latin, but one printed in German, their own language. And those early Lutherans and other early Protestants stressed education for this reason. They wanted everyone to be able to read this for themselves. They wanted Christianity to be a religion that promoted education, and that wanted you to use your mind and read for yourself. They didn’t want to control the Bible; they wanted to open it up so that everyone could claim it.
Which means that this is your Bible too. Our church isn’t known as one full of Bible-thumpers. We don’t walk around telling people what the Bible clearly says. I hope we don’t start doing that. But we are people of this book as much as any other church is. It’s ours too. And that means that we can claim it, and read it for ourselves, and find out what is really says, not just what talking heads on TV or people with an agenda say it says.
I think I started reading the Bible because I’d been told so many times what the Bible clearly said and I wanted to see for myself. And what I found was not a scary book full of rules. What I found was grace, and compassion, and a witness to God’s love. Ironically, it’s a big part of what made me go to seminary.
And you too are free to explore. So, how will you do that? Will you read the Bible for yourself? Will you come to a Christian education class? Will you start a prayer group? Will you go to a Bible study?
Today in the visioning process we are going to be talking about some of the ways that the church can help you to do that, and so I hope you will stay and tell us what would be helpful. This book, this faith, is yours as much as it is anyone else’s. You have as much claim to the name of Christian as anyone, whether you carry a Bible in your hand, or not. That means that the doors of faith have been flung open wide to you. How will you walk through? Amen.