Friday, October 23, 2009

But I Learned it in Sunday School! (Part II)

How does learning ideas that are new to us shape our faith? How does doubt help us grow stronger?
Open My Eyes That I May See
Seek Ye First

Romans 12:2
2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-- what is good and acceptable and perfect.
John 5:39-40
39 "You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. 40 Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.


I had a pastor in Indiana who used to talk about how kids always know the right answer in Sunday School. It's either "God", "Jesus", or "The Bible". And you know what? Sometimes we adults don't get past that either. And what I may say today may make you feel uncomfortable. I hope it doesn't, but I understand that it might. But what I hope more than anything, is that your understanding of the Bible is enhanced and that your faith is strengthened.

In the first part of "But I Learned it in Sunday School", I spoke about how when I was in college and taking classes about the Bible, I was learning a lot of new things. Some of what I mentioned was that I was hearing for the first time that there were multiple stories about creation, not just one, or that the first five books were written by four different authors and weaved together by an editor. Or that when New Testament authors quoted Hebrew Scripture, they were using it in a new and different way. I also mentioned that before this, I hadn't ever really thought of the Bible as literature, but more as a manual for life. My experience in reading the Bible was still pretty new, and so far I really only knew about application, because that's what we concentrated on in the small group that I was in. It really puzzled me and I at first had a difficult time understanding how I could read it without thinking that everything was supposed to apply to me.

"But…but…the Bible is God's word!", you might be thinking. "It says so itself in 2 Timothy 3:16!" But does it really? That scripture is used a lot as proof, so let's read it: "All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness" (NRS 2 Timothy 3:16).
Let's think about when Paul wrote this. He is writing this letter to an individual, Timothy. From what we know of Timothy, he was born to a Jewish mother and a Greek father. They raised him in that faith, and then he also adopted their faith in Jesus as his own. In addition to that, at the time this was written, we didn't even have the New Testament yet; the only thing that Paul could have been referring to is what we call the Old Testament; the Hebrew Scriptures of his people.

Let's also look at what Paul says just prior to this verse. In 2 Timothy 3:14-15 he says
to Timothy "14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, 15 and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus." He basically tells him to remember what he's learned and who he's learned it from, and what the learning and the scriptures he's always known have been for, which we are told in verse 17: "so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work."

When we put it all together it says: 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, 15 and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

We see that Paul encourages Timothy to see the Hebrew Scriptures as instruction that is useful for certain things. That word translated as useful is ophelimos (wvfe,limoj) which can mean useful, valuable, beneficial, or profitable. It doesn't say it is the final word. Paul wouldn't have thought it was anyway; with his background as a Pharisee, he would have been well-versed in the oral torah, the traditions handed down over many generations that explained things about those scriptures. He knew that there were interpretations and different understandings of what was contained in scripture.

As I read this one day, I noticed a note in my Bible about the inspiration in verse 16 which said to compare it to Genesis 2:7 where God breathes life into the first human being, and that got me to wondering. Is Paul reminding Timothy of humankind being God-breathed? That even though God gives life, humans still have the ability to mess up? That despite that, they still have a purpose in life? Could Paul have been saying that even if those Hebrew Scriptures are God-breathed, there's still room for human error?

Another thing we should take into account is that typically, when we see something called "The Word of God", it rarely refers to something written. We see that the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision (Gen 15:1) or that it was something God had said and that the Egyptians feared (Exodus 9) or that in the time of Samuel, it was a rare occurrence (1 Samuel 3:1). We see it a lot in 1 Kings where it is always spoken. We're probably most familiar with the phrase when we see it regarding the prophets…the word of the Lord came to the prophet Isaiah, or Jeremiah, or Hosea, or Joel or Amos or Jonah… and in these instances, it is connected with hearing. With listening. And then when we get to our New Testament, the author of the gospel of John takes a different spin on it. He says that the word of God—logos (lo,goj)in Greek—which draws on the idea of Hebrew wisdom and the Greek idea of reason is something that always existed and then became flesh in Jesus. In addition to that, the most frequent use of the term in the New Testament is in the book of Acts where it also is something that is referred to as Jesus (Acts 11:16) or something people heard (Acts 13:44) and as a message that was spread (Acts 13:49).

And yes, of course, sometimes what was heard was written down. But does that mean that God speaks once; it's written down, and that's it? Or does God give different messages at different times to different people with different needs?

In the Bible itself, there were many people who heard from God to do things contrary to what was expected or thought or understood at the time. Moses, a man with a speech problem was supposed to speak on God's behalf to Pharaoh (Exodus 4:10). David, only a boy (1 Samuel 17:33, 42) fought the giant Goliath with only a stone (1 Samuel 17:49). The prophet Amos was a simple shepherd (Amos 1:1). A great evangelist who told many people about Jesus was a nameless, sinning, Samaritan woman (John 4). The first people to spread the good news of Jesus' resurrection were women (Luke 24:10). And Jesus himself was from Nazareth, and we all know that nothing good can come from there, right? (John 1:45-46).

If we only take the words of the Bible as we read them in our translations without question or discussion, we run into problems. We run into ideas that promote slavery. We run into ideas that God and science are at odds with each other. We run into ideas that I should not be up here speaking to you.

If the Bible is the final authority on all things, why would we have the Holy Spirit? If the Bible is the final authority on all things, why doesn't it address every single issue that ever comes up in life? The thing is, the Bible isn't only a manual or rulebook. Even the rabbis knew that; that is why they had to interpret it and discuss it and figure out what it meant for them. For example, take the commandment to "8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work" (Exodus 20:8-10). It's not clear to us readers what it meant to not do work on the Sabbath (which, by the way, is Friday sundown to Saturday sundown, not Sunday). So the rabbis had to discern what people could and could not do on this day.

I love reading and studying the Bible. I enjoy knowing that the people in the Bible had struggles and doubts and questions too. It makes them easier to relate to. To know that they didn't have all the answers and had to learn and grow in their relationships with God makes me realize that it's not a book that we just follow without question and that's it. But to know that we can learn from the successes, failures, hopes, joys, tears, and pain of the people in the Bible is a way that we can connect with them though they are long gone.
But even though I love the Bible, I do have to work sometimes to make sure I use it as a tool, and that it helps me to look to God, to look to the God revealed in Jesus, to look to the God present with us in the Holy Spirit for my primary guidance. I don't want to be like the Pharisees that Jesus speaks to in the scripture we heard earlier. And I do want to continue to use my mind and renew it.

Even as I prepared this, there was a balance to be found. I searched the scriptures, yes, but I also prayed that God would guide my words as I wrote them. And I was reminded of how the words that people in Christian and Jewish history have chosen as scripture are alive and meaningful. How they can help point us to God, how they can help us to seek Him, how they can point us in the right direction, how they can help us to understand Him better.

Would you please stand and sing "Seek Ye First", seeking God's kingdom with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.


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