Reformation of the Word of God
Reformation Sunday, October 27, 2013
Pastor Monte Stevens – North Riverdale Lutheran Church – Dayton, Ohio
Let me begin by saying, I love being Lutheran.
In preparation for this sermon I re-read some of Martin Luther’s writings…and he is amazing! He is amazing for his courage, insight, fortitude, and following his heart and the leading of the Holy Spirit.
Usually, on Reformation Sunday, I offer a sort of trip down memory lane and share the historical reality of the Reformation. We begin in 1517, with the nailing of the 95 Thesis’ on the door of Wittenberg Chapel; speak about his insight into the gospel of being saved by God’s grace and not works of the law; and end with his famous line of “Here I stand – I can do no other.”
I love that Luther was a radical and stood for what he believed even to the point of being ex-communicated by a papal bull and hunted down by the pope’s men – as a wild boar was hunted in the woods.
There is so much rich history, that one Sunday a year, is never enough. But even in this richness, I am going to shift to another principle that Luther believed.
Luther believed that just as he was bringing reform to the church of his day, there would be times in the future when the church would need to be reformed – over and over again.
Think about it. With humans at the helm, it’s easy for mistakes to be made and ego and power to push away the Holy Spirit. So Luther talked openly about the church needing to continually check in on itself and take note of any err and reform itself.
On the church Facebook page and on my personal Facebook page I asked you all to help me write the sermon by sharing how you thought the church needed to reform today. Lots of people viewed the request and only one pastor offered a reform. Then I did get an email from one of you and that email, in part, was sharing an aspect of where I think the church is in err today and where we need reform.
Now when I say “The Church” it is hard to speak in the singular. Because there are Lutherans, Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, Baptist, Pentecostals, progressive Christians, fundamentalist Christians, and quite a diversity of Christians that make up “The Church.”
For the past several years I have been talking about the Predominant Christian Story, and the hold “this narrative” has on Christians across the board – no matter their denominational affiliation. It has been my thesis that this Predominant Christian Story has played a major role in the recent decline of Christianity, especially with the demographic of 18 to 35 year olds. Fewer and fewer people are actively attending church or participating in faith communities. That’s just a fact.
The fastest growing group in the United States is the “nones.” Those who have chosen “none” as their religious affiliation in surveys. More and more churches are closing … and younger generations are seeing the church as irrelevant.
Something must be wrong. Something must be in need of reform? But what?
There are many things that need reformed, but this morning we will only spend a little time on just one. But this one is at the heart of all the others and is the beginning point of all the others. I believe it is central to the problem that we all know is real and the core reform needed today.
The reform is this: we need to reform the way we understand “The Bible” – what we commonly call “The Word of God.”
What is this Bible? What role does it play? How are we to understand and use its content? Where did it come from? How is it still relevant?
When I say “Word of God,” what comes to mind? How is that phrase used in the predominant Christian culture? In the predominant Christian story?
Someplace along the decade of the 1980’s – maybe earlier – it got reduced down to a bumper sticker: “God said it. I believe it. That settles it!“ In this typology the Word of God = the words of the Bible. Just believe these words, and live by these words, and all will be well. You don’t question it – or challenge it – or beg to differ in any way.
This is an understanding of scripture that says the words of the Bible came from God and are God’s Words to us and we must believe them – period. When I hold up this Bible – the Holy Bible – the predominant Christian understanding is that it is the infallible, inerrant, and literal Word of God.
That understanding of the Word of God is not Lutheran, but many Lutheran’s believe that – or feel they should believe that. It comes from a more conservative, fundamentalist, evangelical understanding of the words of scripture.
“God said it. I believe it. That settles it!” This is still the predominant Christian understanding of the Bible. Word of God = the words of the Bible. But I say it’s not Lutheran. Nor is it helpful for critical thinking people that desire to have a relationship with God in whose image they are created.
Many young people when confronted with this understanding of the Word of God simply say, “No, Christianity is not for me. I don’t believe all that stuff they say you have to believe.” And I don’t blame them. The only option they get is to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
The Bible read in this way has a picture of God rejoicing over the drowning of the Egyptians at the Red Sea.
In Psalm 137:9 we hear the suggestion that God thinks the children of the Edomites should have their heads dashed against the rocks for what the Edomites had done to the Jews.
In Exodus God was called a “Man of War,” a concept far removed from another understanding of God as “the Prince of Peace.”
As you work your way through the scriptures you discover in Ex. 21:15 that a child that struck or cursed at a parent shall be executed.
In Ex. 22:20 anyone who sacrificed to a God other than Israel’s God “Shall be utterly destroyed.”
Menstruating women were unclean and everything they touched was unclean.
You could not be a priest if you were blind, or lame, or had a mutilated face, or were a hunchback, or a dwarf, or had a defect in sight, or an itching disease, or scabs, or crushed testicles. (Lev 22:16-22)
If you blaspheme God you shall be executed. (Lev. 24:16)
If a “spirit of jealousy” came upon a man, he could order his wife to undergo an ordeal of drinking a poisoned potion. If the woman died, her guilt was assumed. (Num. 5:11) One shudders to think of the mentally unbalanced males who put their wives to death wrongfully under this male-inspired law that was said to be the Word of God.
Have any of you seen the new snake handling show on TV based on a verse from the Bible that has been taken literally? No wonder some folks think Christians are crazy! And worship a crazy God that would test them in that way.
Non-Israelite groups, such as the Midianites, were ordered to be destroyed by the God of the Bible. (Num. 31:1-2)
In this same story Moses was angry that they let the women live. He then ordered all the male children to be killed. So much for “you shall not murder.” Then all the women who were not virgins were ordered to be killed, but Moses allowed the Israelite men to keep all the virgins “for yourself.”
Here are just a few of the many other troubling verses in our Bible:
Genesis 19:8 Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.’
Deut 25:11-12 If men get into a fight with one another, and the wife of one intervenes to rescue her husband from the grip of his opponent by reaching out and seizing his genitals, you shall cut off her hand; show no pity.
Exodus 4:24 On the way, at a place where they spent the night, the Lord met him and tried to kill him.
1 Timothy 2:12 I permit no women to teach or have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.
Jeremiah 19:9 And I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and the flesh of their daughters, and all shall eat the flesh of their neighbors in the siege, and in the distress with which their enemies and those who seek their life afflict them.
2 Kings 2:23-24 He went up from there to Bethel; and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, ‘Go away, baldhead! Go away, baldhead!’ When he turned round and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. Then two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys.
Even in our gospels, Jesus is presented as narrow-minded, vindictive, and even hypocritical.
Jesus exhorted people to love their enemies, and yet in places he called his enemies “a brood of snakes,” “sons of vipers,” and “blind fools.” He called gentiles “dogs.”
I must stop, but I think you get the picture. When you read the scriptures and open up that Bible we have some problems.
The first step to reform and healing is what? To first admit the problem.
The problem that fundamentalist Christians have foisted upon Christianity is their equating the Word of God with the words in our Bible. And that this inerrant, infallible, Word of God must be taken literally and believed. “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”
I hear many young people say, “If I have to believe that – if that is your God – then I’m out. And that goes for literal virgin births, as well as God needing to have his own son sacrificed and killed. What kind of God is that?”
So if we admit that there is a problem, then what is the needed reform? Going back and reading Luther, I was actually surprised as I dug into his Doctrine of the Word.
Luther did not believe that the Word of God = the words of the Bible. Luther did not read the Bible – the words of the Bible – as literal or infallible, in the all-or-nothing way that is often the choice today.
Luther said that if we equate the Word of God with scripture, we are confusing things heavenly with things historical. He was saying you can’t equate the Living Word of God with the words of the Bible. Luther’s constant emphasis was upon the Livingness of the Word of God. For him the Word of God was not a then; it was a now.
Luther’s defining verse for his understanding of the Word of God was John 1:14: The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
So what do we mean when we refer to the Word of God? For Luther it did not primarily mean the words found in scripture.
There was a Word of God before there were any words of the Bible. The Hebrew term for “Word,” is davar, and it does not primarily mean something we say or write. It means the creative force of God himself – goes out of himself to do something.
Joseph Sittler, an A+ Lutheran theologian, explains it this way. There developed a body of literature (our Bible) written by a people – who had been made a people – by that force, and their writings were called the Word of God.
The ultimate meaning of “Word” is not a document; but the documents were preserved by the ancient Hebrews and the early church because they testified – they bore witness – to the force of the Word. The people had experienced it, and they were transformed by it. That doesn’t mean they always got it right, that they never made a mistake; nor were they free from their patriarchal cultural or other limitations of the day.
In the words of scripture we have many traces of things that we have learned are not true, nor wise. We have some images of God that we just got wrong. We must reform our understanding of the Word of God. The Word of God does not equal the words of the Bible.
Luther in a preface to one of his sermons said that scripture is a vehicle of the Word. We have made an idol of the vehicle…and God is not big on idols.
Our goal is to find Christ, who is the Word that became flesh; find Christ in the words of the scripture. Some of those words will clearly point to Christ and others will not.
Luther even talked about having a canon within a canon, what he called, “Was Chriustum Treibet” That means: “What urges Christ; What drives Christ; What brings Christ forth.”
In his preface to the New Testament certain books fall short. Do you know what they are? …James, Jude, Hebrews, and Revelation. He also said John, Romans, Galatians, and 1 Peter form the core and are superior to other books.
Some words of scripture were more helpful than others. Some were more valuable than others. Some were not good at all. Those that expressed the “Word made flesh” were better. Those that expressed “Jesus” as the “the gospel” were better.
For Luther, the Bible is a witness to God’s self-disclosure. That self-disclosure was, at its best, in the life of Jesus: the Word made flesh. And that Word is still revealing and disclosing God to us today. The Holy Spirit is still teaching us and leading us into all truth.
We must reform our understanding of the words we find in our scripture and how we value those words. We must no longer allow the predominant Christian teaching on the Word of God to be equal to the words found in the Bible, especially if they are to be taken literally. This understanding of the Word of God is static and puts a stranglehold on the dynamic Word that is expressed in Jesus and that the Holy Spirit still reveals today.
The Bible has been bound up and wrapped in the chains of literalism and inerrancy for too long, and it’s strangling the Word of God, and limiting the Holy Spirit to express the davar, the Word of God.
I give thanks for those who have said a clear “NO” to this way of understanding the Word of God. Those who have checked out of Christianity have done us a favor; for it is forcing us to rethink, reform, and rearticulate what we mean by Word of God.
I’m not sure if you saw the article in the news this week about a Christian radio show host calling on people to not buy Girl Scout cookies because that would be supporting the Girl Scouts, which allows girls who are gay to join, and that would be against God’s Word.
This understanding of God’s Word must be reformed if Christianity is to be relevant in the world today. And the God who dwelled in Jesus is to once again be experienced.
The Word of God is a force. The Hebrews called it davar. Luther called it the Living Word – a force that captured the imagination of a people and transformed a people to live out the passions of God.
The Reformation of our time begins with reforming how we understand the words we find in the Bible, and how we understand the Word of God that was before any words about God were ever written.
As the words of “A Mighty Fortress” proclaim: “God’s Word will forever abide with us.” Let us reform ourselves, so we may abide with that Word – and draw our very life from it.
May the Word (of God) that dwelled in Jesus…dwell in us today.