Friday, August 12, 2016

How Should we Read the Bible?

“You do not have His word abiding in you, for you do not believe Him whom He sent.  You search the Scriptures because you think in them you have eternal life…”  -Jesus

There’s a lot of people who think that salvation is found in the Scriptures.  I’m here to tell you, it isn’t true. 

That’s a pretty shocking thing to hear from a guy who’s still pretty much evangelical.  I mean, aren’t we supposed to be all about Sola Scriptura—salvation by Scripture alone?  As an Anabaptist, aren’t I supposed to believe that anyone can find salvation, the truth and hope of God, by just picking up a Bible and reading it?

Well, if you’re looking for me to believe something just because its “evangelical” or “Anabaptist” I think you will be pretty much disappointed.  Mind you, I certainly believe that the Bible holds the truth and that this truth can lead you to salvation.  But the Bible isn’t salvation in and of itself.  And clear-thinking people can get the Scripture wrong.  Really, really wrong.

Look at the Jewish leaders Jesus was speaking to.  They knew the Scriptures quite well.  Better than you or I do, that’s for sure.   But here is Jesus, in John 5, telling them that all their Bible studies and memorization and analyses were wrong.  They were doing all they could with the Bible, and they were dead wrong.  Dead, as in God’s judgment dead.  That’s pretty dead.

There’s a right and wrong way to read the Bible.  Let’s talk about the right way, and we’ll look at some wrong ways.

How to read the Bible:
You're Reading it Wrong
1.      Look for God’s care
Whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. (Rom 15:4 NAU)
People often look at the Scriptures and they find a horrible God in the Old Testament and a loving, kind God in the New Testament.  But Scripture was not written to terrify us, but to give us hope.  God is and always has been a God of love.  Yes, in the NT it says that God is love, that God so loved the world.  But in the OT the foundational statement about God is: “Yahweh, Yahweh God is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness…” (Exodus 34:6).  If we are looking for God’s hatred, then we are reading the Bible wrong.  Certainly the Bible says that God hates sin, but he loves all people, no matter who they are, what they’ve done or how much they personally irritate you.  We need to look for God’s deliverance, God’s compassion, God’s mercy and God’s acts of salvation.  If we look for destruction or hatred, we are reading it wrong.  Throughout the Bible God is the Father, not the Destroyer.

Pastor Edwards, you're doing it wrong
2.      Look for Jesus 
And the Father who sent Me, He has testified of Me...You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me. John 5:37-38

When we read the Bible, we should be looking for Jesus, if we are reading it right.  Some want to see Jesus’ death in every verse, or look for Jesus’ presence behind each bush.  I think this is the wrong approach.  I think Jesus lead us to play the game “Where’s Jesus”in a couple different ways:

a.       See Jesus as fulfillment
Jesus said that he came to fulfill the Scriptures.  This means that he came to live out prophecies, but also to fix all that was wrong about the Bible.  The Bible contains a lot of failures (one of the best things about Scripture), but for every failure, Jesus is there to be the success.  David sinned, big time, Jesus was without sin.  Israel didn’t trust in the Father, Jesus completely trusted.  For every prophecy, for every failure, we should see Jesus as the answer.

b.       See Jesus’ principles
Jesus taught the Scriptures himself, and He taught how the Scriptures should be used as a guidebook to life.  Jesus taught us to look for mercy, for grace, for love.  We should re-interpret the Bible as a way to understand what Jesus taught us.

Calvin, you're doing it wrong
3.      Look for what we should do
Prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. (James 1:22)
Many people see the Bible as a book of doctrines, of a list of things to believe.  They want to find precisely what the Bible teaches so that we can have our teachings in line, believe the right things, and so be saved.  However, the Bible tells us that we should see the Scriptures as a way to live, a guide to a particular lifestyle.  If we are only looking for things to believe, we are reading the Bible wrong.  Rather, the Bible should change how we live, point at what we should do in order to be pleasing to God, and to live in harmony with each other.

Guess who's reading it wrong?
4.      Look for love
If you had known what this means, 'I desire compassion and not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the innocent. (Matthew 12:7)
You search the Scriptures because in them you think you have eternal life... I know that you do not have the love of God in you. (John 5:39, 42)
And now we come back to the beginning.  Even as we should be searching the Bible for God’s compassion, so we should be seeking out our own.  If we use the Bible as an excuse to hate or to reject someone, we are reading it wrong.  The Bible is there, according to Jesus, to teach us to live in compassion, grace, mercy and encouragement.  If we use the Bible to enact our prejudices, our oppressions, our greed or our ambition, we are using it wrong. 

According to Jesus, the context of the Bible, the whole Bible, is love.  If we read hate in it, then we are reading wrong.  Yes, there are acts of hatred, vengeance, prejudice in the Bible.  I won’t deny it.  But these acts should be even more startling when we learn “God is love” and we are to love all people, even those who do us wrong.   Jesus is the fulfillment of Scripture, and all scripture should point to God’s deliverance of the needy, and the hope that God gives to all of us. 

Please, don’t read the Bible wrong.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Dumpster Halo

Ben had been panhandling in front of the local burger shop, to no effect.  He walked a half mile to a grocery store, jaunted around the back and came to the dumpster.  He noted that the bag of collected Chinese food from the deli had not yet been dumped.  He started picking through the salads, when he was interrupted.

“Hey, what are you doing in there?”

“I am gathering food for myself and my brothers.”

“Why don’t you get a job, earn some decent money and then you can come into the front of the store like a human being?”

Ben stood tall, with the soles of his shoes deep in the goo all dumpsters secretly prize as their own creation.  “I do not get a job, fine sir, because I am called by the Lord God to live in poverty, from town to town, to recollect to all the love of Christ, who was homeless and poor.

“I do not earn decent money, because there is nothing decent about money, but it is but a trap to choke the life of those who have little to begin with.

“And finally, I am a full human being.  Full of mercy, full of compassion, full of spirit, full of joy.  It is you, sir, whose humanity I might question.

“Be a new man and follow the poor Christ, as I do.”

The manager wavered for a moment, and to fill the stunned silence, he responds, “Are you some kind of pastor?”

“No,” Ben chuckles.  “I am just a poor and ignorant bum.”

Friday, August 5, 2016

Jesus the Strategist

In general, the church's strategy to deal with poverty is twofold:

First, give poor people food and clothing.  That'll help them live another day.

Second, teach poor people the gospel, which will cleanse them from their sin.  That'll help them deal with their setbacks and get on the right track in life, so not be poor anymore.

There are a number of wrong assumptions that come up from this approach to poverty.
-That the poor are poor because of individual sin
-That the poor have less of Jesus than the middle class do
-That food and clothing is sufficient to meet people's needs
-That relief is the kind of direct help that is good enough.

The answer

Jesus' answer to poverty was a multi-faceted approach.

1. Healing
Jesus didn't just feed and clothe people, although he certainly did that.  He listened to desperate people, discovered their needs and used what resources he had to meet them.  This was a variety of things-- healing blind eyes, feeding poor, paying other's taxes, raising the dead, offering forgiveness of sins and more.  Jesus didn't come to the poor assuming he knew what they needed.  He heard their needs from their own lips.  That was his system of relief?

2. Ending Systemic Poverty
Jesus publicly spoke against the systems, political and religious, that kept people poor.  He launched a protest against the system of the Temple for keeping out the women and the Gentiles. And then he embarked on a program to undermine systemic poverty in his nation.  His strategy was to be executed although an innocent man, to plead his case before God and then to get the poverty pimps out of power.  His plan was shown to be approved by the resurrection.  And the systems were ousted by 70AD.

3. Create Community
Jesus' third strategy was to create a religious community that focused as much on helping the poor as they did on worship.  The primary economic action of the church was providing for the poor, not only for their own community, but for people in need around them.  The church leadership were assisted only if they were poor-- if they could provide for themselves then they would.  So
me of the more wealthy community members provided their own houses for meeting spaces.  But almost all money given to the church was used for programs for the poor.  This approach came from Jesus' teachings.

The strategy of the church concerning poverty is far removed from Jesus' approach, except for some Christian organizations (Mennonite Central Committee is happily one of the exceptions).  But when congregations deal with poverty in their communities, this three-pronged approach of Jesus is far from their minds.  There is much hand-wriging and perhaps a ministry to the poor that barely hangs on.  I challenge churches to consider a strategy to seriously make an attempt to undermine poverty in their communities.