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“Taking the Bible Seriously”


Scripture:  Hebrews 5:5-10 (NRSV)

What in God’s name is “the order of Melchizedek?” Did you hear that at the end of the reading?

           …and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation

to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest

after the order of Melchizedek.

 Is this something we should expect our confirmands to know? Has anyone here, besides George, heard of it before?

 In confirmation class yesterday, we learned about the Bible and when we do this, I am always overwhelmed. There is simply too much for them to learn in a short time. And today, after looking at the Bible for 2 ½ hours, they may know more about the Bible than many others!

 We cannot expect for confirmands to know about the order of Melchizedek, or what an “Ebenezer” is, or about the story of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. We can hope to introduce to them both an interest in the Bible and tools for knowing how to read it.

 Our Confirmation is not Catechism. While I did not grow up Roman Catholic, and therefore did not experience catechism, I have heard about it from many former Roman Catholics, of which we have a fair number in our congregation.

 In Catechism a question is asked, and then an answer is given, and the point is to remember the answer. In our confirmation class, they are encouraged to ask questions. It is about learning how to think and communicate about our faith, rather than telling them what they must believe. We want them to consider why we believe what we do, and to connect those beliefs to their lives.

 The author of Hebrews is writing to a community of Early Christians, for whom the Jewish tradition is still dear and authoritative. Therefore, he is using words, ideas and images that would be meaningful to them, in such a way as to convince them to become a part of the Christian community.

 One of those idea/images is “the order of Melchizedek” which was the order of the priesthood, and the letter of Hebrews is a presentation of Jesus as the High Priest. He is creating, therefore, an image of Jesus that would be meaningful to those particular Early Christians.

 Therefore, we can add Hebrews to the images of Jesus that we already have in the gospels. Mark, Matthew, Luke and John present Jesus very differently. Particularly, John.

 For Mark, Jesus was human enough to pray to get out of the deal at the Garden of Gethsemane, while for John the whole thing was planned by God beforehand and Jesus knew all about it.

 John’s Jesus is like God wearing a robe. Now we have Jesus as the High Priest. There is also Jesus the Suffering Servant. Paul really likes this one. Or the Cosmic Christ, which can be found in Ephesians and Colossians; not, by the way, written by Paul.

 With all these images of Jesus in the Bible, shouldn’t our question be, “What is our image of Jesus?” rather than demanding that they believe that Jesus is the literal “Son of God?”

 “Son of God” is one of many metaphors for Jesus in the New Testament. It isn’t even the most common, which is “Son of Man,” a Jewish image that means something like the exemplary human being.

 “Son of Man” is used for a more Jewish audience, while “Son of God” is meant for a Greek audience because Caesar Augustus was called “The Son of God.” Therefore by using this name, the Early Christians were saying that Caesar was not God’s Son, rather Jesus was.

Can you see how differently we can read the Bible if we have the right tools and insights?

There are two “Christianities” in America today and they are not Protestant and Catholic. Rick Santorum and Stephen Colbert are both Roman Catholic; so are Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi. George W. Bush is a United Methodist, as is Hillary Clinton, although Hillary is from birth and George married into the UMC.

Nonetheless, the divide isn’t a historical one any longer, but breaks on how we read the Bible.

There are those who believe the Bible is inerrant; that is without error and must be read at face value. Otherwise known as “literally” – “The Bible says what it means and means what it says.”

The other Christianity, of which we are a part, uses our minds to learn about the Bible in every way possible        in order to understand it better, believing that to do anything less is abusive. We believe that the Bible must be interpreted; that it is always interpreted – even by those who claim they don’t – and that interpretation is in the Bible itself. Therefore interpretation is the only way to be really biblical.

The author of Hebrews was interpreting the meaning of the order of Melchizedek, which is found in the scripture, which we call the Old Testament, when Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount (or plain, depending on whether one is reading Matthew or Luke), that even to look at a woman lustfully is to commit adultery.

He is actually not being more strict. Taken at face value, that’s pretty tough, isn’t it? But as an interpretation of the commandment in the Ten Commandments not to commit adultery, it means something quite different.

Because men were following the letter of the Law, but finding ways to slip through the cracks, since a slave was not really the same as someone else’s wife, one could use one’s slave all one wanted and not technically commit adultery. Men were finding ways to continue to abuse women and be able to say technically that the Law wasn’t broken.

To which Jesus is saying, the Law is not about technicalities, rather it is a matter of the heart. The only way to get to that more profound and less judgmental meaning, is to accept that interpretation is a part of the Bible itself.

 he first form of Christianity, those who read the Bible literally are quite clear about their understanding of the Bible, and very active in both claiming it and evangelizing it.

The second form of Christianity, of which we are a part, is a bit unsure about the Bible, and we often would rather ignore it; at least if we find ourselves in a conversation with those other Christians. They know their Bible, even if they don’t know how to read it, and we are intimidated, aren’t we?

One of the claims of Progressive Christianity is that we read the Bible seriously, not literally. The implication, a correct one I think, is to read the Bible literally is not to take it seriously. I believe in this understanding of the Bible. The problem is not with the idea, but with its application, because we don’t really take the Bible seriously, do we?

The Conservative/Evangelical critique of us mainline, progressive churches is essentially twofold:

• One is that we believe in relativism, which is a dirty word to them.

• Second is that we lack commitment.

As for the first criticism, I claim it and proudly. But rather than using the word “relativism,” which is a pejorative word for apathetic, I would simply say “relative” or relativity, implying an understanding of both truth and reality as relative – made up of relations – and, I would say, not to see the things this way is an avoidance of truth. But that topic will have to wait for later. 

As for the other criticism, they have a point.  We aren’t as committed as they are, are we?  We need to take the Bible more seriously, first for ourselves, some of the most profound passages in the Bible; and also so that if we ever find ourselves in a discussion with someone who reads the Bible literally, we have something to talk about, and we don’t relinquish the Bible to them so they can abuse it. 

We need to embrace our way of reading the Bible and we need to evangelize it. We need to claim how we see the Bible and why we need to try to persuade them to change how they read the Bible. That ought to be a part of our mission! 

One of our problems with engaging literalists on the issue of Homosexuality is that they use the Bible and we don’t. We assume that they must know what the Bible says. Perhaps we have read the passages they mention and not knowing any other way to read it. 

We abdicate and let them have the Bible and argue with them from a different standpoint which won’t get us anywhere, since to them the Bible is the sole authority for life and faith. 

I will not allow for them to have the Bible and to use it as a club to abuse and persecute anyone! I will not stand for use the Bible to do the very thing Jesus said not to do: To ostracize, outcast and dismiss anyone! 

You may remember a few weeks ago I preached about anger that it is important to get angry about injustice. Well here we are; people are getting hurt. We need to be mad about it! As you can imagine, I can say much more about this. And I will be glad to at another time; but I’m getting close to the time limit for sermons in the 21st Century. 

I will simply share with you an anecdote that I may say to people who are arguing about this point. There is also the story of Jesus telling the Rich Man to go as sell all he owns and giving it to the poor. “So, how much did you get for your house and which charity are you giving the equity to?”

As I said, it may be that after yesterday the confirmands know more about how to read the Bible than many of us. 

I have wild dreams for our youth. I dream that our youth will go into the world prepared to claim their faith and claim the Bible; and to be prepared to dialogue with both atheist and evangelical if they go to college. You can bet it will come up!

I dream that they will feel confident and committed, open to asking questions, but grounded in who they are, and what they believe and why. 

I want them to be proud that they are United Methodists!      And I want them to feel connected to this Church, so that they know that they are loved not matter what; and that they can come back here anytime to ask us questions and to be supported. 

But then that means, we will have to be able to help them. For that to happen, we will have to be confident and grounded; open to questions, yet committed to our faith; assured about how we read the Bible; how we talk about science and religion; who we are as United Methodists in particular; what our image of Jesus is; and be poised to share about it. 

The Bible is not a book or instructions, codes, or a recipe for life. It is the story of God and the People of God. It is our story. It is about who we are and we must claim it to be who we are and who God calls us to be. 

And more than that…. Once we get out of thinking simplistically that the Bible “means what is says and says what it means,” the Bible is there to challenge us, fascinate us; and finally lead us to redemption in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

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