Sunday, September 8, 2013

Sermon Cliff Note: Bible 101

School’s started.  It’s time to get back to basics.  Using the book of Philemon as our departure point, let us consider seven guidelines for reading and understanding the Bible.

1. The Bible is not a book; it’s a library.   Its contents are a compilation of many books written by many people over a period of centuries.  It was written by people doing well and people suffering; by people afraid and people brave; by people sure and by people in doubt; by the learned and the unschooled.  When we forget that we are hearing many voices rather than one, we reduce the Bible away from a story of God’s people seeking understanding of their God to a text book with rules to be memorized.  It is so much more than that.

2. Context matters to meaning  Philemon was a man. . . a slaveowner . . . a convert to Christianity . . . someone Paul believes that he (Paul) has authority over . . .  That Onesimus was a slave is important to the story.  Just as important is who Philemon is.  Their context matters.  So does ours.  What we understand about enslavement matters – more, perhaps, than what the letter actually says.  Think not?  Consider that this letter was used by both slaveholders and abolitionists in the United States during the argument over slavery.  It’s the same letter.  But what each person believed before they ever read it determined how they would hear it.

3. Not every word is for every person in every time  If you have no enemies or have long-ago forgiven them, Jonah has little to offer you.  The Bible as a whole presupposes a belief and faith in God.  If you’re an atheist, the Bible has little to say to you.  Philemon is Paul’s letter to one of his students, a convert to the Christian faith, begging him to see another convert as a brother in the faith and not as slave.  There are lessons we can learn from Philemon.  Before coming to those lessons,  we must begin with the clear understanding that this letter was not intended for us.

4. To learn a new thing, we have to listen with new ears.  (Put another way: if we already know it all, all we know is all we will ever know) Paul invites Philemon to see Onesimus not as a slave but as a brother.  The letter begins with Paul’s own condition – that of a prisoner.  Who is Paul more like – Philemon?  Or Onesimus?  What new thing do you suppose Philemon heard/learned from Paul’s letter?  What did it require of Philemon to be able to learn in the first place?  As Christians, it’s one of our jobs to always enter the world with a teachable spirit.  We have to be open to learn a new thing.  Or we won’t.

5. We don’t worship the Bible; we worship The One the Bible speaks of   A story, any story, is just one piece of the whole cloth.  The stories reflect where the people were at the time.  No less, but no more.  Thus today we can say that enslavement is wrong and not think we somehow violate the teachings of the Bible, for it is not the Bible we worship.

6. Any interpretation we give to the Bible that condemns someone else (rather than ourselves) is suspect (the Bible is not intended to be a weapon)  If we come to the Bible looking for evidence that someone else is ‘wrong’, we come in the wrong spirit.  If we come to the Bible seeking ways to prove we’re right, it’s the flip side of the same coin, isn’t it?  If, however, you read a word that challenges you, changes you, convicts you, you’re most likely on to something.  The book of Philemon is about Philemon.  Not Onesimus.  Paul is writing about Philemon to Philemon.  It is Philemon who Paul seeks to change.

7. People not like us have much to teach When the white majority in the South in pre-Civil War days read Philemon, they read a ratification of the existence of enslavement.  When African American theologians read Philemon, they read Paul encouraging Philemon to set Onesimus free.  It’s almost impossible to imagine a perspective we do not have.  So I cannot read this library with the eyes of someone who is black in America . . . or with the stomach of someone who is desperately poor . . . or with the pain of someone whose life has been nothing but despair . . . and I cannot imagine it on my own . . . but if I listen to them – to the others who are so different than me, I can learn much.  I can see and hear these blessed texts in a whole new way.  Conversely, if all I ever listen to are people who think just like me, then I’ll end up with a Bible that looks and sounds . . . just like me.

The challenge is to be open to listen for a new word, a new understanding, for Christ has said, I am making all things new (Rev. 21.5).  And that includes our ideas of how things should be, especially when it comes to the story of God.


1 comment:

  1. I don't know how you do it (express things so, so, so well) but I am sooooo glad you do!