Sermon of the Week:
Again & Again: We are Reformed
Fifth Sunday in Lent
Keywords: Greek, Interpretation, Literalism, Want to See Jesus, Bible. #pcusa
Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-733469. All rights reserved.
Sometimes, when things are hard to understand
People throw up their hands and say:
Its all Greek to me!
Have you ever heard that?
Wikipedia says that this idiom makes sense
Because complex math formulas often use Greek symbols,
and who knows what’s going on in there.
But it’s not just math.
Apparently, there was a saying in Latin, from the Middle Ages,
that goes Graecum est; non legitur
which means “It’s in Greek; therefore it cannot be read…”
which goes to show you that even medieval Monks
made fun of trying to read the Greek language.
Even so, and risking the possibility that you’ll throw up your hands
I want to talk a bit about some of the subtle things you pick up
When you try to read the scriptures in the original languages.
Please don’t throw up your hands yet. Stay with me a bit.
I’m not bringing all this up to brag or grandstand or anything.
Like a lot of things, I’ve forgotten quite a bit since I studied Greek in college
and then later in Seminary,
but it is one of those things that our denomination, the Presbyterian Church USA
requires of its pastors.
The Bible is in Greek, and Hebrew,
So preachers need to learn some Greek and Hebrew.
One of the reasons why it’s so helpful,
It seems to me,
Is that every so often the original languages
unlock these little gems
That you just can’t see in the English translation…
Sometimes it’s a bit of humor, maybe a word that gets carried throughout a story.
First you’ll see it in a verb, then it comes up again as an echo of a name.
Thinking about this can add some beauty and some texture to a story,
Something that you can’t replicate in translation.
For example: consider Jacob, son of Isaac.
We learn about him in the book of Genesis.
Jacob means ‘to follow, to be second,’ which makes sense,
because he was a twin, and the second born,
Grabbing at the heel of his brother Esau… the story goes.
But the name Jacob also means ‘to supplant, to overreach’,
which, when you read the story of those brothers,
how he tricked his father Isaac to give him the blessing that was rightfully Esau’s
the tension that ensued,
leading to Jacob’s wrestling with God at the Jabbok,
the place where he would get a new name, Israel,
the one who wrestles with God…and lives!
The dynamic behind the wordplay of these names explains so much about what is going on.
Giving just a bit of thought to the original meaning of these words
helps open that up, don’t you think?
There’s a depth, a richness, that can get lost in translation.
And some of that is inevitable, even predictable.
Here’s one that often surprises people:
Sometimes what gets obscured is a curse word, an expletive,
that the translators thought was just too much.
Gasp! We can’t have that! That word? Really? In the Bible?
So they, well, toned it down a little, whoever was in charge of such things.
The Apostle Paul curses from time to time, did you know?
The most famous example is in one of my favorite books, Philippians, chapter 3.
And I don’t know, I don’t think it matters too much for our everyday purposes
That the text is cleaned up a bit,
if we rendered these words of his more accurately,
or if we collectively spent a bit more time trying to understand
the context, background, flow of Paul’s letters, did some word study,
then maybe Paul would seem more human in the end,
Less self-righteous, more normal,
More like you or me…
Look: I’m not advocating for bringing curse words back to scripture.
That’s not the point.
But we are reading old, old texts,
And more often than you might suspect,
These little choices, well, they make all the difference in the world.
They influence how we feel about a text, how we argue about what the texts mean,
And, behind that, what sort of God we look for, and expect to find.
There’s this passage in Second Timothy, for example,
Second Timothy 3:16-17,
Where the author is talking about the use of holy writings, the scripture,
For the life of faith.
It is an important enough text
That that scripture reference, 2 Timothy 3:16-17,
was engraved in the pulpit of my childhood church.
I saw it every Sunday, when the preacher got up there to read scripture
And to reflect on it,
A communal act of listening together for God’s word for the day.
The New Revised Standard Version, the NRSV,
one of the most popular English versions out there,
translates 2 Timothy 3:16-17 like this:
All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching,
and for training in righteousness,
so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient,
equipped for every good work.
So far, so good.
By itself, even if considered out of context,
you can tell that it speaks to the importance, the central importance,
Of our holy writings, that they are inspired by God,
Or, better, that they are God-breathed,
which is what the word actually says,
God’s very breath undergirding these writings,
And as such, they are useful,
for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness.
And you can understand why that reference might go on a pulpit,
where we preachers
Regularly turn to these sacred texts and go looking for meaning, for God’s word
For the movement of the spirit in our lives, in this life.
Breathe on me, breath of God….
We, you and I, are looking, right this very moment, for a God-breathed word.
And on one level, I love this succinct, focused sentiment,
The idea within the bible itself,
about what the Bible is, and how we might use it.
Sometimes it is very helpful.
Other times, not so much.
Because there are other times when this little passage
Is cited as the final proof, the absolute answer, for one’s reading of the Bible.
Take, for instance, this sort of discussion,
which I saw play out in the comments of a social media post not that long ago:
The Bible says that women are not supposed to teach in church.
Well, let’s talk about that.
Do you know where it says that, and what the context is?
And how do you balance that with these other examples of women
that Jesus empowered,
who ran early house churches,
who preached and taught and healed and led…
I’m sure you’re not reading those right,
because it says over here that they’re not supposed to teach in church.
Well, and maybe your reading is the one that isn’t right,
in light of all the other things we see…
No, it is. The Bible says so.
Why? Maybe that passage is wrong?
No! All scripture is God-inspired and is useful for teaching…. And so on.
I’ve heard this sort of logic more times than I care to count.
In fact, for some, this text in 2nd Timothy
has become THE foundation for their literalist view of the Bible.
All Scripture is God-Breathed.
So… if you don’t honor some part of it,
If you question or doubt or compare or contextualize or hold space for mystery
Or show reasons, evidence, for why something doesn’t mean what it looks like it means,
Then you aren’t actually honoring God, the logic goes.
You’re failing in your faith.
And if you’re failing in your faith,
Then maybe you’re not as faithful as you thought
And maybe, just maybe, God hasn’t gifted you with the grace you need to be more faithful,
And if God hasn’t done that,
Then maybe you’re not going to be among the saved…
which is the aim, after all, as this way of thinking thinks.
Literalism, fundamentalism, some forms of evangelicalism,
Have at their core a deep fear of unworthiness,
A deep insecurity,
That I’m not good enough,
Not one of the chosen ones.
It is essentially fear, this sort of thinking
even though Jesus told us so many times not to be afraid.
And man, that fear can lead to all sorts of interesting expressions of religion,
Twists and turns as one tries to reconcile, without any contradiction
four distinctly different stories about Jesus
27 different books in the New Testament written by dozens of people
With different situations and perspectives and goals.
Because, well: All Scripture is God-Breathed….
Says so right there in 2 Timothy 3:16…
Fair enough. But here’s the thing.
When you know a little Greek,
And you turn to that passage in 2 Timothy 3:16
And you read it, you might actually begin to ask yourself some questions…
Because, for one thing, there is no verb at the beginning of that sentence.
Forgive the brief dive into grammar, but again stick with me.
I’ll be quick. This is fascinating, at least it is to me.
There’s no verb there. And this sort of thing isn’t uncommon.
Greek is often like that, leaving out common verbs like ‘is’ or ‘to be’.
Greek assumes you can put that verb in there yourself, thank you very much.
What the text says, quite literally, if you want to get down to it
is ‘Every writing’, the subject,
and then the word ‘god-breathed,’ a modifier.
The reading we have in the NRSV is a logical option. Just add the word ‘is’
And voila, we have the reading we’ve considered thus far.
That’s one way the text could be read.
But it is not the only way.
It could also be read slightly differently:
Every Scripture THAT IS inspired by God is useful.
Look: I’m not trying to play games.
This isn’t a deposition where we’re debating the meaning of the word ‘is’.
Though I get it if you feel like we’re treading in that sort of water.
This is actually really quite important.
And you can check this one out for yourself.
Lots of Bibles, like the NRSV, include this alternative reading in a footnote.
Can you hear the subtle difference,
When you read it as:
Every inspired-by-God Scripture is useful for teaching?
That is a true statement.
Those scriptures where God is speaking are quite useful for teaching. Reproof. Correction.
And so on.
But that leaves open the possibility that some writings aren’t quite God-Breathed in that way,
And, therefore, might not be so useful.
Indeed, they might also be damaging, yes,
Particularly if they contrast so dramatically with the other things we know about God,
Like God’s deeply inclusive spirit, God’s radical welcome,
Jesus’ call to all sorts of people, ordinary people, to follow him
And to live with simple values of faith and hope and love.
This is one reason why, finally, after way, way too long,
our denomination recognized the essential and incredible gifts of women,
And ordained women as leaders, elders, deacons, and finally as pastors,
starting in the 1950s,
Because we recognized that a faithful and true reading of scripture
Does not insist on only male voices…
Preposterous, the thought, actually.
Now, there are other things about that 2 Timothy reading too,
Like the fact that ‘The Scriptures,’
to the person writing that letter,
Must have referred to the Old Testament,
to the Hebrew Bible,
Because the New Testament wasn’t a thing yet.
It makes the use of that passage as a fundamentalist proof text
for everything in the New Testament kind of silly.
But yet, there it is,
And there’s really no good way to refute it.
Sometimes, there’s too much invested,
Everything feels like a house of cards,
And you take out one card, and the rest might fall down…
How do you open yourself up to a non-literal,
but still serious, honest approach to Scripture,
To interpreting these ancient texts for a modern age,
If all you know is ‘God said it; I believe it; that does it.’
And I’m not here to de-bunk that sort of mindset,
Only really to offer what I think
is the vibrant core of our alternative vision of the Christian faith:
one which places Jesus Christ
and his rule of love
at the heart of our interpretive decisions,
Jesus’ commitment to truth and honesty and integrity
as essential to our efforts to try
to read scripture faithfully and insightfully,
to turn to God in prayer,
to seek after the presence of God in our lives.
How we read these texts matter.
And, we see time and time again, in the Scripture itself,
Examples of faithful people listening for fresh, new, living ways of understanding
the timeless values of our God.
In the reading that Wendy offered today,
You hear a great example of this sort of thinking:
The days are coming, when I will make a new covenant
with the house of Israel and Judah…
My law will be in their hearts,
They shall be my people,
And I will be their God,
And they shall all know me, from the least to the greatest…
This was a word of hope
Given to a people who were in exile,
Away from their homes,
Disconnected from their normal lives,
Afraid for the future and unable to practice their traditions.
To those people, the prophet declares that God has not given up on them
But that God will send something new, something different,
A new covenant, something for everyone.
In our particular tradition, this affirms our understanding of a God
who continues to reform God’s church,
a church reformed and ever reforming, according to the word of God.
But in order for that to work, we have to have space for something new, something different.
We have to be humble, and say that our readings might not have everything down yet,
Because we are creatures, and God is God,
And therefore we are constantly learning,
constantly leaning on God to help us change when we need to change.
And it means we have to acknowledge that we sometimes get things wrong.
In our past, we fought over slavery and the personhood of people of color.
We Presbyterians were split into two denominations
from 1861 to as late as 1983 because of it.
As I mentioned, we failed to affirm not just the equality of women,
but the vital importance of their voice and perspective in church leadership.
We continue to struggle with issues of sexuality and equality, and it has only been a decade
Since we’ve welcomed LGBTQIA elders and pastors. There is still work to do.
In each instance, I would argue,
We collectively worked together to listen more faithfully, more honestly,
more deeply to what the scriptures were telling us,
even as there are some passages that are in conflict here and there.
But in the end, what is NOT in conflict,
What we heard, loud and clear,
is the inclusive welcome of our God,
The one who welcomes the prodigal,
Searches for the lost sheep,
Teaches us that the good Samaritan is the true neighbor,
Invites everyone to the wedding banquet.
In today’s reading from the Gospel of John,
What continues to get stuck in my head
Is the fact that there were these Greeks who were trying to see Jesus.
Did you catch that part?
It’s out of place.
Generally speaking, Jesus’ ministry has been among the Hebrew people
The ordinary followers of Yahweh, the God of Abraham,
and their respected leaders: pharisees, rabbis, Sadducees.
Jesus is a Jewish leader among Jewish followers.
Sometimes you might see interactions with Samaritans,
The religious cousins to the north.
But not Greeks.
Not until later,
When the Apostle Paul, salty language and all,
is inspired to reach out and engage the gentiles,
As this new movement goes beyond Jerusalem and reaches out to the ends of the earth.
But these Greeks are in Jerusalem to Worship,
And they hear about this Jesus,
And they approach his disciples
Because they want to see Jesus,
To meet him and talk to him and maybe be inspired by him.
And the rest of our reading is prologue
To what is going to happen during holy week,
A foreshadow of Jesus’s final supper, his betrayal, arrest, and execution…
A week that, later, the followers would look back upon and have a sort of a ha moment
When all that had been taught would make more sense,
That message that something new would happen,
A new way to see the world, to understand the ancient texts,
Where love will win
And where life will be stronger than death
And where the whole world might be saved through him….
And the Greeks are there, and they want to see it.
And what they saw was Jesus breathing fresh life into ancient texts,
The encouragement to see the world with new eyes,
With the eyes of a savior who demonstrates through his life and his death
Welcome and compassion for all.
There was a horrific mass shooting this week,
Where a 21-year-old named Robert Aaron Long
Killed eight people, including six Asian women,
at various massage parlors in the Atlanta area.
I was watching the news about all of this,
And I remembered this incident, back when I was in college,
When I was at the dining hall with an evangelical friend of mine.
He knew I was looking at going to Seminary,
and he wanted to talk to me
About dating and college and the like
And he brought up something both sad and fascinating to me.
In Matthew, my Friend said, in a famous passage about adultery
Jesus says that “everyone who looks at a woman with lust
has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
How do you date someone, my friend asked,
If you can’t even let yourself be attracted to them first?
It was a window, for me, into a mindset that I had never quite understood before,
Where basic human emotions are repressed and questioned, all in the name of faith.
And the answer, of course, is that human attraction to others is natural,
it is part of God’s good order,
(do I need to mention Song of Songs, Jesus blessing the wedding at Cana, and so on…)
and Jesus didn’t mean that…
though that’s another sermon for another day,
where we could work to understand that text from Matthew in a broader context,
under Jesus’s rule of love….
but that encounter of mine from 25 years ago came roaring back to me this week.
There’s still a lot to learn about Robert Aaron Long.
And I want to know:
What was it, in his faith background, that brought him to so deeply
feel shame and guilt and murderous anger at the women that he was attracted to?
What was it that focused all of that shame and anger and guilt
on Asian women in particular?
And I lament the way that the Christian Church hasn’t learned these lessons
Hasn’t found a way to clearly see Jesus.
It breaks my heart.
But I keep seeing Christians denigrating women and foreigners and people of color
and citing scripture to do it.
I keep seeing a theology of guilt and repression and control, and citing scripture to do it.
It is well past time for the church to say ‘no’ to this,
To lament our part in it,
And to commit to looking to Jesus,
Who, thanks be to God, has helped us move past some dark moments in our past
And who, I believe, will move us decisively past this one as well.
For my part,
I am so grateful that we have a church
That is open to the fresh movement of the spirit,
And, more than that, that is committed to a healthy, vibrant, truthful faith,
One where fear and guilt are not at the center of who we are,
But where, instead, we find God’s comfort and welcome, justice and compassion.
These make all the difference,
Because as we read these ancient texts through those lenses,
When we look for Jesus,
We will find hope and possibility there.
These are the same Scriptures
That inspired people to march for justice, because of Jesus,
To work for equality, because of Jesus,
To stand against racism, because of Jesus,
To seek health and wholeness when we are broken, because of Jesus.
And while we still have a little bit longer to go, as a church,
There is a day of resurrection around the corner,
A day of hope,
A day of promise.
Come, Lord Jesus.
May it be so.