Sunday, January 24, 2016

A Truth that Challenges: The Story of God

“The Bible says it. I Believe it. That settles it.” does not work. The hermeneutic of command, example, necessary inference leads to division. Because this is the truth: Godly, Spirit-led people read the same Bible and come to different conclusions. One group thinks charismatic gifts are dead and gone; other groups are convinced that these gifts are still alive and they practice them each Sunday. Some Christians believe we should participate in war and they draw upon Joshua and Judges; others believe war is wrong and they appeal to Jesus’ statements about loving our enemies. Some churches ordain women to preach; other churches have folks that will get up and walk out if a woman steps to the stage. And all of these people appeal to Scripture to support their positions.

Let’s have some fun. I want you to raise your hand if you believe we should still observe these commands today:
Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy. (Leviticus 19:2)
You must observe my Sabbaths. I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 19:3)
Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed. Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material. (Leviticus 19:19)
Love your enemies. (Matthew 5:44)
Lift your hands when praying. (I Timothy 2:8)
Slaves, obey your masters. (Col 3:22)
Anoint the sick with oil. (Ja 5:14)
Owe no one anything. (Rom 13:8)
Why did you raise your hand on some and not others? All of these were taken directly from the Bible! Why was there not 100% agreement for each of these, and why did we not all raise our hands 100% of the time? Because all of us interpret Scripture differently. When we see how we actually live in response to the Bible, we have two choices: We can become radical biblical literalists and apply everything (I mean everything). Or, we can admit we are pickers and choosers. Since evidence supports the second option, we need to admit that and explain ourselves. If we do not follow the Bible 100% literally, if our historic hermeneutic only leads to division, how then should we read the Bible?

I’d like for us to think about what metaphor we use for Scripture. Historically, we have chosen metaphors for the Bible, and those metaphors radically shape how we interpret it. “Constitution,” “Blueprint”—Reading the Bible as a constitution demands that we follow it to the letter all the time; binding, unchanging, fixed, literal. Fred Craddock tells the story about an experience he had while visiting a church. After the song service, and before the communion service, there was a long break. Everyone got up from their seats and went to the courtyard. Then they came back in and had communion. Fred asked why they did that. They said, “You remember that scripture that says, ‘When they had sung a hymn, they went out…’” We think: Well that is ridiculous! But that happens to us sometimes doesn’t it? If the Bible is meant to be read and exegeted like Senators read and exegete the Constitution, that is what happens! I believe the best metaphor for Scripture is not “constitution,” but “Story.” This book is “God’s Story.” Sometimes we make it about us, but it is really about God. And God’s Story is one long narrative from Genesis to Revelation. There are many different authors who tell parts of God’s Story, and they do not always agree on the details! Jonah advocated a very open and inclusive religion where outsiders are given a chance to repent and to know God. Ezra and Nehemiah advocate a very exclusive religion where outsiders are always bad and should be separated from. Not all biblical writers agree with each other. But there is an important thread that runs from beginning to end, a continuous Story with five parts (or plots).

Plot #1: Creating Eikons—Oneness (Genesis 1–2)

Consider Genesis 1:26–27:
Then God said, “Let us make The Adam in Our Eikon, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created The Adam in His own Eikon, in the Eikon of God He created them.
In Genesis 2, the Bible informs us that God chose to split “The Adam” into two. A man and a woman. The choice to make The Adam as an Eikon of God and to split The Adam into two (male and female), is profoundly important for understanding the story of the Bible. Why? To be made in the image of God is to experience real “Oneness” in community. The Adam is split much like the God-head (Father, Son, Spirit). Just as the Trinity experiences Oneness in itself, The Adam experiences Oneness in itself when the two become One. Perfect communion, One, but distinct. When Genesis 2:24 says the male and female become “one flesh” it is the same word used to describe God in the Shema: “Hear O Israel, the LORD is one…” Nothing in the Bible makes sense unless you understand this part of the Story—God created us for Oneness.

But Oneness did not exist for very long…

Plot #2: Cracked Eikons—Otherness (Genesis 3)

We learn in Genesis 3 that sin distorts oneness because the Eikon of God is now cracked, separated. The woman and the man hide from one another and they hide from God! Oneness becomes Otherness. “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you…” Instead of loving one another as they love themselves, instead of enjoying perfect communion with one another, now, they will desire to to gain control and dominate. And the vast majority of the Bible tells us the implications of Otherness: Sin, War, Rebellion, Fallen-ness. The rest of The Story is about God’s plan to turn Eikons bent on Otherness to Eikons basking in the Oneness with God, each other, and the world. And The Bible is The Story of God’s people struggling against Otherness and searching for Oneness.

Plot #3: Covenant Community—Otherness Expands (Genesis 12–Malachi)

Notice that The Story of our struggle to find Oneness always happens in the context of community. The theme of this part of God’s Story: God’s people cannot achieve Oneness by themselves! Only Noah and his family survive the flood and then the man messes things up immediately. Abraham is chosen by God, but lies about his wife. Moses murders, rescues Israel, and then sins in the desert. Israel cannot shake idolatry. David cannot control himself. Solomon also cannot control himself (and the very one nation of Israel becomes a “two-ness” nation). Israel is deported to Assyria; Judah is deported to Babylon. God forgives them, sends them home, and the cycle starts all over again! Deep within God’s Story is this truth: Israel will not get the job done until the job is done for them!

Plot #4: Christ, the Perfect Eikon, Redeems—One in Christ (Matthew–Revelation 20)

Christ came to give us Oneness with God and with each other. It is no surprise that the first expression of the church at Pentecost is people coming from many nations with different languages, but they are able to understand each other (the many becoming one). Everything moves us to Galatians 3:28, where Paul writes:
Now there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
The Story of the Bible takes the otherness of cracked Eikons and directs them toward Jesus Christ, in whom alone we find Oneness. but even this is not the end of God’s Story.

Plot #5: Consummation—Perfectly One (Revelation 21–22)

Some day, God will create a new heaven and new earth. The gates of Eden will open up again for God’s Eikons. When this happens, Mr. and Mrs. Eikon will bask in the glory of God, where they will be perfectly one with God and each other. There is much diversity in the Bible, but this common Story runs from beginning to end. How does this change things? What if we read the Bible, not looking for some pattern to follow, but instead, what if we looked at the Bible as God’s grand story of moving creation from otherness back to oneness.

What if we viewed the Bible as a series of windows that allowed us to see God’s people at different times in the past? We see what they were doing in the days of the Judges, in the days of the monarchy, in the period of the exile. We see the early church make sense of Jesus in light of Judaism; what if the Bible allows us to see God’s people in each of those moments? We see the good,we see the bad. We see them struggle with their own interpretations of Scripture (Acts 15, I Corinthians 7, etc.) We see how God’s people worked out God’s mission of otherness to oneness in their own time and in their own contexts, and we are not necessarily called, commanded, or even asked to do everything they did. But these glimpses give us unique insight into the ways in which God worked with and through His people at different times in history. And what if we, like the people of the past, used a process of discernment to decide a pattern for living the gospel that is appropriate for our age? This does not mean that people of every age set their own rules! The Bible is God’s Word, and the Gospel is unchanging. But not everything in the Bible is “Gospel.” And well meaning, godly people disagree about how to live out the Words of Scripture on a number of issues.

Discernment is called for on issues that are obviously unclear in the Bible. Listen, no one discerns whether it is right to murder. No one discerns whether it is right to commit spousal abuse. Some questions are crystal clear to Christians. But not everything is so clear. What about capital punishment? What about marriage and divorce? What about war? What about questions of worship practice? What about social codes (master/slave, husband/wife, parent/child)? What about questions of science? In these instances, I believe the local church is called upon to engage a process of discernment, asking difficult questions about how best to live out the gospel in its own time and place. Let me give you an example. Take the issue of circumcision. The Bible is crystal clear about circumcision.
Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant (Genesis 17:9–14)
The commandment from God is crystal clear. Nevertheless, in the 1st century, it became apparent that such a commandment was a serious obstacle to some who wanted to accept the gospel. So, the early Christians entered a period of discernment. Acts 15 records part of that discernment process.
“Therefore, I conclude that we shouldn’t create problems for Gentiles who turn to God. Instead, we should write a letter, telling them to avoid the pollution associated with idols, sexual immorality, eating meat from strangled animals, and consuming blood. After all, Moses has been proclaimed in every city for a long time, and is read aloud every Sabbath in every synagogue.” (Acts 15:19–21 CEB)
In this process, they listened to the past commandment, took the present into consideration and discerned how to live that old way in a new day. And, now, pay attention to this: Later, Paul goes even further than James and the council. In Galatians 5:6, he said circumcision doesn’t even matter! In Romans 2:28–29, Paul said that even in the days of Moses, circumcision was really just a matter of the heart! In I Corinthians 7:19, Paul said circumcision is nothing and what really counts is following God’s commands! (Don’t you think some were in the crowd saying, “Yeah, Paul, the commands…like CIRCUMCISION!”)

Or, what about the issue of divorce and remarriage? In Mark 10, Jesus is clear: “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries someone else commits adultery!” On another occasion, however, Jesus discerned that there is in fact an exception to that rule. In Matthew 5:32, Jesus says divorce and remarriage is adultery except in the case of sexual immorality. Why did Jesus make this exception? When the apostle Paul brought this teaching to another context, he had to discern God’s instruction on marriage and divorce in a new light. I Corinthians 7, Paul says that is it OK to divorce an unbelieving spouse! Paul knew the teachings of Torah and the teachings of Jesus, and he discerned that there could be another exception. Churches are called to enact similar discernments today. Long, hard prayerful sessions directed at discerning what God has to say about divorce/remarriage today. What about the case of spousal abuse or desertion? Are there other permissible grounds for divorce that even Paul did not mention? Was his “list” exhaustive? If so, why didn’t Jesus or even Moses mention them? We could engage in processes of discernment in a number of issues, and we certainly would not all agree…the death penalty, immigration, abortion.

Paul believed that we should “contextualize” the gospel for our own time and place, recognizing that new situations arise all the time. The church of the 21st century does not look much like the church of the 1st century, and that is OK. The church of Tyler does not look a whole lot like the church in Ethiopia, and that is OK. The most important thing: The gospel. The gospel is unchanging. The gospel is what saves us. And if we are responsible Christians, we will find new ways to communicate the gospel to our generation in our time and our place, the way Christians have always done.
Although I’m free from all people, I make myself a slave to all people, to recruit more of them. I act like a Jew to the Jews, so I can recruit Jews. I act like I’m under the Law to those under the Law, so I can recruit those who are under the Law (though I myself am not under the Law). I act like I’m outside the Law to those who are outside the Law, so I can recruit those outside the Law (though I’m not outside the law of God but rather under the law of Christ). I act weak to the weak, so I can recruit the weak. I have become all things to all people, so I could save some by all possible means. All the things I do are for the sake of the gospel, so I can be a partner with it. (I Corinthians 9:19–23 CEB)
This was Paul’s ministry in a nutshell. He became all things to all people, adapting his style from place to place. The most (only) important thing was the gospel, the mission of God to move people from otherness to oneness. Listen to what Scot McKnight writes in his book Blue Parakeet:
What is good for Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, Ezra, Jesus, Peter and Paul is also good for us. BUT, the precise expression of the gospel or the manner of living of Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, Ezra, Jesus, Peter, and Paul may not be our expression or our manner of living. Living out the Bible means living out the Bible in our day in our way by discerning together how God would have us live.
May God give us the courage, the wisdom, and the patience with each other to live out the Story of God in our time and our own place.

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