“The Advent of God’s Presence: The Bible” (Part One of Four)
John 1:1-5 & 14-18, John 18: 33-38 ~
Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ November 25, 2018
As many are very aware, the highest court of the United Church of Canada moved forward on a decision related to one of our clergy ~ the Rev. Gretta Vosper ~ earlier this month. As many are aware, Rev. Vosper is an ordained minister in our denomination who serves in the Toronto Conference. Her beliefs have changed radically since her ordination. On her website, she begins “let’s start a conversation about just and compassionate living. I believe people can support each other with love and wisdom in a church with or without the (small ‘g’) god called God”. In her belief system, her stance of atheism is reconcilable with being a Christian minister. Yes, you heard that correctly, she is a minister who does not believe in God. Following that decision, for all of us ~ to say the least, it has not been easy to be a member of the United Church. And, standing in my shoes, it has not been easy being a member of the United Church’s clergy. I suspect you have had a few curious friends ask you about your church…perhaps even ask you about your beliefs. There has certainly been a lot of press over the past several years: In 2015, Vancouver Sun religion and ethics writer Doug Todd asked the question: “Will Gretta Vosper Do the Honourable Thing [and resign]?” And in Todd’s article, earlier this month, he puts forth the scolding claim that: “the denomination’s policy and leadership seem unable to actually spell out what it stands for”. In my opinion, Doug Todd has a valid point. This has become a very pivotal time for our denomination because we are now being challenged to be clear on our beliefs. The challenge, of course, is that there is a wide spectrum of beliefs that are held within our denomination. Speaking to this reality of our church, our church’s Moderator, the Rt. Rev. Richard Bott cited the “ongoing tension between the church’s statement of faith in God and our church’s effort to be open and inclusive and show all are welcome”. And irregardless of your position on this subject, the true blessing that I have seen is that people are actually talking about what they believe…what it means (to them) to be a Christian…what it means to (to them) to be a follower of the Way of Christ…what it means (to them) to be the United Church of Canada. And on Reign of Christ Sunday, when we consider the place of Christ in our faith, this is a very fitting conversation…indeed.
There are some parallels to this morning’s texts. Some have compared Rev. Vosper’s trials occurring as being akin to a “heresy trial” in the days gone by. And as we begin to explore the second of the two texts in John, we see a similar setting. Having been arrested, Jesus is being tried by Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect, essentially for religious heresy. The Roman Emperor is the exclusive occupant of titles such as “Lord” and “Son of God”. For Jesus’ followers to begin giving him these titles were both acts of heresy and ultimately represented a threat to the future stability of Roman rule in the area. In the face-off between Pilate and Jesus, we truly see the clash of two kingdoms, as both vie for one’s loyalty: the Kingdom of Rome and the Kingdom of God…and there is only room for one ruler in one kingdom. And then, Pilate asks the profound question that will ripple through two millennia…’what is truth?’ The answer, of course, will depend on what kingdom you live in…who you swear allegiance to…what you follow…The nature of truth is such an individual matter, isn’t it?
As we consider Pilate’s question: ‘what is truth?’ I would like for us to introduce this morning’s specific topic. Over the coming weeks we will be exploring the some of the symbols of our faith ~ symbols as being that which point us to a deeper awareness of God’s divine presence in our lives. This morning, we will focus on the Bible. How many of you have a Bible in your home? Or several? Each Sunday the Bible processes forward and is placed on the communion table and becomes a focal point for worship. This morning we consider what the place and purpose of the Bible occupies in the lives of Christians? What is the role of the Bible for us as we receive this collection of 66 books under the one umbrella we refer to as “The Bible”? Ancient texts from a long forgotten time that have no relevance? Or words for today? The Word of God? …. Or words of an ancient civilization? Irrelevant? … Or essential? What is the place of the Bible in the role of people of faith who seek to open themselves for the advent of God into their life’s journey?
One of my favourite way to understand the Bible is that great quote that I wish I could find the author. We should take the Bible “seriously but not literally”. Let’s examine that: To take the Bible seriously, but not literally, is to believe that the words in scripture contain serious words of life and are essential for living the faithful Christian life. They must be received by the disciple with reverence and authority. The words of scripture are absolutely essential in informing our thoughts and guiding our actions. However, there is a second part of that statement. We while we take the Bible seriously, we do not take it literally. It must not be taken literally, rather it must be discerned and decoded as we receive it. It must be taken in as a product of the time in which it was written. We know, of course, that First century people in the time of Jesus thought very differently than we 21st Century post-modern people do. Prior to the 1st Century Gospels of Jesus and letters of Paul, the scriptures of the Hebrew people come from an even earlier time ~ stories spanning back almost one Millennia. And to make matters all the more confusing, the Bible does not just contain one form of writing. It contains various forms of writing: historical accounts, songs, parabolic stories, and epic myths. Each and every text with its own purpose ~ beautifully written and pointing us towards, as Pilate inquired, towards the greater truth and mystery of God. And so, we take scripture seriously, but not literally.
Now, keeping this understanding of scripture in mind, I would like to make a shift to examining the other Gospel reading ~ John chapter one. In this text, John does something very unique in introducing Jesus’ coming. He names him as the divine Word ~ or in Greek ‘the Logos’. In the early days of Greek philosophy, the logos (the word) was understood as that which allowed the person to come to a deep understanding of the nature and meaning of life. Stoic philosophers, like Philo who lived just prior to the time of Jesus adopted the term into Jewish philosophy arguing that “the Logos” might be applied into Jewish philosophy and John, the gospel writer, identifies Jesus as the incarnate logos ~ the living word that allows God to be made known to each of us through the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. As the text commences: “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…” The word is that pre-existent reality that was there ~ “in the beginning”. The word was there before anything was created; the word was with God; the word was God. Continuing later in the text, John describes how the word comes to life ~ the mystery of the incarnation in Jesus: “and the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as a father’s only son, full of grace and truth”.
When we look at these ancient texts, these are more than just dusty words of 2 or 3 millennia ago. These are living words that give us life ~ “the life was the light of all the people”. These are words that give us light and hope ~ “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it”. Our Bible is one key to understanding the nature of God’s presence in our journey; guiding us on the right paths; giving us life and breath for the journey ahead. These stories allow God’s living presence to continue to come alive in this generation and for all generations to come!
As we consider the Bible, I so appreciate the wisdom that the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, gifted the church with. One tool that continues to be used today is Wesley’s Quadrilateral which places the centrality of scripture as being the foundational source for us to understanding the living core of the Christian faith. Wesley viewed our deepening of faith as occurring through four sections ~ akin to four panes of a window. Scripture ~ the word is the central point for our understanding. So much so, that he called himself “a man of one book”. However, three other aspects of one’s faith must be considered alongside scripture. Tradition, reason and experience were also important. Tradition is an appreciation of the 1700 years of the saints who had followed Jesus as an ‘unbroken chain’ of witnesses and the witnesses ~ and even into the future ~ like you and I ~ who will continue to faithfully discern, follow and live out the Way of Jesus. In addition to tradition, Wesley noted that there was the essential place of reason. We need our minds in order to begin to understand the truths found in Scripture. And finally, there was the place of experience. As we continue to find, human experience is one of the strongest proof of Christianity. This was the case of Jesus’ first followers asking to see and experience and the nature of Thomas’ inquiry wanting to touch Jesus’ wounds. Wesley said “what the scriptures promise, I enjoy”.
And so…here we have this gift to our faith lives…the Bible. 66 books containing many words which point us towards ‘The Word’: the living presence of God revealed in Jesus. Dusty old stories which continue to come alive and speak to us ~ even today … if we let them. Words of a God who created and continues to create; words of a God who yearns for the healing of creation; words of a God who walked among us in a Garden, who walked among us in Jesus, who walks among us in His resurrected community. Words of life.
Thanks be to God for these words which open us to God’s living presence.