Friday, May 13, 2011

Reading the Bible on the Road to Emmaus

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on the 3rd Sunday of Easter: Luke 24:13-35

If only Cleopas or his unnamed companion had recently purchased an IPhone 4, we would know Jesus’ exact interpretation of the Scriptures, at least concerning himself. Two Millennia of Church fights could have been avoided!

As I said in my newsletter article this month, I’m reading Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity, and I recently heard him speak here in Rochester.[1] He’s an intriguing guy. Raised a fundamentalist, he was a fairly conservative mega-church pastor in Maryland for many years. His church, in fact, was just down the road from mine and I lost a family to him once.

A few years ago, however, McLaren left all that, somewhat unsettled. Since then he has come to believe that a New Christianity is being born and that we who belong to churches which seem to be dying should not plan our funerals just yet. The New Christianity, he believes, will be nurtured and will attract a new generation of believers in environments where questions are valued and conversation enabled. It will be hard work, and challenging, but there still may be hope for us yet.

In A New Christianity, McLaren writes about ten questions that he believes are being asked by believers and seekers. The first two are all about this morning’s Gospel:

What is the overarching story of the Bible? (He calls this the “narrative question”).

How should the Bible be understood? (He calls this the “authority question”).[2]

I think it is the Gospel writer Luke’s belief that the answer to both these questions is “Jesus.”

Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them all the things about himself in all the scriptures.

Jesus is the authoritative storyteller of Scripture. It is Jesus to whom we, the church, ultimately turn to interpret Scripture. He is our storytelling companion on the journey to Emmaus.

Of course, one must say more than just, “Jesus.” What is the overarching story of the Bible that Jesus tells?

Most Christians have been raised to believe that it goes something like this: God created the world, including the first man and woman and placed them in Paradise. Everything was perfect and would have remained so except they broke the one rule God gave them: do not eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

They ate and all creation experienced “The Fall.” The Fall remains the primary characteristic of human life. Human beings are sinners and God hates sin. Eventually God decided to provide a remedy. He sent his Son, Jesus, who offered himself as the sacrifice to atone for sin that humankind could never make on its own. If we accept this way of saving ourselves, the Fall is reversed and we will return to Paradise—heaven. If we do not accept it we go to eternal punishment—hell.

As I said, that story line is accepted more or less by the vast majority of Christians. It is so well known that even non-practicing Christians and those of other faith traditions and even atheists can tell it.

But what if that was not the way Jesus told the story to Cleopas and his companion on the road? Is there a different way of telling the story?

Yes, McLaren says, and the way to do that is to commit one’s self to reading the Bible “frontwards.” We have a tendency to read the Bible backwards, starting with our favorite interpreters—be they contemporary or some early church father like Augustine—through Paul through Jesus, then into what came before him.

It may seem like I am doing that when I suggest that the answer to the question about the story of the Bible is simply, “Jesus.” But how does Jesus tell and interpret the biblical story on the road? It says he began with Moses. He himself told the story frontwards. McLaren says, “We want to try reading the Bible frontward…to let it be a Jewish story that, through Jesus, opens to include all humanity.”[3]

Notice where Jesus starts. Not with the creation. So what if the defining story in the “front” of the Bible is not the second creation in Genesis—the Fall? What if it is the Exodus? What if the defining moment “at the beginning” for God’s relationship with humanity was not what we call “the Fall,” but instead the story of liberation from oppression? When Luke tells us that Jesus begins interpreting the Bible starting with Moses, I think he is sending just that signal.

The trajectory of that story is, in fact, of increasing liberation in spite of the disobedience of the people of God. That is the story that Luke tells throughout his Gospel, up to the point of today’s post-resurrection story where Jesus is projected into the future as the one who will always be known in the breaking of the bread. There can be fewer more universal actions than that one. All people participate in the breaking of bread.

McLaren says he is still searching for the simple way of telling the story differently than the story governed by the Fall, but he is sure of a few things that can liberate the Bible so that it can be the tool of revelation that it is meant to be.

He reminds us, for one, that the Bible is not a book. It is a library, and just like a library—a collection of books—there is no way to pretend the books are consistent. They were never intended to be. The different writers of the different books “were writing for their own times, to address specific problems and questions of their own day.”[4]

If the Bible is a library and not a book, then we cannot treat it like a simple book of rules or, as McLaren says, “a constitution.” And he quotes a Brazilian friend of his who provocatively says, “The Bible is a book that isn’t meant to be read. By this he means,” McLaren says, “that the Bible is supposed [primarily] to be heard. It’s not the solitary [reader] with furrowed brow, bent over a book…whose approach best resonates with the Bible as library; rather it’s a community gathering in which people listen to the Bible being read, then respond and interact with it and with one another.”[5]

Jesus is revealed to us in conversation on the road to Emmaus, a conversation so lively, so consequential to our lives, that it makes our hearts burn and finally we understand—meaning is revealed—when we bring it to the Table.

The answer to the abuse of the authority of the Bible by so many, and the rigidity with which the story of the Fall is allowed to govern the whole of the biblical story and therefore our relationship with God, is not to get rid of that authority altogether. That’s the liberal impulse we must resist.

The Bible’s authority, like all real authority, comes out of relationship. The word “authority” has as its Latin root, augere, “to cause to grow.” That’s the Bible’s authority in my life. It causes me to grow, sometimes because I’m looking for it, sometimes as a challenge, sometimes as a slow wearing away of a rough edge. God is revealed to me in its pages, the God who is like Jesus, so I give it authority because I trust it.

I think McLaren has it precisely right, and is there on the road to Emmaus, with Jesus and Cleopas and the unnamed rest of us, when he says

I hope [the approach to the Bible I’m recommending] will try to put us [not under the text or over it but] in the text—in the conversation, in the story, in the current and flow, in the predicament, in the Spirit, in the community of people who keep bumping into the living God in the midst of their experiences of loving God, betraying God, losing God, and being found again by God. In this way, by placing us in the text, I hope this approach can help us enter and abide in the presence, love, and reverence of the living God all the days of our lives and in God’s mission as humble, wholehearted servants day by day and moment by moment. Even now.[6]

I think that is what Jesus was telling his disciples on the road to Emmaus, and then showing them in the breaking of bread: join me in the story. And that’s the message about the Bible we should have for the world. Join us in the story.

[1] Brian D. McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity (HarperCollins, 2010).

[2] These questions are introduced in New Christianity, p. 19.

[3] Ibid., p. 45.

[4] Ibid., p. 80.

[5] Ibid., pp. 83-84.

[6] Ibid., pp. 96-97.

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