When I posted my Easter Day Sermon, I mentioned that was the beginning of a series that will take as a theme for three Sundays one of the ‘marks of an Eighth Day Church’ given in that sermon. Today is the first Sunday I have been at Wilpshire since Easter Day. Today’s theme was a church rooted and grounded in Scripture.
Stanley Hauerwas once said (I can’t remember where) that original thought is not remembering where you read it. Today’s Sermon has borrowed heavily from others! With that said, it’s not always helpful to ‘footnote’ every place I draw from in a sermon. It can break the flow and most of the time, those in the congregation don’t care who I’m quoting. I think I have sufficiently drawn them into my sermon to make what they say my own (at least I hope – I guess that will be for others to decide). But, here I will mark specific ideas with a link to where I found them. Enough with the apologies!
Today is the first Sunday of my three part series looking at what it means to be an Eighth Day Church. If you remember, on Easter Sunday I told you that from the earliest days, Christians came to believe that the resurrection began a whole new world, a whole new creation making the first Easter Sunday the Eight Day of Creation. We are a community who lives in the Eighth day and encounters the risen Jesus as we do three things. These three things become what I call the marks of an Eighth Day Church. They are:
1) A Church rooted and grounded in the story of Scripture,
2) A Church that grows in fellowship as the family of God, and
3) A Church that witnesses to the risen Christ by obeying his command to ‘go and tell’.
A church that seeks to encounter the risen Lord Jesus Christ will have these three marks. This is how I envision the Methodist Church here in Wilpshire to look, and today we begin with the story of Scripture.
Do you like to hear stories? I’m not really talking about The Cat and the Hat or A Christmas Carol. Those are good stories, but what I mean is hearing the story of someone where you learn who they are. My friend Jen Harner, who you heard preach here at Savannah’s baptism, would always ask, ‘So what’s her story?’, meaning she wanted me to tell her about the person in question. Often, she would ask that question directly to the person. I love sharing stories with people as I get to know them. Think back to when you listened to your parents or grandparents tell stories of their upbringing, of what troubles and struggles they faced. Wasn’t it with a sense of excitement that you listened, trying to imagine them as little boys and girls, realising that they didn’t have half of the modern conveniences we have? Or trying to imagine what it was like for many of them during the war, living life under the threat of air raids and rationing? Having grown up in schools where black and white children always went to the same school, I listened intently as my mother told the story of the first time that two little black girls got on the school bus, and the whole bus went quiet. You can read about World War II and integration in the Southern US in history books, but it’s a whole different thing when you hear it from those who lived it. The more you share your stories, the more these people become a part of who you are, too. As you listen, it feels like something burning within you – even if you don’t know what it is.
And that’s what I want to say to you about being a church grounded and rooted in the story of Scripture. As the two people walked along the road to Emmaus, a third figure came up to them, asking what they were talking about. When this strange third person heard they were talking about Jesus and the crucifixion, the unknown traveller immediately turned them to scripture. The traveller who we know was Jesus cried out to his fellow walkers, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!’ Then Luke tells us that Jesus gave them an impromptu Bible study, beginning with Moses – that’s the book of Genesis – and then he walks them through the Old Testament to show how all that had happened to Jesus had been foretold in the Scriptures. He went to Israel’s own story and explained that what was written about years before gives meaning to what is happening now. Luke gives us this story to tell us that we cannot understand the activity of God without listening to the story that scripture tells. For the first Christians, that meant reading and listening to the stories of the Old Testament. As time went on, they saw the need to add to that the stories of Jesus and the letters of some of their first teachers. Because of all the different writings and authors and books, we have something of a hodgepodge of things thrown together. But we can still hear the common story that unites it all. NT professor Richard B. Hays gives the story the bible tells in three sentences:
1) The God of Israel, the creator of the world, has acted astoundingly to rescue a lost and broken world through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
2) The full extent of that rescue is something we don’t yet see, but God has created a community of witnesses to this good news: the church.
3) While we wait for the final conclusion of the story, the church, in the power of the spirit, is called to re-enact the pattern of the loving obedience of Jesus Christ and to be a sign to the world of God’s redeeming purpose.
As we hear this story and accept it, it becomes our story, too. It can burn within our hearts as it did for those two disciples as they listened to Jesus open up the scriptures to them. It is the story of our ancestors in the faith – with all the good, bad, and ugly that they did – laid out for us. The Scriptures are our story, and neglecting it will cut us off from learning who we are and whose we are. It will disconnect us from the God who came to save us in the life, death, and resurrection. As we reflect on what it means to make the story of Scripture our own, I want us to remember three things.
The first point is as you read the Bible, I want you to remember one thing, first and foremost: ‘It’s about God.’ The story of Scripture tells us who God is. We read the lesson from the first chapter of Genesis, and the we read that God created us, set us in a beautiful garden, allowed us to work with him in the garden, and finally to be in relationship with him. The God we meet in this first chapter is the God who saves Israel from Pharaoh, establishes his people to be a witness to the other nations, and sends prophets to reprimand them when they forget him or create a society in which the poor are forgotten. This same God we also find in the Gospels, as John tells that the Word of God (the same word that spoke creation into existence) took on flesh. In the life of Jesus, we see the answer to the question, ‘What if God were human?’ In the gospels, we see Jesus’ pattern of loving obedience we are called to follow. He worked out his mission among those whom society forgot and then he stood up to those who were in power. With Jesus’ ascension, we do not find the work of God disappeared and left for the folks to carry on, but the Holy Spirit continued the work through the first Christians. This Bible gives us the magnificent story of this God who we call Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is and about his love for the creation he made.
Only after we realise this book is about who God is can we then read the Bible as a means of finding out who we are. In this, I mean us as individuals and us as humanity together. We did not read the rest of the story in Genesis, but we have already hinted at it: our disobedience opened us to the sin that now pervades our lives. We do not read the Bible and find that we are generally good people who occasionally goof up sometime. No, we read that when God came amongst us as a human, we killed him. This is not such a popular message. We cannot read the bible and hear a message that we are good, but might need a little improvement, as if all we needed was some makeup to cover up some wrinkles. Instead, the Bible tells us that if we were to go our own way, we would look out for ourselves, try to line our own pockets while others go hungry. We have lived in a century that has seen Auschwitz, Rwanda, and the gap between countries like ours and those in Africa growing bigger. Can we really claim that our natural inclination would have been to stand up to the Nazi party had we been living in Germany? Do we really believe that we are better than others? The story of the Bible tells us, no. It’s not as hard to see ourselves in the Bible as you might think. I cannot read the story of Jonah and not read myself in there. It’s very hard for me to judge ole’ Jonah without judging myself. But, remember: ‘It’s about God, stupid.’ It doesn’t matter how we have spiralled downward or even how far: God who created us sees us as worth redeeming. And through the Holy Spirit, we can change. Earlier, we heard Paul tell us, ‘I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.’ This is not a plan for easy living, rather this is an invitation to become rooted in the story of God and his plan for redemption. We train our minds on the scriptures, as a London cab driver does on the maps of London. I have heard of research that says that test done on those cabbies have shown that their brain actually changes over time. This is what Paul is calling us to do when he tells us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. In prayer, worship, and study, we allow scripture to have its way with us and tell us who we are, but more so tells that we are loved by God and with his power, we can change into who he calls us to be.
The third thing I want you to remember as we seek to be rooted and grounded in scripture is the story is unfinished. I think we see this most clearly in the last chapter of the Book of Acts. Luke tells us that Paul is in prison in Rome preaching his little cotton socks off and then the story stops. We don’t know what happened to any of the people in the story. What I believe Luke wants us to do here is to finish the story. Luke wrote two volumes and then says, ‘Y’all take it from here!’ I said earlier that Jesus opened up the Old Testament to the two travellers going to Emmaus and explained that ancient writings have bearing on what is happening now. I say the same thing here: the ancient writing we call the scripture have meaning for how we live today. I have heard it described as an unfinished play. Let’s say that we found notes on a play Shakespeare wrote. He didn’t finish the final act so we have to write it. To do that, we would have to study and learn the first acts so well that we could close the story and stay true to what has gone on before. Something like that happens when we live in the story of scripture. We have the story of what goes on, and we must learn that story so well so that we can continue it on. Of course, we have the Holy Spirit living amongst us, but one of the ways the Holy Spirit leads is through our reading of scripture that gives us the first parts of the story. We now act out the story toward its conclusion. And here we find ourselves full circle back to my first point. It’s about God, stupid! And God, as he did in the Garden of Eden, chooses to allow us to work with him in bringing about new creation. God asked Eve and Adam to tend the creation, and now he calls us to bring about new creation as the Holy Spirit works in us and in the world. To know how to bring about God’s new creation, we must listen intently to the story he has given us in the scriptures.
Being grounded in the story of scriptures is not a way to solve all the problems of your life or getting five steps it an easy life. It is a way of life that allows God to work with us individually and as a community as we witness to the new creation God promises. The change begins right here. When we look at scripture and ask such questions as, ‘Does this make sense to me?’ or ‘How can I use this to make my life less miserable?’, we forget the first point and the point that my other two are based on: ‘It’s about God, stupid.’ When we read scripture, the question we need to be asking is, ‘How can God change me in order that this scripture can work?’ Nor is this a call to study scripture as a subject in itself. This is the trap I fall into often – I love to study scripture, to read the commentaries, and look at what it means, but I often stop short when it comes to forcing myself to change because of what it says. It’s easier to keep it at arms length. This is why I say we need to incorporate scripture not only in our personal devotion, but in small groups, and in worship. That way, we can open up scripture for each other, to make sure that we are each acting on the same page of the same script. In this, we will encounter the risen Christ. Christians have always believed that we hear the Word of God coming out of these ancient texts. Christ speaks to us when we read these stories. As Christ speaks, we become part of the story, we live it. It is not just a book of stuff that happened years ago, but the stories become alive amongst us now. Jesus is still speaking his story. And as he did with the two on the Emmaus Road, he will cause our hearts to burn within us and in those in whom he speaks to through us!