Bin Laden and the Narrative of Scripture

Not long after President Obama announced the killing of Osama bin Laden, Twitter lit up. As you would expect, Christians have played their part, too. One particular way Christians tweeted was using Bible verses to proclaim their feelings on the matter. Christianity Today, the American Evangelical magazine, posted an article on their website that listed data from OpenBible.info that told us what were the most tweeted Bible verses 12 hours after President Obama announced bin Laden’s death.

I admit that I was glad to see that the number one verse was Proverbs 24:17, ‘Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice’ (NIV). Of course there were other verses, too – ones that seem to be quite fine with the rejoicing that the enemy had indeed fallen, but 3 of the top 5 indicated that the death was not a celebration. Still, what does quoting one verse do?

Quoting Bible verses in my environment growing up was nearly a language all its own. It’s how you answered questions when people challenged what you thought and it was what you quoted to prove your case. Usually the surrounding context mattered little. It was easy that way. You could find your preferred texts and use them as an axe to cut down any argument that someone tried to make. They were little clues that formed a picture of your own making.

Since that time, I have learned that quoting verses does not always help, and if we read carefully in the New Testament, we see that Jesus and Paul nuanced how they used scripture. For Jesus, I can point to the gospels where he would begin by saying ‘you have heard it said’ before quoting some part of the Old Testament and then deepening its meaning. Paul could have used any number of scriptures that said eating food sacrificed to idols was wrong, but he takes a very long time to get there and in the end doesn’t exclude it all together! In both cases, Paul and Jesus wanted us to hear more than just what a single verse of scripture might say.

While I am not opposed to quoting scripture, and as a general practice I wish I knew more than I did so I could quote them, I think we also have to look at the full story of where scripture is going. It’s a little more difficult this way, and sometimes I have to give up my preferred verses. It also takes discussion and listening, as unlike quoting a verse it isn’t easily doled out in bite-sized portions. The overarching story of scripture has at it centre what Jesus did for a world that was opposed to him. He came to bring forgiveness, and did it amidst people who were cheering and celebrating his death. He even reached out to a terrorist and converted him so that he could take the gospel to the gentiles.

So, I do understand there are verses that would say it’s perfectly OK to gloat and brag that bin Laden is dead. But, there are other verses that say the opposite. I think we have to go to the overarching story for where the weight lies for those verses. If our central story is that of Jesus and his sacrifice, then I don’t see how we can celebrate the death of another.

Easter Sermon: An Eighth Day Church

A week or so ago, I was sitting in ministerial synod. One of the issues we discussed was leadership and in my group (where I was the only active minister – the rest were retired) we particularly talked about where does the vision for the church come from. Two of the three retired mentioned that this had to come from the minister. I had some initial disagreements, as I believe that no vision that in some ways does not arise from the congregation, or at least does not actively embrace it, it will fail. But, before dismissing these ministers out of hand, I began to think about what my vision is for my largest church, Wilpshire, in particular. The next time I would be preaching there would be Easter Sunday. As I thought about the text assigned (John 20.1-18), I thought about the three themes: scripture, fellowship and family, and going out to tell the good news. I wrapped it up in this image of the ‘eighth day of creation’, which the church fathers described Easter Sunday. Partly inspired by Kevin Watson (over at deeply committed) and his sermon series, my next plan is to take one of these three images and preach on them on the first Sunday of the month (the only times I am at Wilpshire over the next three months).

One final note: the story referenced in Resourcing Renewal tells of a church that believes it’s mission is to get people to join them so that they can take on the church offices, as the current ones are getting too old to continue.

Imagine the misty, early morning nearly 2,000 years ago. A sole, solitary figure walks toward a tomb cut into the wall of rock. After the events of this wild week, the air was strangely calm. The whispers that had been running throughout the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth ]‘Could this be the one to save Israel?’] reached its peak one week earlier and turned into loud, ‘Hosanna! Save us, Lord!’ Two days earlier, even the whispers had been violently quieted as Jesus suffered the fate of many would be kings and messiahs. He was dead, leaving his followers to go back to their old way of life or find a new king. All that’s left is the solitary figure of Mary Magdalene winding her way to the tomb. Perhaps Mary needs a few moments alone by herself to mourn, after the wild and loud events. She approaches the place where she was sure she had seen Joseph of Arimathea leave the body. Yet there was nothing blocking the door to the tomb. She walks inside and to her horror, she finds there is no body: only the grave clothes lying where the body should be, looking like a deflated balloon. Terrified, she runs as fast as she can to the disciples, still hiding. ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ Two disciples race to the tomb. The younger one arrives first, but the act first, think second Peter barrels his way past his younger friend and sees for himself, but can’t imagine what this is about. The younger disciple sees and believes, though perhaps not fully understanding.

This is the scene in the early morning hours of the first Easter Sunday. Chaos among Jesus’ first followers, as the events from this week seem to get weirder and wilder. None of them could have understood that this was God’s plan all along – even when Jesus had tried to spell it out to them before. Jesus took on the world’s sin, he suffered the worst the world could do to him. Tom Wright, the bishop of Durham, writes, ‘In his death, Jesus had taken all the sin and death and shame and sorrow of the world upon himself, so that by letting it do its worst to him he had destroyed its power, which means that now there is nothing to stop the new creation from coming into being.’ Death’s power is broken, and in that little tomb outside Jerusalem, the first sign of new life emerges. It’s like looking out in your garden as the winter draws to a close and the first shoots of what has been hiding beneath it come out. God’s resurrection of Jesus is the start of a new world, a new creation. It’s a promise to us that what God did for Jesus, God will one day do for the entire world. The story of Holy Week isn’t the end of Jesus or the plan of God – it’s the beginning. Easter is what Christians for centuries have called ‘the Eighth Day’. On the sixth day of creation, God created woman and man. On the sixth day of the week, in his crucifixion Jesus reversed what the man and woman got wrong when they disobeyed. On the seventh day, Jesus was in the tomb. On the seventh day, God rested. On the eighth day of creation, God rescued Jesus from death, forever changing the course of the world and bring out of the tomb a new creation. If God can bring resurrection out of the world killing it’s own creator, he can bring resurrection out of anything. We live in a new day, the day of resurrection: the eighth day. I believe it’s our calling to be an ‘Eighth Day Church’.

What is an ‘Eighth Day Church’? What does one look like? What are her marks? This passage gives us three that I have in my vision for us here at Wilpshire Methodist Church. So we return to the garden and first overlook the scene of Peter and the younger disciple at the tomb. While Peter walks away in a stupor, the younger disciple catches on just slightly. Peter walks away confused and the disciple whom Jesus loved can only half believe. Why is that neither can come to full belief. The next verse gives the answer: ‘…for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.’ They did not grasp that what the scriptures had been telling them. We cannot understand God’s plan if we do not know what is contained in the Bible. Understanding the scriptures has always been a part of being a Christian disciple. A disciple – a follower of Christ – seeks to understand the scriptures. These first followers gave us an early creed, which we can still find in 1 Corinthians 15. Paul begins with a preface: ‘For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received.’ This is of first importance. And then Paul gives the creed: ‘that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.’ Reading, praying, and studying the scriptures in private devotion, in groups, and in worship are primary to our understanding of the Christian faith. It tells the story of God’s plan that tells us who we are and more importantly who God is. This is the first mark of the eighth day church.

For the second, we leave Peter and the other disciple and now Mary is alone in the garden. But she is not alone. It’s the gardener. But in actually, it’s more than she could have dreamed of. The one whom she believed dead – who indeed was dead – is standing in front of her. She makes to grab him, but he stops her saying, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.’ A statement that has confused people for centuries, Jesus is telling her that everything has changed. They can no longer go back to the old way like they were before his death, but now it’s a new situation. It’s all changed! Yes, change – that word that makes every church in England shake in fear! But Jesus is not simply talking outward things like worship styles and buildings. He tells Mary, ‘But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”’ Jesus does not call his disciples servant, followers, or even friends. He calls them his brothers. He says that his father is their father. His God is their God. They are no longer a band of strangers tagging along after him. They are now a family. This is the mark of an Eighth Day Church – we together here must be more than a collection of people who gather here once a week. Because of the resurrection, our relationships with each other have changed. We become brothers and sisters. We change from people who jealously guard our privacy and time into people who learn to live together in love. We live for each other as Jesus lived for us – in sacrifice. This means taking the time to come together to get to know one another, to enter each others lives. In the early days of Methodism, John Wesley put us in classes to meet with one another to ensure that we were living the Christian life, supporting one another through life’s struggles, and to grow deeper with each other and the risen Christ. Jesus in Matthew says that Jesus is present to us whenever two or three or gathered in his name. A church that grows in fellowship as the family of God is the second mark of the Eighth Day Church’.

That leads us to our third mark. We have already heard it in the verse I mentioned, but we see it acted out in the last verse of our passage, ‘Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.’ Jesus sent Mary to tell the good news. As an aside, this ends the discussion that Anglicans are having. Jesus sent a woman to the men to give the good news. Sometimes, Mary is called the ‘apostle to the apostles’. She is first, but not last. But Jesus’ call to Mary becomes the call to the apostles and now to us. We are to go out into the world and tell them Jesus’ message. The current buzz-world circling around Methodist and Anglican churches is that of ‘mission-shaped’. We are a church that exists to go out and tell the world that the world’s true Lord is alive. This is not an invitation to find ways to put ‘bums on seats’. Let me read a story our Methodist president, Martyn Atkins, tells. [Resourcing Renewal p. 9-10.] If I read that in many chuches across the connexion, I would imagine some would say, ‘Why is Martyn Atkins think something is wrong with that?’ That’s because I think churches in England – I would say America, too – have for too long thought of church like a club that people come to us and join. But listen to Jesus’ command, ‘Go and tell’. This is not a message of a far off, out of this world existence of after we die, though Jesus does promise us eternal life. After all he has defeated death, not promised to make death somehow more appealing. He wants us to go and bring signs of resurrection life that will fully come one day into the lives of people now. If Jesus – the living Lord of life – is truly king, that means Caesar is not. George W. Bush with his war in Iraq and those in China who are oppressing the people of Tibet – their ways of violence need to be opposed. It means that it doesn’t matter how many elections Mugabe will fix, he is not the true king. Our allegiance is to the living king of the world who reigns by giving life, not bringing death. Jesus’ resurrection means that we seek to bring life into a world that only knows a Good Friday suffering. We do this locally through our support of asylum seekers, challenging the government on policies that bring death as it has to Ama Sumani, and it means we support those who have been the victims of abuse – whether physical, sexual, emotional, spiritual, or mental. Of course, the resurrection calls us to go further and seek the conversion of the oppressors as well. Remember, Jesus died for those who killed him, too. He did not seek to bring about justice through the destruction of the oppressors, but to take on their sin. We announce that in Jesus the world has it’s true king, and sin and death have been defeated. This is the third mark of an ‘Eighth Day Church’, and if we give up or change it to a call to bring people in to gain more money or take over offices in the church, we gave ceased to be the church at all.

This is my vision for Wilpshire Methodist Church. All of this will sound foreboding, and it can be if we try and do this alone. But, we must remember that Christ is risen. Each of the three marks I described come out of an encounter with the risen Lord Jesus. Peter and the younger disciple could not understand the scriptures until they met the risen Lord. Jesus’ resurrection forms the small band of disciples into a family, where the risen Christ is present. Mary could do nothing but sit in the garden and cry until she heard Jesus speak her name. I love this interchange between Jesus and Mary. Think of Mary, all we know of her is that Jesus cast out seven demons from her. She was a person broken into many pieces. Without Jesus, she burst again. But the encounter with the risen Jesus put her back again for good. The message of Easter begins with our own encounter of the risen Lord who can heal us of our hurts and forgive our sins and then go out into the world to offer this encounter with the Jesus who was died and is now raised. It may not happen as quickly or dramatically for any of us as did for Mary. That’s why it’s important that the church becomes a place of healing, not a place where we continue to break apart and tear down. We walk the journey with them as the body of Christ, and the place where the risen Christ comes to heal.

This is the kind of place I have a vision for Wilpshire Methodist Church to be. To use Martyn Atkins again, he says that Sunday morning alone cannot take the weight of becoming a church with a vibrant community seeking to live out these three marks. He says that only churches that have small groups, nurture programmes, and evangelism will grow into what God is calling us to be. He calls this a ‘7-day church’. I agree, but I want to impress the importance of the resurrection in this, so I am calling this vision an ‘Eighth Day Church’. The resurrection is vital to this kind of church – it is the promise that God will act again. God has done so. God will do so for the entire world. Without the resurrection, Paul says in 1 Corinthians, all we are doing is worthless. It would be like trying to move a beach one shovel at a time in an hour. But, Jesus has been raised. God’s new world will indeed come through. Until then, we live as an eight day church as we read the scriptures, learn to be a family, and go and tell the good news. Doing that, we bring reurrection moments into the death that surrounds the world. We bring the power that will come fully one day into people’s lives now. The eight day has begun and we are living in it, waiting for the time when Jesus will return and put the world to rights! This is the day that Wilpshire Methodist Church is invited to live in as an ‘Eighth Day Church’! This is the message of Easter! Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

Thinking about Parables

In part of the promotion of it’s miniseries The Passion, the BBC have invited film consultant Mark Goodacre (Duke University, Department of Religion) to explain what are ‘parables’ on their website. He gives a great introduction to them that I am going to file away in my ‘resources for Disciple Bible Study course’ folder. In the article, he gives an overview what Jesus is trying to accomplish when he uses them:

They often begin with the words, “The kingdom of God is like…” and end with some kind of declaration of the unusual nature of God’s reign. The parables press home the idea that in God’s kingdom, things work differently. They subvert people’s expectations.

While this definition will likely not be helpful in children’s Sunday School, it’s better than the definition of parables I was given growing up and still hear used in adult Sunday School: ‘an earthly message with a heavenly meaning’. I understand what that definition is trying to say, and there may be some truth in it, but I don’t think it captures the ‘world-changing’ character of the parable. Parables aren’t trying to give us some information about some timeless truths, but forcing us to confront ourselves and the world as it is and then completely change our thinking. Bishop Will Willimon says this about the whole bible, but could be used to describe parables as well:

Thus when we read Scripture, we’re not simply to ask, “Does this make sense to me?” or “How can I use this to make my life less miserable?” but rather we are to ask in Wesleyan fashion, “How would I have to be changed in order to make this Scripture work?” Every text is a potential invitation to conversion, transformation, and growth in grace. And, as we have noted earlier, we Wesleyans love to get born again, and again. Scripture is God’s appointed and most frequently used means for getting to us and getting at us and thereby changing us in the encounter.

I think with the ‘earthly message, heavenly meaning’ definition, you get the idea that Jesus would tell a parable and his disciples would think, ‘Hey, I didn’t know that before…and now I do.’ We then extract some sentimental meaning from it and then have a good feeling. We read the lost sheep or the lost coin or the prodigal son and think, ‘Aw, that Jesus. He goes looking for every one,’ and then sit back and enjoy the knowledge that Jesus would even come looking for us. Now, I’m not saying that’s altogether false, but flowing from Goodacre (and Willimon), you start to see why the Pharisees got so angry. Sometimes, the Pharisees knew only too well what Jesus was talking about. The parable of the lost sheep and coin and son were directed at them when they were mumbling about who Jesus was eating with and he has them stood by the door in the unenviable place of the older brother who refuses to join the party. A parable can force us to see ourselves not as the coin, sheep, or prodigal son, but force us to see ourselves as one of the Pharisees. It challenges us to look at who Jesus chose to play main parts (a shepherd or a woman) and look at how we often view the world in a hierarchical fashion and who we try to put on the bottom of the pile (shepherds and women would not have been high on the Pharisees list). In it’s attempt to change worldviews, each of the gospels has it’s own take on the parables, and Goodacre gives a good, short summary of the gospels and how they use even the same parables differently.

Goodacre tells us in the article that The Passion will begin with the retelling of the parable of the Tenants in the Vineyard. It will be interesting to see how they interpret it, especially as they lead off with it, assuming film makers want us to see the events of the week through the lens of this parable.

Reading the Bible as Literature

John Meunier over at Come to the waters has a great post entitled, ‘Don’t Let English Majors Read the Bible‘. He has been musing a fair amount lately about reading scripture and he offers a unique perspective as he is an English major. I might not say things exactly the way he does. I think it is the story of what God has done in humanity’s history (not like a history book as we think of it) and not simply a story as God would have it (though John’s right in seeing some of this in there). But, I think the whole force of his thoughts challenge us to read the story as narrative rather than a rule book, a summary of some basic truths (or even a book that says some true things), or a science textbook. I like his phrase, ‘a book full of imagination and memory.’ That may at once sound like an oxymoron, but I believe captures what the bible is to do to us when we submit to it. The bible shares with us the story that has formed us, while at the same time calling us to re-imagine the world as God sees it. Richard B. Hays (also an English major as well as a New Testament professor) uses ‘imagination’ to say this is what Paul is calling us to in his epistles (The Conversion of the Imagination: Paul As Interpreter of Israel’s Scripture).

At most, this is a challenge to stop reading the bible through the lens of that awful acronym that I wish could be burned at the stake of bad theology: B.I.B.L.E = Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.