Part 6 of the series “9 Lies You Hear in Church”
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
October 14, 2012
Psalm 119:1-8; 2 Timothy 3:10-17; Mark 12:28-34
Psalms 119:1–8• Those whose way is blameless— who walk in the LORD’s Instruction—are truly happy! Those who guard God’s laws are truly happy! They seek God with all their hearts. They don’t even do anything wrong! They walk in God’s ways. God, you have ordered that your decrees should be kept most carefully. How I wish my ways were strong when it comes to keeping your statutes! Then I wouldn’t be ashamed when I examine all your commandments. I will give thanks to you with a heart that does right as I learn your righteous rules. I will keep your statutes. Please don’t leave me all alone!
2 Timothy 3:10–17 • But you have paid attention to my teaching, conduct, purpose, faithfulness, patience, love, and endurance. You have seen me experience physical abuse and ordeals in places such as Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra. I put up with all sorts of abuse, and the Lord rescued me from it all! In fact, anyone who wants to live a holy life in Christ Jesus will be harassed. But evil people and swindlers will grow even worse, as they deceive others while being deceived themselves. But you must continue with the things you have learned and found convincing. You know who taught you. Since childhood you have known the holy scriptures that help you to be wise in a way that leads to salvation through faith that is in Christ Jesus. Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good.
Mark 12:28–34 • One of the legal experts heard their dispute and saw how well Jesus answered them. He came over and asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus replied, “The most important one is Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.” The legal expert said to him, “Well said, Teacher. You have truthfully said that God is one and there is no other besides him. And to love God with all of the heart, a full understanding, and all of one’s strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself is much more important than all kinds of entirely burned offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he had answered with wisdom, he said to him, “You aren’t far from God’s kingdom.” After that, no one dared to ask him any more questions.”
Early in the movie Blazing Saddles the town of Rockridge is about to receive its new sheriff, a young black man named Bart whom the lieutenant governor has sent because he knows his presence will be divisive and destroy the town. As sheriff Bart attempts to take office, the men of the town raise their guns to threaten him. The town’s preacher, Rev. Johnson lifts his Bible aloft and says, “Gentlemen, gentlemen, let’s not let anger rule the day! As your spiritual leader, I implore you to pay heed to this good book and what it has to say!” At which moment a gunshot is heard and a hole appears through his Bible. He turns to Sheriff Bart and says, “Son, you’re on your own.”
Of course, that’s how many of us feel when it comes to figuring out what we’re supposed to do: we’re on our own. The desire for clear rules of conduct is strong in our tradition. And it becomes natural for us to look to authoritative tradition to answer any questions about how we should live.
And as members of a Protestant tradition, which like all the Protestants, emphasizes the primacy of scripture as the source of authority for Christians, the Bible is the natural place to turn when trying to figure out what the rules of life are. How we conduct business, how we define marital relationships, how we offer prayer and praise, how we welcome a new sheriff to town; all these things can be addressed by a simple appeal to scripture.
II. THE TEXTS
It certainly seems like the Bible itself is telling us to do that. We read these words from the Psalms:
Those whose way is blameless— who walk in the LORD’s Instruction—are truly happy! Those who guard God’s laws are truly happy! They seek God with all their hearts. They don’t even do anything wrong! They walk in God’s ways. God, you have ordered that your decrees should be kept most carefully.
The word translated as “Instruction” in that passage is the word “Torah”, the word that also refers to the Pentateuch and usually referred to as the Law. The Psalmist declares that those who walk in the Torah are truly happy.
In 2 Timothy, we are told that “the holy scriptures help you to be wise in a way that leads to salvation” and further that the God-inspired scripture is “useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character.”
In the Gospel lesson, Jesus is asked what the most important commandment is and he responds by quoting Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18 and telling a scribe who echoes the sentiment, “You aren’t far from God’s kingdom.”
And so, we certainly have reason for assuming that the Bible is like a rulebook for life. It’s the owner’s manual for living. It tells us how we should live.
III. THE PROBLEM
But is that really true? Does the Bible prove a reliable guide for telling us how to live?
A. Commandments Good and Bad
There are an awful lot of commandments in the scripture some of which should get wider publication. Such as the rule that says a newly married man cannot be drafted into military or public service (Deut. 24:5) or the commandment not to press the poor to repay a debt when they cannot afford it (Ex. 22:24) or the commandment not to muzzle a beast when it is working in produce it could enjoy (Deut. 25:4) or not to destroy fruit trees as a tactic of war (Deut. 20:19-20).
But there are also an awful lot of commandments that are of dubious value to us. Such as the one that prohibits the wearing of a garment made of mixed wool and linen fibers (Leviticus 19:19), or the one prohibiting men from shaving (Leviticus 19:27), or the one that states that a menstruating woman is ritually impure and makes impure anyone she comes into contact with (Lev. 15:19-20), or the one that commands that a rebellious child should be stoned to death (Lev. 20:9), or those that prohibit women from wearing men’s clothing (Deut. 22:25) (I assume that applies to jeans, which were meant to be men’s work pants).
Now of course there will always be those who say, but those are Old Testament laws. Let us leave aside for the moment Jesus’ clear statement that not a single stroke of the pen would disappear from the law until “all things are accomplished” Matthew 5:18) or leaving aside the question of just how authoritative the “Bible” is if you can ignore half of it, and let’s look at the New Testament.
Now, of course there is much in the New Testament that is wonderful and sublime. The entire Sermon on the Mount, the commandment to love your enemies (Matt. 5:44), the injunctions to forgiveness and mercy and the “weightier” matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faith. (Matt. 23:23), and so many others.
But there are also those passages that instruct women to remain silent in church (1 Cor. 14:34) (I note parenthetically that our services would be awfully quiet if we enforced that one), those that tell slaves to obey their masters (Eph. 6:5), and women to be subject to their husbands (Col. 3:18). Verses that tacitly approve of slavery and patriarchy.
How good a guide is the Bible then?
B. A Practical Problem
There is a practical problem to be addressed as well.
A few years ago, writer A.J. Jacobs wrote a book called The Year of Living Biblically in which he sought to live by all the laws of the Bible over the course of a year. This involved him doing the obvious and easy things like avoiding certain foods and wearing certain clothes. But then it quickly became problematic. He offended his wife by telling her that when she was on her cycle she was ritually defiling everything she sat on and he was forced to buy a portable stool that he carried around with him everywhere to sit on. And then there was the time when he went out looking for an adulterer to stone. (Having determined that the Bible does not specify the size of the stones to be used, he eventually threw pebbles at a man in Central Park who had confessed to being an adulterer). The book is highly entertaining and a bit farcical, but it is illuminating as well. For it identifies the fallacy of simply looking to the Bible as a set of rules or instructions for life. Curiously, this is something we all know, though we might speak in language that suggests otherwise. What Jacobs discovered is that contrary to what people say about the Bible as a rule book and guide, no one actually treats it that way completely:
I became the ultra-fundamentalist. I found that fundamentalists may claim to take the Bible literally, but they actually just pick and choose certain rules to follow. By taking fundamentalism extreme, I found that literalism is not the best way to interpret the Bible. 
But even if you look beyond all the instructions that would be a challenge to implement, what about the instructions that are lacking? Where are the instructions on how to resolve the stem-cell debate? Or the rules about human cloning? Where are the instructions on the role of religion in the public discourse of a democratic republic? Where are the instructions on the justice of using unmanned drones to prosecute a military campaign? Or on issues of internet privacy? Or the balance between freedom of speech and community responsibility? There are just so many pressing questions and issues that are left unaddressed in scripture that for a number of practical considerations, the scriptures are not adequate to address all the issues a modern society faces. It looks like we’re actually required to think and do our own discernment about important questions. Well, that’s no good.
So, if the Bible is not an all-purpose rulebook, then what is it?
IV. THE WORD
You may have noticed that after the scriptures are read in our services, it’s our custom to conclude by saying something like “the word of God for the people of God.” And it is generally assumed that Christians equate the Bible with the Word of God. But there are a few different “words” of God that we in the church encounter.
The word we encounter the most frequently is actually the liturgical word: the words we find in our prayers and in our hymns. This word is fairly powerful in that it is often demonstrated that most people get their theology not from sermons or scriptures but from the hymns they grew up singing in the church.
But the liturgical word is not the final word. It points toward the written word. The hymns and prayers of the liturgy are grounded in the written word of scripture. The stories and teachings of the Bible that inform our faith lie at the root of the words we use in prayer and sing in praise.
But even the written word is not the final word. It, too, points elsewhere. It points to the Word Made Flesh, to the Incarnate One we know in the person of Jesus. The one about whom the scriptures write, the one in whose name we pray, and for whom we sing.
But even the Incarnate Word is not the final word. The Incarnate Word points to the Eternal Word of God. The Word through which God called the world into being. The Word that came to the Prophets. The Word that is the seat of the Divine Creativity and Wisdom, governing the cosmos. That Word, the Second Person of the Trinity, is the true Word of God. The word of God that we associate with the scriptures is merely a signpost that points its way up the ladder to the Incarnate Word and to the Eternal Word of God beyond that.
It is the Eternal Word that lies at the heart of God’s truth and God’s claim over our lives. Our lives are to conform themselves to that Word, not necessarily to the words of the text that point their way upward. But the Eternal Word, being so high above our understanding is not something easily grasped. And for that reason, the “Word became flesh and dwelled among us”. And it is that Word that teaches us how to live.
It is the Word made Flesh in Jesus who models for us the life in which the Eternal Word formed us. Who models a life of grace, mercy, and forgiveness. Who calls out for justice and the “weightier matters of the law.” Who demonstrates the solidarity of God, the self-sacrifice of love, and the power of faith. It is the Incarnate Word that demonstrates with its very being how the world is intended to be. A world of justice, peace, love, and hope. In order to understand the Incarnate Word, we have the Written Word, but we make a mistake when we think it is the Written Word we follow. We follow the Incarnate Word and pledge ourselves to his service and his mission.
Life is hard. We are faced with a lot of choices, a lot of challenges. There is a strong impulse to seek a simple guide that answers all our questions about the tough issues we face. We look for a handy guide that can tell us what to do in a challenging and frightening world.
But Christianity is not a religion that tells us what to do. It is a religion that tells us who to be. And we are called to be Christ in the world. Ours is a faith that would have us collectively be the body of Christ and as individuals be Christ to the world.
The Written Word is not irrelevant to that task. Everything we know about Jesus we know from the Scriptures. But it is not the words of the scriptures that we are called to follow, it is the Word made flesh, that we are called to continue to incarnate in the world.
The Word we follow is the Word through whom all things were made, the Word that spoke to the prophets in their calls for justice, and the Word that came to us in the flesh, that lived our life, suffered our sorrows, knew our death, and was raised again. The Word that stands with us in all our days, through all our trials and challenges, our decisions and dilemmas. Our task is the share this Word with the world, not in our following lists of rules and commandments, but by being the vessels for this Word in proclaiming justice, grace, love, and hope to a broken and hurting world.