44 Then [Jesus] said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled”. 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:44-48 ESV)
Christ is risen! (He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!)
And that is both a historical truth for Christians who look back nearly 2,000 years and a news flash for Christians today, this day, who look around and only see each other. We don’t see Jesus and yes we might like to as Thomas and the apostles did but that is not our lot in life. We accept the truth, believe it, trust it, rely on it, depend on it, are comforted by it, challenged by it that Jesus is present – many say ‘invisibly’ but Lutherans prefer to say ‘hidden’ because we can still see something – water in Baptism, bread and wine in Holy Communion, and the words printed in the Bible or spoken out loud like now and you can see the speaker – oh, the speaker’s ordinary, just like us, a sinner too.
The world says ‘yeah right’ to all this and yes, we can struggle with this reality, at times, but the mystery is that we keep worshipping, keep believing, keep saying ‘Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so’ and many other words. What happened on the first Easter evening in Jerusalem is still happening today, to us – that as we understand the Scriptures so we know Jesus, we know God and our relationship with him is anchored in his forgiveness and lived out in repentance – daily – in worship and service.
But, I hear you say, Jesus isn’t in front of us opening the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms and clarifying our questions about the Gospels, the letters of the New Testament, and Revelation. We have to read the Bible for ourselves and so begins a life long journey, a life time of reading, a lot of listening to sermons and teaching and Bible Studies – all to meet and draw closer to Jesus.
Now after nearly 2,000 years we are well aware that people read the Bible differently. Denominational labels are usually description-summary of a way of reading the Bible, what is emphasised and important, and what is then taught and practised. Even the descriptions and teachings about the Bible itself shape how people approach and respond to it.
Is it God’s Word? How so and why?
Is it truth or does it contain truth?
Is it a rule book?
Is it a love letter?
Should we think of it as a single unit or a library of 66 books?
And I’m sure you could each ask lots more questions!
To understand the Bible we need to understand Jesus as truly human and truly divine. He is the Word of God, the Word made flesh and his opening of the written Scriptures tells us that the Scriptures are also human words and God’s Word. We can’t prove this to the world but having the Bible as both human words and God’s Word reflects the mystery that Jesus is both fully human and fully God.
So we read the words, the grammar, the syntax. We note the type of literature we are reading and we recognise poetry, simile, metaphor and understand them accordingly. And we, in faith, listen for the truth – about ourselves and about our God. And in this word-work we trust that God is revealed to us in the person of Jesus not just as a history lesson but also as news for us today.
On Maundy Thursday I spoke about the mystery in Christianity – the tension even – that we have to maintain when our truth is expressed in more than one word or one answer. And when you have multiple answers you can find yourself heading towards one answer more than another. Holy Communion is the body and blood of Jesus and also bread and wine – he is physically present, hidden, in this sacramental reality – but if you head towards body and blood you can get into trouble and if you head towards bread and wine you can get into other troubles and what suffers is the truth and the encounter with Jesus. He becomes muffled, blurred, mispresented.
Humanity has always struggled with God’s Word because our nature is that we want to make God into our image. We want to be the author, the editor, and the interpreter of the text, of the words. Everyone is challenged with the first question in the Garden ‘Did God really say …?’ and our problems happen when we change the meaning, or add or subtract from God’s Word. So when Eve said that God had said they weren’t even to touch the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, she was putting words into God’s mouth. Maybe she was well meaning. I’d like to think so. But now let’s be careful of those who say, ‘Thus says the Lord’! Why are we listening?
And so people have emphasised the divine in God’s Word, the truth the Lord is saying, because one listens and obeys because it is God who is speaking. This tends to promote a ‘don’t question, just accept’ atmosphere and then the conflicts come when people do question or don’t accept. This divine emphasis tends to flatten the literature in the Scriptures – because poetry, simile, history, letter doesn’t really matter when it is all truth. Protecting the divine can cause problems with other truths such as physics and unnecessary battles that get in the way of seeing Jesus.
But then the pendulum swings and the human words, the context of the authors and the readers or hearers, the language, the grammar are emphasised and the interpretations become our interpretation of the history, the culture, and our sensitivities can struggle with what we read, and thus segments of the Bible can be relativised or relegated to a ‘primitive age’ or be regarded as mistakes or not relevant anymore – and Jesus becomes the person we want him to be, palatable to our time and place, someone we think worth following.
A botanist once told me that when Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24 ESV) that he couldn’t be God and he certainly wasn’t a botanist because a seed must germinate to bear fruit. If a seed dies it dies. But when one sees Jesus in this verse and he did die then there is truth to be found – and the botanist was still a botanist but also saved.
In my younger years I often discussed Holy Communion with those who said that the bead and wine can only be symbolic of Jesus’ body and blood because that was the logic of the language. Yet any analysis of all the relevant passages reveals clearly to me that Jesus meant this mystery to be his real presence – he himself – coming to all who commune or as Luther insisted ‘is means is’.
And thus I am accused of twisting the Bible like silly putty to present my views. Sometimes the words can be figurative and other times they can’t be. And people get exasperated and others might even stop reading the Bible – ‘I know what I know’ sort of thing.
But Jesus said on that first Easter night that the Scriptures reveal him and they are fulfilled in him and by him and that hasn’t changed. The Word stands. Jesus stands. He is alive! We don’t get to pick and choose which words we like and we are to hear all of them and understand all of them. The Word is truth – because Jesus is truth, and the way, and the life. And the Word has a goal because Jesus has a goal – to suffer and die for us, to rise from the dead for us, and to give us repentance and forgiveness so that we – and all nations – may live with Jesus, live this Word, and proclaim it in word and deed both of which witness to Jesus. And so this Word of God can kill (sinners) and make alive (those in Christ Jesus).
But how do we read this library of 66 books? By knowing where to start!
By standing under the cross looking up at the man dead on it – just before he is taken down – by contemplating – Who is he? How did he get there? Why? What happened next?
Standing under the cross, standing under the Word of God then gives us a message about God – his grace and mercy – and about us – our sin and shame – and what God has done about it all – and what we can do in response. Those are the glasses we put on when reading the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.
Standing under the cross gives us a parameter or borderlines outside of which our interpretations shouldn’t go because they blur Jesus and muddle God and his grace and minimise us and our sin and shame.
Standing under the cross, gives us the clearest message when we struggle to understand what God is saying to us today and gives us the power to keep struggling because Jesus wants us to live – forgiven with him – today – and tomorrow – and so we don’t stop reading or listening to Jesus for as Peter said, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life’ (John 6:68).
Christ is risen! (He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!)
- Luke 22:44 - 48