"When Is God’s Word, God’s Word?"

Sermon Delivered By Rev. Dick Stetler – January 26, 2014

Centenary United Methodist Church

Psalm 27:1, 4-9; I Corinthians 1:10-18


    Those of you that have listened to my messages during the last three years no doubt have realized that I am no stranger to talking about controversial subjects.   This morning will be no different.  The reason I enjoy challenging some of our cherished beliefs is that it may help some of us to think more clearly and more freely.  God is not some ogre who will punish us from believing differently from each other.

    For example, if I told you that the Bible became known as The Word of God for political reasons, you might grow skeptical and may choose not to believe it.  Someone had to create that label.  It would be interesting to know how a collection of manuscripts became known as The Word of God.

    The origin of this understanding can be traced historically to a Church Council that made the declaration to protect the orthodox doctrines and dogma of the early Church. Radically different theologies were emerging from every section of the ancient world as Christianity spread.  This group decided to refer to the Bible in this manner to remove any doubt from the minds of future generations that the manuscripts were divinely inspired.   

    This declaration also gave the priests ultimate authority for telling their congregations what the Scriptures said.  During the early times when faith communities were developing, few people could read or write.  Later, the Scriptures were in high Latin further protecting the power of priests to interpret them.

    Try to imagine everything that could happen to the key words Jesus used that were first spoken in Aramaic then translated into Hebrew, then into Greek, then into Latin and finally into English.  Would an Aramaic word have the same meaning in English after traveling through all those cultural and linguistic transitions?  Think of all the English words that have changed their meaning during our lifetime, e.g. gay, fired, mouse, dressed to the nines, she fell in love, etc.  

    Here is an additional question that may help to further confuse us. Would God use words to communicate to us?  Each of us has developed various filters through which all words must pass before entering our minds. What do I mean by filters?

    One of the best descriptions of this filtering process was described by Benjamin Franklin, the oldest signer of the Declaration of Independence.  He was describing how challenging it was to create a document that would declare the intention of the American Colonies to separate themselves from English rule.  He said:

When you assemble a number of people in order to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those people all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their provincial interests and their selfish points of view.

     In other words, Franklin was saying that a camel is a horse that was put together by a committee.  Where does that leave The Word of God?  

          When we turn to our New Testament lesson this morning, we learn how these filters played havoc with one of Paul’s early congregations. Paul was addressing numerous divisions in the Corinthian community that he established. Those divisions were caused by the same filtration systems described by Ben Franklin.   

    Paul wrote to his congregation, “Let me put it to you this way:  each one of you says something different.  One says, ‘I follow Paul; another, I follow Apollos, another, I follow Peter, and another, I follow Jesus.’”  (I Corinthians 1:12)  Words are not the best form of communication because all of us can easily interpret them differently. 

     For example, those who claimed Paul as their divine messenger were mainly Gentiles.  Paul’s message was one of spiritual freedom.  This teaching effectively put an end to a person’s need to be obedient to the Laws of Moses.  However, some of the new converts were using spiritual freedom to justify all kinds of self-indulgent behavior.

     The second group claimed Apollos as their divine messenger.  He was a Jew from Alexandria, a city that was well known for its intellectual diversity.  Apollos was articulate, very likeable and knew the Old Testament Scriptures well.  His words appealed to those that agreed that Jesus’ teachings were more a philosophy for living.

          The third group claimed Peter as the divine messenger.  The followers of Peter were Jews.  They believed that Jesus’ followers must remain loyal to all the traditions and rituals that were prescribed by the Laws of Moses.  

    The final group claimed Jesus as their divine messenger.  This group was filled with people that felt they were more faithful to the truth than anyone else.  They were convinced that their interpretation of Jesus’ teachings was far superior to the thoughts and beliefs held by others.

    Today, the beliefs that people have concerning the life and teachings of Jesus are all over the landscape of Christianity.  We all have the same Scriptures.  The problem has never been with the Scriptures.  The problem is that their interpretation has become more sacred than the Bible.

    How do we resolve this very challenging problem?  We have over one billion Christians throughout the world that have divided themselves into theological comfort zones just as Paul’s congregation had done.  The belief that somebody has to be right has caused the struggle for right beliefs to continue through the centuries.

     In spite of the wide differences in theology that we have today, Jesus provided an answer that was crystal clear.  Jesus’ truth had very little to do with the Scriptures or their interpretation.  The primary reason for this is that the New Testament had not yet been written.      

     What Jesus taught was a way to behave so that our attitudes and responses reflected God’s spirit.  We read in the Gospel of John, “And The Word of God became a human being and lived among us.” (John 1:14)  The author did not say that the Word of God became a book. A loving spirit does not reveal itself because a person read inspired words from an ancient manuscript.  That spirit reveals itself because of an authentic desire to do so.

          During one of my summer classes at an earlier church, we were talking about how words and their interpretation can cause committed Christians to become so passionate and heated with one another that one of them may accuse the other of being spiritually lost.  One student shared one of his recent experiences that offered a very different version of discipleship from having a right or a wrong interpretation of the Scriptures. 

    He told the class that he took the Metro train to Northern Virginia to visit a friend.  When he arrived at his destination, he was the only passenger that got off the train.   As he walked across the platform, he saw a woman staring at the large map of the Metro system. When he noticed how upset she was, he stopped and asked if she needed assistance.  She did not answer.  He lingered and said once again, “Perhaps I can help you.” She turned toward him and touched his arm and said, “American.”  She touched her chest and said, “Russian. No English.”    

    Fortunately, that student was acquainted with a universal language that most humans understand.   Each of us has the ability to communicate with smiling eyes, caring body language and a willingness to be helpful even if presented with a language barrier.   It’s called compassion and the two of them worked on communicating with each other.   

    She showed him a piece of paper that said, “Metro Center.”   He realized immediately that she had missed her station by three stops.  Once he had gained her trust, he held her piece of paper against the large map so she could see the words, “Metro Center” in big letters.  He counted with his fingers, 1, 2, 3 Metro Center as he pointed to each of the stops she had to retrace.  She counted in Russian and said, “Metro Center.”   

    After taking her to the other side of the tracks, he waited with her until the next train arrived.  When that moment came, they both counted again and smiled. Before boarding the train she turned to him and spoke in her native tongue.  He told our class, “I did not understand a word she said, but her body language and smile communicated her gratitude.”

    A person cannot disguise or hide compassion, self-confidence, enthusiasm, patience, caring and acceptance.  The Apostle Paul wrote an entire list of such adjectives that describe our potential in his letter to the Galatians. (Galatians 5:22) These qualities become visible when The Word becomes flesh and can be demonstrated through what we do.

    When Jesus said, “follow me” his invitation had very little to do with words.  His path was, “Do unto others as you would like them to do unto you.” (Luke 6:31) His path had to do with having mercy and acceptance of others just as we find them. (Mark 2:13-17)  His path was to recognize that the quality of our lives is our responsibility.  (Matthew 5:8)  His path was to allow others to pursue their journey without our judgments and labels. (Matthew 18:21-22)

     In conclusion, we would be lost without the Bible’s guidance.  In the final analysis, however, it is not our beliefs or our theology that will matter to others. What matters are the loving qualities of spirit that we give away.  When we communicate these qualities through our spirits, they have the power to transform the world around us.  The disciples were able to do this long before there was a Bible.  Now it is our turn to live the way our compassion for others directs us.  Doing this will make The Word become flesh.