What the Bible Means to Me
Following my second sermon in a series on Romans yesterday, one of my church members asked me a question. I can’t get the exact wording, but the question was something like this:
Why do you preach from the Bible? Do you really think that we should use it as our baseline for understanding why we do what we do? Can’t we, just as easily, use reality and preach from there?
My answer is probably way too involved for a brief conversation following church. I decided to post it here.
I have an interesting relationship to the Bible. First, I absolutely love it. I want to read it, study it in the original language, preach from it, orientate my life to it. Second, I could know God without it. You get that? It reveals to me how THOSE people related to God. It reveals some about God’s nature. But it’s certainly not all of it. Nor does it explain the context in which I live today. So, while I love it, I am also cognizant of it’s limitations.
As I see it, the Bible is the story of a people (actually, two peoples) trying to understand their relationship with God. In the Hebrew Bible, we start with cosmic beginnings then to the particulars of the patriarchs and matriarchs, wanting to follow God, and all the while, being VERY human. Wow. Isn’t that my story?
Then with the gospels, it’s the teachings. The little phrases that Jesus says, that challenge me every day. “Love your enemies.” “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?”“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.” Every day and in every way, the life and teachings of Jesus challenge me to move out of my boundaries.
But I have a different relationship with the Epistles. Especially Paul’s Epistles. Let me see if I can explain this…
Consider Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. It’s a wonderful letter written to a specific group of people during a specific time. MLK writes in the style of Paul, and there are some very moving parts to his letter. There are some things that have relevance to my life.
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
Definitely a statement that has universal implications. However, some things are not so relevant.
In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.
The specificity of this statement has very little to do with me, with my life in Richmond, 46 years after the letter was written. Imagine, we take Paul’s letter, written nearly 2000 years ago, and try to make each one of his statements universal. I don’t believe that they are universally applicable.
So, what does the Bible mean to me? I like this quote (I think it’s from Marcus Borg), “The Bible isn’t true, but it’s real.” I think I know God (not wholly, really). I know God through people, through nature, through my experience. The Bible helps me, especially in this Judeo-Christian context in which I live, to orient my life to this One who I follow: God shown most fully through Christ.