The Word becomes…

Theme:  We turn our attention to the convictions that connect us as a global Mennonite community, beyond the Pacific Northwest Conference and beyond Mennonite Church USA to include the worldwide communion of those who practice the Mennonite faith. 

As Melanie has reminded us, today is the second Sunday in our series “Believing Together.”  We continue to turn our attention to the convictions that connect us as a global Mennonite community, beyond the Pacific Northwest Conference and beyond Mennonite Church USA to include the worldwide communion of those who practice the Mennonite faith.  

Last week our worship celebrated the triune expression of God as creator, Christ, and spirit.  Weldon began the sermon time by posing this question to us: “If someone asked, ‘Do you believe in one God or three gods?’ how would you answer?”  Someone very witty and clever sitting in my vicinity simply answered, “Yes.”  I, on the other hand, was stumped and quickly bumbled through a long series of questions in my head, which of course remain unresolved.  Ah the mysteries of our faith. 

This week in believing together we turn to our sacred text, the Bible as authority for faith and life.  So I want to begin by saying right from the get-go – the scripture as authority for our obedience –  no less a mystery, no less the object of confusion, no less deserving of bumbling responses.  And so with that, Lord please bless the speaking and hearing of this word.

Today as a congregation we affirmed the authority of scripture in this place and beyond.  Consider for example some of today’s bumper sticker theology:

  • BIBLE: Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth
  • Or how about this one: “If your Bible is falling apart, chances are that your life is staying together.”
  • Oh, and there’s the church sign that says, “Get off Facebook and get into my book. – God”

I think if they would have had bumper stickers in the 16th century, the early Anabaptists would have had pasted these to the covers of their Bibles.  The Bible, or scripture, or the “Word of God” has long held an esteemed place in our Mennonite theological imagination.  The Word becomes through all, in all, above all.

In many ways this reverence for scripture was the trademark of the Protestant Reformation that began in the first half of the sixteenth century, nearly 500 years ago.  Religious reformers began to pull away from the comprehensive authority of the Roman Catholic Church, insisting that scripture alone was the authority for faith.  Anyone could read scripture; anyone could meet God in the Bible; anyone could interpret the mysteries of the faith.

The early Anabaptists were the most radical of the breakaway groups, insisting even more stringently on the literal authority of scripture for faith and life.  One of the early leaders, Menno Simons, for whom we Mennonites are named wrote in 1539-40, “No one of a rational mind will be so foolish as to deny that the whole Scriptures, both the Old and New Testament, were written for our instruction, admonition, and correction, and that they are the true scepter and rule by which the Lord’s kingdom, house, church, and congregation must be ruled and governed.”  He goes on to say, “Everything contrary to Scripture, therefore, whether it be doctrines, beliefs, sacraments, worship, or life, should be measured by this infallible rule.”  (from Foundation of Christian Doctrine)  The Word becomes infallible rule.

Menno Simons understood his life, his personhood, his experiences in the world through the framework of scripture.  And other Anabaptists did as well, literally immersing their lives in the biblical texts.  As the stories go, untrained lay brethren easily matched wits with trained doctors of theology who questioned them about scripture.  Some folks made it their goal to memorize one hundred chapters of the New Testament, which is equivalent to Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Philippians, Colossians, and 2 Timothy.  Really – can you imagine?   Indeed profound affirmations of the authority of scripture are writ large on our history as a people.

But a recent article in our denomination’s monthly periodical describes a vastly different Mennonite biblical landscape.  Mennonite professors lament decreasing biblical literacy among their incoming college students, students who don’t know the story, how the pieces of our sacred scripture fit together.  Young people, or maybe all people are not receiving the comprehensive biblical formation needed to carry on the Biblicism, the reverence for scripture of those who have come before.  Some would say it’s the end of our faith as we know it.

And no wonder, for the Bible looks different than it used to.  Thanks to a couple of centuries of biblical scholarship, we know that the Bible was composed over many years by many authors from many different places.  We know that none of the original manuscripts exist today and that many of the first manuscripts were the second or third version of oral histories, each account tweaked or adapted in some way.  We know that different, even contradictory perspectives are captured in these texts. not to mention the books that didn’t make it into the Bible, not to mention the fact that the canon, our 66 books of scripture, was not set until the year 367, nearly three hundred years after the latest book was written.  And besides all these textual and canonical and historical inconsistencies and puzzles, there are the theological ones:

Our sacred scripture, our beloved Bible, our rule for faith and life has decisively patriarchal narratives, stories of colonialism and domination, religious exclusivism and persecution of those who think or believe differently.  It is at times homophobic, racist, xenophobic, and exceedingly violent.  At other times it is baffling, and that at worst – at absolute worst, it seems irrelevant, with nothing to say for our time and this place.  The Word becomes oppressive, the Word becomes dangerous, the Word becomes disconnected from our experiences as human beings.

There are certainly biblical scholars, theologians, and otherwise devoted people some in our midst today, who dig into the text with profound wisdom, who sort through these difficulties for the keys to our faith.  But for many of us, when we look at the formation of our sacred scriptures, and when we hold up our biggest questions to them, these sacred Words of God don’t seem so sacred.  They don’t seem inspired.  They don’t even seem like they matter.  In fact, our anxious response is often to disengage, to shut down and stop asking the questions, to leave the Bible to the experts and to turn to something that seems more immediate and more important for our lives.

Do we give up on the Bible?  Do we look for a better book?  Do we cut out the disturbing parts?  Do we simply hang on to our favorite themes and discard the rest?  Is it the end of our biblical faith as we once knew it?  What’s a modern Mennonite to do?

This morning may I suggest that we start again at the beginning.

John chapter one: In the beginning there was the Word; the Word was in God’s presence, and the Word was God.  The Word was present to God from the beginning.  Through the Word all things came into being…  Through the Word was life and the Word took on flesh.

From the very beginning, words were important.  In the first creation account, Genesis chapter 1, in the beginning God created by speaking words: “And God said, ‘Let the be light..’  And there was light.”  Words, these words of ours are important.

John chapter one again – In the beginning there was the Word.  Through the Word was life and the Word took on flesh.  You know what happens when Words take on flesh.  When the eternal is thrust into the temporal, when ideas and dreams fall into reality and the text comes off the page.  You know that flesh covers bones and muscles, which break and scrape and tear.  Flesh is something you feel with your own hands and see with your own eyes.  Word become flesh doubts and cries and bleeds and later is crucified.

We are people of the Word.  Without the Word, we are not a people.  Our scripture is not sacred and authoritative because each letter and verse is true or because it was dictated by the holy spirit or because it is a decree for how we should live.   The Bible is not a flesh free of scars or sins, and yes it is filled with contradictions.  Yet it is authoritative because from the beginning we came to it, and today to the Word we return, seeking a fresh interpretation.

Each time we open this sacred book the Word becomes again, for each time we open it our own flesh has changed, hearts that carry a new scar or souls that sing a new joy.  It is not what the Word becomes.  It is that it becomes again and again.  And each time we come, we are welcomed to come again, to pose a new question and let the spirit uncover a new possibility for interpretation.

The Word of God is more dynamic than we ever thought possible and more inclusive than we’ve been taught before.  The horizon of the text stretches from the 1st century to today and beyond.  And the Word still acts upon us as we look to Jesus as a model for discipleship, for thinking and acting in the world.  As we find comfort in the words of the Psalms or advice or instruction in one of Paul’s epistle or a story of justice in the prophets of old.  The Word still acts upon us we ask of it our most difficult questions and ask them again and again.  There’s some inspiration in this, something life-affirming here, something that encourages wholeness and brings us closer to our best forms of being together.

We are co-creators in this Word as with each interpretation it becomes flesh again.  No question is to great, no struggle too small – all that is required is that we come again to be the people of the Word.