How to Interpret the Bible for a Revitalized Gospel Message

September 2022

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

It’s time to rev things back up for the Fall! This month we will be restarting confirmation classes for our six middle school students and also adult education. I’d like to say more about the latter.

If we are to revitalize our Christian message for the sake of mission, and of growing our ministry, then we adults need to relearn some things that we learned in our youth. At a time of great challenge in the church, we need to ‘up our game.’ This means that adult ed is as important, or even more important, than teaching our youth and children. Luther wrote his catechism for adults, so that they could be better teachers to their children. His was a time like ours for revitalizing the Christian message, so that meant relearning a number of things.

Our adult class this Fall will be studying a book about refreshing the way we read the Bible: Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God: The Scandalous Truth of the Very Good News. The author Brian Zahnd is a long-time pastor who himself went through a conversion of how to read the Bible — how to understand the Christian message anew. This book tells the story in a personal way of understanding basic messaging in fresh ways that carry the church forward from its current doldrums. It resonates with my own personal story of conversion, and I hope this class can be an occasion for telling our stories, asking the right questions, and seeking new answers together. We’ll meet on Sunday mornings at about 10:30 am, after the Friendly Moments coffee hour begins to wind down.

Let me say a bit more about relearning to read the Bible. What do we mean when we say that something is “biblical”? I think one of the main ways we were taught to read the Bible is akin to using an encyclopedia. We have a topic or issue, and then we look it up to find it addressed somewhere in the Bible. This has been our common approach to finding answers which are “biblical.” Or maybe it’s been somewhat like using law books. We seek to find similar cases that give us the ‘precedent’ we need to declare our position as “biblical.” The problem is that the Bible is quite different in nature from either a set of encyclopedias (now online!) or law library. We’ve used this approach for issues like slavery (and many issues since then!) and found it to come up way short. Trying to use the Bible to declare what’s “biblical” about slavery found ‘precedent’ for both pro-slavery and abolitionist positions. What was needed was to understand the Bible’s story more wholistically in order to see that the Bible is definitely leading us on a path away from the evils of slavery.

It’s now by-and-large understood that being against slavery is “biblical,” but how? How did we finally come to that understanding? I think that we can only come to such conclusions by understanding the Bible as something fundamentally different from an encyclopedia or law book. I’ve come to see it more like a great saga that leads to a ‘moral of the story.’ The Bible is the centuries-long story of God leading God’s people on a journey of discovery of great import for both theology and anthropology — a long journey to discover both who God is and who we are. We find that God is a loving God, not an angry God — a theme implied in the title of Brian Zahnd’s book as it riffs on the title to a famous American sermon by Jonathon Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” God is fundamentally a loving God, not an angry God. The Bible is, at the same time, the story of the loving God leading us human beings on a journey to discover who we are and, most importantly, who God created us to be. For example, we have finally discovered, after centuries of wrongly enslaving others, that we are not meant to enslave one another! Period. Understanding what may be “biblical” only comes through understanding the story as a whole, with God’s Word through Jesus Christ as the key to open those wholistic interpretations to us.

There are many examples of what I mean, but let me close with another thing we will be doing this Fall: spending a number of weeks, beginning September 18, reflecting on stewardship. (The stewardship sermons: Sept 18, Proper 20C; Sept 25, Proper 21C; Oct 2, Proper 26C; Oct 9, Proper 23C.) Genesis 1-2 shows us how God created us in God’s image to help care for the earth and for one another. Otherwise known as stewardship. Across the church, the harvest time of Autumn has traditionally been a time of reflecting on our stewardship. It is a good time to think through what it means to give of our first fruits to God, the source of all our bounty. Traditionally, this includes how we support our joint ministry in God’s name. What time, treasure, and talents might we lend to the ministry we share together here at Bethlehem — but done so in the context of our wider call to be stewards of our families and God’s family. In short, stewardship is fundamental to understanding the long journey of discovering both who God is and who God created us to be.

It’s time to rev things back up at church! See you for confirmation, or adult ed, and for Sunday worship on the theme of stewardship. Join us at church!

Peace, Pastor Paul

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