A sermon preached by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Senior Minister, The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, Lent 1, February 29, 2004, dedicated to Tamara Roth-Alexander on her Leap Year Birthday and always to the glory of God!
(Part II of VIII in the Sermon Series "The Heart of Christianity")
Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Luke 8: 5-21
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock & our Salvation. Amen.
The Bible is the heart of our Christian tradition. No matter how you read it, no matter what you read in it, you and I are centered in this Good Book. Ultimately, we are centered in God, whom we come to know fully in Jesus Christ. But, God is known to people in other religions, in other ways. So, our mark of identity is the Bible. The Bible is a collection of sixty-six books, the compilation of which we call "the canon." These books contain history, prophecy, apocalyptic vision, wisdom, poetry, songs, stories, metaphors and inspiration written from the context of two historical communities - ancient Israel and the early Christian movement. All that is contained here was inspired by God and written and recorded over a period of several thousand years out of Judea-Christian communities.
Because we claim these texts to be the heart of our Christian tradition, grounded in the faith of the Hebrew people, the Bible is our sacred scripture. It is our sacred story. But, we read this book with historical, critical eyes. While we always acknowledge that it is "God's revealed truth" to human beings, we also believe that the canon of the Bible is related to time and place. It tells how these two communities of spiritual men and women saw the world in which they lived through the eyes of faith in a monotheistic God. God spoke to them and they shared this holy experience with one another. Through time, they share it with us now.
The Bible is the foundation document of our faith. Without it, the structure of our faith would fall. The Bible is our identity document. These stories and visions shape our sense of who we are and what gives meaning to our life in God. The Bible is our wisdom tradition, in the broadest sense of the word because it is concerned with two central questions: What is real? And how shall we live? (Drawn from Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, Harper and Row, 2003, pp. 45-47).
Along with the historical context, there is a metaphorical and sacramental nature to this holy text. Reading the Bible for its metaphorical meaning, means "more-than-literal" reading of this holy canon. In a negative way, one could say that metaphorical means, "nonliteral." However, I don't happen to believe that this true. Instead, I believe reading the metaphorical meaning of the text adds to the literal meaning of the text. For example, when Jesus says in the text, "I am the door" he is obviously speaking metaphorically. The door is a metaphor for the way into the heart of God. Jesus symbolically represents the way to God. He doesn't become a vertical wooden slab that swings in or out. Metaphor is truth in the Bible. In the words of a Swedish proverb, "Theology is poetry plus, not science minus." (Ibid., p. 50). Metaphor adds to meaning. Following this belief, we can see that biblical/theological language is more like poetic language than factual language, but that doesn't mitigate against its truth for us. Because it has metaphoric value and power, doesn't mean it is inferior language. I contend that metaphorical value can be more than literal in its truth and power for us. As a Catholic priest once said in a sermon, "The Bible is true, and some of it happened." Another way to put it is stated by a Native American storyteller as he began his tribe's story of creation, "Now I don't know if this happened this way or not, but I know this story is true." (Ibid., p. 51)
When speaking of metaphorical versus literal interpretation, I can't help but talk about Mel Gibson's new film "The Passion of the Christ." It is too tempting to pass over Mel Gibson's epic new offering of visual, artistic metaphor. As some of you know, I went to see the film when it opened on Ash Wednesday. I represented the Christian clergy on a four-person team taken to the film by The Columbus Dispatch's, Religion reporter, Dennis Mahoney. I was joined by a rabbi, a Protestant laywoman, and a Roman Catholic Seminarian. Dennis then produced a Page one piece for Thursday's paper. As well, Channel 10 listened in and broadcast some of my comments on their early news on Wednesday.
No matter what else I have to say about this film, I will tell you this truth - it is visual metaphorical telling of the last twelve hours of the life and ultimately the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. Biblical texts and other Catholic mystical writings are drawn upon to produce Gibson's cinema-graphic version of the Passion of the Christ. That said, I can't tell you how many ignorant comments I have heard, either directly or quoted to me from friends and family, who have reported people saying, "This film is the literal truth of the Gospel story." Friday, I was in the office at Sarah's school and one of the conservative Christian teachers said, "Our church is going to see this because it is God's truth revealed through Holy Scripture now put to film." Needless to say, I did not remain silent. I am absolutely bowled over that Christians who call themselves "biblical literalists" showing their biblical ignorance by saying such things as this about the film. And if you haven't heard this already, I am afraid you will hear it in the office and your schools on Monday morning! Don't let such craziness go unchallenged! In the crusading name of Jesus, these comments make Christians look stupid. And with the way the Jews are portrayed in this film, I believe such ignorance also serves as the seedbed for prejudice against Jews today.
"The Passion of the Christ" is many things (and give me an hour and I will share some of those things!) but it is not God's biblical truth brought to the big screen. At most, perhaps 75% of the film is drawn from Mel Gibson's interpretation of the Passion narratives in the four gospels. The rest comes from other sources. Whatever the case, this is film is unquestionably a powerful, visual metaphorical or "more-than-literal" interpretation of the final 12 hours of Jesus' life. Now, Back to the Bible . . .
My final point is that the Bible is also sacramental. "A sacrament is a finite, physical, visible mediator of the sacred, a means whereby he sacred becomes present to us. A sacrament is a vehicle or vessel for the sacred" (Ibid, p. 57). For Christians, a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of inward means of God's grace. Sacraments serve as doors to the sacred. Baptism and Holy Communion are the two sacraments we embrace in which simple elements of water, bread, and grape juice or wine, are transformed in meaning for us through the power of the Holy Spirit and become means through which Christ becomes present to us. We say that Christ is "in, with, and under" the bread and wine and through these elements, "we remember him."
Similarly, the Bible functions sacramentally. In private devotions, in public worship, we allow the Word of God to move in, with, under, and through us. We are fed by the Bible's language. In fact, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Book of Revelation speak of "eating the words of the Bible." One prayer speaks of the words of the Bible, "Grant us, O Lord, so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them." The Bible becomes nourishment for our journey of faith. When we speak of two primary means of grace in the Christian faith, we speak of Word and Sacrament.
So the Bible is historical, metaphorical, and sacramental. Having said this, I am sad to add that many who follow Jesus do not read the Bible this way. They read it as the absolute, literal Word of God. Now, I won't spend time in this sermon challenging this biblically literal interpretation and why I believe in can't ultimately be true, but I do believe when we open the Bible, we are fortunate to read it with open eyes and open minds. And I believe we should be fearless in approaching Biblical texts in this spirit, which is historical metaphorical and sacramental.
Ultimately, it is not how we read, but how we respond to the Bible that makes all the difference a process that has been going on for hundred's of years. In the mid-19th Century, one of the lights of our Congregational tradition, Henry Ward Beecher, wrote this metaphorical description of the Bible, its meaning for our lives:
The Word of God tends to make large-minded, noble-hearted people . . . The Bible is God's chart for you to steer by, to keep you from the bottom of the sea, and to show you where the harbour is, and how to reach it without running on rocks and bars . . . Sink the Bible to the bottom of the ocean and man's obligations to God would be unchanged. He would have the same path to tread, only his lamp and his guide would be gone; he would have the same voyage to make, only his compass and chart would be overboard.
God's word is a lamp for our feet and a light for our path. It is compass and the chart for our voyage of faith. We must never neglect it and we must always enter it with open hearts and minds, with eyes made for heaven and with curiosity of divine intent. And the Bible's power and presence is all around us!
Look around. If you want to know who built First Church, the answer is simple. The Bible built this Cathedral of Grace. Towering above this sanctuary, the days of Creation call us to the beginning of faith in Genesis. And this west transept window, calls us to the end of scriptural faith in the Book of Revelation. High above us the Beginning and the End, the Alpha and the Omega call to us from the pages of Holy Scripture in the vision of glorious art. In the windows to the east and west, the parables of Jesus bring to life the metaphorical wonders of God's Word.
In the chancel, behind me - the Jeffrey Window - bears the words of Hebrew and Greek cast upon the pages of the Bible. Surrounding the Ascending Christ, the risen Lord of the Universe, the Word of God carries Him to Heaven! And just below the Ascending Risen Lord, in the middle of this beautiful sea of blue glass, the symbols of the Gospel writers Matthew, Mark, Luke and John - embrace Jesus the Healer and Teacher - our Savior and our model of faith. All the other windows tell of his coming, his teaching, his preaching, his healings, his exorcisms, his redeeming the world and each our lives through his saving Grace. Interestingly, his passion and crucifixion do not appear in these windows. We focus our faith on his resurrection power! The empty cross hanging over the communion table calls us to live lives full of resurrection faith!
Finally, the stones cut to fit this Cathedral of Grace were inspired by the Word of God - the Bible - as well. They stand for the rock upon which we grow in faith. These stones cry out to us to remember the roots of our faith. They cry to us for justice in this city. They cry to us to live lives worthy of the rock of salvation, even Christ Jesus our Lord. They cry to us to remember God's word and to live faithful lives in God's name. They are cut from the earth that was established before the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us. They cry to us, as does this entire Cathedral of Grace, to remember God's Word and keep it holy. Amen.
Copyright 2004, The First Congregational Church
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