Sunday, January 30, 2011

Means of Grace III: Scripture Study

1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Matthew 5:1-12

Every moment of every day we are teaching someone something, and every moment of every day we are learning something from someone - whether we are consciously aware or not. I think there can be no exception to this rule and I also think if there is an exception to this rule, there is a complete disconnect from reality. What we are teaching and what we are learning, however, is often the difference between what we know about our culture and the larger society in which we live - and what we know about the Lord. And what we know about the Lord is intimately and directly related to how much time and effort we invest in the study of Scripture.

Regardless of what we may think we know to be true, there is no one born "just knowing" anything. Those who have studied to become engineers, for instance, spent hours upon hours studying math and science. Those who studied to become attorneys invested at least as many hours studying the law. Those who study medicine invest a lifetime in the study, practice, and art of healing. This endeavor alone is, quite literally, the difference between life and death and requires mountains of books. These students and practitioners immerse themselves completely in these mountains of books in their devotion to preserving life and cheating death, the knowledge and faith in doing so coming from so many books and years of instruction.

There is one Book, however; actually a collection of books within one volume that teaches about Eternal Life and absolutely defeats death, the knowledge and faith coming from this one, single volume but also with years of instruction, a lifetime devotion. This collection of books is the single, most widely published volume in the entire world because it is the single, most widely purchased collection of books in the entire world. Ironically, it is also the single, most widely neglected collection of books in the entire world. This collection of books bound in a single volume is, of course, the Bible.

It is the Holy Scripture, the religious canon (or law), the very voice of the Living God. It is the divine Voice that tells the story of redemption from Genesis to The Revelation. It tells the many stories of human failure upon human failure, yet it also tells us the stories of how these same people - in spite of their failures - were able to reach far beyond their own human capacities. It teaches us through the failures of these same people throughout human history that in the midst of the most profound despair and the most colossal failures, we may still dare to have and to share hope.

Many contemporary interpretations have suggested that these books, written thousands of years ago, are little more than "antiquities" written specifically for people of "antiquity". There are suggestions that these books give us a glimpse of the past but have no real application for the present and no real use for the future.

Well, I happen to agree.
• I agree that the Bible is useless for all those who read it with preconceived expectations and personal demands.
• I agree that the Bible is useless for those who are not willing to read with an open mind and an open heart.
• I agree that the Bible is useless for those many who see no need to study the Scripture in fellowship as a supplement to private study and prayer.
• I agree that the Bible is useless for those who are interested in no opinions or perspectives other than their own.
• And I absolutely agree that the Bible as a tool and as a means for spiritual transformation is useless to those who see no need for personal, spiritual transformation.

So what is the Bible good for? It is good for "doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient and equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

In the book, Mapping Christian Education, essayist and professor of educational ministry Elizabeth Caldwell, points to the process of Christian education as similar to that of "homemaking".
• The home is our sanctuary.
• It is our safe place.
• It is where we are most comfortable, where we are nurtured and corrected, where we are comforted and admonished.
• The home is where we are related, fed, and made whole.
• It is where we are intimately connected in spite of those things that may potentially separate us.
• The home is where we emphasize the connectedness rather than the divisiveness.
• The home is where guests are welcome and encouraged to make themselves "at home" as we strive to make them feel "at home" - that is "radical hospitality".
• Home is the place where "growing" is central and entirely dependent on the support structure and the values instilled.
• But the home is also the place in which habits are formed by experiential environments and learning models. This is to say, it must necessarily be where interaction - not pontification - is encouraged and practiced without fear and without reproach.
• Home is the place where every soul has a genuine stake in the nurture, support, and upkeep of the home.

It is by and through this process and environment of "homemaking" that the study of Scripture comes nearer to functioning as the "means of grace" disciples need most because this is where we should feel safe. We recognize our differences, but we also acknowledge that we are in the presence of our Master, our Teacher, and our Holy Father. We realize and appreciate His ultimate authority, but we also remember that Jesus loved to teach by parables. Why? Because He surely knew such parables would provoke questions but would also have real, practical application. He needed us to know that everyday living is everyday theology, that everything we do and everything we say is theological - that is, we are intimately connected with the Lord through His Word in daily living. Or we are not.

It is too bad that in efforts to "beat back" secular or liberal or humanist challenges to religious ideals and values, we have chosen to use the Bible as a "weapon" of force rather than as a "means of grace". While it is true enough, as written in 2 Timothy, that Scripture is divinely inspired specifically for "instruction and correction", it is equally true that the world is filled with people, Christians and non-Christians alike, who are victimized, mistreated, and oppressed - whether they are believers or not.

While Jesus seems to emphasize persecution for His followers at the hands of those who did then - and still do now - oppose Him, we should not overlook the many who suffer equally through oppression and loss. Clearly Jesus is teaching us something through these so-called "Beatitudes", and it is equally clear that as we are comforted by the Word we are also called forth by that same Word. The "inner" part of our being is being transformed by Scripture study, but the transformation must necessarily manifest itself in outward expression - to comfort those who mourn, to fill those who are thirsty and hungry, to be merciful toward those who do not know what mercy looks like.

It must necessarily be the same transformation which took place in the early Church after Pentecost when new believers "continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship" (Acts 2:42). In other words, new believers didn't just "make things up" as to whatever seemed best to suit their individual preferences - and as a result of this hunger and this faith, the Church flourished, and THOUSANDS were added to the ranks of the baptized faithful.

Jesus is making promises to those who will listen to Him but if we were to dare listen more carefully, we would hear Jesus saying that the time of fulfillment of these promises is much nearer than we might think - and that the point of fulfillment will come at the hands of the faithful whose outward expression of the inner transformation will burst forth! But if none of this comes about, if there is no inner transformation and no outward expression of such transformation, then the Bible is reduced to "ancient literature" and can be filed on a shelf near Plato's Republic ... useful and interesting, but not necessary.

I was recently trying to answer a theology question for an 11-year-old, and I have to say it was probably the hardest thing I've ever tried to do. Not only did I have to adjust my language, but I finally had to realize there is no way that important question can be answered in one or two statements. It was a loaded theological question with broad implications. I finally came to realize it is ok for me to stop at a particular point in order to be age-appropriate, but the lesson must not stop there ... for this child OR for me because while the answer was adequate for the moment and the stage of spiritual development, it must also be a moment that moves into the next ... perpetually.

In order for the study of Scripture to serve as the necessary "means of grace", we have to be fully engaged not only in receiving but in connecting beyond ourselves. Grace comes only from the Lord - not from any book, not even the Bible. But the Bible is His instruction, His Law, His unmistakable Voice. Thinking, speaking, and acting outside of what is written for our edification and for the building up of the Holy Church means we are left with little else than to listen to other voices, many voices, conflicting voices ... until we are finally left confused and alienated; fully connected to the vain wisdom of the world, but alienated from the divine Voice and source of all wisdom.

Holy Scripture is our connection to our past, our present, our future - because it is our connection to our Lord. It is necessary for spiritual growth. Like Holy Communion and Confirmation, it is most appropriately shared not only for building up the individual disciple but also for building up and uniting the Church as the Body of Christ. It is by experiential learning - that is, interaction - that discipleship begins to make sense. It is where the journey of faith begins - within the Church - and it is where the journey of faith is passed from one generation to the next. Absent this intimate connection, the Gospel of the Lord, the Word of the Living God, is but one generation from extinction.

Everyone needs someone. I may not agree with each of you on a particular point of doctrine but I need you in order to continue to grow, and you need me for the same reason. But above all else, the unbelieving world needs the INFORMED and UNIFORM Body of Christ. One God, One Lord, One Word, One Church. To the Glory of our Holy God and Father and to the "comfort of those who mourn", to "fill those who are hungry for righteousness", through Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

1 comment:

C.E. Bulice said...

I can think of two things:
sola scriptura
"As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another" (Proverbs 27:17).
We do need each other to grow in faith, strength and grace.