Last Monday at my class, “My Neighbor is Muslim,” we talked about violence in Christianity and Islam. And one of the exercises was a worksheet with 30 different quotes that people were invited to decipher whether they came from the Bible or the Quran. After giving people a few minutes to look through the list and mark which one they thought each quote came from, I asked them to count up the ones they thought were from the Bible and tell me how many they came up with. That’s when someone in the front of the room looked up, somewhat hiding behind the worksheet, and said, “All of them?”
Well, gratefully it wasn’t all of them— half were from the Quran and half were from the Bible. But we could have easily found 30 verses in the Bible that no one here this morning would want to hear. There are verses about killing people who don’t keep the Sabbath; about killing people who live in the land God promised the Israelites; verses about chopping off body parts that are causing us to sin. And yet I bet none of you came today worried about how you might be punished by God for your sin. How is that possible?
The authors of our church-wide book study book, “If Grace is True,” talk about how it is that we weigh Scripture. We sometimes weight scripture unconsciously— having our favorite psalms that we find comfort in and recite to ourselves rather than some of the other psalms that yell hatred at their enemies. And sometimes we weigh scripture consciously— choosing to listen when Jesus says that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, and soul, and strength and to love our neighbor as ourself. You can’t have a “greatest commandment” if all scripture is to be looked at equally, right?
But of course the idea of “weighing” scripture, also gets messy pretty quickly. After all, who gets to decide which verses are more important?
If you grew up in a more Evangelical church, you may be wondering how we can even be talking about this in church. There are many churches out there that believe in the inerrancy of Scripture— meaning that all of Scripture has the same weight because it all was written by God directly and we are not supposed to interpret Scripture.* This is not, however, how United Methodists understand Scripture. In our Book of Discipline, which is the guidebook for Methodists, it says in paragraph 105,
“We properly read Scripture within the believing community, informed by the tradition of that community.”
In other words, the Bible really only makes sense when read within a community of faith. It is not a historical text; it is not a book of rules; it is a sacred text and can only be understood within community that understands it as sacred.
“We interpret individual texts in light of their place in the Bible as a whole.”
In other words, you can’t take out one verse and use it for your own gain. All of the verses of Scripture have a cultural context and a Biblical context, and need to be understood within those contexts.
“We are aided by scholarly inquiry and personal insight, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. As we work with each text, we take into account what we have been able to learn about the original context and intention of that text. In this understanding we draw upon the careful historical, literary, and textual studies of recent years, which have enriched our understanding of the Bible.”
So we can use our brains, historical contextual information, and what we know about our lives to help us understand the Bible.
“While we acknowledge the primacy of Scripture in theological reflection, our attempts to grasp its meaning always involve tradition, experience, and reason. “
The Bible is sacred to us; we recognize that everything we need to know for our own salvation is within it. But we also know that we must bring the tradition of the church with us when we read it; we must bring our brains and the reason God has given us to help us understand it and what it means for us today; and we also need to reflect on our own experience of the Holy Spirit and how that affects how we understand scripture.
Which is why, this morning, I want to look at God’s grace through three different lenses that people often use to read Scripture. All three of these lenses are perfectly valid; all three are faithful; all three show us a different side of God’s character and grace.
The first one is the “Fall” narrative. You hear this in the reading from Genesis when God tells Adam that he should not eat from the fruit of the tree of knowledge in the garden of Eden or else he will die.
This theme throughout Scripture is focused on the sinfulness of humanity. We began in the garden where God had created everything for us, and unfortunately Adam and Eve couldn’t follow the directions— chose to willfully break the one rule there was— so all of humanity was flawed from that moment on. In this theme throughout the Bible, which isn’t hard to point out since you can see it every time someone does something against the will of God, people keep failing and God keeps saving us and then when Jesus comes and dies and rises from the dead, Jesus saves us from ourselves.
Using this lens, God’s grace is abundant and also limited. You’ll notice that God tells Adam that he will die if he eats of the fruit in the garden of Eden, and guess what? Adam doesn’t die. So either God was lying to Adam, or else God’s grace extended even beyond what God thought it would. There is a limit, in that Adam and Eve are banished from the garden; but they do not die. There is a significant limit on what God can do and accomplish because of human sin, and yet God finds a way anyway through Jesus. So God is limited because of our freewill, and yet God’s grace is determined and relentless to make sure there’s a way for us to be in relationship with God.
The second narrative lens that you can pick out in Scripture really easily is that of covenant. This narrative shows up clearly in the story of Abraham and Sarah who are told by God that they will have a child named Isaac and that they will be blessed and he will be blessed and from now on their family will be the reason that the whole earth is blessed because God will make a covenant with them. You see this theme of covenant even before Abraham and Sarah— as God makes a covenant with Noah after the flood— and it continues on repeatedly through the prophets and then through Jesus as God’s covenant with us is sealed in a new way through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and then another covenant of sorts is made when Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit will come upon those early followers to create and build up the church.
Using the lens of covenant, human sin is not as powerful. God still gives us freewill, but the emphasis is on God’s side of the covenant— because God knows that we often won’t live up to our side. So even though Abraham screws up time and time again; even though many of his descendants don’t even recognize this God, God keeps calling them and reminding them of the covenant and God’s grace is abundant in fulfilling that covenant. In Jeremiah we read that God is now going to write the covenant on our hearts because God gets tired of us not understanding it. So in this lens the covenant is rewritten time and time again and the coming of Christ rewrites it again and the Holy Spirit rewrites it again and it seems that God is really willing to just keep throwing grace at us so that we will be in relationship with God.
The third major narrative in scripture, is that of liberation through the story of Moses and the Exodus. Historically speaking, it is a common perception that Moses’ community— those that were freed from slavery and began a new life as God’s people in the wilderness— are the ones who actually wrote down all that came before them in the Bible. That this community of slaves is the one that knew the stories of Adam and Eve and Abraham and Sarah and all the rest, and eventually wrote them down for us to know them today. So it is thought by some theologians that this event of the Exodus— of being brought out of slavery into freedom to serve God in the wilderness—that forms the first community of believers and really gives a much broader community, rather than one family, the identity of being God’s people— and in so doing, begins this theme of liberation that happens throughout Scripture as well. That when we get to the New Testament and experience the life of Jesus, that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection liberates us from the powers that be in our world, from the corruption of humanity, from all that keeps us from God, freeing us up through resurrection and defeat over death, to serve God freely and fully.
Using this lens of liberation, we see a God who favors the oppressed and the enslaved. We hear Jesus’ words that he is here to bring sight to the blind; the let the oppressed go free; to announce the day of jubilation. This lens is empowering because it tells those in our world who have no power, that God is on their side and that those of us who have power need to be responsible and just in how we use that power. God’s grace is abundant because it is freely given to those who know no grace in this life from anyone else. But there is also a definite edge to that grace. Pharaoh and his army are drowned in the Red Sea. Although when Jesus faces the ultimate oppression of the powers that be in his world, through being beaten and crucified publicly, the words he offers from the cross are, “Father, forgive them…” And some of the first Gentile followers of Jesus with the beginning of the church are Roman centurions— those who were in the role of carrying out persecution and crucifixion.
The Bible repeatedly shows us what God’s grace looks like. When we, as people, are always asking, “Where is God?” and “Who is God?” God always seems to know us. One of the best known phrases in the Old Testament is that God is a God that is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Where are the boundaries of that grace? Who’s in and who’s out? That’s trickier to know. Because God seems to always be making exceptions. And maybe that’s our best course of action in this life— to always make exceptions.
Jesus said plainly, “‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
We are called to extend God’s grace to every one. Every one. For we worship a God who is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked; who is merciful and loving. And even though that is hard to swallow sometimes, I am grateful for that grace.
*In 1977, the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI) was established to "clarify and defend the doctrine of biblical inerrancy." Under its auspices, during 1978, over 300 evangelical scholars met and signed the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. The Dallas Theological Seminary describes the statement as "... probably the first systematically comprehensive, broadly based, scholarly, creed–like statement on the inspiration and authority of Scripture in the history of the church." 1