Message from April 29, 2018
By Rev. Shawn Coons
“I want to believe in God, but…” Week 2 of our series. Last week we heard what I think may be arguably the most honest and sincere prayer in the Bible, “I believe, help my unbelief.” We heard that many Christians, today and throughout history have had doubts, questions, skepticism and objections to parts of Christian faith.
And do you remember what I said about those objections, and what I said about God?
Don’t dismiss your objections easily, *and* don’t dismiss God easily.
Your objections to God are important. When you have objections, doubts, questions, it is not a sign of weak belief or too little faith. It is a sign of just the opposite, it is a sign that you are engaging your faith. So don’t dismiss your objections easily.
But likewise, don’t dismiss God easily. Don’t just walk away thinking because you have questions, because there are inconsistencies or paradoxes, that all this God stuff must be made up.
“I want to believe in God, but..” Over the next few weeks we will cover several buts. I want to believe in God but…
…I prayed and it didn’t work.
…what kind of God lots all this suffering happen?
...I’ve never felt God’s presence, I’ve never felt God is there.
But this morning we are going to tackle an objection that I believe is at the heart of many other objections to Christian faith. I want to believe in God, but…there’s too much in the Bible that isn’t true. There’s too much of the Bible that’s made up, or outdated, or event worse there’s too much in the Bible that is harmful and destructive.
I want to believe in God, but how can I when the authoritative book about God, some would even say by God, how can I believe when parts of the Bible may not be true?
Some of you may be wondering, “what parts of the Bible aren’t true?” In my experience and conversation people point to a number of different passages from scripture. The creation story, how it happened the time frame in which it happened, miracles in the Bible, demons in the Bible, passages in the Old and New Testament where God seems to encourage, condone or even commit violence. Passages in scripture that support discrimination, sexism, racism, slavery, homophobia.
We’ll get to other examples but let me put forth a pretty basic one.
Psalm 137 begins with a lament of the Israelites who have been conquered in war, taken from their homeland and forced to live in exile in Babylon. The psalmist speaks of how their Babylonian captors torment and mock them. The Babylonians are shouting at them, “Sing us a song of Zion! Sing us a song of your home.” And the Israelites answer with sadness, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”
But then the psalmist goes on to write:
8 O daughter Babylon, you devastator!*
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
9 Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!
This is the Word of the Lord?
Did you get that? The Bible is talking about joyfully killing the babies of the enemies of Israel. Most people would read that and ask how that can really be from God?
I want to believe, but there’s too much in the Bible that isn’t true.
Ok, let’s get real for a moment. In many ways, this is one of the most important issues in all of Christianity. How do we interpret the Bible? Is the Bible true? Do we take the Bible literally? Do we take the Bible seriously? Is it possible to take the Bible both literally and seriously?
Chances are, if two Christians, or two Christian churches, or two Christian denominations are arguing or disagreeing over some theological or matter of doctrine, it can be simplified to a disagreement about the Bible, how to interpret it, and what the Bible even is.
So this is where we are going to start. And we are going to start “In the beginning,” not with Genesis, but with the passage from the beginning of the gospel of John. John 1:1-9. Often in our Christian tradition, and many others, we refer to the Bible as the Word of God or sometimes just the Word. In the passage we are about to hear, the author will refer to the Word, but won’t be referring to the Bible. So listen to see who or what the author is referring to with “the Word.”
1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life,* and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.*
Who or what is “the Word?” In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. Well, the Word is apparently a who. A who who was with God from the beginning, a who who was God. It becomes clear fairly quickly in the gospel that the Word is Jesus.
This is a fundamental belief of our Christian tradition, that when we speak of the Word of God we are first and foremost talking about Jesus? So what does that mean. If we had more time we could go into the Greek word used here, Logos, and it’s relationship to Greek philosophy, as well as a belief system at the time called Gnosticism, which had a dualistic view of a world divided between flesh and spirit, and also involved a secret experiential knowledge. But that’s probably not the best use of our time.
So instead let’s talk about a Christian understanding of revelation. And I mean that with a lower case r, not the book of the Bible, Revelation. One of the most important beliefs of our faith is that God has chosen to communicate with us, and that communication happens through revelation, through God choosing ways of making God’s self known to us. And we often say there are three main ways God has chosen to be revealed to us:
1. Through Jesus
2. Through the Bible
3. Through the Christian community
These are in order of their fullness and completeness. The most full and complete revelation we have of who God is, is in the life and person of Jesus Christ. The next best revelation we have of who God is, is the stories of people who encountered Jesus and who encountered God, and this is the Bible. But the Bible is derivative, and I don’t mean that in a negative or condescending way, I mean the Bible is derived from people’s experiences of God, it is not direct from God.
So let’s pause there for a moment. Because what I just said is important, but it is also a matter of some Christian debate. In our Christian tradition, we do not take the entirety of the Bible to be the direct words of God, we believe the Bible is inspired by God through men and women who had real experiences with God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, but we don’t believe God dictated the Bible to those men and women.
So the Bible is a secondary source of revelation about God. We sometimes call the Bible the Word of God, but we don’t believe it is the exact words of God.
Let’s go back to our passage from John:
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
This passage is referring to John the Baptist, and it is making it clear that Jesus is the Light, Jesus is the Word, not those who testify, who speak, who share stories on his behalf. There is only one true light and one true Word and this is Jesus.
But here’s the thing. We don’t have direct access to Jesus any more. At least not in the way the people in scripture did. So even though theirs is a secondary witness, it is still a witness without parallel and a witness with authority.
In other words, Jesus is the best revelation we have of God, and the best way we have to know about Jesus is through the Bible, so we need to take it seriously.
So are we any closer to dealing with this week’s objection? I want to believe but what if parts of the Bible aren’t true? I think we are, because we’ve said that the Bible are people’s real accounts of their experiences with God, but not God’s direct words. So within that is the possibility that people will be people, and in that there is room for their biases, interpretations, and misinterpretations. In short, there is a chance that when people write or pass down their experiences with God, they will get something wrong or incomplete or hard to understand.
Well, how can we know what to believe in the Bible then? What do we do with a passage that we believe may be less than true to God. I’ve got a video I want us to watch that provides a couple answers to these questions. It’s a video by Christian author and speaker Brian McLaren.
I this idea of story being used as a theory to try to make sense of the world. It resonates with me. Someone thousands of years ago, experiences God as their source of protection from their enemies during a battle. So they tell a story of God taking their side against the enemy. It witnesses to their experience of a loving and protective God. God is loving, God is a source of protection. We can get behind that right?
But someone else comes along later and tries that story, that theory out. That God takes sides on the battlefield, that God helps me to fight my enemies, and that no longer tests out with their experience of God. So they tell their story of Jesus saying, love your enemies!
I like this idea for several reasons, first it invites us to understand why the problematic stories were told in the first place. Can we see the truth about God the storyteller was witnessing too? Do we think God wants us to kill the children of our enemies? No. But can we understand why someone who had been conquered, torn from their home in battle, and was a prisoner in a foreign land would tell a story of God intervening on their behalf? Can we understand and believe that God sides with the underdog and the marginalized?
We can listen for the truth witnessed to in a story, without having to embrace every part of the story.
But here’s the thing. This doesn’t mean that we get to pick and choose what stories what parts of stories we like and don’t like. When I was in seminary, Dr. Frances Taylor Gench was my New Testament professor, and I remember her telling us that when she was younger she took a scissors to her Bible and cut out the part in Ephesians that reads, “Wives obey your husbands.” Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? I can think of a few parts I’m ready to jettison.
But Dr. Taylor Gench said, she later realized she couldn’t do that. We can’t pretend the Bible is something different than it is. We must wrestle with the whole of the Bible, the good, the bad, and the ugly.
And that’s where our third source of revelation comes in. And that’s us. The church, the gathered community of faith. We believe that God is reveled to us, especially and most clearly when we are together seeking to understand God. This is why we pray, every time before we read scripture. Because we believe that the Spirit will be active in our midst helping us hear and listen and understand.
This is why we gather together in classes and Bible studies to read scripture but then turn to one another and say, “What do you think that means?” This is why we tell our own stories of how we have encountered God in our lives.
Let me close by reminding you:
Don’t dismiss your objections easily, *and* don’t dismiss God easily.
If you have problems with parts of the Bible, that’s OK. Don’t let go of that, but don’t let go of God. Instead wrestle with it, come together with other people like you who are wrestling with it. Share your stories, look for the truth you can find in the old stories, and if that’s not enough than write your own stories of encountering God for others to hear and believe.