From July 30, 2017
Rev. Shawn Coons
We’re on the home stretch of our Half-Truths series, where we look at sayings that are commonly associated with Christianity, often said by Christians, but when we examine these sayings we find that they aren’t quite as true or as Christian as they appear.
This morning, we are looking at “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”
And when we look at this saying at face value, I’m tempted to call it a whole truth. Taken simply, it’s hard to argue with. God said it. I believe it. That settles it. In the Presbyterian tradition we place a strong emphasis on the sovereignty of God. God is the ultimate power in the universe, the ultimate authority. God is our creator and the power and force within and throughout creation. So if God speaks, then who are we, who is anyone, to contradict God.
Furthermore, we believe that because of sin, because we are imperfect people, that are judgment is off. It’s not completely gone, or unreliable. But in our tradition we believe that we will make mistakes, we will choose the wrong course of action, believe things that are lies.
So if God says something, if God who is supreme tells us something, then we have no standing to say that God is wrong and we are right. God said it. I believe it. That settles it. It’s kind of like parenting. I think there comes a time for every mother, for every father, when they tell their child to do something. The child responds with, “Why?” and we could go into the details about why that’s the best thing for them to do right now, and eventually they will see that even if they don’t know. But instead when they say, “Why do I have to do that?” we respond with, “Because I said so.”
Now, I will be the first to admit that there are times when I have said that and it is simply because I didn’t want to argue, I said it just to end the discussion. But often for parents, we say that because we have years of experience and knowledge and living and we can see that what we’ve asked them to do is the best thing for them, but there is no way we can convince our children of that.
So when a mother tells her son “Because I said so” what she means is you’ll have to trust me and my authority that this is for the best, and someday you will understand why getting a tattoo of Rihanna on your face isn’t a great long-term decision.
In that sense, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it,” expresses something we need to keep in mind. As Christians there should be time where our Christian faith corrects us. There should be times where our natural instinct or decision is to do or say one thing, but when we think about how our faith guides us, we reconsider and change our course because of what God wants for us.
I’ve always liked this Peanuts cartoon, because I think it expresses a fundamental posture that Christians should take. “Has it ever occurred to you that you may be wrong?” We should constantly be measuring and adjusting and correcting what we do, what we say, how we spend our time and money, based on what our faith teaches.
When God speaks, we listen, and we obey. So God said it. That settles it. I believe it. How can that be a half-truth? I want to suggest to you that while the plain statement may be more true than not, how we use it often renders it half true (or less). So how does this get used?
If you are visiting today. If you don’t know much about Christianity and Christians, I want to let you in on a little secret. Sometimes Christians disagree with one another about matters of faith. There are times when we don’t see eye to eye on something, when well-meaning, faithful and intelligent questions disagree on matter of Christian practice or doctrine.
It can be about how we worship, God and politics, family life, marriage, abortion, capital punishment, or a whole host of other things. Many times, Christians discuss these differences well. We listen, we try to understand where the other person is coming from, we listen to how their experience and understanding of God and the Bible led them to believe what they believe. Other times, we trade talking points, sound bites, and Bible verses back and forth without really listening. And at some point, someone gets frustrated and says something like, “Well, that’s what the Bible says, and so I guess you don’t believe in the Bible.” Or “I’m sorry if you don’t like what Scripture says, but it’s right there on the page.” Or “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”
And that’s meant to be the end of the conversation. We’ve gone to the Bible and so there is no more room for discussion. But what if that’s not the way it’s supposed to be. Watch this video from Rachel Held Evans:
The Bible doesn’t always speak with one clear voice. How many thousands of Christian denominations do we have, that read various parts of the Bible differently? Now we are at the heart of the matter, how do we read the Bible? How can Christians disagree on what the Bible says? Isn’t God’s word written clearly and simply in the pages of scripture? Don’t we just have to read it, believe it, and that settles it?
Well, let’s get to our second lesson for today. This is from Mark chapter 2, and we join Jesus and his followers on the Sabbath. The Jewish Sabbath was a day of rest, instituted by God at creation in Genesis chapter 1, further rules for the Sabbath were written in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. And one of the biggest prohibitions for the Sabbath was work. It was well understood that God had said that no work whatsoever was to be done on the Sabbath. Food would be prepared ahead of time, just to avoid the need to get a meal ready this breaking the commandment not to work on the Sabbath.
Mark 2:23 One sabbath he was going through the cornfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?’25And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? 26He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.’ 27Then he said to them, ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; 28so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.’
Jesus is walking through the fields on the Sabbath, and he and his followers travel they pick grain to be used in their meal later. Tending to crops, picking food, that was work. That was a clear violation of what was laid out in Scripture. Or so it was thought. But Jesus offers a different interpretation of scripture, or possibly even a contradiction of scripture. He goes back to the creation story and says that God made humankind first and the sabbath second. He even references yet another part of Scripture were King David also went against “What God had said.”
Jesus does this in Matthew. He expands on scripture, reinterprets it when says a series of statements, “You have heard it said,” and then he quotes Jewish scripture. But then he says, “But I tell you,” and he offers a new interpretation of Scripture.
A simple fact of the Christian faith is that every Christian interprets scripture. No one reads the Bible literally. Jesus said things like “If your right eye causes you to sin then pluck it out.” “If you want to inherit eternal life you must sell everything you own and give it to the poor.” Paul said that women should remain silent in church, not braid there hair or wear gold jewelry. How many Christians do you know that take all those literally? I don’t know of any.
We all interpret scripture. So the problem with God said it. I believe it. That settles it. Is that the “God said it” part just isn’t that straightforward.
Some Christians have the idea that the Bible is God’s words dictated exactly to the authors. But in our tradition we believe that the Bible is inspired by God and God’s interactions with God’s people, but not God’s exact words. In our tradition we take the Bible seriously, but not literally. We don’t ask people to believe in the Bible, we ask people to believe in the God that the Bible points to.
So “God says it. I believe it. That settles it,” is only a half-truth, because first we have to spend time, and study, and prayer figuring out what God says, what the Bible says. And there are a number of ways of doing this, but in our Presbyterian tradition we do have some guidelines that we follow.
When determining what God is saying through scripture we always approach the Bible seeking to be guided by God’s Holy Spirit. Before every scripture reading in worship we offer a prayer for illumination. We understand that God did not stop speaking when these words were written 2000 years ago. God is still speaking and can speak to us and through us.
We also believe that scripture is best understood within a community. As we study scripture together and seek to hear from the Holy Spirit, we understand more clearly if we can bring multiple voices and perspectives to the Bible.
When looking at a particular Bible passage we also following the guideline that scripture interprets scripture. We don’t isolate a verse of the Bible and hold it up as true if the rest of Scripture says otherwise. Paul says women should be silent in church, but throughout the Bible women are raised up as teachers and leaders of faith. Jesus does this. He did it in our passage from today, he referenced the creation story, and the story of King David.
We study scripture in its historical context. We understand that the Bible was written thousands of years ago and thousands of miles away. It was set in a different culture and context. When Paul writes that slaves must obey their masters, we don’t take that literally, we realize that Paul was speaking in and to a different society.
There’s at least one more very important guideline for understanding scripture, and I want to go back to Rachel Held Evans to hear more about it.
When we study scripture to determine what it says for us today, how it should guide us and correct us, we interpret everything through the lens of Jesus and the rule of love. We always ask how does this particular interpretation of Scripture align with Jesus’ teaching and ministry? And will this interpretation bring about actions of love? If a particular interpretation of scripture brings harm or hatred, can it really be from God?
God said it. I believe it. That settles it. True at first reading, not so true as most often used. What if we reword it just a bit?
God speaks in many ways. Through love and prayer we do our best to listen and believe. We settle on our best understanding of God but remain open to God expanding or even correcting our understanding.
Not as catchy is it? Hard to fit on a bumper sticker. But as we heard earlier, the Bible shouldn’t be used to end conversations, but to begin them. God’s word to us is not an end to an argument, but an invitation to deeper understanding and knowledge of God and of one another.