To Understand the Scriptures
“Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures…” Luke 24:45
What’s your favorite Bible verse? That one that without thinking about it pops into your head in those moments of extreme emotion, be it joy or sorrow, anxiety or calm. According to many Internet lists of “Favorite Bible Verses” or Scriptures, John 3:16 is by far at the top (for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life) followed by Psalm 23, the Shepherd’s Psalm—which we will be exploring next week, a bunch of quotes from various of Paul’s letters, and a few lines from the Gospel according to John.
As we continue our Eastertide journey into “Resurrection Living,” our focus moves from the mandate to testify about the power of living in relationship with the Risen Christ that we have experienced in our own lives, to something that is even more daunting: truly understanding the Scriptures. The original Greek word Luke chose—and the writer of Luke’s gospel chose his words carefully—is συνιέναι (syníēmi) – from which we get the English word synthesize—in the Greek of Jesus’ time, this word was used to indicate not just putting a string of facts or ideas together to make sense, or a whole new thing, but to promote the discernment and the doing of God’s will. And that, of course, is exactly the purpose of the “written word” – the scriptures, the Bible (which simply means “book”) both Old and New Testaments: To discern God’s will, so that we can do God’s will.
Sounds easy! But as I have learned from 35-odd years of participating in and leading adult Bible study, and certainly from my seminary classes in Hebrew and Greek, and in-depth analyses of both the Old and New Testaments, understanding God’s written word is hard. Challenging. Challenging not only because of language and cultural differences, and various translations from the original Hebrew and Koine Greek, but because of the filters we ourselves bring to scripture. Filters of gender, social class, race, life-experience and denomination underlie what scholars call “embedded theology.” These filters are at the heart of the so-called “culture wars” between conservative Evangelical Christians and liberal Progressive Christians, which have divided the Church and increasingly turn people off to Christianity and contaminated the whole of our public life here in the US.
What has this got to do with favorite Bible verses? In these “wars,” cherished bible verses, taken out of context, are often used to support or prove a political point. Technically, this is called “proof-texting.” Proof-texting is the opposite of letting the Risen Christ, who is the Living Word, open our minds to the Written Word, scripture.
Let me assure you that I am NOT here to take sides in a “war,” but as a guest who has the privilege of bringing God’s word to this faithful congregation as you move through a time of transition,
to encourage you to invite Jesus to ‘open your minds to understand scripture’—again, so that you can discern together and do God’s will for this congregation, this family of Christ, as well as in your individual lives.
A good place to start this process is to go back to those favorite Bible verses I mentioned. So let’s each take a moment to recall our own. Don’t worry if you do not remember chapter and verse numbers, or which Book, or of you have to paraphrase. After all, for most of us, I suspect that we learned these verses long ago, perhaps in Sunday School, or from an older family member. If we were not constrained by Covid precautions, I’d invite you to share yours with a neighbor or the whole assembly. But since we are, I’ll share one near the top of all the “everyone’s favorites” lists, Philippians 4:6. (NIV)
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”
Familiar, right? even if it’s not your favorite. Good advice, especially in these troubled times of pandemic and political division, harassment of Asian-Americans, and ongoing accusations of police using excessive force against Persons of Color, let alone 45 mass shootings across this country over the last 30 days. Not to mention rising food and gas prices, or vaccine shortages and side-effect concerns.
Let’s dig into this verse deeply. If, in a moment of anxiety, I recite this verse to myself—or if I pull it out of my memory to console some suffering soul whom I’ve been called to minister to, what is the likely reaction? The logical inference is that God is going to do something—that is, the something I want God to do—if I just stop being anxious – fat chance– and pray thankfully—unlikely when I’m anxious! And the flip side is that if God does NOT do what I ask, I feel inadequate, guilty. Not very healthy, and definitely not what the writer of Philippians was trying to say to encourage the Church! More than that, when this verse is shared with someone who is a non-believer, a seeker, or a new Christian, it may seem too easy, too good to be true. So skepticism is a likely response, and the moment of connection to the Risen Lord is lost.
If, on the other hand, we use this very memorable and truly encouraging verse as a prompt, a key to the verses that precede and follow it, the kind of opening of the mind, the true understanding that Jesus gave to the apostles, becomes possible, within our grasp. Let me read this verse in context. Philippians 4: 5b-7 NRSV—a bit different wording, but the same meaning.
“The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Let’s break it down. The Lord, the Risen Christ “is near.” Jesus the man who walked this earth, promised his disciples that the Kingdom of God (Heaven) has come near (cf Luke, Matthew.) The Risen Christ commissioned the disciples, saying that he will be with them –and us–always (Matthew 28:20.) It is limited human thinking, our embedded theology, that sees Jesus as limited to sitting on the right hand of God, far away up above the clouds. If God is everywhere, Jesus—who is fully God, the Son in the Trinity—is everywhere. Including right next to me, right at this moment. That proximity, that relationship, is why I don’t have to worry or be anxious about anything… even preaching!
Now let’s move to verse 7: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” This is clearly NOT a promise that I’m going to get what I’ve prayed for. But think about it: my prayers are as limited as the rest of my human thinking. If I pray for money to pay my ever-increasing real-estate taxes, and I get it, how does that change my situation next year? No, I’ll be right back to worrying. But the promise of peace of mind, of peace in my heart, through my living relationship with the Risen Christ can change everything!
So this scripture is a call to repent, in Greek μετανοέω (metanoeó) to change one’s mind or way of thinking, especially after being with someone, that is, the Risen Christ.
Particularly as you enter a period of pastoral searching, I encourage you all to think about those favorite scriptures you cherish in your hearts. Start by asking yourself “what does this verse say about my embedded theology?”
Then look at the verses just before and after your verse. Ask yourself “how does the context change my understanding of my verse?”
Do your verses point to a deeper a change of mind and heart, that is repentance? Do they point to a deeper relationship with the Risen Christ?
Finally, think about how might this process might help the Session/Pastoral Search Committee in their discernment of God’s will for this congregation, as you move forward in faith.
Christ IS Risen!
He is risen indeed…