Posts Tagged ‘misinterpretation/abuse of the Bible’

One with God or with each other?

May 27, 2017

Easter 7 – 2017

John 17:1-11

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who calls us into union with God, with Jesus our Saviour and with each other. Amen.

In the wrong hands the Bible – indeed any religious texts – can be dangerous. This is blatantly obvious at present as we live with the consequences of Islamic extremism. No faith is exempt from the misinterpretation or misuse of its holy texts. We have to acknowledge that over the centuries even Christian texts have been used in ways that are punitive and even abusive. Passages from the bible have at times been used to limit and oppress rather than to liberate and make whole. Witness for example, the centuries during which it was believed that the inequitable distribution of wealth was God’s design. The poor were poor because that was how God ordered the world – not because kings and nobles taxed them beyond their means. For centuries it was taught and believed (at least by some) that the bible sanctioned violence against women and that women who were beaten by their husbands should not only endure such violence, but that they should also forgive the perpetrator thereby being forced to collude in their abuse.

In the case of today’s gospel, the final half sentence: “That they may be one as we are one” was used as a weapon in the debate about the ordination of women. Those who supported such a move were accused of being divisive and of wanting to destroy the church. Indeed the insinuation was that in seeking change they were going against the express will of Jesus in John 17:11. It was both a powerful and a manipulative strategy, designed to unsettle those who supported the ordination of women, to appealing to their core beliefs and making them feel guilty for daring to suggest change. (Interestingly, the opponents of the ordination of women did not believe that by refusing to accept change it might have been they not the others who were causing division.)

John 17:11 has been used to support unity within the church and between the churches and a quick look at the website textthisweek suggests that this is the most common interpretation of this verse and the most common theme of sermons on this passage. However, if we examine the verse in its immediate context and in the context of the gospel as a whole, we will recognise that the prayer is slanted somewhat differently.

As we saw a number of weeks ago, a key theme of the Johannine gospel is that of the unity of the Father and the Son. Over and over again, the Johannine Jesus states that he is in the Father and the Father is in him. The union between Jesus and God is such that to know one is to know the other. Now we learn that Jesus is sharing with the disciples the union that exists between himself and God. Jesus prays that the lives of the disciples will be indistinguishable from that of the Father and the Son.

Chapter 17 is a part of Jesus’ farewell speech in which he prepares the disciples for his departure and for life without him. After announcing that he is going away, Jesus encourages the disciples to live in him (as branches attached to a vine) and he promises to send them the Advocate – the Spirit of Truth. Now he prays – for himself and for them – beginning with an appeal to God that his role may be brought to completion. In John’s gospel the cross is not something to be avoided but to be embraced. It is on the cross that Jesus will be glorified, because it is here that his complete submission to God will be demonstrated, it here that he will be lifted up and from here that he will be able to hand over his spirit to his followers.

Death is merely the fulfillment of his mission: “Glorify me,” Jesus prays “with the glory that I had before the world existed”. As we learn in the very first verse of this gospel, Jesus and the Father have been united since before time began. Jesus continues by praying for the disciples. He prays that they union that he shares with God will not be shared with those who believe in him.

That Jesus is praying that the disciples will be one with himself (and therefore with God) is confirmed if we read to the end of the prayer. In verses 21-23 Jesus prays again: “that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” The prayer concludes: “so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” If the disciples are united to God in the same way that Jesus is united to God then, God will be known through them as God was made known through Jesus.

At the end of the Farewell Speech, Jesus commissions the disciples to continue his work in the world. As God sent Jesus into the world, so now Jesus sends the disciples. As Jesus revealed the Father, so now the disciples have the responsibility of revealing both the Father and the Son. They cannot do this if they insist on asserting their individuality and on going their own way. The only way that the disciples can achieve union with God is if, like Jesus, they hand themselves over entirely to God and submit themselves completely to God’s will. By subsuming their own needs and individuality into the Godhead, they will allow God to be made known through them. Their union with God will in turn lead to unity with one another.

It’s all a matter of what we take as our starting place. If we begin by believing that God is insisting that we live in complete unity, we can end up chasing the wrong goal – focusing on ending our internal divisions rather than focusing on our union with God. If however we make it our primary goal to seek union with God, the end result will union with one another – in our Parishes, in our Dioceses and with the members of other churches.

 

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Taking up our cross

September 15, 2012

Pentecost 16

Proverbs 1.20-33, Ps 19, James 2.18-26,Mark 8.27-38

Marian Free

In the name of God who created us, and who despite our failures and our disloyalty, loved us enough to die for us. Amen.

Last weekend Michael and I attended the great debate that was a part of the Brisbane Writer’s Festival. We went in part because Germaine Greer was one of the speakers and in part because of the topic: “Reading the Bible is good for you.” Sadly it was a little disappointing. First of all, two of the speakers for the affirmative claimed that the Bible was “silly” and no one for the affirmative had a very strong argument for reading the Bible. Secondly, when it came to what was to be a free for all, there was such a degree of self-consciousness among the speakers that instead of an “no holds barred” argument, it simply fell flat.

That said, the third speaker for the negative, Ben Law a local writer and comedian, was witty and insightful. He began by saying that he quite liked the Bible, but that it was a document that could not be read without assistance because it was open to misinterpretation and to abuse. He supported the views of the other speakers for the negative, the first of whom pointed out that the way in which many Americans read their Bible has led to the most punitive of legal systems. The other had reminded us that well-meaning, but often misguided missionaries in this country and elsewhere have destroyed local language, culture and self-respect to impose a Western faith and lifestyle.

We all know that the Bible is filled with wisdom, love and compassion, but we cannot deny that it also contains accounts of God-sanctioned genocide, that its heroes are flawed and include in their number adulterers and murderers, that in the Psalms there are threats to bash babies heads against rocks and that its God constantly threatens wholesale destruction both of God’s people and of their enemies. Using the Bible as their defense Christians have embarked on the crusades, justified the enslaving of members of other races and have even engaged in battles against each other.

At the same time, the Bible has inspired believers to great acts of courage and self-sacrifice. Christians have for millennia cared for the poorest of the poor, fought to ensure the end of slavery, were among the first to respond to the AIDS crisis and have laid down their lives for others. The Bible inspired Bonheoffer to take on Adolf Hitler and Gandhi and Martin Luther King to struggle for justice for their people.

The Bible is a complex collection of writings. Today’s readings are an example of just how difficult and confusing it can be to read the Bible and how easily it can be misunderstood. Let me illustrate:

From the Book of Proverbs we read that God will laugh at our calamity and mock when panic strikes us. The letter to James tells us that the early church was already debating what should be believed with regard to faith and works. Not only that, there is in James a reference to Isaac’s offering of his son Jacob as if willingness to sacrifice a child was a laudable thing to do. Fortunately the Psalm has a much more positive message, but read in a particular way it could be seen to argue that those who keep the law will be rewarded.

Having listened to this morning’s readings what message are you going to take home? If you were asked this afternoon, what would you say about the Bible based on the passages from Proverbs or James? Would you be advising someone to read them without an interpretive aid?

Even today’s Gospel is not without some difficulties. Jesus says: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Having announced his own impending death, Jesus urges his followers to understand that a life worth living is a life that is lived for God and for others rather than for oneself. He is trying to help them to understand that being outward looking rather than inward looking is not only a means to eternal life, but is also more rewarding in the present.

Jesus knew only too well that living for God is not necessarily safe or comfortable and that sometimes living for God and for others leads to being marginalised, excluded and even killed. However he encourages us to place our trust and our confidence in God because he knows that a life centred on God is infinitely richer than a life lived without God. That a life that is lived outwards has greater depth and provides more satisfaction than one that is wholly self-absorbed.

Sadly, in popular usage, this important aspect of Christian living has been tamed and domesticated. It has been transformed from something that is live giving, to something that is life denying, from a focus on God to a focus on oneself.  The phrase, “Taking up one’s cross” is used colloquially to imply that there is something praise-worthy in living stoically with pain, with difficult relationships or with disappointment. Used in this way, self- denial all too easily becomes self-absorption and dependence on God becomes dependence on oneself. Instead of taking up one’s cross of one’s own volition the cross becomes something that is imposed from outside, something to be endured, something to be borne. Used in this way, the cross is not the way to life but to a living death.

So, as the church recognised right up until the Reformation, reading the Bible is good for you, but only if it is read with understanding and care, keeping some basic precepts in mind.

When we read the Bible, we have to remember that even the Old Testament is God’s love letter to God’s people, that God, instead of wreaking destruction, constantly holds his hand, that God instead of condemning us for our betrayals, came to us, entered our world and died for us. We have to remember too that the Bible is not an instrument of power to be wielded over others to make them conform to our values and ideals nor is it to be used to enslave or subjugate others. When we read the Bible we have to remember that the Christ who died for us, demonstrated the love and compassion that lie at the heart of God.

Most importantly of all, when we read the Bible we have to read it through the lens of the cross, to remember, through the course of our lives, that it is in dying to ourselves and living to God that true wealth is to be found and that if we take up our cross we do so not to burden ourselves or to prove a point, but because we are confident that it leads to fullness of life both in the present and in the life to come.


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