The Bible is a dangerous book, full of contradictions and contested images of God. How, then, shall we read? (Listen.)
Last Sunday we baptised a young woman, and then we gave her a dangerous gift. That is, we gave her a book of wisdom and stories, prayers and puzzles, comforts and challenges, contradictions and contested images of God; yes, we gave her a Bible.
It is of course our hope that she will come to love it just as many of us have learned to love it. And yet we are not naïve. At times, many of us have experienced the Bible as a text of terror, an instrument of domination, an object of fear. Many of us have heard it interpreted in ways which have suffocated us or driven us to despair. Many of us have stumbled across texts which have made us feel angry, fearful, unworthy or ashamed, and which have made it hard for us to wholeheartedly love God, neighbour, and even ourselves. The Bible is a dangerous gift, indeed. How, then, should Arwen read it? and how should each one of us?
The answer begins in tonight’s story. The disciples are huddled and confused, trying to make sense of reports that people are encountering Jesus risen from the grave. Suddenly, Jesus stands among them and offers words of peace. They are terrified, so Jesus shows them that he’s not a ghost. He shows them his flesh and bones; he shows them his wounds. Then he accepts their food, eating a piece of grilled fish; and only then, having shown that it’s really him, really alive, does he open their minds to the scriptures.
The first thing to notice here is that Jesus is truly risen from the dead. He has flesh and bones and scars: he eats. His is a living breathing pulsing digesting body which has triumphed over death: and so it tells us that death is no longer in charge. Instead, life and newness of life win out in this world now: and it is in the presence of this life that our minds will be opened to the scriptures.
Sure, we can read the scriptures with the dominance of death on our mind: and we will find ample proof of it in the Bible. We can read the scriptures with sin, violence, judgement and hell on our mind, and we will find plenty of justification for them in the Bible, too, just as so many people do. But this story tells us that if we read in the presence and anticipation of life, that is, in the presence and anticipation of the Risen Christ, then our minds will be truly opened to the scriptures and we will become powerful witnesses to the Living Word, the Risen Christ.
In other words, followers of Jesus don’t read the scriptures looking for death, sin or judgement. Instead, they read in the presence and anticipation of life.
And what scriptures are those? As most of us know, the very book which contains the living Word also contains words of hatred, violence, condemnation; the very book which describes an infinitely loving and merciful God also describes an infinitely violent and vengeful God. So which words are true?
In this same story, Jesus tells us: “Everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and psalms must be fulfilled.” Everything written about me: these are key words. They imply that there are words in Moses, the prophets and the psalms which will not be fulfilled, because they are not about the God made known in the Risen Christ.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus quotes scripture selectively. He claims and highlights texts which speak of God’s grace, mercy, justice, liberation, universality and forgiveness; he challenges texts which have been turned into heavy burdens for people; and he deconstructs or ignores texts which describe God as violent, vengeful, bloodthirsty, parochial or racist.
This shows that followers of Jesus quote selectively, too. We read with the Risen Christ at our side, expecting to find life; we read looking for signs of self-giving love and hospitality and hope and freedom, because that is the God made known in Jesus Christ. And like Jesus, we claim and highlight texts which speak of God’s grace, and we deconstruct or leave behind texts which speak of God’s parochialism and violence.
As followers of Jesus, we also read knowing that the Law has no authority over us, except the authority which Jesus grants it. The prophets have no authority over us, except the authority which Jesus grants them. And Jesus’ authoritative word is that two commandments are most important: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. There are no exceptions. Love God, love neighbour, and, by implication, love yourself. For, says Jesus, all the law and the prophets rely on these commandments.
In other words, followers of Jesus must also read the scriptures through the lens of love. With love, love, and more love: that is how we are to read the Bible, and that is how we are to live our lives.
So if something in the Bible goes against Jesus’ radical hospitality, or Jesus’ practice of enemy-love, or Jesus’ insistence on forgiveness, or Jesus’ triumph over the forces of death, then it tells us what some people thought about God; but it’s not the last word on who God is or God’s desire for the world. And if someone preaches a message which is suffocating or fear-mongering or rule-bound; if someone argues for hatred, violence or exclusion in God’s name; if someone tells you that being a Christian is not all about love, then you can be confident that they have not yet encountered the Risen Christ, nor are they pointing you to his precious way of life.
As a follower of Jesus, then, the next time you’re struggling with the Bible or its interpretations, pray. Ask to read through the eyes of the Risen Christ, who has overcome the grip of death and is leading you into life. Let the Spirit flow through you; let love be your guide. Then Christ will open your mind to the Scriptures, shine light into darkness, speak truth to confusion, and breathe peace into fear; your reading and your living will be transformed.
You, too, will be a witness to a life being renovated from the inside out: the change of heart and mind, the life of forgiveness, which Jesus calls his disciples to proclaim in his name. Even in the midst of your wondering, you, too, will know the blessedness of those early disciples; you, too, will know their joy.
So pray. Then take a deep breath, take heart, and read. Amen. Ω
Reflect: Which parts of the Bible do you find difficult? Does reading with the Risen Christ at your side change things? If so, how?
A reflection on Luke 24:36b-50 by Alison Sampson for Sanctuary, 25 April 2021 (Easter 3B, one week late) © Sanctuary 2021. Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash.
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