The Rev. Joseph Farnes
All Saints, Boise
September 3, 2023
Last week the Gospel reading was a lot of praise of Peter. “On this rock I will build my church!” Jesus said. And this week, Jesus is saying to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” So which text would you use to build an interpretation of Peter? Is Peter the rock on which Jesus builds the church? Is Peter a stumbling block?
Of course we wouldn’t pick one and ignore the other. We see these parts of Matthew’s Gospel in conversation, and we see the Gospel of Matthew in conversation with the rest of the books of the Bible. But that comes pretty naturally to the Episcopal Church and other historic Christian communions that think deeply about how to interpret the Biblical texts. We rarely read a single Biblical text by itself – we like at least two. Plus a psalm. But that approach comes from our liturgy, our way of worship. On Sunday morning, we have three Biblical texts plus a Psalm. That conversation comes pretty naturally. This has been the Church’s tradition for over a thousand years.
This approach, however, isn’t shared by all Christian traditions. In some traditions, the emphasis is on one text alone, even one sentence by itself. The worship service centers around unpacking that one piece of the Biblical texts. The sermon, the music, the prayers will center around that one text.
In some cases, it might become a form of meditation on the depth of the text. Getting deep into the language, what it means for today. That is praiseworthy. In many other cases, however, it becomes an easy temptation to “proof texting”, where a whole doctrine gets based on that one single sentence. So much interpretation gets stuffed into that text to make it say what the preacher or theologian wants it to say.
It becomes the opposite of what we discussed last week. Last week the sermon talked about finding a Biblical text to chew on and make your own, to bring it to life in what you say and do. The Biblical text becomes part of us. Proof texting, on the other hand, is going in the opposite direction – we force our own interpretation into the Biblical text and kill it with what we want it to say, what we wish it would say to confirm what we already believe.
This past week I had a conversation with some folks here at All Saints about theology and the Bible, and one person brought up a point about how we often don’t think about what the Bible means to other kinds of Christians who are Evangelical. There are significant differences. The image came up of how we Episcopalians read the Bible together as a community and hear different pieces of the Biblical texts: it’s like a symphony. Sometimes the passages make a nice harmonious chord. Sometimes the passages are unsettling because they make a sharp, dissonant sound against one another. Sometimes the passages leave things unresolved, and sometimes they come together in a nice, beautiful sound. A wonderful piece of music can have all these things together: harmony, conflict, lack of resolution, and wonderful beauty.
But for others, the Biblical texts need to be a fact. Everything needs to fit together like a big puzzle, and our job is to piece it together and communicate it to others.
When we’re talking about the Bible with other Christians, we need to keep in mind that what the Bible means for different traditions will vary greatly. For us in the Episcopal tradition, the Bible is the Church’s collection of texts that speak of a long, sacred conversation with God, filled with sacred story, the brokenness of human history, and God’s unending faithfulness and love toward us that culminates in God becoming human in Jesus Christ, and through his life, teaching, death and resurrection, we are bound to God’s divine life. We Episcopalians are aware, at least vaguely, that the Bible is not a book that dropped out of heaven complete as it is. We know humans wrote it down, we know there are contradictions in it, and we know that the books that got collected into what we call the Bible speak in a conversation. And we still love the Bible in its messiness. Texts about God’s relationship with humans have to at least reflect the messiness of humans to be real!
That’s not the same for other Christian traditions. For others, it’s of central importance that the Bible be a single text, like a textbook with chapters. For others, the Bible needs to be inerrant, to be literally and factually true to be trustworthy. The Bible needs to be a collection of facts about God, and the interpretation of it needs to be simple. Ambiguity, contradiction, disagreement cannot exist for them. It needs to be clear-cut.
You can see this in how some denominations or some non-denominational churches put belief in the inerrancy of the Bible at the top of their statements of faith. It’s the main thing, it’s the bedrock of their understanding. For us as Episcopalians, on the other hand, our most fundamental statements of faith are the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds, and the Nicene Creed only mentions that Jesus rose again on the third day “in accordance with the Scriptures” i.e. the resurrection happened, and the Biblical texts attest to that, and that the Holy Spirit “has spoken through the prophets”, i.e. that the Holy Spirit has been at work even before Pentecost. The Apostles’ Creed doesn’t even mention the Bible. For us, our bedrock of faith is God and who God is.
Even though we share the texts of the Bible for the most part, we are also separated by them. We bring such different views to the Biblical texts that it can be hard to talk to one another. Sometimes we might even feel embarrassed if we don’t know the Biblical texts as well as someone else, that we don’t know as many facts as they seem to know.
But remember, to use the metaphor from earlier, the Biblical texts are musical. We don’t have to know that every single note in exact order to listen attentively to the music and to be transformed by it. I still do not comprehend much beyond the very, very basics of music, but I can still point to songs I love and say what I love about them, what treasures I see, and how that music is part of me. And we bring the music to life as a community – we read it together, we proclaim it, we study it. What would music be if the only way to appreciate it was to read the sheet music and never perform it together? To return to our Gospel passage from earlier: this week, Peter is likened to Satan, a stumbling block who doesn’t get it. He’s not literally Satan, and he’s not expelled from the company of apostles because he’s sometimes dense like a rock. Peter is human, and Jesus relates with him as a human. Why wouldn’t God use the humanity of the Biblical texts to relate to us? Why wouldn’t God use a conversation fostered over millennia to reach out to us even now? The Biblical texts are God’s gift to us, not as a dry textbook, but a song of love and heartbreak and triumph and repentance and grace and glory to us all, and to each of us, too! Thanks be to God!