Monday, July 07, 2008

Words, Words, Words

(There's a mid-year report below this post.)

Acts 17:10-15

I’m not sure that this is a prerequisite for being a minister, but in high school I did a little musical theater. The best part I ever had was playing Doolittle in My Fair Lady. The play was based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, about the idea that our class and place in society is determined by how we speak. You know this story: Henry Higgins takes on Eliza Doolittle who works in Covent Garden, and promises to help her speak well enough to get a job in a shop in Tottenham Court Road. One of Eliza’s songs toward the end of the play is called ‘Words, Words, Words’, where she loses her temper and tells everyone that actions are more important than talk.

We’ve been exploring the Book of Acts, especially what it means to be a Real-World Church. Our working definition over these past months has been that a real-world church is engaged with the culture, grounded in the Scriptures, and alive to the Holy Spirit.

That middle part—that’s pretty important. Part of our calling is to be grounded in the words of Scripture. We believe as Christian people that those words are more than, well, just words. We believe that the Bible is a unique book, a gift from God for our blessing and benefit. And we’re not alone in believing that.

10As soon as it was night, the brothers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea. On arriving there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. 11Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. 12Many of the Jews believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.
13When the Jews in Thessalonica learned that Paul was preaching the word of God at Berea, they went there too, agitating the crowds and stirring them up. 14The brothers immediately sent Paul to the coast, but Silas and Timothy stayed at Berea. 15The men who escorted Paul brought him to Athens and then left with instructions for Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible.

What is it that the Bereans do to earn Paul’s respect? They ‘examined the Scriptures each day to see if what Paul was teaching was true.’ Think about that: Paul would come in to preach, and the Bereans would be there, taking notes and flipping through their scrolls to see if Paul’s interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures was accurate.

The Bereans saw the Scriptures as the measuring stick of truth—the only authoritative way to distinguish truth from error. We talk about the canon of the Bible—canon is a great word that means measuring stick, like a ruler. Think of the main uses of a ruler: to measure things and to help keep things straight. That’s one of the ways we can understand how the Bible functions in our journey of faith: It helps us keep things straight, and also gives us a sense of how close we stay or how far we drift from the essence of the Christian message.

The issue we’re left with is this: How is the Bible the word of God? What does it mean when we talk about the authority of the Scriptures?

You’ve heard me talk about the Bishop of Durham quite a bit lately. N.T. Wright has written some of the most helpful books on the Christian faith that I’ve read in a long time. In his book on the Bible, The Last Word, he said this: “The phrase “authority of scripture” can make Christian sense only if it is a shorthand for ‘the authority of the triune God, communicated somehow through scripture.’”

That’s really important, because the church hasn’t always communicated that idea very clearly. The Bible is important, and it plays a unique role in the life of faith, but it’s not God—it only points to God—teaches about God—introduces us to the mind and heart of God.

This past week we commemorated the creation of the internationally understood code for needing to be rescued: S-O-S. It was officially adopted by the world community on July 1st, 1908, and proved its worth after the Titanic hit the iceberg in 1915. You know what SOS sounds like, right? It’s three dots followed by three long dashes and three more dots. I hear it now as one of the ring tones available on mobile phones.

There had been other distress signals before SOS—most important was the code CQD, but the problem was that it kept getting confused with other words. Besides, I don’t think ABBA or The Police or even Rhianna would have written songs about sending out a CQD—it just doesn’t sound right. SOS was chosen because it was easy to distinguish from other codes, and because it was completely meaningless in any known language.

When you think about distress signals, the response is more important than the original call for help. Let me say that another way: Sending out a call to be rescued doesn’t amount to much if no one responds. The words of God as we find them in the Bible are God’s response to our distress signal—to the questions that drive us in the daytime and keep us awake at night:

Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I headed?

To be grounded in the Scriptures is to be grounded in God’s response to our deepest longings—to our SOS. To be rooted in his communication to us through the words of the Bible.

What does all of this mean for us? How are we called to live?

The example of the Bereans is a call to read and know the Scriptures. There’s nothing tricky or easy about this one. We’re called to be disciples who know what we’re talking about—people who put at least as much time and effort into reading the Bible as we would into reading the instructions for a mobile phone or a home appliance, or maybe the prospectus for an investment we want to make, or even an insurance policy. It just might be the case that the best insurance we could hope for comes from investing a little time into reading the Scriptures and knowing them for ourselves.

But it’s not just about knowing a list of verses and facts. We ground ourselves in the words of Scriptures in order to find a meaningful glimpse of God’s heart and mind. Like reading the letters or journal of some historical figure and learning their thoughts and hopes and longings, we read the Scriptures to experience the same discoveries about God. We grow closer to God—and closer to the people he made us to be—when we spend time reflecting on who he is and what he wants. We don’t just find a list of facts in the Bible, we find the person and the personality of God.

Finally, after reading the Bible and experiencing God in its message, we begin to conform our lives to what we find in the Scriptures, and not the other way around. It’s so important to remember that the Bible isn’t just a record of God’s words and actions or even his purpose, it’s the process of taking an active part in that purpose—being a part of the coming of God’s Kingdom in the here and now.

Mostly, for our purposes at this church, learning to live our lives as extensions of the message of the gospel is one of the core pieces of being real-world Christians—of being a real-world church. Paul said that the Bereans were of much nobler character because of their willingness to learn and to be shaped by Scriptures. Would Paul, or anyone else, be able to say the same about us?

As we come to the Table this morning we come as a community of faith, a gathering of broken people whose lives have been redeemed by Jesus Christ. We come as a church that is engaged in the culture, grounded in the Scriptures, and alive to the Holy Spirit.

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