Sermon for Sunday, October 20, 2019 || Proper 24C || 2 Timothy 3:14 – 4:5
We’re going to have a bit of a shorter sermon today* because the real sermon happened between the services with so many people coming together to feed our neighbors in New London County. So here’s a short teaching sermon about Holy Scripture, specifically about the very special word used to describe scripture in our reading from the Second Letter to Timothy.
The contents of the Bible rarely comment on themselves, and this morning we heard the most well-known commentary. The letter says, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”
All scripture is inspired by God. Another translation reads, “All Scripture is God-breathed.” The Greek word here is Theopneustos (Thay-hop-ny-oo-stos) a combination of the word “God” (Theo) and the root of the word for breath or wind or spirit (pneu, as in pneumatic). The Greek word is so delicious, so beautifully crafted – Theopneustos. Reading it in the Greek gives the word a feeling of improvisation, like it was made up for this very description. There isn’t a direct translation into English, so we do the best we can. In English, this great Greek word gets rendered as “Inspired by God” or “God-breathed.”
The question is, what does that mean? Predictably, Christians across the ideological spectrum interpret this word differently.
Some of the more fundamentalist expressions of Christianity might say that “inspired by God” means that the Bible is without error or contradiction, and that the plain, literal meaning of passages are the only “true” way to read them. Such an understanding is often accompanied by the phrase, “The Bible says,” without citation or context. In this understanding, the “God” part of “inspired by God” overrides everything else, such that God wrote the Bible using humans basically as stenographers.
On the other end of the spectrum, we find a completely secular reading of Holy Scripture that sees the Bible as nothing more than a collection of ancient texts, worthy of study for their beauty and their glimpse into the world of ancient empires. From this perspective, “inspired by God” is simply a formulaic statement a human wrote in order that the texts would be taken seriously.
In between these two extremes exists the perspective I want to focus on for the rest of this sermon. This in-between perspective grants equal weight to the words “God” and “inspired.” God inspired humans to seek after God, to encounter God, to worship God, to be in awe of God, to fear God, to befriend God, to live their entire lives moved by the presence of God.
Since humans make meaning by sharing stories, and since God was so alive in the experience of the storytellers, the stories they told were about their personal and communal relationships with God. They told the stories for generations, and the parts of those stories that meant the most to the people’s survival and flourishing kept being told. After a time of great turmoil, the spoken stories were written down, combined, and recombined into a series of sacred texts which we know as the Bible.
Does the historical legacy of oral tradition leading to written transmission mean the contents of the Bible are not “inspired by God?” I don’t think so. I think the very act of sharing God’s story is inspired. God inspired the Bible’s storytellers to share their stories of God. God breathed inspiration into them. And then they wrote from their experience and their cultural paradigm. They partnered with God there and then and produced a collection of texts that God still breathes life into here and now.
Yes, the Bible contains inconsistency across its breadth because it was written by many, many people over the course of hundreds of years following hundreds of years of oral tradition. Does this inconsistency make the Bible false or fake? No way. For my money, the unscrubbed, inconsistent narrative of the collective story lends it more credence, more authenticity, not less.
Each time I sit down at Washington Street Cafe in New London to write a sermon, I pray to God for inspiration. I lie awake at night fearful that this will be the week I have run out of things to say. And then (thankfully) I find something to say. My inspiration comes from the stories of the Bible, these God-breathed texts that God is still breathing into our lungs. And from our lungs into our hearts.
Are parts of the Bible messy or problematic or confusing or devastating? Yes. Do I wish I could rip out some pages and passages? Sometimes. Does the Bible keep bringing me back to its ancient stories that somehow become modern stories when we read them? Always.
And that’s because the Holy Scriptures are inspired by God. The breath of God animated the people who originally shared these stories just as the breath of God animates us. We find truth in these holy books because they are about us. They are the ancient witness of God’s continuing act of Creation on both the cosmic level and the intimate level. We might not be adding new stories to the pages of the Bible, but the stories on those pages continue to play out in our God-breathed lives.
Remember this word: Theopneustos. Inspired by God. God-breathed. You, just like our sacred texts, you are Theopneustos. Just like God bent down and filled the lungs of the first human, as told in the Book of Genesis, God fills us with inspiration. We interpret that inspiration through the words of the Bible. So I invite you to share the story just like those ancient storytellers. Make meaning for your lives out of these sacred texts. Find those stories that fill you with the breath of God’s inspiration. I’ll give you a head start with passage that I find most inspirational. The Prophet Micah asks this potent question: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
*It wasn’t short.
Check out my new project, the Podcast for Nerdy Christians, available wherever you download your podcasts. Episode 4 of Season 1 is out today, and it’s all about Princesses! Check it out here and find the podcast on Facebook. You can also subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.