One Gospel

Sermon for Sunday, April 7, 2019 || Lent 5C || JOHN 12:1-8

Today’s sermon is a full on teaching sermon. I’m going to talk to you today about the books of the New Testament that we call the Gospel. I’ll begin with a trick question. How many Gospels are there? (Don’t answer that because you’re going to want to say “four.”) If you listened carefully to how I introduced the Gospel reading a minute ago, you heard a hint at the correct answer. “The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to John.”

There is only one Gospel, and that’s the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Gospel, by the way, means “good news.” The numerical confusion stems from the fact that this one Gospel reaches us by way of four different perspectives (or “accounts”), which we name Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. That’s why I said “according to John” a minute ago. The “according to” is a really important preposition because it reminds us which perspective on Jesus’ Gospel we are working with in the moment.

Continue reading “One Gospel”

What is truth? — Pilate in three takes (take 3)

As mentioned in the footnote of the last Bible study (“Don’t just read it”), the following post is the last of three that explores different interpretations of Pilate’s question “What is truth.” Using the ancient Jewish practice of Midrash (in which scholars took the stories of scripture and expanded them to reach new insight and new interpretive depth), I have attempted to get into Pilate’s mind on that fateful day before the Passover. Think of these posts as “takes”  — a film director asking an actor for different emotions over the course of shooting a scene. These different angles help us interpret Pilate’s conversation with Jesus in John 18:33-38. After reading all three takes, decide which you think is persuasive. If none is, write your own!

Take Three

I shut the door behind me, and the noise of the crowd dies away. What do they expect me to do? They didn’t even offer an accusation, and they want this man dead. If they just wanted him dead, someone could have knifed him in the back. No, they don’t just want him dead. They want a spectacle. So they come to me. They think they can manipulate me into complying with the whims of their high priests. We’ll see about that.

I open the door again and motion for Jesus to be brought to me. He enters the chamber and immediately fills it with his presence. I feel the same way I do when my commander comes for an inspection. “Are you the king of the Jews?” I ask, and an ounce of wonder escapes my lips with the words.

He replies with his own question: “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”

I feel suddenly put on trial. I take a step back; indignation replaces wonder in my voice: “I am not a Jew, am I?”

He is really from a different kingdom, he says. His followers would be fighting if he were from here, he says. The nation I am governor of has no bearing on him, he says.

“So you are a king?” I am perplexed, but at the same time I am conscious that my office does not allow for vexation brought about by a local celebrity.

“You say that I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

His words hold such power. They linger in the air, catching the morning light that is streaming in the window. I want to believe what he is saying, but a lifetime of orders and spears and pavement and paperwork and…holds me back.

He stands in front of me, hands clasped as if in silent prayer. I look into his eyes and they reflect the words, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

I slump down, back to my desk, knees bent. “What is truth?” I say. It is a plea more than a question. I bow my head, upset that I let my emotions show in front of this Jew. My vision begins to mist as tears build in the corners of my eyes.

Get a hold of yourself. You are the governor. You are in charge, not this delusional freak. I sling my head back and whack it on the desk. My head clears. The tears are gone. I look up and see a hand reaching down. My eyes narrow. I do not need your pity, I think. Knocking his arm away, I pull myself up and stalk out of the room, without a further glance back at those eyes or those hands.

What is truth? — Pilate in three takes (take 2)

As mentioned in the footnote of the last Bible study (“Don’t just read it”), the following post is the middle of three that explores different interpretations of Pilate’s question “What is truth.” Using the ancient Jewish practice of Midrash (in which scholars took the stories of scripture and expanded them to reach new insight and new interpretive depth), I have attempted to get into Pilate’s mind on that fateful day before the Passover. Think of these posts as “takes”  — a film director asking an actor for different emotions over the course of shooting a scene. These different angles help us interpret Pilate’s conversation with Jesus in John 18:33-38. After reading all three takes, decide which you think is persuasive. If none is, write your own!

Take Two

I slam the door open so hard that it crashes into the mantle, sending a vase toppling. I catch the vase in midair with both hands and look at my warped features in the curved, glazed surface. Red splotches have broken out on my cheeks and neck. I grit my teeth, spin, and fling the vase at the far wall. It shatters, satisfyingly.

My personal guard comes bolting into the room, sword drawn, at the sound of the crash. He stops and stands dumbly when he sees that I am alone. “Bring me the prisoner,” I say, chest heaving.

I stand with my back to the door. I lean with my knuckles on the desk, hands clenched in fists. I hear the door open slowly. Without turning, I say, “Are you the king of the Jews?” He answers insolently, questioning me when I am the one asking the questions.

“I am not a Jew, am I?” I say, half mocking, half enraged. I always have trouble with locals this time of year, but this is as bad as I’ve seen it. I feel justified in my rage and it feels good. When will they learn that we are in control? “Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”

I hear a sound and whip around to find Jesus bending over the broken vase. He is holding a flower. This is too perfect, I think, as my ire grows stronger. This dove thinks he can play with the lion. He has no idea who he is dealing with. I stride over to him, snatch the flower, and snap its head off. I can play with him and those meddlesome priests at the same time: I can expend my anger in sport.

Then he babbles something incoherent about his kingdom. “So you are a king,” I shout, throwing my hands in the air.

“You say that I am a king,” he says, quietly. His calmness threatens to diffuse my anger. I won’t let him. He continues, as I pace around him, stepping on the broken vase and flowers with each pass. “For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

He finishes. I grab him by the shoulder and spin him around, grasping his garment in my left hand and pulling him close. We are nose to nose. His expression is one of mild surprise. There is no fear, not even concern in his eyes. Why isn’t he afraid of me? Why is he so calm?

“What is truth?” I don’t shout it. I don’t scream in his face. It comes out as a bellow, almost a growl. I push him away and storm out of the room, slamming the door behind me.

Alphabet soup (Bible study #3)

Well, I never thought I’d say this, but Google has failed me. I just gave up on a massive search to find how many English words the translators of the New International Version (NIV) used to translate the Bible.* Although I did not meet my main objective, I did discover a few helpful things:

  • There are some really nutty people on the Interwebs writing about biblical translations (especially ones who think the King James Version–which was translated 397 years ago–is still the cutting edge in biblical scholarship and modern translations are leading us along the path to destruction).
  • It’s difficult to find reputable biblical scholarship on the Series of Tubes.
  • Some Christians are just plain mean.

So, with full knowledge that I am continuing to add my voice to the wacky/sad/puzzling/repellent world of Internet biblical scholarship, I will offer my two cents on which translation to use when studying the Bible.

Cent #1: Use them all.

Cent #2: Get an Interlinear Bible.

While the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) is the primary version I read (because my church uses it during worship), I consult multiple other translations to see how they render the Hebrew and Greek texts.**  Every translation is an interpretation because the biblical languages do not fit nicely and cozily into our grammatical system.

The ancient Hebrew language exists in another universe from modern English. Ancient Hebrew thrives on ambiguity and nuance and feeling. There are often assumed words left out. There is no standard word order. There are no vowels, for that matter. Translating ancient Hebrew is like painting a picture, not solving a math problem. So different translators will come up with different translations.

While Greek is both more exact than Hebrew and more closely related to English, translators still face challenges. Some of the writers of the New Testament nearly flunked Greek 101, so their sentence structure is often confusing. Other writers aced their Greek classes and like to show off, writing compound-complex (oh, so complex!) sentences with so many nouns, adjectives, and verbs that sorting out which goes with which is troublesome. Ironically enough, the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews has the best Greek in the New Testament.

So, with the biblical languages proving to wiggle and squirm while we try to smoosh them into English,*** and with the biases of unbiased translators sneaking into their translations, reading a range of English translations is the way to go. Use the NIV for a Protestant outlook and the New Jerusalem Bible for a Catholic one. Use the NRSV for a mainline Protestant view and the New Living Version for a conservative Protestant one. Always read the King James for its poetry–they really knew how to write English in Shakespeare’s day. There are books you can buy called “Parallel Bibles” that line up several translations next to one another. There are also several good websites that put passages in parallel for you. Check out Bible Gateway for all your conservative Protestant versions and The Unbound Bible for mainline ones.

Okay, that cent turned into about a buck fifty, but my other cent will be short. Interlinear Bibles have text in the original languages with English translations under each word. Even if you don’t know the original languages, you can use this resource to compare words. Often the same Greek word will be translated with three or four different English words. Your Interlinear will show you this. On the other hand, several Greek words will be translated into the same English word. Your Interlinear will show you this, also. I’ve had sermon ideas light up and be snuffed out when I return to the original text. It’s always enlightening and even fun to piece together your own translation using an Interlinear and several English translations.

So, there’s my take on the alphabet soup of biblical translations. Remember that studying the Bible is about encountering God through the text. When you combine several different resources, these encounters can become more fruitful and they can further deepen your relationship with God.

Footnotes

* The reason I couldn’t find how many words the NIV uses is that (when I first conceived this post) I mixed up the NIV with Today’s English Version (or Good News Bible) which limited the number or English words in the translation. Originally, this version was produced for non-native English speakers. So, Google didn’t fail me…Adam = epic phail.

** A few chapters of Daniel are written in Aramaic, but for clarity’s sake, I will more often than not refer to Hebrew and Greek as the languages of the Bible.

*** I’m pretty sure “smoosh” is a technical term.

Weapons-grade interpretation (Bible study #1)

In the 2004 film Saved, Hillary Faye (after misinterpreting some advice from Pastor Skip) snatches the pregnant Mary from the street, pulls her into a van, and attempts a hasty and ill-conceived exorcism on her. Mary struggles free, and Hillary Faye calls after her: “Mary, turn away from Satan. Jesus, he loves you.” Mary turns around and says, “You don’t know the first thing about love.” As Mary walks away, Hillary Faye chucks a Bible at her,  yelling: “I am filled with Christ’s love!” Picking up the recently hurled volume, Mary says, “This is not a weapon, you idiot!”

I think of this scene every time I begin the daunting and often humbling task of biblical interpretation. When I read the Bible, I breathe in the words of ancient men and women who had powerful and life-changing encounters with God, encounters which transformed their lives and altered the way they looked at the world. When I read the Bible, I am reminded that God still encounters people today and that studying the Bible makes me more aware of how God is moving in the world. When I read the Bible, I read how my life must change so that I can resonate more resoundingly with God’s presence.

At least, that’s how it works on the good days. On the bad days, I open up the PDF of the Bible I have on my laptop, search for a keyword, take a sentence completely out of context, and slam it down the throat of whoever is annoying me with an interpretation that is different from mine. On the bad days, I affix a trigger and barrel to my Bible and shoot verse-bullets at people who disagree with me.

Thankfully, my bad days are few and far between. But there are enough Christians in the world that there are always a couple bad days happening, a couple of bible-guns taking aim. And sadly, there are a few very vocal Christians who have built Heavy Water Reactors out of their Bibles and are constantly turning out weapons-grade interpretation.

Here are some warning signs to consider if you suspect WGI in your neighborhood:

  • Someone holds up a closed Bible while telling you what it says.
  • Someone says, “The Bible says…” and then strings together single verses from four different books.
  • Someone tells you that you should hate a particular group of people based on Scripture.
  • Someone says that if you don’t agree with his or her interpretation you are going to hell.

The vocal proponents of weapons-grade interpretation abuse the Bible for their own ends. Their agendas lead to irresponsible and destructive readings of the Bible, readings which prove rather than inform. The most dangerous way to read the Bible is to think you already know what it says. Let me say that again: The most dangerous way to read the Bible is to think you already know what it says. This leads to a closed book, closed minds, and closed hearts.

But biblical study should expand our hearts, not constrict them. It should open our minds to the wonders of God, not shut them in endless loops of refrigerator magnet theology. Good Bible study begins with a willingness to learn something new and enough humility to be surprised. Responsible Bible study doesn’t seek ammunition for attack, but nutrition for growth.

Over the next several weeks, I plan to post about the mechanics of biblical interpretation so as to foster responsible study for myself and others. I will ask questions such as these: How do we choose what piece of the Bible we are going to study? What should we be aware of when we read the Bible in English? What is the literary content of the passage? How does the passage function in its historical and societal contexts? How has the history of interpretation of the passage colored our understanding of it?

Tackling these questions is a step toward dismantling biblical Heavy Water Reactors. Weapons-grade interpretation damages our relationships with God and keeps people from seeking such relationships. I pray that the sad, unconscionable tradition of using the Bible as a weapon ceases so that the Good News of Jesus Christ can ring out undistorted.