October 20, 2013

2 Timothy 3:14 – 4:5

“Oh, How We Love the Bible!”

In a couple of weeks, we will begin another church membership class here at St. Andrew’s. We try to have one of these classes at least once a year so that newer folks in our church community may have an opportunity to learn about the Presbyterian Church in Canada, about St. Andrew’s in particular, and to consider making the commitment to church membership in our congregation. The class often includes teens and young adults who are preparing to profess their faith and join the church for the first time. It also includes adults of all ages from a variety of Christian and other backgrounds who have found their way into this Presbyterian Church of ours.

Although we cover some of the basics of what it means to be a Christian in general, one of the key topics is very specifically what it means to be a Presbyterian Christian. I wonder if anyone has asked you that question: “What IS a Presbyterian?” I get asked that all the time, along with some variations on the theme: “What’s the difference between the Presbyterian and United Churches? What’s the difference between the Presbyterian and Catholic Churches? What’s the difference between the Presbyterian and Pentecostal Churches?”

I usually begin my answer by telling folks what “Presbyterian” means… We are ruled by “presbyters” or “elders.” Our name indicates a particular structure of governance. We have presbyteries rather than bishops. We emphasize the collaborative decision-making process, including both clergy and lay people in the decision-making bodies. We believe that when we listen carefully and together for God’s leading, the Holy Spirit guides us to make decisions in accordance with God’s will. Having just come home from a three-day meeting of the Synod of Saskatchewan, I could probably go on and on about our Presbyterian form of church governance, but I won’t, because this morning’s Scriptures highlight another distinctive of our Presbyterian tradition.

When people ask me what it means to be a Presbyterian, I always talk about how much we love the Bible. This emphasis in our Church goes all the way back to the 16th century when Reformers like John Calvin in Geneva were shaking up the Church by insisting on having worship and reading the Scriptures in the language of the people so that everyone could understand. They were getting the Bible translated, and they were teaching people to read using it.

Of course, other Christians read the Bible too. The Bible doesn’t belong to the Presbyterians alone. Indeed, the Bible is one of the most powerful things that binds all Christians together. The fact that we all read the same Bible, often even the same readings Sunday by Sunday, reminds us that at the deepest level we are One Christian Church.

But the Bible continues to be a particularly strong emphasis in our Presbyterian Church. Our children’s programs are shaped around Bible stories and passages from Scripture. Presbyterian adults continue to gather for Bible studies and classes throughout their lives. We include significant portions of Scripture in our worship every week. And then there are the sermons… known for being both on the longer side and tied quite closely to the readings of the day.

When people ask me about Presbyterians, I sometimes tell them that we take the Bible seriously, but not always literally. An interesting contrast is A.J. Jacobs, who describes himself as a secular Jew. He conducted a religious experiment a few years ago and wrote about it in his book, A Year of Living Biblically. He lived for a year by the rules and regulations and teachings of the Bible. For example, in accordance with Deuteronomy 22, he made sure that his clothes did not mix wool and linen in them. In accordance with Exodus 23, he removed the names of false gods from his vocabulary, which meant that he could not even use the words “Wednesday” and “Thursday,” because they honour the false gods Thor and Woden. He allowed the sides of his hair to grow uncut in accordance with Leviticus 19 and wore all white garments (a regulation from the book of Ecclesiastes).

It’s a very funny book to read, but it does make the Bible seem rather ridiculous, at least when we take everything literally and neglect the process of interpretation and application for our time and circumstances.

The most famous verse in our passage from 2 Timothy this morning is verse 16: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” As a Presbyterian who loves the Bible, I wholeheartedly agree. And as a Presbyterian who has spent some time studying the Bible, I also know that the meaning and significance of any given passage is not necessarily immediately evident or universally applicable.

In other words, the Bible is not a straight-forward instruction book on how to be a Christian. It is an extremely complex collection of writings from different times and places, including history and story, poetry and parable, proverbs and letters and genealogies, and teachings passed down in oral tradition, written down, edited, copied, collected, and translated over the course of many centuries.

Along with other Christians, Presbyterians believe that this amazingly complex and sometimes confusing collection of books is God’s Word to us. We believe that it is worth taking the time to read it, and study it, and preach on it, and discuss it because it was inspired by God, and it is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness. We believe that through that long and complex process of the Bible’s formation, that God’s Spirit was at work, and that God’s Spirit goes to work within and between us when we delve into it to try to discover what God might have to say to us today.

In the early years of the Christian Church, the Apostle Paul encouraged the young Christian leader, Timothy, to remain firm and steadfast in his faith and to proclaim the message about Jesus Christ with confidence and courage whether the time was favourable or unfavourable. And Paul told him to use the Scriptures because their purpose is to help “everyone who belongs to God [to] be proficient and equipped for every good work.”

Sometimes I don’t feel like our time is particularly “favourable” for the proclamation of the Gospel. There are so many different messages and ideas in our society. There are so many different preoccupations and priorities that compete the for the time and attention of Christians and potential Christians today that it’s not evident that anyone is paying much attention to the Church or to the wisdom of the Scriptures.

But like Timothy, we must be persistent and carry out our Christian ministry fully whether there seems to be a response to the message or not. Of course, Timothy was an evangelist – a Christian with a particular gift and call to preach the good news and build up the Church. Most of us may not think of ourselves as evangelists, but we all share his vocation of sharing the gospel in word and deed in our families and communities. And I think that a good place to begin is with ourselves and with the Bible.

Yesterday I read an article in Huffpost Religion about the spiritual and devotional practices of the current President of the United States, Barack Obama. It revealed the fact that Obama begins each morning by reading scripture and reflecting on a devotional prepared specifically for him. The article also noted that he regularly calls together a group of Christian leaders to pray for him and the heavy responsibilities that he carries in his role as the President. But the part that stood out most strongly to me was a quote from Obama about the Bible. He said, “I often search scripture to figure out how I can be a better man as well as a better president.”

I wonder how often the average Presbyterian searches the scriptures to figure out how he/she can be a better person, a better parent, a better friend, a better partner, a better employee, a better leader, a better caregiver, a better researcher, a better worker, a better church member…

And if we did search the scriptures daily, and if we did take the Bible seriously while reading it carefully and interpreting it for our time, how much might our lives be transformed as we lived more and more fully and deeply in the way of Jesus Christ our Lord, and how much might we bless the world through our proclamation in word and deed!

With the psalmist, may we sing, “Oh Lord, how I love your law!” and may we make it our meditation and our inspiration all the days of our lives. Amen.