Promise given through – not given to

Local context

Evidence from RenewalWorks, a data gathering and strategic direction setting program from Forward Movement, shows that many Episcopal congregations are now placing spiritual deepening as a key priority. At St Martin’s in Providence, our experience of the RenewalWorks process certainly bears this out. The data we collected revealed 33% of the congregation self-describe as exploring a life with God. These are people taking their first small steps towards an intentional spiritual journey. The Episcopal statistical norm for this stage of spiritual development is 19%. A further 43% self-identify as growing in a life with God. These people are more committed to an intentional faith but still feel they are at an early stage in this experience. The Episcopal statistical norm for this group is 56%. 22% as against an Episcopal norm of 21% self-describe as deepening in life with God. These folk experience and increasing reliance upon God’s presence and power in their lives. Only 2% self-describe as living a life with God at the center. Interestingly, the Episcopal norm for this group is also quite low at 4%, whereas another statistical indicator, the All Churches norm is 24%. Further evidence from RenewalWorks shows that the fastest way for facilitating a community’s spiritual deepening is through community Bible reading programs.

When these stats are put together with our very high 110% response rate to the data gathering questionnaire and the positive response to the questions on spiritual growth, we can see why our first priority at St Martin’s since 2016 has been embedding the Bible in community life.

In my posting last week I wrote that Bible reading for Episcopalians is a tough sell, especially in the North East. I believe two key reasons account for this:

  1. The fruits of 150 years of what’s known as Biblical Criticism has left us feeling that the Bible is for experts, scholars, and clergy trained to be able to unpack the sitz im leben, which simply means the ability to interpret the text guided by the historical, cultural, and theological settings in which the text was originally written. This has led to a propensity among Episcopalians to encounter the Bible through the lens of commentary. Thus learning about rather than engaging with the text keeps us in our detached comfort zone.
  2. The resistance to the reading of Scripture resides in the attitude that the Bible no longer belongs to us because it has been appropriated by them – them – being a reference to the fundamentalists. We not only find literal interpretation uninteresting, but we deeply reject many of the social and theological attitudes such an approach fosters.

Yet our Anglican Tradition speaks in the imagery of the three-legged stool in which Scripture, Tradition, and Reason are held in a mutual tension of equals. Today, we still honor Scripture but we now only hear it within the context of worship. Outside of the formality of liturgy, we attempt to sit on a two-legged stool of Tradition and Reason. Straddling a two-legged stool requires considerable acrobatic dexterity.

St Martin’s is a community where few of us find it possible to accept faith as a matter of unquestioning obedience to the literal interpretation of words on a page. We are a community where faith depicted as an allegiance to a major life shaping narrative now finds deeper resonance and is taking root. Many of us look for the way meaning is conveyed through language that is complex, and nuanced. We are beginning to understand how the stories we tell and the stories we imbibe shape us individually and communally. We believe that metaphor more effectively conveys truth-plus, and that truth is poorly conveyed when limited to the face value of the words on the page.

On May 22nd we begin Day 1 of The Bible Challenge,  a 365-day reading program taking us through the greater part of both Old and New Testaments. As a community, we increasingly see ourselves being on a spiritual journey together. Embedding the regular reading of Scripture into our spiritual life as a community will be a productive achievement. Yet, it still leaves the thorny question of how are we to understand what we read?

Our Anglican Tradition appreciates the way the language of the Bible conveys meaning imaginatively through the use of metaphor, parable storytelling, and allegory. Meaning is fluid and open-ended able to speak to the challenges encountered in our lived experience. Stimulated by the power of curiosity we are encouraged to explore beyond the simple meaning of words on the page. A rich appreciation of this approach to Scripture allows us to echo the words of the prophet Jeremiah[1]: 

When your words came, I ate them; they were my joy and my heart’s delight, for I bear your name, Lord God Almighty.

Reading Jeremiah’s words conjures for us images of joyful ingestion in the sense of taking in, absorption of God’s words. We do not picture him physically eating the words. This is a metaphor not the description of a literal action.

The question of meaning

The question of how are we to understand what we read is a vitally important question as we begin The Bible Challenge. This question takes us to the heart of a struggle over the meaning of Jesus words in the gospel for Easter 5, where chapter 14:1-14 continues the series of  I am statements made by Jesus in John’s Gospel.

One important tenet of interpreting Scripture is that no single text can be taken in isolation from the larger context in which it occurs. Jesus begins the section with the statement: in my father’s house are many dwelling places. Jesus tells the disciples that he will soon go to prepare places for them and that they too, will soon know the way to where Jesus is going. Thomas, the naysayer, and skeptic of the group, wanting clear GPS coordinates blurts out: Lord we don’t know where you are going so how can we know the way? Jesus ignores Thomas’ literal-mindedness, instead, responding with a new I am statement: [Thomas] I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 

The nature of truth plus

Metaphors conjure truth they do not describe what is true. A metaphor is a way of putting words together to express truth-plus. Each word in the metaphor has a literal meaning, yet when placed alongside one another they create an association that opens up hitherto unforeseen possibilities of new and extended meaning. I am the bread of life, I am the door of the sheepfold, I am the true vine all communicate meaning that takes us well beyond the words literal, descriptive meanings.

Despite the doctrine of Eucharistic Real Presence few of us literally understand Jesus to be a piece of bread. We don’t think of him as an actual door, or as a grape vine. Yet, each of these metaphors creates an image that communicates an intimate connection to Jesus and through him, to God. These are images of nourishment, protection, connection, location, and direction-finding.

John 14:6

Taken in isolation John 14:6 has become the basis for the assertion of Christian exclusivity in the matter of salvation. Yet, interpreted in this way it directly contradicts Jesus’ assurance that with God there are many dwelling places. Each line when taken literally leaves us wondering how can contradictory statements both be true?

What we usually miss are the first words of Jesus’ response to Thomas. John tells us that: Jesus said to himI am the way, the truth, and the lifeThe only one being addressed here is Thomas. In John’s Gospel when Jesus meets a lack of understanding he employs a new figure of speech. He does so in the passage about the Good Shepherd at 10:6, and he does so again at 14:6. In effect, Jesus is telling Thomas to stop worrying about the details and focus on the relationship.

The promise give through, not to

The Bible records, again and again, instances where God takes an individual like Abraham, or a people like Israel and singles them out in order to affirm the promise of inclusion, of salvation. Often these instances have been and continue to be interpreted exclusively to limit the promise of inclusion to the person or people named, i.e. to Abraham and his genetic offspring, or to the Jewish people. However, when God blesses Abraham he does not bless Abraham the man, he blesses the promise made through Abraham that many nations will become included in the promise. It is on this basis that Christians and Muslims count themselves included among the children of Abraham. When God blesses Israel he blesses the destiny that through Israel all nations will be drawn to worship on God’s holy mountain.

I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me – is a challenge made to Thomas as a representative of all with a tendency to get mired in the weeds of doctrine and forget that belief is really a matter of relationship. It is a promise not limited to Thomas, the disciples, or the Church. It is a promise that comes to fruition through us; a promise for the world.

Salvation, a promise of inclusion

As The Bible Challenge leads us through a yearlong systematic reading of the Bible we are going to be presented with many texts that appear on the face of things to challenge the message of inclusive, of salvation. We will encounter texts such as John 14:6 which has been and remains interpreted by some to restrict the promise of inclusion in God’s kingdom.

It will be important for us to remember that Jews come to God through their fidelity to the covenant God made with Moses on Mt. Sinai. Muslims obey the revelation of God given to them and articulated by the Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him. Christians are called to be faithful to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. We come to God through Jesus. Holy Scripture is the lamp for our feet and a light on our path. Psalm 119:105.

Truth is an ever-moving target and at the end of the day all we can do is attest to what is the truth for us and be faithful to it. It is through our fidelity to the truth we have been given that the inbreaking of the reign of God advances.

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