Read the Bible, but Listen to Jesus

san marco florence 269TRANSFIGURATION OF OUR LORD

Exodus 24:12-18
Psalm 2
2 Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17:1-9

Prayer of the Day: O God, in the transfiguration of your Son you confirmed the mysteries of the faith by the witness of Moses and Elijah, and in the voice from the bright cloud declaring Jesus your beloved Son, you foreshadowed our adoption as your children. Make us heirs with Christ of your glory, and bring us to enjoy its fullness, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.” Matthew 17:4-8.

This account of the Transfiguration is a powerful reminder that disciples of Jesus are not a people of the book. Our faith is relational, meaning that it is finally grounded not in obedience to precepts recorded in a written document, but in relationship to a person. Saint Peter makes that clear when he reminds his readers that he and his fellow apostles did not base their preaching and teaching on “cleverly devised myths,” but upon their own eye witness testimony to Jesus and God’s acclamation of his Sonship. This testimony is a “lamp shining in a dark place” illuminating God’s reign in the person of Jesus.

That same hermeneutic ought to govern the church’s reading and interpretation of scripture. “First of all,” says Peter, “you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” II Peter 1:20-21. Of course, ecclesiastical history reveals that scripture is very much a matter of interpretation. Diverse interpretations of the Bible among and within the many manifestations of Christianity, to say nothing of that diversity within the New Testament itself, testify to its rich, layered and contrasting tapestry of voices. The Bible cries out for interpretation. But Saint Peter would have us know that it is never a matter “of one’s own interpretation.” Just as the Holy Spirit was essential to the production of our scriptures, so the Spirit’s assistance is required for a faithful interpretation of scripture.

But that begs the question. How and through whom does the Spirit work to give us an understanding of scripture upon which we can rely with confidence? Different Christian traditions have answered this question in various ways, none of them entirely satisfactorily. For reasons discussed in my post of Sunday, March 25, 2018, we cannot simply assume that the Bible is self explanatory and that if we can just manage to get people to read it, they will be able to interpret it for themselves. We all know that Bibles in the hands of ignorant, misguided or deranged people have given rise to some ghastly religious movements. On the other hand, history has demonstrated that church leaders and learned theologians are not always reliable interpreters either. There is a reason why we had the Reformation!

I don’t claim to have the final word (or even a preliminary one) on what shape scriptural authority should take in our churches. But I believe that our gospel lesson has a thing or two to say about how disciples of Jesus read the Bible. Peter, James and John see Jesus up on the mountain top speaking with Moses and Elijah. Moses, the giver of the law and the covenant; Elijah, the greatest of the prophets. The whole Bible, the law and the prophets, is right there with Jesus. Peter was probably trying to pay Jesus a complement by suggesting that the disciples make three booths, one for Moses, one for Elijah and one for Jesus. What greater honor can you give to your teacher than to elevate him to the level of Moses and Elijah? But that’s when the cloud comes over them all and the voice: “This is my Son, the beloved. With him I am pleased. Listen to him.” When the disciples pick themselves up off the ground and look up, they see Jesus only. And that’s the whole point. Jesus is the voice to which we listen when we want to know God’s direction in our lives, God’s word to us. To be sure, we can and should listen to Moses, to Elijah and all the other voices in scripture. But we are not disciples of Moses or Joshua or Ezra or Peter or Paul. We are disciples of Jesus.

This means we read the Bible with Jesus colored glasses. As we know from our readings in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus takes great liberties with the Bible. Yes, the Bible does say and eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. “But,” says Jesus, “I am telling you something different.” Jesus tells us that the Bible, the law and the prophets, revolve around two great commandments, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. And love your neighbor as yourself.” Matthew 22:34-40. Therefore, if your reading of the Bible leads you to judge, condemn, discriminate against, hurt or insult anybody at all, you have it all wrong-no matter what the literal text says. A loveless reading of the scriptures is not a testament to Jesus and the gentle reign of God he proclaims. Any such reading distorts the biblical witness to Jesus in the interest of a cruel, selfish and hateful agenda. That, in my humble opinion, is how a lot of religion purporting to be Christian misuses the scriptures. So whenever someone says in an authoritative tone, “The Bible says…” We must always respond with, “Yes, but how would Jesus have us read and apply that text?”

This coming Wednesday we begin our journey into Lent. This time, may we catch the urgency in that voice from heaven: “This is my Son…Listen to him!” Let us listen for Jesus’ words to us as intently as the poet in the heart of Winter listens for tell tale signs of Spring.

Winter’s Song

I could have sworn I heard a songbird,
What type I cannot guess.
Her music came from so far away
I scarcely could tell whether
It was indeed a song I heard
Rather than the pipes, radiators
Or someone turning on NPR.
I stood still in the bathroom,
Staring out the window into darkness,
As if the intensity of my gaze
Might induce her to give me another bar.
She must have sensed my interest
Or perhaps my senses coming to life
Snuffed her music the way an
Acolyte extinguishes an altar candle.
I still don’t know if what I heard
Really was the song of a bird
Or just my restless imagination
Reaching out to embrace
A friendlier season.

Source: anonymous

 

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