Sermon: And, again, the Uniting Church is not a Bible-believing church

At the recent national Assembly of the Uniting Church I was shocked to hear people argue, in the course of discussion about same-sex marriage, that members of the Uniting Church read the Bible literally. Whatever one thinks of marriage equality, the Uniting Church has never been a ‘Bible-believing’ church in that sense. The Basis of Union makes that extremely clear. So, although my congregation has heard it all before, I’ve taken the opportunity of Jesus authoritatively interpreting the Scriptures to explain how members of the Uniting Church read the Bible: seriously, reverently, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit – but NOT literally.

Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church

30 August, 2015

Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: the Uniting Church is not a Bible-believing church. We are a church that believes that the Bible is important, but not a church that believes that the Bible is the Word of God.

So, how do those of us who belong to the Uniting Church read the Bible? According to the Basis of Union, the document that defines who we are as a church, we Uniting Church types understand the Bible to be ‘unique prophetic and apostolic testimony’ and we are given ‘the serious duty of reading the Scriptures’.[1] When I was ordained one of the questions I was asked was: ‘Relying on the power of the Holy Spirit, will you be diligent in the study of the Bible; will you seek to live a holy and disciplined life; will you be faithful in prayer?’ and I answered ‘With God’s help I will’. All Uniting Church members are expected to read the Bible; ministers are meant to study it. The Bible is vital to our faith. But we are not expected to read it literally.

The Book of Kells

The Basis of Union also tells us that: ‘The Uniting Church acknowledges that God has never left the Church without faithful and scholarly interpreters of Scripture, or without those who have reflected deeply upon, and acted trustingly in obedience to, God’s living Word.’[2] When we in the Uniting Church read the Bible, we do it with the help of 2000 years’ worth of faithful and scholarly interpreters. The Basis of Union reminds us that it is not the Bible that is the Word of God, but Jesus Christ, present when he is preached among the people.[3]

Sometimes this ‘Uniting Church’ way of reading the Bible can lead to accusations that we are wishy-washy, one of those mainstream, liberal churches that, in the words of one journalist, tolerate ‘just about anybody and anything’ and are ‘pale and ineffectual’ when compared with churches that read the Bible literally.[4] But as today’s gospel reading shows, our way of interpreting of the Bible follows in the footsteps of Jesus, the Bible’s authentic and authoritative interpreter.

In today’s Gospel reading, we see Jesus just after he has fed an enormous crowd with five loaves and two fish; walked on water to reach his disciples; and healed many people, curing even those who only touch the fringe of his cloak. But after all these astonishing miracles Jesus now faces a challenge from the Pharisees and some of the scribes on a matter that seems, in comparison, to be trivial. Some of Jesus’ disciples are eating with unwashed hands.

Mark understands that his readers might see the subject of hand-washing as petty, so he explains to us what the issue really is. The question is not about hygiene, but about whether or not Jesus’ disciples are obeying the traditions of the elders. The Pharisees were lay people who were distinguished by the fact that they did follow these traditions, oral rules that they believed had been given to Moses on Sinai, along with the written Torah. These rules were meant to protect the Torah, to make sure that people didn’t inadvertently break it. There was nothing in the Torah to say that Jews had to wash their hands before they ate, but they did have to wash their hands after coming into contact with unclean objects. So the Pharisees might have followed this tradition of hand-washing before meals to make sure that there was no way that they could accidentally be in a state of impurity when they ate. For the Pharisees eating, like all other daily activities, was holy.

Hand-washing wasn’t a trivial issue for the Pharisees, and nor was it an issue for them alone. Mark tells us that ‘some’ of Jesus’ disciples ate with unclean hands, which implies that there were some of his disciples who did wash their hands before eating. Apparently some of Jesus’ disciples were following the oral code too.

Jesus challenges the priority that he says the Pharisees and the scribes are giving the traditions of the elders. Human traditions are being treated as doctrine, he claims, while the commandments of God are being ignored. I suspect that Jesus’ criticism here is one we feel comfortable with. We are, after all, heirs of the Reformation; we follow in the footsteps of the sixteenth-century reformers who condemned the traditions of the church that they saw as human precepts, and demanded a return to ‘scripture alone’. And this seems at first to be what Jesus is doing here, too, when he condemns the scribes and the Pharisees as hypocrites.

What happens next, though, is astoundingly radical. Jesus has just condemned the Pharisees and the scribes for prioritising the oral tradition over the written Torah. Now he goes much further, and challenges the written law itself. The debate has been over how people are to eat; now it shifts to what people are to eat; and the Law is very clear about that. If you want to read some of the food laws you can pick up one of the pew Bibles right now and turn to chapter 11 of Leviticus. This is no longer a question of tradition versus Scripture. This is a question of Scripture itself. Suddenly, Mark tells us, Jesus sweeps aside Scripture’s emphasis on ritual purity in eating. There is nothing outside a person, Jesus tells the crowd, which by going in can defile. Like so many of Jesus’ sayings this would seem to the crowd around him to be absolutely bizarre. It was known that there were foods that could defile. The Torah said so, clearly and emphatically. And now Jesus was challenging the plain meaning of Scripture.

Why might Jesus, in so many ways an orthodox Jew, so radically reinterpret the Scriptures? The answer is that the Holiness Code, which determined ritual cleanliness and uncleanliness, was a way of maintaining strict group boundaries. All through his ministry Jesus burst through these. Already in the Gospel of Mark we have seen him healing a leper; calling a tax collector; touching a dead girl to revive her; and accepting the touch of a woman with a haemorrhage. In all these cases Jesus challenged ideas of ritual purity, and brought people considered unclean back into the community. We’ll see next week Jesus overcoming the barrier between clean and unclean on a national level, as he journeys into Gentile regions, and heals Gentiles. Given the radical inclusivity of his ministry, it should be no surprise that Jesus is prepared to sweep aside parts of Scripture if they restrict community and exclude people from the kingdom of God.

But Jesus doesn’t overturn all Scripture, any more than we deny the Bible’s authority today when we interpret it with the help of the Holy Spirit and scholars rather than reading it literally. Jesus overthrows the Holiness Code in favour of an ethical purity that itself is derived from the Scriptures. What makes people impure? Jesus asks, and answers with a list of things that draws deeply on the Ten Commandments. Jesus does not reject all Scripture, and the Gospel is certainly not suggesting that anything goes. It might actually be easier to follow ritual practices than to attempt to avoid sins like avarice, deceit, envy, slander, pride and folly. What is overturned is anything that leads to exclusion; what’s retained is anything that leads to inclusion. Jesus is the authoritative interpreter of Scripture, and he shows us how we are to interpret it. Biblical commands are never to take precedence over compassion and caring. As Jesus says later in the Gospel, no commandments are greater than those to love God and love our neighbour.[6]

This is why, when we read this story, we can’t pat ourselves on the back for not following the Holiness Code of the Old Testament; or imagine that this story is about the blindness of those scribes and Pharisees back then. This story is about us, and about the ways that we are tempted to use biblical authority to exclude people. Over the past two thousand years we’ve seen the difficulty the church has had in following Jesus’ model of Biblical interpretation: in the continuing debates about clean and unclean food; in the controversy over whether male Gentiles had to be circumcised; in the use of biblical passages to support slavery, racism and the subjugation of women. Throughout the church’s history, Christians have continued to follow in the footsteps of the Pharisees and used the Bible to exclude others, and journeys towards inclusion have usually been hard and long.

It can be hard to interpret the Bible as Jesus did; and it can seem easier to go with the simpler: ‘The Bible said it and I believe it’. But as today’s reading shows, reading the Bible literally isn’t actually biblical. And we are not left alone in our interpretations. We have those ‘scholarly interpreters’ and, most importantly, we have the Holy Spirit. The most important paragraph in the Basis of Union, paragraph 3, ends with the sentence: ‘on the way Christ feeds the Church with Word and Sacraments, and it has the gift of the Spirit in order that it may not lose the way.’ The Holy Spirit will ensure that if we are tolerating ‘just about anybody and anything’, it is because God tolerates them too.

We are not a Bible-believing church. We do not believe that the Bible is the Word of God. As we carry out our serious duty of reading the Scriptures, as I fulfil my promise to study the Scriptures, we rely on the power of the Holy Spirit, with the help of faithful and scholarly interpreters, as we seek to follow Jesus, the true Word of God. Following Jesus, we know we are to read with compassion, letting the Scriptures move us always to greater love of God and our neighbour. Amen.

[1] Basis of Union, paragraph 5.

[2] Basis of Union, paragraph 11.

[3] Basis of Union, paragraph 4.

[4] John Carroll, ‘Nihilistic consequences of humanism’ Griffith Review Autumn 2005, p. 47.

[6] Mark 12:28-31.

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3 Responses to Sermon: And, again, the Uniting Church is not a Bible-believing church

  1. Matthew King says:

    I have a question for you after reading your sermon. How do you read the Bible if it’s not to be taken literally? Do you mean that all of the bible, both testaments, are not to be taken literally? If it’s not the word of God, then why are you reading & teaching from it at all? How do we know & learn about God, Jesus & the Holy Spirit except by reading the Bible? Because of your denomination’s stance, aren’t you doing the very same thing the Pharisees were doing, putting your man-made traditions over & above the word of God? If you don’t stand on the word of God, then what are you standing on & is it a stronger foundation than the word of God?

    • avrilhj says:

      Well, firstly I believe it’s important to acknowledge that no one reads the Bible literally. Or else we’d all be following Jesus’ absolutely plain commandment to sell all we have and give the money to the poor. I don’t even give all my disposable income to the poor, which is why I’m typing this on my personal computer at the moment in a world in which people starve to death. I only wish that Christians who say they take the Bible literally actually did!

      Secondly, I am reading, studying and teaching the Bible because, as the Basis of Union says, it is unique prophetic and apostolic testimony to God. It is vitally important and an important revelation of God, even if I don’t take literally verses like 1 Timothy 2:12. If I did take the Bible literally I might still be able to read and study the Bible, but I wouldn’t be able to preach and teach from it, and I think that would be a pity.

      I do stand on the Word of God, Jesus, the Crucified and Risen One, with whom I and the whole church are in a continuing relationship through the power of the Holy Spirit. I am worried by people who seem to want to limit the Word of God to words on a page, and who believe that God cannot be encountered outside a book. We are in a continuing relationship with a living God, and through our lives of worship, witness and service we are drawn into the life of the Trinity. That is what I base my faith on, the Triune God, continually revealed to us in many ways, including through the testimony of the Bible.

      • interestedfriend says:

        Very interesting conversation and thoughtful sermons. We need more of such – calm, respectful and transparent discussion – regardless of our current views. Thanks

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