Do we take the Bible literally, or do we take the Bible seriously? You can do both, of course. But what about those who choose not to read the Bible as the literal, word-for-word voice of God? What about those of us who struggle to understand it in its context – those who doubt and ask tough questions and seek to live faithful lives? Can we still take the Bible seriously?
Biblical literalism goes something like this: “In this text, the Bible says X, therefore we must believe and/or do Y." It’s usually selective literalism with clobber verses. Clobber verses are the preferred scriptures some people use as the raw material to fashion weapons. Those in the majority pick a set of verses that least affect them and then “clobber” those on the margins. Some people brandish today’s scripture reading as a clobber verse. John 3:16 has provided motivation for some of the most destructive impulses of those who take the name Christian. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life." Taken literally and out of context, John 3:16 suggests that those who do not believe in the Son will never die. By extension, those who do not believe in the Son will perish. Forever. It is difficult to overestimate the harm and abuse that comes from this literal rendering of John's Gospel. I think part of the problem is that we make these words a new creed – a test of faith –an absolute statement about whom God loves and whom God rejects, who is in and who is out.
The irony is that out of the four Gospel writers, John is the least literal of them all. The author takes great freedom in retelling the story of Jesus. It is particularly ironic that in today's Gospel story, Jesus rejects the very literalism that has so often dominated the reading of this text. Jesus offers the metaphor of birth to speak about spiritual growth. Jesus says that followers must be born a second time. Nicodemus, the teacher and elder statesman, takes a literal approach to Jesus’ words: "How can one be born a second time from your mother's womb?" I can just picture Nicodemus sitting there, scratching his head. He can’t figure it out. It’s almost as if Nicodemus parks himself in a worldview from which he cannot feel any other options. Jesus talks about being born of the Spirit. Born of the Breath. Born of the Wind. In both Hebrew and Greek, the words for wind and breath are the same words for spirit. Jesus says, “The Wind will give you second birth.” Nicodemus wants facts. Jesus gives him some poetry.
Amazed at Nicodemus' literal understanding of this evocative image, Jesus says, "How are you, a teacher of the faith, unable to understand what I am saying?" Jesus might be equally amazed at how an invitation to deepen our encounter with God is still used today as a basis for exclusion, rejection, dominance, and judgment. I used to be the person who assumed my personal values and interpretations of Scripture were tests of faith for others. I know I’m not alone. The reasoning went something like this: “If you believe what I believe, think like I think, and live as I tell you to live, you are acceptable.” This is not who we are at Christ Congregational Church. Our congregation affirms that all people are free to make choices regarding their own personal and spiritual journeys.
Jesus was not interested in making a person’s personal faith the cornerstone for acceptance or rejection by God. He was very interested in the question: “How does one come to have faith?” Do we have faith because someone tells us what to believe? Do we have faith because we are scared that if we don’t say the right words and show up at the right church, and live approved lifestyles, and associate with the best people, that God will punish us? Do we have faith that can tolerate doubt? Faith that can grow and change? Faith that relies on the work of the Spirit moving through the gathered people of God?
Congregationalists have always struggled with these questions. The United Church of Christ, in its original Constitution, affirmed:
“the responsibility of the church in each generation to make this faith its own in reality of worship, in honesty of thought and expression, and in purity of heart before God.”Uh oh. We are not so great at this. Faith calls each new generation to listen to God and follow God’s breath. We have continuing opportunities to allow the wind the give us second birth. This means we need to be willing to let go of the tethers that can keep us from being pliable, versatile people of faith. You see, most of us are not great risk-takers. We want our lives to be comfortable, and safe, and predictable. And we turn to Christian faith to provide us that comfortable, safe, and predictable life. So we take something unexplainable like faith and cement it into certainty in order to fill a need for security.
To me, that’s not faith. Faith is not certain. Faith is a risk with no guarantee of anything!
Sometimes people are with UCCers because we are not willing to use scripture, or creeds, or church teaching as tests of faith. We choose not to tell people what they should believe. We want to be born of the Wind. We have no centralized authority or hierarchy that can impose a doctrine or a form of worship on its members. We seek a balance between freedom of conscience and accountability to the faith. We take the Bible seriously. We listen to the historic creeds and confessions of our ancestors as testimonies, but not tests of the faith. In other words, our faith is founded on the Bible, and informed by the Church of the past. But it can never stay frozen in the past. We must continue to grow and evolve: to receive new insights, and, when necessary, to reject past ideas when they have been disproved.
In the UCC, we are like the Tree that the Board of Stewardship created. They took our hopes and visions and remind us that we are a glorious mix of the old and the new. There are parts of our faith that bring comfort and happiness. We send down deep roots and are nourished by tradition. There are also some areas of growth and challenge. We send our branches into the air, allowing them to be ticked by the Wind, moved by the Breath, swayed in the Spirit. Deep roots and new heights. Our roots grow down into God’s love and keep us you strong so we may have the power to understand how wide, how long, how high, and how deep God’s love is, as Christ makes a home in us (Ephesians 3:17-18).
Faith is a risk. If we’re going to take the risk of faith, we have to reckon with the fact that when the Wind and Breath of God blows, it may be safe and predictable. It might shake up our beliefs. It might make us redefine ourselves. It might take us to places where we never thought we’d go. When the Wind and Breath blows, we will find ourselves exposed and vulnerable. In that moment, we may want to try to hang on to our routines and keep all the pieces manageable and predictable and safe. If we are going to take the risk of faith, we can respond by opening ourselves to the new beginnings God brings. We can respond by allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. Changeable. We can respond by saying, “Here we are. Use us.” I think that’s what the Bible calls faith.
And faith is not safe.
During this season of Lent, I encouraging myself and others to give up on expectations.
I’m giving up the expectation that a church like CCC has to root-bound. You gardeners out there, you know what I mean. A root-bound plant has been in its pot for too long. It doesn’t get the nutrition it needs. It’s roots start growing in circles inside the pot. The roots don’t spread out. Eventually, the plant will die. There is a solution, but it take some strength and courage. You have to rip or cut the roots. But don’t worry, plants are pretty tough. Though some don't like you messing with their roots, most will be just fine and will grow better after their constricted roots have been untangled or cut.
Yes, sometimes we in the church get root-bound. We hold on to ideas to long. It’s comfortable. It’s safe. It might even be good. But sometimes we don’t sense when God is doing something new. We might be so busy laying roots, we can’t sense that God has moved on and is calling us to follow. What might happen if we give up expectations that God’s word is fixed? What might happen if we give up expectations that church programs are meant to last forever? What might happen if we give up expectations that faith has to be easy? We might remember God doesn’t call us to do things we aren’t capable of doing. God calls us to participate in God-sized tasks that we can’t do on our own. See the Wind. Feel the Breath. Be born of wind and water and become one with its flow. Listening for the Wind in the trees as it makes a melody of love across the hills. Be willing to go where others might not want to go. God always sends wind. It is our challenge to catch the Wind and ride it.