“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in
me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were
not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?
And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will
take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you
know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him,
“Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one
comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know
my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” Philip
said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”
Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and
you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How
can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the
Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not
speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.
Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you
do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I
tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do
and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to
the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father
may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I
will do it.
But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the
glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he
said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the
right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout
all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city
and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet
of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed,
“Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a
loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had
said this, he died.
Whoever put together this week’s lectionary passage must have a wicked sense of humour. And I suspect God has a hand in it.
We have the passage from John 14 – where Jesus again assures his disciples not let their hearts be troubled – that there is a place for them in the Father’s house; that he is the way, the truth and the life, and nobody come to the Father except through him; that he will do whatever they ask in his name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.
And then, we have the passage from Acts 7 – the martyrdom of St Stephen. We read the sanitized version – almost like the kind of deaths we see on television where the dying person manages to say everything that he or she needed to say, and then you hear the machine go flatline.
But reality isn’t like that. I wonder how many of us have been by someone’s side as they passed on. I had the privilege as the chaplain to be present in a few of those moments. People fade – their blood pressure drops, their vital signs get weaker and weaker, and then they are gone. Nothing like the drama we see on television. No final monologue, no opportunity to say goodbye.
Let’s not sanitized and whitewash the violence. Stephen died a horrible death – and at the instigation of Paul, no less. We need to see the violence, the blood, the gore, the pain, the suffering – not because we are voyeurs and we enjoy it, but because we need to see the violence for what it is, so that we can reject it and speak out against it when we see it happening. We need to see Paul in Saul and Saul in Paul because we need to recognize that it is very possible for us to participate in evil, knowingly or unknowingly.
Like what I said last week, the greatest evil I fear is not the evil from the outside, but the evil from within. I pray that God will lead me in right paths for God’s name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil – especially the evil that comes from my own selfishness, my own self-centeredness – because God is with me, and will guide and discipline me – IF I open myself up to God and follow God’s commandments.
When we find verses of the Bible and justify our beliefs, that is proof-texting. We can probably find a verse to justify anything we want. And someone else can easily find another verse to disagree. The Bible has to be read in context. Evangelical Protestant scholar Dr. Donald A. Carson ascribed to his father, a Canadian minister, this phrase which has become widely-used:
“A text without a context is a pretext for a proof text.”
Folks have often quoted John 14:14 “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it” as a theological justification for claiming our blessings and our prosperity.
As Ben Irwin, one of the writers on Faithstreet.com, writes in his article “Five Bible Verses You Need To Stop Misusing,” on a similar verse (Luke 11:9 “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”
“It’s tempting (and lucrative, for some preachers) to treat this nugget of Scripture as an ironclad promise. Whatever you ask for – promotion, wealth, the spouse of your dreams — God will give it to you.
Unless, of course, Luke 11:9 is part of a larger narrative in which Jesus has already told us what to ask for. After a brief episode in which he defends Mary over her sister Martha for choosing what matters most – being a disciple, a citizen of his kingdom – Jesus’ followers ask him how to pray. Jesus tells them to ask for things like daily bread, the advent of his kingdom, forgiveness for sin. Only then does he say, “Ask and it will be given to you.” It’s not, “Ask for anything you want.” It’s more like, “Ask for my kingdom, and you will have it.” ”
It is important to remember – the original text of the Bible does not have chapter and verse. It is added on later so that we can easily locate and refer to passages in scripture. Sometimes the way chapters separate texts can cause folks to miss the point the writer was trying to make.
One that comes to mind immediately that some of you who attended Living Water or Lush may be familiar with is Romans 1. Romans 1 is most often used to condemn homosexuality and verses 28 and 29 goes on and on with a whole list of negative things – “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious towards parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die – yet they not only do them but they even applaud others who practice them.”
Sounds like Paul is talking about homosexuality right? Wrong. He was talking about idolatry. Yet, that also isn’t his point. Because the very next verse, separated into the next chapter is actually the point Paul is trying to make.
Romans 2:1 “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.”
Even the way the lectionary readings are selected, often omits some verses in the middle, and may separate the verses in such a way that the meaning is lost, or distorted.
Today, the reading ends at John 14:14 “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” If we continue reading on to the next verse, Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever.”
So reading the whole passage in context, Jesus isn’t telling you that he is the cosmic vending machine that if you ask him anything, he will do it. Rather, he is saying – If you love him, keep his commandments, then when you ask, he will ask God to guide us through the Holy Spirit that will abide with us, and in us.
Just like in Luke 11:9, it is not a blank cheque. If you love Christ, and keep Christ’s commandments – then you will be asking for things that are not for your sake, but for the sake of the commonwealth of God.
Remember the context of this passage – Jesus was addressing his disciples and trying to prepare them for what is to come. He told them earlier “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward,” and that he is going ahead to prepare a place for them in the Father’s house.
Jesus is assuring them even when he is no longer around, if they follow his commandments, and they ask, they will be guided through to do the work that needs to be done.
How does that apply to us today?
Do not be troubled.
I am the way.
I am with you.
If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
If you ask me anything, I will give it to you.
I wonder if I am proof-texting too, sometimes. Jesus says in Matthew 18:20, “when two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” What is the context of the verse? Jesus, in the preceding few verses, is talking about how to deal with another member of the church who sins against another, and how to work things out, and hopefully reconcile. That’s the context when he says, “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven, Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
This isn’t about God or Jesus being the Cosmic Vending Machine that dispenses anything and everything we desire. That idea comes from the idea of a personal God pushed too far. It is corrupted by the individualism – that everything is about me, and what I need, and what I want. Christianity isn’t about us – it is about God.
What Jesus is talking about is how we are to live in community – loving each other, holding each other accountable, and yes, even forgiving each other. It is in community we will be able to discern God’s will for us. We are often susceptible to self-deception and we tell ourselves that something we want is God’s will when it is actually our will.
When we act as a community, when we follow God’s will, when we keep the commandments – Love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, and love our neighbours as ourselves – then we will surely bear fruit. That is the way, the truth and the life.
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life, No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
Jesus reveals God as Jesus is the Incarnation of the Logos, “the Word” – for those of you who haven’t heard me say this before – the Word of God made flesh is Christ – not the Bible (John 1). The Bible, to me, is words ABOUT God.
Christ as the way is not about a set of doctrines or beliefs or faith statements. Christ as the way is the living out of the commandments – and more specifically the love commandment – Love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and Love your neighbour as yourself.
Do not be troubled.
I am the way.
I am with you.
If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
If you ask me anything, I will give it to you.
If you love Christ, keep his commandments, then when you ask, Christ will abide in us and we will abide in Christ, just as God abides in Christ and Christ abides in God.
Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.
Settle things quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still togther on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’
But I say to you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
“It was also said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery; and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
“Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’
But I say to you, do not swear an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is God’s throne, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King.
And do not swear by your head,
for you cannot make even one hair white or black.
All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’;
Anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
The reason I chose the Old Testament passage as well as the New Testament passage today is because I thought it might be interesting to let Jesus himself teach us how to interpret Scripture. You see, when we read Matthew 5:21-37, you would notice that Jesus was addressing a series of specific issues in the interpretation of the Mosaic Law, specifically his thoughts regarding murder, adultery, divorce, and oaths. The Deuteronomy passage we read earlier is a good summary of the Mosaic Law. Obviously like us, the people in Jesus’ time also had a lot of questions about the interpretation and application of Scripture. So let’s see how Jesus reinterprets and explains the Old Testament law to his followers.
Do you notice the pattern that Jesus uses when addressing the four issues? He introduces each issue by saying, “You have heard that it was said….But I tell you…” What does this pattern tell us? In the way he challenged the conventional beliefs of that time, Jesus was showing us that we can perhaps aspire towards a broader and deeper understanding of God’s Word. As Jesus addressed the issues of murder, adultery, divorce and oaths, the general principle underlying his teachings is that true obedience to the law requires observing the spirit of the law, rather than simply the letter of the law. What this means is that Jesus is shifting our attention from our external behaviours to our internal motivations. The spotlight is on our hearts.
What does that mean? Let me say this is both good news and “bad” news. Let’s start with the “bad” news, okay? The “bad” news is that there is nothing we can do that will ever be enough to fulfil the law! Has anyone here ever been angry with a brother or sister or said, “You stupid fool!”? Jesus says that is tantamount to murder. Has anyone here fantasized about someone else that is not your spouse or partner? Don’t worry, I won’t ask you to put up your hands. 🙂 Jesus says that is tantamount to committing adultery. Jesus uses very exaggerated language here, what we call hyperbole, to make a simple point. He is not actually advocating for us to literally gouge out our eyes or cut off our hands. He is making the point that sin is a serious matter and we are ALL sinners in need of God’s grace. All of us have had sinful thoughts even if we have not acted them out in behaviour. No one is immune. No one is better than anyone else. No one is more holy or righteous than someone else. We all ALL sinners in need of God’s grace. What Jesus is trying to illustrate is that nothing we can do in our human strength will ever be enough to fulfil the law. That’s why in verse 17, Jesus said he came not to abolish the law but to fulfil it. Jesus came so that he could fulfil the law on our behalf. That’s the good news.
So how did we come to this conclusion? Did we do so just by reading this specific passage in Matthew? No, we didn’t. We didn’t come to this conclusion just by reading Matthew 5:21-37. We came to this conclusion based on our understanding of the meta-narrative of the Bible. Do you know what meta-narrative means? It basically means the big picture. You see, when you want to get to know someone better, you don’t just base your understanding on one thing she says in a particular context, right? You take into consideration his or her background, the culture she comes from, what he likes to talk about and the tone she uses. You also take note of what she says most frequently because that must matter a lot to her! It is the same with God and the Bible. We want to know what God talks about most frequently, the tone used, the historical context.
There are many principles that we can highlight with regards to understanding and applying the Bible better but I just want to focus on two this morning:
- The meta-narrative of the Bible is crucial to our understanding of God’s heart and intention. That’s why we seek to interpret a particular passage of the Bible in light of the whole Bible, as well as in its historical context.
- Jesus himself distilled the most important law and that is the law of love, the two-fold commandment to love God and to love our neighbor. Love is the consistent message throughout the Bible, from the Old Testament to the New. Even in the Deuteronomy passage we read earlier, it frames obedience in the context of love. In the beginning and at the end of that passage, it talks about obedience as an act of love towards God.
In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul also says, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.
9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. 12 Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. 13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
The greatest of these is love.
So how do we understand and apply the Bible more accurately? Firstly, we seek to understand the meta-narrative of the Bible because that gives us a glimpse into God’s heart and intention. Secondly, we understand and apply the Bible based on the law of love –– love for God and neighbor.
As a true-life example, I want to share with you a story of how one man sought to understand and apply the Bible better with regards to the hot button issue of homosexuality. His name is Lewis Smedes and he was a minister in the Christian Reformed Church and an ethics professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, as well as the author of a dozen bestselling books. I was doing research and found his article many years ago when I was in Bible school doing a module on Christian ethics. At that time, I chose to present on the topic of homosexuality for that class because it was something personal to me. I was not out at that time as I was in a conservative bible school but I figured this might be the only opportunity that my fellow classmates would have their conventional wisdom about homosexuality challenged. So it was important to me as some of them would become pastors in time to come. What surprised and moved me about this article was the radical compassion this conservative theologian was advocating. It made me realize that there really is a wide range of Christian views, even among conservative Christians, with regards to same-sex relationships. And that was instrumental in helping me reconcile my faith and sexuality.
I recalled this article while I was preparing for this sermon because Lewis Smedes explained how the church changed its mind on the issue of divorce and compared this process of deliberation and growth with how things are changing on the issue of homosexuality. In the Matthew 5 passage that we read today, we saw how Jesus spoke strongly on the issue of divorce. In the context of that time, Jesus was trying to protect the rights of women who could be divorced very easily by their husbands. But in general, it’s pretty clear how Jesus felt about divorce. The thing is I don’t recall hearing any sermons about divorce all these years that I have been attending church. Have you? Yet, there are some pastors who continually preach on the evils of homosexuality. Isn’t that strange? 🙂
So I was very intrigued as to how the church evolved on the issue of divorce because it will give us an idea as to how things might change with regards to the issue of homosexuality. Allow me to quote extensively from Smedes’ article as he explains it so well.
Like The Wideness of the Sea? (Lewis B. Smedes)
I remember the first time that I watched the General Synod of my (Christian Reformed) church in action…..On the table that day was the church’s long standing policy of excluding a certain class of Christian people from its inner circle. These were people who confessed their love for God and their faith in Jesus as their Savior and lived exemplary Christian lives in every way. Except one. And that one exception was serious enough to disqualify them for membership. It had to do with their marriages. They had been married once, then divorced, married again to someone else, and were committed to keeping their covenant with each other this time. That was the rub. Odd as it may have seemed to an outsider, precisely because these people stayed faithful to their marriages, they were, in the church’s eyes, implicitly committed to sin and for that reason alone were excluded from the circle of grace.
The church believed that by excluding them it was simply obeying the word of the Lord. For the Lord had said, in terms that seemed as clear as mineral water, that people who stayed married to anyone other than their first spouse (if, to be sure, he or she were still living) were devoted to a life of continuous adultery…..
Harsh as it seemed, the church believed that its exclusion of such people was nothing else but obedience to the clear teaching of the Bible. The Bible said that adulterers cannot be members of the Kingdom of God. Jesus said that divorced and remarried people are adulterers. And so any Bible believing church had to exclude the remarried from the Kingdom of God and the Body of Christ.
The only way they could clean their slate with God and the church, then, was to break up their marriages. The ideal solution would be for them to have gone back to their previous spouses. But in the event that their previous spouses had also remarried, maybe bred a nest full of young ones, and had no intention of breaking up their families, the next best thing was to live as celibates. Either way, go back to their first spouses or stay celibate, their only entrance into the church’s inner life was to break up their present marriage.
What their exclusion always came down to, outwardly, was banishment from the Lord’s Supper. They may have been welcomed at its Sunday services, invited to its scalloped potato suppers, permitted to put money in the offering plates, and quite possibly been well liked by everyone in the congregation. But banishment from the Supper signed and sealed the church’s judgment that they were banished from the circle of grace and the fellowship of Christ.
The church could keep the matter this clear and this simple, however, only as long it leaped directly from the Lord’s blunt statement about divorce and remarriage to its own banishment of divorced and remarried people. No pausing to consider any special circumstances that might have made their divorce necessary. No pausing to discern the love and devotion that the remarried people had for each other in their second marriage. No stopping to consider how bitter and cruel the consequences of its policy were for all the people it affected. As long as it read Jesus’ words with no regard for the devastation that its policy inflicted on the human families involved, especially their children, the church could go on believing that it was only following Jesus’ own instructions.
But once it factored human reality into its reading of the Lord’s words, it was bound to ask: Could Jesus have actually meant the church to cast away people who were committed to him, on grounds that they were committed to each other too? It was thus, on that early June day a half century ago a new breed of church leaders pleaded for the church to change its policy of exclusion to a policy of embrace.
In what must have been one of the better debates in the history of churchly Synods, they pleaded with the Synod to consider the fact that these people wanted to be faithful to their spouses and to their Lord. They asked the Synod to consider the tragic consequences of compelling them to divorce again. They asked the church to consider how spiritually betrayed such devoted Christian people felt when they heard the church’s door slam in their faces over and over again.
The ministers who challenged the tradition of exclusion lost the debate the year I heard it. But they had put it on the church’s agenda, and no one could take it off again. Finally, in the middle 1950’s, the church did reverse its policy of exclusion and began embracing divorced and remarried couples into its family circle. The grace of Jesus Christ, it decided, could bless and support remarried people in their second marriage. The result is that today, rather than requiring them to break up their second marriages and families, it devotes itself to helping them keep those marriages alive and well.
How did the church come to such an amazing reversal of its age old exclusionary practice? Was it because the champions of embrace argued more persuasively? Was it because the party of embrace just happened to have the majority at a given Synod? Was it because the Spirit moved the hearts and minds of delegates in a new direction? All of these factors, human and divine, were doubtlessly at work. But congregations paved the way for the reversal by a change in their personal experiences with divorced and remarried people.
First, more sons and daughters of the faithful were getting divorced and were marrying again. Before World War II, the church could comfortably exclude such people on the assumption that they would very rarely turn up among their own loved ones. After the war, however, local congregations discovered that persons whom they loved as brothers and sisters in Christ – and, yes, their own children – were doing it. And it was very hard to look their own sons and daughters in the eyes and say to them: “You will go to hell unless you leave your present spouse.”
Also, the church came to see that it had to factor the consequences of its policy into its discernment of what the Lord required. When it had seen the cruel consequences of its practice of exclusion, it also came to see that Jesus simply could not have meant to lay down a hard fisted rule for excluding remarried people from the family of faith. Instead, it concluded, the Lord must have been witnessing to God’s original intention for married people, an intention that included keeping our covenants to each other as long as we lived. But if, in our broken life, people did get divorces and did marry again, surely God would want them to keep their covenants the second time around.
In these ways the way was being paved for a new policy of embrace; the hearts of the people were ready for it.
Smedes explains that the process whereby the Church changed its mind on embracing its divorced members is a good precedent on which we should consider the embrace of gay Christians living faithfully in covenanted relationships. He goes on to argue that the church needs to reexamine its stance on monogamous same-sex relationships that are based on love and commitment and he encouraged the church to recognize that if God’s mercy is as wide as the sea, then it is wide enough for everyone.
Smedes’ article was written in 1999 and his views evolved even more over the years, as did mine. I used to think I was an anomaly, a contradiction that God tolerates. But now, I am convinced my gayness is a gift, not an anomaly. A gift that God celebrates! What about you? How do you think God sees you? Growing in my understanding of God’s heart has led to a deepening relationship with God and others. Because I have been at various points of the spectrum, I understand where the fear, the hate, the ignorance is coming from. But it cannot just stop there with understanding. I have to take what I’ve learnt on my journey to help others understand God’s heart in a deeper way.
What about you? What can you do to understand and apply God’s Word better in your life? How can you grow in faith and mature in your love for God and others, even in the most challenging of times?
Let us pray.